Every Day a Dreyfus Affair
Art, Polarization, and the New “Both-Sidesism”
Don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, “What Is X?” featuring the critic and poet Ryan Ruby, talking about Criticism, and what it is. (The audio quality is horrible; the conversation is great.)
In the spring of 1991, the Romanian comparative-religionist Ioan Petru Culianu was shot to death while seated in a toilet stall near his office in Swift Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago. A single Winchester .25 bullet to the back of the head suggested the work of a trained assassin, who had swooped down upon him from over the wall of the neighboring stall like a hawk.
The FBI report on the murder was declassified in 2016. While most proper names are blacked out, the several documents it collates still manage to transmit a vivid picture of his life and times, and of the circumstances of his death. The murder remains unsolved, and already in the report we see an unusually thick fog of cluelessness hanging over its investigation. The efforts of the Chicago police detectives to make sense of Balkan politics and of the emerging post-communist order are predictably bone-headed, yet somehow valiant, mixing the high and the low of international intrigue and local color. We learn of one unnamed source, “contacted in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” who notes that Culianu had recently been “very outspoken about the repression in present Romania,” and in particular about the enduring power of the Ceaușescu-era secret police after the 1989 revolution. Another source, by contrast, says that “[h]e did not believe that the victim was shot over Romanian politics. Ioan didn’t seem to care anymore. [His] area of expertise is attractive to ‘wackos’. Some of the students are very bizarre.” In another place in the report a detective patiently listens to an unnamed source who “said he had never heard anyone accuse CULIANU of being a homosexual, however [REDACTED] said he could understand why CULIANU may have been accused of being a homosexual because CULIANU had a foreign accent.” The detective hastens to explain: “It is [REDACTED’S] belief that some people tend to associate those with foreign accents with homosexuality.”
Much of the report focuses on Culianu’s recent role in the recent visit to Chicago of King Michael I of Romania (also known as King Mihai I), who absconded from the throne unwillingly in 1947. We learn that when “[REDACTED] went to a commercial establishment near the University of Chicago named “JIMMY’S” a few days after the murder, this unnamed person “heard [REDACTED] say that when CULIANU was escorting KING MICHAEL around the Chicago area, a group of anti-monarchists and the King’s bodyguards drew weapons on each other near the Drake Hotel, although no shots were fired.” If it seems surprising that one might overhear a European king’s name in diner-booth conversation about a Chicago street brawl, it is worth noting that the deposed royal family of Romania was often, by force of circumstances, surprisingly down to earth, and often in a poignantly American way. In 2014, for example, Princess Irina, King Mihai’s daughter, was arrested in Coos County, Oregon, along with her husband John Wesley Walker, a former sheriff’s deputy, for her involvement in running a cockfighting ring.
Local press coverage of Culianu’s murder, much of which is included in the FBI file, gives significant voice to the Romanian émigré community in Chicago, and we are reminded that thirty years ago there were still many among them who had a living memory of the pre-communist period. A good number of these, in turn, had enduring sympathies for the fascist Garda de Fer [Iron Guard], which sowed significant chaos in Romanian politics in the inter-war period. In an article in Lingua Franca of January, 1992, Ted Anton quotes a Chicago source who had requested anonymity: “You have an archipelago of old but active fascist communities here.” One retired diner-owner presents himself as the Chicago-area representative of the Iron Guard, and boasts of having personally known the people who in December 1940 assassinated the great Romanian historian and monarchist Nicolae Iorga, who fell out of favor when Guard leader Ion Antonescu set up the National Legionary State in September of the same year. The elderly Chicago restaurateur reminisces of Iorga’s murder: “I only wish they had skinned him alive”.
But Chicago’s most prominent former associate of the Iron Guard was not in the restaurant business; he was rather Culianu’s own predecessor and mentor at the University of Chicago, the great comparative-religionist Mircea Eliade, who prior to his death in 1986 had long since renounced any fascist sympathies, without denying his relatively modest involvement in the Guard’s political wing in the inter-war years. Much of Culianu’s work in the final five years of his life sought to come to terms with the fascist legacy of his model and inspiration. At the same time, in the short period following the 1989 revolution —which led to the summary condemnation by a military tribunal and the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu on Christmas Day, now a scene repeated every year on Romanian TV as if it were a holiday tradition—, Culianu was very active in polemics against the new regime of Ion Iliescu, who rose to power after the Ceaușescus’ downfall and suppressed dissent much in the same vein as his predecessor had, most notably in the so-called ‘Mineriads’ of 1990, when Transylvanian miners were transported into Bucharest to suppress popular pro-democracy protests.
Unlike most other Eastern Bloc states, then, by 1990 there had been mostly a symbolic defenestration of the dictator, but no full-fledged regime change. The regime under Ceaușescu had also been singular in the region for its nearly total mobilization of the symbolism of communism in the service of autocratic tyranny, explicitly inspired by Kim Il-sung after Ceaușescu’s visit to this distant realm in 1971, and proudly continuous with earlier heroic moments in pre-communist Romanian history. Some years ago at the former ‘Palace of the People’ in Bucharest I saw a painting depicting Stefan cel Mare, the great fifteenth-century voivod and unifier of the Romanian lands, anointing a kneeling Ceaușescu with his sword. In Romania as in North Korea, communism had degenerated into something closer to dynastic feudalism, even if the dynasty in the Romanian case was retrieved from the Middle Ages rather than passed down from father to son.
Culianu, notwithstanding his long career as a withdrawn scholar of arcane —indeed ‘wacko’— topics (tantric sex, magic, the occult), became increasingly engaged, from his position in exile in Chicago, in dissident Romanian circles. He was not the most famous dissident by any means, but a common theory as to why he might have been targeted is precisely that by eliminating a relatively obscure academic, and doing so on the ‘safe’ territory of his campus, one sends a much stronger message than one would by murdering a top dissident who might actually have a role in a future governing party. Yet if we eliminate the speculations of those few who say the murder had more to do with Culianu’s occult activities than his political engagement, there is still the question of whether the assassin was working for the Securitate or rather was recruited from the dregs of the Chicago Iron Guard community. It is also possible that the assassination was a collaborative effort of the two parties, with money wired and laundered and delivered to a naturalized US citizen doing the work of a foreign state.
Another intriguing element of Culianu’s FBI file is the affidavit he submitted along with his immigration papers upon arrival in the US, explaining why he had briefly been a member of the Romanian Communist Party prior to gaining political asylum in Italy in 1972. As he tells it, he was always philosophically committed to liberalism, but was coerced into party membership as a condition of his ability to teach and to study at the University of Bucharest. He dutifully attended meetings once a month, as required. “Yet, during most of those meetings,” he writes in the affidavit, “I would study the Sanskrit language out of a very large Sanskrit-English dictionary and would barely pay any attention to the meeting.”
This is a sensitive topic for me. Although the murder happened more than thirty years ago, I can very easily come up with a list of a half-dozen or so people in my life with a direct connection to Culianu. I find, as I write, that it is too close for me easily to find the right key, to write dispassionately as one always should, but without the frigidity that would be unworthy of someone I feel I could easily have known personally, if things had turned out just a bit differently. A proper profile of Culianu would have to say a good deal more about his actual work, notably his 1987 Sorbonne dissertation, Recherches sur les dualismes d’Occident, his ingenious Eco-esque historical fictions, his political allegories, and his many contributions to thinking about human creativity and the astounding range of cultural inflections of the human imagination. I will attempt this in the future; for now, others have already done so (including Umberto Eco, as well as Wendy Doniger and many others), though often this has been in the vein of eulogy. And in Culianu’s case, eulogy, even coming from his friends, slides easily into the sensationalist tone of true-crime reportage.
Today, anyhow, what interests me is the model Culianu provides of a certain form of life: the life that is political even in its insistence on carving out and preserving a space —you might call it a ‘sacred’ space— for the non-political. However much we today dismiss ‘horseshoe’ theories of ideology as a midwit dodge, it was a simple and obvious fact that the fascists and the communists made life difficult for many people in the twentieth century in truly convergent ways, that their symbolism, tactics, and even membership were drawn from a common reserve (King Mihai himself switched sides from the Axis to the Allies only in 1944, participating in a coup against the fascist dictator Antonescu whom he had previously enabled — perhaps this was after suffering a pang of conscience, but surely the king also noticed which way the wind was blowing), and that the most natural and principled expression of protest against either of them was not to express convictions of the opposite kind, but rather to bury your nose in your Sanskrit dictionary and to say to hell with you all.
Is that, perhaps, what is meant by ‘liberalism’? The freedom to retreat into dusty books, just because they call out to you, and in the service of no cause? Is this the ‘liberal studies’ that a place like the University of Chicago is supposed to foster, but that the communist-era University of Bucharest had made impossible with its subordination to party directives? Or, as the progressive left never tires of insisting, is liberalism, in both its humanistic and its more overtly political inflections, always at best an unwitting toleration of the conditions that lead to fascism, and at worst an active promoter of these conditions? And could the porous boundary between the two be any more vividly illustrated than at Chicago, where free-market economists helped to conjure the justification for a repressive right-wing dictatorship in South America, and where a former member of the political wing of the Garda de Fer fostered the sort of scholarly work on yoga and tantric sex that would appear as if custom-designed for Americans shaped by the free-love revolution, soon to be fully marketized, of the 1960s? The Mircea Eliade Chair in Comparative Religion would be filled for many years after its namesake’s death by Wendy Doniger, whose work on the erotic practices of Hindus in centuries past would in turn enflame the anger of the Hindutva fascists in India. The world just keeps spinning, and liberalism and fascism, it seems, just keep bumping against one another, now complementary, now opposed.
There are of course many reasons why one might end up learning a bit of Sanskrit. In Sodome et Gomorrhe, volume 4 of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, we are invited to imagine some ragged man off the quai de la Seine, “pretending to be interested, but only for a material benefit, like those who, at the Collège de France, in the lecture-hall where the professor of Sanskrit speaks without an audience, go to listen to the course, but only in order to keep warm.” As both Culianu and Proust understand, Sanskrit, at least as the preserve of world-renouncing philologists if not as the holy language of Hinduism, is good for a laugh.
Proust invokes this image of the nearly empty lecture-hall in the course of a rather delirious excursus, with which he begins Sodome et Gomorrhe and which he loosely derives from Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s equally delirious Psychopathologia Sexualis of 1886, on the analogies between homosexual —or ‘inverted’— desire, and the extravagant reproductive mechanisms observable in the plant world. As I advance through À la recherche (and let today’s essay count as the third of the seven installments I have promised on Proust), I am surprised at how much of the novel is taken up with the themes of ‘inversion’, and of Judaism, and of the possible analogies between the two. Thus for example the opening of Sodome et Gomorrhe advises against a form of gay Zionism, where a sexual minority would emulate the assertion of collective political will on the model of a religious minority, in order to establish its own homeland, a modern-day ‘Sodom’. Proust believes that the joy of inversion is intrinsically tied to its invisible integration into the norms and values of the sexual majority, its operation ‘on the down-low’ (not his term).
This idea might reveal something about the picture Proust offers of the place of Jews in France. Of partially Jewish descent himself, he often describes his own facial profile as ‘Assyrian’, and wished expressly for this aspect of his identity to be captured in the death-bed photograph of his bearded face taken by Man Ray (1922). Proust is aggressively Orientalist in his portrayal of Jews as a desert tribe inherently out of place in Europe, even after all these centuries of coexistence. He is also fascinated by the process of integration of Jews in French society, or more precisely into ‘le monde’, which is to say high society, the aristocratic salons where they are never more than provisionally welcome.
I have previously written, against Maxim Gorky’s dim view of Proust as a fawning lackey of the decadent aristocracy, that in fact what makes À la recherche so compelling is the perfect unflinching poker-face its author maintains in the salons. He is not there to fawn or to condemn, but only to portray, as an artist who answers to the highest calling of art must faithfully do. Yet over the course of volume 3, Le côté de Guermantes, and the grueling hundreds of pages of causerie in the salon of the Princesse de Guermantes, I could not help but start to see Proust’s work as satirical, deconstructive. Even if he remained faithful to the calling of verisimilitudinous portraiture, the simple choice of subject matter —the decadent aristocracy— in itself ensured that portrayal would end up indistinguishable from exposure, that to show is to show as fraudulent, as hypocritical, as better off gone from this world.
The occasion for this transformation of my way of seeing was Proust’s treatment in these two volumes of the Dreyfus affair, which lasted from 1894, when the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly convicted of treason, to 1906, when he was partially rehabilitated. The salon visits Proust recounts occur during this period, and the affair runs as one of the key leitmotifs through volumes 3 and 4 of À la recherche. Part of the genius of volume 3 is its marathon quality: over hundreds of pages, trapped in the princess’s salon, hearing all the vapid talk and witnessing all the futile social jockeying, one is put in mind of one of Luis Buñuel’s nightmare cinematic depictions of eternal return. The narrator’s friend Bloch, in particular, present at the salon with his Jewishness constantly accentuated, seems to bear full responsibility for the success or failure of assimilation, and with his coarse manner, on Proust’s telling, seems hardly up to the job. But it is only when we are finally released from the princess’s grip, and we return again to her brother-and-sister-in-law the Duke and Duchess de Guermantes, that the full tragedy begins to unfold.
Charles Swann has arrived for a visit. He is mortally ill with an unnamed disease, and declares that he has only a few months to live. The Guermantes have recently been apprised of Swann’s dreyfusard convictions, and are accordingly making an effort to distance themselves from their longtime friend. Having represented for them, as a refined aesthete and master of social protocols, the pinnacle of successful Jewish assimilation, he now represents assimilation’s limits. The couple’s strategy is simply to pretend they have not heard him announcing his impending death, and instead to chatter about what they should wear that evening when out in le monde, whether the duchess’s black shoes go with her red dress, and once again, also, to return to the endless topic of Guermantes family genealogy, and of who they are related to, and how exactly, across the noble families of Europe.
It’s when the conversation turns in this direction that a distinct heart-of-darkness feeling begins to loom, or something like the terrifying and surreal scene of the papal fashion show in Fellini’s Roma, where the true nature of the thing one had until now only partially understood makes itself known. Husband and wife are particularly captivated by reminders of their own family’s Germanness, by all of the von particles and Graf titles among their cousins and uncles. This fascination is of course a reflection backwards in time, toward the mythology of the forging of the French national identity out of a Germanic Frankish nobility ruling over Gaulic commoners. But it is of course difficult not to read it as an anticipation of what’s to come too, of Vichy, of post-war French philosophy’s laundering of Heidegger’s legacy in a European political context where philosophy in Germany itself could no longer be pursued as a distinctly national project, as the unfolding of spirit along national lines. There’s definitely a European ‘spirit’ in the Guermantes’ chatter — transnational in its way, but no less chauvinistic for that. Swann the Jew, meanwhile, stands there politely listening to it, unrecognized and dying.
The aristocratic excuse-making for antidreyfusisme, in spite of all the patent evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, continues in Sodome et Gomorrhe. Robert de Saint-Loup, the narrator’s closest friend from the Guermantes clan, who dabbles in bohemianism, who reads Proudhon and Nietzsche, and who had initially been a committed dreyfusard, ends up declaring, when he begins to fear that his membership at the Jockey Club may be at stake, that he really should not have got mixed up in the debate in the first place, that it was all over his head. But the most cowardly rationalizations for the betrayal of Swann are offered up by the Duc de Guermantes early in volume 4:
As far as Swann is concerned, I can honestly say that his conduct towards us has been unjustifiable. Having been sponsored in le monde by us, by the Duc de Chartres, I’m told that he is openly a dreyfusard. I would never have believed this of him, a fine gourmet, a positive spirit, a collector, a lover of old books, a member of the Jockey Club, a man surrounded by broad esteem, a connoisseur of the right adresses, who sent us the best porto one can drink, an aesthete, a family man. Oh! was I ever wrong.
The duke then gives voice to a classic expression of the “divided loyalty” accusation that might today be heard from a partisan of Éric Zemmour, though now retargeted to French Muslims. He mentions a foreign prince who has expressed sympathies for Dreyfus, and explains:
I don’t care at all whether he is a dreyfusard or not, since he’s a foreigner… For a French person it’s another matter. It is true that Swann is Jewish. But until now… I had the weakness of believing that a Jew could be French, by which I mean an honorable Jew, a man of the world. Now Swann is that in the full sense of the term. And well! He’s forced me to see that I was wrong.
There is no question here but that Proust himself takes these characters to be rotten, wants to show them as rotten, and that although Proust is no Marxist he certainly takes their rottenness to be ‘structural’, to flow from their inevitable identification with their social positions and their adherence to whatever line follows from this. In this light Saint-Loup’s dabbling in Proudhon, in particular, turns out to be only a superficial distraction, a sort of slumming that gives a frisson but changes nothing.
There can never be anything more than contextual cues to tell us whether a person’s immersion in books is a cowardly evasion of politics, or a brave resistance to politics, as I have characterized the ‘force-field’ of Sanskrit with which Culianu equipped himself at meetings of his communist party cell.
In a very interesting recent article, Eskil Elling discusses Thomas Mann’s 1918 book, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. The German author had insisted on what he called “the unpoliticizability of the absolute”, and maintained that his task as an author was precisely to orbit around and to approach the absolute. This is in part just a grandiose way of expressing what is at least meant to be a compassionate love of humanity. Reflections can be read, Elling notes, “as an argument for a kind of radical compassion, an acceptance that real people are rarely ideal political subjects, and that this constitutes not just our deficiency but our most important virtue.” To this extent, some authors, including Mark Lilla, have taken Mann as anticipating arguments against the contemporary culture of cancellation that dominates social media.
It’s worth noting that Mann was not alone in inter-war Germany in his effort to keep politics at a distance; one might also cite the more extreme case of the great poet Stefan George, devotee of Mallarmé, mentor to Hitler’s would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, and promoter of the school of reiner Ästhetizismus, pure aestheticism, which celebrated a cult of beauty, and particularly of male physical beauty —and more particularly of the male physical beauty of his own followers—, in a way that seemed to some of the Nazis in the 1930s to be in harmony with their own aesthetics. Nazi aesthetics, in turn, was of course both subordinate to and inseparable from their politics. Thus George had them well set up for disappointment when, like some haughty self-contented Charlus, he scoffingly dismissed their overtures and invitations to mobilize his poetry explicitly for the Nazi cause.
George’s disdain flowed from his commitment to non-politics, but it had a political impact because his species of non-politics had appeared outwardly to be so close to the dominant current of political aesthetics. By the 1930s, by contrast, Thomas Mann’s more humanistic and ‘decent’ non-politics had curdled into something that looks a lot like cowardice — it was not until 19361 that he first began publicly to acknowledge what could only have been obvious: that the Nazis’ rise was unfortunate, and incompatible with the cultivation of “our most important virtue.” Here, again, one is struck by how differently non-political stances ‘hit’, as they say in social media, depending on nuances of style that it is the purview of aesthetics to isolate and interpret.
This observation will itself ‘hit different’ in the era of social media, which is at bottom an engine for the daily production of new miniature Dreyfus affairs. This engine is fueled by the internalized expectation among users that if they do not take a stand on every issue that floats across their screen, this will be a sign, perhaps to themselves but more dangerously to others, that they are as cowardly and craven as the Duc de Guermantes. In the ‘cringier’ corners of Facebook (this kind of statement is probably too unsophisticated to be given voice on Twitter), you may well see a copypasta’d meme reminding you: “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.” But is there any surer sign that you’re “falling for anything” than the fact that you’ve just “stood for something” only in order to escape the vacuum of such a fall? And isn’t your stance that much more likely to be a vacuous one when you have been incited to take it by an engine that needs people to keep taking stances in order, itself, to keep running?
Under these conditions, it is inevitable that both-sidesism, with all its attractions and dangers, will make a return. In the twentieth century the position was a liberal one, motivated by a rejection of totalitarian extremes at both ends of the political spectrum. For some liberals this was an easy way out of real political commitment, while for others, notably Culianu, communism and fascism really were twin menaces, which in his country’s history really did cross-pollinate in signficant and trackable ways. Today, however, both-sidesism might also be the justified position of any lucid analyst of our new communication technologies, and of the way they structure political debate as an automated process of algorithmic polarization. Under these conditions, both-sidesism might well be taken up by someone who is critical of the limits of liberalism, particularly where liberalism militates in favor of unregulated markets, and who sees our techno-political conjuncture itself precisely as a product of this sort of liberalism.
At this conjuncture, taking to Twitter to assert one’s antifascist bona-fides is just as futile as studying Sanskrit in resistance to authoritarian communism. Just as futile, and a lot less interesting.
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