Friday, 31 July 2009

Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Jewish Diaspora

Amos Oz again, A Tale of Love and Darkness. There’s an aspect of his subject-matter that’s certainly of general historical and cultural interest, but is also relevant to my current preoccupations with what underlies our ideas about the teaching of English in schools.

The Jews he writes about, including his own parents and ancestors back to the eighteenth century, were divided on the Enlightenment, either loving or hating it – loving it as releasing them from what was seen as the superstition of orthodox and mystical religion, with the fearfulness and devious it was thought to promote in Diasporic Jews, or hating it as threatening the appreciation of all that could not be encompassed by rationality.

Oz’s father was decidedly of the rationalist Enlightenment persuasion. He despised Shmuel Agnon as a ‘Diaspora writer’: ‘his stories lack wings… they have no tragic depth, there is not even any healthy laughter but wisecracks and sarcasm… pools of verbose buffoonery and Galician cleverness’ (66). (Galicia: ‘a historical region in East-Central Europe, currently divided between Poland and Ukraine’ – Wikipedia.)

Note that ‘healthy laughter’: Enlightenment – away with stuffy and fussy conventions, euphemisms, avoidances and indirectnesses – abandon waistcoats, ties and old world formality for the open necks and shirt sleeves of the blonde and tanned young Kibbutzniks. Away with ‘sarcasm and cleverness’, ‘the complexes and complexities so typical of the shtetl’ (36). Against the unhealthy Agnon contrast Tchernikowsky, the admired poet who wrote ‘shamelessly about love and even about sensual pleasures’.

‘In keeping with his temperament of a rationalistic Lithuanian Misnaged [opponent of Hassidic Judaism], he loathed magic, the supernatural and excessive emotionalism, anything clad in foggy romanticism or mystery, anything intended to make the senses whirl or to blinker reason’ (66). Hasidic tales were cases of the despised ‘folklore’.

‘My mother used to listen to him speak and instead of replying she would offer us her sad smile, or sometimes she said to me: “Your father is a wise and rational man; he is even rational in his sleep.”’

At the end of his life, though, Oz’s father ‘gradually succumbed, like someone finally releasing his grip on a handrail, to the mysterious charm of Peretz’s stories in particular and Hasidic tales in general’ (37).

(And, as an aside: where did the previous generation, still in Eastern Europe, think the Enlightenment was to be found? Where else but in Germany:

Some eighteen months before the Nazis came to power in Germany, my Zionist grandfather was so blinded by despair at the antisemitism in Vilna that he even applied for German citizenship. Fortunately for us, he was turned down by Germany too. So there they were, these over-enthusiastic Europhiles, who could speak so many of Europe's languages, recite its poetry, who believed in its moral superiority, appreciated its ballet and opera, cultivated its heritage, dreamed of its post-national unity and adored its manners, clothes and fashions, who had loved it unconditionally and uninhibitedly for decades, since the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment, and had done everything humanly possible to please it, to contribute to it in every way and in every domain, to become part of it, to break through its cool hostility with frantic courtship, to make friends, to ingratiate themselves, to be accepted, to belong, to be loved ... (101))

But an Enlightenment rationalist outlook like that of Oz’s father could coexist with a variety of romanticism. His mother, on the other hand, had been formed by a different, debilitating version:

Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century. My father had grown up on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism (the Springtime of Nations, Sturm und Drang), whose marzipan peaks were sprinkled, like a splash of champagne, with the frenzy of Nietzsche. My mother, on the other hand, lived by the other romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key, soaked in the suffering of broken-hearted, soulful outcasts, infused with vague autumnal scents fin de siècle decadence. (241)

Something in the curriculum of the school she had attended in the twenties in Lithuania,

or maybe some deep romantic mustiness that seeped into the hearts of my mother and her friends in their youth, some dense Polish/Russian emotionalism, something between Chopin and Mickievicz, between the Sorrows of Young Werther and Lord Byron, something in the twilight zone between the sublime, the tormented, the dreamy and the solitary, all kinds of Will-o'-the-wisps of 'longing and yearning', deluded my mother most of her life and seduced her until she succumbed and committed suicide in 1952. She was thirty-eight when she died. I was twelve and a half. (203)

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