The Ordeal of Civility

by John Murray Cuddihy
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214

A sociologist teaching at Hunter College, Cuddihy takes as his starting point the concept of modernization formulated by Talcott Parsons of Harvard University— what Cuddihy terms the “differentiation model” of modernization. “Differentiation,” he elaborates, “is the cutting edge of the modernization process”: the differentiation of home from job, fact from value, theory from practice, ends from means, ethnicity from religion, church from state, and the like. The crux of Cuddihy’s thesis is that because of the tribal nature of traditional Jewish culture, emancipation brought Jews into collision with the differentiations of Western society. Those most alien to the shtetl subculture of Yiddishkeit were those of public versus private behavior and of manners versus morals. “Jews were being asked, in effect,” Cuddihy sums up, “to become bourgeois, and to become bourgeois quickly. The problem of behavior, then, became strategic to the whole [problem] of ‘assimilation.”’ The key to that problem was what Cuddihy terms “the ordeal of civility.” Civility required, at the minimum, the separation of private “affect” (feelings, emotions, desires) from public behavior, required, in short, the suppression of too much of anything that would threaten to ruffle the surface calm of civil society. Cuddihy traces how this problem of Jewish assimilation into the Western bourgeois-Christian norms of civility shaped the ideas of Diaspora Jewry’s intellectual giants: Freud, Marx, and Levi-Strauss.

His related accompanying theme is that there was a “secret” adversarial relationship between the secular Jewish intellectual and the Jewish bourgeoisie (the ordinary Jewish businessmen). The intellectual saw himself as refined and sensitive and the bourgeoisie as crude and vulgar. Yet the fear of giving ammunition to the hostile Gentile world inhibited most Jewish intellectuals from openly attacking their fellow Jews. Thus, their criticism had to be disguised in such a way as to put the most favorable gloss upon offending Jewish behavior. The favored strategy for achieving that goal was “projection onto the general, Gentile culture of a forbidden ethnic self-criticism. Shame for ‘one’s own kind’ is universalized into anger at the ancestral enemy.”

Cuddihy applies this thesis most fully and systematically to Freud. He argues that the “Yid” (Jew) pushing for social acceptance is the model for Freud’s “id” pushing for admission from the unconscious to the conscious. His internal censor—or “superego”—represented the bourgeois-Christian nineteenth century culture “insisting that to ‘pass’ properly into Western awareness or Western society the coarse id-‘Yid’ should first disguise itself (assimilate) or refine itself (sublimate)— in a word, civilize itself, at whatever price in discontent.” Freud thus psychologized the sociological problem of the emancipated Jew. Most important, he translated the problem of Jewish social intercourse with the Gentiles into the problem of sexual intercourse. By postulating the presence of the uncivilized id beneath the highest refinement of bourgeois-Christian gentility, Freud aimed to unmask the respectability of the European society that had deemed the Jew too lacking in respectability for social acceptance. In other words, Freud made the id into “a moral equalizer legitimating ‘scientifically’ social equality between Jew and Gentile.”

Cuddihy similarly traces the roots of the concept of the Oedipus complex to the shame that Freud had felt as a child over the failure of his father to stand up to an insult from a Gentile. A similar sense of filial shame was widely felt by the Jews of Freud’s time and place who had passed beyond their parents socially and culturally. Moreover, shame at the parents’ shortcomings was accompanied by a feeling of guilt for being ashamed. Freud’s solution was to reinterpret this shame (a sort of moral parricide) and the resulting guilt into the repressed desire of every man to kill his father because he desires his mother. In so doing, Cuddihy contends, Freud reconceptualized “the deepest taboo of Judaism, the taboo against intermarriage, . . . as the desire for the mother, which desire is held taboo by everyone.”

Cuddihy sees psychoanalysis as Freud’s way of assisting his mostly Jewish patients to adjust to the strains of living publicly in accord with the norms of bourgeois-Christian society by allowing them the opportunity to be themselves within the privacy of the analytic situation. The other great ideologist of Jewish alienation—Karl Marx—opted for a more radical solution: to eliminate the problem of Jewish acceptance by eliminating bourgeois society. His affinity with Freud lay in how he similarly universalized what polite Christian society found distasteful about the Jew. For Marx, Jewish “pariah capitalism” revealed in a more open form “the very greed that the more ‘spiritual’ Christian businessmen concealed beneath the proprieties and civilities of their economic and social exchanges.” The major difference between the money-grubbing Shylock and the Christian gentlemen was the hypocrisy of the latter. Marx thus dismissed the whole edifice of bourgeois-Christian democracy, civility, and social ethics as “but a superstructure . . . designed to conceal the rank materialism of bourgeois capitalism underneath.” Cuddihy goes on to apply the same reductionist approach to Claude Levi-Strauss. The anthropologist metamorphosed the social antagonism between Jew and Christian into a universal system of polar oppositions: between raw and cooked, nature and culture, the rules of “how to live” of savage peoples and the rules of “how to behave” of so-called civilized peoples.

Cuddihy acknowledges that socialization into modernity is difficult for nearly everyone. The major exception is “the members of the WASP core culture descended from Calvinist Christianity.” Nevertheless, coming to terms with modernity was particularly difficult for the Jews. In part, the reason was because the norms and values of modern bourgeois culture were a secularized version of Christianity; thus, their acceptance raised in acute form the issue of ethnic-religious loyalty. Yet Cuddihy goes on to suggest a point that became the source of much of the controversy that the book generated:A kind of predifferentiated crudeness on the culture system level, and a kind of undifferentiated rudeness on the social system level of behavior, is . . . not only an integral part of what it means to be a Jew, but integral to the religious essence of Judaism, and not an accidental result of Exile or of socioeconomic disadvantage.

Thus, “the modernization process is ‘objectively anti-Semitic.’”

Despite this unique aspect of the Jewish encounter with modernity, Cuddihy finds the Jewish experience paradigmatic of the difficulties faced by other modernizing peoples. Therein lies the larger theme of the work: the burdens imposed by modernization upon a traditional subculture. “Ostensibly about Jewry and what Jews call ‘assimilation,’” he acknowledges, “the study is, in the end, only methodologically Judeocentric.” Indeed, he finds striking parallels to the response of the secular Jewish intellectuals among the elites of such other latecomers to modernization as Irish Catholics, American blacks, and Third World peoples: repressed feelings of shame about the masses of their own people, the tendency to blame the oppressions of others for the degraded condition of those masses, and claims to moral superiority as a salve for wounded self-esteem. The most important of those parallels, however, was the shared ambivalence toward modernity itself. As Cuddihy concludes,It is hard for the “assaulted” intellectual in the countries of delayed industrialization—or for his counterparts in the advanced world—to take up a stable attitude vis-a-vis the West. Partly Westernized himself he is deeply ambivalent, wavering between odi [hatred] and amo [love], xenophobia and xenophilia.

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