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Between Redemption and Doom: The Strains of German-Jewish Modernism.

Between Redemption and Doom: The Strains of German-Jewish Modernism, by Noah Isenberg. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. 232 pp. $40.00 (c).

Noah Isenberg, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, has written an important and insightful book on German-Jewish modernism between the eve of the First World War and the rise of National Socialism. Between Redemption and Doom consists of four outstanding case studies which analyze works of literature, memoir, art, photography, and film by Franz Kafka, Arnold Zweig, Paul Wegener, and Walter Benjamin. Isenberg examines each author's attempts to balance "European" modernity and "Jewish" community. At the same time, he wisely eschews conventional approaches that fixate on negative representations of Jewish identity in pre-Shoah German (and less so Austrian) culture.

Between Redemption and Doom shifts with poise from theory to cultural history to close readings. The study proceeds by utilizing Ferdinand Tonnies's distinction between Gemeinschaft ("community") and Gesellschaft ("society") to map out early twentieth-century discourses of German-Jewish identity. Whereas the rich textual legacy of German-speaking Jewry has too frequently been discussed solely in aesthetic terms, it is in fact a body of work with social and political dimensions which oscillate between poles of "redemption" and "doom." Related are the poles of "conflict" (e.g., assimilationism or "self-hatred") and "symbiosis" (e.g., multiple identities, social and personal "integration").

German-speaking Jews were doubtless (con)strained in producing a distinctive modernism in which Jewishness would play more than a marginal role. (More comparison with other modernisms might have been helpful for situating the discussion among recent debates.) But the modernist's will to autonomous creation was often marked by psycho-social transferences which arose out other/his sociological life-world. Isenberg demonstrates this dialectical relationship well, particularly in the persuasive chapters on Kafka and Benjamin.

Both writers oppose some form of prelapsarian "aura" to presentist "shocks." Yet more than Kafka, Benjamin promotes a messianic radicalism, albeit one which swings precipitously between historical (Marxian) materialism and kabbalistic Geist. The activation of collective memory (Eingedenken) involves a "flash" of insight into history which then quantum-leaps "back to the future." Hence, in George Steiner's characterization of Benjamin as a "remembrancer," one hears shades of "necromancer." Indeed, Benjamin's utopic hope for a full or even partial restoration of his "Berlin Childhood" (the title of his memoirs) involves a near-Surrealist collecting (Sammeln) of pieces from a shattered but compelling past. To be sure, these remembrances of life "around 1900" were written in French exile in the 1930s and therefore express "a mournful tone, an awareness of a final departure and imminent destruction" (p. 138). Yet might this "mourning" be closer, at least in Freudian terms, to a "melancholia" that becomes compulsi ve? It maybe no accident, as Isenberg notes, that Benjamin's "early reflections on Judaism resurfaced precisely at the same time [i.e., after 1929] that he began to reflect on his childhood memories" (p. 119).

Benjamin's potentially redemptive aesthetic applies equally to Wegener's "awareness of the problems of misrepresentation" in the cinema and to Zweig's positive stereotyping of a genuine Jewishness (Judentum). The latter's lyrical hommage to an auratic authenticity (in "The Eastern Jewish Countenance") is motivated by his perception that there is no place for Jewish communalism in the West. Still, Zweig's representative "fantasy projections" smack of the "idolatry of origins" (Leon Wieseltier, quoted on p. 157) and Isenberg as chronicler hazards the risk of "over-essentializing" Gemeinschaft. (Here, the work of Anthony Giddens and other critical sociologists on the self-reflexivity of modernity might have been productively cited.) In the analysis of Kafka, both literalists and poststructuralists will find the emphasis on "community" slightly forced, if only because the Prague writer's artistry (and ambition) could be as "high modernist" as his Berlin counterpart's. Some of Isenberg's apt formulations about Be njamin thus seem well-suited for Kafka's texts, where Jewishness is at least as covert and elliptical.

In what was an unusually early (but later typical) excursus, Benjamin accidentally foresaw his intellectual trajectory when noting that Judaism/Jewishness had become for him "important" but "problematic." By acknowledging precisely such problematics and the complexities of German-Jewish identity formation--both as representation and experience--Isenberg succeeds where predecessors have failed. This and his future work deserve a hearing in Judaic as well as in German Studies, with both academic and lay readers.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brenner, David A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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