‘The Jew’ as Metaphor: Embracing the Dissimilar

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April 1, 2011
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Bryan Cheyette

When does metaphor end and reality begin? Can we draw a firm line between metaphor and reality without being driven crazy? The classical definition of metaphor is the “perception of similarity in dissimilars.” But this is a tricky definition. It is not the same as the straightforward embrace of the “other” that is opposed to the “self.” Metaphoric thinking is messier than self/other. It does not think of a subject in terms of opposites but rather in terms of nuances or “dissimilars.”

My early work, Constructions of “the Jew” in English Literature and Society, made decidedly non-metaphorical use of “the Jew” in its title. I made the argument that I was merely quoting from the literature of the time — “the Jew” (along with “the Negro” or “the Celt” or “the Aryan”) was in common usage before the Second World War. T. S. Eliot’s “The jew is underneath the lot” is just one prominent instance. This argument was made because these racial categories were used by absolutely everyone at the time and only questioned by the odd genius, such as James Joyce.

After the war, “the Jew” has, for the most part, gladly become detached from European racial discourse but has become instead a feature of postmodern theory. Heidegger and “the jews” (1988) by Jean Francois Lyotard, for instance, constructs “the jew” to represent all forms of otherness, heterodoxy, and nonconformity. For Lyotard, “the jew” is the diasporist par excellence — the very personification of placelessness. But the problem with this postmodern embrace of the metaphorical “jew” is that the only place for actual Jews is between quotation marks as the eternal victim.

Such symbolic victimhood has a particular resonance in French culture, which reached its apotheosis in 1968 on the streets with the slogan, “We are all Jews” (“Nous sommes tous des juifs”). A few years earlier, intellectual manifestos had described the French military presence in Algeria as a “Hitlerite order,” and Simone de Beauvoir, an ardent supporter of these manifestos, wrote of 10,000 Algerians “herded into the Vel’ d’Hiv” like “the Jews at Drancy once before.”

But what of real Jews, no longer the object of discourse after the Holocaust, who are resistant to such comparisons? The messy borderline between what is “similar” and what is “dissimilar” is policed with particular rigor by Jews and Jewish institutions. The fear is that such metaphorical thinking — where the similar and dissimilar become blurred — will dilute Jewish particularity. Such is the baleful sense of our “uniqueness,” where our difference becomes absolute, and we become the very essence of dissimilarity beyond metaphor.

My problem with a blanket dismissal of any comparative thinking is that it often has a historical valence that enables us to take seriously “similarity in dissimilars.” The metaphorical crossover of Jewish history, as perceived by other racial groups, enables us to go beyond our own sense of difference. Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) that “it was my philosophy professor, a native of the Antilles, who recalled the fact to me one day: ‘Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.’” Fanon’s memory of his teacher in the Antilles leads to a range of complicated, contradictory, and subtle comparisons between the experience of racism and antisemitism. That these comparisons were made at a time when those seeking liberation from European colonialists looked to the experience of “the Jews” is clearly not a coincidence.

Classically, a “good metaphor” is an “intuitive perception” and, in this spirit, I have turned in my Diasporas of the Mind to many imaginative writers (such as Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips, and Anita Desai) who write novels that explore dissimilar Jewish and colonial histories that bring together the experience of colonialism and the Holocaust. It seems that we are fearful of making these comparisons because “the Jew” might descend, once again, into metaphor. Holding onto a sense of absolute uniqueness, outside of such imaginative connections, merely results in a tragic sense of isolation from the world. I believe that Jews in both the Diaspora and Israel need more metaphorical thinking rather than less. Only in this way can we embrace the dissimilar.

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Bryan Cheyette is chair in modern literature at the University of Reading, U.K. Editor or author of nine books, he is completing Diasporas of the Mind: Literature and ‘Race’ after the Holocaust (Yale University Press), which brings together literature and history, the figurative and the real. He reviews contemporary fiction for the Times Literary Supplement, the Independent, and the Guardian.

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