George Prochnik has published studies of Stefan Zweig; noise pollution and Sigmund Freud’s contribution to the development of psychology in America. His latest book, “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem,” was recently published by Other Press. Recently Mr. Prochnik took time to speak with The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry about Scholem, the eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism:
The Forward: When Scholem told his father, “I think I want to be a Jew,” the reply was: “Jews are only good for going to synagogue with.” What did the elder Scholem mean?
George Prochnik: I believe it means that the idea of binding together formally as Jews in a community only has significance in the very narrow, and for his father, antipathetical, context of religious worship. [Scholem’s father] saw himself as an example of the welcoming nature of the German state to Jews, but he did not in fact extend his social circle to others apart from Jews.
You mention that Scholem’s father had large ears which he could wiggle, but his son was unable to wiggle his own outsized ears. What would Freud have made of this Oedipal rivalry?
It’s such an unexpected channel through which Scholem introduces the idea that growing up in Berlin, he did not experience anti-Semitism directly, but did receive grief about these prominent ears, a genetic marker that were a mark of humiliation.
As a young man Scholem began reading The Zohar, which he later described as a “proto-novel.” Why?
I think that Scholem saw [The Zohar] as a whole as so riddled and teeming with allegorical characters and mythologically incarnated articulation of Judaism’s potential, that it seemed to him a drama. It seemed to present the struggle of good against evil as a multi-character, multi-generational challenge for the Jewish people, and the Jewish people were uniquely privileged to have this challenge. The novelistic sensibility is in [the Zohar’s] imaginative brio. There was a fearlessness to the speculations the author engaged in that [Scholem] found personally motivating.
In his diary for 1919, Scholem complains at length about the female followers of Martin Buber, that Buber’s path has “only liberated girls’ inner licentiousness.” Isn’t this prudish and misogynistic?
Scholem’s whole relationship with Buber is very fraught. On the one hand, Buber’s influential essay on the Jews as an Asiatic people was very important to Scholem. No one living had more influence on Scholem’s conception of Jewish destiny. As he matured and began to read the texts to which Buber referred, Scholem felt they were deracinated from context, and was disappointed by Buber’s initial support of the First World War, and later by Buber’s very protracted process of Aliyah. Sexually, Scholem does often seem to be afraid of dissipation of energy in sexual licentiousness. He goes really nuts when he hears conscript’s filthy talk [during World War I] and is moved to physical violence against his fellow draftees. It’s hard to know where prudery covers his fascination with women. Along with the prudery, he manages to be incredibly and strangely remote at the moment his own married life falls apart.
Scholem’s second wife insisted that the more personal and erotic sections of his diary be removed from the original German edition, and only a further abridged version of these have appeared in English. Can we know how eros affected Scholem’s political and intellectual development?
I think that’s correct and that’s why I try to limit comments to those correlating with certain political aspects. What do exist are clear statements that if Zionists lose themselves in over-erotic lives, they will dissipate their destiny.
In 1919 Scholem recounted that he went to see “Hyenas of Lust” (“Hyänen der Lust,” also translated as “Hyenas of Pleasure”) a silent film against white slavery featuring Jewish slave traders, and noted in his diary, “It wasn’t bad.” Why did Scholem see this film?
He had to have had a certain titillated fascination with some of what he speaks out against.
As a birthday gift, Scholem presented his friend Walter Benjamin with a copy of “German Criminality,” (Das deutsche Gaunertum) a 19th century study with information about Jewish gangsters, which he saw as a complement to the Jewish upper world of mysticism. The Hasidic Zava’at Ribash likens the world to a “grain of mustard in comparison to the upper world.” If the criminal underworld is a fraction of this seed, why was Scholem so intrigued by it?
One point that I argue is that the Kabbalah functions not as an underworld but as an unconscious for the Jewish people. Scholem refers to himself as an archaeologist of the Jewish past. Although he denied he had affinities with Freud, he had to be thinking of a synthetic narrative that bears comparisons to Freud’s synthetic narrative, a consciousness of the unconsciousness of Jewish spirituality.
In his diary for 1917, Scholem wrote that “Jewish art is cubism, which has managed to abandon ﬂesh.” He goes on to castigate Chagall for not being cubistic enough, whereas “the Spaniard Picasso’s Woman with the Violin seems Jewish.” Would anyone agree today that Picasso was more Jewish than Chagall?
I think no one would. This is where [Scholem] can be a little bit wooden because he’s trying to fit everything so hard into his theories. The mere fact that cubism is nonrepresentational art means that it Jewish, is not intellectually his strongest point. It’s more interesting to see how everything he consumes, he fits into these evolving theories. There is a manic exaltation in his Judaization of everything he likes and de-Judaization of everything he doesn’t like.
You write of Scholem’s “own identiﬁcation with the prophet [Sabbatai Zevi the false messiah], which had supplanted youthful fantasies of himself as the Redeemer.” Did Scholem identify with Sabbatai Zevi’s “debauches” and “lewdness” as described in his study? Another object of Scholem’s research, Jacob Frank, the 18th-century Pole who claimed to be the reincarnation of Sabbatai Zevi was notorious for “orgiastic, sexually promiscuous rites.” Were these other Jewish transgressors, along with those described in the book on criminals given to Benjamin?
I think Scholem’s fantasies included putting [Walter] Benjamin into the Sabbatai Zevi role. The biography of Sabbatai Zevi is 929 pages long, and so much of it is devoted to delineating the dangers of the false messiah, but there is that remarkable twist at the end where he begins to say that descendents of Zevi and Jacob Frank play important roles in the French Revolution and in later Jewish history. Despite all the destruction that was wrought, it may have been necessary destruction to clear the way to something positive in Jewish history.
You quote Harold Bloom describing the bookcases in Scholem’s Jersualem apartment where “in [Bloom’s] memory, shelves ran along the ceilings as well as the walls, until he reconsidered the problem of gravity.” As in “Royal Wedding (1951),” the Stanley Donen film where Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling, was this a reference to Scholem as an Astaire-like virtuoso of research, conquering human limits?
I think that’s nice. It took a few minutes before [Bloom] could be persuaded that the books really weren’t there on the ceiling, because it had been such a powerful impression of being enwombed in Scholem’s books.
Liking “black humor and playing the provocateur,” you note, Scholem claimed that on one summer visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, the room was hot, “so he just stripped off all his clothes and sat there naked reading kabbalistic manuscripts all day.” Has the JTS put a plaque on the chair Scholem used? Was this black humor because Scholem expected other researchers to emulate his example?
(laughs) I think it falls into the category of provocation rather than black humor. [Scholem] had a distinct physical presence because he was so tall and lanky and big-eared, so I can imagine him telling visitors this story, forcing them to imagine him nude in this sanctified area of research, so there is a side of black humor having to do with the passion with which he read. Some of his analyses can be on the dry side, but most of his conclusions are informed by passion about the identity of the project.
Yet in response to Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), Scholem wrote a letter to the editor of Haaretz, complaining, “The writer revels in obscenity…This is just the book that anti-Semites have been waiting for.” After sitting naked in the JTS library, Scholem seems to have been genuinely outraged.
There are many ways to think about [Scholem’s] issues with Philip Roth. There is a difference between sitting naked on your own and a shared, living sexuality. There’s something so solitary about Scholem. I love the quote by Franz Rosenzweig that Scholem was the only one who came home, but he came home alone. His Zionism was idiosyncratic, and his scholarship so far above everyone else that no one else approached him. With Roth, I think he really didn’t understand not just specifically what Roth was doing in that book, but how a book that was so provocative to Gentiles might take that sexualized form. For all of his flamboyance in many ways, [Scholem] didn’t want to provide opportunities for the Jewish people’s denigration, or aspersions being cast against them.