On Jewish melancholy

In this blog I have been focusing on melancholic dispositions in three areas:  melancholy over the loss of a friend (ethics), melancholy over the loss of the revolution (politics), and melancholy over the loss of art (aesthetics).  At the same time, I remain very interested in several other manifestations of this mood and continue to follow recent studies.

I have been intrigued by a new book, Zionism and Melancholy (2019) by Nitzan Lebovic (2019), which develops a theory of melancholy by studying the melancholy that pervades Israeli society since its Zionist origins.  The book explores the interaction of the two concepts in the 20th century – the ways in which Zionism arrived at melancholy, and melancholy reoriented Zionism.  Its specific subject is the life and work of a forgotten early Zionist, the fascinating writer Israel Zarchi (1909-47), but the focus soon expands to cover a growing number of figures, themes, fields, and theories.  For example, the gallery of melancholics begins with Zarchi and Lebovic, the writer of his study, and gradually adds Zarchi’s European predecessors (Goethe, Heine), European Jewish writers (Kästner, Toller), pioneer Zionist immigrants to Palestine, the Israeli post-1967 generation, and Lebovic’s own generation.  In addition to individuals, melancholy is seen to afflict places (Jerusalem), other arts (popular music), cultural projects (modernizing ancient Hebrew), literary categories (“minor literature”), and alternative politics (deterritorialized state).

According to Lebovic, the Zionist project grew melancholic for two successive reasons:  “Simply put, Zionist melancholy expresses a double loss:  the loss of the (European past) and a demand that all feelings about that loss be suppressed in favor of an imagined ideal” (xxi).  In other words, it is the result of “the loss of an actual past (a home and a family) and the loss of memory due to an ideological dictum” (106).  The melancholic affect afflicts those Zionists who refuse to mourn and overcome their losses, and instead remain haunted by false hopes, failed dreams, thwarted messianism, forestalled redemption, a defeat that led to loss of direction and ideological dead end.

The horizon of the book is the melancholic predicament of the Zionist state of Jewish life in Palestine since the early 20th century.  Yet there are many elements in the book that encourage a broadening of the scope to include the entire range of Jewish modernity.  Arguably, melancholy characterizes the “demonic utopia” of Jewish assimilation wherever it has repurposed tradition since the late 18th century.  (It may even be possible to expand the scope in the direction of other people though the book does not say anything about non-Jews, such as Germans, Poles, Arabs and Greeks.)

Lebovic’s strongest argument concerns melancholy’s critical work, something that I too have emphasized in my posts and publications.  Even though melancholy is discredited, marginalized, and even silenced by triumphalist discourses of ancestral and chthonic continuity, it has been playing an important critical role questioning essentialist claims about ethnic history (nostalgia, return, revival), collective identity (national homogeneity, territory, and supremacy) and civic values (theological politics).  It is on the strength of this unyielding questioning that melancholy has been resisting resignation and despair.  While the messianic dream failed to materialize, the utopian hope for a better world refuses to die, and keeps searching for radical alternatives.  Nitzan Lebovic’s unflinching survey of Jewish life and culture during roughly a century gives several reasons for bitter disappointment, yet admirably it refuses to indulge in defeatism, victimization, and despondency.  I look forward to learning more from it.

23 June 2019

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