German (Jewish) (Auto) Orientalism


I raced through and like a lot German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship by Suzanne Marchand. I did so while getting thoughts together about Franz Rosenzweig, in particular, and the history of German Jewish philosophical orientalism, more generally. Marchand’s book helps one to these two discourses at the fin de siècle as part of that larger hot house environment that is German orientalism. The world of German orientalism is a vast little cosmos including not just Arabs and Islam, but also India, ancient Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia. While race and race politics are part of the discussion, one of Marchand’s main claims re: German orientalism is that its motives were more religious than political per se.  What caught my attention was how her book gets at the point of aesthetic pleasure and cultural self-criticism, the way orientalism in Germany was bound up, as she sees it, with perspectival decentering, shifting cultural consciousness away from the Mediterranean and its classical tradition, away from Europe (pp.xxv, xxvii).

As part of what is much broader mapping of an entire field, Jews and Judaism appear throughout German Orientalism in the Age of Empire as frequent objects of orientalist animus and racial orientalist anti-semitism, particularly by Indologists. But they also appear as shapers and objects of orientalist discourse at its best. Lots of attention goes to the great practioner of the art Ignaz Goldziher, for whom Islam was a “living, breathing, malleable tradition” (p.330), and for whom the sympathetic study of Islam worked in tandem with the project of mid-nineteenth century liberal Judaism. And then there are what Marchand calls the “furor orientalists” of the 1890s, whose interests were historical, religious, philosophical, critical-political, and aesthetic. Among these neo-romantics she includes Buber along with Abby Warburg, Ernst Troeltsch, Rudolf Bultmann, C.G. Jung, and Scholem (p.214). Zionism is also part of this little constellation, representing to her what I would call a form of Jewish “auto-orientalism” (p. 215).

“Auto-orientalism” is not a discourse of the other as much as it is a discourse of the self, or the self as other to the self. It would mean not the imposition of an alienating grid on an other, ala Edward Said, but rather an animating mask, or claim to an “identity” that would have been perceived at the time as one’s own true self. It is actually another variation of what Asher Biemann identifies in Dreaming of Michelangelo, a book whose subject is German Jewish cultural affinities with Rome, Italy, art, and sculpture. In both Asher’s book and Marchand study, what one sees is the finding of oneself through the critical lenses perceived through distant mirrors, the self as it becomes other to itself, transforming itself in process, as the poet or the subject comes to life before animated images (Biemann, pp.xv, 5, 43-4). Michelangelo and the Mediterranean, or the Orient and Palestine, these are the erotic figures that animate and drive German Jewish thought and the cultures that situate them. In a technical sense, there is something “unreal” about all these performative peregrinations.

The self that is the object of auto-orientalism turns out to be not so much real as it is virtual. Marchand quotes Said, mainly because she wants to argue against him, first because Said too quickly reduced orientalism to imperialism, and because to do so, he had to ignore the Germans (including Germanophone Jews, especially Goldziher, who would further complicate the politics of cultural orientalism in ways that unsettle Said’s political model. But the following remark by Said quoted by Marchand is an interesting one. “There was nothing in Germany,” he writes, “to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa. Moreover, the German Orient was almost exclusively a scholarly, or at least a classical, Orient: it was made the subject of lyrics, fantasies, and even novels, but it was never actual…” (Said, Orientalism, pp.17. 19, cited by Marchand, p.xviii). Said continues to claim that German orientalism wasn’t original and it just worked off techniques learned from the British and French, which is to miss what is strange about German orientalism and the particular case of German Jewish auto-orientalism, including Zionism.

The technical point central to Said’s remark is the notion that the German Orientalist tradition, including the German Jewish philosophical variant, was not “actual.” This remark seems quite correct. There is something deeply non-actual, or virtual in the images of the Hebrew orient that captivated our German Jewish auto-orientalists. We see something similar in Cohen’s chapter on prayer, which he understands in terms of lyric poetry, as the dialectical de-idealization of the idea whose purpose it is to suffuse the real with ideality. In the more full blooded German Jewish philosophy of Buber and Rosenzweig, figures like “the Orient” or “the Shulamite” are supposed “to realize” their object, be it “the Jew” or “God’s presence,”  to give it a form or Gestalt, to make the object more “real” and in the world, as opposed to ideal. This was the point I made in the chapter on Form in Shape of Revelation. But it’s not so simple. A virtual Judaism realized in figures drawn from the orient works against the principle of “realization” for which they are employed, because these figures make the projects of liberal Judaism or post-liberal German Jewish renaissance all the more non-actual, fantastic, and lyrical. For as much as they wanted to situate with figures Jewish life or religious life, even the presence of God, in the real, physical world of space and time, what comes out in the end is to recognize how steeped in the non-actual the actual actually is. In Rosenzweig’s case, the more real he tried to be, the less real the result, and it is the unreality of the real in his work and in the German Jewish philosophical tradition that continues to animate its concepts and its discourse.

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.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply