Friday, May 07, 2010

Literature and anti-Semitism

Scott Lemieux sent me a link to his post about the was-Nemirovsky-anti-Semitic debate. Shockingly, I like what he has to say about the problem with arguing against an ill-defined/unnamed opponent who apparently cries anti-Semitism at every turn, and about the problem with Patricia Cohen's Madoff analogy. Even more shockingly, I've found a way to respond in far longer of a post than I'd intended.

But I haven't read David Golder (yet) either, which limits what I can do here. I have, however, been studying a French writer of Jewish origin who wrote about Jews in the 1840s, and have been neck-deep in these themes for a few years now, giving me tangential authoritah. Basically, I think the best I can add to this discussion is to lay out just what I think the relevant questions are for this sort of issue:

1) Should we ask, our minds open to either possibility, whether a work is anti-Semitic? To sort out whether a given work is anti-Semitic is rarely the most interesting critique of that work, or even of representations of Jews within the work in question. (Exception: The Israel Lobby, or any other work whose significance is contemporary-political rather than literary-historical.) It's simply too broad of a category to get at anything sufficient. Far too many novels and plays about Jews include anti-Semitic tropes for this to be a useful way to distinguish one such book from the other. Teasing out what was where on the spectrum about Jews at a given time poses a problem. (My own way of assessing this, if need be, is to see how Jewish readers at the time responded to a work. This method poses difficulties of its own, but is better than going by how I react to it in 2010.) That said. It's a very different thing to choose another angle to focus on than to deny a work's anti-Semitism when it's sitting there for all to see.

2) But if we agree that a work is anti-Semitic, then it's evil and unworthy of study, right? What will happen to Literature? This, I suspect, is the fear that stops some well-meaning critics from correctly labeling some works. But given how many books remain in the canon despite their unflattering portraits of Jews (and blacks, women, gays, etc.), my sense is that unless the author was very directly involved in political anti-Semitism (i.e. Celine, Drumont, etc., as versus Zola having written about some Jewish financiers, then going on to save Dreyfus), there's not much to worry about, and even then, there isn't necessarily. But especially when a writer's Jewish, it's unlikely accusations of self-hatred will halt book sales. On the contrary! (See: Philip Roth.)

3) Is a Jew is capable of producing an anti-Semitic text? The answer to this is so obviously 'yes', but since some have their doubts, think of it like this: These Jews are not so much self-hating in the sense of gee-I-hate-not-being-Swedish as they are inclined to see themselves as exceptions. (Yes, yes, Arendt.) 'Jews are parochial/greedy/pushy/insert-stereotype-here,' they think, 'but I'm different, and thus blessed with the capacity to see what non-Jews see when they see Jews.' They conflate the complexity that all of us can see only in ourselves with some kind of unique quality that separates them from the clichés they feel surrounded by. The fail to see that everyone else also feels special, that no one feels like 'the JAP' or 'the Jewish banker.' What ought to prevent Jews from becoming anti-Semites is an awareness that anti-Semitism is about hatred of all Jews, even the ones who never worry about getting exact change in restaurants.

Of course, it's complicated. There are works written by Jews about unpleasant people in their own families that get adopted, though no fault of the authors', by anti-Semites. It could be that David Golder is such a work. I'll have to read it and find out.

4) One note about what isn't anti-Semitism in literature: It's not anti-Semitic for a Jewish character to be described as having physical features or a profession common among Jews of the milieu being described. In other words, if a Jewish character has dark hair and works as a peddler, or is named Gold-somethingorother, this is simply plausible description. Too often (including in the latest Nemirovsky discussion, but also in various things I've been reading lately about Jews in French literature), literary representations that fail to portray Jews as physically, culturally, and linguistically identical to their non-Jewish equivalents are classified as anti-Jewish. As I see it, as long as we're in 'prominent nose' rather than 'crooked beak' territory, we're in the clear. (Context is everything. If it's all about the nose, that's another story.)

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