How We Choose to Write History

David Nirenberg responds to the Forum on Anti-Judaism

anti-judaism - the western tradition
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 624 pp., $35.00

We know that “books, too, have their fates,” but all too seldom is that fate as fortunate as this: to be read at all, let alone by this group of learned, distinguished, and engaged readers. My only response to this forum can be one of gratitude to the participants, and to the editors of the Marginalia Review of Books. And my only frustration, that of the “if only”: if only I could have benefitted from this forum before the book was published.

Since such a response would be too brief for the occasion, I might supplement it with some reflections on questions that arose within the forum itself. The most general of these has to do with how to write about history. Can we write what I might call trans-contextual histories, that is, histories that explicitly explore how multiple pasts, whose plurality will always remain beyond our ken, might relate to their even more infinite potential futures?

I imagine that many historians writing today are animated by the same sense that often animates me: the sense that some relation must exist between past, present, and future, even if I cannot know precisely what that relation is. And yet as a profession we are deeply suspicious of any attempt to identify such relations, and unwilling to explore explicitly what they might be. “Context” is the key word of that suspicion, its invocation a prohibition against the extension of our questions across times and places. Context is certainly an important, I would say crucial, concept for historical practice. But cutting our problem into smaller pieces cannot absolve us of the need to engage critically with questions about what kinds of analogies and conceptions of relation will always underlie our practice. As historians, for example, we speak often of causes — which are, after all, powerful, even deterministic claims about relations across time! — and we yet rarely feel obliged to interrogate our sense of what a cause is. Even the most “contextual” historian is always moving across multiple spaces, subjectivities, and time frames. Willy-nilly we are already trans-contextual. By acknowledging that dark epistemological fact and embracing it as a methodology, can we find new ways of thinking about how multiple histories might relate to each other?

In Anti-Judaism, I confronted some of these methodological questions head on through what seemed like a particularly challenging test case, one that is on the one hand sometimes treated as stable and eternal — “the longest hatred” — and on the other, as so radically mutable and discontinuous that (to paraphrase words of Hannah Arendt quoted by Jonathan Judaken in his illuminating essay) “even the extent to which the [present Anti-Semitism] derives its arguments and emotional appeal from the [past Anti-Judaism] is open to question.” Both these positions seemed to me dogmatic, and rather than choose between them, I proposed an approach that requires movement from context to context across space and time — hence trans-contextual — in order to recognize some of the particularities of any given moment in space and time, and some of the ways in which these moments might potentially interact with their pasts and their futures. How pasts affect futures, and vice versa: this was my most basic question, and for the topic of Anti-Judaism the stakes in asking that question seemed especially high.

With the exception of Paula Fredriksen and, even more, Jonathan Decter, the Forum’s participants are largely silent about this question, perhaps because of the structure of the Forum itself. Rather than treating the book as a whole, it separates it into periods, and assigns each to a specialist, splitting the knot I was trying to unravel. Not surprisingly, given this “re-specializing” structure, the responses tend to re-assert the primacy of what they call context. In fact if I had to identify a common criticism, it would be that I have not paid enough attention to the many particulars of this or that time and place.

Each of these re-assertions deserves its own response. Jonathan Hess, for example, asks for a performance history of the Merchant of Venice in the nineteenth century. I agree entirely: so much so that in the book I commented on the influence of performances of Merchant on figures like Heine and Börne, and suggested that a different book might pursue the history of modern thought about Judaism through the history of such performances. A different book, not because I think the performance context of Shakespeare is unimportant, but because I chose to emphasize other aspects of the nineteenth-century context that I felt were more directly relevant to the narrative.

Far from “scoffing” at context (as Debra Kaplan claims I do), I repeatedly stress its importance, and try to point to some of those contexts that I’ve had to sacrifice in my trans-contextual narrative. But more generally, I would argue that inadequacy of context cannot in and of itself be a telling criticism. Of course there is always more we can say about the histories we choose to tell, and of course there are always other stories that could have been told, beside the ones we chose. The limitations of knowledge and narrative demand that every historian condemn vast portions of humanity to indifference and oblivion. What should matter for historical criticism is not whether we have made choices, but how we critically justify our choices in terms of the specific questions we are trying to address.

Were my choices inappropriate to my questions? In her moving and learned essay, Paula Fredriksen comes closest to hinting that perhaps they were. After listing a few “odd mistakes” in the chapters that fall within her specialty, she asks whether “any of these infelicities” matter. I will always ask myself how “six columns” became “six languages” in my comments on Origen’s Hexapla. (The error was corrected in the paperback.) But how does this mistake, or any of the handful of others she lists (some of which, such as my treatment of Ambrose, are certainly not mistakes but legitimate differences of emphases and interpretation) substantively affect my questions, my sense of the relevant contexts, or my arguments? I’m sure that generosity moved Fredriksen not to press this point, but I should wish that she had, for in its absence we have only a re-performance of the commitments and choices that distinguish her own beautiful and formidable work from mine. (For an earlier discussion of these differences see my review of her Augustine and the Jews in The New Republic.)

There is another version of this criticism to which historians are subject: that of having chosen not the wrong contextual details but the wrong questions, overlooking issues of greater importance. Jonathan Hess’s call for a performance history of Shakespeare, Debra Kaplan’s for greater treatment of the printing press, Jonathan Judaken’s sense of my “refusal to indicate how the recurrent images of Jews functioned interactively in these shifting historical frames,” Moshe Rosman’s similar desire for more attention to “the question of the relationship between Judaism-hatred and Jew-hatred,” and Jonathan Decter’s suggestive concept of “missing thirds,” are all forms of this criticism.

Again, each version of this criticism requires its own response. To Judaken, for example, I hasten to reply that I neither “methodologically forbid” nor refuse to study “how the recurrent images of Jews functioned interactively in these shifting historical frames.” And certainly I never suggest that the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Gestapo (or for that matter any other two phenomena) functioned in the same way. As for his statement that it is “social, technological, and economic contexts that shaped why certain recurrent images of Jews and Judaism took hold of the imagination in each epoch,” I’d simply reply that this conviction, this choice of historical priorities, is here asserted, not argued, and the assertion simply begs what I think is one of the essential questions that motivates my book: What is the relationship between contexts and figures of thought, between the particularities of each epoch and what Judaken calls “the recurrence of images”?

But let me admit that this criticism of my choice of question remains a general one, and therefore requires a general response. Consider Decter’s helpful formulation: “Can we fully appreciate the simile ‘like a Jew’ without understanding ‘like a Christian’ in Islamdom, or ‘like a Muslim’ in Christendom (whether or not there were real Muslims present)?” The short answer, of course, is no. But as I tried to suggest above, we cannot “fully appreciate” anything in history. The past, like the present, is much vaster than our capacity to apprehend it, and any answers we can offer to the questions we want to ask of history will always be partial. “Fully” is at best (as Decter uses it here) a useful stimulus to humility about the choices we make when confronting specific topics, at worst a chimera that short-circuits critical thought.

In my first book (Communities of Violence), I stressed the study of interaction between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in local contexts because that seemed to me the best way of intervening into particular questions about the relationship between structure and agency in relations between the three religions. In Anti-Judaism, I took up the persistence of figures of thought about Judaism because this seemed to me a pressing problem for critical thought in our present age. In Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism Medieval and Modern (appearing this Spring) I try to achieve something closer to what the respondents find missing in Anti-Judaism: a treatment in which communities in all three religions are constantly co-produced and transformed by thinking about and living in contact with each other.

I say this not by way of excuse, but simply to emphasize my basic point. Where our historical attention dwells, the methods we choose for a particular project cannot be independent of the questions we find most interesting or most pressing at a given moment (often, as Rosman points out, for reasons that are quite personal). And of course, neither can they be independent of the needs of our intended audiences. The choices we make when we write for our fellow sub-specialists will not be the same as those we make when we attempt to write across fields. As critical historians, we can only strive to make these dependences clear.

Each of the respondents here has pushed me to strive harder. Again, I can only wish that I might have had the benefit of such encouragement and criticism before publishing Anti-Judaism. But I console myself with the knowledge that the next thought I have and the next argument I try to make will be all the better for it. Thank you all.

[Image: The second panel of Paolo Uccello’s Miracle of the Profaned Host from the Urbino Confraternity of Corpus Domini predella (1467-1469). A Jewish moneylender is cooking the host, which emanates blood. The Jew’s wife, her unborn child, and her children look on in terror as the blood pours into the street in rivers while soldiers break through the door. The painting is structured around the Golden Section. Via Wikimedia Commons.]

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