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Chapter Four • Reading Blood Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s The Jews’ Beech Tree The preceding chapters have traced the development of an increasingly sophisticated theory of literary anti-Semitism from Lessing’s pro-Jewish writings, which undercut themselves in a self-reflexive, self-critical Enlightenment gesture, through Schiller’s poetic and political rewriting of history, which questions the origins of the Judeo-Christian tradition and squarely locates the source of anti-Semitism in the Jews themselves, to Arnim’s racially grounded semiotic theory, which aims to identify hidden “Jewishness” in Christian German society in order to exclude hidden “Jewishness” from Christian German society: paradoxically, “Jewishness ” becomes the foundational sign against which Christian German society defines itself. In his construction of the semiotic “Jew” Arnim invokes anti-Semitism as an Enlightenment ethos instrumental in defining the “German,” and consciously plays with language to advance his Romantic political agenda, to make anti-Semitism seductively, aesthetically attractive. Many of the themes and critical gestures operative in the texts examined thus far are crystallized in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s The Jews’ Beech Tree (Die Judenbuche, 1842). This beautifully written, unassuming narrative inscribes a programmatic theory of latent literary anti-Semitism, a self-reflexive theory of the structure and function of latent anti-Semitism in literature. Thematically and structurally, the text is about the subconscious effects of the power of the word to create —and transmit—prejudice. Ironically, the novella itself has performed precisely this function in German culture. The Jews’ Beech Tree is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed German novellas of the nineteenth century, yet there has been little agreement about how to interpret this enigmatic text. Set in rural Westphalia at the end of the eighteenth century, the narrative revolves around a central figure, Friedrich Mergel, and his presumed complicity 79 with a band of wood pilferers. In the course of the novella four characters die under questionable circumstances in the vicinity of a beech tree, into which a cryptic Hebrew inscription is carved following the death of the third victim, the Jew Aaron. Although it is suggested Mergel may have murdered Aaron, no conclusive evidence substantiates this claim. Indeed, when the final victim is found hanged in the Jews’ beech tree, presumably in retribution for Aaron’s death, the corpse is identified as Mergel and buried in the knacker’s yard like carrion, yet there is reason to believe this identification may be incorrect. Mergel apparently has been masquerading as his doppelgänger Johannes, a bastard presumably fathered by Friedrich’s uncle Simon, who so resembles Friedrich that even his own mother cannot tell the two apart. Moreover, it is unclear whether the death of Friedrich/Johannes is a murder or a suicide. This information would seem essential to understanding why the narrative action ends with the unceremonious interment of the corpse in the knacker’s yard, a singular detail that has received little attention in the secondary literature. I believe that Friedrich/Johannes is denied a Christian burial because he is a Jew, traveling incognito, as it were, as a Christian in Christian society, and that The Jews’ Beech Tree is a profoundly anti-Semitic text. In addition to its blatantly anti-Semitic depiction of those people identified as Jews in the narrative, the novella displays a covert anti-Semitism in its treatment of the protagonist Friedrich Mergel, whose name belies his putative Christian identity: “Mergel,” or marl, a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate used as fertilizer, points to the “mixed blood” coursing through the Mergel family’s veins, imbuing it with a pariah status derived from the anti-Semitic association of Jews with dung. The name “Mergel” is one of many clues interwoven into the novella linking the family to the overtly anti-Semitic register that runs throughout the text. This interplay between overt and latent anti-Semitism is related thematically to the indeterminacy structuring the narrative. The text’s programmatic refusal to confirm conclusively the identity of key characters reflects its author’s fear of the Jews’ legal emancipation and subsequent assimilation into mainstream Christian society in the course of the nineteenth century: this is a text about Christian society’s inability to recognize “the Jew” in its midst. My interpretation departs significantly from previous scholarship on The Jews’ Beech Tree.1 Most analyses to date have concentrated on problems of genre (is the text a novella or a detective story?), illuminated various aspects of the novella by providing sociohistorical background material...


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