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Zionism, anti-Semitism, Richard Wagner and ... George Eliot?

February 16, 2010 |  6:30 am

What could Richard Wagner, Karl Marx and British novelist George Eliot possibly have had in common relating to issues of what Marx referred to as "the Jewish question"?

An attentive reader asked for some elaboration on that point after reading my Sunday Arts & Books story about upcoming lectures in Los Angeles on Wagner, anti-Semitism and German nationalism. The discussions are a warm-up for Ring Festival L.A. a region-wide celebration of all things Wagnerian that will coincide with Los Angeles Opera's $32-million production of the German composer's complete four-opera "Ring" cycle, which will be performed three times in repertory May 29 to June 26.

GeliotgoodbigThe story described how various scholars have analyzed Wagner's sometimes virulently anti-Semitic attitudes and looked at how they fit (or didn't) within the context of prevailing European cultural and political currents of the mid- to late-19th century. One of the scholars quoted, Leon Botstein, took part in a discussion on that topic Tuesday at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. And there will be many more discussions tied to Ring Festival L.A., including a talk on Thursday called German Nationalism and the Rise of the Ring by University of La Verne professor Alfred Clark.

While roundly condemning Wagner's bigotry, Botstein and other scholars have pointed out that aspects of the composer's mind-set toward Jews were shared by many European artists and intellectuals as disparate as Marx, Franz Liszt and Eliot.

Including Eliot's name in that string might seem surprising. The writer, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, is best known as the author of sprawling, richly populated novels about Industrial Age England in the throes of social and economic change, most notably her masterpiece, "Middlemarch." But in her last novel, "Daniel Deronda" (1876), Eliot switched her focus from mid-century provincial England to the more cosmopolitan environs of Germany and London during the High Victorian era.

She also took up the unusual and controversial subject of proto-Zionism, the international movement backing the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. The novel's title character is a Jewish Englishman, presumably of Sephardic Spanish descent, who at the end of the book heads off to Palestine with his new bride in hopes of helping to create such a homeland for the far-flung Jewish diaspora.

As expressed in "Daniel Deronda," Eliot's attitude toward Deronda's aspirations, and by extension those of other Jews, are clearly sympathetic. There is nothing whatsoever in her writings comparable to the sulfurous bigotry that reeks out of Wagner's infamous essay "Jewry in Music."

But, it could be argued that "Daniel Deronda" reflects a prevalent belief among many European gentiles of her age that, for a variety of reasons, Jews had become economic misfits and social outcasts who no longer could manage within European industrial society. Indeed, among the organizing tenets of certain strands of Zionism, as articulated by Theodor Herzl and others, was the idea that centuries of discrimination and oppression had weakened the Jewish soul while reducing Jews to second-class citizenship in their adopted European homes. Among the solutions that Zionism proposed was returning Jews to a more farm-based economy and society in which they could be self-sustaining and not reliant on capitalistic factory owners -- those whom Marx would've called "the owners of the means of production."

In endorsing that ideology, "Daniel Deronda" walks a fine line between sympathy and liberal-minded tolerance, on the one hand and, on the other, tacitly accepting the idea that essentially Jews and Judaism were incompatible with modern European life.

Obviously, that's quite a different thing from anti-Semitism, particularly the type of anti-Semitism associated with Wagner. But the intellectual awkwardness of the Jewish themes in "Daniel Deronda," and Eliot's handling of them, is what caused the British critic F.R. Leavis to argue that those themes should have been left out of the novel entirely. And while some Jews later cited "Daniel Deronda" as positively influencing their own decisions to become Zionists, other critics such as Edward Said have viewed the novel as covert propaganda for a Jewish homeland at the expense of Palestinians.

-- Reed Johnson

Image: George Eliot, National Portrait Gallery, London.