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JONATHAN SKOLNIK Writing Jewish History between Gutzkow and Goethe: Auerbach's Spinoza and the Birth of Modern Jewish Historical Fiction Ahasuerus and Jewish History THE LITERARY FIGURE THAT HAS LONGEST served to represent "Jewish history" is Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. Yet it was in rebellion against this image from the stockpile of Christian (and later, antisemitic) legend that the modern Jewish historical novel emerged in early nineteenth-century Germany. Outwardly confident and full of hope, German-Jewish writers such as Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882) sought to advance the Enlightenment project of secularization through the adaptation of secular literary forms that would recast Jewish identity for an agenda of integration and universalism in a new progressive age, countering an image of perpetual Jewish suffering as theologically justified punishment with a new conception of Jewish history. The image of the tormented and immortal Wandering Jew, however, seems both horrifying and appropriate to the late-twentieth-cenrury mind. In Siegfried Kracauer's work on the philosophy of history, it is Ahasuerus who is said to exemplify the antinomies of historical time. In History: The Last Things before the Last, the Wandering Jew stands for the sum total of all historical continuities, discontinuities, parallels, and nonsimultaneities, the irreconcilability of myriad human "shaped times" with chronological time.1 Kracauer's Ahasuerus is a hideous and tragic image, a monster with multiple faces that reflect his turbulent travels, one PROOFTEXTS 19 (1999): 101-125 O 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 102JONATHAN SKOLNIK who vainly attempts to construct his own history, "the one time he is doomed to incarnate," from the jumble of possibilities. That the Wandering Jew could ever come to rest, reflect back upon his journeys, and disappear is, for Kracauer, unthinkable, akin to the notion that history could have an end or that it might be "aesthetically redeemed" in a Proustian moment of transcendent reflection.2 In Kracauer's view, the time conception implicit in the narrative strategies of Remembrance of Things Past is invalid for historiography: it presupposes a standpoint outside of time's permanent flux, which would allow the fragmented life tobe ultimately revealed as a unified process. Kracauer's suspicion of any aesthetization of history that privileges the stable self is even stronger in an earlier attack on the subject-centered conception of history that informed the popular historical biographies of the Weimar Republic.3 The historian Martin Jay notes the autobiographical echoes inherent in Kracauer 's attraction to the Wandering Jew motif: the "eternally extraterritorial " Ahaseurus appears representative of the German-Jewish "permanent exile."4 But Kracauer's figure of thought for the inability of the human mind to conceptually surmount historical time points to Jewish history's dilemma as well. Still trapped in the form of the Wandering Jew, a literary image not of its own making, a Jewish history that cannot write itself free becomes emblematic of an unredeemed world. The enormity of twentieth-century upheaval and destruction confirms Kracauer's tortured Ahasuerus as an adequate literary expression of unmasterable history and of human existence that resists administered identities, yet his Wandering Jew is itself an aesthetization of historical time and implicitly an image of the Jew as eternal victim. Eschewing a constructed past, Kracauer's Ahasuerus abandons the future to a timeless present unable to process historical trauma. Nineteenth-century GermanJewish writers could, by contrast, still impute utopian potential to aestheticized history. Kracauer, ofcourse, was not the first to employ the WanderingJew (in German, der ewige Jude, "the eternal Jew") as a symbol for historical time. In his monumental study of the Ahasuerus legend and its reception, George K. Anderson demonstrates that, by the late eighteenth century, the medieval tale of a Jewish shoemaker condemned to roam the earth as punishment for tormenting Jesus had become a figure for the nascent modern discipline of history.5 In the crucial "threshold era" (Sattelzeit)— the century from 1750 to 1850, which marked the philosophical transition to modernity6—Ahasuerus appears in many works as a chronicler, a narrator of history as world history with a grasp of global geography, which sets him apart from his literary predecessors. The melancholy wanderer and marker of time in a worldview dominated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 101-125
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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