Unnatural Histories of the Jews
- ISBN: 9780823275595
- Published By: Fordham University Press
- Published: November 2017
Jay Geller’s previous research has focused on the ways in which German-Jewish writers appropriated and responded to the denigrating representations of the Jew that became part of the cultural imaginary. His newest volume, which is situated at the crossroads of Jewish studies, animal studies, race and ethnic studies, and literary criticism, continues this line of inquiry by pointing to the existence of what he calls the Bestiarium Judaicum, a two-millennia-long-menagerie of verbal and visual images analogizing and identifying Jews with animals that was disseminated for the purpose of debasing Jews. Yet reconstructing and taxonomically ordering this “Jewish bestiary” is only in the service of the project’s animating question: What is at stake when authors of Jewish background composed stories about animals? Focused specifically on but not limited to select writings of Heinrich Heine and Franz Kafka, Geller locates a tradition of German-Jewish animal tales that works towards undermining both the Jewish bestiary and the unequal oppositions Human:Animal::Gentile:Jew that its logic assumes by portraying characters who are undecidable in both their ethnic and species specificity. In other words, by simultaneously suggesting and subverting any easy identification between Jewishness and animality in their protagonists, these authors kill two correlated birds with one stone, thereby mitigating the effect of a system of exceptionalism that marks certain groups and entities as superior to others. This thesis is indebted to central poststructuralist insights: that categorical oppositions have historically been in implicit hierarchical relation (Derrida); that differences perceived between groups are always already constructed—that is, “unnatural”—at the same time as they are naturalized by continual reaffirmation (Foucault); and that oppositions are paradoxically exclusionary yet co-constitutive (Agamben). According to Geller, the Judenfrage cannot be thought apart from the Tierfrage: animal stories helped both their writers and their readers mediate the socio-political predicament of German Jewry living in a predominantly gentile, Christian, and German society, and during a period when the prospect of social integration hung in the balance. More so than Kafka’s own decided resistance against classifying his animal stories as “fable,” “parable,” or “allegory” does this thesis dictate Geller’s insistence on reading these apologues under the literary genus of Tiergeschichte. Whereas these more classic genres are thought to set up a one-to-one correspondence between story and meaning, and narrative is instrumentalized in order to convey an easily-discernible message, Geller’s point is precisely that these tales frustrate the reader’s attempts to establish neat connections between words and their referents, and in turn call into question the binaries through which reality is ordered (and ranked along essentialist lines). Once exegesis has unlocked the significance of the story, what he sees as the violence-reducing tension of this tradition is lost. Yet the indefiniteness in character identification possesses another function that Geller does not explicitly name, but that he would perhaps nevertheless be amenable to: creating characters who are “both Jew and Gentile and neither” (28) is meant to advance the possibility of a German-Jewish symbiosis itself, the fundamental idea around which the debate over Jewish emancipation proceeded—that one could have a dual identity that was not only non-disintegrative but that could also be civically and spiritually productive. Another claim that does not rise beyond the level of suggestion is that this effort on the part of “Jewish-identified” writers to appropriate and subvert the pernicious force of the Bestiarium, and to affirm the larger project of wedding Deutschtum with Judentum of which it was a part, failed if viewed under the retrospective glance of the Shoah and the dark shadow it cast over modern Jewish history and our understanding of the period. Strategic undecidability in representation was not enough to stop the Wannsee conference. (Geller warns against a teleological reading that sees the destruction of European Jewry as the inevitable historical consequence of Jewish bestialization; yet a book that ends with an analysis of texts written around the time of the Final Solution, along with his repeated remark that to animalize is to make killable, cannot but arouse this interpretation.) To admit failure would indicate just how much continual belittlement can “achieve,” but it would also the diminish the moral import that Geller wants to attribute to this group of writers. What Geller is alert to is the danger that was involved for these authors in confronting the Bestiarium: in order to ultimately render indeterminate the equation of Jew with animal, they first needed to have the animal character be identifiable as (possibly) Jewish through signifiers of various levels of decipherability. In other words, the attempt to undermine the noxiousness of the bestiary always already burdensomely borrowed from it and reinscribed its association between Jewishness and animality. This problem is lent greater urgency when considering the case of those writers (Otto Weininger, and to a lesser extent Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl) who adopted the voice of the Bestiarium and directed it against their own ethnic group in the interest of furthering certain social and political goals. While perhaps not “self-hating” Jews, they nevertheless channeled and internalized the worst currents emanating from the larger society into which they were seeking acceptance. In any event, the dualistic worldview of the anti-Semite, and the neat categories of good and evil into which he places Jew and gentile, neither suffers inconclusiveness gladly nor easily allows him to discern the use of irony. If so, one cannot help but ask the question, why did these writers use animals (and in this particularly subtle way) if to do so was fraught with such risk? Bestiarium Judaicum combines insightful analysis of the texts under investigation with extensive research into its subject matter. It deftly constructs a complex intertextual network while situating its constitutive components within the social and historical context of their composition. However, the link Geller attempts to establish between the text and world behind it sometimes feels tenuous: are animal sightings/citings always conscious of and reacting to the bestiary, and are they always acting to negotiate the intellectual, cultural, and social space of the German Jew? In other words, to modify Freud’s apothegm, when is an animal just an animal? Nevertheless, the book is a welcome contribution to several fields of academic inquiry and is a model for meticulous scholarship. Matthew Creighton is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Matthew CreightonDate Of Review:March 8, 2018
Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews was published in 2017 by Fordham University Press. I spoke with the author, Jay Geller, at the AAR annual meeting in Boston in November 2017. –Troy Mikanovich, Assistant Editor
TM: Can you give our audience a quick description of what your work is about? What inspired it? What kinds of questions are you asking?
JG: For thousands of years images of non-human animals—apes, dogs, vermin, etc.—were used to debase, dehumanize, and justify persecution of Jews, so what’s going on when Jews are telling animal stories? I did not believe that such Jewish-identified authors as, e.g., Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Felix Salten, Gertrud Kolmar, Curt Siodmak, were simply internalizing negative stereotypes or engaging in so-called Jewish self-hatred. It’s a matter of their trying to deal with this problem: If you’re a Jew, what are you going to say? “We’re not dogs,” The response: you’re a Jew, of course you’d claim that. “Yeah, but dogs are good and loyal.” There are good varieties of dogs and bad ones, and the Jews (or, in the species-defining collective singular, “the Jew”) are always identified with the latter. So, what do they do—what can they do? One strategy is to neutralize the authority of discourses employing human/animal difference to re-enforce the claims of gentile/Jewish difference that maintain the subjection or abjection of Jews. A number of the authors I examine call into question the former in order to subvert the claims of the latter.
TM: So, there’s something really strategic about these representations?
JG: Yes. For example, you have this scene from Heine, where he talks about being a kid in school and the other students are making these animal calls at him, teasing him. And in the scene, he’s describing these students acting out what they’re trying to call him. You have these gentile kids trying to animalize him, to identify a difference between the gentile and Jew, and what Heine does is pose the question, “Who is the animal?” That question, then, can feed back onto the subject of this abject Jewish difference because the animalization that is supposedly a mark of that Jewish difference doesn’t apply to the Jews; it’s the gentiles in the anecdote who are acting like animals!
TM: Is that a common tactic that you see among the different figures that you look at in the book? Is Freud doing the same thing? Kafka?
JG: Oh, not at all. All of the authors address the problem in their own different ways, even within their own work. For example, Kafka does different things in his early work, in The Metamorphosisthan in Josephine, the last story published during his lifetime. It was first published in a local newspaper as Josephine die Sängerin (Josephine the Singer). Kafka left notes explaining it should be titled Josephine die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse (Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk). And the oder—the or—was the key. “Or” can be disjunctive, but it can also be undecided. And in the story, itself, never once are das Volk referred to as mice. Not once. The only time that “mouse” shows up (in the phrase mäuschenstill, “silent as a mouse”) is at a time when the folk (Volk) are characterized as acting very unlike themselves. So, Kafka is very aware of how Jews are going to be viewed, with the whole extensive discourse on Jews as mice and vermin and rodents, and he knows what people will be thinking when they read the piece. Putting “or the mouse folk” in the title could render that “of course” identification more undecidable—that’s a form of intervention. He knows that the folk are going to be seen as mice—and as figures for the Jews—even though they’re never called that in the text. With the oder, however—with that “or”—he may very well be provoking his audience to recognize the way that they’ll most likely receive the story. He’s very aware of his audience.
TM: That seems much more subtle than the way that Heine did it.
JG: And Freud does it differently, too. It’s not just a matter of addressing any individual text. Nor is it a matter of just finding “Jewish” animals in the stories of Jewish authors. Once, after a talk, an audience member came up to me and asked about Felix Salten, the author of Bambi; not knowing from Salten, I looked him up. And Bambi became a very important test case for my work, because just as Freud said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” sometimes a doe is just a female deer. In other words, yes: Salten’s experiences and encounters are there in his work. Is Bambi Jewish? No. Is Bambi an allegory of the Jews? No, though there have been several attempts to “rescue” Bambi for the Jews. But they’re just bad readings…
TM: In the Bambi example you bring up, it seems like there’s a larger conversation that your work is engaged in, one separate from the issue of animal representations of the Jews. What’s at stake in this research?
JG: Several things. A big thing is bad scholarship (some of which I analyze in the book). If you’re dealing with the kinds of things that I deal with, like body parts (for example, circumcision as a discursive object) or the materiality of words—that’s just not how many people look at things. Most readers will call that kind of analysis “postmodern,” or say “Well, that interpretation is just your own ideas, your projection.” So, if you’re doing this kind of work—if you’re going to make a point—you have to back it up. Both in terms of identifying the density in which something does appear in a story and also by calling attention to where it doesn’t and explaining why. I abide by Auric Goldfinger’s “rule of three”: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” If I come across a moment in a text that, aside from its pertinence to its specific context, appears to relate to one of my research interests, I might comment “that’s interesting.” If it repeats, “how curious.” But if it’s three times, then I’ll pursue it. It doesn’t mean that a lead will work out, but what I need to do is find enough such instances so that my reader can accept that my interpretation is a reasonable one. To bring our discussion back to Salten’s Bambi then, you don’t need to allegorize it—there’s so much in the text that goes against that kind of interpretation. You can recognize how his Jewishness and situation influenced the text, but it doesn’t make Bambi Jewish. I don’t want to reduce his text to its possible Jewish aspect; you have to do that total reading.
It’s also really important for me to show that there is a space for agency, even for those who cannot change what’s around them. With authors like Kafka, there’s an attempt to open up the possibility of a future—you know, “There is hope, just not for me.” So, you want to leave a space for hope, a point in the future where you can look back at the past. And that’s why I’m emphasizing how each of these particular texts is an intervention, an attempt at agency.
TM: What’s something about these animal stories that you think would surprise people?
JG: The context. Take the cover of my book, for example. It’s a turn-of-the century postcard of a “Jewish Menagerie” consisting of caged animals that correspond to frequent Jewish surnames (e.g., Löwe or lion, Bär or bear) with caricatured Jewish facial features; this was everyday. This was part of folks’ ambient environment. People didn’t think about it twice, just like people in the US back in the day didn’t think twice about sending postcards depicting a lynching: “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here!” That’s what the authors that I’m discussing were surrounded by and speaking to. So looking at the cover, think about it like a field guide, in terms of a natural history. What do you do with a natural history? You observe, describe, categorize, and then exhibit. There were these posters in the early part of the nineteenth century that depicted different kinds of Jews. They were based on a play, a farce called Unser Verkehr (“Our Business” or “Our Gang”). And on these posters Jewish-named and -looking individuals would be organized according to professions and pictured in occupation-appropriate clothes; in other words, a field guide. So, what you’d have to describe and categorize animals, you now had for Jews.
TM: Do you see your work connecting to a larger body of scholarship that is interested in those seemingly “normal” things around us that reinforce persecution and marginalization?
JG: Yes. And we don’t think about that kind of stuff because it’s just there. In all of these readings, I’m dealing with a central problem: How do you render visible something that cannot be rendered visible? It’s been a problem in theology, of course, but it’s also a problem for how we identify others. This isn’t just about antisemitism, it’s about ways of othering. Whether we look at Jewish animalization through the lens of critical ethnic studies, critical race studies, there’s a lot at play here: gender, corporeality, human-animal stuff, the function of image, the function of everyday culture.
My approach to these works informs the way that I want to teach my students, as well. I want to teach my students how to read: to start on the surface, first, rather than immediately trying to look underneath it. I want them to see what’s there. I want them to be aware of the ways that these different dichotomies of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, species, sexuality, class, etc. function, because, of course, they don’t just function one way. They’re not identical, they are very specific; so we need to be specific.
And you know what, this kind of work is fun! I really enjoy forensic reading. I love going through concordances and I love looking at the OED and looking at these histories and trying to make sense of it all. That’s something that I want to instill in my students as well. You know, even though I want them to look at the surface of a text first, I don’t care if their reading is wrong in terms of what the original text meant to say. I want them to get into the habit of looking through the text for these kinds of connections, e.g., the seemingly anomalous or irrelevant repeated use of an image or phrase in particular contexts, and then trying to justify their readings with an argument. That’s the important part. Sure, you may be objectively wrong, but what you have done is figured out how to look at the invisible ways that our world is tied up.