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Modernism without Jews: A Counter-Historical Argument

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 4, November 2006
pp. 615-633 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0094

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Sometime around 1877, while beginning work on what would become the opera Parsifal, Richard Wagner was sent an anonymous pamphlet attributed to a "significant Jewish voice." The pamphlet prophesied the inevitable victory of "the modern world" over the old, "orthodox" one, in spite of the power and elegant rhetoric of conservative forces:

Modern journalism and Romanticism have utterly conquered the freethinking Jewish and Christian worlds. I include the freethinking Jewish world – for in fact German Jewry is working so forcefully, so colossally, and so tirelessly on the new culture and science that, consciously or unconsciously, the majority of Christendom is being led by Jews.

Wagner could not agree more ("How true!"), and quoted the pamphlet at the opening of his vociferous and explicitly antisemitic attack on "the new culture" (not yet called "modernism"). His salty attack itself had the concise and apt title "Modern," and in it he reiterated and condensed opinions he had long expressed: "Modern" was fleeting and arbitrary, moved by whimsy rather than deep necessity, linked to "Mode" (fashion), to the base manifestations of the new materialist civilization, to France and to the Jews—and hence foreign both to the German spirit and to art itself. Wagner's radical artistic program rejected the modern present even as it shared modern culture's rejection of traditionalism—but instead of "the modern," Wagner spoke of revolution and the future.

It is not my intention to rehash the debates among latter-day Wagnerites and their detractors concerning the degree and importance of the composer's antisemitism and its relationship to his art. Still, the most extreme of these defenses—arguing either that Wagner's statements on Jews and culture were not particularly hateful, or were simply consistent with ideas current when he was writing—miss the centrality of the figure of the Jew in the edifice of Wagner's rhetoric on the art of the future. Whatever he might have felt about real, existing Jews (his antipathy toward his rival Meyerbeer notwithstanding), the absence and/or presence of "Jews" is key to the structure of Wagner's arguments about the value of this or the other art, and the historical trajectory of art.

I want to suggest that it is not for nothing that this early formulation of antisemitic antimodernism agrees so readily with its concurrent philosemitic modernist triumphalist counterpart. Both depend on a story of emancipation-assimilation-integration where presence immediately becomes omnipresence, and participation becomes hegemony (of a surreptitious kind), leading to the emergence of modernism. But this emergence is not as linear as it sounds. To return to the passage quoted above, the Jews are won over to or "conquered" by the modern, the triumph of which constitutes the illicit conquest of the German Christian population by the Jews. A bracketed phrase betrays that this conquest is especially nefarious because the vanquished are not even aware it has happened; neither, it seems, are the victors. To demonstrate this invisible truth, the writer points out that hardly a newspaper or other publication is produced in Germany that is not "directly or indirectly" in Jewish hands. The philosemitic and pro-modernist argument is in this case (as in others) dependent on the twin premises that modernism is Jewish, and yet that modernism's Jewishness is somehow hidden and needs to be revealed. A recurring strategy for making this invisible Jewishness visible again concerns what seems to be a dialectic of Jewish presence/absence, by posing a counter-factual or counter-historical hypothesis: suppose Jews were absent from modern culture? How would it look then? Wagner pursues this precise tactic. In "Judaism in Music" he had already made a claim both for the total "jewification" of modern art (employing the unlikely and repugnant term "Verjüdung" that the Nazis would make familiar a three-quarter century later), and that "the Jews have not produced a single true poet." Without Jews, the modern culture industry, as Wagner understood it in his own time, would vanish, or transform itself completely; art, on the other hand, would be unaffected. So in this incipient instance of modern German cultural antisemitism—an only half racialist Jew-baiting with one foot in the illustrious past...



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