Category Archives: British Literature

Intellectual Narrowness: Proust on the Dreyfus Affair and Anti-Semitism

The Dreyfus Affair, opinions about which divided French society from 1894 until 1906, is a topic that Proust keeps returning to throughout In Search of Lost Time. Dreyfus, a captain in the French army of Jewish descent, was accused of spying for the Germans. After a sham of a trial, even when new evidence came to light exonerating Dreyfus, he was sentenced to life in prison. Proust was a Dreyfusard, and, in fact, referred to himself as “the first Dreyfusard,” the term for defenders of the captain who campaigned for a new trial. In a letter to his friend Mme Strauss, who was the model for his character of the Duchesse do Guermantes, Proust attempts to ask her for help in the fight to free Dreyfus: “I haven’t seen you since the Affair, once so Balzacian… has become Shakespearean with the accumulation of its rapid denouements.”

A large portion of the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sixth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, is devoted to a party at the home of the Prince and Princess Guermantes. Although discussions about The Dreyfus Affair are scattered throughout the previous five volumes, the scene at this party especially brings out the ignorance and anti-Semitism of the shallow upper classes with whom the narrator has been spending a great deal of time. The narrator has been a frequent guest at the dinner parties of his neighbors, the Duc and Duchesse Guermantes but he is still incredulous when he receives an invitation to a party at the Princess’s. What he encounters at this get together is more pretension and shallowness and mixed in with these awful qualities is the tendency of these social elites to embrace racist rhetoric.

Swann, whose mother is Jewish, is considered fully “assimilated” and is even accepted as a member of the Jockey Club, despite his Jewish ancestry. In this scene, however, Swann is gravely ill and it seems that in his last days he chooses to become a staunch defender of Dreyfus. The ugliness and bigotry that the upper class display towards Swann, a man whom they used to hold in the highest esteem as long as he kept his “Jewishness” hidden, is disgusting.

Moreover, and above all, a considerable period of time had elapsed during which, if, from the historical point of view, events had to some extent seemed to justify the Dreyfusard thesis, the anti-Dreyfusard opposition had greatly increased in violence, and from being purely political had become social. It was now a question of militarism, of patriotism, and the waves of anger that had been stirred up in society had had time to gather the force which they never have at the beginning of a storm. ‘Don’t you see,’ M. de Guermantes went on, ‘even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

This scene, and the words of the Duc de Guermantes in particular, reminded me of a letter George Eliot writes condemning anti-Semitism which topic she also made as the center of one of her novels:

There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

Up to this point in the story the Duc is a silly, laughable womanizer who jumps from one mistress to the next. But his racist, ignorant comments make him downright despicable.

A racist womanizer? That might sound familiar to Americans and to British.

Will we ever cast off such stupidity and ignorance?

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Filed under British Literature, French Literature, Proust

Summer 2019: Reading and Reflections

Last year was the most difficult in my 20+ year teaching career.  I was burned out and exhausted by June and decided that, except for a quick trip to Boston, I wasn’t going to do any traveling over the summer.  In order to recharge and refocus I spent my time at home sitting in my garden which has a beautiful view and I alternated between reading, getting some sun, and swimming.

I began the summer by reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves which I brought with me on my long weekend to Boston in late June.  Of all her books this one seems to get the least attention, but I enjoyed it, in a different way of course, as much as any of her other novels I’ve read.  One can see the beginnings of her stream-of-consciousness style for which she is so well-know.  The story is heart wrenching and tragic and not an easy read, but so worth the effort.  It’s not surprising, now that I look back on the summer, that I chose Horace’s Carpe Diem poem, Ode 2.11  to translate and spend some time with after reading The Waves:  “Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a soul that is not up to the task?”

After this I was in the mood for more Tolstoy, especially after I saw @levistahl post on Twitter that Hadji Murat was one of his favorite summer reads.  (Levi is great to follow, by the way,  if you like books, cats, dogs, baseball, 70’s movies and Columbo.)  Tolstoy is one of those authors whose writings I savor and am rationing the few remaining books of his I have left.  J.L. Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country was also on Levi’s list and I read the book and saw the film.  Carr’s story was the perfect book for the summer setting in my garden.

I spent all of July reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities I was so happy to connect with @genese_grill on Twitter who has translated Musil and who had wonderful insights into this enigmatic magnum opus.  (Genese is also great to follow on Twitter for books, literature and translation.)  The Man without Qualities, both Volumes I and II , were the most challenging books I have ever read.  I’ve seen them described as philosophical novels and the combination of Musil’s complex sentences and thought demanded my focus and concentration.  Reading Musil’s Diaries alongside the novels also provided valuable insights into some of the threads that run throughout his narrative.

My final summer reading was spent on the first three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.   On Friday night I finished Volume III, The Guermantes Way,  which felt like it ended on a sad note.  The narrator finally gains admittance into the Guermantes’ inner circle and, like many other things, is disappointed by what he finds.  The petty gossip and the shallowness of the characters he meets are sad and pathetic.  I’ve been thinking a lot about indifference, which word Proust uses continually throughout all three books in a variety of contexts.  If I can pull my thoughts together I might write something about this after I finish all six volume. Needless to say, this is one of the most intense, illuminating, pleasurable reads I’ve ever had.  It was a wonderful summer, indeed, and I feel refreshed and recharged and ready to inspire my new classes to appreciate an ancient language.  Wish me luck!

For the rest of this year I will be occupied with finishing Proust and would also like to finish Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I’ve gotten half way through.

(By the way, Henry, my black and white cat, who is quite annoyed that I’ve gone back to work, insisted on sticking his nose into my book photo.)

 

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Filed under British Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, New York Review of Books, Novella, Proust

We Live by Hope: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hope is a thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson.

And Max Porter.

Hope floats, according to the film title.

Pope writes in his “An Essay on Man” that “Hope springs eternal.”

In Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus says he gave to humans the gift of blind hope.

Pink, in her new collaboration with Khalid “Hurts 2B Human,” sings that “hope flows away.”

And hope is the one thing, quite ambiguously, left in Pandora’s box of evils. Is hope also considered an evil? And, if so, should we be glad that it was held in the box? Or is hope a good thing, left behind in the box and now separated from evil?

Tom Birkin, the narrator of J.L. Carr’s novella A Month in the Country, spends the summer of 1920 in the small English town of Oxgodby when he is hired to restore a medieval mural in the town’s church. It is Tom’s hope that by spending a summer in this quiet town that the horrible memories and shell shock he suffered during World War I and the failed marriage with his wife Vinny will begin to fade away:

The marvelous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the war and the rows with Vinny had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

Well, we live by hope.

It is the connections that Tom makes with the other people in Oxgodby during this idyllic summer that help him to lose his stammer and his facial twitches.  The Ellerbeck family feeds him and welcomes them into their home; Charles Moon, who is also doing work for the church, is a fellow veteran who understands his wounds; and Alice Keach is the pastor’s wife with whom he spends many hours talking.  The bucolic setting also goes a long way to healing Tom who came from the noise and bustle of London.  Carr’s version of hope is the positive kind, the one that leads us to take action, like Birkin did, towards something new and joyful.

This was the perfect summer read for an afternoon sitting in my garden oasis with the birds singing in the trees, the frogs croaking in the pond and my neighbor’s horse neighing in the distance.  Listening, contemplating, hoping…

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Filed under British Literature

Trust in the Future as Little as Possible: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I usually devour a 350-page book in a couple of days, but Woolf’s writing, both her fiction and non-fiction, demands careful attention and a slow read. It took me a week to read The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel that was published in 1915. She is just beginning to experiment with what will become her signature, stream-of-consciousness style. She pokes fun at the uptight, British upper class who, even while on holiday in a tropical South American climate, insist on wearing furs and formal coats and having tea every afternoon promptly at 5:00. Even though on the surface they engage in polite conversation about politics, suffrage, and social gossip, Woolf gives us a glimpse of what they are really thinking. She introduces us to Rachael, her heroine, by her own thoughts as she sits in her drawing room in solitude on her father’s ship:

To feel anything strongly was to create an abyss between oneself and others who feel strongly perhaps but differently. It was far better to play the piano and forget all the rest. The conclusion was very welcome. Let these odd men and women—her aunts, the Hunts, Ridley, Helen, Mr. Pepper, and the rest—be symbols,—featureless but dignified symbols of age, of youth, of motherhood, of learning, and beautiful often as people upon the stage are beautiful. It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for.

Rachael is a very naïve twenty-four-year old who was raised by her spinster aunts and her widowed father. Her Aunt Helen, who is also on the voyage to South American, invites Rachael to stay at her villa for the winter in the hopes of better educating her about life and bringing her out of her sheltered existence. When they land in South American, Rachael and her aunt socialize with the British upper class men and women who are staying at the local hotel. Among these guests is Terence Hewett, an financially independent twenty-seven-year-old man who likes to travel and dabbles in writing novels. Both Rachael and Terence have never been in love; even though they are mentally and physically attracted to one another they spend a lot of time drawing close and then pulling back from one another because their feelings terrify them.

Once they finally confess their feelings and allow themselves to be happy, Rachael and Terence start planning their wedding and have a few weeks of bliss. But The Voyage Out ends in tragedy. It’s a shame that the lovers wasted so much time before they decided to embrace what would make them both happy. Horace’s Ode 1.11, the famous Carpe Diem poem kept coming to mind as I read Woolf’s novel (translation is my own):

May you not ask to know what end
—for it is not right—the gods might
have in store either for you or for me
Leuconoe, and may you also not consult
Babylonian Astrology. How much better
it is to endure whatever will be, whether
Jupiter has allotted us more winters, or
if this is the last, the winter which weakens
the Tyrrhenian Sea with opposing rocks. May
you be wise, may you strain your wine, and
because life is brief, may you give up any
long-term hopes. As we are speaking, envious
time slips by. Seize the day, trust in
the future as little as possible.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Poetry

De Senectute: Sappho, Ovid, Tennyson, Musil and Cicero

Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus. Francesco Solimena. 1704

In classical mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince with whom Eos (Aurora to the Romans), goddess of the dawn, falls in love.  This deity, whom Homer calls “rosy-fingered,” captures Tithonus and sweeps him off to the home of the gods and asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality.  Eos, however, forgets to also ask for eternal youth.  Even though Tithonus is immortal, he grows old and frail.  Sappho, in her “Tithonus” or “Old Age” poem uses him as a metaphor to illustrate the effects of her own aging (translation is my own):

Old age has already taken from me my once soft skin,
and my hair, at one time so dark, has grown white.
My spirit has grown heavy, my knees, which used to be
nimble enough to dance like fawns, no longer carry me.
I mourn these things but what can I do about it?
It is not possible for men to be ageless. For at one time
they say that Eos, smitten by love, carried off Tithonus in her
rosy arms to the edge of the earth, he who was handsome
and young; but in time gray old-age took hold of him who
was a still a husband to an immortal wife.

In Ovid there is a brief mention of Tithonus as Aurora and some of the other goddesses complain that they cannot stop the aging of their mortal lovers )trans. my own): “Aurora, daughter of Pallas, mourned the old age of her own husband.”  But, as Sappho says, what could she do?

What is missing in these myths is Tithonus’s own words.  Tennyson’s brilliant poem about the Trojan prince gives him that voice: “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus begs her.  He laments his inevitable aging, recognizes that as humans we must accept this fate, and pleads with Eos to release him from his immortality. I offer here one of my favorite stanzas, but please do read the entire poem:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—

So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

I was also reading Robert Musil’s Thought Flights over the weekend and one of his short narratives struck me as a similar commentary on aging, how we see ourselves and how others see us.  In “Susanna’s Letter,” a married woman is writing to a friend about a train journey during which she reflects on her changing body as she ages.  Her chin was “once energetic” she notices, and her neck used to be straight.  But despite these physical reminders of her age, “It is all downward going from here on out, but every step becomes calmer and more secure.”  And my favorite passage, bitter sweet—both hopeful yet sad—from the story is the one in which she connects her aging body to her spouse (trans. Genese Grill):

My husband much have seen every details of my body by now, and he loves me anyway; he loves me as I am.  Sometimes that makes him unbearable to me.  For it takes all my power from me.  I should say, it takes all the fantasizing out of my body.  Then I am like a finished book, one that has already been declared to be very beautiful; for, the fact that a book is beautiful is no consolation for its having already been read.

On one final, positive note, in Cicero’s philosophical treaty De Senectute (On Old Age), he writes (trans. my own):

I follow and obey nature who is the best guide as if she were a divinity; it cannot be true that she has arranged well the other parts of our lives but then, like a bad poet,  neglected the final act of the drama.  It is necessary, however, that there be a certain kind of end, frail and withered with a timely maturity,  just as the berries on the trees and the fruits of earth, which wise men must gently endure.  To fight against nature would be as useless as the giants rebeling against the gods.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Philosophy, Poetry