In Looking Back One Learns to See: Marcel Proust and Photography, written by Mary Bergstein

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Mary Bergstein, In Looking Back One Learns to See: Marcel Proust and Photography. Boston: Brill, 2014. 304 pp., 105 illus., $86.00.

In her recent book on the French writer Marcel Proust (1871–1922), Mary Bergstein joins generations of scholars drawn to the mystique that hovers over Proust’s Jewishness. Proust’s Jewish identity, rooted in his father’s French Catholicism and his mother’s Alsatian Judaism, invites contemplation because he centers his inner world as the keystone of his literary one. However, Bergstein distinguishes her inquiry by taking a visual rather than a literary approach to his magnum opus À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Writing much of his Search during a period when “le problème juif” made its spectral appearance in the infamous L’affaire Dreyfus at the end of the nineteenth century, Proust’s representations of Jewishness are often imbued with meanings and emotions that simultaneously embed their opposites. This is particularly the case in his treatment of the divisive dramas of the Dreyfus Affair, onto which he projected conflicted parts of himself and allowed them to reverberate endlessly as they were picked up by his various characters. It is little wonder, then, that scholars in search of understanding Proust’s Jewishness have turned to his references to the Dreyfus Affair, which are so copious that they function as something of a leitmotif in his Search.

The Dreyfus Affair has become so standard in studies of Proust’s Jewishness that it comes as a surprise that the indefatigable Mary Bergstein managed to engage with the subject using only one passing reference to the Affair (91). In fact, she asks us to consider Proust’s relationship to another Dreyfus instead—the photographer Robert Dreyfus—because she argues that Proust’s absorption in Robert Dreyfus’s photographs of cross-dressing actresses was “emblematic of his multilayered, historiographic method” (177). In attempting to lift the veil between himself as the author and his work, Proust had to convert pre-verbal sensory memories into language, and Bergstein shows that he accomplished that unveiling with the help of the photographic medium. It is Bergstein’s contention that the cultural history of photography offers more insight into Proust’s representation of Self than Dreyfus-related textual references, because photographic technologies were at that moment becoming the primary tool of perception, memory, identity, and—yes—history.

At the end of Bergstein’s masterful analysis, readers will undoubtedly be convinced that photography helped construct Proust’s internal and fictional worlds. As one of Bergstein’s central interests is Proust’s double-edged Jewishness, her replacing the Dreyfus Affair with photography misses an opportunity to triangulate because Jewish studies scholars have come to firmly associate the Affair with the power that photographic technologies exerted over it.

The first association with photography in classic histories of the Dreyfus Affair is the role that the medium played in criminalizing the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus through both the photo-mechanical reproduction of anti-Semitic caricature and the forensic visual classifications developed by the French Chief of Police Alphonse Bertillon. But here is another one of the book’s titillating revelations. Bergstein does call upon Bertillon, not as the prosecution’s expert witness in the trial but rather to compare Proust’s “physiognomic and ethnographic quest” with Bertillon’s forensic systems through their mutual obsessive organization of visual data for anthropometric identification and classification (89).

Bergstein’s odyssey down the fault lines of conventional historical paradigms gives rise to this sort of associative thinking. She confesses that her “archival bricolage” into the fin-de-siècle culture of photography afforded her “great pleasure” but the result can be overstimulating for the reader. There is a tendency to fall into her cognitive slippages—exemplified by the book’s circular title In Looking Back One Learns to See—which makes one wish for a firmer holding environment to contain the whole exciting thing. Bergstein situates herself within the cultural theories of photography and anthropology in the first third of her book, but she neglects to situate the mind-boggling originality of her historical conclusions in the case studies that constitute the remaining two-thirds. Yet, it would be a great loss to Jewish and media scholarship if her substantial contributions—both historical and methodological—were to pass from our consciousness.

In order to put my finger on the groundbreaking nature of Bergstein’s foray into this historicizing triad of French intellectualism, photography and Jewishness, I feel compelled to contextualize what Bergstein says with what she does not say, particularly in relation to the Dreyfus Affair. The cultural figure that first comes to mind in that connection is not the half-Jewish Proust but the Catholic Émile Zola, whose journalistic condemnation of the French government under the headline “J’Accuse” at the height of the Affair was met with very public media campaigns skewering the author as an effeminate Jew, and celebrating him as a hero of French democracy. If we do look at Zola’s experience with the burgeoning culture of photography, we come to recognize just how differently Proust experienced the same culture. Zola’s approach toward photography is particularly instructive because, after he became the target of anti-Semitic media, he took up amateur photography—most exhaustively directly after his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair, during his subsequent exile, and upon his return to Paris. His highly personal photographs (more than 10,000 of them) appear to militate against his image in the popular illustrated press as a foreigner, as he reconstructs himself into a virile lover, a doting father, and a devoted husband who goes through the rites of French citizenship in distinctly Christian terms.

That might have been well and good for Zola, but, owing to his Jewish roots, Proust did not have the same coping strategies at his disposal. Zola used photography as a way of disassociating himself from the blight of media projections, but Proust could not split himself off from the rabid public anti-Semitism that was dividing his world into types and subtypes. Proust’s exquisitely flexible mind could not find a safe haven in a disinterested self-portraiture. For Proust, taking up residence in his private self would have meant facing the parts of himself that identified with his mother’s archetypal Jewishness and all the accompanying emotional baggage. He had no choice but to work it through one memory at a time to its root traumas. The Dreyfus Affair brought Jews under public scrutiny, especially Ostjuden from Alsace, such as Alfred Dreyfus and Proust’s mother, but Proust used photography—an undeniably French medium created and developed in Paris—to make sense of those ceaseless investigations. If Zola used photography to reintegrate into the world outside by separating himself from public anti-Semitism, Proust used photography to integrate his Jewishness and its opposite, the public and private, the Father and Mother, into the Self.

It makes sense then that Bergstein takes a Freudian approach to Proust’s use of photography to, in Proust’s own words, “drag forth from the obscurity, which lies within us” (219) through the “recently envisioned psychology of seeing, perceiving, and remembering” (12). Freud wrote little of the Dreyfus Affair and he preferred the archaeological metaphor to the photographic one for the retrieval of memory. Nonetheless, a reference to both Dreyfus and a photographic image in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900) explicates the difference between Proust’s Dreyfus references and his photographic usages. Freud, using his own dream to prove that experiences of the preceding day inform dream content, recalled a dream of “a man on a steep rock rising from the sea in the manner of Böcklin,” which he traced back to the previous day’s references to “Dreyfus on Devil’s Island” and “news from my relatives in England.”1 Freud’s point was that a dream’s manifest content uses the material of everyday life as cover for deeper material embedded in the unconscious trying to make its way past the dreamer’s “censor.” His reference to Arnold Böcklin was not part of the dream itself but rather was directed to his reader to describe the image in his mind’s eye with a reference to the “cultural archive” with which he believed the reader would be readily familiar.

Bergstein applies this same methodology to Proust—looking past the individual “symbols” of which the Dreyfus Affair may be the most persistent—to analyze Proust’s field of vision as a lens by which to focus on his inner life, cognitive style, and creative work. This explains why for the most part she leaves L’affaire Dreyfus out of Proust’s affairs and turns instead to the photographic medium that organized the more anarchic corners of Proust’s interior world into literary leitmotifs. The Dreyfus Affair is mere manifest content—along with homosexuality and high society—for du temps perdu, whereas Proust’s engagement with photography is a record of his a la recherché and the “royal road” to his subterranean Christian-Jewish psyche. Bergstein mines the Belle Époque to reconstruct the sources Proust used for research in order to understand how he employed the photographs “as stimuli and aids to memory for various passages of the novel, as well as to inspire his personal imagination” (19), but his image descriptions are intended to “open the sensorium of the reader” (183). Like Freud’s Böcklin reference, which reveals predilections of Freud’s social interface, Bergstein pays much attention to Proust’s social interface through his engagements with photographic reproductions of art, particularly of works by Botticelli, Vermeer, and Leonardo.

Bergstein’s study of Proust’s research turns out to have been a fruitful investigation into the enigma of the author’s Jewish characters. In the third chapter, “The Enigma of Character,” we learn that Proust “studied photographs of individual people in search of clues as to their social origins and moral characters” (91). He petitioned those friends whom he would use as prototypes for family albums so as to “visualize ancient family traits” in the physiognomy of his Jewish characters, such as the unnamed narrator’s friend Albert Bloch, Bloch’s great-uncle Nissim Bernard, the prostitute Rachel, and Charles Swann (103). Similarly, the character Charles Swann, whom scholars generally identify as Proust’s literary alter-ego, relied on photo-mechanical reproduction for his cultural orientations. Like Proust, Swann often locates the features of individual acquaintances in Old-Master paintings and pores over photographs in search of the ways that blue-bloodedness exhibits itself in the portraits of nobility.

In her fourth chapter, which deals specifically with his use of the imagery of Jews, Bergstein shows how Proust was drawn to depictions of the pagan ancient past—Egypt, Assyria, Rome—and that such images were framed by a potent Jewish desire to belong to an ancient culture. Bergstein suggests that the reverie of Proust’s Jewish character Albert Bloch about photographs of himself that “would have rendered an essence of Israel” expressed the prescient notion of the “invisible psychic double” that is so inherent to spirit photographs, which Proust relied on in his research. Spirit photography was popular in Proust’s day and the medium served to give shape to the imaginary Orient of the fin de siècle, which allowed French Jews, who appeared beside turbaned and veiled biblical “apparitions,” to imagine themselves alongside a noble Oriental “spirit” self in the same image.

Being Orientalized was, of course, a double-edged sword because it was a way to cast Jews out of the European world. In Proust’s photographic “cultural archive,” Jewish Orientalism was “a kind of ‘exotic outlet’ for subjects that were repressed or tabooed, including outright anti-Semitism” (153). Yet, in the context of prevailing theories that Jews were rudderless and belonged nowhere, the great Near East in the age of Assyria seemed like a useful place to forge links to the past. In locating—or more precisely “emplacing”—his Jewish characters into photographs of Orientalist art, Proust could simultaneously acknowledge how Jews served as objects for the cathexis of libidinal and aggressive drives and integrate that crudeness into his Self.

According to Bergstein, Proust used photography to pull at his memory, to reconstruct a being despite narcissistic injury, to create a coherent sense of self out of fragmented parts, and to tell the story about who he was and where he came from. This is Bergstein’s most significant contribution to Jewish studies and visual culture. In unveiling the layered research processes of the writer’s work, she shines a light on Proust’s elusive Jewishness as something that was visualized not conceptualized. She shows us how to study photography as a medium that allows its viewer to process his/her own ambivalent inheritance of Self through the eyes of others, without fusing the rich variation of his/her own subjective experience into one unitary perception.


Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al., (London: Hogarth, 1953), 5: 166.

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