Academic journal article Intertexts

The Relevance of the Past: Between Construction and Debt

Academic journal article Intertexts

The Relevance of the Past: Between Construction and Debt

Article excerpt

Let me begin this by juxtaposing two quotes. The first comes from Philip Roth's 1993 novel Operation Shylock, wherein the protagonist, a novelist named Philip Roth, discovers that his identity has been stolen by "Philip Roth," now busy in Israel giving interviews in which he advocates his new political movement, "diasporism." Diasporism's aim: the mass repatriation of Israeli Jews back to their original towns and settlements in Eastern and Central Europe. "Roth" describes his vision of the moment of Jewish Return in language that fuses the Biblical promise and the modern media spectacular:

    You know what will happen in Warsaw, at the railway station, when
    the first trainload of Jews returns? There will be crowds to welcome
    them. People will be jubilant. People will be in tears. They will be
    shouting "Our Jews are back! Our Jews are back!" The spectacle will
    be transmitted by television throughout the world. And what a
    historic day for Europe, for Jewry, for all mankind when the cattle
    cars that transported Jews to death camps are transformed by the
    Diasporist movement into decent, comfortable railway carriages
    carrying Jews by the tens of thousands back to their native cities
    and towns. A historic day for human memory, for human justice, and
    for atonement too. In those train stations where the crowds gather
    to weep and sing and celebrate, where people fall to their knees in
    Christian prayer at the feet of their Jewish brethren, only there
    and then will the conscience-cleansing of Europe begin. (Roth 45)

In the second quote, Ruth Ellen Gruber, a popular commentator on the vicissitudes of Jewish cultural life in Europe, observes the odd sort of Jewish "return" now staged in the capitals of Eastern and Central Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. With the transition to a free-market economy, history itself is transformed into the commodity form, quite literally:

    Kiosks, shops, and postcards sport imagery ranging from candlesticks
    and tombstones to caricatures of Franz Kafka. There are painted
    wooden carvings of hook-nosed, bearded Jews for sale in Poland and
    Golem statuettes and sidelocked Jewish puppets for sale in Prague.
    In the ancient ghetto of Venice, shop windows sparkle with brightly
    colored miniature Jews of hand-blown Murano glass. In Krakow a
    Ukrainian band at one "Jewishstyle" cafe dresses up in Hasidic
    attire and plays Yiddish tunes for patrons sipping chicken soup and
    kosher vodka, while local travel agencies take visitors on
    "Schindler's List" and other Jewish tours, and a "Jewish" gallery
    has been known to display, among other things, antique Jewish
    clothing--including men's ritually fringed undergarments. (Gruber 6)

As a way of introducing the arguments of this paper, it's useful to reflect for a moment on the complex range of reactions to these quotations, especially in their relation to one another. Roth's novel brilliantly and mercilessly targets the tension between two modes of reflection on the history of the Jews in Europe, modes that one would have thought to be utterly incompatible but prove, at least in the literary subjunctive, to be on quite intimate terms with one another. What makes "Philip Roth"'s diasporist fantasy at once poignant and perverse is not just its utter impossibility, its unseemly flaunting of its own fictionality. It is the emotional realism that attaches to the fantasized event. Desperate for atonement, the descendants of the perpetrators cry that their Jews are back, repeating in distant form the wound--regarding others as "their Jews" and hence interchangeable with people who are dead and gone--with the same formula by which they declare it healed. The repetition of trauma implicit in the event of return, though, cannot in the end entirely hide from view the moment of normative fantasy, the dream of historical injustices being redressed, even if only indirectly or symbolically; the dream of an open past in which the Nichtwiedergutzumachende, that which can never be made good again, discloses at least a tiny space that is not entirely finished, that still accommodates the present's need for restitution, atonement, forgiveness. …

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