It’s Not So Simple: Jean Amery on Wittgenstein, Jewish Self-Hatred & Simplicity


I have written a lot on the place and meaning of simplicity and smallness in both Schlemiel Theory (see here and here) and Berfrois (see here and here).  As Ruth Wisse points out in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the schlemiel character is rooted in the Hasidic take on the simpleton (as found in Rabbi Nachman’s tales).   There is, to be sure, a resonance between different folk traditions on this topic.  (Walter Benjamin explores this in his seminal essay on Kafka.)   I have, for this reason, done a lot of work (and will continue to do more) on the fiction of Robert Walser (which takes simplicity and smallness as central motifs).   But, as Jean Amery points out, simplicity is a double sided coin.  As he notes, anti-Semitism draws on the distinction between the “simple” gentile and the “clever” Jew.  And as Sander Gilman points out in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, the German-Jewish maskilim (Jewish intellectuals, Enlighteners) found the language of the Talmud to be too intellectual and clever:

David Friedlander, one of (Moses) Mendelssohn’s staunchest supporters and the individual seen as…his successor, published a study localizing the meeting place of the corrupt language and the corrupt discourse…..Friedlander sees in the very language of the Talmud simply another form of Yiddish…Talmudic language and discourse are one; they are a sign of the corruption of the Jews of Poland”(101).  Fichte, the famous German thinker’s, solution was “not merely ban or burn books but to ‘cut off their heads on the same night in order to replace them with those containing no Jewish ideas. (101)

The Nazis and many anti-Semites also took Jewish “cleverness” and the lack of peasant simplicity (and a heightened urban sensibility) to be a problem.  And here we see how simplicity – in contrast to how it is used in schlemiel literature and in the fiction of writers like Kafka and Walser- can turn into a weapon of hatred.

In a powerful essay on Wittgenstein’s attitude toward Jewishness, Jean Amery points out how, although Ludwig Wittgenstein (who many great scholars took to be a genius) tried to rise above the vicissitudes of history and arrive at the “simple” essence of language and thought, he was taken in by anti-Semitism and “self-hatred” (since Wittgenstein, himself, was Jewish).   His ambivalence about Jewishness demonstrated that he had “never truly and wholeheartedly believed in the logic that mirrors the structure of the world”(108, Radical Humanism).   Amery’s genius is to point out that Wittgenstein exposed his inability to lift himself above historical and linguistic (anti-Semitic) bias when he wrote about Freud’s literary style.  While “Freud writes excellently and it is a pleasure to read him…he is never great in his writing”(106).

In response to this, Amery notes that while “every literary historian agrees” that Freud was the “greatest philosophical writer in the German language,” for “Wittgenstein he could not be great, since greatness is a dimension that no Jew is permitted to achieve”(106).   Wittgenstein sees Freud as too “clever.” What Wittgenstein “was searching for, after he had explored the ‘bare heights of cleverness’, was something of the “good and sound life” that doesn’t brood on itself.  He believed that it could be found in the valleys of a ‘slow wit’ that he would rather have designated as ‘simplemindedness’”(106).    (Amery points out how Wittgenstein picked this infatuation with simplicity when he was younger and decided to be a school teacher in a small town.)   But, as Amery argues, this was a mistake since Wittgenstein was a “restless wanderer” and not a simpleton at all (which is, as Amery argues, an anti-Semitic code for “Jewishness”).  Wittgenstein’s life and his work was, in other words, informed by denial and what Amery calls Jewish self-hatred.

Instead of coding simplicity in terms of Jewish or not Jewish, the schlemiel suggests a kind of simplicity that challenges its negative appropriation.  But, more importantly, the problem with the German anti-Semitic and German Jewish mindset at the time is that it didn’t understand the Jewish folkloric history of the schlemiel.  Even though, as Arendt argues, Heinrich Heine did introduce it to Germany, it didn’t seem to overshadow a kind of Self-Hatred which saw Jewishness in terms of a complexity garnered from the Talmud, Yiddish, etc.   The lesson is that simplicity can be comical, but it can also slip into a tragic kind of anti-Semitic language and metaphysics (which pits Jew against Gentile).  As Amery shows, we can clearly see this in Wittgenstein’s blind-spot.  In response to this, Amery suggests that what Wittgenstein lacked was a sense of irony.     Were he to have this, he could have a more complex understanding of simplicity rather than an understanding which took on truly metaphysical proportions (which, in his own work on logic, he tried to avoid).  Perhaps this is the greatest irony of all?


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