Commentary Magazine


Le Traitre, by Andre Gorz

A “Jewish” Existentialist
Le Traitre.
by Andre Gorz.
Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Editions du Seuil (Paris). 315 pp. $4.00.

 

In the heyday of the Mercure de France, some fifty years ago, when it was one of Europe’s most intelligent literary monthlies, the French critic Jules de Gaultier, a frequent contributor, coined the word “bovarysme” in its pages to describe man’s peculiar ability, unique among living creatures, “to conceive of himself as being different from what he is.” In a brilliant analysis of the psychology of the characters of Flaubert’s novels, and especially of Emma Bovary, de Gaultier attributed their tragic failures to erroneous views about their own nature, abilities, or talents, as a consequence of which each one of them finds himself faced with the problems of one who has “bitten off more than he can chew.” An autobiography recently published in French, Le Traître, by André Görz, a half-Jewish former Austrian refugee from Nazi racial persecution, offers us a remarkable new example of “bovarysme” and a striking illustration of the validity of the somewhat neglected psychology of Flaubert and Jules de Gaultier.

André Görz was born in Vienna, the younger of two children of an inadequate Jewish father and an ambitious Christian mother who had hoped by her marriage to escape from her shabby petit-bourgeois Czech background. His mother had set out to have two perfect children, according to her own conventional Germanic standards; her first-born, a daughter with “angelic” golden curls, lived up to her expectations, but her son proved a disappointment in every respect. Dogged from infancy by a sense of failure, André Görz soon learned to attribute all his shortcomings to his Jewish heredity or to his being the child of a mixed marriage, someone who “belongs nowhere.” When the Germans invaded Austria, he felt bitterly humiliated because he could not, like most of his classmates, become a Nazi overnight. It seems never to have occurred to him that to be a Jew might under more normal circumstances have offered sufficient compensations for a sense of being “different,” or that there might be some Gentiles who have no desire to be coarse and vulgar brutes. His descriptions of the classmates whom he admired, are, in this respect, symptomatic of his own inadequate ideals.

Shortly before World War II, Görz was sent, at great sacrifice to his parents, to a boarding school in Switzerland. He appears to feel that he owes his family no gratitude and expresses no interest at all in their fate. Nor does he seem ever to have returned to Austria. Instead, a few years after the war, he managed to settle in France, where he has basked ever since in the sunshine of the presence of Jean-Paul Sartre and other leading Existentialists. Frustrated in his ambition to be what he believed all normal Germans and Austrians to be, refusing to be at all like his own father whom he assumed to be a typical Jew, Görz decided as an exile in a Swiss-German school to become what he believed the French to be, without ever having been to France or associated with Frenchmen. He might just as well have decided to be a Norwegian, a Peruvian, a Parsee, or a Hottentot. In this way, Görz became a typical Left Bank Paris Existentialist—if not the wordiest, the most argumentative, self-centered, and humorless of the whole tribe of those who, since the publication of Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant, have repeatedly tried to point out, on the basis of their own awareness of alienation, the shortcomings of both Marxian and Freudian thought.

Le Traître contains a few pages of vivid description of the author’s family background in Vienna and of life in the Austrian capital at the time of the Anschluss. One is left with the impression that the Görz family had much in common with the family of Leo Fischl, in Robert Musil’s great novel about the decay of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, The Man Without Qualities. But Görz has none of the subtlety and humor of Musil’s psychological insights and is too exclusively concerned with himself to make the most of the opportunities offered him. He argues so endlessly about Marxist, Freudian, or Existentialist theory that he neglects, for instance, to let his readers know what happened, under the Nazi regime, to his unfortunate parents or his sister, and fails likewise to describe or identify either of the women, L. and Kay, who are mentioned as having played some part in his life as an apprentice-Existentialist in Switzerland or in Paris. He is too self-centered even to describe at all adequately his own pseudonymous Messiah, the French writer Morel, who is obviously Sartre. Le Traître is thus a strange book: a remarkable exercise in an artificial and compulsive pseudo-psychological jargon, it might well be described as “much Urdu about nothing,” were it not that it mishandles a real problem and is assumed, in Sartre’s weirdly rhetorical and tangential preface, as well as in most of the reviews by Paris critics, to be a brilliant analysis of the problems of the Jew or of the half-Jew in contemporary society.

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One cannot help feeling that Görz is a new Emma Bovary, doomed to a tragic failure because he entertains such absurdly wrong notions about his own character and identity—although Sartre and their Existentialist friends lack the insight of Flaubert in that they accept Görz on his own terms, as a brilliant thinker rather than as a tragic fool. Le Traître is so pedestrian an imitation of some of the writings of Sartre that the latter might well say about the book, as Flaubert said about Emma Bovary—with due allowance for the difference between a great character of literature and a pretentious contemporary littérateur—“André Görz, c’est moil

From a more specifically Jewish point of view, Le Traître can be studied as a rare example of the survival, in postwar Western Europe, of a psychological syndrome that was once widely prevalent among middle-class assimilated Jews, especially in Austria, Hungary, and France, and especially among children of mixed marriages. Toward the turn of the century, this attitude found its most eloquent expression in Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, a book that inspired a whole phalanx of Nazi authors to whom such a testimony, from the lips of a Jew was a godsend. Though increasingly rare in literature, the anti-Semitism of the Juif malgré lui who remains utterly ignorant of Judaism is still likely to manifest itself for a long while among Jewish neurotics who may be too ignorant to have recourse to psychoanalysis or who remain convinced that it is beneath their dignity. Whatever the circumstances that encourage such a lack of basic self-respect, it can manifest itself only in a morbid personality.

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