Saturday 18 January 2014

The Gothic Demonization of Jews during the Dreyfus Affair

The following piece was originally part of a much longer chapter in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2012) in which I had intended to compare the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair with the homophobia surrounding the Wilde trials in England but for reasons of the space the material on Dreyfus had to eliminated.

Eduard Drumont
The virulent anti-Semitic newspapers, popular novels and a motley assortment of visual representations, which included mass produced lithographic posters, did everything possible to demonize Dreyfus and his supporters. The motifs of the betrayal, elitism, grotesque physiognomy, and sexual perversion were showcased to vilify the Dreyfusards. “Without Drumont and La Libre Parole,” concluded one contemporary “without the excesses of the press, there would have been no Dreyfus Affair.” Before Drumont seized hold of it, anti-Semitism had played a minor role in Dreyfus’s original trial; his being disliked had more to do with his unlikable, aloof personality than his ethnicity. But when powerful voices questioned the verdict and the injustice suffered by the former French captain, the press created, maintained and energized the Affair. Consider that Drumont portrayed Jews as foreigners, and worse, people without a country that betray their adopted country at every opportunity. Because Jews were not French, they were automatically traitors and spies. The French lost the war with Prussia in 1870 because of a grand Jewish betrayal. Drumont received support from the Vatican who endorsed the view that Dreyfus was a traitor simply because he was a Jew. In one cogent sentence, its major newspaper, L’Osservatore romano, combined medieval anti-Judaism with modern anti-Semitism by demonizing Jews as “the deicide people [who wander] throughout the world, [bringing] with it the ‘pestiferous breath of treason.'” The reality that Dreyfus the man was a patriotic French citizen, who grieved when the Germans in 1870 acquired his homeland, Alsace, as a result of their victory, was deemed irrelevant and unworthy of mention. By capitalizing upon the fear that Jews would drive Frenchmen out of their homes and sleep in their beds, Drumont’s demagogic sleight of hand conjured up for the gullible the persuasive illusion that French Jews constituted a powerful military force. 

This fostering of paranoia was designed to convey the impression that France remained under foreign occupation and the traitor Dreyfus bore some of that responsibility. One vicious newspaper poster published in 1899 exhibited a hook-nosed Dreyfus stealthily leaving his Rennes prison cell carrying a valise baring travel stickers from Devils Island and Berlin, the latter to imply that Dreyfus had a furtive connection with an enemy government. Another lithograph published in Drumont’s newspaper in 1894 played upon an old stereotype by illustrating two Jews with grotesque Semitic features, hooked noses and big ears about to wash themselves in money; the caption warns that only a bloodbath would expiate them of their sins. The more rabid press harboured exterminatory fantasies in the demand that Jews be burned to death and that their skin be used to bind books. The stridently fanatical anti-Semitic press set the tone for the vilification of the Jews, but the same themes saturated other vehicles of popular culture.

The anti–Semitic novelist and polemicist, Gyp, the masculine pseudonym for a woman who enthusiastically embraced extreme nationalist causes, reported the Zola trial for Drumont’s newspaper, La Libre Parole. As a correspondent, she recorded that what she really wanted was, “to see them leave France, and hence to really scare them! I don’t personally ask them to be killed. I am not so ferocious as that. But let’s drive them out, let’s not do like the Russians who keep them and herd them in special areas.” As a novelist, she manipulated words and images to magnify the physiognomy stereotypes and to portray them as a people without a language. In one of her novels, a character is described as “very fat, with yellow and flaccid flab. Puffy eyes, flattened nose, flabby lips. Black hair.” Her Jewish characters “babble in a guttural near–incomprehensible language.” In concert with their deformed bodies, “this linguistic debasement signals a cultural and genetic one.” Gyp, who deployed venomous caricature as a weapon in her polemical arsenal, drew a cluster of Jewish children, as though they were atavistic creatures catapulted into France, with “clawlike hands and kinky hair, which contrast sharply with Aryan looks of the two nannies who frame this horrifying menagerie.” Dreyfusards despised Gyp calling her “a Valkyrie drinking human blood.” Even though Gyp’s New Woman lifestyle of living alone and hobnobbing with men in the public domain violated the canons of traditional femininity, her strident anti-Semitism assured her a strong nationalist following and protected her from scrutiny. Besides, she could identify with the nationalists’ cultural icon, Joan of Arc, who had transgressed her gender out of a fanatical patriotism to defend her country against the English.

Drumont associated race with sexuality, projecting dark fantasies onto Jews. His fears were a throwback to the Middle Ages: the Jew as a sexual sadist, as the vector of disease through sexual contact with non-Jews, and as the ritual murderer. He now merged unsettling historical associations with the evils of modernism. Zola, for example, who like all Dreyfusards had to be in the pay of the syndicat, was not merely a writer of tawdry novels, but also a public figure that personified everything that offended traditional religious sensibilities. The public figure that championed Dreyfus was also the novelist that exposed the filth of the sewer and exalted that which had been once morally sanctioned. Drumont catalogued the unseemly results by linking pornography and promiscuity with prostitution and bodily functions. He claimed brothel keepers enjoyed official protection: “Anus was king.…It was the heyday of excremental stories.” A once bewitching beauty, the Jewess was reconfigured by the nationalist press into a bewitching mask that concealed her degeneracy. 

Drumont maintained that commercial sex was part of the Jewish strategy for more ominous goals, both mercenary and domination. He portrayed Jewish women as “indolent living the lives of Eastern Women, but egotistical” but “behind their languorous attitudes, hid Jewish cunning and hardness.”  Even the most famous woman of fin-de-siècle France, the actress, Sarah Bernhardt, because of her
Sara Bernhardt
Jewish origins, could not escape the invective of the anti-Semitic press, especially after she became an outspoken Dreyfusard in 1898. She wrote to Zola to express her thanks for his courageous stand and was said to have quieted and helped to disperse an angry mob outside of Zola’s home. Her flamboyant career and lifestyle had long outraged nationalists; seizing upon her eccentric habit of sleeping in a coffin
expecting to die before adulthood, Bernhardt purchased a coffin to prepare her for eternity Drumont pronounced her “clearly ill.” Because her career took her abroad to America, anti-Semites dismissed her as “a wandering Jew;” her thespian skills proved that this shiksa was “artificial,” with “an innate gift for duplicity” and when she earned financial rewards, they stereotyped her as a greedy Jew. One caricature portrayed Bernhardt with a “‘classic’ Hebraic profile and needle-thin, sickly body swirling in a sea of money.” Behind these repetitive, vulgar stereotypes was the impulse to create polar opposites: to reinvigorate everything that was healthy in the French Catholic by projecting everything that was diseased, ugly and unpatriotic onto the other, the Jew.

To infuse his analysis with scientific cachet, Drumont drew out of context upon the work of the renowned psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot, who delivered a lecture in 1887 in which he argued that “neurosis is the malady of a primitive Semitic race.” Furthermore, Drumont asserted that Charcot’s experiments with hypnosis provided him (Drumont) with an explanation for how the Jews had seized power in France while enervating the energies of Frenchmen. By enchanting the vulnerable French with black magic, Jews had reduced worthy Catholics to a state of impotence. Believing that France, beneath its modern trappings, had regressed psychically to the medieval era, Drumont asserted that “nowadays the witches sabbath is held not out on the barren moors but in the corridors of power.” He described the catastrophic consequences of this collective hypnosis in explicitly Gothic terms that recall the horror of Harker’s discovery of a satiated Dracula lying in his crypt after a night’s feeding. “One has only to touch France’s coffin to release a stream of rotten flesh, pus and foul gases and crawling everywhere are worms of Dreyfus and Reinarch  grown fat on the flesh, of the once-hallowed beauty.…Poor France! She is so tired, so exhausted from the endless struggles, from the vast quantities of blood spilled.…And the Jew greets her agony with a jackal’s laugh. He himself is joyless, a sort of zombie who lurks for Nothingness, the one thing in which he believes.” Drumont repeated the parasitical image of Jews that fed on a once healthy French host: “Wily devious, frenetic, and bold, the Jews are quick to sink in their hooks and aesthetically odious, just like the vagabond vampires that prey upon the more robust forms of life.…[They are] swarming barbarians, microbes, sources of putrefaction which invade decomposing societies.” Although his thoughts were draped in a blend of Gothic and biological imagery, Drumont clearly wanted to demonstrate that his analysis of the current social degeneracy of France was grounded in the science of Charcot rather than in his subjective, irrational state of mind.

By arguing that the Jews, through sorcery, had depleted the lifeblood of France, Drumont could justify France’s decadence that rendered it powerless to resist Germany, and claim that agents like Dreyfus and his supporters were contributors to the advanced state of national decay. Yet he believed that France could still muster some of the old energy and resist the process of decay if it could “cauterize the wound” and fight the Jews and their allies by honouring the virility and energy of its heroic soldiers, especially those who had shed their blood in service to their country. In this way a mystical link was established between their blood and the earth of their ancestors.

The anti-modern nationalists lost this political battle over Dreyfus, however, an alien and parasitical anti-Semitism remained a powerful tool in the culture for novelists, ultra-conservative journals and the extreme right which did renew their energy against the liberal left Republic in the 1920s and 1930s after Drumont’s death. Ironically, for all their hatred toward Germany after 1870, their sympathies with Nazism contributed to the German victory over France in 1940 because their hatred of Jews, democracy, feminism and modern art rendered their reader citizenry receptive to the virulent messages of the invading Germans. These fellow travellers of fascism rationalized the French defeat and Occupation as punishment for the sins of secularism and materialism sanctioned by the Third Republic. The imaginary internal enemy had become in their eyes a more dangerous enemy than the real external one.

In addition to the scurrilous invective directed against Jews, the nationalists’ assaulted the Dreyfusards in general and those who supported Zola’s petition, both labeled pejoratively, “intellectuals.” Writers, artists and scientists signed their name, not all of them enthusiastic about Zola himself, but all believed a grave injustice had been inflicted upon an innocent man. During the Affair, intellectuals were associated with anarchy, political dissolution, elitism, dangerous effeminacy and even vermin. The following is representative of the kind of defamatory language designed to malign the intellectuals who attended a Dreyfusard rally that was interrupted by a nationalist stalwart: “These clever excitations aggravated the general hysteria such that…the elegant young people, some ‘intellectuals’, weak masters of their nerves, displayed on their faces the convulsions of satyrs and, under the scorching light, in this terrible atmosphere of the masses, delivered themselves to the rut of hatred.” Not only did this “obscure elite of intellectuals” show themselves to be similar to hysterical women and regressive monsters, but they arrogantly paraded their superiority by “advertis[ing] the fact that they do not think like the stinking mass.” Intellectuals were portrayed in demeaning language as eunuchs and as pathogenic: “Let God deliver us from the intellectual vermin, which is in the process of perverting our beautiful country.” The illustrated magazine Psst…! caricatured Dreyfusards as egg-headed “effeminate, foppish, puerile, enfeebled and desperately lacking the means of pleasing women.” As though they were taking their cues from the British media and the Wilde trials that were heavily covered in France, the anti-Dreyfusards collapsed all intellectuals into the sexually ambiguous dandy. 

Emile Zola caricatured
When their sexuality was not questioned, it was their humanity. After the retrial at Rennes, the leading Dreyfusards were the subject of a defamatory series of posters that portrayed them as animals. One scatological image of Zola portrayed him as a pig besmirching the map of France with excrement while sitting atop his own obscene novel. The iconography mirrored the culture’s belief that the physiognomy of a group revealed their psyche; in this case the Dreyfusards wallowing in filth no longer were human. 

Had the Dreyfusards not been vindicated, this proto-fascist commentary by a vociferous, militant anti-Dreyfusard and the visual character assassinations would have intensified against outsiders, “deviants,” and dissidents. Nevertheless, since the Dreyfus Affair became a matrix for fascism and anti-Semitism retained its poisonous grip over the extreme Right,  France did devolve into a fascist state during the Vichy regime after its defeat in World War ΙΙ. Before that period, many on both sides of the ideological divide became more nationalistic, some Dreyfusards became devout Catholics, as a way of seeking greater discipline after the chaotic convulsions of the preceding years. At the same time, the National Assembly in 1905 seeking to strengthen the Republic, secularized France separating Church and State, the latter no longer recognizing religious institutions or paying clerical salaries. The State also brought the Army under its control and ended its autonomy by ensuring that promotions within it would be approved by the Minister of War. These developments, however, did not signify that this county would shed its suspicion against what it perceived as outsiders.

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