i rercently reviewed for an academic journal a book entitled Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe. Edited by professors Daniel Chirot and Anthony Reid, the book is a compendium of scholastic articles contributed by historians of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and Jewish communities in Central Europe. One chapter, authored by Steven Beller, an historian of modern Austria, readily drew my attention on account of its title, which reads: “Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility? How Reasonable was Antisemitism in Vienna, 1880-1939?”
In this chapter Beller analyzes the history of anti-Jewish prejudice in the homeland of Hitler, Eichmann, and other leading Nazis (a fact worth noting, considering that the Austrians tried to pass themselves off as the first victims of Nazism, when in reality they overwhelmingly embraced it) from the perspective of the antinomies, which he borrowed from Jane Austen’s novels. One of its opening paragraphs explains that:
Pride and Prejudice’s first title was “First Impressions,” and an underlying theme of the novel is the necessity of first impressions, even if they are misleading. They plainly can be, as the novel shows, and much of the plot consists of the heroine’s struggles to overcome her initial, mistaken impressions of Darcy. This being a novel written by a sensible author in empirical England in the early years of the age of improvement, Elizabeth does overcome her prejudice, because her mind is open to counterargument and the factual evidence. Why, then, did something similar not occur in Austria, particularly in Vienna?
This is a question that inspires somber reflection indeed.
As I see it, reason and factual evidence may alter one person’s judgment of another, but the same is rarely the case where a majority population is prejudiced against a minority living in its midst. In Christian Europe, where people had for centuries been indoctrinated by the churches in contempt and hatred of the Jews (the Vatican is now, belatedly, apologizing for that), it mattered little that Jewish doctors, scientists, musicians, poets, writers, businessmen, and even statesmen immeasurably enriched Western civilization and won national praise and international recognition. To many, the “Jews” remained a mysterious entity of “Christ killers,” ritual murderers of Christian babies, seducers of virgins, schemers for world domination, and other lurid concoctions of overwrought imaginations.
Damned if they did, or damned if they did not, the Jews were criticized for clinging to themselves, i.e., for being proud, and for assimilating; for striving to “fit in” and for being humble. They were attacked for being capitalists, and for being socialists. As a result, “pride and prejudice” fed on each other, not only among Christians but also, in response, among Jews. It did not matter that a majority of the Jews lived in wretched poverty in small towns of Poland or Russia, or in urban slums like London’s East End. To the willfully ignorant and blind, Jews were all rich and Jewish finance controlled the world (in truth the Rothschilds alone ranked in the top banking families). It is likely that Jane Austen never met a Jew in her life, yet in her novel Northanger Abbey, the expression “rich as a Jew” appears twice (82, 111). I do not, however, wish to deride her for that, since the malicious cliché is uttered in both places by John Thorpe, whom she portrays as a rather unsavory character.
Beller is not alone in remarking that the perpetuation of such cliché-ridden perceptions, which bear scant resemblance to actual Jews, does not ever require a Jewish presence. Poland, a country that was the center-stage of the Holocaust, and has long been virtually Judenrein, is a particularly sad case of the staying power of the diseased mentality of anti-Semitism.
Referring to the antinomy of Sense and Sensibility and the theme of that great novel, in which sense triumphs over sensibility, reason over unbridled emotion, the requirements of society over individualism, Beller asks which side—Jews, or anti-Semites—had a better sense of the social reality of fin-de-siècle Vienna. The Age of the Enlightenment had brought the Jews civic emancipation; not surprisingly, Jewish opinion sided with liberalism, the promotion of reason, tolerance, equality, and justice. Yet, as in the Chinese yin and yang cosmology, where each of these two components contains a kernel of its opposite, there is to be found at the root of the ideology of the Enlightenment, which gives expression to Reason, or Sense, a kernel of Emotion, or Sensitivity—namely, the idealistic belief in the perfectibility of humankind, and in the advent of an age in which universal education will overcome obscurantism, intolerance, and inhumanity. This vision was in reality a secular version of biblical millennial prophecy.
By virtue of its interaction with contemporary economic processes, liberalism led some Jews to seek success in capitalist enterprise, and others to embrace socialism with its struggle for the emancipation of the “proletariat.” Anti-Semites of the right saw Jews as rationalizers of capitalism and socialism, which they accused of being in league against church, family, land, and other traditional values. Anti-Semites of the left, the Jewish-born Karl Marx among them, reviled Judaism as the embodiment of capitalism, and a religion bound to worn-out tradition.
The highly cultured Jews of Vienna were understandably proud of their prominence in the professional, cultural, and artistic life of the capital of the great Habsburg empire, but their pride met with prejudice on the part of a parochial and conservative Catholic society, whose values they criticized. As the nineteenth century ended, the growth of liberalism in Austrian and German society became stunted and the reign of reason gave way to that of its opposite. Beller argues that, by giving expression to middle-class fears and instinct for self-preservation in the face of rapid social change, and also by providing the masses of Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, and other Viennese of recent vintage with a means of negatively earning a “Viennese” identity, anti-Semitism, nonsensical and irrational as it was, nevertheless made Sense in a perverse kind of way. Like a reflection in a distorted mirror, anti-Semitism in Vienna, as everywhere else in Europe, consigned the Jews to the condition of “perpetual outsiders,” regardless of how many centuries Jew had lived there, and the extent to which they become “acculturated.”
A century later, we find ourselves hard put to give any further credence to the optimistic vision of the Enlightenment. Habsburg Austria was a multinational empire governed along liberal and tolerant lines; Vienna was its multicultural capital. The societies of contemporary North America and Western Europe have become ever more multicultural: does this transformation preclude the resurgence of malignant forms of racism, or is anti-Semitism, that cancer of Western civilization, merely in remission? Beller’s thoughts raise some pertinent questions for us today, particularly his observation that anti-Semitic mythology was not “irrational” to large swathes of the populace of Vienna, which saw benefits accruing to them through it. The dilemma is summed up in his final remark: “Reason alone cannot guarantee virtue, for there is always . . . the potential for ‘rational evil.’ Perhaps we should not be too proud to be sensible of that.”
The world appears to us adrift in a sea of irrationality and absurdity: little seems to make sense any longer, standards of civilized conduct are cast aside, and murderous prejudice bursts from under the lid clamped on it in the wake of the Second World War. Seen in the context of so much disquiet and disturbing change, and adaptation of the Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility antinomic themes to the study of the Jewish condition in the early modern transformation of Austria is not to Beller an exercise in clever dilettantism. In his opinion, the two novels “deal with issues that lie at the heart of Jewish-non-Jewish relations in the modern era. Pride and Prejudice is a story about the experience of strangers, and Sense and Sensibility is about the social consequences of the conflict between rationalism and romanticism.”
Beller’s understanding of Jane Austen’s philosophy of life is decidedly symptomatic of one important reason for her current popularity: her novels inspire in the contemporary reader nostalgia for a simpler age, in which truth was easily verifiable, and in which the evident presence of sense, at least in its common form, brought to society a degree of order, measure, and decorum, in spite of the inevitable capriciousness of human life.