Commentary Magazine


French Culture & the Jews

The waters look unruffled, the current appears to be following its customary course, the bystander is lulled by a deceptive calm; then, suddenly and dramatically, someone stirs the murky depths, bringing to the surface a host of slimy creatures, and all those things people have forgotten and do not want to remember. Such was the effect in France of General de Gaulle’s breathtaking assertion at a news conference this past November that the Jews are an “elite people” that is always “sure of itself and domineering.” The fact that these remarks by the General elicited strong protest from many French newspapers, as well as a charge of latent anti-Semitism from Chief Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, serves to highlight the continuing seriousness of the “Jewish question” in France. Indeed, that question has come increasingly to occupy a fairly vocal segment of the French literary community in recent years, and a glance at some of the literature it has provoked demonstrates readily that the General is not alone in the tendency to voice ill-informed or incendiary pronouncements on this vexed topic. A relevant predecessor, for example, is Roger Peyrefitte who, in his book, Les Juifs,1 written ostensibly in the name of truth but privately, one suspects, to satisfy an insatiable craving to shock and to make trouble, sets out to tear the bandage from every half-healed wound. This is a book which, however reluctant we may be to take it seriously, cannot but lead us to reflect upon the kind of soil and climate that have nurtured it, and upon the mentality which it both derives from and serves to perpetuate.

Part satirical novel, part reportage, Les Juifs consists of discussions rather than scenes. The principal character, Georges Sarre, is conducting an inquiry into the Jews. Worldly-wise, urbane, a writer bearing a strong resemblance to Peyrefitte himself, Sarre as a boy figured in Les Amitiés Particulières, a story of homosexual friendships in a Catholic school, along with the redoubtable Jesuit Father Xavier de Trennes, who here contributes acidulous letters from Rome and Jerusalem. The disquieting lesbian Baronne de Goldschild initiates her future daughter-in-law, the aristocratic non-Jewish Osmonde de N. (whose anti-Semitic mother was Sarre’s mistress), into the quaint arcana relating to female duties of bed and board; while the handsome, precocious, and devout youth, Asher, troubles Sarre’s sensuality with disquisitions on “piquant” Jewish manners. All this allows Peyrefitte to imply that such droll antique customs still have general currency, and to suggest that the Jews are an erotic race, particularly prone to voyeurism.

The book’s avowed intention is to undermine anti-Semitism by revealing, through a study of names, the “unknown Jews” among those who believe themselves untainted by Jewish blood. Thus, the ancestors of General de Gaulle himself are alleged to be the (Jewish) Kolbs, and so forth. The author was clearly impressed by a dictionary of Jewish names compiled by Professor Paul Lévy which appeared in 1960. But inevitably, whatever the work’s declared aim, the odious impression left on the reader is not dissimilar to the emotions aroused by Céline or any other myth-making anti-Semite who finds Jews lurking behind every tree, and even wearing the triple crown.

A considerable portion of Les Juifs is taken up with the shocked reactions of people ill-disposed to Jews who resent Sarre’s imputations about their ancestry, as well as by the comments of Jews who are highly critical of Jewish shortcomings. The amused complacency with which Peyrefitte retails such reactions and comments makes the reader extremely suspicious of the true location of the author’s sympathies. The scales are therefore already heavily weighted when Sarre himself, though supposedly enlightened, turns devil’s advocate in an attempt to deter Osmonde from marrying Saul de Goldschild.

The discussions in this extensive tome touch upon almost every conceivable theme related to Jews during the last fifty years and more. The malice of the book has to be seen to be believed. As more French non-Jews than French Jews were slain at the battle of Verdun in 1916, it would be more tactful, says Sarre, if Jews did not oppose the transfer of the remains of the hero of Verdun, Marshal Pétain, to the war cemetery of Douaumont. Moreover, he continues, such tactlessness on the part of Jews arouses anti-Semitism, as does their pursuit of Nazi war criminals, no less than their pressure to remove the stigma of deicide.

Jews are not the only ones to receive short shrift at the hands of the author of that biting satire on the Vatican, Les Clés de Saint Pierre. For instance, Catholic writers like Mauriac and Rops are accused of shedding crocodile tears or turning Jewish martyrdom to Christian advantage (there is just enough truth in this to stimulate the reader’s basest instincts, as well as a sting in the tail, for the accusation is made by a Jewish speaker). The present Pope is said to have won the election because of his condemnation of Hochhuth’s The Deputy while he was still Cardinal Montini. Small wonder that such obvious pleasure in scandal-mongering, such frivolity and sheer impertinence, have aroused a sense of outrage on all sides.

Yet there seems no cause to doubt Peyrefitte’s account of the workings of reactionary Catholic opinion unfavorable to changes in the policy of the Church toward the Jews; the accuracy of this account, after all, can be confirmed from independent sources. Nor is there any reason to question his report of anti-Jewish comments made at present-day social gatherings of members of the nobility or the literary profession. In essence, such comments differ remarkably little from those recorded by Proust, whose Duchesse de Guermantes, it will be recalled, blithely observed in connection with the supporters of the unprepossessing Dreyfus: “What a misfortune for them not to be able to change their innocent for another!”

Indeed, confirmation of a bull’s eye has come from an unexpected quarter. One of Peyrefitte’s victims, the lightly disguised “Jouvenceau” (or Stripling), rough-handled with his wife “Bélise,” saw fit to publish a rebuttal, neatly entitled Riposte à Roger Perfide.2 Quite the most significant aspect of this rejoinder is that the author felt the need to issue it at all: clearly, times have changed to some extent. In this pamphlet the elderly novelist Marcel Jouhandeau accuses his accuser of betraying friendship and hospitality, and of attributing to himself and his wife, Elise, the sentiments Peyrefitte holds but does not think it politic to voice. Jouhandeau then goes to the trouble of setting out the reasons which made him “temporarily” give vent to anti-Semitism at the time of the Popular Front in a diatribe on the “Jewish peril” (since withdrawn from his collected works). He had not intended the slightest ill, he now says, toward those who came to power with Léon Blum and whom he merely wished “to put in their place.” His mistress and friend for many years was a certain Hungarian Jewess, and besides, he always found those who share the blood of Christ “exotic.” Rather amusingly, nowhere in this egocentric apologia does Jouhandeau try to attenuate the extraordinary viciousness of the remarks attributed by Peyrefitte to his wife. This is in keeping with one of Jouhandeau’s favorite themes, the misery of his existence with Elise, a former dancer converted to bigotry. The strength of her anti-Semitic views was even remarked upon by her husband in one of his prewar chronicles of their married life.

Ultimately, Peyrefitte’s aim in writing Les Juifs seems less a desire to combat racialism than to exploit the current French vogue for Jewish subjects. Peyrefitte, who has been called an industrialist of scandal, has merely seized yet another opportunity to exercise his talent as backbiter and mischiefmaker royal. The underlying meaning of his book would appear to be that although superficially Jews may now look triumphant (a costly triumph feared and foretold by their enemies), fundamentally nothing has changed and nothing is going to change. For him, the Jewish condition will always remain a special case distinct from the human condition. It seems unlikely that Peyrefitte would have hinted at this jaundiced and minatory conclusion but for a certain set of historical, social, and cultural experiences that have molded him and other members of his class.

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Peyrefitte’s book can only be fully understood as a product of those experiences, and when placed against a specifically French background that spans the centuries. For a number of the bitter issues aroused by the Revolution of 1789 were still being fought in 1940, and in some French circles they are clearly being fought to this day.

Until 1789, the Jews of France had lived virtually outside society; paradoxically, as ill luck would have it, they were emancipated during the Revolution, and were granted civic rights in 1790 and 1791. In the eyes of those who loathed the Revolution, who believed it had destroyed the nation’s traditions and stability, the Jews were anathema. They were one of the most notorious groups to profit by the Revolution and to thrive and prosper in its wake. The obsession with the Rothschild family which runs like a refrain through Peyrefitte’s prevaricating novel recalls surprisingly the fascinated aversion of Stendhal, who witnessed the rise of the upstart Jewish financial dynasties among the newly rich in the early 19th century.

The French right wing has traditionally disliked the Jews, both when it was Christian (Jews were regarded as eternal enemies of the true faith) and later when it was Nietzschean and anti-Christian (they were blamed for being the source of Christianity and Judaeo-Christian values, for sloppy humanitarianism and lily-livered democracy). The Dreyfus Affair, which divided the country at the turn of the century, became the climax of a quarrel that had already lasted a hundred years. Even now, French intellectual life cannot be discussed without taking the Affair into account; mention of it is still made at every turn; nor should one forget that it occurred within living memory.

In his regular column in Le Figaro Littéraire, François Mauriac is fond of reminding his readers that he can actually remember the Affair, on occasion connecting its evil with that of the unparalleled Nazi immolation of “those dark lambs,” the Jews. In her memoirs, Simone de Beauvoir (who was by reaction to take the opposite course to her family) describes her middle-class father’s nationalism and admiration for Charles Maurras; how he detested aliens, was annoyed that Jews were allowed to participate in the country’s affairs, and was as convinced of the guilt of Dreyfus as her mother was of the existence of God. The astounding words of Maurras at his trial in 1945—“C’est la revanche de Dreyfus!”— confirm how long a shadow the Affair has cast. Up to 1945, there is scarcely a writer or figure of importance in French life and letters (not least de Gaulle) who was not influenced at some stage and in some degree, either directly or indirectly, or in counter-reaction, by one or both of those nationalist masters of the French tongue, Barrès and Maurras. Their influence might be shaken off, but the mark of it indelibly remains, particularly in a certain loftiness of tone and outlook. One reason for this is that their views drew sustenance from an ancient source of heroic feeling immensely attractive to the French mind.

An atmosphere had thus been created on the French Right where some dose of anti-Semitism, although varying in degree and intensity, was regarded as normal. This atmosphere was eventually to affect everybody, opponents as well as supporters of Maurras’s Action Française, and it has inevitably conditioned the nature of the discussion about Jews in France during the last twenty years. It explains why in some respects this discussion seems to be taking place on a level that has long been transcended in other countries, often in straightforward and irksome terms of anti-Semitism or dual loyalty, such as are to be found in Peyrefitte. The debate, moreover, remains largely dominated by the perspective of Christianity, or rather by that of the Roman Catholic Church, the radiance of whose cultural influence even upon those who are not Christians should by no means be underrated.

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Present-day writers can thus still be found caught in a vicious circle. Typical, perhaps, in this regard is Clara Malraux, whose upbringing was divided among Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, and whose interest in Jewish matters, on her own avowal, dates from after the Second World War. The chief attraction of her artfully self-conscious autobiography3 lies less in her account of childhood and youth in Germany and France than in her relations with the man she rather coyly names “my companion,” her enigmatic former husband, the novelist, adventurer, and present Gaullist Minister for Cultural Affairs. She goes some way toward satisfying our curiosity about the little-known early period of Malraux’s life, a period which shows traces both of Barrès’s culte du moi and of Maurrasian authoritarianism.

In the second volume of her autobiography, Nos vingt ans,4 Mme. Malraux tells of a quarrel with her husband that momentarily shook their happiness in the early 20′s. The quarrel was over the famous attack led by the officer cadets of Saint-Cyr in World War I; insisting on their white gloves, plumes, and scarlet uniforms, the cadets had been mown down by the enemy guns. Malraux was provoked into saying that Clara could not appreciate the nobility of their gesture because of her Jewish cowardice. And she finds it necessary to declare today that he was never an anti-Semite—an otiose declaration that reveals a good deal about individual and collective attitudes and assumptions. For if there is a heavy hint of private spite and even literary jealousy in her portrait of André Malraux, an uncontrollable urge to show him in the worst possible light, it nevertheless cannot be denied that he is an ambivalent figure in a country where writers of stature are noted for their (often deliberate) equivocation.

It has only recently come to light that between 1927 and 1943 (note the date), this celebrated anti-Fascist, who was to become a commander in the resistance, was engaged in lengthy conversations with an equally well-known Fascist, the novelist Drieu La Rochelle, who committed suicide in 1945 rather than face trial for collaboration. What did they discuss as they paced the streets or sat up together long into the night? Nietzsche? Decadence? The equivalence of totalitarian movements? The tragic fate of man? The cult of risk and self-fulfilment? Whatever the subjects of their talk, one thing seems plain. The picture of the Occupation so dear to propaganda, wherein French society was divided into virtuous Resistance fighters and wicked collaborators, has to be replaced by one that is less crudely simpleminded and more remarkable for its fine shading than for its brutal contrasts between light and dark. In recent years, many works attempting to deal disinterestedly with the Occupation and the Vichy regime have been contributing to this end.

It was the experience of the Occupation, indeed, that has brought about such change as has occurred in the French climate of opinion concerning the Jews. More light has been shed on this experience during the last decade, as some of the notable men and women who lived through that epoch have begun to publish their memoirs. Gradually, an awareness has grown that the Occupation was very different for those who were Jews and those who were not, and this awareness has come to color much contemporary writing on the subject.

Many French Jews awoke for the first time in those years to the potential consequences of a disregarded label which implied adherence to a culture of which they were largely ignorant. Words that had previously been shrugged off now suddenly became charged with dangerous meaning. Not for them the luxury of Malraux’s chats with Drieu, or, as with Sartre, the publication and performance of their works. For many French non-Jews, on the other hand, a growing sense of guilt and complicity was to take hold at the same time as the behavior of some of their fellow countrymen was to provide them with a deepening source of pain and shame.

The fact is that even those who did not share in the deed came to feel corrupted by it. Women were particularly affected. Madame François Mauriac saw a trainload of child deportees and communicated her shocked horror to her husband, who in the early days had supported the Vichy regime of national reconstruction. He did not see it, but he remembers. One of the most influential of French women journalists, Françoise Giroud, can never forgive herself for not tearing the yellow star from a child she encountered in the métro. Violette Leduc, in her autobiography, La Bâtarde, remembers how she went back to sleep when she heard a Jewish neighbor being carried off in the early hours of the morning. “What luck we aren’t Jews at this moment,” she felt as she enjoyed some small pleasure, and the recollection has burned into her soul.

It was her experience during the Occupation which also led Simone de Beauvoir away from the liberal humanist standpoint. Before the war, she firmly believed that Jews did not exist: there were only men and women, there was only the human condition. With mounting distress, she describes in her memoirs the gradual intensification of the anti-Jewish laws, affecting first foreign and later French Jews. The blood of others—the disappearance of her friends, culminating in the deportation and death of Bourla—was to destroy what she now conceives as too facile a view. The horror of their fate became an obsession with her, “their misfortune . . . poisoned the air,” to such a degree that at the Liberation, “the joy of living yielded to the shame of surviving.” Doubtless it was their tragedy which made her so unrelenting an enemy of collaborators guilty of the denunciation of Jews.

What such people as these found especially hard to bear was that the actual arrest and deportation of thousands, including women and children, in one of the most shameful episodes in French history, were actions carried out not by the Nazis, but by Frenchmen. This unpalatable fact tended at first to be glossed over: for example, a commemorative plaque attributes to the Nazi occupying forces an action performed by the French themselves. Even recently, an eminent French writer of Jewish origin declared that it was the Nazis who imported racialism into France, an absurd remark when one remembers Gobineau with his opinions on racial inequality. A book published earlier this year, La grande rafle du Vél d’Hiv,5 by Claude Lévy and the late Paul Tillard, while emphasizing the notable exceptions, makes no bones about French responsibility, bringing to light the excessive zeal of Vichy in dealing with its Jews—a zeal which astonished even the Nazis.

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Sartre appears to have been thinking along these lines when in May 1967 he wrote his moving preface to the symposium on the Israeli-Arab impasse, published in a special number of Les Temps Modernes.6 In this preface he recalled with bitterness that “la grande rafle” (the big roundup) of 1942 was the work of the French police; that the extermination of French Jews would not have been possible without the quiet complicity of many Frenchmen; and that it was a French patriot, Laval, who personally insisted on deporting “children as well.” If today Sartre finds himself allergic to any hint of anti-Semitism or any renewed threat of Jewish massacre from whatsoever quarter, it is not solely (he maintains) the result of a merely subjective reaction. On the contrary, it is “a general effect of historical and purely objective circumstances” that he and others like him are not disposed to forget.

The succession of moral stands adopted by Sartre in recent years is evidently not a mere intellectual exercise. Ultimately, it may be due less to his belief in “commitment” than to his determination at all costs to avoid the stain of complicity. Certainly, his reiteration of the theme of man as his own worst enemy (at its most telling in the passionate rhetoric of the final speech of The Condemned of Altona), his view that human evil is ineradicable—a form of pessimism more common on the Right than on the Left—were confirmed, if not inspired, by what he witnessed during the Occupation and immediately thereafter. The Jewish experience may have been only one element in the development of his anguished self-loathing as a member of the incriminated, canting bourgeoisie; nonetheless, its contribution should not be underestimated: it is a rabbi, after all, who serves as catalyst in The Condemned of Altona.

Thus, at the dark and twisted roots of much of the sympathetic interest in Jews and Jewish affairs that flourishes in France at the present time, there lies an ineluctable sense of guilt and complicity. Guilt is the impulsion behind the new curiosity; guilt the shaky foundation on which that ill-named. phenomenon, philo-Semitism, rests. For some, like Sartre and Madame de Beauvoir, the sense of complicity is of long standing; for others, qualms of conscience have been developing as the result of a slow process, partly encouraged by the questioning of the younger generation. This process gained impetus in the early 60′s with the accusations of Hochhuth’s historically important, if mediocre, play, The Deputy, accusations which have stimulated such studies as that of Jacques Duquesne on the behavior of French Catholics during the Occupation; and with the controversy surrounding the Eichmann trial, whose disclosures were perhaps more readily assimilable simply because of the passage of time.

Alongside the now almost commonplace confession of culpability, however, there runs a powerful current of indifference to, and reaction against, the assumption of complicity, a reaction quite plainly expressed in Peyrefitte’s book. There are those who are weary of hearing about Dachau and Auschwitz, who like to remind their readers that Frenchmen, as distinct from French Jews, also perished in the concentration camps, and who feel that Jews are always contriving to make the most of the sufferings of their co-religionists.

It is curious that roughly at the same time as the guilt complex appeared to be reaching its apogee, that is, during the last decade, there was a recrudescence in France of Fascist-inclined sentiment and atmosphere. Peyrefitte’s book thrives on this antithesis; indeed, his book may even serve as its distasteful symbol. The traumatic loss of France’s colonial empire; the waste in Indochina culminating in the humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu; the futile struggle in Algeria which, like so many aspects of French political life in modern times, tended to assume the dread shape of civil war—all these provided fertile ground for such a revival.

The Fascists themselves have seized their opportunity and continue freely to publish their views. Among them is Maurice Bardèche, brother-in-law of Robert Brasillach (the only collaborator among men of letters of any standing to be executed at the Liberation), and author of a suggestive study of Stendhal in which an attempt is made to annex that novelist to the Right. Bardèche regards the defeat of Nazi Germany as the worst catastrophe of modern times. His distaste for Jews, however, is now overshadowed by his opposition to the Third World. He and his friends are therefore graciously prepared to overlook what they call the “Jewish core” of the French and Russian Revolutions, since all white races must unite against the rest, though of course Jews will play only a modest role in this struggle.

More significant in this context, perhaps, is the renaissance of interest in Drieu La Rochelle, which has taken even his admirers by surprise. This rebirth of interest, accompanied by the reprinting of certain of Drieu’s works and by a number of monographs devoted to him, appears in some respects to be less literary than moral in impetus. It is not so much because he is considered a great writer, but because some of his prophecies have come to pass and because he was at a loss in a decaying society, that people are concerned with him now. One of his admirers, who was eighteen at the time of Drieu’s suicide, and was later disillusioned by military service in Algeria and by the conviction that his comrades died there for nothing, has found an answering echo in the heady nihilism of his elder. Meanwhile, naturally, not much stress is being laid today on such aberrations as Drieu’s anti-Semitism or his Fascist views.

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It is against the backcloth of this dichotomy between guilt and the rejection of guilt, complicity and indifference, the desire for understanding and the persistence of old attitudes in scarcely modified guise, that much of the recent work by French writers of Jewish origin should be seen. This is what helps partly to explain the acrid, self-pitying, plangent tone of some of these authors. The breast-beating, self-analyzing French Jewish agnostic writer is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Such writers are sensitive to hostile undercurrents; they are also ready to accuse an audience that sometimes seems to need to be accused, ready to take advantage of the existence of a new indulgent public, made up of inquiring non-Jews and of Jews who have just found an interest in their past and present situation.

This public tends to welcome almost anything that touches upon Jewish subject-matter, whether novels, autobiographies, or sociological, literary, or historical studies. Indicative of some current preoccupations is the work of a French Hispanist, Dominique Aubier, who by a series of dazzlingly ingenious if not always entirely convincing hypotheses, tries to demonstrate the connection between Don Quixote and the Zohar.7 Her sights clearly on the present, she sees this bond as betokening a desire for religious reconciliation.

Certainly, the flood of novels of varying merit on Jewish themes has not ceased, from the time when Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (in spite of its blatant weaknesses and clumsy language) won the Prix Goncourt in 1959, to the recent vogue of Treblinka,8 Jean-François Steiner’s controversial piece of fictional journalism. It is noteworthy that the writers who have sought to satisfy this demand for works which are specifically Jewish in character do not, for the most part, come from the old-established French Jewish families, but from more recent arrivals and their descendants. These authors are engaged in a passionate search for identity, authenticity, and self-acceptance. Theoreticians to a man, they have fallen under the influence of Sartre, and to a lesser degree, of Madame de Beauvoir, both of whom have attempted to find a means of existential “liberation” from racial disabilities as well as from other forms of lack and underprivilege.

By far the most influential work on the racial problem has been Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive, which has dominated the theoretical approach to racial questions for the last twenty years, leaving its trace on writers as distant as Max Frisch and James Baldwin. Little wonder, then, that all those in France who touch on such matters betray its mark, either with or without acknowledgment, and regardless of whether they accept or query its conclusions.

At this point in time it is not difficult to see how closely Sartre’s essay derives from the paradoxical situation that existed in France before the war, when there were two totally separate and seemingly unrelated phenomena: on the one hand, an ironic and fashionable anti-Semitism that was eventually, by imperceptible degrees, to lead to the denial of the Jews’ right to live; and on the other, the presence of people who were Jewish in little else than name. Hence the success of such epigrams as “it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew,” or “the Jew is a man whom others regard as a Jew.”

But the importance of Sartre’s essay lies not only in what it says, in its view of the action of the beholder upon the person beheld, but in the form it takes, in its very method. Sartre seemed to be the first to cut through the tangled undergrowth of prejudice and myth to reach the free air of apparently cool and detached definitions and generalizations. It is as a consequence of this that Sartre’s vision, terminology, and method have dazzled French intellectuals. The modern French intellectual often tends to seek out some philosophical cubby-hole—existentialism; Marxism; and, now the height of fashion, the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss and others—into which he can fit his needs. Robert Misrahi (a disciple of Sartre and teacher of philosophy of Turkish Jewish descent), in his extremely abstract philosophical study, La Condition réflexive de l’homme juif,9 tries to combine Sartre and Levi-Strauss, two thinkers who do not always see eye to eye. In the process of straining for authenticity, he tends to produce definitions that may mean something to him, but are unlikely to mean much to a reader who is not impressed by abstractions.

The dangers and limitations of a passion for definition can be seen equally vividly in Albert Memmi, a writer who seeks to erect a whole impersonal edifice on the basis of a highly individual, personal experience. Memmi is a Tunisian Jew who felt at home neither in the ghetto of Tunis, among Tunisian Moslems, nor among the French settlers to whose culture he was attracted (a situation he depicted in his semi-autobiographical novel, Pillar of Salt). While often acute in detailed observation, Memmi’s Portrait d’un juif, dedicated to “Sartre, homme libre,” and its recent sequel, which bears the significantly Sartrean title La Libération du juif,10 betray a racial hypersensitivity bordering on the pathological. According to La Libération du juif, all the proposed solutions to the Jewish condition, which Memmi analyzes in turn, are thoroughly unsatisfactory. For an artist such as himself, the position is especially acute. The “liberation” he himself finally and optimistically proposes is plainly (like Misrahi’s) a personal one. But the “disease”—the word is not too strong for Memmi’s analysis—is portrayed more vividly than the cure.

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Yet another incorrigible theorizer is Jean-François Steiner in his documentary novel, Treblinka. While the personal impetus behind this novel—the author’s loss of his father and other members of his family during the Nazi terror—is evident, Steiner nonetheless feels constrained to fit the facts into some rational superstructure. Thus it is “the Jewish will to live” which leads both to what he calls the Jews’ “complicity” in their own destruction and to their heroic revolt against their oppressors at Treblinka, both to the descent into hell and the ascent from it. This aesthetically pleasing arrangement, which seems so repellent where such a theme is concerned, owes something to Sartre’s concept of the “series” as distinct from the “group”—as Madame de Beauvoir observes in her well-meaning but strained preface to the book. The fondness of left-wing writers, especially contributors to Les Temps Modernes, for finding in the Nazi extermination camps the culmination of capitalist society, and a foretaste of the technological horror to come, is shared by Steiner. Yet it appears at the very least doubtful whether the model of capitalist exploitation of workers really provides a suitable analogy for the unparalleled situation of the camps.

Steiner’s principal aim, however, is to provide, through the uprising at Treblinka, a connecting link across the ages between the heroism of Masada and that of present-day Israel. The theory has its attractions, but a theory it remains nevertheless, the testimony of an urge to impose upon actual events and sufferings an explanation that somehow softens the intolerable harshness of the truth, and makes it bearable. It is not difficult to sympathize with the author’s basic need to do this, nor is there much doubt that the French reader finds an agreeable echo of the heroic tradition of Malraux in the debates among Steiner’s characters on suicide and on Jewish destiny and honor. Ultimately, however, Elie Wiesel’s plea for a moratorium on explanations and theories would rightly embrace Steiner’s book as well as innumerable others.

Even André Schwarz-Bart, whom one might have thought primarily a lyrical instinctive writer, has fallen under the spell of Madame de Beauvoir’s views, formulated in The Second Sex, on the link between the condition and treatment of women, Jews, colored people, and colonial subjects. Here, Schwarz-Bart joins Memmi, who wrote on the colonial question before going on to grapple with the Jewish problem, and who also associates these questions with that of the subjection of women. Schwarz-Bart’s latest novel, Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes,11 written in collaboration with his wife Simone who comes from Guadeloupe, is the first volume of a seven-part cycle which is intended to deal with the supposedly interrelated situation of women, colored colonial people (its protagonist-narrator is a woman from Martinique ending her days in a wretched Parisian old-age home), and Jews. For Schwarz-Bart (writing under the influence of Fanon and Sartre), the evil of European civilization in its conduct toward the infirm and underprivileged is inextricably bound up with the evil of the world of the concentration camps. He proposes to demonstrate this fully in the final volume of the cycle which will feature a character only mentioned here in passing, the surviving elder brother of the hero of The Last of the Just. At the moment, however, he is rather ingenuously but not unexpectedly expressing some doubts as to whether he will ever be “mature” enough to write this final volume.

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A good deal of contemporary writing by French Jews still reads like a frustrated love affair with “assimilation.” It looks almost as if, had total submersion proved possible, many of them would have disappeared joyfully without a trace. Unfortunately for them, some obstacle has always presented itself in time to prevent such a consummation.

One novel even seems to symbolize in itself this current of feeling. It is a story about identity entitled Qui Vive, 12 by Jacques Lanzmann (the novelist, not to be confused with his brother, Claude, the political controversialist, who serves on the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes and who is, or was, a close friend of Madame de Beauvoir). Qui Vive centers on a Jewish youth who manages to escape death during the Occupation, because he is uncircumcised. The chief merit of the book, doubtless based on firsthand knowledge, lies in its extremely interesting picture of the more shoddy and less publicized aspects of the Resistance bands among which the youth moves. Ironically, the boy faces execution when he is arrested after the Liberation and found in possession of some incriminating mementoes. He declares to the Jewish maquisard before whom he is arraigned that he is a Jew, but can answer no questions on Jewish religious practice and has no means of proving his identity. We are left to presume that the youthful narrator is shot. This awkward and melodramatic denouement evidently holds some deep private significance for the author, since for its sake he has jeopardized the novel’s authenticity.

A particularly striking example of marginality with regard to Jewish identity is that of the eminent sociologist Georges Friedmann, author of Fin du peuple juif?13 Friedmann’s works on the psychology of labor have won him an international reputation, but he is also known as one of France’s leading independent Marxist thinkers. He tells us that he had never practiced Judaism, nor had the question of his origins and beliefs ever been raised, until he was dismissed from his post in 1940 under the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy regime. He had encountered anti-Semitism on his visits to Eastern Europe before the war, but had felt no ties with the people in the ghettos. Like so many others of his political persuasion, he believed the coming Revolution would solve the Jewish problem once and for all.

In January 1941 Friedmann joined the Resistance movement, whose spirit of comradeship restored his faith in France and in his fellow citizens, and put an end to his queries about the nature of Jewish identity. Civis gallicus sum, was his proud cry. After the Liberation, his professional interests again drew him to other fields. Why then, he asks, did he become so personally involved in Israel when he visited the country in 1963 and 1964 with the intention of writing a sociological study?

The study in question, Fin du peuple juif?, is largely a straightforward, highly perceptive discussion of the problems facing Israel, but it is also a passionate and troubled inquiry into the relationship between Israelis and Jews living outside Israel, and the meaning of Jewish identity for the peripheral Jew. The very fact that the author has chosen to write it in such terms is significant in itself. The book draws its strength from Friedmann’s mingled detachment and involvement, and only makes its full impact in the light of his personal background. Its central thesis (already partly outmoded under the pressure of recent events) is that as conditions have changed, the old conception of the Jewish people with a mythical character and a mystical destiny has withered away, to be replaced by the Israeli nation which serves neither as the center of that people nor as its appendage.

Together with Georges Friedmann, a number of the French Jewish writers under discussion are highly critical, if not positively hostile, toward what seems to them a fossilized religious orthodoxy, and tend (with reservations) to find in the existence of Israel either the term of their inquiry or the solution to their personal dilemmas. It is curious to observe why Israel appeals to them. For Misrahi, the Israelis are no longer “literally” Jews, and their attraction for him clearly lies in the freedom they enjoy in not having to be specifically Jewish by culture or religion. For Memmi, the very existence of Israel means that one is free at last “to cease being Jewish” in the traditional sense. Such views tell us more, perhaps, about the subconscious apprehensions and longings of their authors and about the society that has shaped them, than about the questions they are intended to answer or the problems they are supposed to resolve. In fine, French writers like these have been largely inhibited and conditioned by the tortuous situation they have inherited. For the first time in their history, some of them have been struggling with the will-o’-the-wisp of an objective, would-be “scientific” view of Jewish and human identity. They appear to imagine that such matters are capable of logical definition, that emotional reactions can and should be rationalized, and solutions not only sought but found. The passion for ordered oversimplifications and beautiful generalizations is indulged not only by Sartre and Madame de Beauvoir but by many of those who walk in their shadow. It is one of the great temptations fostered by certain French habits of thought.

_____________

 

Quite the most outstanding imaginative Jewish writer working in French today is Elie Wiesel, and he may be regarded as the exception that proves the rule. A Hungarian who has chosen to write in French, he shares little in common with the writers I have just been discussing. Where these writers are bound by the French experience, Wiesel transcends it. Where they are disenchanted with religious practice, he is steeped in the cryptic poetry of the Hasidic tradition which he absorbed as a boy in his Transylvanian birthplace, and his very questioning of faith is conducted within the framework of faith. Where they are always searching for theories and explanations, his work, as an expression of touching humility in the face of evil, stands as a reproach not only to the theoreticians but above all to the superficial badinage of a Peyrefitte. Wiesel warns against the danger of words, for he tends constantly toward a silence that conceals a deeper truth than language. His aesthetic consists of “vision rather than knowledge, inspiration rather than affirmation.”

It would be an error to conclude that because he no longer lives in France, Wiesel was just a bird of passage, a foreigner who happened to write in French through the mere accident of finding himself in Paris after being liberated from the camps, where he had witnessed the slow death of his father and the destruction of his world. Not only is he a student of French philosophy, whose Cartesian echoes can be heard disturbingly trans-formed to express one of his deepest convictions, the idea of his own and of universal culpability—“I live, therefore I am guilty.” He is also indebted to the French language itself, which provides him with one of his greatest assets: a Racinian resonance that is lacking in English translations of his works.

It seems quite possible that French readers may have been moved almost subconsciously by this Racinian quality, and that in some strange way Wiesel is able through it to incarnate for them an apprehension of shameful horrors as well as a hard-won sublimation. There is even a marvelous sense of poetic justice and reconciliation in his adoption and command of the French tongue, since ironically he stands for the fruitful union of two civilizations, the Jewish and the French, which Gide once conceived as permanently at variance.

To a certain extent, Wiesel, no less than his colleagues, falls into the sphere of Sartre, but unlike them he has imbibed as it were the essence of existential thought and feeling rather than its detail. Perhaps, in this regard, he owes more to Dostoevsky than to anyone else, but such followers of Dostoevsky as Camus and Malraux are among his secular masters.

Wiesel is a man pursued by the shades of his beloved dead who haunt all his books. From the awe-inspiring confession of Night, in which he told of his existence in the camps, to the most recent collection of stories and essays, Le chant des morts,14 which contains some of his best work, he has depicted his journey beyond nihilism and despair, his slow return to life and acceptance of himself and his destiny as spokesman for a destroyed generation. It is impossible to read him without the intensity of involvement or excitement that he himself brings to his relationship with those personages who, while ostensibly people he meets on his journey through life, seem to represent different embodiments of his inner being. A powerful Dostoevskian image of his is that of the double, whether messenger from heaven or from hell, so that one is never quite sure if the dialogue is taking place between separate creatures or between two aspects of the same soul: his own. This sense of incertitude is one that he deliberately fosters for the purpose of shattering and enlarging the reader’s spirit.

As one of Wiesel’s characters perceives in a characteristic antithesis, it is not God’s love of man, but man’s love of God that is needful for human salvation. In his meditation on the human tragedy, Wiesel’s aim is, in the best French sense, to endow experience with human meaning, his chief criterion for literature being whether it enriches the world of man. It is to be hoped that such defiant humanism as his may continue to find a hearing when the present drift away from humanism will be remembered only as a passing fashion.

_____________

 

The risk involved in a survey of the kind undertaken here is that the reader may be left with the erroneous impression that Jews and the Jewish question dominate the contemporary French scene. It is, to be sure, an impression encouraged at one end of the scale by Peyrefitte’s book with its “unknown Jews” on every hand. And at the other end of the scale even Wiesel may contribute to it, primarily in his essays and journalism, where he tends to imply that the world revolves around this subject alone, simply because his own world does.

Yet if we try to observe the French scene from a vantage point offering a wider view, we soon realize that while sympathetic and serious consideration of the subject of the Jews, their fate and their condition, occupies a larger place than formerly, that place is naturally, as one might expect, a relatively small corner. And thus, although there is no question but that a change has occurred in the climate of opinion, we must ask ourselves what, ultimately, it amounts to. It reveals, first of all, and especially among a section of the middle-aged, a moral revulsion which may even express itself publicly in political protest against government policy. Presumably, this moral revulsion will leave its imprint on the younger generation for good or ill. There has also, for another thing, been a marked change of taste in what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable in the written or spoken word. But that the very atmosphere of sweetness and light which has been engendered in recent years should provoke a mildly ironic reaction in certain quarters is, perhaps, only to be anticipated, above all in a land where benevolence is often sacrificed to wit.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 The Jews, translated by Bruce Lowery, Bobbs-Merrill, 512 pp., $7.50.

2 Dynamo, Liège, September 1965.

3 Memoirs, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 372 pp., $6.95.

4 Grasset, Paris, 1966.

5 Robert Laffont, Paris, 1967.

6 Le conflit israélo arabe, Les Temps Modernes, June 1967.

7 Don Quichotte prophète d'Israel, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1966.

8 Translated by Helen Weaver, Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $5.95.

9 Collection Les Temps Modernes, Julliard, Paris, 1963.

10 The Liberation of the Jew, translated by Judy Hyun, Orion Press, 303 pp., $4.95.

11 Seuil, Paris, 1967

12 Denoël, Paris, 1965.

13 The End of the Jewish People?, translated by Eric Mosbacher, Doubleday, 307 pp., $5.95.

14 To be published in May of this year as Songs of the Dead, translated by Stephen Donadio, Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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