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...
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