Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews

Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews

Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews

Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews

Synopsis

Given the vast inventory of verbal and visual images of nonhuman animals—pigs, dogs, vermin, rodents, apes disseminated for millennia to debase, dehumanize, and justify the persecution of Jews, Bestiarium Judaicum asks: What is at play when Jewish-identified writers tell animal stories? Focusing on the nonhuman-animal constructions of primarily Germanophone authors, including Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, and Gertrud Kolmar, Jay Geller expands his earlier examinations (On Freud’s Jewish Body: Mitigating Circumcisions and The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity) of how such writers drew upon representations of Jewish corporeality in order to work through their particular situations in Gentile modernity. From Heine’s ironic lizards to Kafka’s Red Peter and Siodmak’s Wolf Man, Bestiarium Judaicum brings together Jewish cultural studies and critical animal studies to ferret out these writers’ engagement with the bestial answers upon which the Jewish and animal questions converged and by which varieties of the species “Jew” were identified.

Excerpt

[N]atural species are chosen not because they are “good
to eat” but because they are “good to think.”

—CLAUDE LÉVI-STRAUSS

In 1920, well-known writer and publicist Franz Blei, under the nom de plume Peregrin Steinhövel, privately issued Bestiarium Literaricum, a collection of vignettes in which literary figures, mostly contemporary, were transformed into all manner of beast and the occasional animated object. This field guide to predominantly Germanophone Literatiere (literary animals; a play on Littérateurs, [would-be-seen-as] men of letters) achieved instant notoriety; every German writer both hoped and feared to find him-or herself included. Often Blei’s characterizations punnily—and nastily— played off his prey’s surname. For example, the entry for the Prague-born Expressionist poet, dramatist, and novelist Franz Werfel, whose surname is a virtual homophone of Würfel (a die or cube), ironically began “Unlike the hedgehog [Igel] the Werfel possesses its spherical rotundity not by rolling up into itself but rather by spreading out” (bl 72); the entry for the German dramatist Herbert Eulenberg, whose surname means “owl mountain,” described “The Eulenberg [as] a jinx [Pechvogel, lit. pitch bird] from a family of screech owls [Käuzchen]. He builds his elaborate nest in the ruins of baroque or rococo or Biedermeier palaces or other such chateaux” (bl 32–33). Though the Austrian writer Anton Wildgans, whose surname . . .

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