Sunday, May 9, 2010

Anti-Semitism in England

Harold Bloom praises Anthony Julius's comprehensive history of English anti-Semitism, but takes issue with his interpretation of Shylock and the meaning of that play:
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.”
I have the same quibble, but I'm prepared to set it aside because Julius offers the best explanation I have yet read for why the English resoundingly rejected the Jewish sections of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda. It is not, as critics claimed, that these sections are qualitatively inferior to the "Gwendolen" sections. And it is not, as I had always assumed, that the opproprium heaped on the Jewish parts (and in particular on one character, Mordecai) was merely a function of English Jew-hate (which, granted, was fairly tepid compared to Jew-hate in European lands.) It's that Eliot, who immersed herself in Jewish lore and learning, flummoxed her audience, which knew nothing about such matters, and which viewed Jewry and Judaism solely through a negative lens (Jews as Christ-killers, ritual murderers and, yes, venal money-lenders demanding their pound of flesh). Eliot's sanguine--and educated--depiction of Jews and their religion was so unfamiliar, so outré, that her audience could not possibly fathom it, and therefore disparaged it.

There's a non-literary modern-day equivalent, of course. The British are so convinced of Israel's iniquity, and view it solely through a cracked lens (Israeli Jews as "colonial interlopers," "land-stealers," "ethnic cleansers," practitioners of "apartheid" and other Leftoslamy-purveyed balderdash), that they cannot fathom the truth (that the Jewish State is in an ongoing existential fight for survival; that the jihad that threatens Israel is the same one that imperils all infidel lands). Thus has a formerly tepid hate been amped up to a level of loathing that has rarely been seen since King Edward's time, when the Jews were expelled from England.

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