Ruth Harris, The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France
Ruth Harris’s account of the infamous Dreyfus affair is one of the most harrowing but meaningful books that I have read in a long time. It is a deeply humane retelling of a terrible tragedy that systematically demolishes tiresome and cliched readings of the affair. Apart from offering a convincing and moving account of Alfred Dreyfus’s own ordeal, it also explores the volatile worlds of those who fought both for and against him. One of Harris’s great achievements is to give a central place to Dreyfus’s wife Lucie who was no passive spectator and fought bravely to secure justice for her husband and kept his spirits up while he was in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island.
Harris begins by explaining how and why Dreyfus was framed for a crime that he did not commit and then offers a brilliant description of why writers like Zola jumped to his defense. Next, she walks her readers through the lives of the “intellectuals” who fought strongly for and against Dreyfus. This is followed by an exceptional account of the deeply fraught emotional dynamics of the whole affair which, Harris believes, allow us to better understand the motivations of the wide range of participants. Next, she provides a thorough reading of the second trial in which Dreyfus, much to the outrage of many sections of French and international opinion, was convicted for a second time. She ends with what she describes as the “politics of rehabilitation” and the long term consequences of the religious and political polarization that both led to and resulted from the affair.
Harris’s primary argument is that the banal distinctions between left and right, and Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, hide more than they reveal about the whole affair. For instance, her research led her to several examples of writers and other figures who supported Dreyfus but were perfectly capable of espousing vicious anti-semitic opinions at the same time. She concludes that it is historically wrong and deeply misleading to believe that, ultimately, there were just two strictly opposed camps, one of which represented justice and fairness and eventually triumphed over the other. Sticking to this rather mythical version of the events, she argues, ultimately obscures the full significance of the troubled place that the affair occupies in the history of modern France.
Harris is hesitant to draw straight lines between fin de siècle happenings and the trajectory of French and European politics after the First World War. However, she strongly believes that the deep injustice suffered by Alfred Dreyfus holds the key to understanding much of what has happened in France since then.
How does rationality relate to the public sphere? Is rationality the opposite of the popular prejudices that can tend to dominate public communication? And how do communication, rationality, and prejudice relate to the social contract the people of western democracies have set up between themselves and their rulers?
These are the questions which, while, I admit, are obnoxiously laden with zeitgeist, have driven me to the medley of books I’ve been reading over the past two months. In particular, I’ve been, well obsessed, with tracing the intellectual historical trajectory of these questions and with somewhat deluded pseudo-Nietzschean fervour, attempting to lay bear the presuppositions, prejudices, and paradigms that have oriented the discussion in Western culture over the last 250 to 300 years that we now uncritically through out on twitter in an angry #Enlightenmentnow.
But actually going back and reading the sources first hand is, I find, often an excellent antidote to my delusions and flights of fancy, and hopefully the following will provide a useful point to begin a discussion and focus a conversation that is swirling, albeit often uncritically, in both the academic’s and layman’s public consciousness. With this in mind, one primary source in particular that has grounded flights of fancy is Immanuel Kant’s short answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’
So many of our key assumptions about how one should use their reason in a Western democratic society stem from this essay as well as so many of the key assumptions about the conditions for one to be able to use their reason. For example, progress seems guaranteed if we only had the freedom to use our own reason. As Kant writes, “enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.”
But upon closer inspection, this freedom seems to revolve around conditions and these are reflected in the history of the reception of this text. The owning property seems to be of importance as Habermas notes in his ‘Structural Transformation of the public sphere.’
And if one simply Google’s ‘Kant, Enlightenment, Gender’, one sees that the question over whether women are included in Kant’s call to make a public use of owns reason is still a furiously raging debate. Carol Hay has provided an interesting and nuanced perspective of this in the New York Times.
One could do a study of the ideological reception of this text simply by ways of its translation from German into English. For example, the link provided above, hosted by Columbia University, translates the German Unmündigkeit as ‘nonage’ the old fashioned word for immaturity. Whereas the Marxist.org archive opts for the less common, but more politically toned term, ‘minority’.
Many of these questions of reception are of course touched upon in Foucault’s famous text of the same name and I think in the humanity and social sciences we have almost come to accept Foucault as the last word on the issues of social justice, and injustice within Kant’s cry to use ones reason publicly. But while Foucault is indispensable for questions of social justice and the conditions put on who can employ their reason, his reading is perhaps inadequate to make sense of our present moment. Because the crisis at the moment in Western democracy is that those who all meet similar conditions, many have studied PPE at Oxford for example, cannot all get along and communicate. For the me, the most interesting thing in revisiting Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment’ this month, has been the startling realization that Kant presupposes those employing reason will want to work toward the public common welfare. But what if they don’t? What if there are darker, Nietzschean motives inherent in all our attempts at communication whether male and property owning or not? What if popular prejudices are inseparable from our attempts at the common welfare of the public? This is why revisiting Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment’ is such an insightful intellectual-historical read for the zeitgeist.