The Genius of Judaism

Bernard-Henri Lévy

January 10, 2017 
The following is from Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book, The Genius of Judaism. Lévy’ is a French public intellectual, media personality, and was one of the leaders of the "Nouveaux Philosophes" movement in 1976. He is the author of more than 30 books, including works of philosophy, fiction, and biography. American Vertigo was a New York Times bestseller (2006). Subsequent books in English are Left in Dark Times and Public Enemies (2011).

Jewish like Marcel Proust

I turn now to a third moment, one that occurred much later.

That moment was the crisis and rebuilding of French literature at the dawn of modernity.

A crisis of poetry, says Mallarmé, while he is busy blowing it up from within in a terrorist act not unlike the acts of the real terrorists, or at least the accused terrorists, whom he defends before the court.

Magnificent language, but mineral, dried from the inside out, standing on the edge of silence and resting there for twenty years with Paul Valéry, the survivor of the Mallarméan shipwreck.

Dada came along soon after, followed by the Surrealists, dancing on the ruins and destroying the last pillars of what was once, of all the languages of Europe, the most suave and measured, the most virtuoso and velvety, the best suited to the metaphysics of love and the love of metaphysics: a play of mirrors and cut-glass flasks, rigor, and waltzing, the adventure of clarity and of sentences without end, a fantastical, fatal swirling that was suddenly frozen in place.

Here is Lautréamont and his farces, his clever parodies, his love of exaggeration and collage, his dislocated, frazzled writing, sabotaged from within, rhetoric destroyed by rhetoric, literature by literature, the pirate and vandal in his personality.

And Rimbaud, who fell silent.

And Baudelaire, who, in another way, fell silent, as well. Raymond Roussel and his vertigo.

* * * *

Elsewhere, as the mighty tire, so many self-important little writers and big novels in the manner of Paul Bourget.

In music, in painting, the sublime but equally vertiginous moment of impressionism. For what were its practitioners doing except making light from nothing? Color from the nothingness of light? Form, matter, and even life from the insubstantial scent of lilacs, opacity as flimsy as fog, reflections from an impression that has already disappeared?

And then a clap of thunder, a shock wave that shook the depths of that dying language. From an impressionist, in fact, a literary contemporary of the insubstantiality that was haunting the festivals of light of poetry, music, and painting. Except this other impressionist genius, this Pissarro with a pen, this literary painter who placed his lily pads in the ponds formed by the Vivonne, this brother of Debussy who transformed into a symphonic and aquatic poem the empty gulf that had opened under the feet of his era, turned out to be Jewish. He would use his Jewish being as a powerful lever with which to raise the French language.

I know that Proustians do not like to hear the author referred to, bluntly, as “Marcel Proust, the Jew.”

I am aware of the many works that have disputed, from the outset, that the revolution in the novel that bears Proust’s name had anything at all to do with his being Jewish.

And I am not unaware of the writings in which Proust himself heavily emphasized the (relative) complexity of his genealogy (Jewish mother but Catholic father and brother, as he notes drolly in a letter to Montesquiou dated May 19, 1896) and complained, in a letter to Robert Dreyfus, that Drumont’s La Libre Parole was wrong to include him among the “young Jews” who “despise Barrès” (although he goes on immediately to say: “to correct the story, I would have had to say that I was not Jewish and did not want to be”—in other words, in substance, I refused to call for a correction, preferring instead to be called a Jew, and chose not to deny my Jewish side).

Except that In Search of Lost Time is strewn with countless Jewish clues and slips.

There are the Saturday luncheons in Combray that bring Françoise to “tears of merriment” when a “nonplussed visitor” arrives “who was not acquainted with Saturday’s special customs” in the narrator’s family.

And another sequence in which Françoise demonstrates that she possesses “for things which might or might not be done . . . a code at once imperious, abundant, subtle, and uncompromising on points themselves imperceptible or irrelevant,” but recalling “those ancient laws” that forbid “ ‘seething the kid in his mother’s milk’ or ‘eating of the sinew which is upon the hollow of the thigh.’ ”

And the many explicit references to the “racial eczema” of Gilberte’s father and his consumption of “gingerbread” because he suffered from “the constipation of the prophets.”

And the appearance, as the narrator’s grandmother is dying, of the cousin who was referred to “by another set” as “no flowers [or wreaths] by request,” a thinly veiled reference to the sobriety of Jewish grieving rituals.

And the quasi-Talmudic dissection of the name of Swann and that of Madame de Marsantes, where The Guermantes Way insists on “Mater Semita” instead of the simpler and more obvious “Mater Sancta.”

On the border between the work and the life stands the formidable person of Madame Proust, Marcel’s mother, whose maiden name was Weil and whose great-great-grandfather was a rabbi. At his mother’s funeral, as we know from the archives of the Consistory, Marcel insisted on the recitation, before the high society of Paris, the Montesquious, the Albuferas, the Grouchys, and the Abel Hermants, of the traditional prayer for the dead.

There is that “charge of fuel and anger,” described in a 1908 letter to Madame Straus, that makes him want to pen a vengeful article denouncing the historian and Byzantine scholar Gustave Schlumberger, who was anti-Dreyfus and violently anti-Semitic, a sort of “prehistoric buffalo, with his patriotic mustaches, shy and blushing in front of all the converts of the Haber and Heine families.” As for the vengeful article, the ratio of forces in the literary society of the time was such that he decided not to write it. Instead, he recycled the “fuel” behind it into In Search of Lost Time. But that cold anger, that frustrated rage: Who can doubt that they were those of a Jew genuinely offended by the spectacle of a triumphal villain evading punishment, at least for the time being?

Beyond the clues in the work and in the life, we know that he was a reader of the Zohar: “See the Zohar,” he records in one of the note- books that are the diary of his creation; “see the Zohar,” he writes, to learn how to “break the spell that holds things prisoner,” to “haul them close to us,” and “keep them from falling back forever into nothingness.” One thinks, he is thinking, he cannot not be thinking, when writing that, of the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, of his theory of the sparks bottled up in the earth’s crust and of their rise and redemption in the messianic light of intelligence, which is the only thing that can check the enchanted nothingness that is evil.

No less important is Proust’s manner of being; his way of viewing the world; his distance from the social and from himself; his essential non-adaptation, of which I have always thought inwardness, illness, and suffocation to be merely phenomenal manifestations.

There is the evidence of Proust’s inner exile, the sense of being outside the world, that struck all of his contemporaries and that I cannot but believe were part of the adventure of body and soul that Judaism was for him.

How, then, can we avoid forming the hypothesis that this Proustian exteriority, Proust’s recognition in himself of the element of foreignness and uncenteredness, this incapacity, as Sartre would say, to occupy a condition that is a hallmark of Judaism (including that of “being a Jew”); how can we avoid forming the hypothesis that this description of man unbound from the order of time that is the great Proustian hypothesis but that is also, word for word, the description of man living the life of the “world to come,” which one finds throughout classic Jewish thought and in the idea, central to that tradition, of the possibility of transcending time and space; how can we avoid the conclusion that all this will become, through In Search of Lost Time, the miraculous tool that will permit the French language to free itself from itself, to shed the weight of nothingness that was silencing its best writers, and to become again the cutting-edge laboratory of intelligence that it had been for so long?

Every nation, especially the oldest one in Christian Europe, is secretly undermined by the dark nature of its beginnings.

All are gnawed by the gaping void in the dead body of the hallowed ground under their feet, ground seemingly solid but forming, in fact, a delta of shadows.

Like the others, perhaps more than any other, France was and remains menaced by the dark, morbid, and occasionally bloody passion of its champions, whether nasty pieces of work, like Barrès, or good men, such as Péguy, overtaken by the effects of that primitive language that they attribute to the soil and of which they become the bards.

I like to think that the power to steer clear of those shadows depended on the rejuvenating bath of exile, the proclivity toward self- alienation and gradual withdrawal, the love of words conceived as an unending adventure of the spirit that Proust practiced, as prescribed by the Talmudic sages, up to the last day of his life. That power and that practice draw on both angel and pariah, the man yearning for the angelic as well as the pariah status that are the two faces of Jewish being and also the two faces of the author of In Search of Lost Time.

Céline, whose character in Journey to the End of Night sees in Proust’s long story no more than a “diluent futility” of “rituals and motions that wrap themselves around worldly people,” empty beings, “ghosts of desires, irresolute smut-fingering seekers always awaiting their Watteau,” comes finally to understand (as expressed in a letter to Lucien Combelle in 1943) that In Search of Lost Time, with its “jumbled mosaic,” its “tortuous” and “arabescoid” phrasing, and the “drape of tulle and impeccable iridescent polish” that creates its “poetry,” is “designed” and “built” like a Talmud.

The same goes for Paul Morand, another notorious anti-Semite  who also recognized, almost immediately, the astonishing genius of writing that was (pay close attention; these are words that he used much later in Le Visiteur du soir) “singing, precise to a fault, reasonable, responsive to objections that one had not yet thought to make, honest in raising unforeseen difficulties, subtle in its insights and twists, stunning in the asides that hold it up like air in a balloon, dizzying in its length, surprising in its assurance couched as deference, and well constructed despite its rambles,” writing that “sheathed you in a web of incidents so enmeshed that one would be lulled by its music if one were not suddenly arrested by an expression of unprecedented depth or comic brilliance.”

And the same, too, for his models (the Sagans, Polignacs, Montesquious, the countesses of Chevigné and Caraman-Chimay, Henry de Breteuil, and General de Galliffet): I am not at all persuaded that they “underestimated,” as it is always said, this droll character with the fly’s gaze and the disturbingly exquisite manners whom they found haunting their parties and conversations. And, even when they did underestimate him, when they were slow to see in him anything but a snob, a sponger, an eccentric fascinated with the Jockey Club, prone to spying on duchesses through the keyhole of their salons, they were quick to discover, upon reading him, not pain but pleasure!

Because in the end here is a little Jew who offers them the incredible gift of giving flesh and blood to their family names; to their escutcheons and coats of arms; to their graceless mansions; to their churches in Normandy, about which all that they have heard lately is that their neglect is a “great pity” (Barrès, again); to their deep, flat lands no longer fit (according to the Charles Péguy of Présentation de la Beauce à Notre-Dame de Chartres) for anything more than burying beneath their “heavy sheet” those who have died or are going to die; to the great families of France’s history who no longer believe in themselves and their prestige; to the steeples of Martinville, to the slopes of Méséglise and Roussainville: in short, to these “place names” that he has just cloaked in a splendor of which the aristocrats of recent vintage have lost even the memory.

Here, as Levinas would say, is a “Sunday Talmudist.” Though there is certainly no indication that he was familiar with the Talmud (unlike with the Zohar), Proust was haunted by the existence, the principle, and the construction of this Talmudic book whose essence Levinas described, in surprisingly Proustian terms, as being not so much “analysis of the Word” but the “association of one biblical ‘landscape’ with another so as to release through the pairing the secret scent of the first.” And he wound up creating a Talmud out of landscapes dear to his characters, out of their scents and their clandestine rites, out of Roussainville imagined as Sodom, out of Illiers transmuted into a fragile Combray, or (and these are Levinas’s words) out of the “nobility without Versailles” that was henceforth the nobles’ lot and for whom he was the Hebraic Saint-Simon.

That Proust’s feat has another, hidden dimension—that his aristocratic figures are often, and as if by chance, born Rothschild, Halévy, Lippmann, Singer, or Wiener, that Robert de Montesquiou, one of the keys to Charlus, may have been the lover of Charles Haas; that the models for the Guermantes are all half-Jewish in the mind of author and narrator, socially or romantically linked to some of the most prominent Jewish figures in Paris at the time; that they make up what Proust’s biographer George Painter calls a “semi-Gotha” that always finds that “Israel” (the last word is Proust’s in a letter to Lionel Hauser) is “the source” of its “fortunes”; in short that the names from In Search of Lost Time are stand-ins for Jewish names, just as Jacques du Rozier conceals Albert Bloch—is also true and can only confirm, even to the most skeptical eye, the Jewish (and even Kabbalistic) subconsciousness of the great work of Marcel Proust. As always with Mar- rano gestures, the obviousness escaped Proust’s contemporaries, who saw only the flash and marveled at the strange and fabulous mirror that Search offered France.

A Gemara of place names.

A Mishnah of a Faubourg Saint-Germain completing its passage, prefigured by Chateaubriand, from the age of “superiorities” through that of “privileges” to that of “vanities.”

The equivalent of Rashi’s book but in which—in a gesture symmetrical to that of the Prince de Ligne, who, in his Mémoires sur les Juifs, elevated the great Israelites to the highest ranks of the aristocracy, or  to that of Chateaubriand, who made them, in his Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, the spiritual brothers of the dispossessed, decimated nobility that littered the routes of Europe and of which he was a  survivor—theseigneury ofthe VilleparisisandMontmorencys, the Saint-Euvertes and Cambremers, would be substituted for that of the Hillels and Shammai, Simeon ben Gamliel and Johanan ben Zakai, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos and Rabbi Jose the Galilean.

Here is a captive Jew but a Jew all the same, who, in The Guermantes Way, pens an extraordinary sentence that could have been pulled straight out of the Kabbalah of Chaim of Volozhin, to the effect that the world “was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born.”

Here is a secret but lucid Jew who, at a time when Paul Valéry, then so quintessentially French, is writing that “the Jews have no art,” reinvents, in the language of classical clarity and simplicity in which France had known its glory but that had dried up, another way, a new sinuousness, an associational and analytical liberty suddenly multiplied tenfold, an art of splitting hairs that boosted and revived the intelligence of which that language is so eminently capable but was in the process of forgetting.

Modern American English has Faulkner. British English has James Joyce.

German has Musil, Mann, and, soon, Kafka. Italian has had Dante and Spain Cervantes. And French has Marcel Proust.

To free it from a fate exemplified by the dry destiny of André Gide, it has a reader of the Zohar, the descendent of an Alsatian rabbi.

And for French to be reborn from the fine ash that falls over every language, the nation needed an oddball whom the other great twentieth-century reinventor of the language, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, thought wrote in a “convoluted Franco-Yiddish,” though he could not refrain from noting, in the same letter, that to find French to match it one had to “go back to the Merovingians,” a tribute all the more resounding for being involuntary!

Twentieth-century France will have other great authors, of course. And I am not saying that the history of French can be reduced to this confrontation between a tacit Jew and an impenitent anti-Semite.

What I am doing is exploring the mechanics of words.

Of interest to me are the physics, chemistry, and hydraulics that make it possible for a language whose wellspring appeared to be on the point of drying up to reemerge as the great rushing river, the Nile, the Niagara that is every living language.

I am saying that it took those two, Céline and Proust—but first and foremost Marcel Proust—to get it done.

I am watching him, too.

He moves about, and travels, in his real country and his real landscapes.

He avenges the censure of Baudelaire through his Contre Sainte-Beuve.

He venerates Mallarmé and his manner of “solemnizing life”—his letters to Reynaldo Hahn attest to this admiration.

He observes from a distance the curious Mr. Valéry, who, like himself, sees psychology as a geometry of time.

He does not mention Rimbaud but remembers, in his Combray walks, the “lake that goes up” and the “cathedral that goes down” from Rimbaud’s “Childhood.”

He greets Raymond Roussel and asks about Lautréamont.

He does not participate in the Dada–Surrealist fracas that, to judge from the letter to Gaston Gallimard in which he upbraids “the charming dada” who “revised the proofs” of The Guermantes Way and substituted “Bergson” wherever he had written “Bergotte” (his name escapes me, he wrote, “out of momentary amnesia”—but it was certainly André Breton), succeeds in penetrating the hermetically sealed windows of his room on the Rue Hamelin.

He forgets nothing but reinvents everything.

While in no way repudiating the deserts through which his language has passed, he rehydrates them, irrigates them—one wants to say that he lays down new nerves and blood vessels.

And that is why I assert that if there are still French poets, novelists, and rhetoricians—and even, amid the ambient noise, an audience for them—we owe that to a phantom Jew, to that third phantom Jew and phantom self; we owe it to a Jew so profoundly Jewish that he did not even have to identify, like Pascal, with the carnal Jew or, like the Racine of Esther and Athalie, whom he so admired, to create choruses in imitation of the Psalms of David, to give a great boost to the language handed down to him from the seventeenth century, to resuscitate the art of the novel that Flaubert had condemned in reaching his conclusion about the irremediable stupidity of humanity in general and the French in particular—and to bring about the greatest revolution in the French language since the invention of classicism.



From THE GENIUS OF JUDAISM by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Copyright © 2017 by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved.

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