The Magic People, by Arland Ussher
The Irishman and the Jew
The Magic People.
By Arland Ussher.
Devin-Adair. 177 pp. $2.75.
There are thousands of ways of writing a book about the Jews, and most of them have already been tried. It is sad that the best-intentioned and most reliable historically are often the dullest. Perhaps one should not grumble too much then if a new and very original one—well intentioned, too—falls back at, times on some rather threadbare generalizations. At least the book is lively and interesting from start to finish.
Mr. Ussher’s book amounts to an intensely witty, erudite, discursive conversation about Jewish history, and anyone who enjoys good conversation will feel reluctant to criticize it. No good conversationalist can easily be challenged while in full spate. The flow of ideas is too entertaining to be tested by humdrum measures: the analogies, the hypotheses are too delightfully preposterous to lie open to refutation. If one challenges the book at all it would have to be at the same level of uninhibited speculation—if one could achieve it.
But it is not easy to match blarney with an Irishman. Arland Ussher is an Irish philosopher, a Christian, who worked over his own countrymen first in a “provocative” and widely read book entitled The Face and Mind of Ireland before turning to an apparently different subject, the Jews. But it is soon clear that, interesting as the Jews are to him in their own right, his real subject is still, and rightly, his own people. The question he really asks is not “What are the Jews?” but rather “What are we Christians in relation to the Jews?” Spelling this out, Ussher is saying: “The Jews aren’t something extraneous to the Christian world. I challenge any thinking Christian to define his personal position without exploring and committing himself deeply on the Jewish question.”
From the beginning of the strange story in the archaic Biblical world (about which he is very entertaining) until the grimmer, but still amazing events of today, Ussher finds the Jews a “magic people,” not so much because of the miracles within their own history but because of their deeper role as unconscious catalysts in the whole Christian process. The Jews, it seems, stumbled into something magic almost by accident and throughout have been unable to understand fully its significance. As we all know (or as Mr. Ussher knows) the Jews, with all their merits, are an “earthy” people, and the fundamental nature of human existence can be felt only in mystical assumptions beyond their power. The Christians have got the idea, but they in turn have been too human, in the earthy sense, to live by it. Resisting the ideal, they have hated the Jews because the latter were the permanent symbol of their failure. Mr. Ussher asserts that he developed this theory before reading Freud on the Jews, and it was of course his sense of absolute horror at what has happened to the Jews at the hands of Christian civilization that led him to produce a theory shocking enough to account for it. The Jews who produced the Messiah—and all the wonder involved—rejected him and have suffered ever since. But, says Mr. Ussher, “. . . it may be it was the Gentiles that suffered the deeper scar for they have been split in their souls, nourishing a hidden hateful secret in their subconsciousness. Seeing and loving what they understood but little, they have resented deeply the duty of love, the burden of the ideal. So they have rationalized that discordancy as love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and hatred of the nation which delivered him to death. They hate it, in fact, for having given him birth.”
Only a Christian can say from the inside if this analysis makes any sense. Some of its embellishments have a nice wryness about them, if one does not look too close. The Jews rejected Jesus because he was too much one of them. “To appreciate greatness demands a certain recul.” They saw only the familiar side of him, and preferred to avoid the other-worldliness: “The Jew . . . is not without his share of the very human and naive duplicity of soul which wants the Kingdom of Heaven, but not yet.” Once the tragedy of crucifixion was over, the roles were reversed. “Israel bequeathed to us (and to Islam) her intolerance; but—as if by a sort of exchange—she herself developed, and bettered, the so-called Christian mildness.” It needed a Jew—Freud—“to hold up the mirror to the Western psyche” so that the real motives in this crisscross of guilt could begin to be unraveled.
To prove the universality of his thesis, Mr. Ussher finds in our latest discontents only a variation on an old theme. The Jew, having turned up a Messiah, then proceeded, in the machine age, to produce an equally disturbing notion, “the greatest Myth of all history—Progress.” The Jews had emerged from the Middle Ages into a world in which “their particular aptitudes” were to take them to the top. “Who but the Magic People should rise to the magical possibilities that seemed then to open?” Industrialization, world finance—all could lead to a Millennium. “At first they expected it through laissez-faire capitalism, a little later through collectivism.” Once again they had put forward something the Christians were bound to dislike even when they found it irresistible. “The Western Christian—generally speaking—has never believed in, or really desired the Earthly Paradise.” Once again, the Jews attracted to themselves all the rejection that the Christians really felt for the historical process. “They were sick of the Machine, sick of Money idealism, sick of millennial dreams, sick above all of the clever conjurer who seemed to typify these things.” Out of all this, intensified to the nth degree, Adolf Hitler came to power.
At this point one begins to ask whether it is really safe to let an author get away with the facile generalities of conversation, however charming the brogue. The whole breathless argument stands or falls on the validity of this strange central figure “the Jew”—not “the Jews” as they have been and are in all their infinite variety, but “the]ew,” a conveniently single projection, a paradox in some ways perhaps, but fundamentally, for the sake of the argument, a single idea, a butt, a peg, a self-propagating Myth that readers are expected to take on trust because it is so familiar. Unquestionably, everything that Mr. Ussher says about “the Jew” has a kind of truth in the sense that this is Mr. Ussher’s mental picture. In this sense, also, the projection is vastly interesting. The only trouble is that this is not in any objective sense a picture of the Jews who live and work and think in the world around us. They are far too varied, having lived through so many centuries and in countless countries and at countless social and economic levels, to fit into simple generalizations, whether flattering or derogatory.
It is almost enough to quote some of Mr. Ussher’s judgments:
The Jew is younger than we in mind, but far older in soul.
The Jew is materially-minded, even when he is mystical.
The mind of the Jew—always mundane, however much inclined to chimeras—has something mechanical, and, as it were, metallic, in it. And yet Jews, though somewhat mechanically-minded in their thought processes, are seldom mechanically-minded. They do not as a rule enjoy ‘tinkering with machinery’ as much as we do.
The Jew is a gambler—but not, like the gentleman-gambler, a player with life; a bit of a magician—but not, like the Christian ‘bohemian,’ a mere artist in life. He is always serious. . . . His sense of humor. . . is sardonic or masochistic—it cannot be blithe.
If, as one knows, these and similar judgments are just not true in any universal sense, one begins to wonder what validity the idea of “the Jew” has at all. Certainly there is a Jewish theology discoverable in Jewish religious writings. Certainly also there is a Jewish image in the mind of non-Jews (as there is, in the minds of other nationals, an image of the Englishman or the American). But why should one, except for the fun of conversation, pretend that this social image has validity, or try, as Mr. Ussher does to some extent, to link it to the religious ideas of the tradition, a world of ideas very far removed from most of those who have inherited it? The Jews in the world around us are, in the most important sense, human beings adjusting themselves from birth to death to their environment. In America they often like tinkering with machinery.
One would not press this on Mr. Ussher, who knows these arguments very well, if he did not seem semetimes to forget his own warnings on the subject. One suspects also that unless one’s horror at what has happened to the Jews is part of a general horror at any cruelty to anybody, one may be led into some shaky positions. One should not be kind to Jews because they are the “magic people.”
Mr. Ussher knows this too, but he forgets it. At one point he sees mutual tolerance arising from a kind of compromise: the Jews should “learn to accept the greatest of their sons” and the Christians should “consent to honor the race which produced the greatest child of man.” In many ways this oft-repeated sentiment seems very good-natured, yet in one sense, if one explores it, it sounds like the Korean truce talks. A permanent understanding depends on something deeper—and simpler. Both Jews and Christians are human beings.
Mr. Ussher is more stimulating when he is not afraid to be firm about his own approach. On the birth of Jesus he says: “But now the strangest thing happened. Amongst this race, blessed or cursed with exceptional awareness of good and evil. . . God himself consented to be born.”
Each man’s personal vision can be as unequivocal as this. True tolerance comes not from intellectual or sentimental compromise, but from an overriding humanism.