In his ambitious study Diasporas of the Mind, Bryan Cheyette, a professor of Modern Literature at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, seeks to challenge — really to disrupt — current thinking in the academy about the relation between Jewish philosophical and political writing in the wake of World War II and the traumas of the Holocaust (such as the works of Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi) and assorted major contemporary “ethnic” and postcolonial writers like Muriel Spark, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith. There is also a long chapter on Philip Roth’s “American” novels (like American Pastoral and The Plot Against America), which will be of particular interest to American readers, since Cheyette dissents from the critical consensus which tends to celebrate these later works as marking Roth’s great late-career achievement as a novelist.
For Cheyette, the “Nightmare of History” refers to the vexed relation between the post-Holocaust and the postcolonial, a continuing charged dialogue (within academic discourse) over the figure of the Jew as victim of racist systems of belief and practice and the postcolonial subject as victim of imperialism, displaced from his own country. The uprooted Jew who floats from place to place in a condition of diasporic exile, seeking a metaphorical “homeland,” is famously signified in Yiddish as a “luftmensch” [“air man,” or, pejoratively, and sometimes with dangerous consequences, as a “rootless cosmopolitan”]. The Diasporic Jew’s embrace of an empowering pariah identity, resisting the impulse to assimilate into a dominant culture, as Arendt famously explained, can translate into what Cheyette terms “a state of creatively disruptive impurity.”
By contrast, current theorizing about the uprooted postcolonial writer, politically displaced from a homeland by colonial power yet driven by a determined nationalist desire to return to “roots,” tends to reject the model of the “Jew” in unaffiliated (and thus apolitical) exile as a type of “vagrancy,” as culturally “weightless,” lacking a principled vision of political struggle. In this respect, writers like V. S. Naipaul and Rushdie are often severely criticized by scholars of postcolonial literature because they appear to incorporate a rejected model of a free-floating “Jewish” diasporic identity in their fiction.
Among its ambitions, Diasporas of the Mind argues for “a transcultural diasporic imagination” as a way “to move beyond disciplinary thinking” which, Cheyette feels, characterizes much conversation in the academy on the subject of the Diaspora and its legacy; more importantly, Cheyette wants us to recognize “diasporic Jewishness as a living history that can enable it to make connections across histories and communities.”
Diasporas of the Mind is thus a revisionary study addressed to scholars of modern Jewish literature, contemporary literature, and postcolonial cultural theory. It is a provocative and important book that should be read, reflected upon, and responded to by all serious students of modern Jewish writing, Holocaust literature, postcolonial theory, and Jewish Studies.
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- The Jewish Street: The City and Modern Jewish Writing edited by Murray Baungarten & Lee David Jaffe
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.