Thursday, June 27, 2019

'He That Filches from Me My Good Name'

On the cover of the notebook he kept while imprisoned on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana, French Army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus transcribed in English a passage spoken by Iago in Act III, Scene 3 of Othello:

“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

Dreyfus was falsely accused of passing intelligence about artillery parts to the Germans and arrested for treason in 1894. Three months later he was convicted in a secret court martial and sentenced to life in exile. I knew the history but Michael Burns in Dreyfus: A Family Affair, 1789-1945 (1991) fleshes out Dreyfus the man as opposed to the more familiar Dreyfus, victim of French anti-Semitism:

“‘They’ll have me whipped for speaking true,’ laments the Fool in King Lear, ‘Thou’lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.’ Dreyfus’s private language of protest and desire began to echo that of the literary characters who shared his exile. The Fool, the old king, Othello, Banquo, Polonius, and the Prince of Denmark became, with their creator, ‘immortal friends’ who Dreyfus described ‘sleeping on the bookshelf’ of his cell, always ready to be invited down for a conversation.”

Burns devotes seven pages to Dreyfus’ tastes in books. He read Shakespeare first in French and then haltingly in the original. He read Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen, the memoirs of Chateaubriand, Napoleon and Madame de Staël, various scientific and literary journals. Burns tells us Dreyfus’ wife, Lucie, served as his “reference librarian,” until French officials refused to forward the packages she shipped. Dreyfus then ordered books with the stipend his wife was permitted to send him. Burns writes:

“Dreyfus did not simply ‘reread’ the authors he had known as a student, he confided in them and read them anew, with an eye for language that captured his own plight and with a desire to both break the boundaries of Devil’s Island and articulate the measure of his despair.”

Foremost was Shakespeare, “the humorous, passionate, sympathetic Shakespeare the prisoner ‘never understood better than during this tragic epoch,’ and who, like Dreyfus, may also have turned to Montaigne as a source of inspiration.” In a letter to his wife, Dreyfus said of the lines from Othello quoted at the top, “Yes, the wretch who stole my honor has made me poor indeed.” Given Dreyfus’ devotion to books, it seems fitting that novelist Emile Zola and his 1898 open letter J’accuse! helped start the process that lead to Dreyfus’ acquittal in 1906. He left Devil’s Island and returned to France in 1899. Burns writes:

“Shakespeare provided a fresh vocabulary to relieve the monotony of the prisoner’s prose, but more important, he introduced into the ‘silence and solitude’ of Devil’s Island other intrigues, other stories of foul play, false hearts, and human courage, which helped Dreyfus feel less alone.”

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