Mueller on Morris, 'The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture outside the Margins'

Author: 
Leslie Morris
Reviewer: 
Agnes C. Mueller

Leslie Morris. The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture outside the Margins. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018. 248 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8101-3763-9.

Reviewed by Agnes C. Mueller (University of South Carolina) Published on H-Judaic (August, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53609

It has become predictable among academics to bemoan the decline of our profession, particularly as evidenced in literary studies, reading culture, number of majors enrolled at our teaching institutions, or the liberal arts in general. Yet The Translated Jew, published in Northwestern’s excellent Cultural Expressions of World War II series, reminds us of the value and importance of the field of literary studies, highlighting some of its most significant achievements in a transnational, global, and interdisciplinary setting. We of course have always known Jewish studies as the locus where literary studies, religious studies, history, sociology, and psychology intersect. The polylingual essence of translation studies additionally situates Leslie Morris’s project in the interstices of a decidedly multidirectional and global culture.

Morris’s exemplary work weaves together the threads of sophisticated scholarly writing with colorful and evocative details of compelling personal insight. Her introduction starts out, accordingly, with a reflection on “J/Je/Juif/Jude/Jew,” and a joke by her Hungarian half-Jewish mother in Paris. The primary works under consideration in the early chapters are Berlin’s Sculpture Park as an eruv in chapter 1, and in chapter 2 the German writer W. G. Sebald, French American poet Raymond Federman, American writer-critic Alfred Kazin, and German Jewish Portuguese artist Daniel Blaufuks. It is already clear how Morris’s reevaluation of Holocaust aesthetics is considering not only unexpected and previously neglected works, but also doing so from many different places of national, religious, and geographic origin. Chapter 3 brings this notion home (quite literally, since the artists under consideration here occupy a space of “poetic homelessness,” p. 114) with a focus on text experiments. Elevating the reach of translation to a new theoretical level through reading works by Alan Sondheim, Robert Fitterman, Heimrad Bäcker, Adeena Karasick, and Anne Blonstein makes us realize the power of resistance. All these artists are transformative by probing boundaries of representation in Holocaust art. And the final chapter, returning to more complex notions of self-translation, a technique we had already encountered in Sebald and Federman, Rose Ausländer’s considerations of Czernowitz (as it also intersects with Paul Celan’s Meridian speech) highlight the articulation of the translated Jew.

Reading this tour de force, we are invited along an eclectic journey through the scholarship of Hélène Cixous, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Naomi Seidman, Daniel Boyarin, Jonathan Freedman, Dan Miron, Hana Wirth-Nesher, Benjamin Schreier, Yasmin Yildiz, and, of course, Walter Benjamin, among many others. The historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi and the iconic cultural and literary critic Sigmund Freud serve as bookends. The main purpose of Morris’s study, as she herself articulates it, is to rethink the disciplinary boundaries of Jewish studies to provide a new model for Jewish textual studies via a conversation with German studies. She thereby opens up both German studies and Jewish studies and allows for new conversations between the many interesting texts and critics at the core of her study.

Perhaps most important to Morris’s study is the fact that she understands translation so very decidedly as more than a textual undertaking. It is the mediation of Jewish culture, and, most often, as German Jewish culture, that her work not only traces for us, but then also performs in bringing to the fore texts that we might not have considered, that we might not have known about, that are Jewish and not Jewish, literary and not literary. Leslie Morris the scholar, in this book, turns into a mediator herself: the mediator of that which has been eclipsed because it was either “too Jewish,” “not Jewish enough,” “too German,” or simply hidden in the meaning of another culture. Her aim of opening up “new spaces of inquiry between Jewish studies and German studies” (p. 22) is therefore accomplished admirably, and in addition to opening up spaces of inquiry she allows her readers to form new connections. Moreover, what might at first glance appear as merely an assembly of works and scholars turns out to be a finely crafted web of insightful references, allusions, and border crossings that invoke our previously known instances by linking them with new material.

A case in point that resonates most with me is in Morris’s final chapter: she coins the brilliant phrase “banality of grief,” developing Hannah Arendt’s prominent “banality of evil” by linking Ausländer’s poetry with Andy Warhol’s serial art. While such a direct connection might be a stretch for some (since obviously we are dealing with very different forms of expression), it makes not only perfect sense, but allows us to consider Holocaust art and representation anew in the context of the culture industry and the Frankfurt School. Her consideration of a “banality of grief” links the purposely vacuous work of art (repetition as a result of trauma) and the more traditional forms of remembrance, shedding light on previously unseen relationships between art and Holocaust memory. While I slightly challenge Morris’s claim that “Germany itself never produced major figures of pop art” (p. 190; Rolf Dieter Brinkmann and the visual artists around Hans Werner Richter, Thomas Demand come to mind), her overall discussion of postmodern art and Holocaust representation is spot-on and scintillating.

This book is essential to any scholar in the humanities, and especially those in Jewish studies, literary studies, cultural studies, and global studies. It is lucidly written and thoroughly readable, free of jargon, and should be used for advanced undergraduate as well as graduate-level teaching. Circling around the nexus of Holocaust memory and writing after Auschwitz, and making it both a visible and an eclipsed center of translation, The Translated Jew draws us into considering Jewish writing post Holocaust from “outside the margins,” and that includes the margins of our own identity, or previous considerations. Therefore, Morris’s study provides a new direction in German Jewish studies and in the study of Holocaust memory. Yet beyond this, Leslie Morris also lends new meaning to our scholarly endeavor due to her emphasis on (cultural) translation: the scholar as mediator.

Agnes C. Mueller is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the University of South Carolina. She has recently published German Jewish Literature after 1990, co-edited with Katja Garloff.

Citation: Agnes C. Mueller. Review of Morris, Leslie, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture outside the Margins. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53609

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.