- The Jewess Pallas Athena: This Too a Theory of Modernity
Recently Susan Neiman published an alternative history of philosophy. Her Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy looks at the question of how the West, at least since Leibnitz, has imagined evil and the role that evil had in defining all aspects of thought from the nature of God to the meaning of history. Barbara Hahn, in her 2002 book on the image of the German Jewess and their responses, now available in English, postulates a similar alternative history of the modern. Here the evolution of the modern is keyed to the trajectory of that double category of stigmatization: the Jew and the woman from the Enlightenment (and the Romantics) through to the post-Holocaust history of the West.
This is a compelling book. It outlines in fragmentary case studies the complex and often contradictory manner by which the Jew and the woman, here the Jewish woman, comes to be the litmus test for liberal change or conservative transvaluation. From Rachel, to Paula Buber, to Margarete Susman, Hahn outlines the means by which these women, in their own words, imagined themselves in the world and how this imagining provides a matrix (pun intended) for men from Varnhagen von Ense, to Martin Buber, to Paul Celan to rethink their own place in the world. Some of the case studies are extraordinary: such as the "salon" of Georg Simmel and his relationship to Susman and Gertud Kantorowicz, with whom he had an illegitimate child. Sexuality, maternity, and ideas are all part of this tale.
Hahn's title seems to be a providential paradox. Coming from a poem by Celan from 1968, the text evokes the comforting image of the Jewess Pallas Athena, who stands at the center of a new synthesis (foretold by Heinrich Heine and Matthew Arnold) of Hebrew and Greek. Hahn uses this image to move with great elegance between the "origin" of a Jewish integration (however successful) with Rachel into German culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the death of Susman (of old age) and Celan (by his own hand) that closes the book: "Conversation—Silence" are Hahn's last words. [End Page 209]
This is an original and moving book. The English version reads as well as the German. One is never caught out by the sense that this is a clouded window on the past. That it is an odd-shaped one is clear from the subtitle of the book. It forces us as readers and thinkers to reevaluate our sense of the past as linear rather than multifaceted. It will also force those historians of the Jews in the West more closely to link the image of Jewish difference with the history of self-representation. This is an important book by a sensitive and substantial scholar.
Sander Gilman is a Distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences at Emory University. His most recent book is Fat Boys: Slim Book (2004). He also edited the volume Smoke: A Global History of Smoking (with Zhou Xun ). He previously taught at Cornell and the University of Chicago. He served in 2004–2005 as the Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of European Comparative Literature at Oxford University.
For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.