If You Prick Us, Do We Not Read?
Mel Gibson’s inflammatory remarks in August 2006 about Jews made it clear to me I wouldn’t be seeing his latest film,Apocalypto, released last December. His virulent anti-Semitism overshadows any temptation I have to support his art. But I haven’t always been so clear in my ability to separate art and the anti-Semitic creators of that art.
Since I have taught literature for most of my adult life, I’m used to the experience of traveling through a book and inevitably bumping into an anti-Semitic passage. In the past, I would come to a skidding stop and have to catch my breath before I could wind back around the path.
My dissertation was on Ernest Hemingway, no fan of the Jews, and whenever a character said the word Jew, I felt like I was being slapped. I had the same experience when I first read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A fat-fingered, vulgar Jew manages a theater and provides the contrast for Dorian and his elegant friends. And in Macbeth, Shakespeare’s witches stoop over their cauldron and add “liver of blaspheming Jew” along with the body parts of other creepy creatures.
But now i’m older. when i lecture on The Great Gatsby, I know how to deal with the portrait of Wolfsheim, a sleazy Jewish businessman whose cufflinks are made of human molars and whose nose is so big the descriptions of him always begin with “his nostrils.” I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical novel, and I separate Wolfsheim out like a museum relic: the dirty Jew. Fitzgerald is lowered by it, not me. This semester I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice. The character of Shylock was played by an actor with a giant fake nose who rubbed his hands together in greed. Shylock seems to love his ducats more than his daughter and appears willing to mutilate a human body to get his revenge.
But my experience allows me to see past that stock Elizabethan character to the heart of Shylock, who speaks these famous lines: “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food…subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is. If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
This play is about mercy, justice and the impact of race hatred on both the perpetrators and the subjects, and my experience teaches me not to be blinded to the art by the stereotypes of the time. This has been something I’ve come to gradually when my earliest reactions were to shut my eyes to the work, losing its redemptive qualities.
Recently I saw the documentary Watermarks about the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna. Eight women swim champions reunite in Vienna after 65 years of exile. They had been forced out, their lives irreparably damaged, but they enter the water of their old pool once again in the bodies of elderly women. Gliding through it, their legs still strong, they are resplendent. They regain control, reclaim the beautiful part of their old life rather than stay away as if in hiding from the past. They were able to rise above the pain and humiliation of Jew hatred.
Today, when I read anti-Semitic passages in literature of the past, these portraits reveal the ignorance of their creators, not the humiliation of their subjects. I can wield control and shape them, allowing in what is rich and filtering out what is false.
But back to Gibson. How do I feel about seeing The Year of Living Dangerously or his excellent version of Hamlet, which I often used in class? I can justify reframing the work of an artist who is dead, as their biographers so gleefully do, but I cannot make a case for those who continue to provoke.
Where does one draw the line?