Choking in the stink of our own self-hatred

Howard Jacobson
Saturday 19 October 2002 00:00
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What did Cain think? We know what he said. He said he was not his brother's keeper and that his punishment was more than he could bear. But what did he think? I'll tell you. He thought he had done a heinous thing. Why invoke brother-keeping at this hour unless you understand brother-keeping to be sacrosanct? By his shamed denial of the obligations of humanity, the first murderer proclaims the wrongness of murder. In this he is more morally refined than many who take life. What there is no sign of in his thinking is that he was right to kill his brother, that it was brought about by the inequality of things – God's preference for Abel's incense, an unfair distribution of the goods of Eden, or Israel's moving its tanks into Hebron. Many are the causes of our discontents, but murder in the heart is murder in the heart.

And Abel? What do we suppose was going through his mind as his brother rose up and slew him? That in some labyrinthine way it was all his fault? That he had brought his brother's violence down upon himself? That there is no doing without our calling for it to be done? Is Abel the first instance, in literature at least, of Jewish self-hatred?

I've been thinking about Jewish self-hatred in recent weeks, reminding myself that the phrase is out of favour now – properly out of favour – that it smacks of those 19th century German accusations of Selbsthass, finding confirmation of the detestableness of Jews in the fact that they detested themselves. And out of favour, too, because we all accept that we can't go around accusing Jews of hating themselves every time they demur from the policies of an Israeli prime minister. Except, except, it seems to me, that that depends rather on the vehemence of the demurral.

We measure instability of emotion by instability of expression, and if some of the recent expressions of Jewish rejection, not just of Israeli policies but of the very concept of a Jewish homeland, have not been unstable – a-historical, a-contextual, beyond all reason and all desire for reason, giddy with the thrills of apostasy (ah, the golden calf, the golden calf!) – I don't know what instability means. But still, who is one man to ascribe a pathology to another man's political convictions? We may blow one another apart, but we may not ascribe a pathology.

So I will confess to my own. Or at least to an instance of it, the lily of my personal Jewish self-hate flowering before my eyes, where they say nothing will flower, out of the dust of Dachau. And Dachau, reader, is one of the more congenial places. Imagine what a monstrous bloom I might have conjured from the soil of Auschwitz. But let's not be greedy. It was monstrous enough as it was. And it stank to high heaven. The stink being what draws you.

I doubt I need to school you in the process of the horticulture. You see, you read, you breathe in the evidence of an unimaginable crime done to you and yours, and you can't comprehend that such a thing could come, causeless, from nowhere. So you become the cause. There must be reason in the universe, so you become the reason. It's partly altruism: you cannot bear the thought of random being, so you supply the system. In that way you also supply the God. Never mind Dachau proving that God doesn't exist: that's baby stuff. A sophisticated Jew can, by the subtleties of self-hatred, show you that Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen – name your own names – establish beyond all doubt the existence of a moral universe.

Too much mind, that was what I decided on that day in Dachau. We had made ourselves too interior for more physical peoples to bear. Did I get this from Nietszche? Maybe. But it felt all mine. The idea of too much mind issuing with that perfect circularity of self-hatred from my own mind. And proving the case all over again. I'm still here, I could boast to the sightless spirits of those who'd built this place. Still here, you bastards, and still thinking. But when one of the things you're thinking is that you've brought all this down upon yourself, it's not much of a boast. And for thinking along these lines you hate yourself yet more. It stinks, self-hatred, and its stink debilitates you because it's your stink.

That was some time ago and I am calmer now. I remain a sins of the fathers man. If we are the responsibility of those who beget us, then they must be our responsibility in turn. The past flows through us as certainly as the future. A genetic no less than a theological truth. But that's not the same as taking blame when there is no blame to be taken. An obscene act of arrogation, I now realise, making one's culpability the heart of everything. Unjust to one's immortal soul, which wants no part of it. And unjust even to the Nazis and their like, who must be allowed to sin egregiously on their own behalf and go to hell unmolested.

Ditto those who blew apart the however many hundreds of kids dancing the last of their lives away in Bali. It behoves us to stay out of their motives. Utterly obscene, the narrative of guilty causation which now waits on every fresh atrocity – "What else are the dissatisfied to do but kill?" etc – as though dissatisfaction were an automatic detonator, as though Cain were the creation of Abel's will. Obscene in its haste. Obscene in its self-righteousness, mentally permitting others to pay the price of our self-loathing. Obscene in its ignorance – for we should know now how Selbsthass operates, encouraging those who hate us only to hate us more, since we concur in their conviction of our detestableness.

Here is our decadence: not the nightclubs, not the beaches and the sex and the drugs, but our incapacity to believe we have been wronged. Our lack of self-worth.

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