Preparing a talk on Moses Mendelssohn, I turned to Jay Geller’s recent The Other Jewish Question: Indentifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity. Persistence of the Jews in the endurance of the Jewish body, what Abraham Geiger called the “tough durability of Judentum.” How to identify that foreign Jewish body (6)? Geller is a master connoisseur of 19th c. Antisemitica. The image of the Jew is identified by or in association with materiality, corporeality, noses, circumcision, hair, syphilis, prostitution, sterility, traffic, exchange, garlic, rags, lumps, etc.
What stands out in Geller’s study of such key figures as Spinoza, Levin-Varnhagen, Heine, Marx, Feuerbach, Nordau, and Benjamin is the sense of smell in the formations and deformations of the modern anti-Semitic imagination. “[N]oxious and anything but nostalgic smells recall the repulsive, feminized, and often sexualized ‘odor’ that pervaded the popular and scientific imagination of postemancipation Europeans: the innate stench of the Jew, the foetor Judaicus” (p.273). It’s a completely different aesthetic register with which to think through European anti-Semitism and German Jewish thought and culture.
What I am only now figuring out is the chapter on Benjamin that concludes the book. At first I wasn’t sure, but I think it has to do with redemption, i.e. “the connection between smell and messianism,” or the relation between smell and involuntary memory (pp.272, 278). How might the nostalgic memories from Berlin Childhood or the “fragrance of auratic art” (pp.288-9, 300) redeem the noxious odors and associations between Jews and filth in the anti-Semitic tradition? Against the more typically occularcentric view of looking at its subject, the main focus of this masterful essay on smell, aura, and breath in Benjamin, it’s the olfactory imagination that carries the image of Jewish persistence in the European imagination, and that permeates Geller’s book as a whole. Geller’s study suggests to me the melancholic thought that in Europe there was no way ever to wash off this persistent stench.