Academic journal article Shofar

Nihilism, Modernity and the "Jewish Spirit": Margarete Susman's Transvaluation of a Fin-De-Siècle Trope

Academic journal article Shofar

Nihilism, Modernity and the "Jewish Spirit": Margarete Susman's Transvaluation of a Fin-De-Siècle Trope

Article excerpt

The post-assimilatory revival of the "Jewish spirit"

In her 1929 essay, "Das Hiob-Problem bei Franz Kafka," the poet and literary critic Margarete Susman (1872-1966) celebrated Kafka's "unparalleled artistic achievement," crediting the author for having attained "the form of nothing itself."1 Surely the work of Strindberg and Dostoevsky had already pointed in this direction, but it was only Kafka who had truly succeeded in capturing the nihilism of the modern age, "what in so radical a form could only be completed by a Jewish spirit."2 Susman's curious identification of the "Jewish spirit" with nihilism and modernity seemingly situates her in the disreputable company of such antisemitic thinkers as the literary critic Adolf Bartels and the philosopher Hans Blüher, for whom Jewishness was interchangeable with the destructive forces of modernity.3 Her mediations on Kafka clearly allude to that insidious fin-de-siècle myth of the "destructive Jewish spirit" (der zersetzende jüdische Geist). Yet Susman does not merely subscribe to these anti-Jewish ideas. Hers is an attempt to wrest the "Jewish spirit" from its detractors and subvert its antisemitic connotations. Susman's version of the jüdische Geist is also unique in the sense that it did not serve as resource for collective self-identification, as it did in many of its Zionist variants.4 Her redefinition of the moral and historical significance of the "Jewish spirit" not only refutes a prevalent antisemitic fantasy, but also forms a pointed polemic against the identity politics of cultural Zionism. Critical of the reductive essentialism she attributes to both the German völkisch and Zionist-national accounts of Jewishness, Susman sought to construct an alternative to these two models in what she called the "Jewish spirit."

Born in Hamburg to an assimilated upper middle-class family one year after the founding of the Kaiserreich, Margarete Susman lived through the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and the postwar establishment of a divided Germany. An accomplished poet, philosopher, and cultural critic, Susman published hundreds of essays and over a dozen books during her lifetime. Before World War II, she was a regular contributor to the Frankfurter Zeitung, also publishing in German-Jewish periodicals such as Der Morgen and Der Jude.5 A member of the George-Kreis in the early 1900s and a regular participant in Georg Simmel's private seminars, Susman was active in Germany's poetic and intellectual avant-garde prior to the First World War. During the interwar years Susman crossed paths with the era's most radical thinkers, striking friendships with Ernst Bloch, Siegfried Kracauer, Georg Lukacs, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. Fleeing the Nazis in 1933, Susman made Zurich her permanent home, where she soon established a close relationship with Protestant socialist theologians Walter Nigg and Leonhard Ragaz.6 Despite her prolific career as a woman of letters, whose writings traversed philosophy, politics, culture, and religion, Susman's intellectual legacy never received the attention that was lavished on many of the figures she counted as her friends. In recent years, Susman has begun to come out of the shadow of her better-known contemporaries-thanks to the important work done by Barbara Hahn, Anke Gillier, and Ingeborg Nordmann.7 This paper seeks to continue these scholars' efforts to recuperate Susman by further exploring her uniquely imaginative and politically idiosyncratic meditations on Jewish identity.

Susman's reflections on that highly ambiguous and resonant concept known as the "Jewish spirit" partake in a greater German-Jewish dialogue that unfolded during the early decades of the twentieth century and included a broad variety of scholars, rabbis, and public intellectuals. Thinkers from across the ideological spectrum-Zionists, Marxists, liberals, and orthodox Jews-evoke the figure of the "Jewish spirit," yet come to define it in utterly irreconcilable ways. …

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