Dias­po­ras of the Mind: Jew­ish and Post­colo­nial Writ­ing and the Night­mare of History

Bryan Cheyette
  • Review
By – December 5, 2014

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.

Relat­ed content

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions