Sunday, September 05, 2010

Feuchtwanger's Eternal Jew

Re-approaching the surface, half-drowned, after our move from LA to DC...

As you probably know, I am composing a longish narrative poem, exploring the myth of the “Eternal Jew,” a myth that has arisen in response to the Jew's inexplicable survival in a long and harsh exile. The existing literature on the subject has, interestingly, spanned the spectrum from philosemitic to antisemitic.

I believe the most definitive academic exploration of the subject is George K. Anderson's The Legend of the Wandering Jew, originally published in 1965. His review of the literature is arranged chronologically, and I have been plowing my way thru that tome, and am now up to the early 20th century. Curiously, however, in one of the other books I'm currently reading, The Jewish Caravan, subtitled “Great Stories of Twenty-five Centuries,” edited by Leo W. Schwartz, I just came across a variant of the myth written by Lion Feuchtwanger, entitled The Eternal Jew. I went to my Anderson, and altho he notes Feuchtwanger for an unexceptional excerpt on the topic from his novel Jud Süss, there is no reference to this 19 page story devoted exclusively to the topic. Shame on you, George.

The Feuchtwanger story is absolutely brilliant: laugh-out-loud funny, bitingly satiric (Feuchtwanger was declared literary enemy number one by Goebbels!), socially critical, psychologically penetrating, politically prescient, and knee-deep in historic and literary references. What a tour de force!

I thought you might enjoy a couple of short excerpts, all taken from a few pages at the end of the story:

A psychological insight:
“Antisemitism is a lifeless thing without a will of its own. If you only say the right kind of abracadabra then it is sure to become animated and active. It stands outside of all ethical evaluation. It is the sworn enemy of the spirit which withers in its presence....”

A sadly prescient scene:
After that the room began to expand as if by enchantment and became transformed into a vast square which reeked with smoke and blood. Towering heaps of Hebrew books were being burned. Stakes had been erected. They were so high they seemed to pierce the clouds. And the innumerable Jews that were tied to them were being toasted to a cinder. A chorus of priests were intoning: Gloria in excelsis Deo....”

Biting political satire:
“Why do you speak with such contempt of the 100% Germans?” he interrupted me. [100% Germans: the "racially pure" Germans that the nazis extolled]
“Contempt? Not that I am aware of. You might have said more correctly – compassion. As a schoolboy I had much to do with the sons of leading 100% German families. Many of them were upright, good natured, but endowed with moderate talents. In the study of languages and history, but particularly in German composition, they were hard put to get by. And several had to thank me for getting out of school a year sooner because they were God-fearing and adroit and copied from my notes.
But remarkably enough they all excelled in sports. … And these good athletes, but miserable logicians, who for decades have undertaken the guidance of German political life, are today as well the leaders of the German Nationalist movement.”

Social criticism (anyone in Iran, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, et al listening?):
Only that nation whose national ambitions are greater than its ability to realize them, can deteriorate to such an extent as to wish to blame the Jews for something that every healthy nation accepts as a matter of pride: responsibility for its own deeds.

Some Jewish self-criticism:
“You of course notice that the Jews themselves do not take this sudden antisemitic explosion seriously.”
“What then are the Jews doing?”
“They are laughing.”
“They – what?”
“Yes. They are amused by the lack of talent and the grammatical errors of the antisemitic propagandists.”

And this made me laugh out loud, especially the puns on the suggested German names:
We had finally arrived at the home of the newlyweds.... Gertrud proudly exhibited the twins.
“What are their names?” I asked.
“The girl's name is Marie...”
“Marie! Pfui!” exclaimed the Eternal Jew. “That's a Hebrew name. It is a derivative of Miriam. You should have named her Frigg.”
“In any case you will like the boy's name. He is called Hans.”
“Hans! Pfui!” sneered the Eternal Jew. “It is also Hebrew and derived from Johanan. Why didn't you name him Teut?”
Marbod and Gertrud laughed heartily. “If the Jewish and the German are so well tangled together,” said Gertrud, “who can possibly unscramble them again?”

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