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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Book Review | For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

The Original Self-Hating Jew

Book Review | For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

The Original Self-Hating Jew
August 2, 2017 in 2017 July-August, Arts & Culture, Featured
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For Two Thousand Years
by Mihail Sebastian
translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
Penguin Modern Classics
U.S. Publisher: Other Press
2016,  240 pp., $16.95

Universities these days, we’re told, are a minefield for minority students, who have risen up en masse to protest against “microaggressions” (small slights with a cumulatively demeaning effect) and to insist on “safe spaces” where everyone honors their perspective. Readers used to all this will be shocked to read For Two Thousand Years, a 1934 autobiographical novel by the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian, recounting the experiences of a Jewish university student named Iosef in 1920s Bucharest. Iosef’s version of “microaggressions” are slaps and punches, which are par for the course for all Jewish university students at the hands of their non-Jewish classmates—and that’s during class. Outside of class, full-on beatings are the norm.

Iosef’s version of a “safe space” is a filthy, unheated Jewish dorm where students occasionally die of tuberculosis, or a lecture on a random topic in a hall where he can duck in and hide while running from his attackers—for a full five minutes, until they find him and drag him out. As Iosef puts it one afternoon, “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Microaggressions, indeed.

Mihail Sebastian (the pen name of Iosif Mendel Hechter) was a novelist, journalist and playwright whose works have been lauded in Europe for decades, although For Two Thousand Years is available in English for the first time. Born in 1907 and trained as a lawyer, Sebastian became active as a young man in literary circles—including a circle of Romanian intellectuals whose members were not only openly anti-Semitic but later became passionate supporters of an anti-Semitic paramilitary movement called the Iron Guard. For Two Thousand Years is an enactment of this ironic and self-abasing attraction.

The backstory to this novel is even more horrifying than the novel itself. Sebastian’s need for acceptance in this circle culminated in his decision to ask Nae Ionescu, a celebrated Romanian philosopher and Sebastian’s personal idol and supposed friend, to write the novel’s introduction. Ionescu obliged by producing a virulently anti-Semitic screed. Astonishingly, Sebastian published it as the book’s 1934 introduction exactly as planned—a choice he claimed was a form of revenge, though Ionescu hardly suffered for it. The term “self-hating Jew” has by now lost nearly all of its descriptive value, and when one reads For Two Thousand Years, one sees why. Despite our own era’s ample ranks of, say, Jews who cheer for anti-Semitic murderers, the psychology of someone like Sebastian or his narrator is so far beyond anything seen in our lifetimes that For Two Thousand Years, warts and all, is eminently worth reading. As a novel, it’s flawed to the point of near-failure, with a rambling structure, an utterly irrelevant middle section and basically no plot. But as a psychological case study, it’s an absolute shocker that will linger in your mind for years to come. It’s also beautifully observed and brimming with insight, not a word of which feels even slightly contrived. For long stretches of this book, I found myself underlining nearly every word.

Iosef is a student in Bucharest struggling to attend class while enduring constant physical harassment by anti-Semitic student gangs. What animates the book, though, is how Iosef almost unconsciously translates these attacks, and the many humiliations that continue into his adult life, into self-flagellation. “I will never be sufficiently tough with myself,” he berates himself after another beating, “will never strike myself hard enough.” Yes, you read that correctly. Or, after another insult: “Haven’t they always told us we’re a dirty people? Maybe it’s true. Perhaps our mysticism…is just that—dirtiness. A way of getting down on your knees, a form of slow, voluptuous self-mutilation.” If the self-loathing here weren’t clear enough, Iosef later becomes more blunt: “I’d like to hate myself, without excuses or forgiveness. I’d like to be an anti-Semite for five minutes.”

At no point in his endless ruminations does Iosef question his internalized critiques of himself as weak-willed, impure, overly emotional or, paradoxically, overly rational. The fact that his self-image is formed from caricatures straight out of a 2,000-year-old anti-Semitic playbook is acknowledged only in the book’s title—which is, in fact, the point. Iosef is a victim of anti-Semitism less because of how anti-Semites have injured his body than because of how they have scarred his soul. They have told him what Jews are, and he believes them.

While running from a gang, Iosef stumbles into an economics lecture by Professor Ghita Blidaru—Sebastian’s stand-in for Ionescu—and finds himself enchanted by Blidaru’s blood-and-soil rhetoric. Iosef slavishly follows Blidaru around until Blidaru offers him a crumb of attention, advising him to become an architect—despite the fact that Iosef is studying law and has no artistic or technical interests. Why? Because Iosef is a Jew, and the proper penance for this revolting sin is to “do something that connects you to the soil.” Iosef immediately switches to architecture and spends the next five years building a rural oil refinery and later, Blidaru’s own house. Anything for approval.

Iosef has realized, after ten years or 2,000, that it doesn’t matter what Jews like him think or do. Anti-Semitism is his society’s pathology, not his own, and his society’s pathology, not his, will determine his future.

Iosef’s obsession with Blidaru, and with other anti-Semitic intellectuals who appear elsewhere in the book, further entrenches this pathology. He respects these people so profoundly that he not only forgives but internalizes their every insult. At this point his self-flagellation becomes more highbrow but otherwise remains the same. “I have an immense longing for simplicity and unawareness,” he muses after one of Blidaru’s lectures on the virtues of rural society. “If I could overcome two thousand years of Talmudism and melancholy, and recover—supposing one of my race has ever had it—the clear joy of life…” Despite his endless intellectualizing, Iosef does not immediately notice that Blidaru’s ideas are identical to those of the thugs. But it’s no mystery to Blidaru. When the thugs throw Iosef out of Blidaru’s lecture one day, Iosef appeals to Blidaru himself. But Blidaru only says, “Well, and what am I supposed to do about it?” and turns away. No matter: Weeks later, Blidaru invites Iosef over, and Iosef swoons.

Iosef does encounter Jews who have found alternatives to the self-abasement he has embraced, though his ability to empathize is marred by his principled refusal to identify with them: “Jewish fellow-feeling—I hate it.” (No prizes for guessing why.) He meets a religious Jewish bookseller and at first avoids him, but then surprises himself by taking comfort in the man’s enduring faith. He both despises and envies two fellow Jewish students who recognize how intolerable their situation is and commit themselves to wildly idealistic solutions: S.T. Haim, a passionate Communist who ends up in prison, and Sami Winkler, a passionate Zionist who ends up in Palestine. Iosef identifies Haim as a delusional ideologue but admires Winkler’s calm determination as Winkler leaves for Palestine. Yet ultimately, Iosef rejects Zionism, blaming his “inability to join the crowd—any crowd.” Of course, the reader knows how false this is. If the crowd were made up of fascist intellectuals, Iosef would join in a heartbeat, if only they’d let him.

By the book’s end, ten years have passed, and Iosef laughs at how angry his country’s bottomless anti-Semitism once made him. But his anger has been replaced with something far worse: resignation. In a final and dramatic dialogue, Iosef has the rare chance to speak with “the master,” a lauded architect-cum-intellectual whom Iosef has spent years idolizing—only to discover that this man, too, is a rabid anti-Semite. As the man waxes eloquent about how 800,000 Jews ought to be “eliminated,” Iosef finds himself agreeing: “If we could be exterminated, that would be very good.” Iosef states this as accepted fact, the consensus of every non-Jew he has ever encountered, including his closest mentors and colleagues. As this man and other radicals rant about violently changing Romania, Sebastian finally sees the country’s deep pathology at work: “Don’t be afraid, dear old gentlemen…There is another death that can be demanded more easily than your own precious death. There is a race of people ready to pay up on time for you.” What makes this moment horrifying is that this is no longer self-hatred, but its endgame: Iosef has realized, after ten years or 2,000, that it doesn’t matter what Jews like him think or do. Anti-Semitism is his society’s pathology, not his own, and his society’s pathology, not his, will determine his future. And in the end the reader feels nothing but sympathy for Iosef. For Two Thousand Years is a chronicle of what it means to be born inside a trap.

Sebastian managed to survive the many massacres that followed during World War II, documenting them in a diary later published as Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years, only to die in 1945 in a traffic accident. One can wonder whether the tragedies and triumphs of Jewish history since then might have changed his mind, or healed it. But as recent years have made sickeningly clear, on one point he has been proven right: Anti-Semitism is as eternal as the Jews.


Dara Horn’s fifth novel, Eternal Life, will be published in January.

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