Commentary Magazine


F. Scott Fitzgerald and Literary Anti-Semitism:
A Footnote on the Mind of the 20's

I recently read The Great Gatsby for the first time, and it struck me that in all the praise of the book I had heard from both Jews and non-Jews, something important had been omitted—that viewed in a certain light the novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document. It is an excellent novel, no doubt of that, and part of its appeal is that the reader knows (though he may be unable to define his knowledge) that the story and the characters are general and representative rather than particular and confined. Fitzgerald has written a tragic satire on American civilization, with the implicit invitation to disentangle the idea of which the personages and events are outward symbols. The individuals portrayed stand for the classes (but not in the Marxian sense) to which they belong. That is nothing new: the same is true of every serious literary work of art.

The Jew who appears in The Great Gatsby is not the villain of the piece, but he is easily its most obnoxious character. His name is Meyer Wolfsheim. He is a gambler by profession. His nose is flat and out of both nostrils two fine growths of hair “luxuriate.” His eyes are “tiny.” When he talks he “covers” Gatsby with his “expressive nose.” We first glimpse him in a mysterious conversation with Gatsby about a man named Katspaugh. When, at this point, the narrator, Nick, comes in and meets him, Wolfsheim mistakes him for somebody else whom Gatsby has mentioned and he immediately begins to talk of a business “gonnegtion.” That “gonnegtion” runs like a theme through the whole book whenever Nick thinks of Wolfsheim.

But we are far from finished with that first episode. Gatsby tells “Meyer” that Nick is not the man he has had in mind. Wolfsheim apologizes and turns his attention to the “succulent” hash that arrives on the table. He eats with a “ferocious delicacy” while his eyes rove slowly around the whole room. He makes a complete arc, turning around “to inspect” the people behind him. Nick feels that had he, a stranger, not been present, Wolfsheim would have taken a quick glance “beneath our own table.” Gatsby has to leave for a moment to make a telephone call, and Wolfsheim talks about him to Nick. He tells him that Gatsby is an “Oggsford man,” and when he thinks that Nick has not grasped the significance of that, he repeats “Oggsford College in England. You know Oggsford College.” Nick assures him that he’s heard of it, but Wolfsheim is still doubtful and suspicious. He elaborates: “It’s one of the most famous colleges in the world.”

Nick asks him how long he’s known Gatsby. Several years, is the answer. Wolfsheim “made the pleasure” of his acquaintance some time after the war. He could see at once that Gatsby was “a man of fine breeding.” He pays Gatsby the ultimate compliment when he says: “There’s the kind of man you’d like to take home and introduce to your mother and sister.”

Attention is shifted at this point to Wolfsheim’s cuff buttons, which seem to Nick to be composed of some oddly familiar pieces of ivory. “Finest specimens of human molars,” Meyer Wolfsheim tells him. After Gatsby comes back and Wolfsheim leaves, Nick asks about him. Gatsby says that he was the one who fixed the World Series in 1919. This “staggers” Nick. He had of course heard about that famous incident in American sporting history, but he had thought of it as a thing that had happened, “the end of some inevitable chain.” It had never occurred to him that “one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe” (my italics). How did he happen to do it? asks Nick. He just happened to see the opportunity, Gatsby answers. Then why isn’t he in jail? They can’t get him, old sport. He’s a smart man.

It is this scene which elicited the admiration of Edith Wharton in her congratulatory letter to Fitzgerald on the publication of his book: “The lunch with Hildeshiem [that was how the name Wolfsheim appeared in the original edition] and his every appearance afterwards make me augur still greater things.” And in another part of the letter, she informed him that “this reader [is] happy to meet your perfect Jew . . ” (italics in the original). The word perfect here may indicate that Mrs. Wharton thought that this particular character was perfectly drawn, or else it may be an ironic reflection on the imperfection of this Jew’s moral character, or it may mean that in Wolfsheim Fitzgerald caught the image of the eternal Jew. The emphasis disposes of the notion that the word was not carefully chosen, and it seems equally apparent that all three meanings are merged here. What I should rule out definitely is the possibility of the irony being friendly to the Jews-as it presumably might be. The writer’s feeling is shown by the attachment of the word “perfect” to the word “Jew” instead of to the word “gambler” or “gangster” for instance.

_____________

 

Wolfsheim has a subordinate, and yet very important, role to play in the novel. He is the power behind the scenes in Gatsby’s life. We have his own statement in the closing passages of the book that he not only “started” Gatsby, he “made him.” There is no reason to doubt his word. A man who could play around with the faith of fifty million people could surely “make” one yokel into a clean-limbed, romantic American whose refinement he could use in some mysterious way. “I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford I knew I could use him good.”

That conversation takes place after Gatsby’s sacrificial death. Nick refers to Wolfsheim as “the closest friend” of the dead man. The Wolfsheim theme keeps running like a leitmotiv underneath the entire story. The fall of Gatsby is foreshadowed when he suddenly fires all the servants at his great house in West Egg and replaces them with a gang of Wolfsheim’s sisters and brothers, who “used to run a small hotel.” Nick becomes aware of the change when he goes over to visit him and finds “an unfamiliar butler with a villainous face,” who squints at him suspiciously from the door. The new butler is rude and says “sir” only with the greatest reluctance. From his grocery boy, Nick finds out that Gatsby’s kitchen, since the advent of the new people, who aren’t servants at all, “looked like a pigsty.”

When Gatsby is murdered, and not a single friend or relative can be found to stay with his body, Nick remembers Wolfsheim and writes him a note asking him to come. He thinks the note is superfluous and Wolfsheim will start as soon as he reads the news, but instead the reply comes: “This has been one of the most terrible shocks of my life to me I hardly can believe it that it is true at all. Such a mad act as that man did should make us all think. I cannot come down now as I am tied up in some very important business and cannot get mixed up in this thing now. . Let me know about his funeral etc. do not know his family at all.”

It is at the moment of reading this letter from Wolfsheim that Nick (the neutral and barometric narrator) confesses to “a feeling of defiance, of scornful solidarity between Gatsby and me against them all.” Nevertheless, he gives Wolfsheim one chance more to come to the funeral. He goes personally to call on him, only to be met with the same little cheap aphorisms that had been offered in the letter: “When a man gets killed I never like to get mixed up in it in any way. I keep out. When I was a young man it was different—if a friend of mine died, no matter how, I stuck with them to the end. You may think that’s sentimental, but I mean it—to the bitter end. . . . Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he’s dead. After that my own rule is to let everything alone.”

_____________

 

Fitzgerald does not allow a single redeeming characteristic to his Jewish gambler, not even so much redemption as Shakespeare allows to Shylock in his dominantly villainous portrait. (It is correct to regard The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic play in its original intention and effect, but since Shakespeare is an honest artist, we remember not only the balance induced by Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, but the perhaps more important fact that it is the Jew’s daughter Jessica who is the twin heroine of the play with Portia, and atones for her evil and yet pathetic father.) Wolfsheim’s relatives, his brothers and sisters and his wife, seem to be even less amiable than he—if that is possible. Fitzgerald’s portrait of him is about as realistic and objective as Marlowe’s of Barabas in The Jew of Malta. The modern Jew who “could start to play with the faith of fifty million people” is only a newer version of that Renaissance hero who loved “to poison wells” and walk abroad o’nights “to hear sick people groaning under walls.”

I shall grant that Fitzgerald is writing a satire, and that some of the non-Jewish characters are even harder hit than the Jew is. The Great Gatsby is nothing so simple as a piece of propaganda against the Jews. If it were, that would have been pointed out long ago. But anti-Semitism is a component part of the novel. It is not the mad anti-Semitism we find in Ezra Pound. Nor is it the kind of anti-Semitism we find in Dostoevski.

Fitzgerald’s is the fashionable anti-Semitism of the 1920’s, of the sort we find in T. S. Eliot at the same period.

It is now so many years since Eliot wrote of “the jew” (without capitals) who is the owner of his decayed house and who was “spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London,” that this aspect of his work has been largely forgotten, and I have heard some of Eliot’s Jewish admirers claim that he never was guilty of anti-Semitic utterances at all. I am sorry to disturb their comfortable ignorance, but I remember too well Bleistein with a cigar, “the jew” who is compared to a rat “underneath the piles”; I remember Sir Ferdinand Klein “who clipped the lion’s wings, and flea’d his rump and pared his claws”; I remember “Rachel née Rabinowich” in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”; I remember the clear idea in After Strange Gods: “. . reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of freethinking Jews undesirable.”

It is, I say, the modish anti-Semitism of the 20’s, the kind that does not go so far as fascism and is horrified by the concentration camps that cruder and more plebeian hands have erected to implement these feelings. Wolfsheim corresponds to Bleistein. He is the rat underneath the piles. He uses Boobus Americanus Jay Gatsby as his front man, and when his tool is killed, he does not even have the decency to attend his funeral.

It will not do simply to say that there are Jews such as Mr. Wolfsheim, and that Fitzgerald is being objective in the portrayal of a certain type, without casting any aspersions upon other kinds of Jews. Wolfsheim is a character without any compensations. His moral physiognomy is as distinctive as his physical one, and both stand out with the isolation of a caricature in Der Stuermer. If we compare Fitzgerald’s satire with Proust’s, I think that my meaning will become clearer. There is little difference between Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Wolfs-heim and Proust’s portrayal of Bloch. Yet there is not the faintest trace of suspicion that Proust is anti-Semitic. You do not have to know that Proust himself was a half-Jew to realize that. There is evidence within the novel itself. For if Bloch is one of the most abhorrent characters within it, another Jew, Swann, is among the most admirable. And a fair, clear-cut presentation of the atmosphere surrounding the Dreyfus case is one of the most striking accomplishments of Rememhrance of Things Past. Proust, in other words, does not leave Bloch hanging in midair as Fitzgerald leaves Wolfsheim; he provides a balance and a milieu that make of Bloch not the general representative of his people, but only an individual example. There is no objection to the portrayal of a Jew, however bad he is, provided that the reader cannot read into it the implication that this is a picture of the Jew.

_____________

 

Ironically, another object of Fitzgerald’s satire in Gatsby is the theory of “Aryan” superiority. Its mouthpiece is Tom Buchanan, who eventually causes Gatsby’s death, and is possibly even more horrible than Wolfsheim. “Civilization’s going to pieces,” says Tom. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of The Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? . . . Well it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved. . . .It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things. . . .The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

The comment of Nick, the observer (who may be taken to stand for the author), is very cold upon Tom at this point. “There was something pathetic in his concentration. . . .Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”

This was written in the middle 20’s. By the middle 30’s, the “stale ideas” had been revived into an issue of world importance, and people like Mr. Wolfsheim (also those who weren’t like him but happened to bear the generic name of Jew) were being transferred from the comic pages to concentration camps. Then the fashionable anti-Semites saw that this was really no joking matter, after all, and they stopped speaking of the Jews, while the mad anti-Semites like Pound began openly to show their hands. Hitler, as we know, was not triumphant, but a writer like Fitzgerald could not complain very much if an anti-Semitic parable were read into The Great Gatsby. He has supplied the materials.

_____________

 

The anti-Semitism of the avant-garde of the 1920’s derived from several sources, only some of which can be conveniently located. Two causes, locked together like Siamese twins, are: allegiance to tradition and hatred of the contemporary bourgeoisie.

There are several strands in the word tradition. There is a religious tradition, a literary tradition, a social tradition, and even a satirist’s tradition, all aimed against the Jews. Granted that the literary tradition was stronger with the avant-garde than the religious one, still, the New Testament can be regarded as a drama in which the Jews play the role of villain. And the literary opportunity of presenting the Jew in his stock role could hardly be missed by men alive to a tradition consecrated by the usage at one time or another of some of the greatest masters of Western literature.

As for the social tradition, it is mixed in with the religious and literary one and yet separable from it. The distinctness of the Jews as a race may be denied by contemporary scientists, but it has had ample support in popular belief over the centuries. The satirist’s tradition is also important. Much the best avant-garde productions of our time are either wholly or largely satiric in intention—certainly Eliot, Pound, and Fitzgerald are satirists. Now the satirist by temperament, because he has little affection for the living human beings around him, is disposed to look with favor upon those who are dead. Since things are about as bad as possible now, they must have been better in some remote and distant past—they could hardly have been worse. That is how he reasons, and it is why almost every satirist you can think of has been reactionary. He is a xenophobe, he hates all foreigners as Juvenal (who was incidentally a Jew-hater) did; he hates intellectuals as Aristophanes did (with his mockery of the “thoughtery” of Socrates in The Clouds) ; he hates science as Swift did (with his flying island of Laputa), or as Byron did (with his parody of “the patent age of new inventions” in Don Juan) . Foreigners, intellectuals, scientists—if you are seeking one convenient, easily apprehended image to cover them all—what is better for your purpose than the Jew?

But in addition to appearing in his own right, the Jew also appears as the representative of the modern bourgeoisie. Open anti-Semitism is frowned upon in respectable society, not because of any excessive love for the Jews, but because it is feared as something that disturbs order and social concord.

The avant-garde writer, hating the modern social setup which deprived his educated superiority of its proper and accustomed esteem, asserted his hatred of the bourgeoisie by his hatred of the Jew. He flaunted the anti-Semitism concealed by the rest of polite society with the same satisfaction that a small boy feels in scrawling dirty words that everybody knows on public walls. He asserted his individualism by his anti-Semitism. It was one more instance of his un-conventionality, and it demonstrated, in his own mind at least, his fidelity to the true culture of his country as distinguished from its “civilization” (in the pejorative Spenglerian sense of the word), represented by the monstrous and impersonal “ghetto-ridden” megalopolis.

In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald writes: “ . . . by 1928 Paris had grown suffocating. With each new shipment of Americans spewed up by the boom the quality fell off, until toward the end there was something sinister about the crazy boatloads. . . .I remember a fat Jewess, inlaid with diamonds, who sat behind us at the Russian ballet and said as the curtain rose, ‘Thad’s luffly, dey ought to baint a bicture of it.’ This was low comedy, but it was evident that money and power were falling into the hands of people in comparison with whom the leader of a village Soviet would be a gold-mine of judgment and culture. There were citizens traveling in luxury in 1928 and 1929 who, in the distortion of their new condition, had the human value of Pekinese, bivalves, cretins, goats. . . . ”

_____________

 

The combination of these diverse causes and the artificiality and indirectness of some of them are what give to this anti-Semitism a certain unreality. There is a literary quality about it—as if the writers were not thinking of real, everyday, complicated, living Jews, but of an inherited image of them. Bleistein with a cigar, Sir Ferdinand Klein, Rachel née Rabinovitch, “free-thinking Jews,” and Meyer Wolfsheim are abstractions in modern dress. The anti-Semitism is imitative rather than originally felt, as if the writer for the moment became his own ancestor. The image of the Jew has a stark folk simplicity about it that lies at the opposite pole from the refinement, qualification, and general subtlety pervading these writers’ treatment of the rest of their material. The writer is doing penance at the family shrine before the tribal deities for his own sophistication—in the same spirit in which an agnostic suddenly decides to attend a religious service. We have an oppressive feeling that he knows better than what he writes. It seems incredible that a modern thinking man should become a “slave” to passion—and such a passion. But he does it because it is good for him. When the intellect reaches a certain stage of development, there seems nowhere left for it to go except back into the primitive. It bathes and purges itself in popular emotion, from which it has been excluded so long. Perhaps modern anti-Semitism may be considered most fruitfully as the backwash of the romantic movement, that reaction against a preceding “age of reason” (an age, by the way, from which the liberation of modern Jewry dates). It was romanticism which originally brought into favor the music of Wagner, the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the folk ballad, and various other seemingly anti- or sub-intellectual forms.

In any case, it is a rare member of the avant-garde of the 20’s who feels as does Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses that “history is a nightmare” from which he is trying “to awaken.” Many of them seem to think that it is a nightmare that ought to be encouraged. And they bring forward to it their own little “trifles for a massacre” (the actual title of Céline’s first anti-Semitic book, which was so violent that André Gide in his review thought it a satire of genuine anti-Semitism). The number of instances of anti-Semitism could be multiplied, from authors whom I have not mentioned. Paul Morand, in his book New York, gives the following “joke” about the city, which for him apparently characterizes accurately its social relationships: “The Jews own it, the Irish run it, and the Negroes enjoy it.” No mention is made of the fact that all three also do the work of the city, and that nationalities not named participate just as prominently in each of the functions which are named.

_____________

 

Eventually, under the impact of the newspaper headlines, the writers in whose work an anti-Semitic element was present broke up into two groups: those for whom anti-Semitism had been a plaything, and those for whom it had been something more. For the latter group, which included Pound, anti-Semitism became central, philosophical, obsessive; while in the case of the former group, the decorative, fashionable, literary anti-Semitism, as its explosive social qualities were revealed, was completely and silently dropped.

Two explanations suggest themselves for the disappearance of a civilized prejudice. The person suffering from it may have acquired it thoughtlessly and may give it up the moment he fully realizes its implications and its injustice. Or he may choose to keep quiet about what may prove dangerous to him or to those ideas of his that are more important than this prejudice. The first explanation would involve a sincere and just repentance; the second would simply signify cowardly opportunism.

It may have been some such thought as this that was in the mind of Pound when he was captured by the American Army in Italy. He was quoted by PM as saying, “If a man won’t stand up and fight for his ideas, there’s something wrong either with his ideas or with him.” Eliot, so far as I know, has never retracted anything in his work which might be interpreted as anti-Semitism; at a certain point, he simply dropped it. Six years after delivering the series of lectures at the University of Virginia, later gathered into the volume After Strange Gods, from which I have already quoted, Eliot delivered another series of lectures at Cambridge in 1939 which was published under the title The Idea of A Christian Society. No mention of Jews, either freethinkers or any other kind, is made in the latter book. They are simply omitted, but the implications of that omission are not contradictory to what he had said before. Recently, an article by Eliot on Pound appeared in Poetry magazine, and it dealt solely with Pound’s contribution to poetry. It was intended to be taken as a roundabout defense of Pound, I suppose.

Now there were a number of Jewish literary men like Karl Schapiro who also came out against shooting Pound and it was perfectly proper for them to do so, since they could hardly be suspected of sharing his ideas. But it seemed evasive in Eliot’s case to skirt about the political issues as completely as if they did not exist; after all, he had been a close friend of Pound’s for many years and had shared so many of his ideas—not only those concerning literature.

_____________

 

To come back after this long while to the more immediate subject of our deliberation—Fitzgerald was an artist rather than a philosopher, and he was therefore at his best when creating images, not when thinking about them. It is instructive to compare the richness and meaningfulness of his picture of American decay during the drinking 20’s with the poverty of his interpretation of that picture. Occasionally, he stops long enough to allow the narrator Nick Carraway to comment, like a Greek chorus, on the action we have been watching. Almost the last comment Nick makes in the book, a few pages from the end, is most significant, if not illuminating:

That’s my Middle West. . . .I am a part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life . . . Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions, which spared only the children and the very old—even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. . . .

It would take a long time to disentangle the threads of this attitude and categorize them, but in general the passage represents the basis of his feelings about Meyer Wolfsheim. The West in this passage represents the forces of tradition (a curious change from the days of the frontier when it stood for everything that was crude and uncultured), and the East stands for decay. In the West, “dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name,” while in the East nobody is interested in anything about a person except how much money he’s got. People come to Gatsby’s parties who not only know nothing about his family, but nothing about him; some of them have never seen him before, and some of them have never even been invited. Gatsby, the romantic baby turned into a clown by the surrounding waves of scepticism and nihilism, is so uprooted from tradition and a healthy connection with the people about him that he is reduced to considering a Wolfsheim his closest friend. Nevertheless, Gatsby remains the hero of the book precisely because to Fitzgerald he is a tragic victim. As a whole, The Great Gatsby is a kind of left-handed defense of romanticism and betrays Fitzgerald’s ambivalent mixture of contempt, nostalgic admiration, and sympathy for this Don Quixote on Long Island (or, as he thought of naming the book at one time, “Trimalchio of West Egg”).

A possible objection to this analysis, which it would be well to dispose of at this point, is that one is not justified in drawing inferences from the assumption that the narrator stands for the author. The matter is settled definitely by a sentence of Nick’s early in the book: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” From that point on, it seems clear to me that Nick is a ventriloquist’s dummy, whose neutrality is the author’s, and whose emotions and philosophy are also those of the author.

As to the quality of this philosophy, the evidence justifies our applying to Fitzgerald the statement from Goethe’s sympathetic obituary on Byron: “sobald er reflektiert ist er ein Kind.” As soon as he begins to think he becomes a child. His cartoon of the Jew is the product of this thoughtlessness, though it surely is far from systematic anti-Semitism.

_____________

 

Fitzgerald’s last word on the Jews remained only half spoken. The Last Tycoon, interrupted by the author’s death, is the merest fragment, but it promised to be an interesting book and of an import somewhat different from that of The Great Gatsby.

The available portions of this last book show Fitzgerald playing with a number of ideas. The one that must concern us here is in the sharpest opposition to the Wolfsheim theme. The abstract concept of the Jew (perfect or imperfect) is split up by the concrete reality of Jews, good, bad, and indifferent. It is as if his Hollywood experience forced Fitzgerald, at least in this problem, to think a little harder and observe a little more closely. The producers Reinmund and Jacques La Borwitz are about as low on the moral scale as it is possible to go, but the hero, Monroe Stahr, is in a different class. Not that he is a good man, exactly—I’m not sure Fitzgerald ever had any positive ideas about virtue—but he belongs to the only type for which the author had any indulgence. He is a self-made, romantic millionaire, a dreamer. The more one thinks about him, the more he seems to resemble Jay Gatsby. With one important difference—he is a Jew. Where Wolf-theim had been no more than Gatsby’s “best friend” and manipulator, here Wolfsheim and Gatsby merge into one. Certainly the resemblance is obvious between the Jew who had barely heard of “Oggsford College” and the Jew who has never heard of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, Botticelli, or Spengler. But Wolfsheim’s viciousness is gone. For Fitzgerald to admit that a Jew might be a romantic was equivalent to his ceasing to be an anti-Semite. This perhaps reinforces the suggestion that his anti-Semitism was a superficial, merely “fashionable” thing from the beginning.

Certainly Fitzgerald’s attitude toward Stahr is ambivalent, but so was his attitude toward Gatsby, whom he regarded constantly with an inextricable mixture of love and contempt. In The Last Tycoon, if Fitzgerald cannot conceal a certain surprise when he observes that not all Jews are necessarily cheap and stingy, and if he sees Stahr himself as something less or more than human (“He has had everything in life except the privilege of giving himself unselfishly to another human being”), yet he can write of Stahr, with a kind of tenderness and humility, as the man who “saw a new way of measuring our jerky hopes and graceful rogueries and awkward sorrows, and . . . came here from choice to be with us to the end.” Stahr is surely no representative of the tradition of the Middle West, as Gatsby was, but by this time, perhaps, Fitzgerald had lost his sentimental nostalgia for that tradition (which, indeed, he had described rather vaguely and with significant reservations), and was able to see Stahr as the embodiment of a new cultural force that he could not entirely understand or wholeheartedly embrace, but that he was compelled to respect. As I have pointed out, the anti-Semitism of such a book as The Great Gatshy results in part from the desire to make life simple; the complicated interplay of conflicting attitudes in the portrait of Monroe Stahr is thus a sign of greater maturity and responsibility in the writer. In the words of the narrator of The Last Tycoon: “Writers aren’t people exactly. Or if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person.”

_____________

 

I am still troubled as to whether I have made the meaning of the term fashionable anti-Semitism sufficiently clear. The term stands for a habitual, customary, “harmless,” unpolitical variety. It is best expressed by a brilliantly conceived scene in Joyce’s Ulysses from which I have already quoted a phrase. Here Mr. Deasy appears as the fashionable anti-Semite, and Stephen Dedalus—the spiritual son, in the story, of the Jew Leopold Bloom—unsheathes one or two of his dagger definitions with which to pierce him very quietly (I have taken the liberty of using conventional quotation marks in place of Joyce’s difficult system of dashes and indentations):

‘Mark my words, Mr. Dedalus,’ [Deasy] said, ‘England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying. . . .’

‘A merchant,’ Stephen said, ‘is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?’

‘They sinned against the light,’ Mr. Deasy said gravely. ‘And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day. . . .’

‘Who has not?’ Stephen said.

‘What do you mean?’ Mr. Deasy asked. . . .

‘History’ Stephen said, ‘is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.’

That says everything as well as I could have wished to say it. Except one thing. To recognize such a variety as fashionable anti-Semitism, it is necessary to postulate that since the liberation from the ghetto (in some periods more strongly than in others) anti-Semitism has been as omnipresent as germs in the air about us. Even some Jews have been infected with it. When it appears as an element, even a minor one, in the work of a writer whom we are bound to admire by all the canons of art, it has several possible effects. In the case of the Gentile reader, it either escapes his notice, or it confirms a notion he has already had of the Jews, or it may be noticed by him and rejected, or it may plant the seed of a new suspicion within him. As for the Jewish reader, he either ignores it as unimportant in the sum of the entire work, or else his aesthetic enjoyment even of a master like Shakespeare is soured by this drop of vitriol. The reaction of the first Jewish reader seems complacent and perhaps stupid, while that of the second is unfortunate. The horns of the dilemma are those which come out of a condition where a group exists semi-assimilated to an alien environment.

Perhaps the only escape and honest comfort lie in an attitude of scientific objectivity that recognizes fashionable anti-Semitism as no more and no less important than it actually is. By itself, it is a trifle (though a trifle not to be ignored), but in combination with other trifles, it may give rise somewhere along the line to an obsession that is no longer a trifle (Hitler’s or Pound’s) and this obsession—since madness is the most contagious of diseases—may, in the presence of certain other favoring economic and social circumstances, help prepare such a massacre as we have lately witnessed in Europe. Put in this tentative, halting way, this is not much of a conclusion, but it seems to be the only warranted one which we may make without losing our own objectivity and becoming (as is only too easy for a sensitive Jew in our time) ourselves obsessed.

_____________

 

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.