Islam and Enlightenment (Gender, Jokes, and the Difference that Makes no Difference) (Nathan the Wise)

One of the caricatures of the Enlightenment is that the entire system is predicated upon a universalism that precludes cultural difference and particularism. It’s a lazy caricature typically used by conservatives and crypto conservatives to beat up liberalism. It does no justice, at least not to the 18th C. German Enlightenment, of which I remain enormously fond. A quick look at Lessing’s Nathan the Wise is enough to demonstrate a more subtle dynamic between universalism and particularism, particularly around the figure of Islam. It has a lot to do with gender, jokes, the inversion of identities, and affirming the difference that makes no difference. About some of this I wrote in “Lessing in Jerusalem.”

This brings us to the plot of Nathan the Wise and the image of the Orient. In the plot, a Templar knight had impulsively endangered his own life in order to save the life of Recha, the daughter of Nathan, the hero of the play. About the Templar we eventually learn that he is the sole survivor of a massacre of Crusader soldiers at the hand of Saladin, and that he was saved by the Sultan because of an uncanny family resemblance, just as we learn about Nathan that he survived the murder of his family at the hands of Christians, and that Recha is in fact his adopted daughter. The play begins with a grateful Nathan, the personification of Enlightenment wisdom, seeking out the Templar. Overcoming the young knight’s hatred for Jews and Judaism, Nathan must force him to be his friend. He will, in turn, also overcome the scheme of the cash-strapped Saladin. By overcoming Saladin and his sister Sittah’s plot against him, the purpose of which was to seize badly needed capital, the wisdom of Nathan will compel them to be his friends, completing the circle of amity. Minor supporting characters include Daya, an ignorant Christian woman in the employ of Nathan who conspires to bring Recha back to Europe, the wicked Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem who wants to murder Nathan, as well as a goodhearted Christian friar and a sagacious dervish named al-Hafi, both of whom [leave the public sphere represented by Jerusalem in order to] seek their own particularistic forms of private religious enlightenment. [The Friar goes to Mt. Tabor, and the dervish goes to the Ganges]

As for the joke in Nathan the Wise, Recha is clearly the linchpin. Her ultimate subject position is left open and vulnerable. We learn that after the murder of his first family, Nathan had adopted her as an infant foundling from a friend who is at first presumed to be Christian. Everything comes together in this perfect, contrived world once the truth is revealed. Nathan claims to have raised Recha in no particular faith. Leave aside that the claim rings completely false (after all, Nathan gave to her a Jewish name). The question still stands. Who will claim Recha, Judaism or Christianity? The servant Daya wants her for “Europe.” She wants Recha to marry the Templar knight who will save her for Christianity. Only time will tell. Noting how Christendom is built on Judaism, the good friar admits to Nathan, “Our Lord Jesus was a Jew himself.” Moved by the story of Recha’s adoption, he declaims, “O Nathan, Nathan! You’re a Christian soul! By God a better Christian never lived.”Jesus the Jew, Nathan the Christian. These are the inversions that spin Lessing’s comedy, a comedy hedged in by the bleak realities of massacre and the omnipresent threat of murder.

A fraught subject position, to be a Jew and not a Jew is nevertheless not as “untenable” or “impossible” as claimed by Aamir Mufti in Enlightenment in the Colony.27 Certainly, it is much harder to be a woman than a Jew in Lessing’s play. Lessing’s world is a world without mothers. Who, after all, is looking out for Recha? This question is not Lessing’s. They belong to us late modern or postmodern readers, for whom the world in Lessing’s play will appear as a helter-skelter place. A young woman, the daughter, stands out as the weak point, the question mark (as opposed to Nathan, who provides the play its desperate pivot). Clearly Recha does not control her own fate. While this is also true of the Templar knight, his fate is not the object of concern. As asked by Susan Gustafson, what then do fathers want in Lessing’s plays? They want an exclusive relation with one’s daughter. Fathers want to form with their daughters into dyads from which the mother is excluded. Girls are intended to project their father’s values, the true object of pity for Lessing being the father threatened by the loss of his daughter.But as Gustafson notes, the absent mother is anything but absent in Lessing’s work. She is everywhere, in the form of mother figures, maternal bodies, and fragments of the mother’s body. Indeed, one could add to Gustafson’s critique and note that Jerusalem as a place represents one such protecting matrix figure that Lessing himself was unable to recognize as such.

So what then about Recha? The final inversion might stand in as the punch line of the entire play. The joke involves both her and the Templar. Now complicating the plot, the friar reveals to Nathan that the young Templar, who by now has fallen in love with Recha, is the son of one Wolf von Filnek, and that the young man’s true name is “Leu von Filnek.” And Recha is now revealed to be the Templar’s sister. Her true name is Blanda von Filnek. As for senior von Filnek, long since deceased, we now learn his preferred language was Persian, and he turns out to have been. . . the Sultan’s brother, Assad! This explains the family resemblance that had moved Saladin to spare the Templar’s life after a battle back-shadowing the events played out in the drama. It thus transpires that the Templar and Recha are neither Christian nor Jewish. They are Muslim! And that is the joke, I think, as Lessing understood it. It makes no real difference to any of the wise and goodhearted characters. With the circle of amity complete, the Templar is compelled to love Saladin, the very Saladin who slaughtered his compatriots, since the Templar now knows that he and Recha are Saladin’s nephew and niece.

In a perfect world, in which all parts cohere politically and metaphysically, difference makes the difference that makes no difference. That is the essence of both perfection and comedy. The convivial atmosphere of Nathan the Wise belies the bleak political background of violence and mayhem upon which it is founded. That background provides the political edge undergirding the comedy, including the fact that Nathan must force his friendship upon others. As I argue below, this fraught social harmony could only have been staged in a medieval environment in the Orient, because only there is it possible to create the triad of Christian-Jew-Muslim. More parts contribute to a greater perfection. That is to say, both a perfect polis and comedy demand genuine difference. In a comedy, difference may in fact be a matter of secondary importance, but to overcome difference is, perforce, to reassert it. Otherwise, there is no joke, no matter how bleak the foundation. And the play will not work, and not just the play, but the entire concept of perfection and political life upon which it builds.

[Zachary Braiterman “Lessing in Jerusalem: Modern Religion, Medieval Orientalism and the Idea of Perfection” in Aaron Hughes and James A. Diamond(eds.), Encountering the Medieval in Modern Jewish Thought (Brill), pp.71-98]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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