The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought

The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought

by Sarah Hammerschlag
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University of Chicago Press


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The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought

The rootless Jew, wandering disconnected from history, homeland, and nature, was often  the target of early twentieth-century nationalist rhetoric aimed against modern culture. But following World War II, a number of prominent French philosophers recast this maligned figure in positive terms, and in so doing transformed postwar conceptions of politics and identity.

Sarah Hammerschlag explores this figure of the Jew from its prewar usage to its resuscitation by Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida. Sartre and Levinas idealized the Jew’s rootlessness in order to rethink the foundations of political identity. Blanchot and Derrida, in turn, used the figure of the Jew to call into question the very nature of group identification. By chronicling this evolution in thinking, Hammerschlag ultimately reveals how the figural Jew can function as a critical mechanism that exposes the political dangers of mythic allegiance, whether couched in universalizing or particularizing terms.

Both an intellectual history and a philosophical argument, The Figural Jew will set the agenda for all further consideration of Jewish identity, modern Jewish thought, and continental philosophy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226315126
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2010
Series: Religion and Postmodernism Series
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sarah Hammerschlag is assistant professor of Jewish thought in the Department of Religion at Williams College.

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The Figural Jew

Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 Sarah Hammerschlag
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31512-6

Chapter One

Roots, Rootlessness, and Fin de Siècle France

To be elsewhere: the great vice of this [the Jewish] race, its great secret virtue: the great vocation of this people.... They are always on camels' backs. CHARLES PÉGUY, NOTRE JEUNESSE

The Wandering Jew

A period postcard inspired by the Dreyfus affair depicts Alfred Dreyfus iconically, with pointy dark mustache and small spectacles. He is hunched and pulling a cart. The card, a pencil sketch with little embellishment, exposes the cart's contents spilling out the top: a patterned blanket, the top of a chair, the legs of a table. The title of the postcard is "Dreyfus as a Wandering Jew."

The story of the Jew condemned to wander is so old it cannot be traced to a single origin. It is told in its most precise form in the medieval Christian tale of the Jew condemned by Christ to restlessness until the Second Coming. He is punished for his refusal to let Jesus, en route to Calvary, rest for a moment at his doorstep. This story is told and retold from the thirteenth century forward. By the end of the sixteenth century, the protagonist is conclusively named Ahasveras and becomes a symbol in folklore across Europe of the sins of pride and revolt. He is engraved in our cultural memory by Gustave Doré as a hoary old man in rags with a long beard and staff traveling through a somber landscape, haunted by the crucifixion. The ubiquity of the legend—which appears in languages and regions across Europe, including Greece, Turkey, France, Italy, and the Slavic territories—helps cement the notion that the persistence of the exiled Jewish people in the Christian era serves as testimony to their error, testimony to the divinity of Christ. As the 1602 Kurtze Beschreib ung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasverus records: "What God now intended to do with him, in leading him about so long in this wretched life, he could not explain otherwise than that perhaps he should be on judgment day a living witness of the Passion of Christ."

Ahasveras continues to appear in the literature of the romantics. Representing both sin and freedom, punishment and rebellion, he shows up in five works by Shelley, in Schlegel and Brentano, in Wordsworth's "Song for the Wandering Jew," in Byron (as an allusion), and in Edgar Quinet's Les tablettes du Juif errant and Ahasverus, where the persistence of the Wandering Jew outlasts even the gods. This romantic figure, also appearing in countless minor works of the period, is evidence of a larger cultural preoccupation with roots and rootlessness in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany and France.

Already in the eighteenth century, Herder argued that the uniqueness and authenticity of cultures is tied to the organic relationship that develops in a healthy community from its relationship to its own past, its traditions, its language, and its land. "Each form of human perfection then is, in a sense, national and time-bound and, considered most specifically, individual. Nothing develops, without being occasioned by time, climate, necessity, by world events or the accidents of fate," he writes in Yet Another Philosophy of History (1774). There is, thus, a contrast to be drawn between a culture that has attended to its own specificity, to its own history, a culture that has depth, and one that is superficial or rootless. Critiquing the eighteenth-century French philosophes, Herder laments their lack of concern for cultural specificity: "It could be that all these tired generalities are nothing but a foam which dissolves in the air of all times and peoples. How different this is from nourishing the veins and sinews of one's own people, from strengthening their hearts and refreshing them to their very marrow." He contrasts the efforts of the "philosophers of Paris," who claim to "civilize 'toute l'Europe' and 'tout l'univers,'" with the "vital culture" of the "medieval guilds and baronies," seeing the former as perpetuating nothing but a "haze of refinement," a mere "intellectual light," and the later as engendering "pride in the knights and craftsmen, self-confidence, steadfastness and manliness." The contrast, which favors medieval provincialism over Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, emphasizes the value of tradition, hierarchy, and the cultivation of the warrior and the farmer over the freedom and illumination promised by rational thought. One is clearly rooted, the other rootless.

Herder does not accuse the Jews of universalism, but he does fault them for not having their own roots, for having been, "almost from their beginning, parasitical plants on the trunks of other nations," for having "never been inspired with an ardent passion for their own honor, for a habitation, for a country, of their own." Hegel faults the Jews similarly, most pointedly in his early theological writings. In The Spirit of Christianity, he speaks of them as an uprooted people, alienated from nature. Abraham, who clearly functions as a metonym for the Jews, is "a stranger on earth, a stranger to the soil and to men alike. Among men he always was and remained a foreigner." Snapping the bonds of communal life and love when he leaves his father's house, Abraham develops his people from the spirit of alienation. Nothing grounds the Jewish people; no ties of love bind them: "In this thoroughgoing passivity there remained to the Jews beyond the testification of their servitude, nothing save the sheer empty need of maintaining their physical existence and securing it against want." The Jews are consequently able to relate to the earth only as an object of mastery and to God only as his subservient slave.

Similar rhetoric surfaces in the French Enlightenment. Despite Voltaire's distrust of the Christian tradition that Herder and Hegel both defend, his vitriolic attacks on the Jews employ a set of tropes identical to theirs. The Hebrews, Voltaire writes in the Dictionnaire philosophique, "have ever been vagrants or robbers, or slaves, or seditious. They are still vagabonds upon the earth, and abhorred by men, yet affirming that heaven and earth and all mankind were created for them alone." Unlike Herder's, however, Voltaire's barbs against the Jews do not aim to promote cultural specificity. Rather, they function as a means to expose the unreasonable and intolerant elements of all religion, all of which were to be abandoned in the enlightened age.

What tends to characterize the French Enlightenment rhetoric about the Jews is the attempt to distinguish between that which is redeemable, insofar as the Jews are men, and that which is a product of their stunted and backward culture. With the publication of his prize-winning Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des Juifs, Abbé Grégoire became famous as the great defender of the Jews. In this work, he argues for the complete melding of the Jews into the nation so that they too could become citizens in the fullest sense. This was advocated in the spirit of régénération, a process of which the Jews were apparently deeply in need. For Grégoire, the Jews were essentially an obstacle on the road to universalism, one that could be surmounted through the amelioration of their circumstances with the ultimate goal of, first, complete assimilation and, finally, conversion. Thus, for Grégoire, who was also deeply involved in efforts to eliminate regional dialects and identities in France, the Jew was a symbol of particularism, which the Revolution (compatible for Grégoire with a certain "republican Christianity") was meant to overcome.

Even as the Jew was attacked in similar ways by both French and German political thinkers at the turn of the eighteenth century, the value of cultural particularity was not unambiguous in both cultures. For Herder, the French philosophes were themselves suffering from alienation. In theorizing humanity by abstracting from culture, they had lost touch with their unique past and traditions. Instead of nurturing their own culture, they were spouting ephemeral generalities as unsubstantial as vapor.

One hundred years later, after the discourse of nationalism had developed across Europe from its nascent beginnings in Herder, a faction of the French Right, dissatisfied with the consequences of republicanism in the Third Republic and disappointed by the results of the Franco-Prussian War, reemployed Herder's critique. Of the French intellectual class, Maurice Barrès writes in 1902: "It tries to form our young Lorraines, Provencals, Bretons, Parisians of this year into an abstract man, ideal, identical everywhere with himself while what we need are men solidly rooted [racinés] in our soil, in our history, in our national conscience and adapted to the French necessities of this moment." The rhetoric here is nearly identical to Herder's. Barrès is fighting to save the French nation—from itself, but also from the enemy he thinks is attacking it from the inside, the rootless Jew.

The Jew in question is most explicitly Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain arrested for espionage in 1894 whose trial sparked what Pierre Birnbaum has called the climax of the war of the two Frances, between the royalist Right and the republican Left. Dreyfus's trial was the occasion for a dramatization of the antinomies animating the French conception of nationhood, and the figure of the Jew was center stage.

As will be clear in the coming chapters, the revalorization of the figure of the rootless Jew in post-1945 French philosophy has many sources. Hegel's brief comments in The Spirit of Christianity loom large in a number of postwar texts, as does the accompanying association of Kant with the Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. That said, the rhetoric surrounding the figure of the Jew during the Dreyfus affair clearly supplies both material and motivation for the postwar revalorization. During this period, a notion of race circulates that is more cultural than it is biological. Race is clearly linked to les racines (roots), while the discourse of rootedness becomes central to the ideology of nationalism and to the nascent movement of fascism. The Jews, as the instantiation of foreignness, are figured as the antithesis of a rooted French nationality, as the race without roots.

In this chapter, I will consider how turn-of-the-twentieth-century discussions of race and rootedness paved the way for the post-1945 revalorization of the Jew in France by analyzing the writings of three important voices in the Dreyfus affair: Maurice Barrès, Bernard Lazare, and Charles Péguy. The anti-Dreyfusard writer and political figure Maurice Barrès popularized the notion that France was suffering from the influence of les deracinés, a class of people including intellectuals, Jews, foreigners, and Protestants. Bernard Lazare, a literary figure of Jewish descent of the same generation as Barrès, is most famous for having written the pamphlet that first publicly defended Captain Dreyfus. His importance follows both from his having written the first systematic work on the origins of anti-Semitism and his influence as an early Zionist. Charles Péguy, also a Dreyfusard, was a great admirer and friend of Bernard Lazare's, casting him as a Hebrew prophet, as the positive antithesis to the anti-Dreyfusard depiction of Captain Dreyfus. Péguy's ambivalent legacy is such that he is cited both as an important influence on such notorious French fascists as Drieu La Rochelle and Robert Brasillach and as an early theorist of cultural pluralism, able to recognize Jewish difference without denigrating it.

These three thinkers demonstrate how the valorization of roots at the turn of the twentieth century contributes to a revalorization of rootlessness in the post-1945 era. With Barrès, the discourse of roots appears central to the development of right-wing French nationalism; the Jew is figured as the movement's nemesis. Despite the fact that Péguy and Bernard Lazare were Dreyfusards, they share with Barrès a belief in the defining status of race for political life. At the same time, they reject the depiction of the Jew as deracinated. While clearly engaged in positively resignifying the stereotypes of anti-Semitism, they see no way to do so without redefining Judaism as a particularism that is itself in tension with the universalism critiqued by anti-Dreyfusards and upheld by some Dreyfusards, most notably Émile Zola. These two figures serve as a hinge, then, between a philosophy of rootedness and the post-1945 revalorization of the rootless Jew.

A Philosophy of Roots: Maurice Barrès

In France, the Dreyfus affair occupies a place of importance that, given only the concrete details of the event, might seem overblown. One man was accused of treason against the state. He was put on trial, wrongfully convicted, and sent to Devil's Island with a sentence of life imprisonment. After a retrial, a resentencing, and a presidential pardon, twelve years later he was finally exonerated. No international dispute followed. No armies were raised; no major death toll was tallied. Not even a shift in power ensued. The significance of the affair follows, not from the concrete details of Dreyfus's alleged crime and subsequent punishment, but from the public debate that the trial initiated. In this debate, the republic itself was on trial. The meaning of citizenship was reanalyzed. Even the idea of the nation was questioned. It was a moment when the argument that reason is individual and, thus, unconditioned by history and culture was countered by the belief that reason is collective, constituted by a culture and, thus, dependent on history. "One rarely has such an occasion to make a clear-cut choice, at the threshold of life, between two fundamental ethics and to know immediately who one is," Julien Benda wrote of the affair. As Zeev Sternhell has argued, the fact that this event raises in such a concrete manner the most essential questions of politics makes it unique in modern history.

Maurice Barrès was instrumental in raising the stakes of the affair, in making it a platform for political and philosophical debate and self-consciously using anti-Semitism to popularize his philosophical and political agenda: "The Dreyfusards admit that this is not about a man but that the man is a symbol, either in the fight against anti-Semitism or in that against the military. The point is not to contest whether he is a symbol but to say that if he is a symbol, it is another affair, the Dreyfus affair. The triumph of the camp that supports Dreyfus would decidedly install in power those men who pursue the transformation of France according to their own spirit. And me, I want to conserve France."

The facts of the case were not nearly as important to Barrès as the battle that began to take shape between those who fought for Dreyfus in the name of an abstract humanity and those who supported his conviction out of a desire to protect France and to unite it against its adversaries, both within and without: "In abstracto, one could support this thesis or that thesis; one could, according to one's heart, appreciate or depreciate the army, the military's jurisdiction, the battle of the races. But it is not a question of your heart; it is France that is at stake, and these questions must be treated according to the interest of France.... It is completely unnecessary to complain about the anti-Semitic movement at the instant that we're observing the enormous power of the Jewish nationality that threatens to overturn the French state." According to Barrès, France was at stake because it was suffering from decadence and a lack of cohesion. The Dreyfus affair was merely an example of a larger crisis. The nation was, he repeated again and again, "disassociated and leaderless" (dissociée et décérébrée): "The decline of our birthrate, the exhaustion of our energy, since our most active compatriots were destroyed in wars and revolutions, has brought the invasion of foreign elements into our territory and our blood, elements that are working to subjugate us."


Excerpted from The Figural Jew by SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Hammerschlag. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1. Roots, Rootlessness, and Fin de Siècle France

2. Stranger and Self: Sartre’s Jew

I. Anti-Semite and Jew

II. Dialectical History, Unhappy Consciousness, and the Messiah

3. The Ethics of Uprootedness: Emmanuel Levinas’s

Postwar Project

4. Literary Unrest: Maurice Blanchot’s Rewriting of Levinas

5. “The Last of the Jews”: Jacques Derrida and the Case of the Figure

I. The Cut

II. The Exemplar


Selected Bibliography


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