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To understand what God might have meant by sending them to an extermination camp

Genius and Anxiety. How Jews changed the World. 1847-1947.
Forfatter: Norman Lebrecht
Forlag: One World Publications (Storbritannia)
THE JEWISH / About anxiety, paranoia and the Jews' contribution to culture.


Genius and Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht is a cultural history about the massive contribution of European Jews to Europe's artistic, literary, musical, political and scientific life. Here one can remember what the Western world owes the Jews. And it's actually so overwhelming that it's easy to fall for the temptation to just pile on telling anecdotes – and especially what the phenomenon is. anxiety concerns.

Anxiety is in many ways a literary fashion phenomenon, and it requires a rather in-depth cultural analysis if one is to be able to get under the skin of all the cultural clichés that are often associated with anxiety. Anxiety can be both entertaining and fascinating to read about in books, but in reality, as is well known, anxiety is not very fun. The author writes: "In every person of genius who appears in this book there runs a current of existential anxiety."

Arnold Schönberg gets a reputation for being a destroyer of all culture.

The author points out that especially after the Dreyfus case, the Jews' influence on Western culture gained momentum. People like Freud, Einstein, Schönberg. Proust, Herzl, Trotsky, Haber and Hirschfeld all developed into great thinkers and writers. But so it is not easy to explain anxiety. One must show the will and ability to go as deep as Freud if one is to be able to explain the anxiety of the Jews as a creative cultural impulse. Fear is a term we use for a visible threat, while anxiety is used for an invisible, or objectless, threat. For the most part, this author uses the term "anxiety" as synonymous with "fear." That does not mean that the book is bad. It is full of fun and interesting anecdotes about talented artists, but it is not particularly deep-digging.

The special Jewish experience is the exile, which is often associated with exodus, ie the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, and the constant threats of annihilation and extermination that have persecuted the Jews throughout history – and which have stored in their DNA as persecution fear and fear of extermination . This book is thus about the underground tremors, and about how this is expressed in their artistic practice. What is striking is that very many of them break with old artistic forms and create completely new expressions. They do not create a closed "Jewish art", but modern, avant-garde art.

God is found guilty

The book is divided into 16 chapters, and each chapter deals with one specific year in the centenary period the book deals with. What we are learning is that Jews have a unique ability to think outside the box, and to see the world from a different angle than usual. Lebrecht writes: "The Jewish mindset behind the wave of genius has not been successfully explored. How much do jewish elements in their background inform Mahler, Modigliani, Proust? What makes Marx hate jews? How much do science and mass migration affect rabbinic thinking, not to mention the physical shape of jews? »

The answers this book provides are, unfortunately, only too anecdotal and easy-going for this reader to be left with the feeling of having become particularly wiser.

The book is nevertheless richly spiced with descriptions that are not so easily forgotten, like all the anecdotes about poor Arnold Schönberg, who gets a reputation for being a destroyer of all culture, and who experiences that the rumors so to the degree run before him that he gets rejected in working life time and time again, with questions such as: "Are you the person who has contributed to the destruction of music through your terrible unmusical, head-shaking chatter? No, you can probably not get a job at this academy. "

People like Freud, Einstein, Schönberg, Proust, Herzl, Trotsky, Haber and Hirschfeld developed
themselves all to become great thinkers and writers.

In Auschwitz, a group of rabbis are suing God to try to understand what God may have meant by sending them to an extermination camp. God is found guilty. Finally, one of the rabbis says, "Then it's time for the evening prayer." This makes the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wonder what makes people continue to believe in God even after such an incomprehensibly cruel event as the Holocaust.

Another Jew, Eli Wiesel, himself a teenager in Auschwitz, confronts God with his actions and no longer understands why he should bless God's name.

A child prisoner, Otto Dov Kulka, sees God in a dream many years later, inside crematorium number two, and asks himself the forbidden question: "Where is God in Auschwitz?"

The Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész takes the dreaded question further and turns it into a paradox: "God is the one who got me into Auschwitz, but also the one who got me out of there, and who therefore made me write novels, since God will hear about and know about everything he has done. " He holds a trembling index finger pointed at a god who is never completely forgiven. The answers to God's role in Auschwitz led many to atheism, while an ultra-Orthodox Jew like Joel Teitelbaum explains God's actions as an expression of anger toward the German Jews who have failed in His commandments. Other rabbis explain it with the inexplicable, that is, that it has no purpose to ask about God's motives, but that there is a limit to what man can understand – and that it is futile to try to find rational or moral answers to the Jewish question. .

It is these anecdotes, and many others as well, that make this book worth reading, but as I said: The anxiety that the author pretends to explain is never really explained. In other words, the author is not quite able to do what he has set out to do.

Henning Næs
Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.

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