It might seem like the long way around to talk about the Israel-Palestinian conflict through the filter of Marcel Proust, and yet Jacqueline Rose makes it seem like the only sensible way to do it.

Read Richard Zacks' history of New York City's era of vice.

Her wide-ranging book opens with the influence that the Dreyfus Affair had on Proust, France and then the Zionist movement, but also keeps the birth of psychoanalysis, Samuel Beckett, the Holocaust, France’s banning of the burka and modern-day Israel in her sharp focus as well.

Rose is neither Zionist nor an anti-Zionist, more of a pragmatist. “However urgent, the creation of Israel was a catastrophe for another people, the Palestinians, whose suffering as a people the ruling voices in Israel seem to find harder and harder to acknowledge by the day,” she writes in the Introduction. To understand the roots of the conflict, we do not simply need to study the history of its birth but the psychological impulses that drove the creation of the state.

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Proust Among the Nations (University of Chicago Press) is a wise little book—a challenging little book. Rose has a formidable mind, but a gentle way with the reader. I spoke with the author about bringing all of these elements into one book, and why we still live under the shadow of the Dreyfus Affair.

You write about how during the Dreyfus Affair, one of the major concerns was that the Jews were not real Frenchmen, but were loyal to their own race, or to Zion or some other shadowy authority. This obviously has been repeated through time, with Muslims in America after 9/11 and our sudden fear of sleeper cells, to JFK being America's first Catholic president, and concerns that he would take orders from the Pope. What is the impulse behind this fear? And why do we never seem to learn from the repetition of it?

I think we have to be both historical and psychoanalytic about this question. On the one hand it is clear that a particular racism—based on ethnic roots, blood, descent and land—emerges out of a form of German Romantic nationalism of the 19th century. On the other hand in relation to France, and indeed in each case and time, you have to work to pinpoint the precise well-springs of nationalism—in France the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the struggle over Alsace Lorraine and so on.

At the same time the persistence of the fantasy of ethnic and national purity—even in the face of its demise—helps us understand the persistence of these forms of racism, which raises a psychoanalytic question about how historic forms of self-fashioning seem to have some, although never complete, autonomy from their material conditions and something of a life of their own. Here we need concepts like Melanie Klein's projective identification or Christopher Bollas’s violent innocence to understand the way subjectivity seems to constitute itself around its antagonisms as much as its attachments—or rather that antagonism is inherent to attachment—and that, as Freud analyzed so brilliantly in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the ‘I,’ there is something about collective identifications that contains hatred of the other at the core of self-definition.

There are a lot of threads in Proust Among the Nations: Freud, the birth of psychoanalysis, Proust, hysteria, Zola, the Dreyfus Affair, Israel/Palestine, Zionism, etc. How was the project conceived, and how did it start to come together with cohesion?

For me they are all profoundly linked. First of all I have been teaching for some time now at Queen Mary University of London a graduate course, “Freud and Proust,” whose basic proposition—to be explored and contested of course!—is that there is more or less nothing in Freud that you cannot find also in Proust and often in even more complex and disturbing ways. The link from these thinkers to Dreyfus, especially in the case of Proust, was easy as Proust was so involved in the Affair and all three—Freud, Proust, Dreyfus—are contemporaries.

For me it is no coincidence that violent nationalism and forms of thinking and writing that undercut the complacencies of any form of self-given identity and authority should emerge at the same historical moment. The link to the Middle East may seem more strange but there is a real logic here, first in the connection between Dreyfus and Herzl’s taking up the cause of Zionism, which means that the founding of Israel can be seen, and is seen by many Israelis as the consequence of the failure of assimilation for Jews revealed by the Affair. 

I am arguing therefore that the conflict in the Middle East is a European legacy, and we have to track back into the heart of Europe to get a sense of that reality and the forms of accountability that follow from it. More simply I found myself thinking about these things at the same time—and as I always say to my Ph.D. students—that means there must be an intellectual link between the different elements of your thought, even if you have not found it yet.

I was trying to explain to my American undergrad college students, 19 or 20 years old, about the Dreyfus Affair, and they were sort of not able to get why it was an important event. To them, on paper, it seemed pretty benign, there wasn't like a massacre or something dramatic enough for them to put in their heads. And yet there have been several new books on the Affair in recent years. Why do you think it's still important to unpack, and, I guess, how could I explain to 20-year-old engineering students what a significant moment in European history it was?

I don’t envy you! I would start with Louis Begley’s wonderful Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. He makes brilliant links to whistle-blowing, rendition, forms of state autocracy in the U.S. today. I think I would say that the question of individual freedom, miscarriage of justice, the ugly side of nationalism—that none of these questions have gone away and that it is one of the first and most startling demonstrations of them in all their force. But also perhaps say how moving and significant it is that this one Jewish Army officer, sent to Devil’s Island, should have the power to split a country down the middle, that, as with the psychoanalytic symptom, you do not know where the most revealing things about a nation and its history might suddenly erupt.

And speaking of history, you write about the selective memory of some Israeli history textbooks, like some of America's Southern textbooks that get amnesiac about slavery all of a sudden. How does one counter that sort of...indoctrination might be the wrong word, but certainly nationalist slant to teaching children their history?

That is a very interesting question vis-a-vis the UK with current debates about the teaching of history in schools. Many of us on the left are appalled at the Education’s Secretary, Michael Gove’s employment of right-wing historian Niall Ferguson to advise on the history curriculum on the basis that school children should be taught to be “proud of our past,” should be given a more positive version of Britain’s role in the world and so on. It is an unabashed attempt to appropriate teaching into a nation building initiative of the worst kind.

The only way to counter it is to teach differently, to go on arguing—this is now a struggle in schools and over government policy and needs, I think, to be placed in the context of this government’s assault on higher education now to be considered along market lines in terms of consumer choice instead of in terms of autonomy of thought. So I would say this is an on-going struggle at a particularly acute stage at the moment.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.