Commentary Magazine

Manners & the Jewish Intellectual

Jewish historical experience involves such an abundance of anomalies that when it has not elicited resentment or suspicion it has repeatedly teased observers into thought, or at least conjecture. One of the most provocative of these anomalies is the disproportionate role modern Jews have played in creating radically new conceptual systems for political thought, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the natural sciences as well. All sorts of explanations have been proposed for this unseemly prominence of Jews among the pioneers of modern thought. Most frequently it is asserted—with a special eye to Marx and perhaps to Trotsky—that these various analytic achievements are modern expressions of classic Jewish messianism, the age-old prophetic impulse manifesting itself in “redemptive” systems of powerfully unitary thought, sometimes geared for political implementation, in which there is no longer any ultimate distinction between Gentile and Jew, rich and poor, perhaps not even between civilized and primitive. A special variant of the messianic construction is George Steiner's notion that the Jews of modernity preserve a special vocation for universalism through their continued attachment to vulnerable homelessness: by resisting the blandishments of nationalism, the narcotic aromas of geographical hearth and home, the Jewish protagonists of that radical modern intellectual activity radiating out of Mittel Europa managed to see sharply for all mankind.

On a less lofty level, Ernest van den Haag, a sympathetic outside observer, has actually proposed a genetic explanation. If Jews, he argues, at least according to the statistical measures of highest achievement, seem to be smarter than other people, this is for good historical reasons: medieval Christian society tended to channel its best minds into the clergy, where one was enjoined to remain celibate and so, inevitably, childless, while the intellectually impoverished masses of the laity went on breeding like rabbits. Traditional Jewish society, on the contrary, repeatedly rewarded male intellectual achievement with socially advantageous marriages, so that the best minds were in materially favored circumstances to reproduce themselves and thus constantly enrich the intellectual resources of the national genetic pool.

With a more minutely informed sense of the complex historical issues than is evinced by any of these proposed explanations, J. L. Talmon, in Israel Among the Nations, combines the messianic view with a sociological one. The immediate object of his analysis is the prominence of Jews in the vanguard of 19th-century European socialism, but the succinctly comprehensive terms in which he defines the post-Emancipation ambience have obvious relevance to other kinds of intellectual endeavor by Jews, and are worth keeping in mind as a general frame of reference for this whole problem:

No other group, not even the uprooted villagers who flocked into the rapidly growing industrial centers, underwent a more thorough break with their former mode of existence than Jews, almost suddenly cut off from their ancestral faith, unique style of life, communal cohesion and isolation, and pariah status. Nothing existing could any longer be taken for granted. Everything seemed provisional, a preparation for the real thing to come. Ready as it were to absorb all these complex feelings of malaise, expectation, hope, and zeal was the ancient messianic disposition.

Now John Murray Cuddihy, in The Ordeal of Civility,1 proposes a strenuous revision of all prevalent understandings about why and how Jews have contributed to the modern intellectual enterprise. In a sense, Cuddihy's view is that of the passage from Talmon without the last two sentences, but he pursues the large implications of his sociological argument inexorably and, on occasion, with a weird inventiveness, and the articulations of his position deserve some attention. In any case, Cuddihy raises troubling questions about the tenor and direction of modern Jewish intellectual achievement which cannot be lightly dismissed, and his book clearly has been taken seriously in some circles, as its nomination for a National Book Award would suggest.

The Ordeal of Civility is essentially a study of European Jewish intellectuals in the long, socially ambiguous aftermath of Emancipation that continued, as Cuddihy sees it, throughout the 19th century and down into our own. The book attempts to define virtually all intellectual activity by modernizing Jews, however varied the conceptual vocabularies developed or the objects for which they were developed, as expressions of the same underlying historical mechanism. That mechanism, in broadest terms, is the effort on the part of emancipating Jews to mitigate an abiding sense of their own freakishness in the alien new society by articulating a vision of reality that would somehow justify their strangeness—perhaps most often, by projecting it on society at large or mankind in general. Cuddihy argues that this mechanism operates with equal force in explicitly Jewish movements like Zionism, Reform Judaism, the Hebrew Enlightenment, and in the thought of seemingly “non-Jewish” Jews like Marx, Freud, and Lévi-Strauss.

After briefly laying down the premises of historical sociology that lead him to this view of modern Jewry (and ex-Jewry), Cuddihy goes on to a detailed examination of Freudian theory—with special emphasis on The Interpretation of Dreams—as a product of Freud's supposedly transitional location between an old Jewish society recalled with mingled nostalgia and shame and a new Gentile society in which as a Jew he somehow could never fully take root. Much briefer sections of the book then endeavor to explain the systems of Marx and Lévi-Strauss in similar terms, with brief passing references to a variety of other modern Jewish intellectuals from Durkheim to Hannah Arendt. The concluding third of the book recapitulates the argument by applying its paradigm for modern Jewish social history—the details of which I shall consider presently—to some contemporary American situations involving Jews and Irish, Jews and blacks, and American Jews of German extraction vis-à-vis those of East European origin.


Let me begin with what seems soundest in The Ordeal of Civility. Impelled by an inexhaustible scholarly fascination with the Jews, Cuddihy has worked up his historical subject with impressive thoroughness, at least to the limits of what is available in English. If he has an irksome propensity to flaunt his expertise by constantly dropping Yiddish and Hebrew terms, it must be conceded that he makes only occasional and minor slips in usage, and he has a firm grip on most of the facts, even some relatively obscure ones, of recent Jewish history. Interpretation of the facts, of course, is another matter, but the one central aspect of modern Jewish experience that Cuddihy understands keenly is its prolonged malaise of social self-consciousness.

Jewish intellectuals after the so-called Emancipation, suddenly discovering themselves in that unfamiliar realm where “nothing existing could any longer be taken for granted,” tend to be painfully nervous about themselves, how they will appear in Gentile eyes, to what extent their behavior will be associated with the obscurantism of their forebears or the vulgarities of the new Jewish bourgeoisie. The Ordeal of Civility is on surest ground when it applies this predicament to primarily sociological situations, as in its description of the clash between Abbie Hoffman and Judge Julius Hoffman, in the famous Chicago trial of a few years ago, as a kind of Jewish socio-drama. Cuddihy is also quite right in stressing the ideological character of modern Jewish existence, and in seeing these new Jewish ideologies as varying attempts to heal the breach of divided consciousness by a programmatic redefinition of Jewishness in universalist, or at least European, terms, though one must surely question his tendency to assume that all forms of social thought by modern Jews are implicitly ideological. In any case, he is finely attuned to the apologetic strain that unfortunately has played such a prominent role in modern Jewish consciousness, and the one valuable insight of his book is his sense of the double message of Jewish ideologies, simultaneously directed to the resented or rejected group of origin and to the larger Gentile society, a society consciously admired but often even more resented, for different reasons. A passage at the very beginning of Cuddihy's study nicely defines these ambiguous contexts of communication, though I shall later argue against his unqualified inclusion as Jewish ideologies of systems of thought that are not explicit programs for collective Jewish existence:

The ideologies of the post-Emancipation era—Marxism, Freudianism, Haskalah, Reform Judaism—have a double audience: on the one hand, they have “designs” on their Jewish audience, which they wish to change, enlighten, or reform; but, on the other hand, they constitute an elaborate effort at apologetics, addressed to the “Gentile of good will” and designed to reinterpret, excuse, or explain to him the otherwise questionable public “look” of emancipating Jewry: secular Jewish intellectual ideologies are exercises in anti-defamation, addresses in defense of Jewry to the cultured among its despisers.

Emancipating Jewry, in Cuddihy's view, is bound to have a questionable public look because the public sphere of modern Western society is governed by a system of civility basically alien to the Jews of the ghettos and the shtetlach. Cuddihy considers civility the hallmark of modernization. As Europe moved from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from organic communities to merely functionally connected societies of strangers in the new urban, industrializing centers, a code of civility was developed that made it possible to deal with strangers routinely, lubricating the innumerable friction points of the social machine in the absence of organic bonds among people. Cuddihy recognizes that the pangs of transition from the old social order to the new were part of a general pattern of European history in the 18th and 19th centuries—he cites the archetypal figure of the Young Man from the Provinces in the European novel of this period as an illustration—but he plausibly argues that the transition was more sudden, more acute, for Jews than for others. Indeed, he might have pointed out more clearly than he does that for Jews the process of transition could never be complete because Gentile society never entirely accepted them—Balzac's ex-provincial Rastignac could make himself a perfect Parisian, but about Proust's Swann, however accomplished a denizen of the polite world he may be, there lingers a suspicion of otherness.

Cuddihy's general thesis, then, is that the Jews, in their sudden eruption from the coarse, noisy, affectionate Gemeinschaft of their little villages in the Pale of Settlement and the Central European hinterlands, encountered an elaborate etiquette they could not easily assimilate, and as a result the exposure or undermining of civility became a major impulse of Jewish thought. Thus Marx would discover crude profit motives behind the most complex social arrangements, Freud would find profoundly asocial drives to instinctual gratification beneath all masks of civility, and, most recently, Lévi-Strauss would translate the primal social opposition between Jew and Christian into a universal system of binary oppositions between nature and culture, raw and cooked, night and day, and celebrate savage thought at the expense of the European code of civility.


To begin with, there is something partly askew in Cuddihy's perception of the Jewish social backgrounds of Emancipation, and this in turn leads to considerable distortion when he comes to discuss the thinkers whose parents or grandparents came out of the distinctive milieus of Jewry on the threshold of modernization. At first, he draws the proper distinction between ghetto and shtetl, but as he proceeds, for the clear convenience of his own argument, he speaks more and more as though the shtetl were the universal social unit for pre-modern Jews. The term ghetto itself, though this is hardly Cuddihy's fault, is a little misleading, since it immediately conjures up images of sequestration within walls, while in many large European towns and cities there was simply a Jewish quarter, or, in some Central and Eastern European cases, the general population was itself predominantly Jewish. As far as demographic patterns can be reconstructed, it would seem that the majority of pre-Emancipation Jews in Europe lived in urban areas, not in little villages. Thus the kingdom of Poland, whose Jewish community had the highest percentage in the world of rural Jews, lists over two-thirds of the total Jewish population in the census of 1764 as at least nominally urban. By the census of 1790, the Jews of the kingdom, though only about 9 per cent of the general Polish population of nine million, outnumbered Christians in total urban population.

Now, if one tries to think concretely on the basis of the documentation we have about the actual life-patterns of these 18th-century urban Jews, it becomes evident that they had self-governing institutions, social hierarchies, clear class divisions, and a prescriptive code of behavior adjusted to rank and occasion. (The separation between public and private demeanor, one might note, is supposed to be a distinguishing criterion of Gesellschaft.) Perhaps we have all heard too many anecdotes about Rothschild and the schnorrer, but in point of fact an ordinary Jewish poor man would, say, no more dream of addressing a prosperous householder without the honorific reb than a Parisian drayman would think of addressing a proper bourgeois without the monsieur. The point, then, is not that the very idea of civility was alien to early modern Jews, as Cuddihy repeatedly insists, but that many of them had grown up with a code of civility different in its particulars from the one prevailing in Gentile society.

Cuddihy, by virtually equating pre-modern Jewish existence with the shtetl, is able to exaggerate the admittedly sharp transition of Emancipation and thus to set the stage for his presentation of modern Jewish thought as a ferocious assault on the whole system of civility. Traditional Jewish culture, we are asked to believe, was “tribal rather than civil.” I should hate to think that social scientists use terms of classification even more carelessly than do literary critics, but it is certainly hard to imagine a meaningful sense in which Jewish culture could be called tribal any time during the last two thousand years, shtetlach included. Altogether, behind the sociologically descriptive language with which Cuddihy tries to characterize the shtetl one detects a sharp ambivalence in his actual feelings about pre-modern Jewish life. On the one hand, he repeatedly echoes the title and the rather simplified substance of Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog's Life Is with People, celebrating the proverbial “warmth” of shtetl life, all that teeming, endearingly untidy humanity happily innocent of the cleavages and pretenses of polite societies. On the other hand, he continually speaks of the shtetl as the antithesis of civilization in all senses of the word: it is the Jew's memories of the shtetl that tie him to a world of raw, primitive feeling, of lack of restraint in every public sphere, a world without social or aesthetic differentiation. The peculiar polarity of Cuddihy's ostensibly descriptive terms explains a good deal, I think, of the extremeness of his views on the nature of Jewish intellectual achievement.

The attitudinal warp of Cuddihy's thinking (to which I shall return) is reinforced by its conceptual woof, which is strung out with the crudest thread of sociological reductionism imaginable. Again and again, he willfully, extravagantly confuses the edge of social malaise in modern Jewish consciousness with the center of intellectual perception. One would of course not want to deny a connection between social situation and intellectual activity, but Cuddihy requires a relation of total causality. The cognitive structures erected by Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, and others, which we like to think have contributed to our understanding of man and history, are in his view merely camouflaged reactions to the disturbing social situation of Jews after the Emancipation. The “recoil from the vulgarity of their own Jewish community” is, quite simply, “the covert root of the social and literary creativity of Diaspora intellectuals.” Everything in the thought of these intellectuals can be translated back into the primary language of social disturbance out of which the thinking is projected as a kind of complex code. Cuddihy, then, quickly disposes of dialectical materialism: “The Ostjude [that is, from the German point of view, the crude East European Jew] becomes for Marx his Unterbau, his substructure. All the rest is ‘propriety’ (i.e., bourgeois social and legal ‘formalism’).” Psychoanalysis is just as easily explained: “In Freud's ‘science,’ the social troubles of a modernizing Jewry receive a self-enhancing cognitive gloss: social malaise becomes a medical symptom, offenses become defenses, kvetches become hysterical complaints, tsuris becomes [sic] basic anxiety, social shame becomes moral guilt. . .; to be badly behaved is to be mentally ill.” And, as we have already noted, the system of basic polarities of structural anthropology is imagined as an elaborate mask for the primary opposition between uncouth shtetl Jew and civil Gentile.

Cuddihy's habit of running all products of thought and art through his sociological meat-grinder leads him at times to truly comic misconceptions. Thus, he believes that Joyce created the stream of consciousness as “a technique of deliberate vulgarity” in order to assault the oppressive civility of the Protestant bourgeois novel on behalf of the gemeinschaftliche Irish. “Joyce and his Dubliners, like Freud and his shtetl Jews, coming ‘from behind’ in the 19th century, had to make ‘a wilderness in the clearing’ of bourgeois-Christian respectability so that their Irish and Jews could breathe.” The syntactical confusion of the last clause reflects a real inability to make distinctions in the attempt to see connections, and the writer seems oblivious to the aesthetic fanaticism with which Joyce cultivated an elitist art-novel, to the literary sources of Joyce's technique, to the Irish writer's actual relationship to his native community and to European culture.


The subtitle of this book makes larger claims for its scope than the actual contents warrant. Half the length of the book is devoted to Freud. There are about thirty pages on Marx, mostly concerned with his early essay on censorship and his article, “On the Jewish Question,” and no serious engagement with the complexities of Marx's theory of history is attempted. There are only ten, vague pages on Lévi-Strauss. The final third of the book is stitched together from topical bits and pieces that reiterate the general argument but scarcely amplify it. (Ominously, toward the end the author informs us in a footnote that this volume is only a “fragment” of an encyclopedic work in progress that will deal with “Kafka, Wittengstein, Hannah Arendt, and others.”) The Ordeal of Civility, then, is really an essay on Freud and the modern Jewish condition, and it is as such that its validity must be assessed.

It has long been known that Freud was deeply divided in his feelings about his own Jewishness.2 He was, of course, a member of the Vienna Lodge of the B'nai B'rith, to whom he publicly affirmed his sense of Jewish solidarity and the Jewish source of his sense of intellectual freedom in a famous 1926 letter. He also agreed to serve as a trustee of the Hebrew University, despite his decided lack of sympathy with the Zionist cause. On the other hand, he was acutely sensitive to what he liked to imagine as the failure of the Christian world to recognize his achievement adequately, and he was very apprehensive that psychoanalysis might be thought of as a “Jewish science” (hence, for example, his particular distress over the defection of Jung). His animus against the theological assumptions of Jewish tradition emerged clearly in the book that preoccupied him during the last years, Moses and Monotheism, in which he stood historical logic on its head in order to make Moses (with whom he obviously identified) an Egyptian and to imagine Moses the victim of a primal-horde murder by the Jews.

In Cuddihy's version, Freud's strong ambivalence about Jewish identity is set into a somewhat unreal historical perspective by the insistence on his personal connection with the shtetl, on the supposed fact that “Freud came out of the Jewish Middle Ages.” Freud was born in Moravian Freiberg, a Catholic town of 5,000 in which there were about 100 Jews (hardly a shtetl!), the son of an already Germanized Jewish textile merchant who had abandoned the religious observance of his own father. The future founder of psychoanalysis was four when the family moved to Vienna, the cosmopolitan center in which he grew up and spent almost all of his subsequent life. On these facts alone, not to speak of the relaxed way Freud alludes to traditional Jewish life and practices in the anecdotal material from it that he occasionally draws on, it is hard to see how he could have been obsessed with the uncouth shtetl Jew, before all other intellectual or emotional considerations, as Cuddihy repeatedly claims.

In the relentless perspective of The Ordeal of Civility, however, Freud's great turn-of-the-century work, The Interpretation of Dreams, is not to be thought of as a pioneering exploration of the dynamics of the unconscious and its relation to consciousness, but rather as a veiled document of Jewish Emancipation. What is really behind Freud's pretended penetration into the murky realm of primordial desires and the weird mechanics of dream censorship is simply this: “As the unruly wish can fulfill itself only in the form of a disguised dream, so the Ostjude is not admissible into the civil society of the Gentile unless he submits to social censorship, disguising his unruly importunity in socially acceptable ways.” Given such an assertion, it is easy enough to imagine how Cuddihy accounts for all the major positions of Freudian theory and practice. The “id” is nothing more than a psychologized, internalized version of the “Yid,” the crude shtetl Jew thrust against the restrictions of Christian civility (it is characteristic of Cuddihy that he should repeatedly stress this execrable pun, in defiance of the obvious fact that for Freud the id was das Es, and so had no rhyming association with Yid). The Oedipus complex itself is only an ostensibly psychological “defense” against deep social shame in Freud: when he was twelve or so, he was shocked by a story his father told him of once having meekly submitted to public humiliation by a Christian; in the Oedipus story, a young man is insulted in a public place, a crossroads, by a stranger (it is his father) and promptly responds by killing the man and his whole entourage. Thus Freud focuses hostility toward his father caused by his father's social cowardice and at the same time translates Jewish social shame into universal guilt. The psychoanalytic situation, finally, was invented chiefly to serve as a social situation in which the restraints of civility could be cast off, “in which Viennese Jewry—and other ‘honorary Jews’—could legitimately desublimate (de-Westernize) and regress to their premodern ‘ids.’” The general rule is that “Freud and his descendants habitually extrapolate from the Eastern European Jewish case to ‘man in general,’” a sweeping conclusion that ultimately questions the intrinsic validity of any system of thought conceived by a Jew in the past century and a half.


The reception that The Ordeal of Civility seems to have found in some quarters is particularly distressing because a little reflection will suggest that the book is not merely misguided—it is an extended exercise in intellectual demagoguery. Everything Cuddihy says is based on the entirely unexamined assumption that social factors are invariably the primary ones, and that thinking can therefore always be confidently construed as a “translation” of social concerns. But by this point in intellectual history, it seems evident enough that the first formative contexts of every individual life are not differentiated social systems but the immediate relation of the child with parents and siblings—one does not have to be a “Freudian,” and Freud himself hardly needed to be a Jew, to make this observation—and on these grounds alone one wonders why social considerations should have such a priori primacy.

The general shoddiness of Cuddihy's method of reasoning is vividly illustrated by his interpretation of the analytic situation as a special social contrivance to escape temporarily from Gentile civility. Assuming psychoanalysis to be a device to fulfill specific Jewish social needs, he must casually dismiss all Gentile analysands as “honorary Jews,” and then he can go on to claim that the so-called “desublimation” of the analytic process was merely a strategy for escaping back to the inner ease of the pre-Emancipation Jewish self.

What makes this—and, indeed, the whole argument on Freud—utter nonsense is the obvious fact that the supposed Gemeinschaft of the shtetl was a society with an extraordinarily elaborate system of repressions, un-Western being anything but un-sublimated. In fact, civil society, which divides public and private behavior, allows for certain releases from sexual prohibition that organic communities do not: the proper Viennese or Parisian banker or lawyer could practice public probity and private permissiveness, maintaining the civil appearances of a mariage de convenance while keeping a compliant mistress on one side for the gratification of his polymorphous fancy. The more one examines the equation between id and premodern Jew, the more it seems devoid of historical meaning, nothing more than a dubious rhetorical stratagem. Correspondingly, one is more and more puzzled about why Cuddihy should have such difficulty imagining how Freud, as a member of Austrian and European society, could have observed the obtrusive mechanisms of repression operating all around him, in Christian and Jew, and arrived at his conclusions, without special reference to the world of his grandfather's culture.

When Freud initiated a whole revolution in thought with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams—and it is, I would contend, a revolution through which we are still living, even if some of what he said now seems wildly wrong—was he impelled by distinctively Jewish motives, directed by any specifically Jewish assumptions? Certainly not on the basis of the material he discusses, or the view of the psyche and its relation to society that emerges from the discussions. It may be, as Freud himself later claimed, that he could exercise a certain freedom of critical inquiry into first principles as a post-traditional member of the people that in a sense came to European society from without. Many others have emphasized basically the same idea in insisting on the marginality of the European Jewish intellectual as the source of his fresh critical perspective on things, and there must surely be some validity in the notion, though its very generality keeps the argument from advancing very far. My own suspicion is that the most Jewish feature of The Interpretation of Dreams is its method, which is, of course, tireless exegesis.

Clearly, one does not want to make a “talmudic mind” out of Freud, any more than one should assent to the fanciful commentators who have sought to make him a kabbalist. What I am proposing is that in the background of certain highly acculturated European Jews, like Freud, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin, some of the fundamental Jewish categories for organizing or approaching experience—revelation, law, exegesis, tradition—remained available as general ideas, even sometimes exerted a force of historical momentum, pushing toward their application in post-traditional contexts.

Freud, one might observe, does not merely interpret dreams but establishes texts for the dreams which can then be expounded, and argues for the psychological authority of the minute verbal formulations of the texts. The structure of meaning in dreams as he sees it is strikingly analogous to the structure of meaning in the written revelation as Jewish tradition conceived it. Under scrutiny, everything turns out to be ramified interconnection, every statement links with every other. Meaning is ubiquitous, equally crucial at all points; nothing in the text is trivial, and perhaps least what may seem so. Meaning, in fact, is always multiple (Freud's “overdetermination” and the Torah's Seventy Facets), being virtually inexhaustible in the case of dream-texts, literally inexhaustible in the text of the Law. There is a prior guarantee of the validity of exegesis—in the case of tradition, because Divinity chooses to make aspects of its infinite meanings accessible to man; in dream interpretation, because the process of free association is bound to have meaningful connections, however unexpected, with the unconscious. In both systems, the primary materials of knowledge belong to a formative period in the past, and dreams, like the concatenation of Jewish tradition, impel us toward a future which, ideally, would be a perfect reenactment of the past.

For an illuminating account of Freud's methodological assumptions in The Interpretation of Dreams, one might usefully consult Gershom Scholem's remarkable essay, “Tradition and COMMENTARY as Religious Categories in Judaism,” in The Messianic Idea. Much of what Scholem says about the operation of traditional exegesis could be applied directly to Freud with hardly an adjustment of terms. Thus: “The meaning of revelation unfolds in historical time—but only because everything that can come to be known has already been deposited in a timeless substratum.” Or, again, a description of the operation of exegesis on the material of this substratum which exactly parallels Freud's characterization of what dreamwork does with unconscious material: “What had originally been believed to be consistent, unified, and self-enclosed now becomes diversified, multifold, and full of contradictions.” The Interpretation of Dreams bears an epigraph from Virgil—Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I shall move the Infernal Regions”—and one is tempted to read it in a different sense from the one Freud intended, as a comment on his own work as exegete: if I cannot believe in interpreting a Revelation from above, I will become master of the revelation from below, using the same assumptions of endless COMMENTARY.


All this is, necessarily, conjectural. The clearest thing about The Interpretation of Dreams is that it is one of the great modern documents of radical critique and self-discovery. The commitment to a hazardous pursuit of self-knowledge is a general bias of Western culture (there is nothing quite like it in Jewish tradition) that begins, at least programmatically, with Socrates, emerges signally in Augustine, Montaigne (of whom Freud is at times surprisingly reminiscent), and Rousseau. It is with these Western and modern contexts in mind that I should like to mention the most suspect assertion Cuddihy makes about Freud and the other Jewish thinkers he discusses: that the motive force of their intellectual effort was ressentiment, “the vindictive objectivity of the marginal non-member,” and that therefore their thought was a punitive assault on Christian civil society. In the case of Freud, we are asked to believe, this vindictiveness chiefly expresses itself in the notion that, above all else, the truth must be shocking—hence Freud's polemical emphasis on sexuality.

Now surely one of the hallmarks of the whole adversary culture of intellectual modernism has been a general sense that the truth must be shocking, that all conceptual and imaginative means must be marshaled to destroy the “specious good” of bourgeois society (the phrase is from Lionel Trilling's Beyond Culture, which provides an admirable overview of modernism as an activity of radical moral critique). In dropping so many Jewish names, Cuddihy seems to have forgotten about Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Conrad, Mann, Lawrence, or about the Diderot of Rameau's Nephew, who, without the benefit of shtetl ancestry, had his protagonist assert that it was every man's secret wish to kill his father and sleep with his own mother. The broad intellectual movement of modernism, with its various explorations of prohibited sexuality, violence, scatology, drugs, its anti-Christian, neo-pagan, and anti-rationalist voices, must seem profoundly subversive from the standpoint of any established Western social order. Cuddihy's sleight-of-hand trick is to focus on a few seminal social thinkers of Jewish origin within this much larger movement and so to give the impression that the subversiveness of modernism was foisted on intellectuals everywhere by the Jews, who repeatedly argued out of the resentment of their own special social predicament as though they were describing man in general. I do not presume to know Cuddihy's motives, which may well be associated with a kind of uneasy admiration of Jewish intellectuality. But whatever his conscious intentions, the clear tendency of his historical exposition is to represent Jewish social thought as inherently meretricious, disruptive, vindictive, twisting and breaking the civil body of Christian society on the Procrustean bed of Jewish social distress.

It is, of course, quite plausible that the work of every innovative thinker is given impetus, direction, and covert emphasis by his social background; but the reduction of thought to a pure reflex of social interests ultimately implies a reactionary anti-intellectualism—for it denies the possibility of a real intellectual community freed from the bias of creed, race, and class. The Ordeal of Civility, in the very effort to advance the discussion of Jewish intellectuality, turns it back in the end to a point where the author himself might not have wanted it to go. The contexts of thought surely have their importance, but when a tendentious stress on context flattens and distorts the complexities of the texts themselves, the supposed intellectual historian subverts his own subject by wilfully ignoring the force of original intellect at work.



1 The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, Basic Books, 272 pp., $11.95.

2 Two new, opposing statements on Freud's ambivalence as a Jew, neither of them remarkably satisfactory, by Leon Vogel and Robert Gordis, appear in the Spring 1975 issue of Judaism. See also the essay by Phillip Isenberg and Stanley Rothman, “Freud and Jewish Marginality,” in the December 1974 Encounter.


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