Addressing the Present: An Interview with Diane Rubenstein

LW: Did you ever feel at risk in any of this?

DR: Oh, no, no. First of all, these guys were old. I mean, they really were old. No, no, actually no. It’s just a really very alienating experience of hospitality because some of the French intellectuals are old and no one was speaking to them. So you would go there, and they would have the writings that hadn’t been given over to the archive or whatever. Like Brasillach’s brother-in-law had these things he had written in high school and—because Brasillach’s sister had married Maurice Bardèche, they were very close. One of the people I went to interview said to me that the reason they didn’t hang out with them was not about politics, it was because he thought there was a homosexual relationship between them and that was why Bardèche married Brasillach’s sister. He said, “the rest of us were simpler,” plus simple. They tell you things that you don’t know what to really do with. But then they’d always think, you’re American, so then they’d want to drink bourbon or something with you, because someone had given it to them as a gift. Either Coca-Cola or bourbon, you had a choice. But you knew that they preferred bourbon, so you’d get this big glass, they’d fill something like a highball glass most of the way with bourbon. Or part way through the interview, they’d have to pause because they have to watch Roland Garros tennis for a while, so you’re going back and forth and you realize with French intellectuals it’s not about soccer, it’s about tennis. They have cats, they don’t have dogs. You realize all the stuff you see in Bourdieu’s Distinction. But no, I never felt at risk in that way of physical safety. It’s just the question of what you do when you’re interviewing. I did not follow up with Bardèche about the Jews of reproductive years, when he just said the Jewish children and the grandmothers, because I wanted to hear his whole spiel about how he distinguished biological anti-Semitism from cultural anti-Semitism. So you do feel this relationship of bad faith but I hadn’t brought up that question. He was the one who brought up—I don’t know how it came up, when he was just talking about these people and free associating and just got to this place where he was talking about the racial question.

So, no, I never felt in danger. There was one awkward encounter with Drieu’s brother. He had the archive from the Nouvelle Revue Française and what I wanted to see at his home were articles and books that were dedicated to Drieu from all different people and his correspondence. And when he heard my name, Diane Rubenstein, he said that doesn’t sound very Anglo-Saxon. He said to me, are you an American? Actually, all of my grandparents were naturalized here, so I basically felt pretty American—I mean, I’m not a Daughter of the American Revolution or anything—so, it wasn’t that. The most you could say was that there just moments of creepiness, where people tell you something expecting you to agree. Like when someone was explaining why they collaborated, they said, you know, I was thirty years old, I wanted to see my name in print. How basically you just become a collaborationist writer because of that impulse.

One of the weirder things about my Nouvelle Revue Française study, is that not only was a political sociologist on this, but Paul de Man was on it, too. And I would see him regularly for my Althusser paper, he and Jameson, four people were on my committee. And so de Man would always be asking me about how things were going with this research I was doing about the Nouvelle Revue Française and I thought I was being so clever because, of course, Henri de Man was this relative of his, and he had a few things that appeared on what they call “planism” in the Nouvelle Revue Française, under Paulhan even. And I said, you’d be surprised at some of the names I keep coming across. But I will tell you that I never, I mean I was really gobsmacked, I never imagined that de Man had had this whole past. I got kind of criticized when my dissertation came out as a book, since so much of it was deconstructive, for not talking about de Man. But de Man was Belgian, and I was writing about France, and I don’t know where a Flemish-Belgian intellectual publishing in Le Soir, where that fits. And how Degrelle’s Rexism was seen at the time by the population—Degrelle wasn’t like Primo de Rivera; Rexism never really caught on, and I really don’t know enough about these things between the Flemish and francophone Belgians. I don’t think he would have been sentenced to death, like the way Brasillach or Rebatet was. I don’t know how much they sentenced literary people to death. It’s very difficult to draw those kinds of things across national lines, right?

The French have a particular thing about not just their intellectuals, but precisely ones who had gone to elite schools. So the first words of indictment for Brasillach were “Alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure.” The trial was basically about the fact that because of the prestige of all this, he had really put a dark mark on what France really valued. But I don’t know that other countries value their intellectuals in the same way or, if they do, they value getting accepted into elite schools as opposed to graduating. A lot of the people who got accepted into the École Normale—it wasn’t how they finished up, it was basically that they got in. So it’s like getting into Harvard but not graduating from it. But, you know, that’s where you get your elite status in acceptance, not where you’re going to continue your studies. It’s a very different kind of thing. But I don’t know if that’s what you meant about the dissertation thing.

LW: Yes, that’s wonderful. I was also kind of wondering if you had a sense that the intellectual work you were doing was sort of risky, in the sense of being—

DR: I never thought that I’d get a job. No, actually, I should tell you that when I was at Yale, people tried to discourage me from continuing in political science. Emily Apter’s father, David, in fact said to me, Diane, don’t put your head in a pencil sharpener, you don’t belong in political science. He also said a lot of crazy things, too. He said I was Hannah Arendt with a sense of humor, which doesn’t make sense to me because, I mean, she could be sarcastic, but I don’t really see her as like a laugh riot, you know. But I said, well how about if I just do a joint degree with comparative literature. He said that would be fine. So, in order to do a joint degree, I had to do languages which got more complicated with Fred Jameson because he was not permitted to be in comp lit. When he got to Yale, he was just put in French, and I didn’t want him to have to work with me as a comp lit person, but it meant I had to take Italian. Because I had Latin, I had French, I had German, but for a French degree, you have to have another Romance language. But they had so many obstacles, I never thought I would actually obtain the joint degree. What I thought would happen is that they would let me spend my years there, and then when push came to shove, I would end up getting my degree in political science. But that I would proceed, take an extra year of course work. I was able to TA for Umberto Eco. I was able to do these things that if I was just in political science I wouldn’t have been able to do. Because they said I had to get a distinction in political science, which I didn’t think was going to happen—they didn’t give that many out per year, so I didn’t really think it was going to happen. Then it happened, and they said you can have your degree. It will say, PhD Political Science/Comparative Literature or the other way around. And then every single person except for the political sociologist Juan Linz sat down with me. Jim Scott told me that, you know Diane, you’ll never get hired in political science with this degree. Because they’ll think that the hyphen means it’s qualified, that I don’t really know political science—when I had actually done all the stuff you have to do to get that. Because I came in with a master’s in political science. Then Jameson said well, you know Diane, if you decide to go on the market in political science, I’ll write you a letter, but I can’t help you with all my contacts who are in the MLA. I can’t really help you with a job. And Paul de Man said, Diane, why muddle or dilute the comp lit degree, because comp lit is everything, and I tried to explain to him that actually there were things I did in political science that I still do from time to time having to do with the law that are kind of technical. So, I made the decision based on what I thought I could teach as opposed to who I thought my colleagues would be. And I thought I could teach—I would always teach ideology, no matter if what they gave me to teach was comparative politics. But I think I really expected honestly that I would do this for a certain number of years but probably that I would—that’s why I took the degree in political science—I would probably go work in politics. There was a lot of stuff that was being done in the Seventies in terms of local government, that I would probably basically become a city planner or do something where I’d be working in local government. And my political science degree would help me with this. I expected to do local activism and not to teach. But I somehow always managed to have these odd jobs teaching literary theory in a political science department.

What I have gotten in terms of blowback is that, there were certain times when many people, like Pierre Bourdieu, had liked my thesis and helped me with publishing it, in English. He helped me with a revision of it, and he had sent it along to one of his editors and different people liked it such as Georges Balandier, who contacted my American publisher for the rights. But there is a kind of Normalien old boys’ association which doesn’t like thinking of its collaborationist history. So, around the time of the bicentennial of the École Normale, people thought that would be a good time for a French translation to come out. But they had all these hagiographies and other things of the École Normale published that year. So the translation never happened.