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Chapter Five • Natural Anti-Semitism Adalbert Stifter’s Abdias The question of reading, of how to read “the Jew” and “the Jewish”— so central to Droste-Hülshoff’s The Jews’ Beech Tree—is posed in a different form in Adalbert Stifter’s Abdias. The explict focus of this contemporaneous novella is on interpretation: the text presents a hermeneutic theory of literary anti-Semitism. Ironically, as was the case for Droste’s unassuming narrative, this placid, poetically beautiful text, steeped in metaphors of nature that mask its revolutionary aesthetic program , originally was not read for “the Jew” at all. Stifter’s Abdias was first published in the Austrian Novella Almanac of 1843 to rave reviews, catapulting its young author to instant fame.1 “A lion’s claw,” trumpeted the General Newspaper; “a pearl,” proclaimed the Sunday Paper.2 The cynosure of a volume highlighting recent advances in Austrian novella writing, Abdias, the critics agreed, forged an exciting, new, contemporary aesthetic: “unequivocally the most significant, the best contribution to the volume”; a work of “rare originality”; “thoroughly original”; “darkly original”; “bold and original”; “pregnant”; “exquisite”; “enchanting”; “fresh and powerful”; “sensational”; Stifter is “a child of our times.”3 Remarkable praise indeed for the singular story of a pockmarked, swarthy, Job-like Wandering Jew who emigrates from the timeless ruins of a Roman outpost in Africa to Stifter’s present-day Austria—a plotline that moves, along with its peripatetic protagonist, from Romantic travelogue to contemporary cultural criticism. Abdias is the paradigmatic embodiment of the “Jewish Question” that informed Austro-German political discourse in the 1820s through 1840s: the intense public debate about Jewish emancipation and assimilation. To be sure, the novella’s earliest reviewers did not recognize the political import of the text, faulting the narrative’s second half, set in Austria, as distinctly weaker than its exotic African opening, and appreciating only 113 peripherally the significance of the Jewishness of its title figure. And by 1848, one year after the second version of the novella was published in a revised Study Edition (Studienfassung), Stifter was accused of“Zeitfremdheit ,” of writing a piece that was “alien to the times.” In stark contrast to the socially engaged authors of Young Germany and the “Vormärz” period, Stifter, the critics charged, ignored contemporary issues. Lauded as a maverick poet not five years before, Stifter now was dismissed as an outmoded “nature poet” whose writing had lost its relevance.4 Ironically, it is precisely in its nature metaphors that Abdias inscribes an incisive cultural critique. Unaware though they were of the ideological significance of nature to Stifter’s writing, the novella’s earliest reviewers were right to underscore the bold novelty, the fundamental modernity, and the darkness of the text’s penetrating aesthetic. Stifter’s Abdias, I will argue, is a profoundly political text that casts anti-Semitism as a natural phenomenon and constructs a discursive critique of the nature of “the Jew” in contemporary Austrian society and art. At stake in the following analysis is a broad theoretical issue: how to read for and evaluate discourses of anti-Semitism in a literary text. Abdias itself poses this question as its prime narrative motivation. Yet the reception history of the text offers a striking example of the reluctance on the part of Germanistik as a discipline even to read the figure of the Jew in a major nineteenth-century narrative, let alone assess the text’s programmatic anti-Semitism. Until recently, most criticism has glossed over the title character’s Jewishness as largely incidental to the novella, either ignoring the issue completely or according it marginal attention.5 The novella’s earliest reviews are arguably representative of most Stifter scholarship in this regard. Diffuse and contradictory, the scattered comments in these documents indicate a liminal awareness of Abdias’s ethnicity, but a lack of critical engagement with its significance to the text as a whole. The reviewers note in passing the persecution the children of Israel must endure in the novella, see Abdias as combining the distinctive character of the Mosaic people with the rigid tenacity of the desert population of Africa, identify Abdias as a modern Job, assert that Abdias has a “fiery flame in place of the usual soul,” remark on the glaring contrasts that arise of necessity in his character, and identify the “rigid, peculiar character” of this “son of Israel” as detracting from the poetics of the novella.6 Much of the criticism that does recognize the centrality of Abdias...


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