In response to:
What 'R.' Wrought from the April 16, 1981 issue
To the Editors:
“Those of us,” writes Robert Craft in his review of Rather’s The Dream of Self-Destruction: Wagner’s “Ring” and the Modern World [NYR, April 16], “who have not read Chamberlain’s writings but only about them are surprised to learn from. Rather that Dr. Alfred Rosenberg could find almost nothing in them to support Nazi antisemitic propaganda.” His surprise, I assure him, can be but nothing against that of those of us who have read Chamberlain’s Die Grundlagen des 19. Jahrhunderts (1898), even if they have (like myself) not read the writings of Rosenberg. My surprise is less concerned with what a Rosenberg could or could not find in Chamberlain’s writings (“almost nothing” is unbelievable about anyone under the sun, let alone one whose extensive drawing on Chamberlain is notorious) than with what Dr. Rather, on Craft’s testimony, did and did not find in them—if ever he got around to reading in them. Chamberlain an “admirer of the Jewish ‘race”‘? Of that “bastard race,” sprung “from a blood-defiling (blutschänderisch) crime against nature,” “whose very existence is sin, a crime against the sacred laws of life?” Whose whole official history is one grand forgery devised to hide this conscious “racial blood guilt (Rassenblutschande)”? Whose religion with its “naked materialism,” its “fabricated memories and criminal hopes” for “dominion and possession” brands the Jew as the “overt or covert enemy of every other man, a danger to every culture”? In particular, with his superficial, rationalistic, basically irreligious bent of mind, the most dangerous foe of the noble, Aryan-Germanic-Protestant spirit? For the curious, by the way: the “racial blood guilt” (Blutschande can here not be rendered by “incest”) is supposed to consist in the fact that the Amorites, a Germanic (!) tribe, had “overlayed” the Jews, after their invasion of Canaan, as a ruling class, but later intermingled with them: this fantasy conveniently allowed Chamberlain to attribute any great figures among the Jews, like David, the prophets, most of all Jesus and the apostles, to unadulterated remnants of the Germanic-Amorite strain, i.e., make of them non-Jews, while the mass of Jews embodied the defilement of noble by ignoble blood—one gigantic case of Rassenschande, which you must know is the greatest of sins and far worse than ignoble blood by itself. (For the still curious: the “Amorite” theory, albeit without racial value judgment, had been advanced earlier by the anthropologist Felix von Luschan, to be abandoned by him later.) If this was not enough for Dr. Rosenberg, it should be for us, including Dr. Rather. But apart from such juicy bits with which the two volumes abound, it is a plain fact of literary and ideological history that Chamberlain’s sensationally successful work became, for the first decades of this century, the principal book of “educated” race-antisemitism and pan-Germanism—indeed, the prime document of a sweeping antisemitic racial philosophy of history as a whole, tailored to the taste of Teutonic boasting-cum-profundity. Inferiority is, by its doctrine, the lot of all non-Germanic races: theirs is a comparative inferiority. That of the Jews is unique, absolute, ultimate, the countervalue to all values; and this tenet is central to the whole weird philosophy.
Enough of this is general knowledge, surely shared by Craft, to have turned mere surprise into suspicion, overruling the diffidence of a confessed nonreader of the primary source. Once aroused on a case so manifest, suspicion might then have extended to others of Rather’s startling assertions, like those about Heine and Disraeli. Alas, the “breathtaking range of reference,” admiringly attested to the book, seems to have disarmed the reviewer (himself a model of scholarship in his own subjects) instead of putting him on his guard. Anyway, as he relates those assertions without comment (=silent assent?), it falls to this reader to ask: Where, and in what manner, did Heine and Disraeli set forth the “myth of Jewish racial purity and supremacy?” By what evidence, external or internal, are Gobineau and Chamberlain shown to have modeled their Aryan supremacy theory on the formers’ purported Jewish one? Did Disraeli really and seriously “attribute everything of value” (in all of history!) to the Jews, so that Gobineau could (and did) learn from him to do the same for the Aryans in his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines?
Proofs in these questions have to be very strong indeed to make Rather’s contentions stand. I have shown that suspicion is warranted. Is it too much to ask the reviewer—who extolls the book as “the most impressive interpretative study of [Wagner’s] ideas that [he] has ever encountered,” thereby investing its reported contents with some of his own high prestige—that he give us an inkling of what these proofs might be, and at least a token of his own critical assessment of them? This we should have lest legends take hold, by default, on such matters as Heine, Disraeli, and the origins of race antisemitism in the nineteenth century. They are, in light of the consequences, too serious for that.
New School for Social Research,
New York City
Robert Craft replies:
Dr. Rather, of course, is as well aware as Dr. Jonas of Chamberlain’s crackpot racial theories. (Dr. Rather is a scientist and, in addition to histories of medicine and biology, he has published translations of Rudolf Virchow.) But while Dr. Jonas quotes a half-dozen of Chamberlain’s phrases, then appeals to such authorities as “plain fact” and “general knowledge” in support of the received view of the subject, Dr. Rather reexamines the original, finds “what everybody knows” to be inaccurate, and presents his discoveries, citing chapter, verse, and context. The distinctions that he has noted deserve our attention.
Dr. Jonas ridicules Dr. Rather’s contention that Chamberlain was “an admirer of the Jewish race.” Dr. Rather quotes Chamberlain:
It is only when one sees the Sephardim…that one begins to comprehend the significance of Judaism in the history of the world. This is nobility in the fullest sense of the word, genuine nobility of race.
Dr. Jonas claims that Chamberlain’s Foundations have been “for the first decades of this century, the principal book of ‘educated’ race-antisemitism and pan-Germanism….” Dr. Rather quotes from the Foundations:
…the Jew is no enemy of Teutonic civilization and culture [and] it is a perfectly ridiculous and revolting tendency to make the Jew the general scapegoat of out time.
But since the Foundations was not translated until the second decade of this century, and since Chamberlain was an abominable writer, is it not possible that such better writers of the first decade as the anti-Dreyfusard Maurice Barrès and the Russian “traditional antisemite” Rozanov exerted a more compelling influence on “educated” race-anti-semitism?
It must be said that Dr. Jonas is a puzzling writer himself. I, at least, cannot fathom his remark “‘almost nothing’ is unbelievable about anyone….” And when he admits to being less concerned about what “…a Rosenberg could or could not find in Chamberlain’s writings…than with what Dr. Rather, on Craft’s testimony, did and did not find in them—if ever he got around to reading in them,” does the “he” refer to Dr. Rather or to myself?—in which case the subjunctive is needed (“if ever he were to read in them”). What, too, is the meaning of “Teutonic boasting-cum-profundity,” if not that the boasting of Teutons is profound?
Dr. Jonas asks for evidence about the racist views of Heine and Disraeli. The answer, in Heine’s case, is in his De l’Allemagne depuis Luther, in which the poet asserts that the greatest triumph in Europe has been that of the Jews; in Disraeli’s case, the books are Coningsby and Tancred, through the authorial character Sidonia. As for Chamberlain’s modeling his Aryan supremacy on Disraeli’s Jewish one, Chamberlain’s actual words are “Let Disraeli teach us that the whole significance of Judaism lies in its purity of race” (Foundations I, 271-273).
I still find Dr. Rather’s book the most intelligent interpretation of Wagner that I have encountered, though in view of the quality of most of these writings, the compliment may be a dubious one. Let me emphasize, however, that Dr. Rather’s subject is the myth of self-destruction, not Chamberlain, whose place in Dr. Rather’s book, as in my essay, is parenthetical.
June 25, 1981