On Jewish Modernity


In my book The Rise of Eurocentrism: Anatomy of Intepretation (1993), I highlighted the central role played by the Hebraism vs. Hellenism polarity in the self-definition of modernity, and especially in the evolution of Jewish modernity. This evolution is the focus of a superb new study, Enzo Traverso’s The End of Jewish Modernity [2013] (2016).

The book’s “Introduction” opens with a comparison of two major 20th-century figures, Leon Trotsky and Henry Kissinger, “archetypes of the Jew as revolutionary and the Jew as imperialist.” They embody “two opposite paradigms of Jewishness. The first left its mark on the interward years, the second on the years of the Cold War.” The author insists unflinchingly that the Jewish modernity they embody “has reached the end of its road. After having being the main focus of critical thought in the Western worls — in the era when Europe was its centre — Jews today find themselves, by a kind of paradoxical reversal, at the heart of the mechanisms of domination” (3). The Jewish voice, “which used to be dissonant, is now in counterpoint. Today, it blends in with the harmony of the dominant discourse” (4).  That is why its modernity is exhausted.

John Murray Cuddihy traced the same trajectory (from critical to dominant discourse) in his absorbing study The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (1974), which explored how “Judaism became Jewishness” (14). The consistent move of major Jewish figures from progressive to conservative ones (such as Maimon to Norman Podhoretz, Varnhagen to Cynthia Ozick, Lasalle to Harold Garfinkel, and Mendelssohn to Ayn Rand) shows how emancipated intellectuals enter “a strange world, to explore a strange people observing a strange halakah (code). They examine this world in dismay, with wonder, anger, and punitive objectivity” (68). Many felt belated and backward. As a response, “came early the ideology of Hebraism — namely, that whereas ‘you may be a superior civilization (whatever that is), we, in our political and economic impotence, are a superior moral heritage’ [Michael Polanyi]. There is Hellenism, which is pagan, perhaps civilized, and with an eye to beauty, but greater still is Hebraism, with its concern for justice and its superiori morality. From Luzzatto to Heine (from whom Arnold got it) and beyond to Hermann Coehn (1842-1914) and the Marburg neo-Kantians, this is a major theme of alienated Diaspora intellectual Jewry. It is the ‘moralistic style’ of the modern oppositional intelligentsia” (183). Thanks to its “‘ousider’ prophetic intellectuals … Hebraism as ideology gave meaning to Jewish civilizational inferiority and moral superiority at one stroke” (183-84).  That generated its critical force.

Furthermore, as David Biale has documented in his Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought (2011), the prophetic intellectuals of oppositional intelligentsia sought indeed to draw on their moral Jewish heritage. His book begins by endorsing the position of Isaac Deutcher, in his famous 1958 talk “The Non-Jewish Jew,” that major thinkers such as Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud “were all heretics, yet their heresy might be understood as a rejection that grew out of the Jewish tradition itself” (1). Jewish secularism was less radical than it appeared since it was based in the premodern tradition it rejected in its “attempt to fashion a countertradition, an alternative to Judaism as a religion” (13).  Traverso declares that this major modern countertradition, which flourished between 1750-1950, has been over for over half a century for reasons that he explains at length.

The “Conclusion” of Traverso’s book opens with a comparison of two major 19th-century figures, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli: “They also reflect two distinct trajectories of the Jewish intelligentsia. If the model of critical intellectual embodied by Marx dominated the twentieth century, that of Disraeli became more general at the century’s end, when revolutionaries gave way to statesmen and consiglieri. Today, the Jewish intellectual is no longer the pariah described by Hannah Arendt in the 1940s; he or she is rather to be found in think-tanks linked to the state, an ‘organic intellectual’ of the ruling classes. This shift is evidence of a change of era: the end of the age of critical Judaism and the beginning of that of a Judaism of order” (128).

In the era of globalization, writes Traverso, the challenge to hegemony comes not from its “others” (the Jews who operated within the West) but from its post-colonials (who until now have been forced to operate outside). “European Jewish thought adopted a self-reflexive posture of Western culture, challenged from within by a stratum of its own representatives who, rejected and thrust to its margins, became its critical conscience (sometimes at the price of ignoring the non-European world, as in the case of the Frankfurt School and psychoanalysis). All these Jewish ‘outsiders’ displayed a deep and often tragic sense of belonging to Europe. … The birth of post-colonialism coincides with the exhaustion of the Jewish cycle of critical thought in Europe, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and decolonization, when the cumulative effects of these two historical caesuras have become evident” (131-32).   Proposing a contrapuntal archetype for our times, the writer concludes that the great post-colonial critic Edward Said was right to present himself as “the last Jewish intellectual.”

November 22, 2016

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German Nazi views of the Greeks


A newly translated study of classical reception by the Nazis emphasizes that what made their approach to antiquity unique was its concept of race. In his study Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past (2016, originally published in 2008 as Le national-socialisme et l’Antiquité), historian Johann Chapoutot shows that their claim to antiquity was “inscribed in the flesh and blood of contemporary Germans, who possessed the same racial essence as the ancient Greeks and Romans. This continuity of race justified the Nazis’ territorial conquests: if the Greeks and Romans had originally come from the North, then the Mediterranean basin … rightly belonged to the legitimate heirs of the North” (394).

This Aryanist view of history was put into brutal use when Germany invaded Greece and its army encountered the natives: “In 1941 the invasion initially prompted some disillusionment and confusion, until the Nazis’ awareness of their Nordic superiority swept it away and cleared their consciences. The contemporary Greek people were a population of half-breeds that had degenerated through long centuries of promiscuity and racial mixing with their Asiatic and Turkish neighbors; accordingly, all sexual relations between German soldiers and Greek women were strictly forbidden. Little by little, such haughty disdain would nourish and legitimate the Nazis’ practice of almost genocidal terror upon the Greek civilian population, beginning in 1942, as Mark Mazower has shown [in his study Inside Hitler’s Greece]. The Greek people were thus less native to their own country than the Germans themselves, who were the legitimate, pure descendants of the Indo-Germanic race that had come from the North in the first place to bring civilization to the Greek peninsula” (92).

Interestingly, some German racial theorists had already argued that the Greeks had been always half-breeds since the ancients themselves had degenerated into racial mixing by allowing nonnative blood and exotic values to pollute their original Nordic natural purity. In the book The Myth of the Twentieth Century: An Evaluation of the Spiritual-Intellectual Confrontations of Our Age (1930) influential Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg “considered the polarity between Apollo and Dionysus to be a consequence of the racial and spiritual schizophrenia of the Greeks, who were torn between faithfulness to their Nordic roots and an upwelling of nonnative peoples that had insinuated itself into their blood after their emigration south: ‘The Greek was always divided within himself and vacillated between his own natural values and those of alien and exotic origin’” (62). Thus ancient Greek bastardization proved that the Germans remained both the original and the authentic Greeks.

November 5, 2016

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Left Melancholy and its poetry after the American elections

The total defeat of all progressive forces in the American elections has turned Left Melancholy overnight into the overwhelming mood of those who saw their hopes shattered. The unthinkable has happened and no explanation is giving a satisfactory account. An existential era of political anxiety has dawned.

While the theoretical constellation of Badiou/Balibar/Berland/Bhabha/Brown remains relevant, those of us who have been engaging with counter-revolutionary ideas find it far more productive right now to work with a set of diverse notions such as nomadism, acceleration, incivility, the Bartleby refusal, renunciation, anti-power, communization, and disentrenchment. To talk about struggle and fight in the aftermath of the elections is to launch the march toward the next defeat. Before anything else we have to admit – This is the end, “the end/Of our elaborate plans, the end/Of everything that stands.”  This is not a time to start, because there is nowhere to stand.  This is a time to found.

I have been writing about autonomist Left Melancholy and poetry for many years now, including much of this blog. I am therefore in great sympathy with the wish of devastated American progressives to start a conversation not only with major thinkers but also poets: all of a sudden there is an inspiring demand for poetry that can help us make sense of loss and betrayal.

But why read poets who wrote for another time, place, and occasion (like Auden) and not living ones who have been writing under conditions of intense socio-political crisis about dignity after despair? This is a great moment to read the Greek poetry generation of the 2000s and explore its disillusioned, defiant Left Melancholy:

I have no more than a life
And scattered dreams from previous lives to offer
But it is at the altitude of dreams where the battle takes place
I am with no one and this means I am with the majority
It’s the new symmetry
We know nothing but we will not retreat yet
Because nothingness has been uttered
And the time for something has come.

Nikos Erinakis (Chiotis, ed.: Futures, p. 202)


Posted in Disengagement, Greek poetry, Left, Melancholy, Politics | Tagged

Setting Cavafy to music


A new crossover disk of popular and art songs, So Many Things (2016), reminds us that Cavafy continues to be among the 20th-century poets in any language who have been most often set to music. I became fully aware of this distinction when in 2011 pianist Pantelis Polychronidis and I started our long-term collaborative project to explore systematically his settings, and we were astonished by the sheer number of composers, variety of languages, and breadth of genres. You name the style and the format, somebody has already used it to make music with the Alexandrian author.  In a Greek co-authored article we attributed his popularity among musicians to a score-like openness and availability of much Cavafian poetry.

While some disks are devoted to entire Cavafy song cycles, many others, like the most recent one, include only one or two poems by him. Leading mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and string quartet Brooklyn Rider have released a collection of new songs by composers ranging from John Adams and Caroline Shaw to Sting and Björk. They have included Nico Muhly’s So Many Things (2013), a 12-minute scena of sorts (originally composed for von Otter and pianist Emanuel Ax) that uses two Cavafy poems framing one by Joyce Carol Oates. The poet’s phrase, «τόσα πράγματα», from the poem “In the same space” became the title of both the piece and the disk. American composer Muhly (1981) has been setting Cavafy throughout this decade, using translations by his good friend, Daniel Mendelsohn. I am aware of 11 poems used in 3 of his works.

Pantelis, my “other self,” has discussed Muhly’s Cavafy cycle Impossible Things with tenor Mark Padmore, who gave the world premiere, since at some point we were thinking about collaborating with tenor Nicholas Phan in another performance of the same cycle. In light of this and other recent settings it would be interesting to rethink thoroughly the evening-length, 17-song recital/lecture that Pantelis and I, together with the wonderful mezzo Alexandra Gravas, performed in 2012-13 in ten cities and four countries.  It would mean revisiting “critical horizontalism” in an era of Cavafian intermediality.

October 29, 2016

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The Melancholy of Resistance as Left Melancholy


The Greek translation of the novel The Melancholy of Resistance (1989) by the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (1954) appears at a most appropriate time, since the “Poetry of the Left Melancholy” of the Greek Generation of the 2000s, together with various public discussions of “Left Melancholy” among Greek politicians and intellectuals, has cultivated an audience highly sensitive to ideas of revolutionary defeat. In fact, this “novel of ideas” may be read as an elaborate allegory of the Greek history 2010s so far.

The story takes place in a nameless small  provincial town during a very cold November. A traveling circus arrives, bringing as its main attraction the world’s biggest dead giant Whale (which recalls the sea monster Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible) as well as the Prince, a mysterious (and never seen in Béla Tarr’s’ Werckmeister Harmonies, the 2000 film adaptation) prophet of doom, a demagogue whose doctrine of vengeful nihilism foments riots in the towns they visit. His new unruly followers in this hopeless town attempt to destroy the infected bourgeoisie whose sordid world is disintegrating toward inevitable catastrophe. They seek to purify the town but ruin it as correction generates rubble. Their revolt leads to breakdown of civic order, violence, and eventual defeat in the hands of the police who restore order and impose martial law as the circus leaves town. Might the Whale stand for the Revolutionary Left in 1989 Hungary or 2016 Greece?

Two of the novel’s protagonists distance themselves from this decomposing world. They are two friends who have withdrawn from its disharmony to hark to the music of the spheres. In their different ways they yearn for cosmic attunement, searching for the ideal tuning system. The older, Mr. Eszter, is a retired faculty and musicologist who has retreated from social cacophony into pondering the prevalence of the equal-tempered scale. He believes that music as representation of cosmic harmony redeems the misery of the world yet its perfection is an illusion and its tuning mere clamor because it is man-made, and therefore artificial. In the end, when he discovers that, in comparison to the arbitrary temperament used by Bach in The Well-Tempered Clavier, natural tuning sounds awful, he gives up his search and retunes his piano back to equal temperament, the one invented by the 17th-century German theorist Andreas Werckmeister who believed that heavenly constellations convey God-made harmonies to humans. His friend Valuska is the town postman, a holy fool like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin or Wagner’s Parsifal, a dreamer who is always thinking of the heavens and looking at the stars. In the end, the town violence crushes his enchantment and destroys his idealism.   I must ask Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” whether he recognizes parts of ourselves in these two cosmically attuned close friends.

This typically Central European novel, which works as a Kafkian parable or a Benjaminian allegory of disintegration, constitutes a virtuosic exercise in the melancholy of resistance following the bitter realization that the Revolution is doomed because its faithful have been following false messiahs, like the Prince of the traveling circus.*  At the same time, it represents a modernist Biblical lament for the loss of the Edenic “unity of things” (the identity of music and nature) following the sin of the arbitrary tuning and the Fall into music making.

Yet the very structure of the novel, composed with a tremendous musical atmosphere, undermines its dark, anti-mimetic prophecy: This is a critique of form written (and later filmed with the author’s collaboration) in dazzling form, an exorcism of false gods performed as a veneration of idols, a mockery of disharmony composed in a most harmonious style. Scandalously, in the fallen world of this polyphonic book everything orbits in radiant, sumptuous spheres – themes, characters, events, and above all its gyrating sentences. Its idololatric cosmos sings and dances!   It brings to mind another famously self-annulling Biblical critique of music: When Arnold Schönberg wanted to show how Moses, inhibited by his faith, was unable to sing, he had to write an opera about it, or what Herbert Lindenberger called “a kind of anti-opera, one that utilizes ‘operatic’elements precisely in order to undercut them” (Modern Judaism 9:1, 1989, p. 65).

In The Melancholy of Resistance, the music that friends make together, a model of the artistic order humans create, endures.

*  In “Leviathan and Behemoth” (2001), his interpretation of the engraving in the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), Agamben remarks that “civil war remains always possible within the State.”  He adds:  “Civil war and Common-wealth, Behemoth and Leviathan coexist — just as the dissolved multitude coexists with the sovereign” (Stasis, 2015, 40-1). His essay concludes:  “This is why Behemoth is inseparable from Leviathan and why, according to the Talmudic tradition that [Carl] Schmitt evokes, at the end of time ‘Behemoth will, with its horns, pull Leviathan down and rend it, and Leviathan will, with its fins, pull Behemoth down and pierce it through’.  Only at this point may the righteous be seated at their messianic banquet, freed forever from the bonds of the law” (53).  Until that time, following false messiahs can only lead to more civil wars and renewed melancholy of failed resistance.

October 10, 2016

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The “Oresteia” in film


I am thinking of three major filmic approaches to Aeschylus’ surviving trilogy:

Ferdinando Baldi’s The Forgotten Pistolero (1969, 88’), a spaghetti western set in Mexico;

Theo Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players (1975, 222’), a Brechtian survey of Greek history between 1939-52; and

Nick Havinga’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1978, 290’), a TV melodrama based on Eugene O’Neil’s trilogy by the same name (1931), set in post-Civil War New England.

(I might add Pasolini’s 1970 Notes for an African Orestes but at 73’ it has been left fragmentary and unfinished.)

All three films exhibit a distinct sense of place, history, class, kinship, and politics. In particular, by showing how questions of justice can become matters of civic order, they highlight the close connection between myth and progressive politics in the 20th century, a connection that the Frankfurt School and other advocates of messianic time denied systematically.

Furthermore, the films have a distinct self-reflective dimension in that The Forgotten Pistolero places Greek mythology on the grid of another mythology, that of the western; The Traveling Players presents the protagonists of the modern tragedy as the actors of the title whose performances of one and the same play are always interrupted by historical events; and Mourning Becomes Electra is a miniseries that is very much aware of its origins in a modern tragedy whose origins are in an ancient one. In the context of such dramatic self-reflexivity Pantelis, my “other self,” would also point out the special role of music in each film (by distinguished score composers Roberto Pregadio, Loukianos Kilaidonis, and Maurice Jarre respectively).

October 19, 2016

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The “Oresteia” in music


I am thinking of the three major musical approaches to Aeschylus’ surviving trilogy:

Sergei Taneyev’s opera, composed in 1887-94 and based on a Russian adaptation by A. A. Wenkstern;

Darius Milhaud’s oratorio, composed in 1913-23 and based on a French adaptation by Paul Claudel; and

Iannis Xenakis’ ritual, composed in 1966-87 and based on the Greek original.

(I might add Harrison Birtwistle’s incidental music for Peter Hall’s 1981 production though I believe it is not a stand-alone composition and has not been recorded as such.)

Together, in their totally different ways they raise many questions:  What is the relation between theater and music in modern times? How may tragedy be set to music? What happens when a modern choir plays the role of an ancient (tragic or comic) chorus? How may music treat explicit political issues? What is the possibility of a musical trilogy after Richard Wagner’s Ring? To address such questions, one may take an Aeschylean choral ode and compare its settings in these three works. Pantelis Polychronidis would also point out the importance of the different language used in each work.

Incidentally, Ann Arbor, the college town where I live, has a connection to at least two of these large-scale works: Xenakis’ composition was commissioned by the neighboring town of Ypsilanti in order to honor its unique Greek name, and was originally part of a production directed by Greek director Alexis Solomos and given in 1966 in a baseball field, while the complete recording of the Milhaud composition took place in 2013 before a live audience at Hill Auditorium of the University of Michigan. (I missed the former but not the latter.)

October 19, 2016

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