Academic journal article German Quarterly

Inciting Laughter: The Development of "Jewish Humor" in 19th Century German Culture

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Inciting Laughter: The Development of "Jewish Humor" in 19th Century German Culture

Article excerpt

Chase, Jefferson. Inciting Laughter: The Development of `Jewish Humor" in 19th Century German Culture. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2000. 330 pp.

We do not have to wait for the punch line. On the very first page Jefferson S. Chase gives us both the main theme and the main argument of his new book about Judenwitz: "Laughter-- and its absence- not only reveal but enact distinctions of sameness and difference, selfhood and otherness, membership and exclusion. This book examines one particular such constellation: the association of Jewishness and destructive, satiric laughter in nineteenth century Germany" (1). The project is ambitious and exciting. For although the Jewishness of the nineteenth century German-Jewish humorists in question here has received much scholarly attention, the relation of their "Jewish humor," of both its genesis and significance, to the development of German national identity has not been rigorously conceptualized. This is just what Chase seeks to do.

He begins with a general discussion of the role of laughter in the process of identity formation. Here Chase's main point is that because humor, and especially satire, entails a mastery of cultural codes and elicits involuntary acknowledgment (i.e., laughter), it has a special appeal to marginalized groups. When the German Jews-Moritz Saphir, Ludwig Borne Heinrich Heine-used humor to gain entry into German culture, what Chase calls "the self-appointed mainstream" reacted defensively and created the deprecatory, exclusionist stereotype, Judenwitz. Instead of creating openings in German culture, the satirical arrows of German-Jewish humorists led to the erection of a racist buffer. Germans began to define themselves in contrast to the humor that Jewish writers attempted to use as a vehicle for integration.

Chase's own figure is less linear. According to him, the emergent German public sphere produced a circle, an unfortunate one: "In a vicious circle, the very mode of discourse that was most attractive for Saphir, Borne and Heine turned out to be precisely that which provoked extreme unease and hostility among all those nations anxious in the face of change" (17). Yet Chase's position on Judenwitz is not as saturnine as this quotation suggests. Elsewhere he emphasizes the other, equally important side of Judenwitz: the legitimate possibilities it offered its bearer as a mode of authorship" (18). These "legitimate possibilities" include positive self-definition and resistance to anti-Semitism. And so, in laying down his approach, Chase writes that he "[...] will consider Judenwitz as a pejorative stereotype that marginalized a perceived minority form of speech [...]" and that he " [...] will treat it as an authorial strategy, applying its complex of ideas to the interpretations of various texts and showing how the three writers in question used satiric humor to create an alternative mode of authorship" (3). The results are as mixed as the agenda.

Inciting Laughter consists of an introductory chapter on "humor theory," three large chapters on Saphir, Borne and Heine, respectively, and an appendix that contains miscellaneous translations of their writings. Chase's style is generally lucid. But the clarity of Chase's thought is not as consistent. For example, the introduction provides a useful survey of cultural theory about humor as well as an intelligent discussion of its applicability to the very particular context of German-Jewish culture. It concludes, however, with a strange, strained attempt to set up a dichotomy between Witz and Humor in early nineteenth century Germany. Chase's goal is to explain the development of his key term, or rather, to explain why anti-Semites spoke of Judenwitz and not Judenhumor. The move is strange because Chase's title announces the book is about "Jewish humor." And it is strained because Chase's assertion, that Witz was regarded as vulgar while Humor could be an elevated discourse, will alienate anyone familiar with, say, Friedrich Schlegel's philosophical enthusiasm for Witz. …

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