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    In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet, & Jew (Book Review)

    In the Context of His Times Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet, and JewIN THE CONTEXT OF HIS TIMES: ALFRED DREYFUS AS LOVER, INTELLECTUAL, POET AND JEW
    Norman Simms
    Academic Studies Press, 2013

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple published in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies (2013) 27.

    This is a remarkable, stimulating and indeed paradigmatic book. Don’t be put off by the heavy title, the untidy book cover and the sometimes tortuous writing style. The work is well worth reading and utterly absorbing.

    The author is a Jewish academic who was born and educated in the United States and lived most of his life in New Zealand. Unlike most of us, he has resisted the easy option of choosing conventional standards and positions. It might have made him pay a heavy price, but he has not allowed himself to be the mere product of a ready-made mould. He is who he is. That is an Imitatio Dei, since Godʼs self-description of Himself in Exodus 3:14 is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I am who I am”.

    Apart from developing and defending his own position in relation to a sheaf of intellectual issues – including “text and counter-text”/“text and anti-text”/“text and non-text”/”text and un-text” – Simms does not limit himself to academic analysis but engages in conversation, dialogue and debate with his readers. Hence a passage which he calls “A Dialogic Interruption” beginning on page 167 and involving “You” (the reader) and “Me” (the author) in blunt argument about whether the correct conclusion is that Simms is a midrashist whose book is a Midrash on who Alfred Dreyfus was – not the stiff, formal army officer whose fate was governed and regulated by external conditions, but a thinking and feeling individual who – especially in his prison cahiers – reflects and writes existentially.

    In the first book in Simmsʼ series on Dreyfus, the author addressed the accepted story of Dreyfus as “a historical man caught up in circumstances”. In the present work Dreyfus becomes a person. The bounds, bondage and biases of French society are not omitted, but the author looks at Dreyfus from within, a dimension that history tends to miss or dismiss. It is not a sort of snapshot frozen in time and place. Even that would have only limited value. It is said that the camera never lies, but it does – not just because the product of the camera can be and is manipulated so as to lose all or much credibility, but because the people who are pictured are rarely real people, but rather, just ciphers.

    What then do we discover about Dreyfus? A man who found release in meditating and writing; a largely idiosyncratic thinker, not one of the great philosophers of his own or any other time, but a shrewd and generally articulate observer on themes as diverse as art, music, poetry, drama, education, mathematics, science – even religion. He was aware of many of the intellectual and cultural movements of his time, though there were gaps in his cultural equipment. Unlike people who are in prison these days, he lacked access to a substantial prison library, but he could dredge up out of his memory and analyse many of the ideas, events and experiences he had encountered, and could read a range of magazines, for all that their paper was affected by the humid climate. Simms has succeeded in the task he set himself – “to tease (Dreyfus) out from his various writings” (302).

    These writings take two main forms – correspondence with his wife Lucie, which sometimes almost reaches a peak of quasi-intimate exchange, and his cahiers (prison notebooks) filled with both writing and doodling. Not all the cahiers survived: Dreyfus imposed a form of self-censorship on himself. Prison diaries of course have become a genre of literature, but these cahiers are more than diaries. Writing releases the soul of many people who are confined or constrained by circumstances, but these journals are not a form of writing for its own sake or even merely a means of escape from a state of rage and bewilderment.

    His wife had already had an influence on his cultural moulding, including a Jewish influence. During his incarceration she acted as a sort of research agent, trying to help him keep up with the latest cultural developments as well as responding to his ideas. Though Dreyfus had an array of languages, Simms is not certain whether he knew Hebrew to any extent or needed to rely on translations. It is likely that the latter is the case, since there is little direct use of Hebrew words in the cahiers.

    Simms himself possibly sees more Jewish elements in Dreyfusʼ thinking than were really there; we cannot be sure that the Jewish dimension (Judaism as an idea, not simply a sign of suffering) was really present in Dreyfusʼ mind even if Dreyfus suppressed it. When his comments seem to echo, for instance, a passage in Pirʼkei Avot or other rabbinic works, it may be more instinctive than derivative. Simms himself, however, occasionally comes up with significant chiddushim (originations), such as his point that avodah in Hebrew means both “work” and “religious worship”, leading him to comments on the spirituality of work which recall some of the early Zionist ideologues.

    One must add that Simms occasionally stumbles with his own transliterations from Hebrew, such as when he spells kohen as kohan, medabber as mʼdabar, gemara as gamorah, and mashal as mashol. He is not consistent with the final hey – e.g. Akedah (sometimes Aqedah) with an “h” but Shekhina without one. There are inconsistencies in the rendering of names, so that Michael Kaniel is also called Michael Koniel and Michale Korniel. These typos happen in English too, as on page 59 “damn” instead of “dam”. Talmudic references are not always given with care and consistency.

    To Simmsʼ credit, however, are his footnotes. Often extensive, they are highly stimulating and provocative and give the book an added quality. They reveal much about Dreyfus, but more about Simms himself.

    But Simms is not the subject of this review, Dreyfus is. Simms explains, if explanation were needed, that when the great catastrophe came upon Dreyfus, everything was “knocked off balance… All that he had faith in… failed him”. The national machinery of truth and justice supposedly whirled and ruled, but “this pretence at normality was madness pretending to be sanity”. No man is supposed to be an island, but Dreyfus – the “isolated Israelite” on an island – was one. Simms says the cahiers show that Dreyfus refused to believe that man is inherently evil and preferred what Simms calls “the midrashic concepts of zekhut”, the power of good deeds, though Dreyfus uses Christian rather than Jewish terminology. Presumably the censors would not want to read something that sounded too Jewish. But in any case the officials who had charge of him generally could not make sense of what he was doing, doodling, and writing, and thought he was insane.

    In one of the most provocative chapters of the book Simms suggests that Dreyfus may have had early autistic tendencies which the prisoner tried to keep at bay. His psychological state has interested many researchers though Simms remarks (but it could be disputed) that the “real” historians seem uninterested in peopleʼs emotions or mental state, and that, as far as they are concerned, events tend to occur in a “neutralized space”. This could never work with Dreyfus. In his case, he went from agony to ecstasy and back, a victim – “alone, silent and tortured” – as well as an observer. He oscillated, as the epilogue to the book remarks, between a being that was “a chaotic confusion of things” and a mind and soul that was “creative, poetic, and full of insight”.

    His writings often ponder education, partly because he fears for the moral training of his own children. Moral education, he believes, is always more important than simply learning facts and figures. His writing has a sober character, but at the same time the author indulges in flights of poetic fancy, especially because, after an initial period at least, he is denied the daily sights of nature. His romantic side brings out his yearning for his now somewhat idealised wife – a venture into another genre of writing: authors pondering their partners. These unrestrained poetic passages contrast with his precise mathematical formulae and thoughts on science (even photography and X-rays) – and of course his close analyses of literature and the arts. It is not surprising that he also devotes pages to military campaigns and political leaders. His essays, for that is how many of his writings ought to be described, are more than the rumblings of a sensitive soul: they are what Simms calls exercises in “mature and critical thought”.

    Jewishness, according to Simms, permeates his writing. At one point Dreyfus “bursts into his own all but explicit credo of Jewish faith”. What is this credo? That suffering “sharpens the mind, makes it acutely aware of what is valuable in the world, what is true and worth fighting for and loving”. Why Simms understands this as Jewish is because it impliedly rejects the Christian notion of suffering as “a humbling experience that prepares the humiliated soul to receive the unmerited grace of a divine messiah” (160). Dreyfus is once again writing as a Jew and taking a Jewish stance even if he does not know or express it as such. Without probably being aware of it, he seems to relive the experience of his ancestors in their years in the wilderness. Simms thinks that Dreyfus had a possibly solid Jewish base which he “normally and consciously wished to keep hidden”, and which needs to be teased out of the cahiers.

    It is no news to hear from Simms that this was a time when almost everyone in Europe was an antisemite. Strangely, Dreyfusʼ supporters seem oblivious to the problems of Jewish identity. Jewish Dreyfusards, including the family, rarely face up to their Jewishness; the non-Jews rarely acknowledge the dangers of the widespread anti-Jewish bias. All seem to see the affair in a different light, as a trial of truth, honour and freedom. Simms says he is sorry for them, especially since he himself is living and working in an era in which antisemitism is resurgent in Europe. Are the Europeans of a hundred and more years later replicating the tensions of the Dreyfus era, or has something changed in the nature of antisemitism and the human psyche? These are amongst the most searing questions that the book evokes, but Simmsʼ attempts at an answer do not completely satisfy us. Is it that prejudice is essentially irrational, with all that these words imply?

    Simms tells us he is not a (mere?) historian. But his book is historical nonetheless. It charts a dimension of the history of a key individual, and brings it into focus as a glaring chapter in the history of humankind. It gets into the mind of its subject. The book is not easy, but it is important. The author says it does not reach any conclusions. But it asks and analyses perceptive questions. And as Simms quite rightly says, it changes the conventional picture of Dreyfus. The discussion will continue in the third volume of the series.

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