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Just My Imagination | The Nation

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Just My Imagination

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Picture Imperfect does a useful hatchet job on three robustly anti-utopian Jewish philosophers (Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt) before turning to a remarkably rich, suggestive excavation of a Jewish, poetic, "iconoclastic" utopian tradition, one that embraces Ernst Bloch and Gustav Landauer, Jacob Talmon and Martin Buber, Fritz Mauthner and Hermann Cohen. If these thinkers are iconoclasts, or image breakers, it is because there can be for them no image of God, and so no sensuous incarnation of freedom and justice. A certain abstract, rationalist quality in Jewish thought (one thinks of Spinoza and Freud) might have some of its roots here. Jewish utopianism involves a crisis of representation, which is one reason why it wells up with such astonishing vigor at the heart of European modernism, which has similar suspicions about image-making.

About the Author

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester, Britain. His forthcoming book, The...

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Max Horkheimer, one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, observed somewhat enigmatically that the school's celebrated critical theory had its source in the biblical injunction "You should make no image of God." It is not for nothing that the great critics of reification and commodity fetishism--Marx, Lukács, Benjamin--were all Jewish. In this strain of thought, Jacoby argues, the eye is trumped by the ear, seeing by listening. The God of Israel is heard but not seen. It is the living word of scripture, not graven idols, that must furnish our guide; and since even scripture can be made into an idol, as fundamentalism so luridly testifies, the written tradition is itself unfinished and enigmatic, finding its completion only in the oral one. It was a part-Jewish philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who warned us of the bewitching, fetishistic power that language could exert over us.

For all its fascination, Jacoby's discussion of Jewish iconoclasm could do with a touch more theology. He might have pointed out, for example, that one reason why Yahweh is not to be imaged is that the only depiction of Him is provided by human beings. It is men and women who are made in His image and likeness. More precisely, it is their freedom that eludes being fixed and frozen in an image, so that idolatry and enslavement are near neighbors. Yahweh is the God of a nomadic tribe who are constantly tempted to settle down with their local crops and idols, and constantly prodded out of such inertia by a God who always goes on before them. Yahweh's famously tautological self-identifying--"I am what I am"--might also be translated as "I shall be what I shall be."

Yahweh is not, of course, God's name, because the Jewish God is nameless. Jacoby sees that this has to do with not representing Him, but he does not seem to grasp the fact that in the Bible God does not have a name, like "Fred" or "cornflakes," because He is not an object or an entity that can be designated. God and the universe do not make two. He is, rather, the source and ground of all possible entities.

Like all of Russell Jacoby's books, Picture Imperfect is a timely, passionate, bravely unfashionable intervention. It has, inevitably, a few local errors. The Roman Catholic Church does not "saint" people but canonizes them. Isaiah Berlin is ascribed a leftist past that is news to this reader, and a know-nothing comment of Berlin's on Heidegger is charitably attributed to "humility" rather than to suave donnish malice. One suspects that Jacoby thinks the word "waffle" means prevaricate rather than talk a lot of hot air. Most strikingly of all, Jacques Derrida, the latest figure in a Jewish tradition of negative theology for which the Messiah is always about to arrive but never quite does, passes unmentioned. Almost nothing is said, either, of that great Jewish prophet of the unrepresentable, Sigmund Freud, for whom you cannot make graven images of the unconscious.

Even so, this is a book to be treasured. In retrieving for our troubled times a precious heritage threatened with oblivion, it takes its cue from Walter Benjamin's comment that the image of the past that matters is the one that swims up to us at times of crisis. The future may or may not turn out to be a place of justice and freedom; but it will certainly disprove the conservatives by turning out to be profoundly different from the present. In this sense, it is the hard-nosed pragmatists who behave as though the World Bank and caffe latte will be with us for the next two millennia who are the real dreamers, and those who are open to the as yet unfigurable future who are the true realists.

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