Transfinite Life: Oskar Goldberg and the Vitalist Imagination

By Bruce Rosenstock | Go to book overview

Appendix I: Thomas Mann’s Critique
of The Reality of the Hebrews

Thomas Mann paraphrased (and in part lifted direct quotations from) some of the key passages of Oskar Goldberg’s The Reality of the Hebrews for his 1948 novel Doctor Faustus. Mann introduces a certain Dr. Chaim Breisacher as one of a motley group of characters who would gather regularly at a fashionable aristocratic salon in the days just before the outbreak of the First World War. What these characters shared, despite their vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints, was contempt for the “philistinism” of German bourgeois culture. Mann’s narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, describes Chaim Breisacher as “a racial and intellectual type in high, one might almost say reckless development and of a fascinating ugliness.”1 Breisacher preaches a reactionary (but also revolutionary) attack on modern “progressive” civilization, contrasting it with the earlier, “mythic” period in history when, like other folk groups, the ancient Hebrews worshipped an “effectively present national god” whose very body was “fed” with the “blood and fat” of the sacrificial animal. Breisacher complains of the “weak water-gruel” of the modern “abstract” God of the Jews (and of liberal Protestant Christians too). “Folk and blood and religious reality [Wirklichkeit]” have, Breisacher argues, disappeared from modern culture.

Soon after the publication of Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann wrote a letter to Ludwig Lewisohn, a founding faculty member of Brandeis University and critic of American Jewish assimilationism.2 In that letter Mann explains that Breisacher is meant to represent a “Jewish fascist” and that the character is based on the figure of Oskar Goldberg.3 Thomas Mann’s identification of Breisacher-Goldberg as an exponent of fascism has been criticized as a misunderstanding, indeed a deliberate falsification, of Goldberg’s clear and unambiguous rejection of fascism. In one of the essays he published in Thomas Mann’s own anti-Nazi journal, Mass und Wert, Goldberg attacks both George Sorel’s and Alfred Rosenberg’s “myths” as leading to nothing more than an “ecstasy [Rausch] of tragic proportions” in which “the masses are roused to pseudobacchantic frenzy.”4 But to say that Mann misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented Goldberg’s notion of the Hebrew folk group is really not the point. Mann read every page of The Reality of the Hebrews very carefully and he fully understood that Goldberg was in no way a mystagogue peddling a Jewish version of Alfred Rosenberg’s “myth of the blood.”5 Mann does not represent Breisacher as a Jewish fascist because of his racial views or because of his valorization of myth. Mann identifies the Goldberg of The Reality of the Hebrews as a “fascist” because of his “anti-humanism,” which for Mann means that Goldberg refused to abandon his “national” religion for a “universal” world religion.

In his letter to Lewisohn, after explaining that much of what Breisacher is given to say comes directly out of Goldberg’s Reality of the Hebrews, Mann asks Lewisohn if he is acquainted with the book and whether he “loves it” or has an “antipathy to its

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