"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

8 Jan 2012

The Wandering Jew: an autobiographical detour

A return from one of many sojourns in the province of Segovia in central Spain, a place that we have adopted as a temporary home away from the responsibilities and demands of regular life. Not that Cardiff does not have its diversions. We live in the City centre and after work and at weekends take walks along the river through the park that opens up like a wedge of countryside from the castle near our house all the way out to the mountains to the north of the City. Many different routes are possible either side of the river, some formal others wild. But it is only total separation from home and work (especially leaving the Country), can I immerse myself in reading for pleasure. On this occasion I took with me George K. Anderson’s encyclopaedic investigation, The Legend of the Wandering Jew, covering, in just short of 500 pages, hundreds of obscure and better known versions of the tale: religious texts, folk tales, fictional chronicles, plays, philosophical treatise, etc.—transmutations of the legend for different audiences across the millennia from its gospel beginnings through to the present day; including a fascinating 18th century story of our hero wandering as far as the moon and other planets.

The core legend involves a jew on whose porch Jesus pauses to rest as he caries the cross to his crucifixion. Asked by the jew to move on, Jesus replies, 'I will, but you must walk forever until my return'. So we have countless versions of the jew perpetually wandering the earth until Judgement Day. He is variously only able to remain 3 days in one place, several weeks, or not being able to pause at all, even to take refreshment. He has learned all the major languages on his travels over the centuries, and is reported to have been been seen in a variety of guises and by different witnesses around the globe. In most cases, the motive for the tale is Christian propaganda, sometimes combined with anti-semitic sentiments. But one must fully immerse oneself in Anderson’s book to appreciate its immense scholarship, scope and lively narrative.

My only criticism of the book is that the author speaks in terms of ‘authentic’ and ‘corrupted’ versions of the legend, when it should be obvious that the gospels themselves are corruptions of earlier pre-biblical narratives, both Western and oriental—although Anderson does acknowledge Old Testament precursors of the tale. So why worry about historical accuracy when legend is at play? The pleasure of the text (providing well written) is precisely in its corruption and elabouration over time. It was not until the publication in 1835 of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (translated into English by the young George Elliot in 1845), that David Friedrich Strauss—at great personal risk—first challenged the notion of the gospels as historical truth, and publicly asserted his view that mythology applied ‘to the entire history of Jesus . . . in every portion’. But that is not to diminish the power of legend, including gospel tales. Myth can be an instructor of philosophic wisdom equal to that provided by history; perhaps even more equal if one takes the Cynic definition of history, best summed up by Nietzsche when he concluded that history was myth at best, lies at worst, and that science is simply a means of validating the myths and lies and calling them truths. Such is certainly the way in which I have treated the Cynic legends, and while seeds of historical fact may certainly be peppered throughout different versions of many legends, establishing ‘truth’ is a pointless exercise. This is as true of contemporary history, supported as it is by real-time audio and visual footage, as it is of ancient history. It is the human imagination itself that provides the rich and entertaining narrative of legend.
     For me, the relevance of the legend of the wandering jew is the entire history of the Jewish diaspora and its cosmopolitanising effects—not least on myself. My maternal grandfather fled the Galician region of Poland for Vienna where he married my grandmother, who herself had arrived there from Budapest. My mother was born in Vienna but eventually arrived in London on the Kindertransport following the Nazi occupation—her parents were transported to the Maly Trostenets concentration camp in Minsk where they were killed.  Born in the UK like myself, my father was a self-imposed exile. Born and brought up in rural Dorset, he lied about his age to join the army, which for those so inclined had its own cosmopolitanising effects. He was finally dischared 21 years later, having joined the Indian Communist Party while serving there as a Sergeant Major in the Royal Artillary—a pamphlet he wrote for the ex-servicemen’s branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament tells his story. 
     It is my own belief that Cynic’s are born not made, and, like my parents, I have always rejected anything so limiting as belonging to a ‘tribe’—whether based on religion, national identification or (unlike my parents) party political allegiance. And yet, I acknowledge that there is something strangely seductive and comforting about identifying with a particular culture, made more acute when one deliberately immerses oneself in an alien land and its people: the discomfort of standing out as foreign when wanting to blend in—easier to do in Spain that when I lived and worked in Africa and Latin America. Angela, on the other hand, acknowledges a real pleasure at not having to converse with anyone for two or three weeks, while at the same time enjoying the buzz and commotion of the foreign exchange around her. She feels more exiled at home where she does blend in, than abroad where the affirmation of her ‘difference’ makes her feel more ‘at home’.

Back to Segovia, and its own tangible remnants of cosmopolitan civilisation, whether under Roman, Moorish or later Christian occupation—although it was the Christian (least tolerant of the major religions) monarchs who made the decree in 1492 which saw the expulsion of the Jews from Segovia. Hypocritical that today there is so much sentimental touristic capital attached to the former Jewish quarter of that and other European cities. But Jewish heritage aside, iconic as the aqueduct, cathedral and royal palace may be, for me, the enduring images of Segovia are that of the chorizo factory next to the Eroski supermarket and Mountain of the Dead Woman (La Mujer Muerta) that dominates the city’s southern skyline.


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