Porcelain Ape (Moses Mendelssohn & Illiberal Enlightenment)


The story behind this porcelain ape has to do with the Royal Porcelain Factory owned by Frederick the Great. Unable to compete with the finer items produced by competitors. “In order to increase business, he decreed in 1769 that a tax on Jews in the form of coerced purchases from his factory would be levied on Jews in order to obtain marriage, death, business and other certificates and permits (Glueck 1998). Some accounts claim that the twenty porcelain monkeys belonging to the heirs of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) are Judenporzellan (Hartmann 2006), although some authorities doubt the authenticity of these family stories based on chronology and provenance—at least one of the monkeys is of Meissen manufacture (Todd 2003).” This I got from the Judenporzellan Wikipage. For me what the ape perhaps makes clear is why it seems that Mendelssohn expressed more doubts about the Enlightenment than about Judaism.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to Porcelain Ape (Moses Mendelssohn & Illiberal Enlightenment)

  1. dmseattle says:

    “what the ape perhaps makes clear is why it seems that Mendelssohn expressed more doubts about the Enlightenment than about Judaism.”

    Why so?

    • zjb says:

      Because it points to the social exclusions suffered by the Jews even in Berlin, under the authority of a king recognized by many as a prince of the Enlightenment. It shows how hard the deck was stacked against the Jews, in Prussia, where one might have thought at the time that they might enjoyed a bit more hope.

  2. emmambrodeur says:

    Have you read Jean Nordhaus’ strange little book of poetry, _Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn_? Maybe it’s not strange, and I simply call it strange, because it’s outside the hard-lined theorizing of Mendelssohn, enlightenment and Judaism. A few poetic nuggets about these apes that tap into your insight:

    From “A Purchase of Porcelain”–

    “Chimpanzees in petticoats.
    Visitors will later testify,
    his home was comfortable,
    despite the china apes,
    peering from every corner.”

    From “Thou Shalt Make No Graven Image”–

    “I am a scholar, not a farmer.
    I have no cows or pigs. But
    like the man in the folktale
    whose house was too small,
    I brought the beasts inside.”

    And the poems really do, i.e., bring the beasts inside. The apes seem to invite, however troubling, all sorts of creatures: goblins, deer, sparrows, fish, crows, owls, livestock, dogs, insects. But more interesting, perhaps, are all the other objects that surface and surround in Nordhaus’ poems without any clear order, including silk, bone, books, breath, gauze, pens, skin, desserts, hair, wood, porcelain, vessels, blankets, and humps of course…Mendelssohn conceived through an object-oriented world. I’m not sure how I feel about it all, but I like the image points that attempt to capture the Enlightenment/Judaism ambivalence, sometimes welcoming, sometimes sharp, but usually “comfortable” but “peering.”

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