The Jewish Decadence
Jews and the Aesthetics of Modernity
- ISBN: 9780226580920
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: April 2021
Recently a classical musician courted controversy online by tweeting the opinion that Arnold Schoenberg’s “sophistical theoretical ideas, by being more arbitrarily prescriptive than descriptive of a naturally-evolving common practice, were utterly catastrophic for Western Art Music.” As one scholar wrote in response: “. . . a weird Jewish guy came along & w/ his decadent formalism sullied (the purity of) the classical tradition? Bad trope pls historicize.”
Indeed, the initial comment about Schoenberg’s baleful influence synthesizes all of the major elements of the discourse around aesthetic “decadence” popularized in European culture at the turn of the 19th century: valorization of artifice and uselessness (“arbitrarily prescriptive” ideas), rejection of the organic and reproductive (“naturally-evolving common practice”), and the prospect of civilizational decline (“utterly catastrophic” consequences). Critics of decadence have long yoked it to the figure of the Jew, so that we hear in the critique of Schoenberg’s “decadent formalism” the echoes of “bad tropes” familiar from, say, Nazi rhetoric.
The very fact that the “bad trope” of the decadent Jew continues to circulate in cultural criticism is indicative of the need for historicization. That is reason enough to celebrate the latest monograph by Jonathan Freedman, The Jewish Decadence: Jews and the Aesthetics of Modernity, which offers a rich, exacting cultural history of that trope. A timely intervention, it will slot nicely alongside recent publications in Jewish studies which tackle the political stakes of tropes like evolution and decline, such as Adam Y. Stern’s Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), and show us how modern Jewish artists made their own contributions to cultural formations at the intersection of ethnography and aesthetics, such as Samuel J. Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism (Stanford University Press, 2021).
Here’s Freedman’s starting contention: One of the dominant exigencies of Jewish life in modern Europe was cultural assimilation, and “decadence formed a vital, if controversial, part of the landscape Jews encountered as they sought to enter the mainstream” (21). That is to say, Jewish artists and intellectuals were not only represented by the discourse of aesthetic decadence—they were also participating in that discourse, mobilizing it for their own ends: “The tropes . . . and topoi that defined this cultural formation were powerfully expressed, contested, and reworked by Jews at every stage of cultural and social articulation,” and they “emerged from this encounter with vivid and consequential work of their own” (3). Thus, in a rebounding movement, the discourse of decadence may be essential for understanding “bad tropes” of Jewishness, but only insofar as Jewish cultural productions are essential for understanding the discourse of decadence and indeed of European modernity tout court.
In other words, Freedman is making a claim about the vitality of a Jewish cultural studies perspective for fields which have tended to treat Jewishness as a merely auxiliary concern. That perspective offers an especially keen sense for the contradictory structure of cultural formations—that is, the way their ideological purchase and staying power derive precisely from their incoherence, as when Jewry is glossed as simultaneously too particular and not particular enough for citizenship in the modern nation-state. Within Jewish cultural studies, nobody is better at sniffing out ambivalences and refusing easy answers than Freedman, author of some of the field’s most compelling accounts of the construction and representation of Jewishness in Euro-American modernity. The Jewish Decadence easily matches his own standard.
After an opening chapter introducing the three key elements of the discourse of decadence, the chapters of The Jewish Decadence track individual persons and groups as they engage the intersection of Jewishness and decadence in various media, from the Oscar Wilde circle on through to later figures like Claude Cahun and Patrick Modiano. The readings in these chapters are uniformly brilliant: I would single out the comparison of ethnographic forms in The Dybbuk and Dracula as exemplary of Freedman’s ability to dance swiftly and lucidly across multiple texts without sacrificing the rigor of his interpretations. At his frequent best, he makes good on the subtending polemic about the importance of a Jewish cultural studies perspective. For instance, chapter 4—the book’s tour-de-force set piece—effectively makes the case that a reading of Marcel Proust’s fiction must register the mutual discursive ramifications of Jewishness, homosexuality, and aesthetic decadence in order to fully appreciate both its political stakes and its narrative complexity.
What difficulties do arise are the results of the material’s limitations, or, rather, the lack thereof. The theme of the book is simply too sprawling—chronologically, geographically, linguistically—for Freedman to address it all. He admits he is “example-drunk” (230), yet even so he must “simplify . . . this process, smoothing it out to just one or two national contexts, rather than encountering these broad and contradictory imaginative productions in their full complexity” (6). Not every chapter bears the consequences of these choices equally. Whereas the Proust chapter is deeply immersed in just one text, chapter 5—on Jewish readers of Arthur Schopenhauer—canvasses an enormous cast including (but not limited to) Sigmund Freud, Georg Simmel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Max Nordau, Caesare Lombroso, Félix Fénéon, Leo Strauss, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and Italo Svevo. There’s an odd telescoping effect as Freedman shifts back and forth between a global view and the most patient, microscopic exegesis of a single example. He is a talented narrator with a distinctive and stylish authorial voice, but the panoramic sections inevitably scan as shallow in comparison.
We could regard this discrepancy otherwise, though. If the Proust chapter suggests the sheer complexity of the discursive conjunction of Jewishness and decadence and demonstrates the sustained analytical rigor required to unpack it, other, “example-drunk” chapters present a surfeit of avenues for further studies of similar depth. That future inquiry is ours to pursue. For as Daniel Hack and Amy Hungerford note in their preface, Freedman’s ailing health means The Jewish Decadence is his final book. Yet it’s more than just a fitting summation of a brilliant career: it’s “a scholarly gift” (xi), a book that transforms our experiences of familiar works and encourages us to carry on the work of Jewish cultural studies, following the example of one of its most gifted practitioners.
Samuel P. Catlin is postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature and the College at the University of Chicago.Samuel CatlinDate Of Review:September 20, 2022