Look for my Book Review of The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco’s latest book. Antisemitism is a major factor in this complex novel. My review will be published in the next issue of The Journal for the Study of Antisemitism.
RevSokol: The Successful Antisemite
Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. (New York Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) pp. 444 $27
Umberto Eco’s latest book, published in 2011, is The Prague Cemetery. It is a confusing and challenging novel. When Eco was asked why his books are so difficult to follow he said every book that he writes sells a million copies so some people want to be challenged. I took the challenge because the subject matter is deeply entwined with antisemitism. This is a novel about a man you will love to hate while he prowls all over nineteenth century Europe making money as a forger and as a political behind –the- scenes huckster. When he is not writing hate literature and planning espionage he is stabbing people and dragging them down to his favorite sewer. He works for and against the Bourbon Monarchy, same with Garibaldi. He fights and murders for and against religious cults. He spies and does espionage work for governments. One of those governments, the Russian, is desperate to find an enemy to distract animosity from them and weaken the Bolshevik revolution. Targeting the Jews is a natural. His motivation is always money. His most lasting “contribution” is the final creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The Prague Cemetery is supposedly where The Protocols originated. In this spooky overgrown cemetery a group of Jewish leaders met one dark night to plan to take over the world. The Protocols reads like a corny Halloween melodrama. Simonini is the fictional author of The Protocols and protagonist of Eco’s otherwise historical novel. What is unique about Simonini is not his Jew hating or bigotry in general but his skills in his behind-the-scenes Machiavellian endeavors.
There have been many literary reviews of the The Prague Cemetery. This is not a literary review but a psychological and social inquiry. I am interested specifically in what Eco’s tale tells us about successful racism, hatemongering and antisemitism.
By successful racism or in this case antisemitism I mean having strong influence on damaging the Jewish people, negatively prejudicing large numbers of people and organizations over an extended length of time and over coming truth with hateful lies.
All of that Simonini has accomplished, most notably with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–a work any student of antisemitic studies is familiar with. The successful antisemite can be distinguished from the run of the mill hater. The successful antisemite has special motivations and skills. Quick money and political popularity are motivators. The run of the mill antisemites, who are the followers, may hate just for the hope of a better life in the future or a blaming of their misery on someone else, particularly someone vulnerable. Writing and/or public speaking skills have to target the Jew. The successful hater has these communication skills. The followers need no special skill.
Eco’s creation of Simonini give us an ability to get to know what makes a character like this tic and how he finds his opportunities in society.
Since the actual author of the plagiarized compilation called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is unknown Eco fills in the story with colorful contemporary intrigue and characters and writings that are known to be connected to The Protocols. Simonini is the fictional wild card invented by Eco.
The novel is a story of the making of stories. It is the story of conspiracies to spread conspiracy myths. It is told mostly through the eyes of Simonini, a man who hates just about everyone but himself. Although he says he hates everyone but himself, he is a mentally diseased man who does not know who he is. Today he would be diagnosed as suffering from a severe case of Dissociative Disorder, of the type previously called Multiple Personality Disorder. He enters fugue states and has black out spells. He has a subpersonality; a Catholic priest who dresses in robes.
Multiple Personality Disorder along with the new psychiatric diagnois of hysteria was an up and coming diagnosis in the late nineteenth century at the birth of modern psychology, the period the novel takes place.
Simonini, is a hater, a liar and a racist. His profession is forger and murderer, propagandist and spy. His strongest traits may be his ambition and desire for money and food. He hates Italians, Germans, Jesuits, Masons and of course Jews. The author has gone into competition with Shakespeare’s Richard the Third for creating the most unlikable villain in literature. Simonini is involved in so many diabolical plots it is the rare reader who will be able keep up with them. He bounces around nineteenth century Europe taking advantage of every opportunity to spread hate, political animosity and misinformation. Several characters are familiar; Dumas, Garibaldi. Familiar groups such as Jesuits and Masons take on evil knife carrying qualities as Simonini takes on tasks riling conflict between everyone.
Although Simonini ascribes the principle pecunia non olet / money does not stink (Eco,2011,317) to another character it fits well as a motto for Simonini. Although money does not stink, everything Simonini does for money morally reeks to high heaven. “I hate women, from what little I know of them.”(Eco,2011,14) Women join the long line of groups hated by Simonini.
In fact Simonini hates so many groups one wonders why he is so successful at focusing on Jews. In one word the answer is opportunity.
Why are there antisemities? What makes a successful antisemitic propagandist? There are no conclusive answers in The Prague Cemetery but buried in this dense cemetery and book is some wisdom on the subject.
Eco shows us that the Jews provide the best opportunities to make money by writing hate literature and passing false stories. Simonini realizes “There was an anti Jewish market among revolutionaries, republicans and socialists.”(Eco, 2011, 194) It may be that Simonini is like any other talented and ambitious person without a conscience. His unique and salable asset is his deep understanding of Jew hatred taught to him by his grandfather. He matches his skills as a forger and liar with his talent for Jew hating and finds success.
In a quote that shows the canny and practical side of Jew hatred, Simonini declares:
“I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say that the Jews are my best allies…We therefore need an enemy . . .For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray that there is always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope.” (Eco, 2011, 341)
We see this thinking in the leadership of antisemitic governments throughout history. Maybe Eichmann had this very tactic in mind when he anticipated the extinction of his valuable enemy–the Jews. He was planning the extensive Jewish museum that would stand after all Jews were wiped off the earth. People could be reminded of the threatening nature of these dangerous creatures and keep the fear of them alive.
Another example of Jews as useful enemy is the exile of Jews from England in 1290. The exile was not because of a sudden up rise in antisemitism. Antisemitism was a constant in Medieval England. There were only 2000 Jews left in England when they were finally driven out. The expulsion of the Jews allowed Edward the First to institute a new tax, much opposed by the population, by uniting all factions and giving them hope that banishing the Jews would bring them all together and make them safer and stronger. ( Shapiro, 1996, 54) This diversionary tactic is the basis of Simonini’s sales pitch when selling hate to his various government and other customers.
In Andre Martin’s recent interview ( Martin, 2011) Eco says that The Protocols were so successful because, “They were not creating new ideas. They were reinforcing previous prejudices.”
This may be the most important ingredient to the recipe for cooking up a false racist document that will be believed for over one hundred years even though it has repeatedly been proved a complete hoax. People are comforted in thinking that they were right all along in their prejudices. Building hate for one eyed red heads would be a daunting task. But the ground work already set by historical Jew hating makes for fertile creative ground. Ironically this does provide some hope that undermining the history of negative Jewish propaganda may make antisemitism less of an easy target than it has been. Hate literature would lose its hook if the “social unconscious” (Baum, 2012,xv) can be drained of Jew hating beliefs like those found in the Protocols. This line of thinking indicates that there is a momentum of hate that could be reversed.
Who is the successful anti-Semite? Are they crazy geniuses? Although Eco’s Simonini hates Jews he seems to have a fondness for a Viennese psychiatrist named Dr. Froide. The doctor is in France to study with Charcot. He meets Froide in a tavern and becomes very interested in his talking cure-psychoanalysis. Even by Simonini’s own judgment he is ill. Simonini decides to keep a “diary, writing down my past…until (what did Dr. Froide say?) the traumatizing element reemerges.”(Eco, 2011,45)
Is antisemitism a mental illness? The invention of this character, as a severely mentally ill sociopathic forger, trying to heal himself through the early discoveries of Sigmund Freud, indicates that Eco suspects so.
Simonini, murders sometimes with passion sometimes without. He throws away life as though it were a tissue. His paranoid view of the world is convinced that “Jews become doctors and pharmacists in order to control Christian bodies as well as minds.”(Eco,2011,44)
Clinical psychologist Steve Baum has written about the question of weather antisemitism is a mental disease. Although Baum does not postulate mental illness as a cause he does conclude that “The more one held antisemitic beliefs the more likely they were to harbor psychotic thinking. Conversely the opposite was true. Persons who believed the less antisemitic stereotypes had less pathological thought.”(Baum 2005)
Diana is a strange character in the novel who is an American expat who has attained some popularity as a mystic. She is a woman who switches into bizarre personalities and is used as a propaganda source by Simonini and others. She is another clearly insane character caught up with the successful antisemites. After he has intercourse with the drugged Diana he murders her. He stashes her body in his favorite sewer; a sewer in which he has also stashed several other victims. This sewer is a part of Simonini.
Anthony Julius referring to the writing of his book about anti-Semitism in England observed that: “Writing this book has been somewhat like swimming long distance in a sewer.” (Julius,2010.x) The metaphor of a stinking sewer is an apt one for the vilest aspect of humanity. Many of the mentally ill are stuck in this nightmarish place. Simonini returns regularly. This rank unconscious place, that a healthy person would choose to exit from as soon as possible, is as much a part of him as his right arm.
There is some indication that the successful antisemite may be mentally ill. A real life antisemitic character who shows some of the same traits as Simonini is author Asa Carter. Carter wrote the touching The Education of Little Tree. He later claimed it was a true autobiography of him as an American Indian child in the 1930s. It was a best seller. The fact is that it was all fiction. Asa Carter had four names before he died. And each name had a different personality although Asa was probably knew he was lying when he clamed some of the names were not connected to him. The real Asa (Ace) was a Klu Klux Klan organizer. He was so antisemitic that in the 1950s even native Alabama citizens protested him. He organized violent racist groups. He shot two men in an argument over finances of his racist group. He was a speech writer–unacknowledged but well paid, for George Wallace in his most racist days.
He edited a racist newspaper called The Southerner. When his book became a best seller he denied his past. What did this antisemite have in common with Simonini? He was a liar, an attempted murderer, a hater; if not a multiple personality he showed very different personalities to the world. He was a talented speaker and writer who intended to make a well paying career in hate. None of his five immediate family members went to his funeral.
Understanding the successful antisemitic leaders mind is an important tool in countering the damage they do. Umberto Eco in The Prague Cemetery may have given us some insight into those psyches. www.David-Sokol.com
- Baum, Steven K, Antisemitism Explained, Lanham, University Press ofAmerica 2012
- Baum, Steven K, Antisemitism as Mental Illness, Annual Scholars Conference Holocaust and the Churches,2005
- Eco, Umberto, The Prague Cemetery, Boston, Houghton, Mifflin,Harcourt,2011
- Julius, Antony, Trials of the Diaspora, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010
- Martin, Andrew, Umberto Eco on “The Prague Cemetery,”Paris Review Daily, Nov. 15 2011
- Shapiro, James, Shakespeare and the Jews, New York, Columbia Press. 1996
This entry was posted on Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 1:30 pm
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