Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another thought on Wittgenstein's masked theatre remark

I want to follow up on some comments I made the other day concerning Wittgenstein's remark about Jews being attracted to masked theatre by looking at a passage from Michael Walzer's recent essay on anti-Judaism.

Walzer writes:

"The critique of Jewish cleverness is fairly continuous over time, but it appears with special force among German idealist philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who repeat many of the supersessionist arguments of the early Christians. [That is, the idea that a new arrangement based on new and deeper values supersedes the old.] Kant understood the heteronomy he sought to overcome – action according to moral law externally imposed rather than freely accepted by the agent – in Jewish terms, but he was himself considered too Jewish by the philosophers who came next, most importantly by Hegel. Kantianism, Hegel claimed, was simply a new version of 'the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense; this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world.' According to Hegel, Abraham had made a fateful choice: his rejection of the world in favor of a sublime God had alienated the Jews forever from the beauty of nature and made them the prisoners of law, incapable of love... [And] Schopenhauer, in the next generation, thought that the academic Hegelians of his time were 'Jews' and followers of 'the Jewish God'..."

Perhaps these notions of a certain kind of thought or intellectuality or cleverness leading to false perceptions and alienation – to being cut off from some supposedly deeper nature – may help to explain Wittgenstein's curious remark about masked theatre.

Originally I took Wittgenstein to be saying that masked theatre was an inferior form of theatre and its putative attraction for Jewish audiences was indicative merely of their lack of depth or artistic understanding.

But you could look at it another way. Perhaps Wittgenstein was thinking that masked theatre was ideally suited to expressing the alienation or cut-offness which Jews (or perhaps 'Jews') have supposedly inflicted on themselves by their intellectualism, etc.. This type of theatre would therefore be particularly meaningful to them (i.e. to intellectualizing Jews or 'Jews'*) – and possibly cathartic.

Belle Waring suggested (in response to my comment on her blog post in which I first raised this issue) that Wittgenstein can't have been referring to classical Greek theatre in his apparently disparaging remark. But this would no longer be the case if the remark was not (as I am now suggesting) intended to be disparaging at all.

* I may have something to say about this distinction and some other matters arising out of Walzer's article in a day or two – and then perhaps will give these Jewish themes a rest!


  1. This will be somewhat superficial, but I do recognize one theme in the above admixture that seems straightforward. One of the deepest myths in Judaism is the Fall: humans were expelled from the garden, which we can consider as a metaphor for nature. And the reason for expulsion (besides defying God) was, metaphorically again, seeking knowledge of nature, rather than gratefully living in it as other creatures do. In other words, practically the first lesson in the Old Testament was the separation of the human race from the rest of nature. Knowledge over faith, one might say (depending on how you read it). This seems so intrinsic to the Judaic tradition, one cannot miss the "intellectualism" implied. But that distinction between knowledge and faith, and also the separation (even alienation) of humanity from did not end with the New Testament, and is in fact the same impulse found at the root of science. "Man wants to know."

  2. Or as David Hilbert far from casually remarked: Wir müssen wissen – wir werden wissen!

    It was the tree of knowledge – but in the OT context this related to knowledge of good and evil (didn't it?) so the jump to scientific knowledge is a big one. (And, frankly, a bit of a letdown.)

    But I think (as you suggest) one can see the roots of that general intellectual attitude (questioning, curiosity, etc.) in the Genesis myth.

    Or did the behavior of our 'first parents' in relation to that particular fruit tree represent – as I believed as a child – just an extremely unfortunate instance of disobedience? (I never bought all that felix culpa nonsense.)