Academic journal article Shofar

A Literary Struggle with Ambivalence: Representations of Misogyny and Jewish Self-Hatred in the Writing of Albert Cohen

Academic journal article Shofar

A Literary Struggle with Ambivalence: Representations of Misogyny and Jewish Self-Hatred in the Writing of Albert Cohen

Article excerpt

A Literary Struggle with Ambivalence: Representations of Misogyny and Jewish Self-Hatred in the Writing of Albert Cohen

Critics have lauded Albert Cohen for his vehement affirmation of Jewish identity, in contrast to the reserve historically exercised by French Jewish intellectuals with respect to their own Jewishness. Cohen has been equally praised for the exaltation of femininity and maternal love in his writing. Despite Cohen's ostensibly philosemitic and pro-feminine stance, his works exhibit both antisemitic and misogynistic discourses inscribed with a positive authorial evaluation. This essay examines the psychological and cultural conflicts underlying the representation of Jewish and female subjects in Cohen's major novels and autobiographical texts. Situating his writing within the dual framework of Melanie Klein's theories of mourning and artistic reparation and Sander Gilman's theorization of Jewish self-hatred, I argue that Cohen's novels succumb to the destructive forces of the maternal/cultural schism, while his autobiographical texts transcend the writer's ambivalence towards women and Jewish identity through textual acts of reparation.

Albert Cohen (1895-1981), France's most prolific, professedly Jewish writer, disregarded a taboo against overt Jewish cultural identification that had been respected by French Jewish intellectuals from the time of the emancipation of Jews in 1791 through the period of the deportations of Jews by the Vichy regime during World War II. The humanist, rationalist philosophy of the French Revolution created the expectation that Jews would be integrated into general society as individuals and citizens and the correlative assumption that Jewish thinkers in France would favor universalism over particularism.(1) As Alan Astro notes, "French Jews tend to express whatever particularities they have as Jews with great reserve."(2) Astro further points out, in his preface to a special number of Yale French Studies devoted to discourses of Jewish identity in twentieth-century France, that the trait of "keeping to oneself" that characterizes French Jews has been interpreted by some French intellectuals, like the philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay, as deeply rooted in their Frenchness.(3) Albert Cohen's use of the terms "Jewish literature, Jewish culture, or Jewish writing both as defining terms and as a rallying cry"(4) was a deliberate deviation from this tendency towards discretion, a deviation which inspired the writer with pride: "I am one of the rare Jewish writers who has only written about Jewish subjects."(5) As Elaine Marks confirms, Cohen is "one of the major French writers of the twentieth century who is Jewish by birth and whose narrators are never not conscious of their own Jewishness and the Jewishness, or relation to Jewishness, of most of the important characters in their fictional world."(6) Cohen drew attention to his Jewish identity from the start of his literary career by entitling his first book of poetry Paroles juives (1921),(7) founding the pro-Zionist Revue juive in 1925,(8) and choosing as the thematic focus of Solal (1930), his exuberant first novel, the conflictual intermarriage between a French Protestant woman and a semi-assimilated Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Greece.

Distinguished by critics for his valorization of Jewish identity(9) and for his ideological stand "pro causa Judaïca,"(10) Cohen has been likewise praised for his remarkable reverence for the feminine and the maternal. His Le livre de ma mère,(11) an autobiographical eulogy of his mother, is considered an exemplary manifestation of filial devotion(12) and has been canonized by inclusion in the French secondary school curriculum. According to one biographer, Cohen's life -- as son, lover, husband, father, and writer -- was determined primarily by his devotion to "the cult of femininity."(13) The emphasis placed in his monumental novel Belle du seigneur (1968)(14) on the theme of love in the Western world has been cited as proof of Cohen's attachment to romantic passion and the "eternal feminine. …

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