Notes On Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reading of Jewish Inauthenticity (Self-Hatred), Self-Consciousness & the Jewish Body

In 1946, in the wake of the Holocaust, Jean-Paul Sartre published Reflexions sur la Quesion Juive. The collection of essays was renamed, translated as Anti-Semite and Jew (my edition is from 1965, Schocken Books). Sartre’s book was reprinted over twelve times, and in many languages. The book presents a reading of anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitic character as well as the figure of Jewish self-hatred and assimilation (what he calls Jewish in-authenticity).

It’s fascinating to read this book today, seventy-six years later, to see how a non-Jewish philosopher frames and explains not just anti-Semitism but also what it means to be a Jew in a French or modern society. What interests me, most, is how his reading of the Jewish body and gestures sets apart the schlemiel character (and not just the Jew) from others. It’s hyper-self consciousness and a performative kind of relationship to one’s body that, Sartre argues, upsets the anti-Semite who sees a relationship between vitalism and a relationship with the body that the Jew lacks.

Sartre sees anti-Semitism not as an “opinion” or “idea.” He sees it as a passion:

He is a Jew, the son of Jews, recognizable by his physique, by the color of his hair, by this clothing perhaps, and, so they say, by his character. Anti-Semitism does not fall with the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion.

Indeed, it is something other than an idea. It is first of all a passion. (10)

Sartre goes on to list several examples of this passion which, as he shows, ignore reason altogether. It is a hatred based on a passion. The main distinction used by the anti-semite is between a kind of mystical (land-based, nationalistic) particularity and an abstract modern universalism (which is “Jewish”).

The anti-Semite can conceive only of a particular type of primitive ownership of land based on a veritable mystical rapport, in which the thing possessed and the possessor are united by a bond of mystical participation; he is the poet of real property. It transfigures the proprietor and endows him with a special and concrete sensibility. To be sure, this sensibility ignores eternal truths of universal values: the universal is Jewish, since it is an object of intelligence. What this subtle sense seizes upon is precisely that which the intelligence cannot perceive. (24)

Sartre calls anti-semitism a “poor man’s snobbery”(26) because it appeals to a mystical sense of national propriety. In contrast to Jews who don’t understand this mystical attachment to the land and nation, “true Frenchmen, good Frenchmen, are all equal, for each of them possesses for himself alone France whole and indivisible”(26).

Drawing on his notions of existentialism, Sartre sees the anti-Semite as in-authentic and fleeing responsibility and true freedom:

If it is agreed that man may be defined as a being having freedom within the limits of his situation, then it is easy to see that the exercise of this freedom may be considered authentic or inauthentic according to the choices made in the situation. Authenticity, is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks that it involves, in accepting it in pride or humiliation, sometimes in horror and hate. (90)

Sartre uses this framework, as well, to make a distinction between an authentic and an inauthentic Jew:

And the Jew does not escape this rule: authenticity for him is to live to the full his condition as a Jew; inauthenticity is to deny it or to attempt to escape from it. Inauthenticity is no doubt more tempting for him than for other men, because the situation which he has to lay claim to and to live is quite simply that of a martyr.

What does this mean?

Can the authentic Jew only be a victim?

Sartre suggests this, strangely enough – two years before the Jewish people started an independent Jewish State – because “Jews neither have a community of interests nor a community of beliefs. They do not have the same fatherland; they have no history. The sole tie that binds them is the hostility and disdain of the societies that surround them. Thus the authentic Jew is the one who asserts this claim in the face of the disdain shown toward him”(91).

In other words, Jews, to be authentic, must be openly hostile and disdain the societies that make them into anti-Semitics caricatures. They cannot be Frenchmen or Germans. Those cultures refuse to accept them and they must show anger and disdain at this to be authentic.

The post-Holocaust thinker, Jean Amery, took Sartre seriously and, in the wake of the Holocaust and the birth of the Jewish State in 1948 embraced Zionism. In his important book, At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Amery illustrates his authenticity in Sartre’s sense by describing his major realization that he was a Jew when he read, for the first time, the Nazi’s Nuremberg Laws in the paper. He realized that he was the other and could not be an Austrian or German. That would be inauthentic. He embraced the situation, as Sartre might say, by realizing and expressing his disdain for German anti-Semities. The Jewish State was his opportunity to freely embrace a collective situation and solidarity with other Jews.

To mark a point of contrast, I’d like to point how thinkers like Irving Howe have interpreted Sartre’s reading of Jewishness. As I noted in an another blog post, Howe sees the flaw of Sartre’s reading in terms of this ahistorical frame. There, I note the following:

Howe points out, immediately before he even starts commenting on Sartre’s book, that even flawed books can prompt insight. And this foreshadows his commentary on Sartre which, if anything, prompted him to think on a much deeper level not just about the meaning of the Holocaust but about the meaning of Jewishness:

There are times when a flawed piece of writing is more valuable than a “correct” one – honest confusions, incomplete strivings can stimulate others to think better. So it was with Sartre’s little book. Decades later it is easy enough to spot its errors, but at the tie time the book came out, it was tremendously stimulating. (254)

Howe begins his commentary by going straight to Sartre’s definition of a Jew, a definition that Howe will take as the main point of his criticism:

“The Jew” – an abstraction he could not avoid – is defined by Sartre by his “situation.” This “situation” is an ensemble of conditions and environments signifying both the relentless pressures of the anti-Semite and the tepid defenses of the democrat who is prepared to defend the Jew but not as a Jew, only as abstract “man.” A Jew, writes Sartre, “is anyone who for any reason calls himself such or is called such in any community whose practices take note of the distinction.” Yet, despite the persistence of this “distinction” Sartre comes to the odd conclusion that the Jews “have no history. What creates the Jew so to speak, and enables his twisted precarious survival, is the all-but-universal enmity he incurs. (254)

What bother’s Howe most in Sartre’s claim that Jews don’t have a history. By saying that a Jew is a Jew by virtue of this or that “situation” is, for Howe, a bad reading that must be exposed.   Sartre’s book suffers from “an extreme ahistoricity. It reduced both the Jew and the anti-Semite to bloodless, timeless essences, and failed to ask what might be the origin of anti-Semitism or, still more important, the reasons for its persistence”(255).

And this failure to grasp the Jew and to reduce the Jew to something ahistorical is something that Howe associates with a Marxist framework: “Sartre’s conclusion, so lame after his analytic fireworks, came to little more than a version of the Marxist notion that anti-Semitism is the consequence, or index, of the social wrongs of capitalist society, and that with socialism this blight would wither away”(255).

Howe takes Sartre’s logic to its Marxist conclusion by suggesting that, in Sartre’s view, since Jews had no “history” or “community of interest,” and once they were “n longer plagued by pathological enemies,” they would then “freely dissolve themselves into the encasing classless society”(255). Howe sarcastically notes that Sartre can’t imagine the possibility of “Frenchmen becoming Jews”(255). This would turn Sartre’s scenario “upside down.”

What Sartre failed to see, according to Howe, is the fact that one “could locate” the “situation” of the Jews in a “traditional essence.” Sartre saw the Jews as merely an effect of a situation and a people without history or freedom: “He did not see it sufficiently as a persistent choosing of identity, a heroic self-assertion”(255).

Returning to Sartre’s ahistorical reading of authenticity and inauthenticity, I want to follow through his logic and how it reflects on the Jewish body and its relation to flight and Jewish self-hatred. Sartre notes that the inauthentic Jew is one who is in “flight” from the situation Jean Amery confronted, attempting to deny his Jewisheness:

In a word, the inauthentic Jews are men whom other men take for Jews and who have decided to run away from this insupportable situation. The result is that they display various types of behavior not all of which are present at the same time in the same person but each of which may be characterized as an avenue of flight. The anti-Semite by collecting and assembling these distinct and often incompatible avenues of flight has traced out a monstrous portrait of the Jew in general; at the same time he explains these free efforts to escape from a painful situation as hereditary traits, engraved on the very body of Israel and, consequently, incapable of modification. (93)

Sartre’s claim that the anti-Semitic caricature (“monstrous portrait of the Jew in general”) originates in the “avenues of flight” of the inauthentic Jew and its being “engraved on the very body of Israel” – is telling. (It’s interesting to note in passing that Gilles Deleuze uses this idea of “lines of flight” in his reading of comedy and “nomadic creativity”.)

Lines of flight are to be understood, Sartre tells us, by paying close attention to situations Jews are put in. They inform a turn to being a “complicated being who passes his time in self-analysis”(94).

For my part, I recognize that the effort to escape produces in some Jews – for the most part intellectuals – an almost continuously reflective attitude….This reflective behavior is not inherited. It is an avenue of flight, and it is we who force the Jew to flee. (94)

Sartre goes so far as to argue that Jews who are overly complex, self-conscious, and intellectual are inauthentic but sees this in terms of a kind of anxious denial of Jewishness: “He has allowed himself to be persuaded by the anti-Semites; he is the first victim of their propaganda. He admits with them that, if there is a Jew, he must have the characteristics with which this particular malevolence endows him, and his effort is to constitute himself a martyr, in the proper sense of the term, to prove in his person that there are no Jews”(95).

The complexity is found in what Sander Gilman calls “living schlemiels” in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews. These are Jews, like Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Borne who try to deny their Jewishness but end up realizing that this denial doesn’t make them acceptable to Germans. Judaism was Heine’s “misfortune.” But that has a dark comical sense if one looks at his life and his poetry. Heine called himself a schlemiel poet, as Hannah Arendt points out. Perhaps, Sartre would have seen this as an “avenue of flight” but, then again, the irony and complexity of the schlemiel, for Arendt, is a form of cultural critique. The schlemiel is a variety of the pariah. But, for Arendt, it could also be seen as a kind of worldlessness and self-hatred, as we see in Rachel Varnhagen.

Sartre sees the universalism that Heine and Varnhagen envisioned as their way into German culture as a key point of flight. Anti-Semitism is obsessed with particularism and despises universalism, but this universalism itself is at conflict with nationalism.

This universalism, this critical rationalism, is what one normally finds in the democrat. In his abstract liberalism, he affirms that Jews, Chinese, Negroes ought to have the same rights as other members of society, but he demands these rights for them as men, not as concrete and individual products of history. Thus certain Jews look at their own personalities with the eyes of the democrat. Haunted by the specter of violence, by the unassimilated residues of particularist and warrior societies, they dream of a contractual community in which thought itself would be established under the form of contract….and the in which the “social contract” would be the sole collective bond. The Jews are the mildest of men, passionately hostile to violence. That obstinate sweetness which they conserve in the midst of the most atrocious persecution, that sense of justice and reason which they put up as their sole defence against a hostile, brutal, unjust society, is perhaps the best part of the message they bring to us and the true mark of its greatness. (117-118)

Because this belief is something beyond the national, in the “social contract,” the anti-Semite sees this as a “permanent threat to national ties and French values”(118). The anti-Semite doesn’t see the “obstinate sweetness” and the hostility against violence as a “true mark of greatness” ; they see it as a threat.

In terms of the body and life, the body of the Jew is seen as different from the body of the Aryan or Frenchman who has a mystical connection to his or her land: “it possesses” that “same profound and mystical participation which assures them the enjoyment of their land and culture”(119). The national body is seen as graceful, vital, and noble (119); in contrast, the Jewish body is a means to an end, it is mechanical, unconnected to the land or a national culture (122-125).

The anti-Semite sees awkwardness and a kind of performative relationship to oneself and one’s body as a sign of Jewishness. The comical body of the Jew shows that they are to self-conscious and complex to have a relationship to the body that is deemed organic and meaningful.

To be sure, the Jew was seen by many anti-Semites, like Wagner, as someone who has no culture or land of his own and mimics and appropriates the culture of others. Without essence, the Jew is, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, a chameleon. His relationship to national identity is performative and doesn’t draw on the mystical relationship with the land. It is, for this reason, not to be trusted by the anti-Semite.

Sartre sees the desire to assimilate (and the anxiety that goes along with it) as an “avenue of flight.” In other words, the very things that we see in Allen’s schlemiel characters (like Zelig) is a comical inability to assimilate. The way Sartre seems to see it, the only way one can authentically be a Jew is to mock and deride the society that wants him to assimilate. Arendt suggests that this is what Heine does in his comical repudiation of the parvenu.

One can argue that the schlemiel takes its “avenue of flight” and exposes it, comically. But unlike Sartre and echoing Irving Howe, we can say that the “obstinate sweetness” of the schlemiel character is something that is not simply situational; it is historical. Schlemiel humor has, as Ruth Wisse says, given the Jews an “ironic victory” over the anti-Semites and persecutors. It is the best scenario for a people who were exiled from their land and were powerless.

But with Israel, we have a new kind of Jew. One that Jean Amery (and Sartre, on the very last pages of his book) identified with, a Jew who no longer wins ironic victories or falls prey to hope of assimilation and the tension with different national identities. Although the book ends before the beginning of the Jewish State, Sartre recognized this as an important trajectory rather than an “avenue of flight.”

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