The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity

Excerpt

Before becoming "privy to the true inwardness of Jewish modernity" one must first break the stranglehold of paradigms—the pious paradigms that preempt the story of Jewish emancipation. The story of the exodus of Jews into Europe in the nineteenth century is a case study in culture shock. The hoped for "goodness of fit" between what Jews expected from emancipation and what Europe had promised its Jews became, instead, "the Jewish problem." The Jewish "great expectations" were utopian; the Gentile promises carried a caveat. An ethnocentric and family-oriented people—"one of the most familistic societies known," Eisenstadt tells us —awoke "the morning after" emancipation to find itself in a world of strangers: the nonkinship, universalistic nation-societies of modern Europe. A slow disintoxication supervenes as Jewish emancipation fails to make good on its promises.

I give the problem of civility a thematic authority over this whole story because if, as Berger and Luckmann argue, "the most important experience of others takes place in the face-to-face situation, which is the prototypical case of social interaction," this face-to-face encounter when it occurs between strangers in the West takes the form of a ritual exchange of gifts we call "civility." The encounter of Jew with Gentile was never able to remain near enough to the surface to achieve a genuine ritual consummation. Thus, the ratification of Jewish emancipation in social emancipation, in face-to-face social contact with the Gentile, never occurred. The failure of Jewish emancipation was a failure of ritual competence and of social encounter: no "ritually ratified face-to-face contact" took place, no social rites of public behavior were reciprocally performed, nor were they performed for their own sakes. This failure of civility spread shock waves through nineteenth-century society. In arguing a larger alienation—since the norms of civility merely spell out and specify for face-to-face interaction the more general values of the culture—the failure of civility came to define "the Jewish problem" as this problem reconstituted itself in the era of social modernity. It is this ordeal, this problem of the ritually unconsummated social courtship of Gentile and Jew that is . . .

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