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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

Daniel R. Schwarz. Disraeli’s Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1979. 42-51.
  1. Alroy is Disraeli’s ultimate heroic fantasy. He uses the figure of the twelfth-century Jewish Prince, Alroy, as the basis for a tale of Jewish conquest and empire. Disraeli found the medieval world in which Alroy lived an apt model for some of his own values. He saw in that world an emphasis on imagination, emotion and tradition; respect for political and social hierarchies; and a vital spiritual life. Alroy anticipates Disraeli’s attraction for the Middle Ages in Young England. Writing of the flowering of medieval Jewry under Alroy enabled him to express his opposition to rationalism and utilitarianism.

  2. In fact, the historic Alroy was a self-appointed messiah in Kurdistan during a period of severe tribulation and unusual suffering for the Jews.1 Alroy’s father claimed he was Elijah and that his son was the Messiah. Although his actual name was Menahem, young Alroy took the name David, the appropriate name for a king of the Jews, and promised to lead his followers to Jerusalem where he would be their king. Apparently learned in Jewish mysticism, Alroy managed to convince his followers that he could perform supernatural acts. While he scored some victories before he was murdered, probably by his father-in-law, his successes were hardly of the magnitude of his victories in Disraeli’s romance.

  3. Since completing Vivian Grey, Disraeli had been fascinated by Alroy, the Jew who had achieved power and prominence during Jewish captivity. But perhaps he needed the inspiration of his 1831 trip to Jerusalem to finish Alroy. Disraeli wrote in the Preface to The Revolutionary Epick (1834) that the purpose of Alroy was ‘the celebration of a gorgeous incident in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name.’2 Undoubtedly the tale of a Jew becoming the most powerful man in an alien land appealed to Disraeli, who at the age of twenty-nine had not yet made his political or artistic reputation. Indeed David Alroy’s first name evokes visions of the David and Goliath legend which embodies another victory for a Jewish underdog. Disraeli uses the factual Alroy as a basis for his romance, but he extends Alroy’s power and prowess and introduces supernatural machinery and ersatz Cabalistic lore and ritual.

  4. Alroy represents Disraeli’s own dreams of personal heroism and political power in the alien British culture. Alroy embodies not only his concept of himself as a potential leader, but his notion that the nation requires strong, visionary leaders who are true to its traditional manners and customs. Criticising Peel, he wrote, ‘My conception of a great statesman is one who represents a great idea—an idea which may lead him to power; an idea with which he may identify himself; an idea which he may develop; an idea which he may and can impress on the mind and conscience of a nation.’3 He felt that some men were born to lead, and believed that, like Alroy, he was one of these.

  5. Doubtless Disraeli’s journey to Jerusalem stimulated his fantasies of revived Jewish hegemony. Moreover, he believed that the Jews are not only an especially gifted race but the most aristocratic of races.4 He also believed that the Jewish race is the source of all that is spiritual in European civilisation, most notably Christianity. Disraeli’s only historical romance, except for ‘The Rise of Iskander’ (1833), resulted from his desire to depict Jews on a heroic scale. But it also derives from the discrepancy between his aspirations and his position in the early 1830s. In Alroy’s hyperbolic self-dramatisation is the thinly disguised voice of the young frustrated Disraeli who has not yet begun to fulfil the ‘ideal ambition’ of which he wrote in his diary. Yet with typical Disraelian emotional resilience, Alroy’s early self-pity and ennui give way to the vision of a transformation of his condition: ‘I linger in this shadowy life, and feed on silent images which no eye but mine can gaze upon, till at length they are invested with all the terrible circumstance of life, and breathe, and act, and form a stirring world of fate and beauty, time, and death, and glory’ (Pt1Ch1).

  6. As the romance opens, Alroy is lost in despair and self-pity because both he and his people pay tribute to the Moslem Caliph: ‘I know not what I feel, yet what I feel is madness. Thus to be is not to live, if life be what I sometimes dream, and dare to think it might be. To breathe, to feed, to sleep, to wake and breathe again, again to feel existence without hope; if this be life, why then these brooding thoughts that whisper death were better?’ (Pt1Ch1). But the assault of the Moslem Lord Alschiroch upon Alroy’s sister Miriam arouses him to action and he kills the Lord. As he sleeps ‘dreaming of noble purposes and mighty hopes’, Miriam awakes him and warns him that he must flee his home and the wrath of the Moslems. He makes his way to Jabaster who recognises him as ‘the only hope of Israel’ (Pt3Ch1). Alroy dreams that he has been anointed by the Lord to lead the Jews out of Captivity to their chosen land, Jerusalem. Jabaster tells him that the Cabala insists he must get the sceptre of Solomon before he can free the Jews: ‘None shall rise to free us, until, alone and unassisted, he have gained the sceptre which Solomon of old wielded within his cedar palaces’ (Pt3Ch3). Alroy undertakes a traditional romance quest, including visions, mysterious appearances and disappearances, and encounters with spirits, before receiving the sceptre from Solomon’s own hand—only to see the King immediately disappear and to find himself transported once again to the company of Jabaster. Aided by Jabaster and the divinely inspired prophetess Esther, he begins to triumph. Beginning with a small band, he scores victory after victory and gradually conquers Bagdad. But at the height of his powers he falls in love with the Caliph’s daughter, Princess Schirene, and betrays his mission by marrying her and not continuing to Jerusalem. Jabaster opposes the marriage and his decision to remain as Caliph of Bagdad as a betrayal of his commitment to Jewish customs and traditions. Jabaster argues for ‘a national existence’ and for re-establishing ‘our beauteous country, our holy creed, our simple manners, and our ancient customs’ (Pt8Ch6), a position that looks forward to the traditionalism of Disraeli’s Young England movement and the concept of a nation that dominated his thinking when in office.

  7. When Alroy starts to enjoy his power and to savour his prominence, his visions and prophetic dreams cease and his decline begins. Eventually he loses a vital battle to the Karasmians and reenters Bagdad as a captive. Disraeli’s implication is that arrogance and self-conceit are incompatible with imaginative activity. The significance and frequency of his imaginative experience decline as he forgets God’s command and marries Schirene; the alliance with a Gentile ironically fulfils his identity as a second Solomon. When Alroy tells Jabaster, ‘We must leave off dreaming’, he renounces imagination, the very quality that has given him the capacity to achieve greatness. Alroy’s rationalism and worldliness betray the dream of rebuilding the temple which was the catalyst for his heroic activity. Alroy’s apostasy begins when he belittles Jerusalem and when he dismisses the Prophetess Esther as a ‘quaint fanatic’ after she counsels him not to enter Bagdad, which she calls Babylon. He becomes concerned with secular matters, such as the need for a ‘marshal of the palace’, the position to which he appoints Honain (Pt8Ch2). He is captivated by the princess, whom he had previously rejected when he had first been tempted by her. At this point we recall not only the prophetess’ denunciation of Bagdad, but Alroy’s own words to Honain: ‘I fly from this dangerous city upon [God’s] business, which I have too much neglected’ (Pt5Ch6). Speaking the language of courtly love, he puts Schirene before his love for God, and renounces his heritage: ‘If the deep devotion of the soul of Alroy be deemed an offering meet for the shrine of thy surpassing loveliness, I worship thee, Schirene, I worship thee, I worship thee!’ (Pt8Ch4).

  8. In Alroy the evolving pattern of events and circumstances depends upon Alroy’s moral health, whereas we have seen in Contarini Fleming that the character’s visions and dreams, and on occasion actual events, depend on his psychological life. Alroy’s moral status determines the action. Such a pattern, in which a man’s behaviour shapes the world, enables Disraeli to reconcile the conflict between his own poetic and political ambition. For example, when Alroy has the confidence to restore Israel’s glory, he has the vision in which he fulfils his quest for the sceptre of Solomon. Or, when the trumpet sounds to signal the time for Alroy’s trial, Miriam in response to his disgrace dies. The Jewish participants in the alliance that overthrew Alroy are absent from the denouement, as if by their part in Alroy’s overthrow they deserve to be discarded from the romance.

  9. As with Contarini, Alroy’s visionary experience occurs in times of heightened awareness, but these states cease to occur during his complacent rule of Babylon. Alroy regains the capacity to experience the spectre of Jabaster when he recognises the vulnerability of his actual situation prior to the climactic battle: ‘I feel more like a doomed and desperate renegade than a young hero on the verge of battle, flushed with the memory of unbroken triumphs!' (Pt10Ch4). Alroy's imaginative powers recover as he begins to acknowledge his shortcomings and his unjust treatment of the prophetess and Jabaster. Before his battle with the rebels, he realises: ‘I am not what I was. I have little faith. All about me seems changed, and dull, and grown mechanical’ (Pt10Ch5). Even though he knows Jabaster’s ghost is summoning him to his doom, he seems to welcome his presence; Alroy knowingly accepts as his retribution a pattern of events which will fulfil the prophecy of his own destruction: ‘A rushing destiny carries me onward. I cannot stem the course, nor guide the vessel’ (Pt10Ch10). But at the height of his military successes, when he feels fulfilled as a public man, his imagination becomes less active because he has deviated from his purposes. At this point he condemns Abidan, one of his most loyal, if zealous, lieutenants as a ‘dreamer’ and rejects the prophetess Esther’s visions (Pt8Ch1). When Alroy becomes a man of the world and forswears his imaginative experiences, he is already on the road to his undoing. His success derives from his faith, from his idealism, and from his powers of imagination that enable him to hear the Daughter of the Voice and to dream of Afrites. Condemning Abidan is tantamount to rejecting his former self. Gradually he ceases to be the Prince of Captivity, not because he fulfils his holy purpose of rebuilding the temple and restoring the Jews to Jerusalem, but because he becomes Caliph. Although Alroy’s religious faith had been his best political guide, he abandons that and begins to rely on reason:
    The world is mine: and shall I yield the prize, the universal and heroic prize, to realize the dull tradition of some dreaming priest, and consecrate a legend? He conquered Asia, and he built the temple. . . . Is the Lord of hosts so slight a God, that we must place a barrier to His sovereignty, and fix the boundaries of Onmipotence between the Jordan and the Lebanon? . . . Well, I am clearly summoned, I am the Lord’s servant, not Jabaster’s. Let me make His worship universal as His power; and where’s the priest shall dare impugn my faith, because His altars smoke on other hills than those of Judah? (Pt8Ch1)
    Alroy’s pride makes him believe that he is entitled to reinterpret the Lord’s calling. He relies on reason rather than inspiration; sophistry displaces imagination. At least through the Young England period, Disraeli believed in the imagination as a necessary guide to political wisdom. The limitations of reason are illustrated in Popanilla (1828), Disraeli’s satire of utilitarianism.

  10. Jabaster and Abidan are dedicated to ideological purity whatever the consequences. In the name of theocracy, they reject Alroy’s power. Yet in their conspiracy against their leader, we may see Disraeli’s impatience with those who would limit the English King’s power. Later, this attitude became part of his coherent political philosophy in A Vindication of the English Constitution (1835). Abidan’s justification for regicide is a deliberate satire of Cromwell’s views: ‘King! Why what’s a king? Why should one man break the equal sanctity of our chosen race? Is their blood purer than our own? We are all the seed of Abraham’ (Pt9Ch1). Just as Honain and Schirene tempt Alroy, Abidan tempts Jabaster by appealing to his vanity: ‘Thou ne’er didst err, but when thou placedst a crown upon this haughty stripling. . . . ’Twas thy mind inspired the deed. And now he is king; and now Jabaster, the very soul of Israel, who should be our judge and leader, Jabaster trembles in disgrace . . .’ (Pt9Ch1). Disraeli implies that the zealotry of Jabaster, who would massacre Moslems, is both inhumane and misguided, if for no other reason than that the wheel of fortune has a way of turning. Significantly, Alroy later recalls his own gentle rule as Caliph, when he is being subjected to cruel punishment; because he refuses to forswear his faith and insists that he is the Lord’s anointed, he dies a martyr’s death. Perhaps Disraeli wished to remind his primarily Christian audience that the Jews had a long tradition of being the victims of persecution.

  11. Disraeli is ambivalent to Honain, Jabaster’s brother who has achieved prominence under the Caliph’s rule and who again is serving Alroy’s conquerors. On one hand, Honain’s equivocation represents a temptation that Alroy must reject. On the other hand, he is the ultimate pragmatist who counsels compromise in contrast to his brother’s ideological purity. His brother’s polar opposite, he lives by his own resources and eschews commitment to principles. As such, he is an heir to Beckendorff and Contarini’s father, whose creeds he suggests when he asserts, ‘We make our fortunes, and we call them Fate’ (p. 106). Honain survives three Caliphs because his own welfare is at the centre of his value system. The very moment that Alroy rejects Jabaster he acknowledges the abilities of Honain, the man who lives by his wits: ‘I must see Honain. That man has a great mind. He alone can comprehend my purpose’ (Pt8Ch1). Honain always counsels worldliness and, after Alroy’s capture, compromise. He is an example of the apostate Jew who has made his way in the world. Perhaps he is a projection of Disraeli’s view of his own father’s apostasy. Honain may also reflect Disraeli’s own troubled response to his Jewish roots.

  12. If Contarini vacillates erratically between imagination and action, Disraeli shows in Alroy that the life of action is not incompatible with the imaginative life. For Alroy’s political success is dependent upon visions that show how a life of action need not exclude poetic and imaginative impulses. Alroy uses his imagination in the service of his political goals. For example, the catalyst for his original act of rebellion is his insight that, as ‘the descendant of sacred kings’, he is not suited for a life of activity (Pt1Ch1). His imagination creates the fiction of Jewish and personal glory. Killing the city governor Alschiroch who harassed his sister (his alter ego throughout the novel) is the necessary heroic action which takes him from the imaginative world into the public world.

  13. That sexual motives play an important part in Alroy and often displace heroic and public motives is an indication of Disraeli’s worldliness and refusal to compromise his own complex vision of mankind’s motives and needs for the sake of the character who embodies his fantasy of Jewish eminence. Alroy’s conduct, including his tolerance of Moslem influence in his council, is shaped by his erotic interest in Schirene, the Gentile princess of Bagdad whom he eventually marries. The prophetess’s real motive for wishing to murder Alroy is not so much ideological purity as sexual jealousy. As she watches Alroy sleep, her monologue begins with the indictment that he is ‘a tyrant and a traitor’ who has betrayed God’s trust. But like all those who think that they act under God’s auspices—Alroy, Abidan, Jabaster—she is not without pathetically human feelings and failings: ‘Hush my heart, and let thy secret lie hid in the charnel-house of crushed affections. Hard is the lot of woman: to love and to conceal is our sharp doom! O bitter life! O most unnatural lot! Man made society, and made us slaves. And so we droop and die, or else take refuge in idle fantasies, to which we bring the fervour that is meant for nobler ends' (Pt9Ch5).

  14. Disraeli wants to create a context where the marvellous is possible. Moreover, he wishes to present himself as an original artist and to flout conventional expectations as to what a work of prose fiction should be. His use of rhythm and rhyme is part of his rebellion against artistic captivity, a captivity created by standards he did not recognise and by what he felt was failure to appreciate his genius. In the original preface to Alroy, Disraeli stressed the genius of his achievement, particularly the prose poetry. Alroy is written in a prophetic tone and biblical rhythms as if Disraeli were proposing this as his contribution to Jewish lore. The fastidious notes are in the tradition of talmudic learning that addresses texts as sacred and values scholarship as homage to God. That Alroy is written in metrical prose punctuated by what Disraeli called ‘occasional bursts of lyric melody’, is the primary reason for the remoteness of its prose from colloquial English.5 Lyric interludes, sometimes in rhyme, certainly contribute to Disraeli’s efforts to create an ersatz orientalism based on artifice rather than mimesis: ‘The carol of a lonely bird singing in the wilderness! A lonely bird that sings with glee! Sunny and sweet, and light and clear, its airy notes float through the sky, and trill with innocent revelry’ (Pt2Ch5). But the stylised dialogue, the vatic tone accompanying the spare plot, the supernatural machinery, the bizarre reversals of fortune, and the hyperbolic descriptions of setting all contribute to astonish the normal expectations that a reader brings to prose fiction. Thus the ‘wondrous’ tale describes not only Alroy’s conquests, but the tale itself with its remarkable style and tone. While the style deprives us of Disraeli’s ironic wit and playful vivacity, the taut symmetrical plot, which accelerates as it reaches Alroy’s demise, shows progression in Disraeli’s mastery of narrative form. The subject is hardly conducive to his exuberant self-mockery or boisterous digressions. But, although the author takes himself as seriously as he ever does in any of his prose fiction, Disraeli’s propensity for elaborate description, which was so much of the fun of the first novels, finds an outlet in the wonders of life in Bagdad, as in the following passage:
    The line of domestics at the end of the apartment opened, and a body of slaves advanced, carrying trays of ivory and gold, and ebony and silver, covered with the choicest dainties, curiously prepared. These were in turn offered to the Caliph and the Sultana by their surrounding attendants. The Princess accepted a spoon made of a single pearl, the long, thin golden handle of which was studded with rubies, and condescended to partake of some saffron soup, of which she was fond. Afterwards she regaled herself with the breast of a cygnet stuffed with almonds, and stewed with violets and cream. . . . Her attention was then engaged with a dish of those delicate ortolans that feed upon the vine-leaves of Schiraz, and with which the Governor of Nishabur took especial care that she should be well provided. Tearing the delicate birds to pieces with the still more delicate fingers, she insisted upon feeding Alroy, who of course yielded to her solicitations. (Pt9Ch2)
  15. Disraeli wanted to establish the authenticity of his wondrous tale. For that reason he created as his editor-speaker a Jewish historian and scholar. But he must have known that very few readers would discover that he had taken liberties with the Alroy legend and really knew only scattered bits and snips of the Cabala tradition. One wonders whether the notes are in part an elaborate joke at the expense of readers who would take the editor and themselves too seriously and accept what is often mumbo jumbo. Is there not a note of dead pan humour in the following from the 1845 preface: ‘With regard to the supernatural machinery of this romance, it is Cabalistical and correct’? Disraeli must have known that given the multiple and contradictory sources, it is impossible to be correct about either the legend of Alroy or the Cabala. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the Cabala is a general term for ‘esoterical teachings of Judaism and for Jewish mysticism’, but there is no accepted and correct ‘version’. And the factual record of Alroy and his movement is, according to the same source, ‘contradictory and tendentious’.6

  16. Interweaving personal recollections of the East with informed if rather abstruse knowledge of Jewish lore, the notes mediate between the text and the audience. The notes become part of the reading experience and give Alroy an authenticity as Jewish myth that it lacks as personal fantasy. Alroy fuses the myths of the Chosen People, of return to the homeland, and of the long awaited Messiah. As is appropriate in Judaic tradition, Alroy turns out to be a heroic man, but not without human limitations. His demise may be Disraeli’s unconscious affirmation of the Jewish tradition that the Messiah has not yet come to redeem mankind. When Jabaster rebukes him for not following his mission (‘you may be King of Bagdad, but you cannot, at the same time, be a Jew’,) a spirit shrieks ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’, the words that Daniel interprets upon the wall to mean that God had weighed Belshazzar and his kingdom and found them wanting (Pt8Ch6). Significantly, Alroy regains the Jewish title, Prince of Captivity, after he is overthrown as Caliph. In his final suffering and humility, he has achieved the stature that the Jewish exiled Prince, Disraeli’s metaphor for himself, deserves.

  17. The Jewish desire for a Messiah is not finally fulfilled, but Alroy has significance for others, and particularly other Jews, as a historical figure. Miriam’s epitaph suggests Carlyle’s notion of the value of an heroic figure: ‘Great deeds are great legacies, and work with wondrous usury. By what Man has done, we learn what Man can do; and gauge the power and prospects of our race. . . . The memory of great actions never dies’ (P10Ch19). Disraeli the imaginative poet is the heir to Alroy the imaginative man. Perhaps, by telling his story of the Jew who rose to prominence in a foreign land, it became more plausible to imagine himself as a political leader. But if Alroy is an objectification of Disraeli’s ambition, does he not also reflect Disraeli’s anxieties and doubts, specifically his fear of his own sensual weakness and a certain paranoia about betrayal? Perhaps he wondered whether, like Daniel and Alroy, he would be found wanting when his opportunity came.

  18. Yet Alroy indicates Disraeli’s commitment to his Jewish heritage. His surrogate, the narrator, glories in the Jewish victories and in the triumph of the Prince of Captivity over his oppressors. Disraeli’s notes, which are a fundamental part of reading Alroy, show not only his knowledge of Jewish customs, but his wide reading in Jewish studies. His notes not only demonstrate both to himself and his readers that he has the intellectual and racial credentials to narrate Jewish history and legend, but they give us the perspective of a Jewish scholar who is trying to provide an authoritative edition of the Alroy legend. Indeed, Miriam had anticipated the possibility of such a poet-editor: ‘Perchance some poet, in some distant age, within whose veins our sacred blood may flow, his fancy fired by the national theme, may strike his harp to Alroy’s wild career, and consecrate a name too long forgotten?' (P10Ch19).

Notes

1 Encyclopedia Judaica (New York: Macmillan, 1971), I:750-1.

2 Quoted in Monypenny and Buckle, I:194.

3 Quoted in Stephen R. Graubard, Burke, Disraeli and Churchill (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 139.

4 See Chapter XXIV entitled ‘The Jewish Question’ in Lord George Bentinck (London: Archibald Constable and Company, 1905), 314-30.

5 Quoted on Monypenny and Buckle, I:198.

6 Encyclopedia Judaica, X:490; I:750.

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