THE JEW AS PATHOGEN: REFLECTIONS ON MARC WEINER'S "RICHARD WAGNER  AND THE ANTI-SEMITIC IMAGINATION"
by Ingrid H. Shafer
Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, by Marc A. Weiner. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
It is difficult for me to be dispassionate about this review. I was born in Austria just before the beginning of World War II and grew up to the sounds of Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Parzifal. Almost as soon as I could read I began to devour the yellowing 1920s librettos in our library the way I gobbled up everything in print. My mother adored Richard Wagner, and she was very disappointed that as a teenager I began to prefer Bach and Gregorian chants to Wagner's Romantic exuberance, and Stefan Zweig or Sigrid Undset to Wagner's texts.
A dark oil portrait of Wagner hung on the living room wall, next to our baby grand piano which my father played for hours on end. The painting had been damaged by a bomb fragment, and one day, as I tried to figure out a way of repairing it, I removed the canvas from the frame and discovered a photograph of Adolf Hitler stashed behind the composer. This was about eight years after the war, and my parents were not amused. To my frustration, Hitler disappeared, along with a savagely antisemitic biology text, complete with cartoon-like illustrations of misshapen Jewish "types" with vulture-like noses that reminded me of Wagner's bird beak beneath the modish cap. I had discovered the text in the bottom of a book case, and hoped to use it in my well-intentioned if clumsy attempts to discover why good people like my parents had allowed the slaughter of millions of fellow humans and why no one wanted to answer my questions about the Nazi era.
At that time I did not yet have a name for antisemitism but "smelled" it as undefined fetor in odd places, such as Wagner's operas, legends and fairy tales with their occasional Jewish stereotypes, the cheap 19th century pulp novels I borrowed from our neighbors, and the way the story of the crucifixion was told, depicted, and re-enacted. I was beginning to grasp certain patterns, and they involved a combination of excessive patriotic fervor, religious fanaticism, and the inability to see others as fellow humans.
My obsession with the Holocaust had begun two or three years after the war when I found death camp photographs in a magazine and asked my mother, "Why did the Nazis kill the Jews?" I did not believe her original insistence that no one knew; so I continued to nag and was finally emotionally shattered when she became quite angry and yelled at me that I would understand when I had children of my own; that even if people had known they would have done nothing in order to keep the Nazis from deporting and killing them and their families instead. It seemed at that moment that I (and Austrian children like myself) had an enormous debt to pay, for our very lives had been bought with the dying of countless Jews--a mysterious people, since I had not as yet knowingly met a single Jew. Years later my mother told me that her much older sister, my beloved aunt Elsa, was the only surviving child of my grandmother's twenty-year cohabitation before the turn of the century with the son of a prominent Jewish family until they separated so he could marry a Jewish bride. He continued to support her and their daughter, and she wore his ring until her death. Elsa was a mathematics and biology teacher and took early retirement shortly after Hitler marched into Austria to keep from having to teach the kind of poisonous nonsense I had discovered in the above-mentioned biology textbook. She escaped the hunt for Jews because she was illegitimate and because someone had cut all references to her paternity from official records.
Even without knowing about Aunt Elsa's Jewish roots I continued to be haunted by the Holocaust as I began to practice and study my Catholic faith in earnest and came to see the swastika as the crooked shadow cast by the Christian cross, its evil twin, inextricably joined to it at the base -- as are all shadows -- and the Jewish people affixed to its twisted frame.
I am still asking the same question, but after four decades I am now convinced that I have discovered at least part of the answer: the kind of gut-level, knee-jerk revulsion that permitted the genocide to be planned and implemented is more than anything else a matter of the imagination, the very attribute that is the most essential characteristic of being human. We engender our personal and communal sense of identity, our unique blend of customs, traditions, and values through our imagination--the stories, myths, metaphors, and rituals which simultaneously endure and change through and over time. We invest certain objects, events, seasons, persons, and types with special meanings, and in the process we create the very filters through which we then perceive, interpret, and create our worlds. In this sense we are embodied imagination. Douglas Hofstadter uses an apt analogy when he compares our ways of information processing to a tree whose mighty trunk and branches tower above ground but depend for their very existence on the invisible root system below the surface.  The iceberg is another helpful image. "Real world thinking" takes place above the surface but is nourished by complex inaccessible processes in the mute depths of Michael Polanyi's tacit knowledge or Hans-Georg Gadamer's Vorverständnis or Carl Gustav Jung's personal or collective unconscious. These processes are below our awareness and control while they surreptitiously shape our attitudes, opinions, and behavior. It is in these hidden sub-strata that we are powerfully affected by music, dance, and image through direct and intuitive sense absorption rather than intellectual analysis.
In other words, our actions are shaped far less by so-called objective truths than by that which we perceive and believe to be true after first having spun it on the loom of our imagination from the threads of experience. We live by our myths as we co-create them--from family tales to cultural master myths -- archetypal yea-saying paradigms that inspire humaneness, respect, friendship, and even love for those who are different or archetypal nay-saying paradigms that teach us to approach others with fear, suspicion, envy, hatred, and violence. We are who we are and do what we do largely by following the proddings of our imagination and then rationalizing the result. Among the most effective such communal projections and shapers of individual and group imagination are pictures, music, reenactments, and stories, especially in combination as they inform such religious ceremonies as the Passover Seder, Passion Plays, the Catholic Solemn High Mass and its secular counterpart, the opera.
Hence we must focus on the imagination -- in order to pursue and unmask as many of the strands as possible that combined into pervasive, cultural antisemitism which was at least a necessary condition of the Holocaust; in order to understand group psychology with such symptoms as homophobia, religious fanaticism, and ethnic hatred; and in order to anticipate and defuse some of the most deadly effects of the mythic monsters we thus create and propagate with their own iconography.
For hundreds of years, in Catholic regions, passion plays and other folk culture dramatic productions that featured stereotypical Jews as Jungian shadows -- physically malformed, infant-murdering, blood-sucking, plague-spreading Satan's seed -- were among the most insidious opinion shapers of the illiterate or semi-literate masses. And when passion plays were out of season the faithful could go to church and admire a painting or stained glass window depicting the mother sow of Judaism suckling her Jewish brood. This odious image originated in 13th century Magdeburg, spread to France and Holland, and three centuries later was enthusiastically endorsed by Luther.  No wonder Jews were considered the "accursed race," agents of unspeakable evil, the "Judas" people throughout Europe, slitters of throats and rippers-out of hearts who made martyrs of little Christian children.
Incredibly, in the tiny Tyrolean community of Rinn with a chapel dedicated to one such "blessed" child, supposedly murdered five hundred years ago, a violently antisemitic play, written in the 1930s by Fr. Gottfried Schöpf, was still annually performed for local residents, tourists, and entire classes of primary school youngsters until 1953, against a backdrop of garish depictions of the supposed crime. During the same period movie houses in nearby Innsbruck were showing news reels of death camp horror. So powerful was the hold of that beloved calumny that as recently as the late 1980s a number of individuals appealed to Rome to keep Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck from following the spirit of the Second Vatican Council by having the chapel repainted and officially re-dedicating to the commemoration of the sins Christian had committed against Jews over the centuries. 
In a response to E. D. Hirsch's challenge in Cultural Literacy, Patti Gillespie warns of the dangers of allowing theater education to become primarily "a means of developing cultural literacy, of promoting national cohesion, of enhancing public discourse."  Her very comment, however, takes for granted the inevitable contextuality of theater, and both the tendency of drama -- especially when it is popular -- to reflect shared values held by the audience, and the power of drama to intensify or modulate those values. Clearly, Richard Wagner's operas, the 19th century equivalent of our most flamboyant multimedia productions, poured out of the German national imagination and nourished that very imagination. Wagner managed to tap into both the Christian and the Teutonic mythic groundwaters and do so precisely by weaving his stories and musical phrases round the common enemy, the eternally "other," the despised Jew who was so well known to the audience that he would be recognized even if he were never clearly identified.
For all of these reasons I believe that Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination is a book that should become required reading not only for Wagner scholars but for anyone aspiring to understand 19th century European--and especially German--intellectual history, the complex relation of the arts and the world, and the roots of the Holocaust.
In 439 pages, including 36 pages of notes and a 26 page exhaustive bibliography, Weiner meticulously builds a powerful, multi-faceted case for his central argument that antisemitism is at the very core of Wagner's operas--music as well as librettos--a pervasive leitmotif of Wagner's imagination that connects the artist with his cultural matrix and weaves itself in countless variations throughout his work. Quite apart from eminent standards of scholarship, Weiner's book is stylistically a joy to read, and his extensive translations from the German are both true to the original and reincarnated in graceful, idiomatic English.
Weiner argues that "both Wagner and his contemporaries perceived his works through associations--linking a given set of values and beliefs to specific bodily imagery--that may no longer be automatically evoked in performance today; it will be my task to reconstruct hypothetically these associations within which Wagner's essays and music dramas could have, and indeed may have, resonated for the composer and his nineteenth century audience" (p. 13). He specifically addresses those scholars who (1) minimize Wagner's anti-Semitism, (2) refuse to link the private lives of artists with their work, (3) want to separate Wagner's essays from his operas, and (4) "refused to acknowledge any 'evidence' of racism 'in' Wagner's music" and limit the discussion of anti-Semitism to the libretti (p. 14).
Consistent with this structuring theme of embodiment, the chapters of the book focus on (1) Eyes, (2) Voices, (3) Smells, (4) Feet, and (5) Degeneration symbolized by masturbation. Except for Chapter 5, all of the central body parts or functions are discussed in their sublime/healthy manifestations of the Aryan hero and their base/diseased Jewish shadow versions of the "malformed outcast" (p. 269).
For me, Weiner's book represented something close to a dark and yet brilliant epiphany, a falling into place of numerous strands of conjectures and bits of evidence into a single meaningful configuration: the Jew of the Christian-Teutonic-Germanic imagination Wagner sensed in his world and co-created for his era and the future was the 19th century equivalent of a deadly pathogen, a social retrovirus that must be utterly annihilated lest it infect and destroy the world. Twentieth century technology and medicine with new notions of radical sanitizing, sterilizing, disinfection, and decontamination, attached themselves to earlier images of Jews and lepers as a menace to society who had to wear distinctive badges and were as much as possible banned from the company of Christians. Even today exterminators use the traditional colors of yellow and black to indicate toxic substances and to signal to the world their ability to rid decent homes of roaches and other vermin.
In 1989 Zygmunt Bauman published Modernity and the Holocaust for which he received the European Amalfi prize.  Bauman argued that the Holocaust in all its unspeakable horror is the result of modernity's tendency towards "rational management of society" (p. 72) coupled to "concentration of power, resources and managerial skills" (p. 77) and such mundane elements as "bureaucratic division of labor" (p. 195), and hence at least theoretically repeatable as long as we live in the modern world. He denies that the Shoah can be explained sufficiently as a uniquely Jewish event and/or the culmination of prior European-Christian antisemitism.
While he makes no reference to Bauman, Weiner's focus on Wagner's depiction of the Jewish-body-as-essentially-defective presents the possibility of reconciling Bauman's model with those he rejects. Bauman argues that a judenreines Europe (a Europe cleansed of Jews) could not be achieved until Jews had ceased to be seen as fellow humans to whom, no matter how different or sinful, one naturally owes at least some moral responsibility (such as the attempt to convert them to Christianity to save their souls). Wagner set the stage [pun intended] among the middle and upper classes of society for the kind of depersonalization and debasement Ian Kershaw notes that would allow the transformation of Jews from beast to vermin and finally cancer. Bauman writes, "Only in modern, 'scientific', racist form, the age-old repellence of the Jews has been articulated as an exercise in sanitation; only with the modern reincarnation of Jew-hatred have the Jews been charged with . . . an immanent flaw that cannot be separated from its carriers. . . . Cancer, vermin, or weed cannot repent.... By the nature of their evil they have to be exterminated" (p. 72).
Weiner reminds us that Wagner makes sure that his audience becomes aware of the foul stench, the foetor judäicus, emanating from the Jewish parasite. "The associative connection between scent, sex, anti-Semitism, and patriotism pervades his work in much the way such dramatic concerns as redemption and constancy recur with only slight variation throughout his artistic development" (p. 196). The association of putrid rotten egg fetor with such Jewish stereotypes as the avaricious "sulfurous dwarf" Alberich (p. 211) further supports my argument that Wagner contributed to an already culturally prefigured medical model of the Jew as pathogen that would be fully developed in the twentieth century. In fact, the dual theme of corruption/redemption can be restated as pestilence/healing. The smell of sulfur had long been linked to Satan's horde along with the plague--and the Jews who were routinely suspected of spreading the Black Death.
In Chapter 5 Weiner discusses Wagner's association of sterile masturbation with Jewishness and his acceptance of the pervasive medical theories of his age which linked masturbation and homosexuality to mental debility, sterility, insanity, amd a Darwinian "devolution" into beastliness (p. 343). Weiner points to the subsequent, post-Freudian transvaluation of masturbation (p. 347) as an excellent example of shifting iconography which may make it impossible for us to fully grasp the meaning of Wagner's musical motifs for Hagen or his negative evaluation of his former friend Friedrich Nietzsche. It is regrettable that Weiner fails to draw attention to another important variation on the same theme, Immanuel Kant's horror of "onanism" which the philosopher describes in his lectures on ethics and Metaphysical Foundations of Morals as the most disgraceful conduct of which humans are capable, degrading humans to a sub-beastly level, crimes against nature. For Kant, masturbators ceased to be persons with the rights of persons.
At this point I see a clear chain that leads from Wagner to the cattle cars of the Final Solution, the shearing of body hair, the mass showers and delousing of naked bodies, the branding of fore-arms, the electric fences, the whips, the gassings, the medical experiments, the disposal of bodies in pits and in ovens: The "Aryan masters" justified their actions by considering the Jews not merely below the beasts, to be used, abused, and discarded like garbage, but as staphylococci in human disguise. In that perspective, quarantine and efficient extermination became a sacred duty, as sacred in the world understood in terms of the modern medical body paradigm as the battle against demons and witches had been in the medieval world of the theological paradigm of the mystical body of Christ.
Weiner unmasks icons, metaphors, signs, and subliminal hints that are opaque for us who do not share the conscious and preconscious context of the era, who live in a different interpretive community, and who may not even realize that music qua music (not merely as accompaniment to words) is a language that is uniquely capable of communicating with those levels of people's psyche that are unconscious or not fully conscious. Citing Alexander Ringer, Weiner calls Wagner's music an "associative code system" (p. 27). Consequently, it is precisely through music that people can be most deeply and permanently affected, especially if the music is combined (as we now do on MTV) with emotionally charged images and words. Musical themes and "phrases" are not merely capable of affecting people's emotions in general (as Plato already recognized), but they can also carry discrete packets of specific meaning, and Wagner was a master at manipulating these elements.
While Weiner's "cultural archeology" (p. 2 seeks to reconstruct a past culture to show how the works were intended to be received he does not argue that contemporary listeners should therefore reject Wagner's music. In fact he asserts that awareness of Wagner's agenda may permit authentic appreciation of his "breathtakingly beautiful and stirring musical-dramatic accomplishments" (p. 29). On the other hand he also asks the far more disturbing question whether we might continue to respond positively to Wagner precisely because we still subconsciously subscribe to the "very images of race, sex, and nation that continue to underscore and perpetuate the notions of difference so fundamental to Western culture" (p. 30). As for me, I refuse to separate moral outrage and revulsion from my aesthetic sense, and I now find Wagner's music (or Ezra Pound's poetry) about as enticing as the scent of a Venus Flytrap. I do not subscribe to the critical school that insists that we must separate artistic genius from moral depravity, even if the depravity involves the subversion of the most fundamental human values, a betrayal of humanity that is made particularly heinous because it is perpetrated by a person of genius who commands respect and whom others will follow. At the same time, I see no justification for banning the publication or performance of material, no matter how offensive, as long as there is public debate to explore the issues raised, and as long as members of the audience are made aware of the potential for being subliminally affected.
1. I dedicate this essay to the memory of Abraham and Rifka Polenzweig from Warsaw and four of their children whose future was stolen more than fifty years ago, all of whom I have come to know and love through the eyes of the oldest son Leizer who alone lived to tell the story.
2. Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), pp. 569-571.
3. Hyam Maccoby, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1992), pp.111-112.
4. The story of the demise of the Anderl cult is recorded in Werner Kunzenmann, ed., Judenstein: Das Ende einer Legende (Innsbruck: Diözese Innsbruck/Medieninhaber, 1994). The skeleton of the supposed victim was that of a considerably older child, and according to Kunzenmann, had been supplemented with the bones of a young goat.
5. Patti P. Gillespie, "Theater Education and Contextualism" in Ralph A. Smith, ed. Cultural Literacy and Arts Education (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991):31-47, p.38.
6. Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).