by Jeffrey Mehlman
For some years now, France has suffered from what might be called traumatophilia, a will to be shocked, over and again, by an alleged centrality of anti-semitism in French life that is invariably linked to what is assumed to be its quintessential and catastrophic expression, the roundup of the Vel d'hiv. It is as though the less France has come to weigh in the international balance of things, the more it has been inclined to insist that it was centrally there at the event of the twentieth century, the Nazi genocide, and perhaps in the severity of some of its juridical provisions more there than even the Germans themselves. In what has been called the "Camus affair," this tendency, historically dubious and psychologically askew, has resulted in such an array of unfortunate, indeed absurd statements that the bubble may have popped: the traumatophilia, that is, may have run its course. France may have turned the corner of its "Vichy syndrome," as it enters, for better or worse, a new era (whose heralds are Pierre-André Taguieff, Henry Rousso, and Alain Finkielkraut) of anti-anti-anti-semitism.
What is most objectionable in Camus's Pages, in my opinion (and even in that of Camus's defender and publisher, Claude Durand), is not the reservations, in the name of diversity, about a large preponderance of Jews at "Panorama," but the suggestion that unlike first or second generation Jews, Français de souche participate "directly" in the fifteen or so centuries of the "French experience." (It is a truly foolish statement of the sort, moreover, one can find in Gide's Journal.) And yet, adverb for adverb, is Camus's use of "directement" any more absurd that Le Monde's gloss on "probablement" in an article called "Rhétorique d'un discours antisémite"? When Camus writes that "les crimes antisémites nazis constituent probablement le point le plus extrême qu'ait atteint l'humanité dans l'abomination, "Patrick Kéchichian observes in Le Monde (4 May 2000) that the "scruple" expressed by the adverb is indicative of the author's (presumably anti-semitic) state of mind. I find this dismaying. Moreover, who can say that Camus's observation that what he takes to be a "petit abus de rien du tout," the fact that the Jewish majority of participants in "Panorama," in their disproportionate tendency to discuss matters of Jewish interest, "exagèrent un peu, tout de même" is more of an incitement to hatred hatred? that the "Déclaration-des-hôtes-trop-nombreux -de-la-France-de-souche," signed by Derrida and Lanzmann among others, and which menacingly brandishes the phrase "opinions criminelles" no fewer that four times in nine short paragraphs (Le Monde, 25 May 2000)?
One is astonished that Derrida, who has gone out of his way not to acknowledge Blanchot's call to acts of anti-Jewish terrorism in the 1930s, should now want to join the legal case pressed by Laure Adler, who, as it happens, was responsible for the firing of the very Jewish journalists at "Panorama" whose preponderance in 1994 was objected to by Camus.
More generally, I am troubled by the criminalization of the expression of opinions. For the premise of such a stance is ultimately that some opinions are too irrefutably and dangerously true to suffer expression. It would be far better to demonstrate the palpable nonsense of statements about the direct-access-to-fifteen-centuries- of-French-culture than to call in the police at what risk to freedom of expression! on the assumption that refutation is too weak a remedy.
The chance to wax indignant (i.e., virtuous) at a resurgence, however imaginary, of proto-Nazi anti-semitism, and to do so without risk, no doubt comes as a rhetorical boon to some. (My fear is that a page of virtue-tripping out of Yale, which appeared in Le Monde of 10 June 2000, is best read in that light.) Others have exploited the "Camus affair" to pursue more idiosyncratic aims. Surely Claude Lanzmann's suggestion in Le Monde (1 July 2000) that Alain Finkielkraut's concern about the omnipresence in daily life or the "carrière mondiale" of the word Shoah is but the expression of Finkielkraut's jealousy over the success of Lanzmann's film Shoah, is a nec plus ultra of professional self-regard. And when Philippe Sollers mocks the "cucul, vieillot et barbant" side of Camus-the-writer, declaring that "l'antisémitisme convenable," in its moderation, is "le plus dangereux de tous," am I alone in hearing a greater contempt for moderation than for anti-semitism? (The most scathing critiques of Vichy, as any reader of Céline will recall, did not necessarily issue from the Resistance.) Finally, in the catalogue of characteristic reactions, mention may be made of a curiously contradictory statement by Maurice Nadeau, editor of La Quinzaine littéraire, who has declared himself au-dessus de la mêlée (La Quinzaine littéraire, 1 June 2000). In observing that he does not consider Camus an anti-semite, "Du moins pas plus antisémite que la majorité de nos populations compagnardes," Nadeau manages to view what he apparently takes to be the depth (or breadth) of French anti-semitism with such Olympian indifference as to remind one of the ease with which his journal, some years back, contrived to deny the existence of Blanchot's anti-semitic statements of the 1930s and then, when presented with the relevant texts, walked serenely away from them.
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A conclusion? In La Grande peur des bien-pensants, Georges Bernanos lamented the panic of the right before the radical possibilities opened up by anti-semitism. In the "Camus affair," we find a feigned panic by the left in the face of an imaginary (or at most low grade) manifestation of anti-semitism. That reaction is unjustified, but in its excesses it may serve to shed light on a minor pathology of French intellectual life the traumatophilia with which I began and thus help to eradicate it.