Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jew Suss

I have finished Lion Feuchtwanger's 1925 novel, 'Jew Suss' down thinking, "Now what was that about?"

Ostensibly it concerns the rise and fall of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer as financial counsellor in the state of Wurttemberg in the eighteenth century. Having cast in his lot with the man who becomes Duke, he manipulates his relationship, with cunning and skill, to both advance the Duke's interests and massage his own position. However, when the Duke becomes the cause of the death of Joseph Suss' daughter, he turns against him, unwinding his power in such a stark way as to precipitate the Duke's death from shock. Stripped of the Duke's protection, he exposes himself to downfall and he is hanged as a scapegoat for the manifold sins of the Duke (and his) regime.

In the process, we are treated to a wholly unflattering account (from this left wing author) of eighteenth century mercantile capitalism and the accompanying political struggle between the autocratic aristocracy and the emergent men of capital.

But Joseph Suss is a Jew (indeed refuses to countenance the prospect of conversion either as a way of consolidating his power when he was on top or escaping both his status of scapegoat and, paradoxically, guilty party when he is down) and his uncle, Rabbi Gabriel, is a practitioner of the Kabbalah whose prophecy first suggests that the Duke of Wurttemberg's poor (if militarily distinguished) relation, to whom Joseph Suss has become affixed for no apparent or rational reason, will inherit the Dukedom as he indeed does.

Thus, alongside, a vivid historical novel about power and its corruption, about money and its corruption and about the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism and between both and Judaism sits a mystical narrative that intrigues.

Most powerfully is the thrice repeated teaching of Issac Luria, the great sixteenth century practitioner of the Kabbalah, that any one body may be host to more than one soul and that this is a graced dispensation by which one soul might affect the progress and redemption of another. We are, I think, meant to see this possibility as inhabiting Joseph Suss, as different identities (and possibilities) do battle inside him and all are brought into alignment at the end when, as he is hanged, he responds to his compatriots prayer to the Lord with his own.

It is a remarkable book - both historically in painting a vivid portrait of Jewish life in eighteenth century Germany and the dilemma of assimilation verses identity (and assimilation on what terms as Jew or as a Christian) and metaphysically of one (or multiple) soul's journey through the testing path of incarnation.

Feuchtwanger was admirable as a prophetic opponent of Nazism (that makes it doubly ironic that Jew Suss was wholly perverted and twisted into a notorious anti-Semitic film by Goebbels) but sadly was a too eager fellow traveller with Stalin's Russia (writing in justification of the show trials of the 30s). As a result, he was lauded in East Germany (though by this time he was living in the US) but you can only imagine by skillfully editing out both his Zionism and his mystical leanings!


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