Foregone Conclusions

by Michael André Bernstein

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1909

Michael Bernstein’s Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History delivers many insights about several extremely sensitive topics. He focuses on fictional works about what he prefers to call the Shoah, the murder of European Jews in German concentration camps during World War II, and related topics. Unfortunately for the reader, several of Bernstein’s stylistic idiosyncracies often obfuscate the subtle and elusive points he tries to make. Many of Bernstein’s sentences are eight or more lines in length. One paragraph on pages 115-116 begins with a sentence in excess of seven lines and concludes with sentences more than eight lines long. The tortured clausal contortions within those excessively long sentences require multiple rereadings. The author also overworks a number of favorite words and phrases (such as “prosaics of the quotidian”) to the point that some readers may become irritated and driven to distraction. Nevertheless, the importance of what Bernstein has to say makes the book worth the significant effort required to read it.

Bernstein’s primary thesis is that many historians and writers of historical fiction employ what he calls “backshadowing” which completely distorts the nature and meaning of the historical era about which they are writing. By backshadowing, Bernstein means that the authors use their own and their audience’s knowledge of an apocalyptic event which occurs after the epoch about which they are writing to interpret the actions of their real or imaginary characters. (How backshadowing differs from the more familiar term “foreshadowing” is not entirely clear.) As examples of backshadowing, Bernstein critiques two recent biographies of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel and Frederick Karl, and a historical account of Viennese Jewry before the Anschluss in 1938 by George Berkeley.

According to Bernstein, both Pawel and Karl interpret Kafka’s life and work primarily in terms of the fate of European Jews during World War II. Both biographers, he says, frequently resort to backshadowing to remind their readers that the society in which Kafka lived would soon perpetrate a monstrous act against the entire Jewish population of Europe. As an example of this backshadowing, Bernstein points out that Pawel, while describing the birth of one of Kafka’s sisters, mentions that Adolf Hitler had been born earlier in the same year. Karl’s biography, Bernstein argues, makes an even more pernicious use of backshadowing by portraying Kafka’s literary works as prophetic of the triumph of Nazism. In the case of Berkeley’s account of the Viennese Jews, Bernstein notes that in recounting the sensational murder/suicide of Austria’s crown prince and his lover in 1889, Berkeley made note that Vienna’s Jewish community should have been more concerned with Hitler’s birth in that year than with the royal scandal.

The sort of backshadowing Bernstein illuminates in the works of Pawel, Karl, and Berkeley represents the primary target of his criticism of apocalyptic themes in formal historical writing. Bernstein argues persuasively that to view the lives of Kafka and his contemporaries only in the light of the ultimate fate of Europe’s Jews distorts the meaning and nature of Jewish life and culture before 1939. Similarly, to suggest that Viennese Jews should somehow have recognized the significance of Hitler’s birth in 1889 and have consequently begun an exodus from Austria grotesquely distorts the richness of the fabric of Jewish culture.

Bernstein then turns his attention to fictional accounts of Jewish life in Europe before the Nazis. He maintains that society’s understanding of the Shoah derives much more from fictional literature than from formal historical studies. He therefore argues that those who write fictional accounts of the Shoah must scrupulously avoid distorting its nature and meaning through intentional or unintentional foreshadowing or backshadowing. In this regard, Bernstein especially criticizes the work of the celebrated Israeli novelist Aharon Applefeld.

According to Bernstein, Applefeld deliberately uses his audience’s knowledge of the Shoah to portray the lives of assimilated central European Jews before World War II as having been meaningless. Because they were destined to perish in one or the other of the concentration camps, Bernstein thinks Applefeld’s characters appear as superfluous, their activities trivial and meaningless. Bernstein maintains that this portrayal of the lives of assimilated Jews in prewar Europe is misleading, untrue, and distorts the nature and meaning of the Shoah. Instead of using backshadowing to trivialize the lives of those Jews, Bernstein insists that writers should use what he calls “sideshadowing” to illuminate pre-Shoah central European Jewish culture.

Bernstein’s concept of sideshadowing (he credits Gary Morsen with coining the term) constitutes one of the several important insights in this volume. Bernstein argues that the nature and qualities of a culture such as that of prewar European Jews cannot be judged or understood only in the light of an apocalyptic event such as the Shoah. To portray their lives as trivial because of the catastrophe they could not foresee is tantamount to blaming them for their fate, a tendency Bernstein sees as much too common among Jews and gentiles alike. Their culture must be understood through their mundane, everyday activities, all of which have dignity and worth regardless of events in the future which must remain unfathomable. As Bernstein points out, the future exists only as an infinite array of possibilities. No one can foretell with certainty what will transpire tomorrow or next week or next year. Therefore, Bernstein insists novelistic accounts of the Shoah should explore the multiple possible futures as they appeared to the Jews of Europe before World War II in order to expose the true richness of their culture. Such an exploration, Bernstein argues, will add a new dimension to human understanding of the breadth of the tragedy that was the Shoah.

Bernstein also makes a powerful statement about what he calls “victimization” in fictional accounts of the Shoah and its aftermath. He argues once again that history (especially Jewish history) should not be portrayed as a series of horrible, wrenching events interspersed with unimportant daily affairs, but rather as daily affairs punctuated occasionally by an event that interrupts the much more important routine of life. Many of the fictional accounts of the Shoahand related themes become nothing more than sadomasochistic attempts to appeal to the most base of the human instincts of the reader, according to Bernstein. Being adversely affected by one of the periodic calamitous events does not imbue a person or a culture with any special moral virtue nor impart a right to those so affected to expect special considerations from anyone not involved in the victim’s problem, Bernstein argues. These contentions may become the most controversial in the book.

Bernstein spends several pages decrying what he perceives as the “competition” between groups that perceive themselves to be victims of some historical apocalypse. These groups (including but not restricted to Jews) compete in establishing their degree of victimhood and the special treatment they believe to be merited because of injustices done to them or their ancestors. Bernstein uses as an example a recent series of tragic events in New York City involving confrontations between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Bernstein in part blames apocalyptic backshadowing in both fiction and formal historical accounts for the ensuing and (to Bernstein) distasteful competition between the two groups as to which of them had endured the greater injustices. He is careful to warn that the actual victims of an event as profound as the Shoah will understandably be prone to interpret history in an apocalyptic way. The rest of us should, says Bernstein, try to understand the victims’ viewpoints and show compassion for them, but not be seduced into writing or interpreting history or historical fiction in that way.

In an effort to show how fiction should be written using sideshadowing to illuminate what he considers the truly important aspects of life on the eve of an apocalyptic event, Bernstein devotes most of a chapter to an analysis of Robert Musil’s unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities. Published in three parts in 1930, 1933, and 1943, Musil’s novel portrays a number of interesting characters in 1913 Austrian society. Rather than using backshadowing to make the actions of his characters seem ridiculous through his own and his reader’s knowledge that their world was about to collapse in the firestorm of World War I, Musil uses sideshadowing, according to Bernstein. Side-shadowing allows Musil to show that even the most inane activities of everyday life have meaning and value. Bernstein thinks Musil’s technique and the time he chose to write about illuminate the flavor and texture of Austrian society to a much greater degree than could a novel written about the society during the war or the postwar years.

All of Jewish history including the Shoah, Bernstein concludes, should be approached using Musil’s techniques. To interpret the high degree of culture attained by Spanish Jews before Ferdinand and Isabella only in the light of the Inquisition would do a monstrous injustice to the generations of Jews who lived and prospered before the auto-da-fé. Similarly, to dismiss the many and notable attainments of pre-Nazi European Jews as meaningless destroys them more surely than did the Nazis. Bernstein’s argument that any particular moment in time has an infinite array of possible futures is particularly pertinent to his conclusion: Each life, no matter how exalted or how debased, has worth and meaning beyond any apocalyptic historical event. The everyday lives of a society’s members should be the prism through which that society is viewed and interpreted. Bernstein reviews the works of several writers, including Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai. Published recently in Israel, the works of these writers show how sideshadowing should be used to explore the many dimensions of Jewish culture in Europe before and after the Shoah, according to Bernstein.

Many of Bernstein’s pronouncements throughout the book will certainly offend some readers. He is critical, for example, of what he describes as the Zionist tendency to use the Shoah and other apocalyptic events in Jewish history to argue that Jewish life among the populations of nations other than Israel is doomed to a recurring cycle of judeophobia and pogroms, and ultimately destruction. Bernstein sees this interpretation of history as nothing more than scare tactics used by some Zionists to bring financial support and immigrants to Israel from the Jewish communities around the world. Several different groups in the United States and Israel are likely to level criticism at Bernstein for adopting this position. His suggestion that those who denounce pre-1939 European Jews for not foreseeing their fate and consequently leaving Europe represent a form of anti-Semitism is unlikely to be universally applauded. His criticism that those who denigrate the Jewish communities of Europe for not fighting with more vigor against their fate are themselves anti-Semitic may not be well accepted among yet other circles in Israel and elsewhere.

Whether or not Bernstein manages to please or convince everyone concerned with writing about the Shoah, he has made a powerful contribution to the debate about the nature and meaning of history. His contention that writers of fiction have considerable influence in shaping popular concepts concerning historical events and the ways in which history should be interpreted is also an important point. Bernstein obviously believes that the influence wielded by writers of historical fiction imports to them a responsibility to illuminate the past with a compassionate understanding of the human condition.

Source for Further Study

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 30, 1994, p. 40.

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