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Álvaro de la Rica , Professor of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature , University of Navarra, Spain

In the absence of Jewishness

Wed, 03 Mar 2010 08:16:25 +0000 Published in La Vanguardia (Barcelona)

If the question were to ask why there has not been an Einstein, a Freud or a Marx in modern Spanish culture, the answer would seem to be a paid and simple one: because there were hardly any Jews left in these lands. Expelled suddenly by the edict of the end of March 1492, in four hundred years there has hardly been more than an isolated attempt to return. Only in the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish communities have been recovering, timidly, barely an inch of lost ground in the Spanish scene. The facts are these, or could be stated as such, but naturally our obligation is to look at things a little more closely.

Julio Caro Baroja, in his uneven history Los judíos en la España moderna y contemporánea, tells the anecdote of a member of the Rothschild family, fond of fine arts, who was traveling incognito in Spain and who, in a lost church, before a miraculous virgin, asked the old sacristan who accompanied him about the class of miracles attributed to the venerated image. "She cries when she sees a Jew." The visitor remains mute, but waits a while in front, to see what happens. After a while, he cannot but express that it is another hoax, that he is a Jew and that the image has not shed even average tears. "Yes," whispers the guide, "but please don't repeat it, I am one too.

When it comes to assessing the fact that contemporary Spanish literature (and culture in general) has remained on the margins of the very rich Hebraic tradition, the anecdote, surely apocryphal, takes on new meanings, which I will try to reach at the end of these lines.

It is evident that the Hebraic has starred, directly or indirectly, in the highest literature of the twentieth century. If one had to establish a canon with the hundred, ten, five, most successful novels of the twentieth century, the only sure coincidence would be in that trinity, the cima of that imaginary choice, formed by In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses and any of the narratives, brilliant and interchangeable, of Franz Kafka.

The parables of the scribe of Prague have their roots in Judaism. But, and it is not so well known, the works of Proust and Joyce become unintelligible without this Hebraic connection. Joyce discovers in Trieste, hand in hand with Italo Svevo, the richness and universality of the Jewish world. Judaism is one of the great themes of the second part of Joyce's life, and especially of Ulysses, whose protagonist is Leopold Bloom, son of a Hungarian Jew, and alter ego of the Dublin artist, no longer a teenager.

As Svevo, his Triestine mentor , pointed out, "what gives unity to the book is that, at the end of the workshop in which the novel temporarily consists, the learned Dedalus comes to feel the Jew Bloom as his father". This statement is as debatable as it may be, but it has the good sense to direct the arrow in the direction predetermined by Joyce himself. Once again we are before the Mosaic and Freudian dialectic of parricide. As in Kafka. And as in Proust, where the death of the father becomes, through the Jew Swann, whose path Marcel will never leave, the substitution of the father. Of the relationship of the Proust of À la recherche with the Hebraic world, little can be added to what Juliette Hassine rightly pointed out in two monographs entitled Esotericism and Writing in Proust's work (1990), and the later and final Marranism and Hebraism in Proust's work (1994).

The best of human history

The weight of Jewish culture in the Western culture of the last century, and especially in the literary field, is dazzling. And what has happened in Spain, which has been completely unaffected by this extraordinary burst of light? I think there are two kinds of answers to this question. One, immediate, which would have to affirm that yes, Spain has once again been left out of the best of human history. It would be interesting to analyze the decisive importance that this has in the development of Hispanic casticismo.

Let's think about the generation of ninety-eight. Baroja was anti-Semitic (actually he was anti-everything). Azorín showed an astonishing indifference to everything that had to do with the Jewish world, which for me is a great enigma yet to be solved. And Ortega? Ortega, as always, is more complicated. This is not the place to address the matter, but I will point out something that I have always thought when rereading his unavoidable essay graduate God in sight. It is a text that should be put in connection, also, with the interpretation that the philosopher makes of the consequences of the Einsteinian theory of relativity (in The historical sense of Einstein's ideas). And what is drawn from this speculation has a lot to do with the notion of Jewish messianism, as explained by Gershom Scholem at the end of his Basic Concepts of Judaism (Trotta, 1998). The Orteguian idea, according to which there is a secular, profane God, who is before and far beyond positive religion, and who is situated in sight, that is, who cannot be touched and manipulated, but who is in the open and unattainable horizon of free man, has to do directly with living in the necessary unreality of the hope of something by definition unattainable.

This is for me the axis of a second answer subject , which naturally points to the essential. We have not given birth to any of the Roths, nor to Elsa Morante nor to Clarice Lispector, nor to Walter Benjamin nor to Canetti, nor to Mandelstam, nor to Joseph Brodsky. True. But we have finally read them thoroughly and, in some cases, even assimilated them. Evidently, this has been the case on both sides of the Atlantic. Is it possible to understand, for example, Emilio Prados' Diario íntimo, or José Gorostiza's Muerte sin fin, without the Hebraic imprint or without their images? Can we understand Borges, what writing means to him, the system of signs that governs the world, without the Jewish tradition? Can we understand Zambrano without Spinoza? And Valente without Celan or Edmond Jabès? Does the metaliterature of Enrique Vila-Matas mean anything without Kafka?

Each of these questions would require a long development, countless nuances and deepening. This is not the place, however welcoming it may be. But all of them point, in one way or another, to what Marina Tsevietáeva wrote: "We poets are Jews".

This dictum belongs to the Poem without end, specifically to the last lines of the twelfth poem. The complete proposition is the following: "If this is a Christian world, we poets are Jews". How difficult to interpret, starting with that conditional if with which the verse begins. I am left with the fact that Christianity and Judaism are put in relation, although in this case it refers to a relationship of antagonism. It is about the senseless mania that caused the Jews to be expelled from Spain, and from the rest of the incipient nation-states, in plenary session of the Executive Council Renaissance. The injustice that turned them, once again, into exiles who took refuge in the law written in the Torah scrolls and in the abyss of their hearts of flesh. It was also the case of many converts, Marranos or not, protagonists of an inner exile, conscious or unconscious. The root was planted in the depths of their very condition as Christians, or as members of a culture with biblical roots. Like the sacristan in the anecdote, who finds it difficult to recognize his condition, within each Spaniard there are, whether he knows it, ignores it or rejects it, fertile seeds of a Judaism that is transformed and enlivened by any attempt at creativity.