Joel Rich and the Dreyfus Challenge

Comments by George Anastaplo at the Joel Allan Rich Memorial Event at the Chicago Cultural Center, December 2, 2011:


I have been privileged to recognize Joel Rich recently in two public statements which have been posted on the Anastaplo WordPress website that he created a few years ago, the website that has been generously perpetuated by John Metz. If one bothers to write things, one may properly hope to be read—and this WordPress website has made that far more likely in my case.

Joel Rich was recognized as well in a statement made by me on the conclusion, in 1983, of his exemplary administrative service in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. Copies of those remarks, which should be added eventually to my WordPress website, have been prepared for distribution on this occasion celebrating his life and career.

It should be expected that much of what I have been privileged to say about Joel Rich has been reinforced by what I have been able to say from time to time about our remarkable adventure together across decades in liberal education. He and I share as well the no doubt enlightening experience, in our youth, of driving taxi- cabs.


We are gathered here to celebrate a Rich career, and especially its series of talk (in this University of Chicago First Friday series established by him) about the work of Marcel Proust. These have included thoughtful reflections on the matters indicated in his titles for these talks:

─ About Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (December 2003)
─ Women, Self, and Time in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (September 2004) ─ Proust Among the Animals (December 2005)
─ Proust on Sleep (December 2006)
─ Proust and War (January 2008)
─ Proust on Reading (and on Reading Proust) (December 2008)
─ Proust on Weather (December 2009)
─ Proust on Death (December 2010)

All this should be made generally available hereafter, perhaps first on the printed page. However that may be, these talks should also be collected on the Internet (see

The culminating talk in this series was intended to be on the notorious Dreyfus Case, particularly as dealt with in Proust’s grand novel. Although that talk was not destined to be, we do have Joel Rich’s play about the case, particularly as it draws on materials found in the novel—a play that is simply astonishing.


There may be seen, in l’Affaire Dreyfus the long-term consequences of a mismanaged war. Among the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the infected peace during which the defeated French prepared to redeem themselves, partly by exposing elements in their country that could be identified as somehow contributing either to the debacle of the recent war or to weakness in the next war.

Among the troubling elements in France were the Jews, who could be considered by some to be far more influential and hence potentially more dangerous than their numbers seemed to warrant. The underlying passions and issues here were exposed to intense public scrutiny by the 1894 arrest, trial and conviction for “high treason” of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whose case became one of the most celebrated worldwide in modern times.

That case is described in this fashion in an American reference book (Webster’s New Explorer Desk Encyclopedia of 2003):

Dreyfus, Alfred (1859-1935). French army officer. Son of a Jewish textile manufacturer, he entered the army and rose to the rank of captain (1889). Assigned to the war ministry, in 1894 he was accused of selling military secrets to Germany. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island [in French Guinea, South America]. The legal proceedings were highly irregular, but public opinion and the French press, led by its virulently anti-Semitic section, welcomed the verdict. Doubts began to grow with evidence that Major Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy (1847-1923) was the true traitor. Protest gained momentum after Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse, accused the army of covering up its errors in making the case. After a new court-martial (1899) again found Dreyfus guilty, he was pardoned by the President of the Republic, and in 1906 a civilian court cleared Dreyfus. Formally reinstated and decorated with the Legion of Honor, he later served [as a lieutenant colonel] in World War I. . . .

The Fourteenth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1972 printing) included this assessment of the case of an officer who insisted, throughout his life, that he was primarily a Frenchman devoted to the Army, a Frenchman who happened to be Jewish in lineage:

The Dreyfus Case—or l’Affaire as it came to be called—was an important landmark in the history of the Third Republic and indeed of modern France. From the turmoil of which it was the centre emerged a sharper alignment of political and social forces, leading to such drastic anticlerical measures as the separation of church and state in 1905 and to a cleavage between right-wing nationalists and left-wing antimilitarists that haunted French life until 1914 and even later. On each side were mobilized France’s most eminent literary men, and the violent controversy destroyed the cohesion of French life for more than a generation after. A conjunction of mistaken loyalties, repeated stupidities, base forgeries and excited extremisms inflamed the situation into a national crisis. At best it evoked a passionate repudiation of anti-Semitism which did France honour; at worst, it revealed and intensified a chronic internal division which was to be a major source of national weakness.


Joel Rich’s Dreyfus play, presented in a staged reading at the Newberry Library (on July 9, 2011), was paired there with his drawing-room sketch (“The Lady in Pink”) in which the youthful Marcel encounters his wealthy “uncle” (his grandfather’s brother) and his dubious mistress (a sketch anticipated by “Madame Putbus’s Maid,” a masterly recollection of the maddening relations between Marcel and “his” Albertine). The “Proust and Dreyfus” play is a remarkable presentation that can strike one as the dramatic equivalent of the Impressionistic paintings that Proust and his contemporaries were familiar with.

We are told by our playwright that his “Proust and Dreyfus” is adapted from works by both Proust and the Dreyfus family. The relations between Dreyfus and his devoted wife are effectively indicated by the passages taken from their somewhat stilted correspondence while he was suffering intensely on Devil’s Island.

Also indicated, of course, is the prejudice against Jews at the highest level of French society, prejudices shared (we are shown) by a lowly waiter in a restaurant. Indicated as well are the risks run by Proust personally as a known Dreyfusard, jeopardizing thereby his long-sought-for standing at the highest levels of French Society.


There may be seen in this play a confident, and engagingly competent, use by our Hyde Park playwright of speeches, music, lighting and even props (such as a Morris Column, with its postings). It is a remarkable performance in two dozen (typewritten) pages.

We witness here an artist talking about a fellow artist, another unconventionally- minded Jew. At the core of this series of vignettes is a controversy vital to Judaism in modern times, if not always, a controversy as to the ultimate allegiance of the serious Jew (or, for that matter, of the serious Christian).

Particularly astonishing here is the rapport between Joel Rich and Marcel Proust. Even scholars quite familiar with the Dreyfus Case should be surprised by what they can come to feel, from these sketches, about the intensity of this notorious controversy in French society.


One can be surprised as well by what is revealed about the work of Marcel Proust in the series of talks given by Joel Rich across a decade. It can be wondered what prepared him for this remarkable achievement.

There was, of course, his training in philosophy, which included familiarity with the work of Henri Bergson (a relative, by marriage, of Marcel Proust). And there was the steady reinforcement for that training provided by his having taught all the texts in the Basic Program reading list.

This determined immersion in Proust was prepared for by milder infatuations─with Herman Melville, with Mark Twain, and with Virginia Woolf. Indeed, Joel Rich may be the only accomplished Proust scholar in our time who had to work primarily with the text in translation, testifying thereby to how one inspired soul can somehow unite with another across language barriers.


Marcel Proust considered himself among the first of the Dreyfusards. Did the Dreyfus Case challenge, and how it was responded to by leading men of letters, help the French resist more than they might otherwise have done, a half- century later, the Nazi campaign against the Jews (however flawed even that resistance was in some respects)?

Somewhat comparable to what Proust does in France with the Dreyfus challenge is what Gotthold Lessing had done in Germany, with his Eighteenth Century drama, Nathan the Wise. We are left to wonder why such texts did not help decent German intellectuals resist, far more than they were able to do, the savage Nazi campaign against the Jews in the 1930s?

Further study of Proust may be needed if we are to grasp securely what he and his fellow Dreyfusards have been able to contribute to the spiritual salvation of France. That study has been significantly contributed to among us by what Joel Rich was inspired to do with Marcel Proust.

Joel Allan Rich Memorial Event
First Friday Lecture Series
The Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults The University of Chicago
The Cultural Center, Chicago, Illinois
December 2, 2011

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