Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, by David Nirenberg
Reviewed by Lawrence Douglas
Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking
Head of Zeus
‘A hideous Jew . . .was standing by the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.”
This description of a Jewish stage manager in a “third-rate theatre” comes courtesy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that I recently read for the first time. While I admired the risks Wilde was willing to assume in telling a story of homoerotic desire, I also found myself dismayed by the alacrity with which the novelist traded in dreary anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Hideous, vile, greasy, soiled – add an “enormous diamond” to the mix and we have a classic image of the Jew as rich, rank, slimy and corrupt.
I happened to purchase an exhaustively annotated edition of Dorian Gray, which gave me a chance to track the redactions that Wilde’s cautious editor made to the author’s typescript. Apparently the editor saw it necessary to tame Wilde’s “Is Sybil Vane your mistress?” to a more decorous “What are your relations with Sybil Vane?”
And yet no editorial alarm appeared to sound at Wilde’s caricature of the “fat Jew manager” – nothing in that description threatened to shock contemporary sensibilities.
Shortly after finishing Dorian Gray I read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trip to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World. There I came across this description of Scott’s rival Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer who beat Scott to the Pole and lived to tell of it: “The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian . . .”
In the moment I found Cherry-Garrard’s description so bewildering that I scurried to Wikipedia to see if it stated a biographical fact. (It does not: Amundsen came from solid Lutheran stock.) What, then, are we to make of Cherry-Garrard’s claim? It is hardly anti-Semitic; to the contrary, one can detect an element of admiration in Cherry-Garrard’s praise of Amundsen’s Jewish “sagacity” and “pure judgment”. Still, the portrait is less than complimentary. While Scott heroically and perhaps fatally indulged in a spirit of scientific discovery, the “Jewish intellectual” from Norway shrewdly organised his expedition in a single-minded effort to get to the Pole; his success left the Scott team with “the feeling that he had stolen a march on us”.
Both of these evocations of Jews came to mind as I read David Nirenberg’s extraordinary new book, Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking.
The term “anti-Semitism”, which entered use in the latter half of the 19th century, is often criticised as incoherent because overinclusive: Arabs, after all, are Semites, too. Nirenberg, however, finds the term underinclusive, as it principally addresses the kind of sloppy stereotyping that we encounter in Dorian Gray.
“Anti-Judaism”, by contrast, gestures towards something larger and deeper; it denotes “a way of critically engaging the world”, and so invites us to probe the meaning of the figure of Jewishness that we unexpectedly encounter in The Worst Journey in the World. Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg insists, should not, then, be “understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.”
Nirenberg, who teaches history in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, develops this bold argument in a synoptic intellectual history of the West that manages to be both sweeping and subtle.