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  • The Shared Pain of the Golden Vein: The Discursive Proximity of Jewish and Scholarly Diseases in the Late Eighteenth Century
  • Susan Kassouf* (bio)

Learnedness and study have long played a central role both in the Jewish tradition and in perceptions of it. The scholarly habitus continues to be a formative part of male Jewish identity as well as a source of pride and prejudice in pro- and anti-Jewish rhetoric. 1 In this essay, I examine the ways in which the studious lifestyles of Jews and scholars became associated with disease in late eighteenth-century Western and Central European discourse. Suffering from an array of shared symptoms that ranged from gout to the golden vein, male Jews and intellectuals became pathologized similarly. As readings of their ailing bodies will show, contemplative lifestyles proved to be high-risk ones that blurred the boundaries of the male subject and posed a threat to dominant ideals of masculinity, specifically manliness. 2 Numerous ills will call into question any stable sense of the sufferers’ gender, sexuality, and morality. The burgeoning discussion of hemorrhoids offers one example of this medicalization of social concerns and its importance in contextualizing the pains shared by Jews and scholars alike. A careful reading of the discourse reveals the afflicted to be morally and physically weak, sexually deviant, and feminized, and thus unable to participate fully as productive members in the newly emerging (and hotly contested) public intellectual community; late eighteenth-century concerns about men’s bodily contours merge with anxieties about the form and composition of the nascent body politic of the bourgeoisie.

In attempting to delimit this intellectual community, 3 or public sphere, as healthy and manly, intellectuals and Enlightened (or converted) Jews often defined themselves against the presumably sickly and feminized (traditional) male Jew, and thereby tried to disavow any discursive similarities between them. The discursive proximity (and simultaneous disavowal) of those diseases speaks for a modified understanding of male Jews within late eighteenth-century culture. Rather than radically Other, scholarly male Jews appear all too uncomfortably similar to their non-Jewish counterparts. While many thoughtful studies have stressed the apparent ineradicable difference of the Jewish body, 4 I want to suggest that singular attention to Otherness here may both accept too readily the dominant intellectual classes’ disavowals of similarity, as well as unwittingly perpetuate the Othering of male Jews. Indeed, shifting the emphasis to the discursive connections between Jews and scholars promises to clarify the complex dynamics of an emerging bourgeois body politic. By refusing certain groups entry, such as Jews (or women, or particular men), while denying the concomitant (self-) pathologization of its own members, the intelligentsia is able to preserve a dangerous, yet effective fiction of its healthy and manly exclusivity.

While the constitution of an intellectual public sphere was a decidedly eighteenth-century phenomenon, notions of Jewish and scholarly disease were not. Discussions on Jewish disease had been extant at least since the fourteenth century; 5 similarly, specifically scholarly ills were noted already by the ancient Greeks. During the eighteenth century, the strong correlation between illness and lifestyle that medical discourse asserted seemed especially applicable to marginalized groups such as Jews as well as to a newly forming class of professional and intellectual men who appeared riveted to their desks, bound by duty or by books. For the present argument, it is not the number of works on Jewish disease per se that is important, but rather their placement within the sudden proliferation of texts on scholarly disease around 1800. At this time, scholars became preoccupied with a nosology that was symptomatically synonymous with Jewish disease. 6 One of the earliest and most influential occupational (or group specific) medicine texts was the Untersuchungen von denen Krankheiten der Künstler und Handwerker (Studies on the Diseases of Artists and Craftsmen, 1700), by the Paduan professor and doctor Bernardi Ramazzini. 7 Although Ramazzini did not emphasize the scholarly tradition of Judaism, he did see Jewish and scholarly disease arising from a sedentary lifestyle; his proscribed cure of more movement applied to both groups. 8 Ramazzini’s study helped lay the discursive foundation for the sufferings of scholars and Jews at the end of the eighteenth...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 101-110
Launched on MUSE
1998-10-01
Open Access
No
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