National Character, `Jewish Writing,' and Linguistic Determinism


The notion that writers of Jewish origin use a borrowed language and are incapable of genuine artistic creation evolved among prominent nineteenth-century German and French thinkers. Some of them linked national character to language and claimed that Jews can only imitate and cannot create pure art. Evolving racialist theory placed language at the center of the debate. Renan, Gobineau, Taine and Barrès wrote that the individual is powerless in the face of heredity that affects literary and artistic activity. Renan stressed that the essence of the Semitic race was linguistic. In his Journal Gide denied French writers of Jewish origin the right to use the French language fearing they may pollute it. Paul de Man echoed similar views. Lately, in post-Glasnost Russia nationalist critics have accused Russian-Jewish writers of lacking rootedness and of pretending to represent genuine Russian literature and art. The notion that biological laws prevent Jews from assimilating into a national culture represents a cornerstone of modern anti-Semitism. (HHW)

Weinberg, Henry H
Release Year:
1995 Spring-Summer; 23(3-4): 488-94