for Adam Katz
In a response to Chronicle 705 (“The Jews”), Adam suggested that the uniqueness of the Jews should be “thought in terms of some particular, ongoing, historical relationship between the Jews and mimesis.” This particularity is, in a word, what I have been calling firstness.
My use of the term is something of a neologism. In C. S. Peirce’s vocabulary, firstness refers to what is in effect a “romantic” notion of primal perception uninfluenced by cultural/semiotic mediation, rather than, as I use it here, to a necessary role in a human mimetic relationship. As the root of authority, hierarchy, etc., the firstness of the first user of the sign is his role as the instigator of mimesis, the first to intentionally perform an act that will be imitated by others.
In this definition, the core meaning of the term does not distinguish between the firstness of authority and the merely temporal priority of being the first to discover something or to perform an act; what is essential is this priority itself. This is not to deny the difference between inventing a new mode of action and merely being the first to employ it in a given situation; this notion of firstness is context-dependent. But whether the context be the known universe or two people en situation, what defines firstness is a deviation from co-temporality, a break in symmetry, a temporary or permanent hierarchization.
This suggests that, given the Jews’ historical discovery of the One God, nothing should prevent us from exploring the relationship of the Jews to other aspects of mimesis, whether in the arts and sciences or in the broader aspects of life-style.
It is useful to examine in this context a recently republished 2015 article by David P. Goldman (“Spengler”), “Why Greeks Hate Jews, or Talmud and Tragedy” (https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2021/07/25/why-greeks-hate-jews-or-talmud-and-tragedy-2-n1464588). Goldman proposes a fundamental cultural disjunction that separates the Jews from the Greeks, and by extension, from the entire world of “Gentile” Western culture.
Hebrews and Greeks, Athens and Jerusalem, have been traditionally considered the two principal sources of Western civilization. Goldman surely knows as well as I that neither alone can be held responsible for the greatness of this civilization—about whose survival in its recent crises both the real and the pseudonymous Spengler have been less than sanguine.
Goldman shares with René Girard the view that the West is above all Biblical, Jewish, before it is Greek. Which explains, if not justifies, his Schadenfreude toward the antisemitic Greeks of today. The Jewish population, far less numerous than the Greek in antiquity, is today considerably greater, and whereas Israel has become a regional economic and military power, Greece is a perpetual embarrassment for the European Union’s financial system.
Yet the real question is why, although the Greeks are far from alone in hating their Jewish rivals, no one, including the Jews, particularly hates the Greeks. Antihellenism is not in the dictionary.
For Goldman, the Jews revere life in its everyday sense, and Jewish law and custom are focused on sanctifying its practices, from lighting the Sabbath candles to seeking reconciliation rather than punishment and compromise over violence. In contrast, the Greeks, in his view, hate the Jews because they can love life only as mediated by an ideal representation. Men love beautiful boys rather than the mothers of their children, tragedy over survival, idolatry cum resentment of superhuman yet man-like gods over faith in the One God.
Goldman’s position is summed up in the following citation:
By their persecution the Gentiles defy this challenge [of the Jewish community] from the side of Eternity and finality. They always accuse the Jew of provocation, because although he is quite capable of playing Red Indian out of love for his neighbors, he is incapable of any of their idolatries, and though he can shed his blood for his country, he will always feel that no skyscraper, no man-of-war, no Venus of Cnidos, and no glory of arms is more important than the tears of the widow or the sigh of the orphan. [Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1969); 226-227)]
Or, one might add, the pots and pans of the kosher kitchen. The truth is that Jews look at the cultural exertions of the Gentiles as children’s games that grownups should find boring. For the players, though, these are not mere games, but a response to existential despair.
Goldman’s intuition here, as always, contains a profound truth, but I beg to differ with him concerning the real focus of his comparison, which is, once more, on firstness.
The crux of Goldman’s argument is found in the contrast he draws between the Greek and the Jewish response to a parable found in identical form in both Greek mythology (Nietzsche’s account of Silenus’s words to Midas, in The Birth of Tragedy) and the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3): that what would be best for man would be never to be born. The difference being that in Ecclesiastes, it is followed in Chapter 9 by an exhortation to enjoy life. And as a final proof that Jews cannot take such nihilism seriously, Goldman cites a well-known Jewish joke, found among other places in Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious:
Two yeshiva students are learning Ecclesiastes. Moshe says to Yankel, “He’s right! Life is so painful, pain is so long, joy is so short, it’s better never to have been born.” “Yes,” says Yankel, “but who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand.”
It is worth mentioning that in the light of the Hindu-Buddhist idea of karma, this paradoxical state is indeed the ideal. Nirvana is being without existence, subsistence without desire, or in our terms, an ensouled but not desiring existence, in accord with what I spoke of in Chronicles 515–516 as the Buddhist ideal: the scene of representation emptied of its central object.
Eastern religions aside, Goldman’s point is that the Greeks, who are usually understood as worshipers of the senses as well as the founders of science, at least in its principles (although it is the Jewish element of Christianity that focused scientific reasoning on the study of the real world), were in fact haters of real life. The Apollonian ideal is sterile, whereas the Hebrews sanctified home and family, love and marriage. Goldman demeans tragedy as a life-evading dream in contrast with the Biblical focus on the flourishing of the human community. Whereas frères ennemis Eteocles and Polynices both fight to the death, Jacob outsmarts Esau without violence and lives to found Israel.
I can sympathize with Goldman’s rejection of the esthetic “culturalism” that also repelled Girard. Yet neither of us would subscribe to this anti-dialectical view which, as Hegel would have noted, is consequently unhistorical. Western civilization cannot do without the metaphysical element introduced by the Greeks, and although this element is not unproblematically life-affirming, one can hardly imagine Einstein formulating the Theory of Relativity by meditating on the Talmud.
I cannot accept the side of Goldman that affects to deny the values of the modern world while being perforce enmeshed in them. If the decline of the West be the sign of the historical failure of Christianity, then it is also the failure of Judaism. An ultra-traditional Judaism that rejects the Greek element of our civilization may be worthy of preservation as a symbol of Jewish survival, but only within a world that has not rejected the rest of that civilization.
And however much the Greeks “hate” the Jews—the point of departure for Goldman’s essay was a 2015 survey by B’nai B’rith showing that Greece is among the most antisemitic of countries, more so even than Iran or Turkey—the very principles he enunciates suggest that the appropriate Jewish response is neither to hate in return nor to “turn the other cheek,” but to point out that the most valuable contributions of Hellenic culture to the modern world were made via its dialectical subsumption into the Hebraic world-vision that produced Christianity—and Islam.
As I have pointed out in other contexts, the ethical function of firstness is as a source of benefit to the human community. One of the differences between my thinking and that of Girard is my “Jewish” reluctance to share his focus on sacrifice as the means of revealing this firstness. Only by giving himself up to human violence can God in the person of Jesus liberate man from original sin. In contrast, the Jews do not focus on each soul’s participation in eternal life via resurrection in the flesh. What they see as eternal is the Jewish people, and it is this people that plays a role analogous to that of the Son in Christian eschatology.
No doubt this “tribal” relationship could not be extended to the entire world. Judaism’s universalism is paradoxical; its One God could be adopted by the Gentiles only via its Christian and Muslim offshoots, whose respective means of persuasion were self-sacrifice and conquest.
The Jews gave the One God to the world, but since the Enlightenment, Christianity (like Islam at an earlier time) has offered the Jewish participants in its culture the means to observe the transformative adaptation of their faith by a world of peoples that bear no originary relationship to it, for whom the One God is God, but their God only through the mediation of Jesus.
In Originary Thinking, I proposed that secular cultural discourse since the Greeks could be understood in terms of a series of “esthetics,” from Classical to Post-Modern. The most important contrast was between the Classical esthetic of ancient Greece and Rome and what I called the Neo-Classical esthetic of Christian Europe.
The characters in Classical drama never have to ask why they are “on stage,” since their lives as monarchs and warriors, not to say demi-gods, are endowed with significance a priori, just as are the characters of the Bible story. The Christian era realizes the boundary between the sacred/significant and earthly kingdoms as one that the individual, even if destined for kingship, must cross for himself. Indeed, the very notion of fiction only really applies to such characters, whose lives involve a “moment of truth” in which they accede to scenic significance, the worldly analogue to sacrality.
I focused my discussion of the Neo-Classical esthetic on Renaissance tragedy, but one can find this new characteristic much earlier—in the 11th–century Chanson de Roland, for example. The central difference is the element of “play within a play,” in which the scene itself becomes a thematic locus of significance. The personae of Renaissance drama are characteristically faced with a moment in which they are obliged to take the stage, to enter on scene. Hamlet is of course the exemplary case, but, for example, Racine’s tragedies, which adhere strictly to unité de lieu, all treat the unchanging stage as a locus of danger, which the characters often seek impotently to leave. Phèdre throughout her play wishes she could be elsewhere; Hippolyte seeks to flee the stage only to find death.
Goldman’s “T.S. Eliot vs. Jewish Humor” (https://pjmedia.com/news-and-politics/david-p-goldman/2021/02/14/t-s-eliot-vs-jewish-humor-n1425557) focuses on a defense of Hamlet against T. S. Eliot’s hostile critique, which Goldman interprets as consubstantial with Eliot’s well-known antisemitism in its rejection of what Goldman calls the tragi-comic, a “Jewish” irony applied to the solemnity of tragedy.
This parallels my distinction between the Classical and the Neo-Classical whose very structure may be seen as ironic: the tragic hero has in substance to choose to become a tragic hero. It may be Hamlet’s duty to avenge his father, but he is not fated to; it is his free choice, and his failure to really make this choice might be better called comi-tragic than tragi-comic.
Goldman backs up his argument by another reference to the Jewish never-being-born joke, and in doing so, tacitly concurs with my Classical vs Neo-Classical distinction in which the latter may be said to add a Jewish element to ancient tragedy: an implicit ability of the character to see himself outside the play, even as he can do no other than to perform it. I wish Goldman had taken this opportunity to revise his theoretical stance toward “Gentile” secular culture, whose problematic, paradoxical, Jewish element his polemic against Eliot allows him to recognize. But let us continue.
If there is one sign of the universal penetration of Western culture throughout the modern world, it is certainly fictional narrative. However disturbing we may find Hollywood’s current subservience to China’s politics, there is no doubt that the novel and film, both products of the West, remain the dominant cultural forms of modernity.
I bring this up in the present context because, in still another recent (also reprinted) post, “Why I Don’t Like Fiction” (https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2020/12/30/why-i-dont-like-fiction-n1293428), Goldman expresses his hostility to fiction in essentially the same terms as his dismissal of Greek tragedy in “Talmud and Tragedy”: fiction is a dreamworld that Greeks (and Christians) need because, unlike the Jews, they are unable to grasp the sanctity of the quotidian family life that sustains the existence of the Jewish people.
As a full-fledged member of Western society, Goldman’s rejection of fiction is more curmudgeonly than consistent. He explains reprinting this piece as a reaction to a New Yorker article on Virginia Woolf (whose—Jewish—name he Freudianslippingly misspells). Goldman refines his definition of “fiction” so as not to reject “all imaginative prose,” but only those narratives that “help us work through our own existential quandaries by proxy,” a category he exemplifies by Goethe’s Werther—the Ur-Roman of mensonge romantique, which provoked numerous suicides in its day.
As Girard would have told him, this way of reading a novel shares the character’s romantic lie rather than transcending it toward la vérité romanesque. Goldman is not really unaware of this. Thus he opposes to Werther’s romantic suicide, Wilhelm Meister’s “abandon[ing] the novel for life instead of death” in the work that exemplified for Lukács die gereiften Männlichkeit. But the key is nonetheless that Lukács and Girard both view Meister’s story as a whole; it is through the novel that he arrives at maturity, just as the protagonists of Mensonge end their spurious quests by “converting” to a true perception of their previous slavery to mimetic desire.
For Girard the novel is an exercice spirituel, a transcendence of false desire that recapitulates the author’s own experience. Whereas Goldman treats the bildungsroman as a reductio ad absurdum: the hero sets an example for the reader by leaving the novel, not as the fulfillment of a learning process but as a rejection of fiction for reality—a self-deconstruction of the work, and of literature itself.
The paradoxicality of Goldman’s expressed judgment, which denies its own premise that “fiction,” like Greek myth, is the work of a people who cannot accept reality and are consequently doomed to “hate the Jews” and decline into historical irrelevance, is not truly defensible as an analytic perspective, but it offers a precious insight into the dilemma of the Jew in Western Judeo-Christian culture. Goldman’s affected rejection of fiction is not a real option for a modern Jew who seeks an anthropological understanding mediated through his own participation in this culture.
As we have seen, experts on the Jewish question are semi-consciously in denial of what really makes the Jews “different.” Here, as in so many things, the Jews are exemplary, although, as also in so many things, their firstness makes their state of denial all the more deplorable. The self-effacing liberal Jew is not so much hostile to Jews as such as to the idea that they are different from everybody else. Thus he is sure to include in any denunciation of antisemitism a strong affirmation of its shared identity with racism, sexism, and the rest—in pitiable denial of two millennia of Jewish history.
And thus this Jew may come close to real antisemitism in refusing to recognize the specific problems posed by Israel’s rejection by its Muslim neighbors, a rejection that has only now (as a legacy of the “antisemitic” Trump) loosened up a bit. Whence the multiplication of explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish organizations such as J Street, B’Tselem, IfNotNow, etc., and the apologetic tone of most of the others.
Perhaps antisemitism will end only when all humanity recognizes its common brotherhood, but in that utopian event, antisemitism will surely be the last prejudice to disappear. It is this, in a perverse way, that the liberal Jew recognizes by continually emphasizing other peoples’ sufferings over his own. This is not the generosity of firstness but a variant of the same phenomenon as groveling before BLM—save that, whatever expiation European imperialism may owe its former colonial subjects, it is surely not for the Jews to make it.
Goldman’s is but one of countless examples of the paradox of Jewish firstness, which cannot be “solved,” but can at least be recognized, and yet that is invariably (with the exception of Adam’s and my book), not even denied, but ignored—much as generative anthropology has been ignored.
Which leads me to a consoling insight.
In today’s world, saturated by the internet’s infinite digital access to information and opinion—which in its early stages I naively saw as an unproblematic source of liberation (see Chronicle 10, September 16, 1995)—there is virtually no intrinsic source of intellectual authority. As opposed to the sciences, humanistic thought, like poetry or the plastic arts, is judged by “experts” whose extensive knowledge, echoed within a professional clique, no longer bears a guarantee of valid judgment.
But however disappointing this may seem, it is in fact a real opportunity for original thought. How much better to be ignored than persecuted, better not merely for one’s personal well-being, but for the opportunity it provides for years of reflection in tranquility. Just as our internet culture obscures new ideas by its sheer inability to choose among them, this culture permits new thinking on the “Jewish question” in an ambiance equally sheltered from the quest for fame and the unilluminating heat of polemics.
The happy few who read these Chronicles should appreciate this. Firstness is an unsolvable problem, but it is no doubt only under such conditions as these that its hitherto obscure paradoxes can begin to be revealed to the light of day.