The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature

The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature

The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature

The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature

Synopsis

This book proposes that the idea of the Jews in European cultures has little to do with actual Jews, but rather is derived from the conception of Jews as Christianity's paradigmatic Other, eternally reenacting their morally ambiguous New Testament role as the Christ-bearing and -killing chosen people of God. Through new readings of canonical Russian literary texts by Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Babel, and others, the author argues that these European writers- Christian, secular, and Jewish- based their representation of Jews on the Christian exegetical tradition of anti-Judaism. Indeed, Livak disputes the classification of some Jewish writers as belonging to "Jewish literature," arguing that such an approach obscures these writers' debt to European literary traditions and their ambivalence about their Jewishness.

This work seeks to move the study of Russian literature, and Russian-Jewish literature in particular, down a new path. It will stir up controversy around Christian-Jewish cultural interaction; the representation of otherness in European arts and folklore; modern Jewish experience; and Russian literature and culture.

Excerpt

The representation of Jews by European artists and thinkers is monotonous and repetitive. For almost two millennia, it has drawn on a fixed imaginative lexicon with little variation or originality, suggesting the existence of a common model that generates the Jewish image in theology, philosophy, literature, visual arts, and folklore across European cultures. the concept of stereotype does not convey the durability and continuity of Europe’s imaginary Jews; whether connoting mechanical reproduction or implying the cognitive representation of social environment, it evokes prejudice, inflexibility, and exaggeration. As a result, it diverts attention from the Jewish image under scrutiny to the ethical evaluation of its carriers, obfuscating the fact that the conceptualization of ethnocultural otherness is not a matter of fully independent personal choices—our culture shapes us as much as it is shaped by us. in my opinion, the concept of stereotype does more harm than good when applied to the examination of Jewish difference in artistic texts. Clashing with the popular view of art as the domain of individual geniuses who are above the bias of their historical age, it puts many a reader on the defensive, effectively turning the study of the Jewish image in art into an exercise in the interpretive exculpation of art’s creators.

For these reasons, I find the concept of generative model to be a more productive analytical tool whose axiological neutrality does away with moralizing value judgment, allowing us to focus on the mechanisms behind the genesis and dissemination of the Jewish image. in addition, and contrary to the idea of stereotype as an unchanging imprint, the generative model accounts for the predetermined historical evolution . . .

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