Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Jewish Question: British Anti-Semitism
By Harold Bloom
Published: April 29, 2010

A History of Anti-Semitism in England
By Anthony Julius
811 pp. Oxford University Press. US$45

 Anthony Julius has written a strong, somber book on an appalling subject: the long squalor of Jew-hatred in a supposedly enlightened, humane, liberal society. My first, personal, reflection is to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City.

With a training both literary and legal, Julius is well prepared for the immensity of his task. He is a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Endless boycotts of Israel are urged by this establishment, and might yet have produced a counter­boycott of British universities by many American academics, whether Jewish or not. However, under British law the projected boycotts may be illegal. The fierce relevance of Julius’s book is provoked by this currently prevalent anti-Semitism.

An earlier work by Julius, “T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form,” impressed me as the only just and responsible treatment of Eliot’s polite hatred of the Jewish people. Admiring Eliot’s earlier poetry, Julius subtly demonstrated Eliot’s evasion of some modes of anti-Semitism while extending others. Eliot was not Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, but a great poet indulging a prejudice he himself regarded as a cultural and religious argument.

“Trials of the Diaspora
” takes its title from its final epigraph, Philip Roth’s pungent observation in his still undervalued novel “Operation Shylock”:

“In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli — and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.”

A remarkable solicitor, Julius casts this huge book as a series of trials, not of the Jews but of the English. His indictments tend to be fairly moderate, because only three or four European nations have been more honorable than Britain toward their own Jews, at least since state and popular violence against them ended with the medieval period, when it was dreadful indeed. After many massacres, the expulsion of 1290 effectually ended the Jewish presence in England until they were readmitted under Oliver Cromwell.

The best chapter in “Trials of the Diaspora” concerns the cavalcade of anti-Semitism in English literature, with its monuments in Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” My only criticism of Julius is that he somewhat under­plays the ultimate viciousness both of Shylock and of Shakespeare’s gratuitous invention of the enforced conversion, which was no part of the pound-of-flesh tradition. As an old-fashioned bardo­lator, I am hurt when I contemplate the real harm Shakespeare has done to the Jews for some four centuries now. No representation of a Jew in literature ever will surpass Shylock in power, negative eloquence and persuasiveness. A “perplexed unhappiness” is the sensitive response of Julius, but I would urge him to go further. Shakespeare, still competing with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, implicitly contrasts Shylock with Barabas, the Jew of Malta in Marlowe’s tragic farce. I enjoy telling my students: let us contaminate the two plays with one another. Imagine Shylock declaiming: “Sometimes I go about and poison wells” while Barabas intones: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” It is Shakespeare’s continuing triumph over Marlowe that such an exchange will not work. Shylock is darker and deeper forever.

For Julius, “The Merchant of Venice” is both an anti-Semitic play and a representation of anti-Semitism. I dispute the latter: the humanizing of Shylock only increases his monstrosity. Who can doubt that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could? But I like a fine summary by Julius: “Shylock is an Englishman’s Jew — wicked, malignant but ultimately conquerable.”

Dickens created the second most memorable Jew in his superb Fagin. There is no third figure to compete with Shylock and Fagin, not even Joyce’s Poldy Bloom, whose Jewishness is disputable anyway, marvelous as he is.

How does one estimate the lasting harm done by Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s egregious Jews? Himself a usurer, Shakespeare must have known how much he had invested in Shylock. Is that why he punishes the Jew with such ignoble humiliation? The zest of Dickens for his urban apocalypses burned through his own humane sense of fairness. Yet nothing mitigates the destructiveness of the portraits of Shylock and Fagin.

The greatness of Shakespeare and of Dickens renders their anti-Semitic masterpieces more troublesome than the litany of lesser but frequently estimable traducers: Thomas Nashe, Daniel Defoe, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Wyndham Lewis, down to the contemporary poet Tom Paulin and the dramatist Caryl Churchill. Ezra Pound scarcely can be blamed upon the English, and T. S. Eliot, despite his conversion in citizenship and faith, remains an American phenomenon, a monument to a past illness, a literary malaise now largely vanished.
The full piece at NYT.  

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