TOWARDS AN UNDERSTANDING OF JEWISH IDENTITY
“On naît Juif, on ne le devient pas”
(One is born a Jew, one cannot become one)
(Emmanuel Lévinas Difficile liberté 79)
S’interroger sur l’identité juive, c’est déjà l’avoir perdue.
Mais c’est encore s’y tenir.
(To interrogate oneself about Jewish identity, is already
having lost it. But it is still being attached to it)
(Emmanuel Lévinas Difficile liberté)
“Le Juif est toujours à inventer”
(The Jew is always to be invented)
(Henri Meschonnic L’utopie du Juif 23)
“Peuple? Religion? Nation?
Le Juif ne se laisse pas définir”
(People? Religion? Nation?
The Jew does not let himself be defined)
(Alain Finkielkraut Le Juif imaginaire 199)
As Marc-Alain Ouaknin remarked: “La question de l’identité est au coeur de la problématique du Juif” (C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellules 164). Ouaknin’s Jewish “brouillage d’identités” (168) illustrates perfectly the situation in which we find ourselves with Marcel Proust’s kaleidoscopic identities, his existential, socio-philosophical, and semantic atomization of the self. Before entering into the universe of his Recherche, we must first attempt to articulate Jewish identity in all its plurality and complexity, in order to grasp the fugitive quality of any fitting definition, which will in turn explain Proust’s own plurality and complexity. We have divided our present exploration into six petihot: 1- Jewish Identity and Semantics; 2- Jewish Identity, Suffering and Alterity, 3- Jewish Identity, Question Mark and Movement; 4- Jewish Identity, Roots, Memory, Consciousness and Textual Identity; 5- Jewish Identity and the Failure of Definition; 6- Jewish Identity and Humor.
1- Jewish Identity and Semantics
We are overwhelmed by the number of words which are used to articulate Jewish identity: French words such as “Hébreu, hébreu” “hébraïsme, hébraïque” “Israélite, israélite” “Judaïsme,” “Juif, juif,” “judéïté,” “judaïté,” “judaïcité,” and the almost apologetic “d’origines juives,” together with their English equivalents, “Hebrew,” Israelite,” “Judaism,” “Jew,” “Jewishness,” and “of Jewish origins,” demonstrate how Jewish identity is already embedded in language, and entangled in multiplicity. Proust illustrates this multiplicity through his use of several of these variations: “Hébreux, hébreu, hébraïque, Israélite, israélite, Juif, juif, d’origines juives,” an onomastic series we shall try to weave in as we go along.
a. The words “Hébreu’” “hébreu,” and “hébraïsme”
From the Hebrew substantive ivri, itself rooted in the verb laavor meaning to pass or to transgress, which the Greeks translated as “hebraios,” and the Romans as “hebraeus,” the word “hébreu” roots Jewish identity in the religious Biblical moment when Abraham left the city of Ur, crossed the river, leaving behind the world of idolatry, in order to lead the Jewish people in the world of monotheism. The word “hébreu” also means the language spoken and written by Jews, a language which had amazingly survived thousands of years from Biblical times without being spoken, until very recently when revived to become the national language of the State of Israel. Thus, “hébreu” projects a Biblical dynamic identity within the historical movement of Judaism, as well as a passage from religion to nation. The word “hébraïsme” thus signifies the Biblical origins of Hebrew linguistic expression, as well as Biblical references. In the 19th century, because of the antijudaic and antisemitic connotations associated to the word “Juif,” Jews began to call themselves “Hebrews” or “Israelites” (Judaica vol 10 23).
In La recherche, Proust uses the three declinations of the word “Hebrew”: in “j’avais en face de moi la porte réservée aux Hébreux” (Le côté de Guermantes II 695), when he has Swann look like “un vieil hébreu” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 89), “dans une famille juive…ce sera un terme rituel….et peut-être le seul mot hébreu que la famille…connaisse encore” (La prisonnière 829), and when he speaks of “altruisme hébraïque” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 238).
b. The word “Israélite” or Israelite
Not to be confused with “israélien,” which designates the inhabitant of the State of Israel, the Jewish nation born in 1948 as a result of the Shoah, the word “Israélite” is rooted in the name the Northern Kingdom of Israel, during the reign of Rehoboam c. 928-911 B.C.E., as opposed to the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Judaica vol. 10 22). “Israélite” thus designates both the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish people. In French, the word “Israélite” is perceived as a more respectful way of addressing a Jew: “ce mot s’emploie de préférence à juif, lorsque ce terme est resssenti négativement” (Le Nouveau Petit Robert 1215).
Proust recognizes this distinction as he highlights “la générosité de certains israélites” (Le côté de Guermantes I 407), as opposed to the negative resonance found in the description of Bloch’s daughter as “la fille d’un Juif” (Le temps retrouvé 401). Proust also uses “Israélite” with a capital “I” to insist upon the religious dimension: “Swann mêlant à son ardente conviction d’Israélite” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 110). The noun-name Israël appears through French Catholic perception as a generic, and ethnic word: “Israël…c’est le nom que portent ces gens qui me semble un terme générique, ethnique, plutôt qu’un nom propre” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 123).
c. The words “Juif,” “juif,” and the expression “d’origines juives”
The capitalization is used in French to designate the substantive form of the word, emphasizing both the nationalistic, social community, and ethnic belonging. For example, “un Juif français,” “un Juif allemand,” or “les Juifs d’Europe de l’est,” take a capital “J,” whereas the lowercase is used to designate the adjectival form of the word, as in “le peuple juif,” or “la tradition juive” (Le Nouveau Petit Robert 1235). Proust’s “Juifs en Russie” (Le côté de Guermantes I 407), his “chez les Juifs” (Sodome et Gomorrhe I 17), his “familles juives” ( Le temps retrouvé 517), and Bloch’s “origines juives” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 106) demonstrate his understanding of these variations.
Both words “Juif” and “Jew” respectively passed into French and English from the Greek Ioudaios by way of the Latin Judaeus. The original root was the Hebrew word Yehudi, which was applied to all residents of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, as well as to members of the tribe of Judah, the fourth son of the patriarch Jacob and his frist wife Leah (Judaica vol. 10 22). After the destruction of Israel, the term Yehudi remained, disconnected from the Southern Kingdom, and was used to refer to all Jews. This is strikingly illustrated in the Book of Esther (2:5. 5: 13) where Mordecai, who belongs to the tribe of Benjamin, is called a Yehudi (Judaica vol. 10 22).
In his Méditations érotiques (65), Marc-Alain Ouaknin deconstructs the word “Juif” from its Hebrew roots, allowing us to feel the richness embedded in and in between the letters. The five letters of Yehuda contain the four letters of the sacred Tetragram “Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey,” the name of God which Jews are not allowed to pronounce, plus the letter “Dalet,” which is also the word for door. Thus, the “Juif” is the door in the Name-Tetragram of God. The German “Jude” has kept the Dalet-door. This “door” is a liminal metaphor of identity, here perceived as passage, and involving the dynamics of passing inside or outside. It is interesting to note that in the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as the Door through which Christians must pass in order to reach God: “I am the Door,” thus keeping alive in the metaphorical core of Christianity, a Jewish metaphor of identity.
As the Name-Tetragram represents a present ever open to the future, “poussé en avant par la lettre Yod qui devant un verbe marque le futur,” the “Juif” is also a door in time: “une porte dans le temps, dans un temps qui n’accepte pas l’installation dans le maintenant” (Méditations érotiques 65). To be Jewish is to open the door of temporality: “c’est ouvrir la porte du présent qui ne reste jamais présent, une porte qui fracture le présent pour se projeter dans le passé et le futur” (65). As we shall analyze in our chapter on Jewish mysticism, Proust manipulates time according to this Jewish temporality, denouncing the concept of sameness, and deconstructing static identity.
To be a Jew is to have a special kind of rapport with temporality, it is to “s’introduire à l’intérieur des possibilités du temps en assumant les trois dimensions du temps – passé, présent, futur, mémoire, vie et espérance. Dans cette temporalisation du temps, le Juif dit en même temps l’impossible fixation dans l’identique, et dénonce le concept d’identité” (Ouaknin Tsimtsoum 219). As Jewish temporality destroys the fixity of identity, the word “Jew” “enseigne ainsi que l’identité définitive est une illusion et nous invite à penser et à vivre au-delà du principe d’identité” (Ouaknin Méditations érotiques 65). Thus, Jewish identity is not being but becoming, or as Ouaknin puts it: “être signifie avoir à être” (65).
d. The words “Judaïsme” and Judaism
Judaism refers to the religion of the Jews, Hebrews and Israelites alike. Proust uses the word “Judaïsme,” simultaneously opposed, and poetically reconciled to French Catholic aristocracy: “un signe d’incompréhension que l’aristocratie a de sa propre poésie (le Judaisme a d’ailleurs la même…)” (Le côté de Guermantes II p. 674).
For Christians, though, Judaism is, from the start, loaded with the negative weight of betrayal. Indeed, the Latin word Judaeus, which gave birth to “Judaïsme” and Judaism, conflated with the name of Judas Iscariot, who was considered the betrayor of Jesus, Joshua ben Yosef, and whose name has since been used to stereotype the Jew as a scheming traitor and hypocrite (Le nouveau Petit Robert 1234). The Gospel of Luke (22:3) propagated the evil triangle of devil-Jew-Judas, and sustained the pejorative dimension of the words Jew and Judaism (Judaica vol 10 22). In that respect, it is important to remark that the word for non-Jews is “Gentile”, or “Gentils” in French, which resonate with the harmonious tone of niceness and polished gentility. Proust uses the word “Gentils” when he has Legrandin blame Jewish self-denial and assimilation, saying to Marcel, the narrator, and indirectly to Swann and Proust: “Vous savez que j’estime la jolie qualité de votre âme; c’est vous dire combien je regrette que vous alliez la renier parmi les Gentils” (Le côté de Guermantes I 452).
In Difficile liberté (43), Emmanuel Lévinas proposes three articulations of Judaism:
1-) Judaism as a Religion. Lévinas sees Jewish identity as a “religion, un système de croyances, de rites et de prescriptions morales fondées sur la Bible, sur le Talmud et la littérature Rabbinique, souvent combinés avec la mystique ou la théosophie de la kabbale.” In this respect, Proust can be perceived as both a Tsaddik, a "Juste," or “the Fair One” who tries to find justice and balance, and a Hassid, the one who adds an ethical responsibility to the mystical dimension of his life and work. As we shall see in Chapter Four, Proust’s “deux côtés,” together with his existential “balancing act” will demonstrate the ethical dimension of Proust’s Recherche. Furthermore, when Proust invites us to delve deep inside of ourselves as he writes “C’est en moi-même que j’étais obligé de descendre” (Le temps retrouvé 624), he echoes both the Tsaddik’s and the Hassid’s introspective thrust: "il faut plonger pour remonter, il faut plonger en soi-même" (Neher 100-102);
2-) Judaism as a Culture. Lévinas also considers the secular dimension of Jewish identity as “une culture -résultat ou fondement de la religion, mais ayant un devenir propre. A travers le monde, les Juifs s’en réclament, sans foi ni pratiques religieuses.” One must remember to establish the difference between the Jews before assimilation and the Jews after assimilation. After their emancipation, which took place in the wake of the French revolution at the time of Napoleon 1st, Judaism was not just a religion, but also most importantly a way of life: "Le Judaïsme n'est pas religion, mais mode de vie" (Neher 73);
3-) Judaism as a Sensitivity. Lévinas further opens the understanding of Jewish identity through its emotional dimension, describing it as “une sensibilité diffuse faite de quelques idées et souvenirs, de quelques coutumes et émotions, d’une solidarité avec les Juifs persécutés en tant que Juifs.” Proust is very aware of this sensitivity, exacerbated by the Dreyfus Affair, and openly writes of the sentiment of solidarity strengthening the Jews as “les grands sentiments de famille qui existent souvent dans les familles juives” (Le temps retrouvé 517).
Our own deconstruction of the word Judaism allows us to both taste the sap of Jewish identity in the phonetic presence of “jus,” which means “juice,” and articulate an inside-outside, hidden-revealed dynamic, through the phonetic presence of the French word “judas,” which means a little opening in a door, a floor, or a wall, in order to see without being seen from the inside out. This image amplifies the Jewish Marranic dissimulation, as well as its in-betweenness, which we will discuss shortly.
We cannot say that Judaism is the Jew, but rather that the Jew represents a rapport to Judaism: “un Juif non du Judaïsme, mais du rapport au Judaïsme” (Meschonnic L’utopie du Juif 283). We have found such a rapport in the phonic “J,” which begins “Juif, Judaïsme, Jew and Judaism,” and which strangely recalls the French subject “Je” and its homophonic “jeu”, thus projecting the game of self into Jewish identity. If we add the homophonic “you” present in the German word “Jude,” pronounced “youde,” we encounter Martin Buber’s existential, dialogical philosophy of “I and Thou,” thus projecting otherness or alterity inherent to Jewish identity.
e. The words “judaïté,” “judaïcité,” “judéïté” and the English word “Jewishness”
In these post-Shoah twentieth century words, the religious and the secular dimensions become fused. “Judaïté” means “la réalité juive, la condition de Juif,” “judéïté” projects “le fait d’être Juif,” and “judaïcité,” the fact of belonging to the Jewish community (Le Nouveau Petit Robert 1234). The adjective “judaïque” means that which belongs to Judaism, to the Jewish religion.
The English word “Jewishness” encompasses the cultural and social aspects of Jewish consciousness of the French “Judaïté,” and “Judéïté.” As Kristeva clarifies: “Abandoning Judaism as a religious sign, Jewishness came to signify a closed clan” ((Kristeva “Proust: In Search of identity” The Jew in the Text 151). She also remarks that “Jewishness is the index of truth when it focuses social groups” (153).
We would include in this “closed clan” social dimension, the “for all to see or hear” cultural traits for which the Jewish people, today, need no longer feel shame or fear, at least in the Western democracies of Western Europe and North America. Such traits include the idiosyncratic utterances “oy, oy, oy,” employed to express anything from ecstasy to horror (Rosten 280), and “pt…pt…pt,” a superstitious vocabulary uttered whilst throwing salt over one’s shoulder to chase away the evil eye, the same way as Christians make the sign of the cross; or the use of Hebrew and Yiddish words such as chutspah for “what a cheek!” and Mazal tov for “congratulations!” One’s Jewishness thus involves language and body language as the mediators of Jewish ancestral memory.
2- Jewish Identity, Suffering and Alterity,
“Le Judaïsme? Ne m’en parlez pas Monsieur le docteur,
je ne le souhaite même pas à mon pire ennemi.
Injures et honte, voilà tout ce qu’il rapporte:
ce n’est pas une religion, c’est un malheur”
(Henri Heine, in Blanchot 181)
“Cette race élue de l’inquiétude”
(Charles Péguy Morceaux choisis 87)
“Tu étais prédestiné à souffrir plus qu’un autre”
(Marcel proust Albertine disparue 21)
“Le Juif est malaise et malheur” (Blanchot 180). “Le Juif est l’opprimé et l’accusé” (Blanchot 181). “Toute société, et particulièrement la société chrétienne, a eu son Juif, afin de s’affirmer contre lui dans un rapport d’oppression” (Blanchot 181). The Jew is the historical scapegoat. Suffering is inherent to Jewish identity. The Jew suffers from “la maladie de l‘identité” (Ouaknin C’est our cela qu’on aime les libellules 169). This malady is “le mal de l’appartenance” (Marks 150), this need to belong, to be accepted, not to be rejected: “I am” becomes “I am one of them” (Kristeva The Jew in the text 140). We will discuss this belonging issue in Chapter ?????.
The presence of suffering in Proust’s Recherche is both subtle and powerful. “The
elegy of exile” throughout the Recherche, “sings the intense consciousness of Jewish pain” (Aaronson Jewish Writers of the 20th Century 555). Together with Marcel’s suffering, as he waits for his mother’s kiss at the “supplice du coucher (Du côté de chez Swann I ), Swann’s suffering through the fits of jealousy he experiences with Odette, as well as his physical and social disintegration, and Marcel’s own jealousy towards Albertine, as well as the pain he experiences at the loss of his grandmother, Proust uses suffering as a psychological tool which helps him understand the human condition better than psychology itself: “la souffrance va plus loin en psychologie que la psychologie” (Albertine disparue 3). He also recognizes suffering as a creative energy: “la souffrance, prolongement d’un choc moral imposé, aspire à changer de forme….on veut qu’elle passe par d’innombrables métamorphoses” (Albertine disparue 13). He perceives pain as a force stronger than electricity: “la force qui fait le plus de fois le tour de la terre en une seconde, ce n’est pas l’électricité, c’est la douleur” (Albertine disparue 54).
With the startling identification “Jésus-Christ c’est moi” (Albertine disparue 121), Proust identifies himself with the pain of persecution and misunderstanding. Proust also recognizes a certain cult of pain embedded into Jewish identity: “mon attraction par ce qui porte vers ce qui fera souffrir” (Albertine disparue 228), which he uses beyond the sacrifical scapegoat dimension of Jewish identity, as a spiritual fuel: “c’est le chagrin qui développe les forces de l’esprit” (Le temps retrouvé 484). Alluding to the Kabbalist Isaac ben Solomon Luria’s notions of pain and sacredness, which recognize the existence of evil as a the basic necessary stage of tikkun, or reparation, in order to reach the heights of betterment (Judaica vol.11 578), Proust perceives suffering as the necessary base of creativity: “les oeuvres…montent d’autant plus haut que la souffrance a plus profondément creusé le coeur” (Le temps retrouvé 487). Proust reaches a climactic awareness: “la souffrance est la meilleure chose que l’on puisse rencontrer dans la vie” (Le temps retrouvé 488).
The presence of physical pain (neurosis, asthma, insomnia, aging), existential pain (life, death, time, memory, art, illusion) and emotional pain (love, jealousy, humiliation) in Proust’s life and work, creates a deep well of resources within which alienation find its metamorphosing ingredients. Alienation is just another form of pain which burrows a path towards identity: “L’aliénation comme parcours est l’expiation de l’être qui veut retrouver son identité originelle” (Reichelberg 234). The word itself projects the link from otherness to nationalistic identity, through the sound and meaning of the French “lien,” which signifies “link,” the English word “alien,” and the Franco-English word “nation.” Emmanuel Lévinas perceives the estrangement of alienation as the result of the feeling of alterity: “ce moi sans cesse perturbé par l’appel de l’altérité” (Chalier 85). Proust feels this painful otherness: “une grande douleur, un corps étranger et blessant, que nous nos étonnons de ne plus retrouver, dans notre émerveillement d’être devenu un autre, un autre pour qui la souffrance…n’est plus que la souffrance d’autrui” (Albertine disparue 174-75, our emphasis), “l’autre qui est à ce moment-là, ou désormais, tout vous” (221).
In turn, this feeling of alterity leads to the dimension of exile as a formative element of Jewish identity: “la dure pédagogie de l’exil…l’étrangeté du moi au monde. Etrangeté de celui qui sait qu’aucune racine jamais ne le définira, mais uniquement le mouvement vers l’autre, mouvement qui lui interdit de s’installer chez lui” (Chalier 86). As Lévinas points out: “l’habitation justifiée par le mouvement vers l’autre est d’essence juive” (Noms propres 64). The essence of Judaism is “ouverture vers le monde, arrachement, risque immense et perpétuellement à renouveler, acte de désir pour aller vers la vérité soi-même, au delà de tous les dogmes” (Valdman 37). This “arrachement,” or uprooting, is painfully inscribed in the mobility or movement inherent to the question.
3- Jewish Identity, Question Mark and Movement
L’enfant regardait le vieil homme qui dansait et qui semblait danser pour l’éternité.
- Grand-père, pourquoi danses-tu ainsi?
- Vois-tu mon enfant, l’homme est comme une toupie.
Sa dignité, sa noblesse, il ne les atteint que dans le mouvement…
L’homme se fait de se défaire, ne l’oublie jamais!
(Alain Ouaknin Tsimtsoum 67, our emphasis)
What does it mean to be Jewish? Every past attempt to answer this question points to the impossibility of providing a simple and stable answer, Blanchot’s “vérité nomade” (L’entretien infini 183). Both Henri Meschonnic and Jacques Derrida have remarked that “Juif serait cette impossibilité d’être soi” (Meschonnic L’utopie du Juif 43), and that “Juif serait le nom de cette impossibilité d’être soi” (L’écriture et la différence 112). This impossibility can be explained by the Jew being imprisoned in the binary logic of “inclusion-exclusion, dedans-dehors” (Meschonnic 35). As Lyotard explains: “The Jews…are what cannot be domesticated…never at home wherever they are, cannot be integrated, converted or expelled” (Heidegger and the Jews 22). This “never at home” gives birth to “l’errance,” which signifies “un rapport nouveau avec la vérité” (Blanchot L’entretien infini 185). It destroys unicity and propels the Jew into a journey of multiple identities: “les innombrables et humbles moi qui nous composent” (Albertine disparue 14). This is what the French Jewish author Hélène Cixous illustrates, as she transforms the question "who am I?," "qui suis-je," into "who are I?" "qui sont-je," thus weaving the homophonic dream, "sont-je = songe= dream," into the making of a utopic, plural identity (Preface to The Hélène Cixous Reader xvii).
The Jew remains in a constant state of questioning. For Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the Jew is “l’homme-question” (C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellules 58). There is no identity, but only the possibilities of identities: “Il n’y a pas d’identité, mais seulement des possibilités d’identité…des identités possibles…et parfois contradictoires” (164). Jewish thinking is both “une remontée de l’affirmation vers le questionnement” (53), as well as an interpretative process which opens towards otherness: “l’interprétatrion…être ouvert à l’altérité et à l’étrangeté du monde” (65). The Jew is in this permanent state of becoming: “A la question que suis-je? Il faut répondre je ne suis pas mais je deviens” (100).
The question of Jewish identity contains the dimension of “devenir,” becoming, which leads to “avenir,” future, thus canceling the static notion of being, and propelling Jewish identity into the realm of “à être.” This forward movement without a fixed destination is the erring dimension inherent to the Jew, which may lead to neurosis and even psychosis: “Historiquement ayant vécu dans des nations qui ne l’ont pas toujours considéré comme citoyen à part entière, le Juif s’est créé une identité en mouvement qui parfois peut se traduire en termes pathologiques allant de la simple névrose à la psychose” (C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellues 164). Blanchot also recognizes this dynamic: “A chaque fois que l’homme Juif nous fait signe dans l’histoire, c’est par l’appel d’un mouvement” (L’entretien infini 183).
The Diasporic Jews live this movement as the “rapport, par la migration et la marche, avec l’Inconnu” (Blanchot L’entretien infini 185). This “marche” materializes the deconstructive aspect of identity, within which “to undo” becomes “to do”: “L’homme se fait de se défaire” (Meschonnic Jona et le signifiant errant 133). This “undoing” process is fundamental to the distabilazing energy of the question. The Jew not only asks questions, but becomes the question: “Le Juif ne se pose seulement des questions; il est lui-même devenu question” (Ouaknin C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellues 64), because “la quoibilité est le noyau non seulement de la pensée juive, mais de la modalité de l’être lui-même” (131).
Questioning and movement represent the ontological dimension of Jewish identity. Because they destabilize order and fixity, through the power of subversion and transgression, both questioning and movement demonstrate the crucial characteristic of Jewish anti-authoritarianism.
4- Jewish Identity, Roots, Memory, Consciousness and Textual Identity
For Martin Buber, Jews are “the keepers of the roots” (On Judaism 201), stressing the “rootedness in one’s origins, heritage, and history, and the awareness of one’s destiny, i.e., of the destination one had to decided to follow” (On Judaism 239). Buber emphasizes the spiritual link: Jewish life “is a dialogue between the above and the below” (On Judaism 215). The image of “rootedness” includes the dimension of the past as the soil in which one can plant one’s roots in order to grow. Memory acts as the consciousness of the Jews. This consciousness can lay dormant for a long time, but can rapidly be reawakened by a crisis, such as impending death, persecution, or a socio-political upheaval such as the Dreyfus Affair. As Lévinas explains: “La conscience juive, malgré la diversité des formes et des niveaux où elle subsiste, retrouve son unité et son unicité aux grandes heures de crise” (Difficile liberté 45).
Proust recognizes the spirit of Jewish roots as he transfer onto Swann his own forgetfulness: “Il avait trop longtemps oublié qu’il était le fils Swann” (Du côté de chez Swann II 305). As Swann remembers and witnesses his own rebirth: “Swann…il assistait à sa génèse” (Du côté de chez Swann II 345), Proust, too, witnesses his own Jewish rebirth as he plants his roots in the creating of his Recherche, mimicking Diasporic Jews, the People of Exodus and Exile, who, without a land of their own, have learned to plant their roots in language and text.
In L’écriture et la différence, Jacques Derrida links Jewish identity to the “naissance et passion de l’écriture” (99): “par une sorte de déplacement vers l’essence qui fait du livre une métonymie, la situation du Juif devient exemplaire de la situation du poète, de l’homme de parole et d’écriture” (100). Derrida perceives “l’expérience judaïque comme réflexion, séparation entre la vie et la pensée,” seeing Jewish identity as “la traversée du livre comme anachorèse infinie entre les deux immédiatetés et les deux identités à soi” (104). The textual dimension of Jewish identity is fostered by the nomadic status of the Diasporic Jew: “Le Juif nomade est frappé d’infini et de lettre” reflecting the “étrange rapport entre la loi, l’errance et la non-identité à soi” (105), leading to the “consécration de l’existence par le mot” (107), and to the final assumption that “être, c’est être dans le livre” (113). Valdman simply, yet powerfully exclaims: “écrire, c’est être juif” (37), because writing allows one to conquer oneself beyond conflicts of identity: “se conquérir au-delà de nos conflits d’identité” (41).
Edmond Jabès also links Jewish identity to textual identity. For him, the book represents a “prise de conscience du cri” (Le livre des questions 18). The Jew is both “lien et lieu écrits” (21). The book is the home of the Jew: “la maison est dans le livre” (22), “ Je suis dans le livre. Le livre est mon univers, mon pays, mon toit et mon énigme. Le livre est ma respiration et mon repos” (36). Proust’s book is his life: “Ma vie…en somme réalisée dans un livre,” and his memory: “la perte de mémoire…mon oeuvre la remplaçait” (Le temps retrouvé 609, 619).
Emanating from “l’écriture,” Jewish identity is intrinsically linked to the name: “le nom désigne l’identité à réaliser,” it gives birth to the self: “l’avènement du moi: unification ou division” ((Reichelberg 55, 138). We will analyze this onomastic dimension of Jewish identity in Chapter Four.
5- Jewish Identity and the Failure of Definition
In spite of this lengthy review of the characteristics attributed to Jewish identity, the definition of the Jew remains elusive. We have, perhaps, to reach the virtual shores of Utopia in order to understand, with Henri Meschonnic, that defining Jewish identity is a “mise en abyme”: “le Juif du Juif à l’intérieur du Juif” (15). For Meschonnic, Utopia is the home of the Jew: “l’utopie du Juif, c’est le Juif,” “Chaque fois que le Juif n’a plus où se mettre, l’utopie lui construit sa demeurre” (22).
To understand Jewish identity requires “une entreprise indéfiniment recommencée” (13). Meschonnic emphasizes the power of language in forming identity: “une prise sur le langage comme forme de vie” (15). Language is seen as “une fabrique de sens” (22). For Meschonnic, Jewish identity is “un idéal à accomplir” (14), based on continuity, discontinuity and plurality: “les discontinuités du continu, le continu de vie à l’intérieur de son discontinu d’histoire” (15) where identity is perceived as “un avenir, non plus seulement comme un passé…comme un pluriel interne, non plus comme un singulier” (16). For Meschonnic there is no definition of the Jew: “Non seulement il n’y a pas de définition du Juif, mais comme tout ce qui est de l’ordre de l’humain, il échappe à la définition” (Jona et le signifiant errant 122). Proust projects this impossibility of definition through Odette, who cannot understand Swann: “Je ne peux te définir” (Du côté de chez Swann II 238).
There is a non-referenced little joke that has come down to us through the ages, and that Jews themselves like to tell, almost in self-defense:
- What are Jews?
- Jews are like everybody else, but a little more so.
It is in this “little more so,” this dimension of excess where we will perhaps find the Jew, an excess which bespeaks of neurosis, fear, and of trying hard to compensate for a complex of inferiority resulting from centuries of abuse and humiliation. The Jew has to do more, to do better, all the time, in order to be accepted.
6- Jewish Identity, Laughter and Humor
“A man is known by his laughter”
(Talmud, Eruvin 65 b)
"a peculiar attribute of the Jewish race is... verve"
“The gift of mockery...a secret weapon- a weapon that may well be bestowed
upon the Jewish child before he leaves the cradle;
verve is one of the prerogatives shared by most Jews"
One way of coping with adversity and oppression is the use of humor. Jewish humor is a tragic-comic mixture of irony, caricature, sarcasm, self-mockery, and the painful exorcism of the demons of Jewish destiny. Humor liberates laughter, and laughter deflates tragedy because laughter is “une brisure du destin” (Ouaknin C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellules 155).
Laughter is embedded in Jewish identity. Not only does the Talmud teach the necessity of laughter: “le Talmud enseigne par la bouche de Rava qu’il faut raconter une histoire drôle avant toute étude pour ouvrir l’esprit à sa dimension transcendente” (Ouaknin 86), a lesson we are following as we begin each part of our study with one or more jokes relevant to the topic under investigation, but the Bible itself projects the ontological dimension of laughter. Indeed, when God tells the100 year old Abraham that he is going to have a son by his 90 year old wife Sarah, Abraham laughs in disbelief. When Sarah gives birth, Abraham calls his much awaited son Itzak, which, in Hebrew, means “he will laugh” (Ouaknin 155). Thus, humor and laughter are to be found at the very beginning of Jewish identity.
Ouaknin describes Jewish humor as “the mise en doute des vérités toutes faites et d’abord la mise en doute de soi-même” (C’est pour cela qu’on aime les libellules 155). This self-doubting becomes self-mockery: “l’humour exige de l’homme… qu’il se moque de lui-même” (Yankélévitch in Ouaknin 155). Jewish jokes use stereotypes, but punctures them to release their purulent dogma: “La blague juive utilise les stéréotypes pour les faire éclater” (Ouaknin 164). Laughter is also benificiently corrosive: “Le rire est alors une corrosion de l’intégrité de l’identité. Le rire éclate à la frontière de l’identification-désidentification, frontière mouvante dans laquelle on se perd, on se trouve et on se reperd infiniment” (Ouaknin 164).
Humor has the power to reverse the roles of victim and persecutor, thus creating a means of escape. Meschonnic perceives Jewish humor as “la nécessité de fuir” (L’utopie du Juif 132). In his ominous book Laughter in Hell, reflecting upon the plight of Jews under Hitler’s Third Reich, and their situation in the concentration camps, Lipman describes humor as “a ready weapon” to fight evil (xi). Laughter is “restorative” (7), and “preserves sanity” (8). Lipman further explains: “People who live in absolute uncertainty as to their lives and property, find a refuge in inventing, repeating, and speaking through the channels of whispering counter-propaganda, anecdotes and jokes about their oppressors” (9). Humor becomes “the currency of hope, a diversion, a shield, a morale booster, an equalizer, a drop of truth in a world founded on lies” (10). At times “joyful, ferocious, revengeful,” Jewish humor “approaches the verge of sacrilege” (Sidéry 96), providing the energy, however cryptically channeled, to redefine the victim in the victim’s world, whether in Auschwitz or in antisemitic France.
This redefinition is based on detachment and “dédoublement” of the self. This detachment is a “form of spiritual resistance among the oppressed” (Lipman 11). Under the comic bark lies the Jewish experience of pain. Under the bark of external bondage, lies inner freedom.
There is something almost religious in humor, something like a “prelude to faith” (Reinhold Nieburh in Lipman 12), in which laughter gives melody to a prayer, a prayer for freedom and the right to be. In Proust’s antisemitic France, as we shall see in Chapter Three, Jews were all too familiar with humiliation, and subject to all kinds of persecutions. Humor became “Jewish novocaine” (Lipman 135), “necessary for self-esteem,” as laughter provided “the only weapon the oppressed can use against the oppressor” (Lipman 28). The joke, “provoked by a feeling of interoir panic” (Sid´´ry 95), became “an art of rebellion at its best” (Mikes 91).
Proust engages in this rebellion through “the satirical verve he owes to his Jewish descent” (Sidéry 96). We shall examine this in Chapters Three and Four, showing the way he uses antisemitic Jewish stereotypes and caricatures when describing his French noble characters, as a means to empower him: “I mock, therefore I am powerful” (Sidéry 95). A study of Proust’s humor would undoubtedly reveal many truths about Jews and his own his Jewishness, that “sociological and academic studies usually miss” (Telushkin 15). Proust’s verbal combativeness and aggression are an expression of his Jewish identity, his way of dealing with anxiety and fear, as well as fighting French antisemitism.
We will content ourselves here to highlight some examples of Proust’s subversive linguistic wit, which his “villa de Montretout où je ne la verrai pas” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 11), “the villa of Showitall where I will not see her,” most bluntly and blatently demonstrates. When Proust gives his French Catholic characters names such as Mr and Mrs “d’Argencourt” (La prisonnière 777), meaning “Short of money,” he reverses the stereotype of the stingy Jew. With his “marquise de Chaussegros” (Le côté de Guermantes II 672, 788), meaning “Bigfeet, or “Largesizeshoe,” Proust erases the perfect image of the beautiful French people. His character “Ski,” who knows only his fantasy: “Ski ne connaît que sa fantaisie” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 330), hints at Proust’s own linguistic fantasy, as “Ski” projects the phonic contraction “c’est qui?,” “Who is it?,” which corresponds perfectly to the character who insistently questions: “Qu’est-ce-que c’est que cette chose?” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 330).
Proust’s character Jupien demonstrates another linguistic fantasy, as “Jupien” projects an osmosis between “jupe,” “skirt,” hinting at the transvestite, bisexual, homosexual “homme-femme” quality of Jupien, and “Youpin,” the French antisemitic insult for Jew. The “Jupien-Youpin” phonic anagram alludes, of course, to Proust’s association between homosexuals and Jews in Sodome et Gomorrhe, an inversion subtly hinted at in “inversement, Jupien” (Le temps retrouvé 395), which also amplifies the two sides of Jupien’s ambivalent, slippery personality, further developed in “Jupien mentait et disait vrai à la fois” (Le temps retrouvé 403). The Recherche is full of numerous such humoristic detours, which we will encounter again as we continue our study.
PROUST’S JEWISH STYLE
“There is such a thing as Jewish writing”
(Eric Gould The Sin of the Book: Edmond Jabès)
Altough Proust has been upheld as a symbol of Frenchness, his style has nonetheless been described by some perceptive critics and authors as “unfrench,” “Jewish,” “foreign,” and “semitic.” André Germain perceived Proust’s style as Jewish and lyrical: “Ce qui me frappe le plus dans la dernière oeuvre de Proust, c’est un don qu’il me faut bien appeler le lyrisme Juif” (in Cattaui L’amitié de Proust 197, our emphasis). Denis Saurat recognized Proust as “a great master of language. Slightly un-French, owing perhaps to his parttly Jewish ancestry” (137, our emphasis). Edmund Wilson has recognized in Proust “that tone of lamentation and complaint which resounds through his whole book” as “really very unfrench and rather akin to Jewish literature” (144 my emphasis). Georges Cattaui also recognized this tone of lamentation, and links it to the anxiety of Messianism: “Ce n’est pas impunément qu’on appartient à la race des prophètes…Une sorte de plainte et de lamentation accompagne en sourdine les accents les plus humains de Proust. C’est comme la mélopée d’une antique litanie orientale qui, çà et là, retentit, se répercute…Ce lamento, ces appels de l’âme errante et trahie, cette sérénité douloureuse…trahissent une incurable angoisse messianique” (107, my emphasis).When she read Proust, Hélène Cixous felt as if she was in a foreign French: “C’est comme si vous étiez dans un français étranger” (Privates notes 4.11.95 p. 14. my emphasis). Thibaudet remarked, as early as 1923, that “un Montaigne, un Proust, un Bergson installent dans notre complexe et riche univers littéraire ce qu’on pourrait apeller le doublet franco-sémitique” (WHERE?? our emphasis). We go even further, and propose that Proust is not only a Jewish author, but that he participated in a European “Jewish literary renaissance that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, which expressed itself through a composite literature represented by Edmong Fleg, Henri Franck, Jean-Claude Block, Armand Lunel, Albert Cohen, and André Spire” (Aaronson Jewish Writers of the 20th Century 555). Like his friend André Spire, we believe that Proust “thought of a mode of integration within the fabric of French society,” and that “one dimension of this integration is the use of language…and a special way of thinking” (555). Like André Spire, Proust “projects energy and a thirst for justice” as well as “the elegy of exile,” which throughout the Recherche, “sings the intense consciousness of Jewish pain” (555). In the following chapters, we will investigate Proust’s use of language, references, metaphors, and subject matters pertaining to Jewish identity. We will try here to identify the characteristics of his style, which will hopefully convince the reader that Proust is, indeed, a Jewish author, and that his Recherche is a Jewish book. But in order to better argue our position, we must first understand what is a Jewish book.
Régine Robin offers five propositions (11):
1- The Negation of the Existence of Jewish Literature: “Nier la possiblité d’une telle litérature.” This negation hides the fear that Jewish literature may exist in a Gentile, still fundamentally antisemitic French society. However ambiguous, this fear can be found in La recherche, insofar as Proust surrounds and protects himself with the company of French authors whose Frenchness is paramount: for example, St Simon, the Goncourt Brothers, Edouard Drumont, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Baudelaire, and George Sand, to cite only a few.
2- The Ethno-Cultural Origins of the Author: “Considérer l’origine ethno- culturelle des écrivains, that is a “littérature juive produite par des écrivains juifs.” As we have just established, Proust belongs, through his mother, to the Weil’s well known Jewish family.
3- The Thematic: “la littérature juive ferait appel à des sujets juifs, soit des personnages juifs, soit à un narrateur explicitement juif, soit à des problèmes concernant les Juifs.” La recherche presents much Jewish subject matter, hitherto unrecognized, such as Jewish identity, Marranic identity, Jewish mysticism, Jewish prophecy, Jewish temporality, Jewish memory, the Jewish relationship with text, as well as Jewish characters, such as Swann, Bloch, Rachel, Nissim Bernard, and issues concerning the Jews, such as the Dreyfus Affair, antisemitism, self-hatred and assimilation.
4- Authorial perspective: Proust’s perspective is that of an assimilated Jew who lost touch with the synagogue, but who remembers.
5- Archetypal Presence: a Jewish book should contain “figures qui seraient caractéristiques de la judéité dans l’écriture.” In La recherche, we find Biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Esther, and Joseph, to cite only the most well known, as well as powerful secular Jews such as the Rothschilds and the Worms.
Remarkably, Proust’s Recherche fulfills all of the above requirements. It must be said, though, that a non-Jewish author may very well write a Jewish book, and that a Jewish author may very well write a non-Jewish book. In the following chapters, we shall not only provide numerous examples, but also probe more deeply to reach three more complex levels of identification relating to the specifically Jewish textual activity. These, Robin articulates (12) as “L’identité instable,” that is, who is who, names changes, multiple transformations and some games played with names; “La recherche d’une voix,” which posits as Jewish the constant interrogation about the existence of silence and “parole,” and “Le travail de et sur la langue,” projecting the Jewish “virtuosité verbale” (14), which includes permutations and the disappearance of letters, as well as numerology, all of which will be discussed.
Robin also speaks of the ethnicity of the Jewish Book, as a literature which exposes or deals with the other: “la littérature des autres” (9), a literature which posits itself as a “recherche d’un espace où se pense un va-et-vient, un espace intermédiaire que j’appelle hors-lieu, qui n’est ni inscription imaginaire de racines ni la dérive cosmopolite absolue…l’éclatement identitaire absolu; un espace qui tient à distance à la fois le vide de la non-appartenance radicale et le fixisme d’une appartenance rivée obsessionnellement à ses racines; un espace où des appartenances multiples se négocient toujours dans la difficulté” (9). Proust’s Recherche also fits Robin’s description of ethnic literature, and that too will be elucidated in the following chapters, especially in our exploration of antisemitism, assimilation, name changes, identity, and Proust’s Orientalism. But there is still one more characteristic, which Robin did not mention, that is the style in which a book is written, a style which in Proust’s case, can be only be described as Jewish. This is the subject of our present investigation. The Biblical quality of Proust’s style has already been studied by critics such as Albert Mingelgrün (Thèmes et structures bibliques dans l’oeuvre de Proust). We will here attempt to reveal Prousts’s “écriture féminine,” and his use of Marranic discourse, two facets of Jewish writing which still need probing.
Although reminiscent of Montaigne’s meandering thoughts, illustrated in the following passage: “une personne ne ressemble jamais à une voie droite, mais nous étonne de ses détours singuliers et inévitables” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 250), Proust’s style is unique in French literature. Many authors and critics have pondered on the unclear, intense complexity of La recherche. Thus, Walter Benjamin wrote of “its structure, which is fiction, autobiography, and commentary in one” (59), as well of its “syntax of endless sentences (the Nile of language, which here overflows and fructifies the regions of truth, [where] everything transcends the norm” (59), the norm representing for us the occidental way of writing. Proust himself was aware of his long sentences: “Je suis bien obligé de tisser ces longues soies comme je les file, et si j’abrégeais mes phrases cela ferait des petits morceaux de phrases, pas des phrases” (Correspondance Générale IV 201, in Milly 119); “je ne cherche pas à m’absoudre ainsi du reproche justifié de faire souvent des phrases trop longues, trop sinueusement attachées aux méandres de ma pensée” (Letter to Paul Souday Correspondance Générale III 93-94, in Milly 119). Benjamin also described Proust’s syntax as “rhythmically and step by step reproduc[ing] his fear of suffocating,” thus linking his style to his “psychogenic asthma” (69). Julie Kristeva recognized Proust’s “plethoric metaphors, excessive syntax, and imposing but indistinct characters” as “a meandering text,” where “critics keep loosing their way” (The Jew in the text 141).
Samuel Beckett, stressing the difficulties inherent in Proust’s style: “L’équation proustienne n’est jamais simple” (21), underlined the fact that “on n’estimait guère le style de Proust dans les cercles littéraires français” (100), that it is “un style fatigant,” overfed with “accumulations…explosions” and “périphrases” (101), which submerges the reader and renders him “anéanti …par l’écume et le déferlement d’une métaphore après l’autre” (101). Beckett also emphasized Proust’s particular relationship to language: “aux yeux de Proust la qualité du langage est plus importante que tout système éthique ou esthétique” (101), thus intuitively linking Proust to the emphasis on language found in Midrash.
Jean Milly, a conservative critic more inclined to see Proust as a symbol of Frenchness, nonetheless recognized La recherche as “une oeuvre de commentaire” (Proust et le Style 1), which in Jewish culture would directly link it to Rabbinical literature, as we shall see in Chapter Two, when we study Proust’s text in the light of Midrash and the Talmud. Milly has intuitively felt that “la dynamique interne” of the Recherche lead Proust to the “limites extrêmes de l’analyse” (2). He described Proust’s sentence as “une curieuse phrase liseron qui s’étire” (5), recognizing “la longueur et l’allure” (115) of his sentences as necessary for “l’analyse de nuances complexes” (117). Milly likened Proust’s sense of detailing to a “dissection des cheveux,” reminiscent of the hair-splitting Talmudic practice of pilpulim, “a penetrating enquiry into the minutest details through increasing sharper divisions and differenciations” (Judaica vol.13 526), which we shall illustrate in Chapter two. Milly also noted Proust’s “tendance à la surcharge” (116), speaking of “ajoutages” and “surnourriture” (119), which, again, recall the additive and excessive style of the Talmud. Hélène Cixous observed that “la phrase type de Proust qui est une phrase hypotaxique, pleine d’ajouts, de parenthèses… empile,… amasse,… rassemble un univers entre ses bras” (Cixous Private notes 18-11-95, p. 26).
For George Cattaui, Proust’s excessive style is an “art… fait de gradations, de recommencements, de répétitions successives, d’un continuel devenir” (Proust et ses métamorphoses 34). This “continuel devenir,” allowed to become thanks to Proust’s meandering, nomadic, probing sentences, is, as we have discovered earlier, a characteristic of Jewish identity. It is also the hallmark of “écriture féminine.” If “being itself is diluted in style” (Kristeva Proust and the Sense of Time 26), we may then appreciate Proust’s style as the morphogenic projection of his troubled, meandering, erring, suffocated, repressed, oppressed, sensuous, feminine and oriental identity. Jewish writing is, indeed, very much like feminine writing.
Proust’s poetical projection of his infatuation with the silky, velvety texture of the inner, indeed presents all the qualities of “écriture féminine.” “L'écriture féminine” is the expression critics gave this poetic way of writing interiority and sexuality. But it is not only a woman thing. Male authors are also capable of unleashing the intuitive, sexual energies of the unconscious. Proust’s text is a feminine flood, his writing a woman's orgasm, as he seeks to enjoy the process of writing in an erotic way, each sentence unfurling like a caress, probing the inner life of a flower, a mouth, a sky, an hour. Proust’s hypersensitivity and sensuality also demonstrate the tragedy of Proust’s loneliness and his longing for the other: "Eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness" (Paz 15).
In La recherche, Proust lets his femininity be expressed. The rhythm of his text is the signature of his body. This is where "harmonie identaire" may also be found. Proust’s method of writing is exploratory, shaking off dead knowledge, concepts, theories, spilling over genre boundaries. Proust dissolves the limits of our minds made by old concepts. He transcends and transforms the limiting forces of rationality, replacing it by a sensuality, which the reader experiences as he reads. This feminine, boundless, sensuous process is what Hélène Cixous calls “l’écrivance” (Rootprints 11). Together with this feminine nomadic sensuality, Proust’s obsession with temporality, the disintegration and dissolution process of aging, death, and mourning, points to the deconstructive forces of post-modernism. There is a definite “link between Jewish thinking and deconstruction, haunted by death, temporality and mourning” (Marks 124). This very brief digression allows us to form a perception of Jewish writing as containing the essence of both feminine writing and post-modern deconstruction.
La recherche is also written in a Marranic style. The title of our study, The Bark and The Sap, is a Marranic title. It means that there is an outer cover, which protects a sensitive, fragile inner core. In terms of language, this means that Proust articulates a certain kind of device, which cheats the non-initiated reader. Before we begin our exploration of Proust’s Marranic writing, we must first identify the word Marranism. It comes from the Spanish Marrano, “a term of opprobrium used to denigrate the New Christians of Spain and Portugal” (Judaica vol. 11 p. 1018). These New Christians were Jews forced to convert to Catholicism in order to avoid expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition. Various origins of the word are proposed, all of which remarkably pertain to Proust’s Recherche.
One origin suggests the Hebrew marit ayin, meaning the appearance of the eye, hinting at the fact that “Marranos were ostensibly Christian but actually Judaizers” (Judaica vol. 11, 1018). This origin recalls Proust’s use of the eye in the name “Vinteuil,” whose homophony projects twenty eyes, as well as his acute X-ray sense of vision, and his obsession with eyes that cannot see, and his illusory “trompe-l’oeil,” as we shall investigate later. Another suggests the Hebrew mohoram attah, meaning “You are excommunicated,” which befits Swann and Bloch’s situation in French society, as their company is less and less sought after, ending in their excommunication from French Salons. A third origin is from the Spanish marrano, meaning pig, or swine, which derived from the Arabic barran, meaning an outsider or stranger (Judaica vol 11, 1018). This Hispanico-Arabic coalescence points to both the status of the Jew as outsider, and, as an insult aimed at his religion, linked to the fact that pork, pig’s flesh, was forbidden to him. It is most telling that the Latin word that gave the Spanish marrano, is verres (Judaica vol. 11, 1018), which brings us back to the first “appearance of the eye” origin, through a translinguistic homophony with the French word “verres,” meaning an optical device to see better, which Proust uses in the Recherche, inciting the reader to read “avec ce verre-ci, avec celui-là, avec cet autre” (Le temps retrouvé 489-90). This etymological journey allows us to better grasp Proust’s Marranism as a “mode secret” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 31), a secretive style which appears one thing on the surface, and another under it, making the outward Catholic bark of the Recherche the cover and protector of a Jewish sap.
Proust actually gives us many hints about this cloaking device. He speaks of “l’art de dissimuler sous des périphrases ingénieuses” (Du côté de chez Swann I, part I 22), which we link to assimilation, as we shall analyze in Chapter Three, and requires the ingeniosity of a probing reader to pierce the artifice. When “les promenades du côté de Guermantes” are associated to a lid: “je cherchais à les retrouver, prêtes à s’entrouvrir, à me livrer ce dont elles n’étaient qu’un couvercle” (Du côté de chez Swann I, part I 176, our emphasis), the image of the Guermantes lid projects the Recherche’s French Catholic cloak, covering the Jewish body. This Marranic cloaking device must be linked to Proust’s “drame du déshabillage,” which removes the Catholic cloak in order to see the Naked Jewish body, an image which will we meet again in our Midrahic reading of Swann.
When Proust writes that “il est si difficile d’être double” (Du côté de chez Swann II 371), emphasized as “cet éternel double jeu” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs I 453), transferred to a “conversation à double-fond” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 308), he refers at the double life Marranos were forced to live, hinting at the “second visage” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 133) they were force to wear, namely the mask of a Catholic life, covering the hidden face of Jewish life. This double life and second face dimension is further developed in the juxtaposition of surface-Christians and Jewish layers: “Bloch…supportait comme au fond des mers les incalculables pressions que faisaient perser sur lui non seulement les chrétiens de surface, mais les couches superposées des castes juives” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 103, our emphasis). Proust is aware of this mascarade. He realizes he will have to leave the surface of things and self in order to probe deeper and discover his true identity: “L’impression…de rester à la surface de soi-même, au lieu de poursuivre leur voyage de découverte dans les profondeurs…je me mentais à moi-même” (A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs II 260, our enphasis). As he speaks of homosexuals who also have to hide their true identity, Proust recognizes the malediction weighing on the Jewish people: “Race sur laquelle pèse une malédiction et doit vivre dans dans le mensonge et le parjure” (Sodome et Gomorrhe I 16). The lying dimension of Marranic discourse is based on survival and not on dishonnesty.
Proust’s Marranism is “une pensée secrète…qui montera des profondeurs remuées par nous, à la surface” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 113), our emphasis). The secret is the Jewish sap of Proust’s Recherche, which we will taste throughout our reading, stirring the depths of the surface meaning of words, in order to get to the essence. Proust refers to words as “cuirs”: “car ces mots…ne sont eux-mêmes que des cuirs” (Sodome et Gomorrhe II 134, our emphasis). This image is Marranic, as it conveys the exterior surface of the skin, imlying there is a flesh lying underneath. Our reading, like a surgical operation, will cut open the skin of appearance in order to get to the flesh, as Proust’s Recherche is filled with “des pensées qui n’avaient rien de chrétien que l’apparence” (La prisonnière 827, our emphasis). As these thoughts “surnageaient” (827), recalling the the “sur-face,”the face of the top layer, the mask, but also the sea, we feel we have to dive in, and swim through metaphors and signs to taste the salt of Jewish identity. This sea analogy is actually justified as Proust writes of “ce jour ancien” which “remonte à la surface et s’étend en nous qu’il couvre tout entier…les noms reprennent leur ancienne signification, les êtres leur ancien visage” (Albertine disparue 125, our emphasis). In this passage, Proust not only brings about the re-surfacing of those ancient days, which hints at the Biblical times of Judaism, but invites the reader to reach for the etymology of words and names, which we will do, whenever required, throughout our study.
In almost all the passages we have quoted, the same words keep haunting the text:, surface, appearance, secrecy, depths, lies. The reality of Proust’s Jewish identity is burried so deep beneath the surface of his Marranic persona, that it requires a probing reading to pierce through the appearances. Proust himself is aware of his embedded identity: “la réalité à exprimer résidait, je le comprenais maintenant, non pas dans l’apparence du sujet mais à une profondeur où cette apparence importait peu” (Le temps retrouvé 461), inciting the reader to look for something different beneath this appearance: “chercher à apercevoir sous de la matière, sous de l’expérience, sous des mots quelque chose de différent” (Le temps retrouvé 474, our emphasis). This “something different” is the Jewish dimension of La recherche, which Proust has succeeded to project undetected until now, through the Marranic quality of his writing.
At the end of Le temps retrouvé, a whole series of Christian images, including “archevêques,” “séminaristes,” “croix,” and “clochers,” culminates with the figure of the duc de Guermantes who vacillates “sur des jambes flageolantes comme celles de ces vieux archevêques” (625). This image of collapse is a Marranic image which bespeaks of the collapse of the French Catholic society, the falling apart of the bark of the book, to let the sap of Jewish identity resurface and cover us, the readers, with its “pulpe frémissante” (Le temps retrouvé 614).
At the onomastic level, when Albertine says about a badly written book that “c’est écrit par un cochon” (La prisonnière 528), we decontextualize the image from its negative perspective, and apply it to Proust’s self-referential Marranic style, as the “cochon” who writes the book is Proust himself, the Marrano of twentieth century French literature. In the art of dissimulation and mimicking the Marrano is the greatest pasticheur of all times. Isn’t it uncanny that one of the qualities for which Proust was celebrated was his virtuoso ability to pastiche other authors?
Alongside Proust’s Marranic style, there is the famous Saturday “dérogation hebdomadaire” (Du côté de chez Swann 109), which refers to the hidden ritual of Marranic Shabbatism. As Marranos were not allowed to celebrate Shabbat, they found a secret, discreet way to set this sacred day apart, wearing a new shirt, or eating something special. Similarly, Proust’s Saturdays are set apart from the other days of the week: “C’est ainsi que tous les samedis…le déjeuner était une heure plust tôt…Cette dérogation hebdomadaire….Cette avance du déjeuner donnait d’ailleurs au samedi une figure particulière…Le retour de ce samedi asymétrique était un des petits événements intérieurs…le plaisir d’éprouver la force de la solidarité…Si vous leur faisiez un beau morceau de veau, comme c’est samedi…le solei conscient que c’était samedi, flânait une heure de plus au haut du ciel” (109) People who did not recognize the particular quality of Saturday are called barbarians: “la surprise d’un barbare (nous appelions ainsi tous les gens qui ne savaient pas ce qu’avait de particulier le samedi” (110). In La Prisonnière, Proust continues to allude to the Jewish Shabbat as he writes: “Vous ne voulez pas venir dîner avec lui, Samedi par exemple, ou bien le jour que vous voudrez avec des gens gentils” (734). Saturday is not the day of the “gens gentils,” which may be inerpreted as not the day of the gentile, implying it is a special day for the Jews. All these seemingly unimportant details are in fact most revealing. They contribute to bring forth the awareness of difference, whilst masking or protecting the Jewish celebration of Shabbat. Thus, Proust’s Recherche may be appreciated as being both stylistically and thematically Marranic.