BOOK REVIEW / Do they not bleed?: 'Constructions of 'The Jew' in English Literature and Society' - Bryan Cheyette, Cambridge, 35 pounds
Saturday 19 February 1994
Hebraism was modulated by Hellenism in Matthew Arnold's famous vision of society: 'What have we not learned and gained from the people whom we have been excluding all these years]', he wrote, on the occasion of the ennoblement of the first Jewish peer, Sir Nathaniel Rothschild. Yet 12 years earlier he had characterised 'this petty, unsuccessful, unamiable people' as 'without politics, without science, without art, without charm. . .'
Rather than finding a single anti-Semitic stereotype in his material, Cheyette sees a paradoxical 'Semitic Discourse' in which Jews come to represent opposite poles of human experience. They are seen as both the embodiment of liberal progress and as the vestiges of an outdated medievalism; as a bastion of empire and one of the main threats to empire; as prefiguring a socialist world state and as a key force preventing its development; as the ideal economic man and the incarnation of
Trollope's Jews are biologically degraded and psychologically shifty - never quite what they seem. Their very greasiness betokens the impossibility of pinning them down - they are the personification of indeterminacy. In addition, through some curious genetic quirk, the eyes of the male are invariably small and too close together (their faces being all nose), whilst their womenfolk have large, bright and erotically alluring eyes, set against beautifully clear and dark skin.
George Eliot depicted perhaps the best of a meagre bunch of 'good' Jews in English Literature, in the form of Daniel Deronda. But he is poorly characterised, a transcendental cipher, far away from the reality of everyday life. Though she received words of gratitude from around the world, her portrait of real Jews and Jewesses was far from sympathetic. Throughout the novel, Cheyette reminds us, Daniel himself (and many other characters) continually note the 'ugly', 'vulgar', 'narrow unpoetic' or 'unrefined' nature of Jews and Judaism.
A similar polarity can be found in Disraeli. For him Jewishness (of which Christianity represented one form) was the mysterious essence of natural aristocracy, an almost sacred racial bulwark; yet he simultaneously detected men of Jewish race at the head of every communist society allied against all he held most dear - '. . . the peculiar and chosen race touch the hand of all the scum and low castes of Europe]' John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling followed in his wake, the former adopting a passionate 'Zionism', the latter a belief in 'Jewish World Conspiracy'.
If the 19th century emancipated Jews, the 20th exacted a cruel price. Socialists like Shaw and H G Wells identified their capitalist enemy in the form of the Jew. Fascists like Pound, on the other hand, saw the Jew as irredeemably messy, a threat to all basic values. Eliot's anti-Semitism was also rooted in this fear.
Hilaire Belloc, Anglo-French Catholic, anti-socialist, radical anti-capitalist, even managed to implicate Jews in the Reformation - a 'largely Judaic' fall from Grace, leading to the dominance of an English landlord-mercantile plutocracy. It is this easy plasticity, Cheyette insists, the way that Jews are pressed into representing anything and everything, that is the common principle. It is the tragic misfortune of Jews to have stood in people's minds for the hated, inexorable and disruptive onward march of history itself.
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