An elegy for the Jewish cultivation of Hellenic self

The enchanting movie Call me by your name (2017) pays a melancholic tribute to a major project of Protestant modernity, the Jewish self-forming engagement with aesthetic Hellenism.

The movie, based on André Aciman’s Künstlerromanby the same name (2007), deals with the virtuosic involvement of three successive generations of Jewish-American men with Hellenic ideals of learning, leisure, lure, and love.  The three men spend a few weeks together in a private and privileged world of reflection, refinement, and reverie.  Their sophistication is precocious:  they command languages and sources, they hone their taste, they discipline their feelings, they practice toleration.  They excel in three exemplary fields of classical interpretation – archaeology, philosophy, and music.  Other than interpreting figures like Praxiteles, Heraclitus, and Bach, and their reception, nothing matters to them:  Contemporary events are never discussed, women are passive and have no voice of their own, and the local Italians are either their housekeepers or coarse guests who have the temerity to debate the forthcoming general election. The three handsome men remain devoted to Bildungas they are sculpting their elegant selves into statues of problematized interiority and performed superiority.   This is the Grand Tour of classical desire undertaken by Jewish intellectuals like Freud, Hofmannsthal, Bernard Berenson, and Chester Kallman.  There are no living Greeks in the movie, not because it takes place in Northern Italy but because its Jewish men are the authentic living Greeks.

I have discussed the aesthetic premises of the movie in The Rise of Eurocentrism, where I suggested that “Bildunghad always been exclusively Hellenic: Greece had been its land of remembrance, reverie, and return because it was presumably there that the integration of character and citizenship, of private education and public virtue, of morality and culture reached perfect balance.  The classical texts, artworks, and monuments were taken as a lasting and inspiring testimony to that achievement.  Bildungwas not just a revival of the ancient or the classical but specifically an adoration of the Hellenic: its goal was not (Roman) order, as in baroque absolutism, but organic harmony.  It constituted nothing less than the idealist appropriation of antiquity that encouraged Enlightenment to replace the republican rule of aristocracy with its own democratic control through culture” (138).

This Hellenic ideal of Bildung“was from the very beginning prominent in discussions of the social, political, and philosophical place of the Jew” as the question “of Jewish emancipation became a crucial one for the theoreticians of bourgeois culture and virtue.  It came to the fore of public discussions in major countries like Germany, Austria, and France in the late eighteenth century and was closely linked with the civil emancipation of the middle class itself” (139-40).  Around that time, “the Jew was invited to become the model middle class subject and was endowed with all the bourgeois privileges (that is, human rights).  This interpellation was premised and based on a secular contract: ’emancipation was what the states were to grant, assimilation what the Jews were to give in return’ (David Sorkin: Leo Baeck Institute Year Book1990: 18).  Its specific character was the Jews’ covenant with aesthetic culture” (140).

The Jews of moderntiy were invited to assimilate and join the aristocracy of distinction by excelling in the vigorous exercises of Bildung.  “The Jew was chosen as the case most appropriate for the testing of this system: representative of the financial territory claimed by the burghers, bearer of learned reason and traditional morality, seeker of equality and tolerance— this (imagined) person, as an educated individual, could potentially become the best example of what the enlightened middle class promised to do for all people” (140).  Jews were encouraged to distinguish themselves in high culture and the practices of its interpretation.  “The projected Jewish cultural assimilation through interpretive proficiency was the large-scale experiment in Bildungin the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The experiment was to use the Greeks in order to educate the Jews – to educate the Other in order to legitimize the knowledge of the Same, the regime of aesthetic identity; and the condition was that Jews become good citizens by showing commitment to culture, respect for political authority, and faith to the total separation of the two. ‘The cultural and the political were two different worlds, and Jewish emancipation was a decisively cultural emancipation’ (George Mosse: German Jews beyond Judaism, 1985: 70). The Jewish covenant with the aesthetic was the supreme realization on a large scale of Schiller’s idea of social engineering through culture” (142).

With its focus on the love between the two younger intellectuals, the movie Call me by your namealso confirms why “the connection between Jews and homosexuals should be made on the basis not of deviance or otherness but of the aristocracy of culture (morality and taste, respectively) they represent.  If culture is the eminent quality of bourgeois aristocracy, then moral knowledge and artistic taste are its main elements, representing its Hebraic and Hellenic dimensions.  ‘Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.  Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities.  The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.  The reason for the flourishing of the aristocratic posture among homosexuals also seems to parallel the Jewish case.  . . . The Jews pinned their hopes for integrating into modern society on promoting the moral sense.  Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense’ (Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation, 1966: 290).  Jews and homosexuals are but two cultural manifestations of the Hebraic and the Hellenic.  The care of Bildungis the combination of the two senses— the aesthetic as moral, or sensibility as conduct” (139).

The movie takes place in 1983.  In the novel, the story of that enchanted Italian summer is narrated in 2004.  By that time norms of self and affect had changed.  The two younger men may still love each other and treasure their time together but their ideal of Bildung, the Jewish mode of embodied classical reception that brought them together, was no longer part of their world.  The exhaustion of Jewish modernity before the end of the 20th century signaled “a change of era: the end of the age of critical Judaism and the beginning of that of a Judaism of order” (Enzo Traverso: The End of Jewish Modernity, 2016: 128).  As post-colonial intellectuals are now claiming creatively to be today’s living Greeks, Call me by your nameis suffused with an elegiac melancholy over the passing of that unforgettable Hellenism where the “Jews of culture” called each other by their Greek names.

November 1, 2018

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