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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector

Criticism

Nadia Valman. “Manly Jews: Disraeli, Jewishness and Gender.” Disraeli’s Jewishness. Eds. Todd M. Endelman and Tony Kushner. London and Portland, Or.: Vallentine Mitchell, 2002. 72-75.
  1. A RELIGION OF CONQUEST?

    Disraeli had attempted to find a usable past for himself several years before his election to Parliament in The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), an epic tale of tragic heroism. The legend of Jewish liberation fighters on which Alroy is based offers an unconventionally tough image of mediaeval Jews, but the novel is nevertheless ambivalent about the possibility of Jewish national autonomy it raises. Alroy is set in twelfth-century Hamadan, where the Jews, dispossessed of national sovereignty, live as a tributary people under Seljuk rule. Alroy, descendant of the house of David, the messianic line, and heir to the title of ‘Prince of the Captivity’, is a Hebrew Hamlet, galled at the weakness of the Jews and his own inability to take action against the humiliation of diaspora existence. Inspired by the kabbalist Jabaster, he embarks on a journey to Jerusalem, whose ruins are ‘like the last gladiator in an amphitheatre of desolation.’1 But Alroy experiences a vision of a transfigured Jerusalem and a godlike figure, which he believes to be a confirmation of his own mystical election as messiah. He unites the ‘singular and scattered people’ of the diaspora into a nation and leads them to liberation, conquest and empire.2 As the new ‘master of the East,’ he turns the Turks from rulers into ruled but only to become their tyrant in his turn.3

  2. Although Alroy is at one level a fable of the folly of romantic individualism—the hero finally realises that ‘he who places implicit confidence in his genius, will find himself some day utterly defeated and deserted’—it is also a complex discussion of relationships between race, religion and national identity which anticipates in interesting ways Disraeli's later writing.4 Published in the year in which the first major debates about Jewish emancipation and the limits of the Protestant state were dividing the British Parliament, Disraeli's novel uses the story of Jewish national liberation to consider universalist and particularist definitions of the nation. Disraeli satirises the old rabbis in Jerusalem, ‘the forlorn remnant of Israel, captives in their own city’ but bound by religious pedantry to perpetuate their own disenfranchisement.5 In contrast, the text's poetic diction valorises the romantic nationalism which inspires Alroy as he looks upon a ruined city of the East:
    All was silent: alone the Hebrew Prince stood amid the regal creation of the Macedonian captains. Empires and dynasties flourish and pass away; the proud metropolis becomes a solitude, the conquering kingdom even a desert; but Israel still remains, still a descendant of the most ancient kings breathed amid these royal ruins, and still the eternal sun could never rise without gilding the towers of living Jerusalem. A word, a deed, a single day, a single man, and we might be a nation.6
    Shifting in and out of past and present, evoking the present thoughts of the hero and an unspecific, eternal present, the ‘we’ of Alroy's people and the ‘we’ of Alroy's readers, the narrative identifies the reader with the project of national liberation and suggests the dynamic power of the nation embodied in a charismatic hero.

  3. However, in the course of the novel Alroy comes to temper this mystical nostalgia with a modernising politics and to shift his rootedness in place and past towards a concept of the nation expanding indefinitely in time and territory. Eventually Jabaster's vision of a particularist national existence based on a fixed history and religious affiliation is rejected by Alroy: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem—ever harping on Jerusalem. With all his lore, he is a narrow-minded zealot, whose dreaming memory would fondly make a future like the past.’7 Instead he favours an imperial, inclusive and expansionist notion of the nation, embracing both Jews and non-Jews. Alroy’s inclusive conception of Judaism appropriates Christianity’s traditional claim to universalism (as Disraeli himself was to do in a later parliamentary debate). Moreover, this universalism is the source of Alroy's military success. In his view the only way of attaining permanent political empowerment is to renounce the narrow religious definition of Judaism for a national and tolerant one:
    Universal empire must not be founded on sectarian prejudices and exclusive rights. Jabaster would massacre the Moslemin like Amalek [the archetypal enemy of the Jews]; the Moslemin, the vast majority, and most valuable portion, of my subjects. He would depopulate my empire, that it might not be said that Ishmael shared the heritage of Israel. Fanatic! . . . We must conciliate. Something must be done to bind the conquered to our conquering fortunes.8
    Here, Alroy is seeking to redefine the Jews as a nation in precisely the terms that Disraeli employs to discuss the future of England in the political trilogy of the 1840s, where he suggests that racial, social and religious divisions can be transcended in the name of a perceived common political ideal. Indeed the novel shows this to be a successful strategy: in the Jewish army ‘the greater part were Hebrews, but many Arabs, wearied of the Turkish yoke, and many gallant adventurers from the Caspian, easily converted from a vague idolatry to a religion of conquest, swelled the ranks of the army of the “Lord of Hosts”’.9

  4. Yet in Alroy, in contrast to the later trilogy, this universalist nationalism, or imperialism, is unsustainable. As Alroy’s tolerance increasingly earns him the resentment of his generals, the novel’s movement towards tragedy is underscored by pessimism about the possibility of a permanent Jewish national existence. Jabaster warns: ‘We must exist alone. To preserve that loneliness, is the great end and essence of our law . . . Sire, you may be King of Bagdad, but you cannot, at the same time, be a Jew.’10 In making the Jews conquerors, Alroy has universalised Judaism and destroyed the particularist motivation of many of his fighters. Loss of military unity is a reflection of Alroy’s own loss of masculine identity in his luxurious marriage to the Muslim princess Schirene. Alroy's tolerance, his failure to preserve Jewish ‘loneliness,’ is associated with his feminisation: ‘Egypt and Syria, even farthest Ind, send forth their messengers to greet Alroy, the great, the proud, the invincible. And where is he? In a soft Paradise of girls and eunuchs, crowned with flowers, listening to melting lays, and the wild trilling of the amorous lute.’11 Jews, it seems, cannot be conquerors.

  5. Schirene’s eventual betrayal of Alroy is a final confirmation of the novel's mistrust of miscegenation. Indeed, it is only by reasserting his Jewish identity in martyrdom at the end of the novel that Alroy regains his heroic stature, reaffirming that ‘. . . my people stand apart from other nations, and ever will despite of suffering.’12 In this final rejection of luxury for physical pain, Alroy reverses the identification with Schirene and re-establishes his masculine and Jewish ‘loneliness.’ Yet it is only within christological terms that Disraeli is able to figure Alroy’s fall as triumphant. As the novel moves into its final phase, in which Alroy is captured and humiliated, the style shifts, using shorter, simpler sentences and explicit references to the life of Jesus:
         A tear stole down his cheek; the bitter drop stole to his parched lips, he asked the nearest horseman for water. The guard gave him a wetted sponge, with which, with difficulty, he contrived to wipe his lips, and then he let it fall to the ground. The Karasmian struck him.
         They arrived at the river. The prisoner was taken from the camel and placed in a covered boat. After some hours, they stopped and disembarked at a small village. Alroy was placed upon a donkey with his back to its head. His clothes were soiled and tattered. The children pelted him with mud. An old woman, with a fanatic curse, placed a crown of paper on his brow. With difficulty his brutal guards prevented their victim from being torn to pieces. And in such fashion, towards noon of the fourteenth day, David Alroy again entered Bagdad.13
    This dramatic use of intertext suggests that Disraeli, in searching for a narrative within whose terms Jewish suffering can be refigured as heroic, finds only the Christian Passion.

  6. If the novel is unable to conceive of Jewish toughness except in christological terms, it is also unable to maintain a notion of Jewish authenticity except in domestic terms. Only Alroy’s sister Miriam, a figure of domestic but not erotic love, succeeds in sustaining a Jewish identity uncompromised by ambition or bigotry. Unlike other definitions of Jewishness in the text, hers requires no political expression. National liberation means nothing to her: ‘For Miriam, exalted station had brought neither cares nor crimes. It had, as it were, only rendered her charity universal, and her benevolence omnipotent.’14 In this text Disraeli represents feminine virtue as transcendent, independent of political status, unaffected by either oppression or autonomy. Disraeli’s eulogistic language (the novel was dedicated to his own sister) suggests that it is Miriam who alone maintains an authentic Jewish identity. The contrast with the corruption of Alroy is striking. The feminised, domesticated definition of Jewishness, which the Anglo-Jewish writer Grace Aguilar was to exploit so successfully during the 1840s, is here presented as a pragmatic and more enduring alternative to the romantic, militant and ultimately tragic political nationalism of Alroy.15 Meanwhile, Disraeli's own writings of the 1840s show a crucial reworking of Alroy's concerns with the relationships between Jewishness, masculinity and national identity.

Notes

1 Benjamin Disraeli, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (London, 1833), Bk 1, p. 195.

2 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 41.

3 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 66.

4 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 34.

5 Ibid., Bk 1, p. 213.

6 Ibid., Bk 1, pp. 110-11.

7 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 61.

8 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 100-1.

9 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 46-7.

10 Ibid., Bk 2, p. 140.

11 Ibid., Bk 2, pp. 174-5.

12 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 92.

13 Ibid., Bk 3, pp. 24-5.

14 Ibid., Bk 3, p. 69.

Published @ RC

January 2005

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