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Helfer, Martha B. The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture.

Helfer, Martha B. The Word Unheard: Legacies of Anti-Semitism in German Literature and Culture. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011. 264 pp. $34.95 hardcover.

The argument of this book is bold, original, and deceptively simple: Between 1750 and 1850, during a time of constant political debate about the place of Jews in German and Austrian society, German-language writers developed a new literary anti-Semitism that has been largely ignored by scholars. In a series of close readings of G.E. Lessing, Friedrich Schiller, Achim von Arnim, Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, Adalbert Stifter, and Franz Grillparzer, Helfer shows how these authors create their Jewish characters from stock images of anti-Semitism. Even more importantly--and surprisingly--Helfer argues that they are very much aware of their doings, aware that "the Jew" is a discursive construct, a creation of their own writing. In fact, their texts contain a "theory of literary anti-Semitism, a self-reflexive discourse about the structure and function of anti-Semitism in literature" (xiii). Helfer's provocative thesis is that this self-reflexivity abets anti-Semitism rather than exposes or critiques it.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the inclusion of Lessing in this list. According to Helfer, even Lessing, an early and eloquent supporter of Jewish emancipation, contributes to the rhetoric of anti-Semitism: His Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts is suffused with Christian supersessionism and his famous play on religious tolerance, Nathan der Weise, makes subtle anti-Jewish gestures by associating Nathan with money, deceptiveness, and subterfuge. Helfer finds even more devastating evidence in Schiller, who rarely commented on Jewish emancipation but became a powerful figure of identification for subsequent generations of German Jews. Helfer draws our attention to an essay not widely known today but highly prized by Schiller himself, "Die Sendung Moses," which contests the originality of Jewish monotheism and ascribes a number of supposedly inherent negative traits to Jews. As she persuasively argues, there is a tension between Schiller's plea for social integration and his sense of an indelible Jewish difference that works against such integration. Schiller ultimately tells "a story of emancipation from the Jews, not of the Jews" (46).

In the following two chapters, Helfer turns to authors whose general anti-Semitic views are indisputable. She shows how Arnim's notorious speech "Uber die Kennzeichen des Judentums" contains an additional, more subtle, layer of anti-Semitism. This complexity helps turn anti-Semitism into a "cultural code" (Shulamith Volkov) that permeates even texts in which Jews ostensibly play only a marginal role, such as Arnim's Isabella von Agypten. In a magisterial chapter on Droste Hulshoff's Die Judenbuche, Helfer offers a provocative new reading of the famous novella. She unearths numerous allusions to the "impure" lineage of the protagonist's family, including incestuous relationships and intermixing with Jews, and persuasively argues that the text betrays a generalized anxiety about the pernicious influence of Jews on German society. Especially compelling is her insight that it ultimately does not matter whether Friedrich Mergel is of Jewish origin or not. What matters is that the text seeks to inculcate in readers a hyper-awareness and constant suspicion of "signs of Jewishness."

The book is lucidly written, and evidence for its main thesis accumulates from chapter to chapter. After establishing the concept of anti-Semitism as a cultural code or semiotic system, Helfer goes on to analyze the redeployment of its elements in other nineteenth-century literature. Stifter's novella Abdias, for instance, couches its stereotypical Jewish protagonist in nature images, thereby naturalizing anti-Semitism. Helfer's method is marked by a rigorous insistence on the primacy of textual analysis, coupied with an intriguing conception of semantic "latency." In order to grasp literary anti-Semitism, Helfer suggests, we do not have to excavate buried truths or reconstruct the genesis of symptoms. Rather, we have to attend to semantic and narrative structures that are "hidden all too obviously out in the open" (xiii), easily overlooked and yet subtly guiding our reading. Grillparzer's Die Judin von Toledo is another compelling case in point. As Helfer shows in her last chapter, the text's lengthy philosemitic declarations cannot cancel out its central plot, which warns against the consequences of Jewish infiltration into Gentile society, this time in the form of a seductive Jewish woman. Some German studies scholars are sure to object to her thesis that anti-Semitism is at the core of the German literary canon. But none will be able to deny that her book asks us to rethink how we read hatred of Jews and other "others."


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Author:Garloff, Katja
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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