Marcel Proust Jewish

Ear­li­er this week, John Ben­ditt wrote about iden­ti­ty and writ­ing. The Boat­mak­er is his debut nov­el. He will blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Was Marcel Proust JewishMar­cel Proust (pho­to by Otto Wegener)[Public domain], via Wiki­me­dia Commons

Was Paul New­man Jew­ish? It seemed hard to believe. That jaw­line! The infi­nite­ly blue eyes! But my moth­er said he was. And I believed every­thing my moth­er said. There was a kind of com­plic­i­ty between us — as long as I believed in her. She point­ed them out. He’s Jew­ish.” Arthur Miller. (But not Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.) She’s Jew­ish.” Lau­ren Bacall. (But not Humphrey Bog­a­rt.) There was a way of read­ing the world that made sense of what was hid­den behind the great screen that sep­a­rates us from the infi­nite. My moth­er taught me how to read. Then I took a step away from my fam­i­ly and from what might have been a safe dis­tance I began to look at things a dif­fer­ent way. Was Proust Jew­ish? The answer seemed to depend on who was giv­ing it. There was no ques­tion about some of the facts. His moth­er was born a Jew, which makes him, by law and cus­tom, a Jew. She mar­ried a Chris­t­ian. Their son, Mar­cel, was drawn to boys rather than girls at a time when homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was ille­gal in most Euro­pean coun­tries, pun­ish­able by long prison sen­tences. Yet in his great book of mem­o­ry he seems more com­fort­able being what was then called an invert” than being a Jew. Being an invert seems to con­fer a depth of feel­ing, mem­ber­ship in an aris­toc­ra­cy of the sens­es, an elite of feel­ing; being Jew­ish does not. It may even do the oppo­site. But the Drey­fus Affair hov­ers over every­thing. It forces peo­ple to take sides. It shows them in a new light. Some of the aris­to­crats Mar­cel loves so much now seem dif­fer­ent. What he has loved is their tra­di­tion, the depth of it, how every ges­ture, no mat­ter how small, is under­lain by cen­turies of con­fi­dence in their taste, in their own­er­ship of the right thing — the right house, the right paint­ing, the right horse. He is a man in love with a tra­di­tion that is not entire­ly his own and will nev­er be entire­ly his own. So as I left my home, the one where I had par­tial­ly grown up, I car­ried with me the way of read­ing my moth­er had passed on to me in secret. Behind the movie-star punim, Paul New­man was a Jew. (Though Joanne Wood­ward was not.) But this way of read­ing had changed as I car­ried it with me in its invis­i­ble ark. Now I was inter­est­ed in those I thought of as Unlike­ly Jews,” the ones who couldn’t be cat­e­go­rized, who seemed to slip away like eels from any net that was put out for them. The ones for whom Jew­ish­ness was no longer some­thing clear and sim­ple, if hid­den from the eyes of those who could not read, but had become ghost­ly, hang­ing over every­thing with­out being embod­ied, like one of Marcel’s mem­o­ries: present only when evoked by some sud­den move­ment of the senses.

John Ben­ditt had a dis­tin­guished career as a sci­ence jour­nal­ist. He was an edi­tor at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can and at Sci­ence before serv­ing as edi­tor in chief of Tech­nol­o­gy Review. Read more about him and his work here.

Relat­ed Content:

John Ben­ditt began as a poet. He stud­ied with Adri­enne Rich at Swarth­more Col­lege and was award­ed the John Rus­sell Hayes Poet­ry Prize by Robert Cree­ley. He went on to have a dis­tin­guished career as a sci­ence jour­nal­ist. He was an edi­tor at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can and Sci­ence and served as Edi­tor in Chief of Tech­nol­o­gy Review, pub­lished by MIT. The Boat­mak­er is his first novel.