What’s so great about “Ulysses”?

The Argumentative Old Git

For a novel that is jokey, playful and irreverent, that exalts the everyday, and is about as much fun as any book I can think of, Ulysses has a formidable reputation. It is, indeed, often seen as the ultimate in literary elitism, and claims to have read it – and, further, to have enjoyed reading it, and coming back for more – are sometimes regarded with scepticism at best, and, at worst, with downright incredulity, or even with open accusations of lying. For Ulysses is unreadable, isn’t it? Or, at least, excessively difficult. And can anyone really enjoy something that is at such a level of difficulty? Far from being an enjoyable reading experience, is it not rather the case that reading this novel – or, rather claiming to have read this novel – is a sort of admission ticket to an exclusive and highly elitist literary club, membership of…

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The Butchers Bill (of words)

By George Carter

This is a cross-post from the author’s own blog, reproduced with kind permission.

There’s always some trepidation that comes with writing an essay on language. There is an immediate expectation on the part of the reader for their correspondent to be, if not highfalutin then at least competent. My aim is not to produce a grammatical masterpiece, although I attempt, of course to uphold standards. My purpose runs deeper than that, to consider the debasement of the intrinsic value of words. Namely, their meaning.

I’m not the first to point out our descent in to meaninglessness. Our adoption of gibberish and jargon into the lexicon has been a constant source of antagonism since the Norman Conquest. It was brought to its near apogee in the era of George Orwell and the great man, in his — and here I daresay he would throttle me — immortal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, duly eviscerates it. Note this extract from Professor Lancelot Hogben:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collactions of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Orwell’s criticism “quite apart from avoidable ugliness” was that sentences and paragraphs so constructed fall afoul of the greatest crime of language, that of a “staleness of imagery”. This leads — so he believed and I concur — to a “lack of precision” where “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not”.

This literary trap no doubt still captures many amongst our lettered classes, but our current problem is far more severe. We have the destroyed the meaning of words altogether. Take awesome, adj; causing feelings of great admiration, respect, or fear. And my own note for emphasis; Awe-some, to feel in awe. Awe was reserved for moments of transcendence, of divine inspiration, a word denoting our connection with the numinous infinity of our being. Now you can walk down any street of the cultural metropolis of London and have awesome being used to describe such trivialities as a new pair of Nike high tops, or Rhianna’s latest chart hit.

It is true that words naturally change meaning over time, ‘optimism’ has cheerfully made its way from Voltaire’s original and ‘need’ these days more often denotes want. People have always abused, evolved, and divined new meaning from words and this isn’t a call for the strictures of an Academie Anglais. Not only do I think it would be a futile endeavour, I can’t help but think our language would be poorer for it, after all Moliere, for all his eclat is not Shakespeare. It is however a call to reverse our trend of linguistic nihilism. The butchers bill is much longer than awesome. Outraged, appalled, shocked, disgusted, all and more have lost their ability to apply real meaning in their use. This is a tragedy. A tragedy that prevents us from plumbing the full depths of the human condition. Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes language as a window into human nature. As that window becomes narrower our rich, inner world becomes that much poorer. The 21st century with its trigger warnings and safe spaces is eating at our ability to feel alive in all its beauty. So much so that when we feel afraid — as is natural in a species still to lose its fear of the night — we can find solace in the words that allow us to express our condition to our fellow travellers. In so doing we can attain what little comfort and grace is due to us in the time we have on this strange journey of life.

No wonder the extent of our vocabulary is linked to everything from educational attainment and social standing, through to cognitive development and your chances of suffering from depression. Our ability to explain our inner world and to open the window that allows us to express this onto the world of things is ultimately limited by our ability to effectively communicate that world in words. Is it any surprise that we have generations failing to achieve any sort of attainment in any field of value. Generations hooked on vacuous ‘reality’ television and alarmingly adulterated narcotics. No wonder we see people falling under the thrall of false prophets, Donald Trump is just the logical outcome of this destruction of any ability to explain. An absurdity wholly appropriate to absurd times. In a world where at the click of a button people can meet anyone else in the world but lack the words to say anything meaningful to them. A world where a post on a virtual wall is a substitute for in person greetings and texting has replaced the art of the heartfelt letter between lovers. Contrast Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Christmas love letter to Nancy where he describes the women in his life and ends “fortunately all these women are you — fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you… How do I love thee — let me count the ways? For there is no way to count. For I love the whole gang of you” reduced in modern vernacular to “u r fit”, or else equally banal.

The apoplexy of the Bernie people to Trumps victory is the other side of the same coin. Call everyone a racist and you remove the meaning of the word. No longer is it the stupidity of Jim Crow or the bravery of Dr King, let alone the insanity of Mengler and the horrors of Auschwitz. Treblinka. Belzec. Sobibor. Chelmno. Majdanek. I feel impelled to list them all. To impregnate some meaning into what they represent. When we destroy them, words become useless at denoting anything in reality. Only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust. What does it do when two-thirds either don’t believe it or think it’s exaggerated? If genocide has lost all meaning what does that brood for future generations?

In Jean Hatzfeld’s painfully documented narrative driven from the side of the genocidaires in Rwanda, the killers are acutely aware of the power of words refusing to even mention genocide when spoken to in the French informal personal ’tu’ and only opening up in the broader more formal ‘vous’ even then preferring instead to refer to it as ‘the cuttings’ in the full knowledge of the shame of what genocide means in relation to their crimes. We risk much in the debasement of the language, as much in our shame as in our triumphs. It is through, and only through language, that we can comprehend. And in comprehending come to terms with, what Rilke so beautifully illumed as “that unique, not repeatable being which at every turn of our life we are”.

How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen


This is a cross-post from Himadri’s own blog The Argumentative Old Git

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes,passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here

“Anti Judaism” by David Nirenberg. Book review by Oscar Clarke

The History of thinking about Judaism

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Nirenberg, David. Norton, 610pp.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his post-war Portrait of the Anti-Semite, came to the conclusion (borrowing a phrase from Voltaire) that if the Jew did not exist then the anti-Semite would have to invent him. This “existentialist” interpretation earned the scorn of Hannah Arendt, who did not deign to linger upon his argument, summarily dismissing it as “fashionable nonsense,” before returning to her more serious reflections upon the sickness which had nearly destroyed Europe. And perhaps she was right. Perhaps a more serious, sober, fact-based study of this curious hatred was in order. Then again, one such study, produced in the late 1960s by Norman Cohn, would be treated, in the preface Arendt produced for later editions of her Origins of Totalitarianism, to just the same scorn – not even worthy of mention in the main text, Arendt scolded Cohn for the asininity of his Warrant for Genocide in a footnote.

Might it be possible, though, that fashionable as Sartre’s ideas may have been, they may yet have contained at least a grain of insight? His essay is, at least, occasionally still read today, even if it pales in insignificance beside Arendt’s weighty, learned tome. David Nirenberg’s new history of anti-Judaism, majestically subtitled “The Western Tradition,” documents three-thousand years of (predominantly western, though there is a chapter on the Islamic East) obsessiveness regarding the “chosen” people. The effort to oppose and overcome the perils of Judaism, argues Nirenberg, has been the greatest task in the western intellectual tradition. From Matthew to Marx, Jewish questions have exerted such a strain upon the western mind that, regardless of the actual existence of those who practice it, the striving for emancipation from Judaism has been the primary preoccupation of our history.

Nirenberg’s history starts in Hellenised Egypt, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is where it should have started. For whilst there was much early anti-Jewish persecution during this period, I am not convinced that it was here that the tradition of thinking in terms of, and in opposition to, Judaism really got started. His central argument being that Judaism has occupied a vaunted position in western history – the struggle against it having been at the forefront of every idea which has espoused some version of universal destiny – his history should, I believe, have started with early Christianity: on the Road to Damascus, to be precise.

He gets to this in the second chapter. Paul’s vision of Christ, who accuses him – “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest” (I’m using the King James Version; Nirenberg uses the New International Version, which, aesthetically, is a shame) – and his subsequent conversion, is, on the one hand, a symbolic example by which successive generations of Jews might be convinced to convert. But those successive generations would not have become such a special case in the Christian mind-set, Nirenberg argues, had Paul severed completely his relationship to Judaism. Instead, he chose to see Christ as the culmination of Jewish scripture. He:

desire[d] to understand Jesus’s gospel as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham… Had Paul dreamed of abandoning Hebrew scripture or condemning it as false, “Judaism” might indeed have become no more important to ancient Christians than any other of the myriad ethnic identities they were capable of ignoring as spiritually insignificant, such as Scythians. But he did not. Instead… he taught his followers a new way to unlock the meaning of scripture and its promises. Paul was a pedagogue, his letters primers for the practice of reading he was advocating. In them we can see the principals of a new science of scriptural interpretation – exegesis, hermeneutics – being built on a foundation of questions about the believer’s relationship to “Judaism.”

Paul’s new science can be summarised by a line from his second letter to the Corinthians: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” While the literal Jews read scripture in order to establish and follow God’s law, thus becoming arrogant in their worldly wisdom, Paul instructs the new Christians to follow the spirit of Christ, by which they might be brought closer to God, and to salvation:

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 4-5)

What Nirenberg demonstrates is that Paul begat, for Christianity, the tradition of interpreting scripture in terms of opposition to Judaism. By the time of the composition of the gospels, this opposition had become scornful. Human (read: Jewish) wisdom was an insult to heaven: “I thank thee, oh Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them unto babes.”

After the apostolic century, Nirenberg draws the reader’s attention to troubles faced by the early church in attempting to reach a consensus about exactly what should be considered Christian orthodoxy. Christians today know the “New Testament” confidently but,

There was no such confidence among the early Christians, no agreement about what constituted Christian scripture or how it should be read. From its very first moments, the Jesus movement was marked by a struggle between “true teaching” and “false.”

In trying to decide upon what merited inclusion in the new canon, it was inevitable, following the intellectual example of Paul, that anxiety about which texts were suitably Christian and which might in fact be a little too Jewish would arise. Equally, for early Christians, interpreting Paul meant trying to grasp the difference between Jewish and Christian readings of scripture. In all of this, as Nirenberg points out, “the penalty for a wrong choice was high: nothing less than eternal damnation.” In something of an alternative history of the early Church, Nirenberg then takes us methodically through the efforts of Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Augustine and just about every one of the early church fathers to overcome carnal Judaism.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages and not a great deal had changed. Though the Christian canon, by this point, was very firmly established, insecurity among Christians about the influence that Judaizing ideas could have upon their faith abounded. From Gilbert Dahan’s study of anti-Jewish polemic in the Middle Ages, we learn that Christian authorities were regularly advising against dialogue with Jews. Here is Peter of Blois on the subject:

Let no one dispute with a heretic or a Jew unless it is to have his wits sharpened. Actually, it is because of illicit and unwise discussions that the insiduous growth of heresies has become so widespread and rampant.

In France, the Council of Bouges went as far, in 1276, as to ban Jews from small towns to counter the influence that their ideas were having upon “simple,” rural Christians. Years earlier, Joachim of Fiore had warned that, under the influence of “the enemies of the cross… those without strong characters may be subject to a ruination of their faith.” The epigraph with which Nirenberg choses to introduce his chapter on medieval Europe points to the ubiquity of this feeling:

What do you think the devil can accomplish through the Jews… almost all educated and most adept at trickery… so secretive in their deceptions that they display a remarkable appearance of being truthful. (Ramon Marti, The Dagger of the Faith)

It is in this atmosphere of insecurity that we find the first rumblings against princely power, not because the wealth of the sovereign offended the lowly peasants, but because the materialism of rulers was associated with Jewish carnality. To the intensely apocalyptic medieval mind, this world was only a prelude to the glorious heavenly kingdom to come: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” To delight in the pleasures of this world was not only to miss its point – a spiritual journey, nothing more – but to behave like a Jew.

But what about the post-Christian world? In the era of Enlightenment universalism we might imagine that Jewish questions became somewhat irrelevant. Not so, argues Nirenberg. The new moral philosophers may have introduced some new ideas about human destiny but, as exemplified in the work of Immanuel Kant, one of the old ideas – thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism – stuck around.

Kant rejected the empiricism of the British philosophers Hume and Locke. He rebelled, in his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, against their idea that reason could be subject to the laws of nature, for that would make reason a slave to necessity; freewill an illusion; man a mere slave. The world of spirit transcends the carnal world – this is Kant’s primary contention. And it was also St. Paul’s primary contention. This might seem tenuous ground upon which to portray Kant as a secular figure in the grand Christian tradition of counterposing Christian spirituality and Jewish carnality. However, Nirenberg is perceptive enough to notice that Kant chose a familiar hero with which to demonstrate the ascendency of the spirit over nature. In Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, Kant makes of Jesus a Kantian:

A rebel against Jewish materialism, a revolutionary who “opened the doors of freedom to all who, like him, choose to die to everything that holds them fettered to earthly life to the detriment of morality.”

After Kant came Fichte. Once a Jacobin, Fichte gave up on France during Napoleon’s Prussian campaign. He became a staunch nationalist, but he gave to nationalism something new, borrowed from his Jacobean days – this was an idea of universal history, which he never gave up on. Like Kant’s universal reason, Fichte’s universal history defined itself in opposition to Judaism. Fichte laid out his picture of history in his Characteristics of the Present Age. The first of the ages, the “original state of human innocence,”

[Nirenberg’s summary] was all too quickly succeeded by a long ice age of blind faith and obedience, which ran from the beginning of recorded history until the Enlightenment. The third and present age was one of “completed sinfulness,” in which men’s souls are entirely ruled by materialism and self-interest… [but] a new people being born will make the coming age the real age of reason.

This age of reason was to be also an age of love, as he explained later in his Addresses to the German Nation, for all of history had been “a long-running war between love and self-interest.” Only a people with a true and pure nationalistic love could truly bring about Fichte’s age of reason. This was a German characteristic, and it certainly was not a French one. Unsurprisingly, it was by comparison to the materialistic and egoistic Jews that Fichte condemned the French as a people incapable of “having a national character.” In the words of one of Fichte’s followers, which I take from Paul Rose’s work on revolutionary anti-Semitism in nineteenth century Germany, German liberation will be one: “not only from the Napoleonic conquest of 1806, meaning simply from a political exterior situation, but also from our spiritual inner slavery… from the bondage of Egypt.”

Nirenberg devotes many pages to the complicated figure of Hegel. The most famous of the philosophers of universal destiny – for whom the end of philosophy and, indeed, history had already arrived – Hegel considered Judaism a dead religion; a stage in the dialectical unfolding of the spirit whose time had passed. And yet, as Nirenberg demonstrates, Judaism had not died for Hegel himself; in fact, it was the tool with which he critiqued the philosophy of Kant.

Hegelian dialectics treats the history of philosophy as a quest towards the absolute, or truth. This truth is arrived at through the reconciliation (or synthesis) of opposing ideas. But these ideas must participate in some small way in the absolute (the real). The downfall of Kant’s philosophy – like all dualist philosophies – was that it opposed itself from the real so that no reconciliation (and therefore no progress) could be achieved. In other words, Kant’s was a phony philosophy. Divorcing itself completely from empiricism, Kant’s idealism was, for Hegel, to be equated with Abraham and Noah’s decision to turn to a vast abstract power (reason instead of God) and oppose it to the world. Kant opposed thought to reality: a “Jewish principal.”

Nirenberg is discussing a young Hegel, and acknowledges that he altered some of his ideas later in life, but whether or not Hegel was anti-Semitic is unimportant. What his ideas demonstrate is that the Western penchant for thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism is extremely malleable. The Jews, having been derided for their carnality and materialism throughout the Christian centuries (a theme adopted by Kant) are, for Hegel, the first people to reject the world in favour of an abstraction (which is the reason why Jewish philosophies – such as Kant’s – cannot participate in the journey toward the absolute). Indeed, Heine, citing his early master Hegel, labelled the Jews “the people of the spirit.”

Heine himself, once he relinquished his Hegelianism, and his Christianity – to which he briefly converted – had some interesting thoughts on the place of Judaism in the human drama. Having struggled to come to terms with being Jewish, he came, later in life, to embrace his origins, and began to write passionately about what Judaism had given to the world:

Moses created a nation that was to defy the centuries – a great, eternal, holy people, the people of God, which could serve as the model for all humanity. If all pride of ancestry were not a silly paradox in a champion of the revolution… [I] could well be proud… of those martyrs of Israel who gave the world a God and a morality.

Précis: Judaism, in spite of Hegel’s contention that in turning away from the world and the real it had no role in the attainment of the absolute (and was a dead religion), gave to humanity the idea of universal destiny.

Heine was proud of this, but it seems to me as though this might have been – to the western mind (the subject of Nirenberg’s study) – Judaism’s original sin. For, above all else, it is the philosophers of universal destiny who have turned opposition to Judaism into a principle. For the Jews, as the originators of this idea, naturally assumed the role of primary adversaries to all variations upon it. Whatever has been advanced as the answer to the salvation of humanity, the Jews have been found to be proposing the opposite. Paul Berman, who writes for the New Republic, gave an interview a few years ago in which he offered this summary of the role of Judaism in the western psyche:

The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man’s happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man’s happiness would right now have achieved perfection – were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one’s opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

In his only reflection upon attitudes towards the modern Jewish state, Nirenberg writes,

We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel.”

Might European animosity towards Israel be the latest chapter in the western tradition of opposing Judaism to the moral imperatives of mankind? This is a question for another book, but it should be depressingly unsurprising to readers of Nirenberg’s history that we might have to ask it.

There is just one glaring omission in Nirenberg’s study, and that is the counter-revolutionary movement which started in France (and Russia) and produced the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Whilst there is a section on Edmund Burke, who looked at Robespierre and Danton, and only saw the Jewish financiers who must have been orchestrating the revolution in the background, that is where Nirenberg’s discussion of counter-revolution ends.

I find this odd because the counter-revolutionary movement provides such an excellent example of his thesis. They looked at every aspect of the modern world – the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, industrialisation, the advent of capitalism, and the advent of communism – and the critique which they developed for every despised development turned out to be a critique of Judaism. This is what Norman Cohn noticed, pointing out that “regardless of the real situation of Jews in society” Judaism was the explanation provided for its ills. It is what Sartre noticed, too. In short, it is what Nirenberg’s book is all about. So he is entitled to his criticisms – reserved for the epilogue – of Hannah Arendt’s proposition that anti-Jewish ideas must have some basis in reality; and that the Jews must assume partial responsibility for their greatest tragedy. He has compiled a three-thousand yearlong dossier of evidence to the contrary.