Charles Péguy. The Dreyfus Affair 1910

Our Youth

Source: Charles Péguy, Notre Jeunesse. Paris, Gallimard, 1957;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

Not only were we heroes, but in reality the Dreyfus Affair can only be explained by a need for heroism that periodically seizes this people, this race, by a need for heroism that seizes an entire generation. These great movements, these great ordeals of an entire people are like those other great ordeals: wars. Rather, for peoples there is only one kind of temporal ordeal, that is war, and these other great ordeals are themselves wars. In all these great ordeals, in all these great histories, it is much more interior force, the violence of eruption that makes the historical matter than it is the matter that makes and imposes the ordeal. When a great war breaks out, a great revolution – a kind of war – it means that a great people, a great race needs to come out, that it has had enough, that it has had enough of peace. It always means that a great mass feels a violent need, a great, profound need, a mysterious need for a great movement. If the people, if the race, if the French mass had felt the need for a great war forty years ago that wretched, that unfortunate war of 1870, however poorly begun, however badly engaged it was would have become a great war like the others, and in March 1871 it would only have been beginning. A great history, I mean a great military history like the wars of the Revolution and the Empire can only be explained by this: a seizing of the need, a profound need for glory, for war, for history that at a given moment seizes an entire people, an entire race and causes it to explode, to erupt. A mysterious need for inscription. Historic. A mysterious need for a kind of historic fecundity. A mysterious need to inscribe a great history within eternal history. Any other explanation is vain, reasonable, rational, unfertile, unreal. In the same way our Dreyfus Affair can only be explained by a need, the same one, by a need for heroism that seizes an entire generation – ours – by a need for war, for military war and military glory, by a need for sacrifice up to and including martyrdom, perhaps (doubtless) by a need for sanctity. What our adversaries could only barely see, what they could only hollowly perceive, what our own chiefs were always ignorant of, is to what degree we marched like an army, militarily. How so much hope, so much enterprise was smashed without obtaining, without effectuating a historic inscription is precisely what I attempted not only to explain, but to represent to our friends and subscribers [to Cahiers de la quinzaine] last year at this time. It’s that if we were yet again an army of lions led by asses it is because we have remained in the pure French tradition.

We were great. We were very great. Today those of whom I speak, we are people who earn little, wretchedly, miserably our livelihoods. But what I don’t see is poor Jews separating themselves from us, that they earn their livelihoods with the turn of a hand, that they don’t have difficulty ,that they don’t have any less difficulty than us in earning their livelihood. Perhaps the contrary, for if they support each other a little, less than is believed, less than is said, and sometimes they fight each other, betray each other, on the other hand they come up against an anti-Semitism that has today returned, that is growing. What I see is that Jews and Christians together, poor Jews and poor Christians, we earn our livelihoods as we can, generally poorly, in this bitch of a life, in this bitch, this wretch of a modern society.

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...And we, what did we say? We said that a sole injustice, a sole crime, a sole illegality especially if it is officially registered, confirmed, a sole insult to humanity, a sole insult to justice and right, especially if it is universally, legally, nationally, easily accepted, a sole crime ruptures and suffices to rupture the entire social pact, the entire social contract; a sole malfeasance, a sole dishonor suffices to destroy, to dishonor an entire people. It’s a gangrenous spot that corrupts the entire body. What we defend is not only our honor. It’s not only the honor of our entire people in the present; it’s the historical honor of our people, all the historical honor of our entire race, the honor of our forefathers, the honor of our children. And the more of a past we have, the more memory we have (the more, as could be said, the more we thus have responsibility) the more thus we have thus to defend it. The more of a past we have behind us, the more (precisely) we must thus defend it, keep it pure. I will return my blood as pure as I received it. This was the rule and the honor of the Cornelien impulse, the old Cornelien impulse. This was the rule and the honor of the Christian impulse. One stain stains an entire family. One point marks the honor of an entire family. One point also marks the honor of a whole people. A people cannot exist with an insult submitted to, exercised, on a crime however solemnly however definitively shouldered. The honor of a people is all of a piece.

What does this mean, unless you don’t know a word of French, if not that our adversaries spoke the language of reasons of state, which is not only the language of political and parliamentary reason, of contemptible political and parliamentary interest, but much more exactly, much higher than is the language, the very respectable language of continuity, of the temporal continuation of the people and the race of the temporal salvation of the people and the race. They meant no less. And we, by a profound Christian movement, by an impulse very profoundly revolutionary and at the same time traditionally Christian, following in this one of the most profound of Christian traditions, one of the most enduring, the most of the line, the axis and heart of Christianity, we did no less than elevate ourselves I won’t say (up) to the concept, but to the passion, to the concern for eternal salvation, for the eternal salvation of this people which could only be reached by living with a constant concern, with a preoccupation, a mortal, eternal anguish in a constant anxiety for the eternal salvation of our people, the eternal salvation of our race. Deep down, we were the men of eternal salvation and our adversaries were men of temporal salvation. This is the true, the real division in the Dreyfus Affair. Deep down we didn’t want France to be constituted in a state of mortal sin. In the world, in the modern world, in any world there is only the Christian doctrine that places temporal death to such a degree, as deliberately, as totally, as absolutely nothing, as insignificant as a zero compared to the price of eternal death, and the risk of temporal death as nothing compared to mortal sin, the risk of eternal death. Deep down we didn’t want that through one mortal sin complacently accepted, complacently shouldered, complacently acquired , so to speak, that our France be not only dishonored before the world and history, but that it be constituted in a state of mortal sin.