An Affair to Remember

Book cover
Dreyfusby By Ruth HarrisMetropolitan Books. 560p $35

Although the Dreyfus Affair may be unfamiliar to some Americans, it was a vital moment in French history, and its significance for modern Catholicism cannot be overstated. The court-martial in 1894-95 of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, and his imprisonment on Devil’s Island inaugurated an era of intensified Catholic-Republican strife. Rage against Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction and right-wing anti-Semitism would lead to political victories for a unified left.

These in turn enabled the passage of anticlerical legislation between 1901 and 1905 that radically transformed the face of the Catholic Church in France: religious orders were expelled, Catholic schools were closed, diplomatic relations with the Vatican were severed and church and state were divorced. In several ways, the affair raised questions that would find resolution for Catholics only a half-century later at the Second Vatican Council: the legitimacy of democracy, affirmation of religious liberty and the condemnation of anti-Semitism.


Ruth Harris’s contribution to the vast bibliography of the affair is both deeply engaging and highly original. She has self-consciously taken the standard melodramatic narrative (which she herself learned as a child in Hebrew school) and transformed its stock figures—virtuous “seculars” and villainous “Catholics”—into rounded complex characters. In her version, campaigners’ loyalties, both pro- and anti-Dreyfusard, were not determined in advance. Rather, contingent factors, conflicting motives and carefully calculated choices all played their parts. Just as there were no monolithic “seculars,” so too there were no monolithic “Catholics.”

By patiently unraveling and laying out the pieces of a vast fin-de-siècle tapestry, Harris tells at least three new stories. The first blurs the divide between “science” and the “irrational.” In the conventional account, Dreyfusards were politically active “intellectuals” (an appellation they themselves invented), largely occupying positions in academic natural and social science departments, rationally battling the irrational forces of superstitious and largely Catholic “anti-intellectuals.” Extending insights that already appeared in her book Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (1999), Harris revises this account and shows that the divide was hardly so distinct. Both sides embraced evolution, both were fascinated by myth, magic, spiritualism and the occult, and both engaged the role of the “unconscious” in mass politics.

A second new story unfolds as Harris explores the “history of emotions,” a return to the “seemingly inchoate world of feeling that is difficult to interpret.” Although the Dreyfus Affair has been typically portrayed as the inevitable and necessary triumph of dispassionate reason over superstition, it was in fact nothing if not the quintessential history of rage, a case study in what Freud termed the “narcissism of marginal difference.” Harris’s earlier work on fin-de-siècle Murders and Madness (1989) assists here as she assembles a panoply of prejudices, deep-seated fears and other violent impulses. Feelings also played constructive roles, including the affectionate friendships that forged the Dreyfusard coalition. Among the most poignant episodes is the tragically bitter and rancorous unraveling of this coalition. The affair dragged on, idealized infatuations wore thin and deep-seated differences cracked open beneath the surface of solidarity.

Finally, a third story blurs boundaries between religion and “modernity.” Standard accounts over the past century have portrayed the affair as an archetypal moment in and a master script of the secularization process. By contrast, Harris’s account is more adequate to our present sensibilities, a scholarly reconsideration informed by religion’s resurgence in the public sphere since at least 1979. As both Dreyfusards and their opponents “borrowed across the science/religion divide,” the affair now suggests not so much religion’s marginalization as its pervasiveness around 1900. In retrospect, religion played an integral role in the context of “modernity.”

In her preface, Harris acknowledges that not all readers will embrace this revision. She reports that as her investigation proceeded, she became aware she would “transgress taboos by examining the impact of Dreyfusard anti-Semitism on the Affair and for highlighting the way some Dreyfusards came to promote a repressive vision of Republican orthodoxy.” Harris’s esteem for the Dreyfusards is not diminished; nor does she downplay their painful experience. However, she suggests that it led them to compromise their own Enlightenment and Liberal humanitarian ideals. The anti-clerical campaigns and construction of the radically laicist state thus appear not as the moral triumph of reason and “modernity” but as ideological intolerance and a desire to persecute.

In her epilogue, and more extensively in a recent essay (“How the Dreyfus Affair Explains Sarkozy’s Burqa Ban,” Foreign Policy, 5/12) that has stirred considerable debate on the Internet, Harris applies her interpretation to France’s current debates over Muslim women’s wearing of the burqa. She sees in desires to ban the burqa not so much an application of Enlightenment universalism as of the laicist intolerance made possible by the affair.

Dreyfus takes the reader on a riveting ride that has the added advantage of being true. The players are not lessened by being less cardboard and more complex; they are magnified and more sympathetic. Virtuous and villainous acts, less determined and more deliberate, also become more of what they are, more edifying in some cases and more contemptible in others. It is an all too human story.

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8 years 3 months ago

I am familiar with the Dreyfus Affair having reviewed for the New York Law Journal Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, a literary and historical classic (New York Law Journal, February 4, 2010). I therefore eagerly read the review, and then read it again, for it wholly lacks any factual description of what happened to Dreyfus at the hands of anti-Semitic, criminal  French officers and a corrupt anti-Semitic judicial system, to say nothing of an anti-Semitic Catholic Church, facts that would tend to explain the outrage that swept not only France but the western world.   

xi fei
8 years ago
Admission is free articles at Cinema Arts Centre Wednesday night as Phil Minissale and Joe Iadanza perform folk and,You can find a list of several charitable organizations in Annapolis in our articles directory. Interested in a follow-up to this article?


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