Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's the 'fus?

Loyal readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that I decided to check out "Alfred Dreyfus: The Fight for Justice," an exhibit now at the Yeshiva University Museum, a variant of the Dreyfus exhibit recently at Paris's Jewish museum.

The show's angle is Dreyfus, the man. Most accounts of the Affair, even during it, tended to push the victim himself aside in favor of the larger issues--French Republicanism, nationalism, Catholicism, anti-Semitism, the military, at so on. Dreyfus has indeed been left out of his own story, but how unfair is this omission? Is the story of one man's courageous and patriotic struggle despite all odds as compelling as the Affair's impact on, among other movements, proto-Fascism and Zionism? Perhaps, but I'm undecided.

Items in the show such as Dreyfus's monocle and the ribbons torn from his uniform during his degradation are touching in much the same way as personal items displayed in Holocaust museums. Once a tragedy is humanized--and even though he was ultimately released, Dreyfus's long-term imprisonment and deprivation along with massive-scale public humiliation for a crime one did not commit ought to count as tragic--it becomes that much more real and that much more depressing. But again, is the message of the Dreyfus Affair the undeniable personal tragedy? A message, yes, but the one for people with no outside knowledge of the Affair to come away with. Of course, it could be that such individuals are not the ones going to this exhibit.

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