JEWISH CONTRIBUTIONS TO WORLD LITERATURE

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The Bible, the single greatest legacy of the Jews, has been translated into more than two thousand languages and is the most widely read and influential body of literature in all of human history.  The poet and artist William Blake said of its role in shaping the Western imagination that "the Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art."1  Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism  is the third most frequently cited twentieth century work in the arts and humanities, tells us that "in a sense all my critical work, beginning with a study of Blake published in 1947, and formulated ten years later in Anatomy of Criticism, has revolved around the Bible."2  From The Divine Comedy of Dante to John Milton's Paradise Lost to Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, the Bible has directly or indirectly inspired many of the greatest masterpieces of world literature.  Mann, perhaps the greatest German novelist of the twentieth century, chose the Joseph cycle from the Book of Genesis as the subject matter for "his 'pyramid'...the great literary monument that he hoped would tower over all the other works for which he is now remembered."3 

The Book of Genesis was arguably also the inspiration for The Tempest, William Shakespeare's great farewell to the stage.
4  Although Shakespeare is generally considered to have been a purely secular poet and playwright, his work is rich in Biblical influences and allusions.5  Nor is the literary power of the Bible primarily an artifact of its beautiful English and German translations, as is sometimes argued.  Biblical translation is severely constrained by the need to preserve the precise meaning of Sacred Scripture.  Poetry is especially unlikely to be enhanced through such a constrained process of translation.  Yet the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible remain the world's most recited and beloved poetry.  The British statesman (and Greek classicist) William Gladstone said of it that "all the wonders of the Greek civilization heaped together are less wonderful than the single Book of Psalms."6  Friedrich Nietzsche, commenting on the Hebrew Bible, wrote that "in the Old Testament of the Jews, the book of Divine righteousness, there are men, events, and words so great that there is nothing in Greek or Indian literature to compare with it."7

A second aspect of Jewish influence on the development of world literature emerged out of the crucible of the Spanish Inquisition and the crypto-Judeo/converso subculture that it created.  The literary scholar Stephen Gilman states in The Spain of Fernando de Rojas that "the conversos contributed many things to Spain ... but what they contributed to the world was nothing less than the possibility of the major literary genre of modern times: the novel.  Cervantes, and the men that provided him with this tradition - Mateo Alemán, Alonso Nuńez de Reinoso (Spain's first reviver of the Byzantine novel), Jorge de Montemayor (creator of the first pastoral novel in Castilian), the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes, Fernando de Rojas, the "sentimental novelist" Diego de San Pedro, and earliest of all, Alfonso Martínez de Toledo, who in the Corbacho first brought speech into Castilian prose - were all, although certain scholars fight rearguard battles in individual cases, conversos."8   Another literary genre that emerged at about the same time was the essay, which was the literary innovation of Michel de Montaigne, whose mother was also descended from Spanish-Jewish conversos.

An area of significant Jewish influence that is closely related to literature is twentieth century linguistics and language-based philosophy and criticism, which has been described by the eminent literary critic George Steiner as perhaps the century's "most important intellectual achievement outside the physical and mathematical sciences (with which it is at some points cognate)..."  Steiner goes on to note that through the work of Fritz Mauthner, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, Zellig Harris, Noam Chomsky, and many other Jews, "the language revolution" can be considered to constitute "a second principal chapter, as it were, in the decisive interaction between Judaism and the genius of the spoken and written word."9  [Wittgenstein, e.g., despite his very assimilated Jewishness and his highly conflicted relationship with it,10 nevertheless characterized his thinking (in a conversation toward the end of his life) as having been "one hundred percent Hebraic."11]

In addition to the three broad areas of influence described above, there are, of course, the individual contributions of authors such as Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust,12 Boris Pasternak, Arthur Koestler, Saul Bellow, Harold Pinter, and the hundreds of others listed below:


NOTES

1. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, by Northrop Frye (Harcourt Brace, New York and London, 1981, p. xvi).
2. Ibid., p. xiv.
3. From the translator's introduction to Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann, translated from the German by John E. Woods (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005, p. xiii).
4. Shakespeare and the Bible, by Steven Marx (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2000, Ch. 2).
5. Ibid.  See also Biblical References in Shakespeare's Tragedies, by Naseeb Shaheen (University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE, 1987); Biblical References in Shakespeare's History Plays, by Naseeb Shaheen (University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE, 1989); Biblical References in Shakespeare's Comedies, by Naseeb Shaheen (University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE, 1993); and Biblical Influences in Shakespeare's Great Tragedies, by Peter Milward (University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1987).  Shaheen finds more than 1,300 Biblical references in the plays.
6. The Place of Ancient Greece, by William Ewart Gladstone (1865), as quoted in The Bible and Civilization, by Gabriel Sivan (Quadrangle/New York Times, New York, 1973, p. 231).
7. Jenseits von Gut und Böse, by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886, 52), as translated in The Bible and Civilization, by Gabriel Sivan (Quadrangle/New York Times, New York, 1973, p. 276).

8. The Spain of Fernando de Rojas, by Stephen Gilman (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1972, p. 154).  Carlos Fuentes, the world renowned Mexican novelist, writes the following in Frédéric Brenner's Diaspora: Homelands in Exile (HarperCollins, New York, Vol. 2: Voices, 2003, p. 23): "Jewish intellectuals were prominent in the court of King Alfonso X of Castile, Alfonso the Wise, where they wrote down the monumental summae of the Spanish Middle Age: the judicial compilation known as Las Siete Partidas, the judicial treatise El Fuero Real, and the two great histories of Spain and of the world in the thirteenth century.  The extraordinary fact is that the Jewish intelligentia at Alfonso's court demanded that the  vast knowledge of the times be written in Spanish and not, as was then the custom, in Latin.  It can be said that the Spanish language as we know it and write it now is the great bequest of the Spanish Jews of the Middle Ages to us all, the four hundred million men and women who speak and write and dream in Spanish today."
 
9. "Some Meta-Rabbis," by George Steiner in Next Year in Jerusalem, edited by Douglas Villiers (Viking Press, New York, 1976, p. 70).  The first of the two "principal chapters" to which Steiner refers was the text-centric reconstruction of Judaism by the Rabbis, which ultimately involved its transfer out of the ruins of Jerusalem into what Steiner describes as an "indestructible house of words."
10. See, e.g., Culture and Value, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984) and the biographical novel The World as I Found It, by Bruce Duffy (Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1987).
11. Wittgenstein and Judaism: A Triumph of Concealment, by Ranjit Chatterjee (Peter Lang, New York, 2005, p. 103).
12. Jewish mother, non-Jewish father.

*   Contrary to what is written nearly everywhere, Joseph Pulitzer's father and mother were both Jewish.  See Pulitzer: A Life, by Denis Brian (Wiley, New York, 2001, pp. 129-130, 255, and 357).  Brian notes concerning Pulitzer's supposed half-Jewish background that "recent research [in Hungary by András Csillag] shows that both his mother [née Louise Berger] and his father were Jewish."  Kinga Frojimovics, Géza Komoróczy, Viktória Pusztai, and Andrea Strbik write the following in Jewish Budapest: Monuments, Rites, History  (Central European University Press, Budapest, 1999, p. 335): "Pulitzer, whose mother and father were both Jewish, whose name had been preserved in the mohel's registry of the Makó Jewish community..."


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