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The Wandering Jew [EN]

Dernière mise à jour : 11 févr. 2021

Questions de foklore : Qui est le Juif errant ? À la découverte d’un mythe chrétien.

Incursions of the Wandering Jew Into the American and the English Gothic : A Comparative Study of M. G. Lewis’ The Monk[1] and N. Hawthorne’s ‘Ethan Brand’[2]

“Ambivalent feelings were felt towards the Jewish God, feelings of hatred and contempt, and, at the same time, of love and respect, because he was also their own God, the father of Jesus (…). This ambivalence was too dangerous and too difficult. The feelings of hatred and aggression were projected outside; they created Ahasver.”[3]

The legend[4] of the Wandering Jew, which was to inspire numerous literary accounts (two of which we will analyse in this essay), began as a European folk motif. The first written source mentioning the Wandering Jew was a pamphlet printed in Germany, from where it spread all over Europe[5] – and, from there, crossed the Atlantic to reach America[6]. It was entitled Kurtze Beshcreibung und Erzehlung von einem Juden mit Namen Ahasuerus, etc.[7], and is now counted among the German Volksbücher. The legend, we may observe without delay, is a Christian invention, all but non-existent in the Jewish tradition until the latter half of the nineteenth century[8] – unsurprisingly given its theological implications. The original plot is as follows[9]: in Jerusalem, a Jewish cobbler once refused to allow Jesus Christ a moment of respite on the way to crucifixion and mercilessly told him to “walk on”. As a result, the ruthless Jew was cursed by Christ and forced to wander until Doomsday. Only then will he eventually be forgiven, shake his weariness and die a Christian[10]. The fact that the legend reads as an idealised presentation of the confrontation between Judaism and the man whom the Jews persistently refused to recognise as their Messiah – a fact that probably puzzled many a Christian – may account at least in part for its popularity and wide diffusion among Catholics and Protestants alike. The approach of the legend to the impossible encounter between Christianity and the Jews was indeed both reassuring and unambiguous, insofar as it staged the victory of Christianity over Judaism and foretold the eventual dissolution of the latter in the former.

Yet, as various scholars have insisted, “the Wandering Jew is a Jew by postulate only, not even by name”[11]. Most of the time, he goes by the name of Ahasverus – and, interestingly enough, the name is not Jewish but connotes foreignness, which will prove an important aspect of the conceptualisation of the Jew as other in the legend (or legends) and in its various literary adaptations. In sooth, the Wandering Jew is a man of many names: he has been alternately called Buttadeus, Isaac Laquedem in France and Flanders, Paulo, Juan Espera en Dios in 16th to 17th c. Spain and Portugal – until the various names merged into one legendary character (by 1700). In the two texts under study, he remains unnamed. The Jew is also a man of many faces: a magician (sometimes a sorcerer), a prophet, a corrupter or a (would-be) redeemer, a sinner or a saintly penitent, he can personify good or evil – this mainly depends on the intentions of the author of the narrative in which he intervenes[12]. As a result, the wanderings of the cursed Jew have taken a thousand and one shapes both in folklore and in literature, the flexibility of the legend enabling it to enjoy a heyday from 1820 on, so that, by 1850, it had become a literary fashion, and the Wandering Jew came to play an important or a subsidiary part in many a narrative.

In The Monk, as a secondary – though memorable – character, he plays the role of helper. The Wandering Jew appears in the subplot of Raymond and Agnes of which we will give a brief summary: as young Raymond is invited at the castle of the baroness of Lindenberg, whom he rescued from bandits, he falls in love with her niece Agnes who is about to become a nun. The young lovers quickly arrange their plans to elope during the night, but Raymond mistakes a ghost, the Bleeding Nun, for Agnes, and flees with the ghost instead. The mistake proves fatal: the nun, who is also vampire, begins to drain his life out of him and, as he is the only one who can see her when she appears to perform this cruel operation, he cannot ask for help. Raymond is still in this delicate situation, languishing in deep despondency, when his servant Theodore ushers in the Wandering Jew, who soon manages to exorcise the Bleeding Nun, saving Raymond’s life. As Raymond enquires about his origins, the stranger (who had not yet been clearly identified as the Wandering Jew) delays the answer until the next morning. However, he mysteriously disappears during the night, and it is Raymond’s uncle, the Cardinal-Duke, who later reveals his identity.

Even though it emerged in Europe, the legend of the Wandering Jew soon migrated to America and gained there a popularity unmatched in the countries of the Old World, serving as a fertiliser both in folklore and in literature. Indeed, as Rudolf Ganz notes:

“When Europeans came to the New World, they brought their legends with them. The Wandering Jew was no exception, and, in a country where an ever expanding frontier was marked by all sorts of wanderers, the legend remained popular. The American experience created a new context for the Wandering Jew”[13].

Our study will thus focus on the transposition or adaptation of an Old World legend to the American Gothic, and more particularly to the literary rendition of the Wandering Jew in Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”. Hawthorne, it must be mentioned, had staged the figure in an earlier short story entitled “A Virtuoso’s Collection” (1842)[14], in which the Jew serves as a chronicler and as a guide through a museum of antiquities. In “Ethan Brand”, written in 1848 and printed in 1851, the Wandering Jew is presented as a “German Jew” and, once again, he is cast as a showman carrying a diorama and showing “the most outrageous scratchings and daubings”[15] and his intervention has markedly burlesque connotations. Yet, as we will try and establish, he essentially remains a source of confusion and dismay in the short story, and probably even of Gothic horror[16], as it is he who repeatedly hints at the pointlessness of the quest of Ethan Brand, a wanton sinner who imagined that he had identified and mastered the “Unpardonable Sin”. After the departure of the Jew, Brand chooses to kill hismelf by throwing himself into the fire of the kimekiln, vanquished by his rival[17] and – as we will attempt to demonstrate – evil double. Thus, the intrusion of the Jew in the plot of “Ethan Brand” has (or so it appears) clearly negative implications and consequences[18], which is the first and the most obvious distinction that we will establish between the two texts under study – though it will be slightly qualified later on in our development.

This brief overview of the two narratives enables us to perceive that the legend of the Wandering Jew (and the intervention of the eponymous character in a narrative of Gothic fiction) is never without symbolic value. To what extent does he embody the same (or similar) notions through different literary renditions? What it is that makes him a potentially “Gothic legend”[19]? As we suggested, the two texts under study propose very different answers to these questions, in keeping with two distinct Gothic traditions, and using two distinct sets of literary codes. Thus, what does the inscription of the Wandering Jew in works of Gothic fiction tell us about the transformations of the Gothic genre and its distinct development in England and in America? Was there a single, transnational “Gothic” transcription of the legend that took distinct forms in the Old and in the New World, or was the Wandering Jew conceptualised altogether differently in the English and the American Gothic traditions?

I) At a Crossway: Common Features of the American and the English Gothic Traditions in Their Rendition of the Legend of the Wandering Jew

We have suggested that the two depictions of the Wandering Jew and his role in the plots of the two narratives under study were dissimilar and probably even contradictory. Yet, what is it that enables us to identify him as the same character in the two texts? What do the two Wandering Jews have in common? Furthermore, what is it that makes them specifically and (at least apparently) transnationally Gothic?

First and foremost, the legendary source appears to be shared by the two traditions. Indeed, the figure of the Wandering Jew, as it was retranscribed in Gothic literature, results from the adaptation of an anterior, European folk motif, a borrowing which ought to be considered “a good example of the interrelationship between folklore and booklore”[20]. As might be expected, scholars then usually condescended to the legend for its blend of the sublime truths of religion with the absurdities of superstition – a blend that we may describe as representative of the codes of the Gothic both in England and in America[21]. This common source accounts mainly for the physical similarities of the two Wandering Jews: according to Anderson, the 1602 pamphlet “stands as a landmark in the history of the legend of the Wandering Jew, because it establishes the Jew as a contrite sinner, with patriarchal appearance”[22] and “super-solemn”[23] – i.e., an awe-inspiring figure. Thus, the German Jew in “Ethan Brand”, though little described, is characteristically presented as “old” and has “a stooping posture”[24]; the outline of his face is “dark and strong”, whereas Lewis’ Jew is “a man of majestic presence”, with dark eyes, and whose “countenance was strongly marked”[25]. Thus, on seeing him, Raymond immediately experiences “awe” and “horror”[26] (the word mentioned thrice in relation to the physical appearance of the Wandering Jew – as though it were another ritual formula that had to be pronounced repeatedly in order to be effective – along with related expressions, such as “mysterious dread”[27], which could be construed as a hypallage in which the adjective “mysterious” would in fact apply to the Jew), observing that “his step was slow, his manner grave, stately and solemn[28] (my emphasis).

These vague physical descriptions, in which much is left to the imagination of the reader, who remains unable, using solely the description from the text, form a clear idea of what the Jew may look like, convey a sense of mystery that is another shared characteristic of the two Gothic traditions. This common feature partakes in eliciting the sublime in both texts[29], as do the repeated allusions in the two texts to the darkness of his eyes or of his physionomy, and the fact that both Jews appear and disappear mysteriously during the night[30]. We may note that this vagueness surrounding both his appearance and his unpredictable apparitions and disparitions was already present in the hypotext of the legend (or legends, for, as we will later emphasise, there existed various variations on, or versions of, the same legend), and scholars have observed that “there has traditionally been an air of mystery surrounding the figure of the Wandering Jew.”[31] This is enhanced by the anonymity of the Jew in both texts: in The Monk, The Wandering Jew has no name and it is only after his disappearance that he is unambiguously identified as such. In “Ethan Brand”, only a few shreds of the old legend still cling to him (for instance, he is presented as a traveller, and his diorama serves a prism through which the townspeople perceive the world, as is usually the case in narratives in which he is cast as a guide and a chronicler), and he is far less easily recognisable, as he is only identified as “a German Jew”[32], whereas it is Ethan Brand who is described as a “wayfarer”[33] (moreover, another old man whose daughter Brand seduced and abandoned is twice referred to as a “wanderer”[34]). Thus, one might say that his being in sooth the Wandering Jew is only a speculation of critics[35] – he could be just any German Jew[36]. Yet, the aforementioned reference to the diorama and the metatextual reference to the “ruined castles in Europe”[37] that he exhibits to the townspeople, hinting subtly both at the architecture of the English Gothic and at the place where the legend originated seem to suggest that can be identified as the Wandering Jew.

Specialists of the legend have also laid emphasis on the Jew’s supernatural skills and powers, which participate in the creation of the sublime in the two texts under study, for “la présence du Juif errant est presque toujours fatidique, elle trouble l’ordre naturel de la creation et entraîne des bouleversements chaotiques”[38]. These powers take the form of magic rites in The Monk, whereas, in “Ethan Brand”, it is mainly through his poisonous speech that the Jew undermines the confidence of Ethan Brand: as he ironically declares “I find it to be a heavy matter in my show-box, – this Unpardonable Sin! By my faith, Captain, it has wearied my shoulders”[39], the showman lays emphasis on the futility and emptiness of Brand’s quest for the Unpardonable Sin (for, in fact, the sin weighs nothing and, not unlike Raymond’s vampire, it is not even visible). Thus, in both accounts, the words of the Wandering Jew, mirroring the verdict of Christ through which the Jew was forced to “walk on”, are endowed with a magic quality inasmuch as they are both performative and predictive. They are performative, since, the German Jew having suggested that Brand looked for the Unpardonable Sin in vain, a dog mysteriously “began to run round after his tail (...). Never was seen such headlong eagerness in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained”[40], which leads Ethan Brand to compare explicitly his situation with the dog’s. Furthermore, as it anticipates Brand’s doubts, the intervention of the showman can be considered predictive (as is the assumption of Lewis’ Wandering Jew, according to which the cursed family of Raymond shall now be at peace). The complementarity between the magically performative speech of the Jew and that of Christ, who both cursed him with eternal wandering and blessed him with enthralling powers, is even more obvious in The Monk, when the Wandering Jew summons Beatrice as follows: “In his name, I charge thee to answer me”[41] (my emphasis).

The Jew is also presented in both accounts as a visionary, an all-knowing, omniscient figure, in keeping with various traditions of the legend: “l’avenir n’a aucun secret pour lui (...). Il lit dans les âmes à coeur ouvert; il voit ce qui reste invisible pour l’homme”[42]. He indeed sees through Ethan Brand’s heart as he reveals to him the uselessness of his pursuit; he is also (in The Monk) the one person who can not only perceive the presence of the Bleeding Nun, but also divine the story of her damnation, abolishing the distance in time of the events that he relates through the timelessness of his own existence. The Wandering Jew has thus both the gift of eternity (he has always, is and will always be there) and that of ubiquity – or, to be more specific, he has the sustained ability to be in the right place at the right time in order to perform his role, i.e., to cure physically and save spiritually Raymond, and to reveal to Ethan Brand that his quest was pointless – one might say, to teach him a lesson.

However, even while analysing these shared characteristics, we may notice marked differences between the two Wandering Jews. For instance, it is noteworthy that both narratives stage an epiphany[43] and display some form of catharsis : in The Monk, not only is Raymond purged of the vampire’s presence but the dead, thanks to the mediation of the Jew, will finally be allowed to rest, as Raymond will confide to the grave the ashes of the Bleeding Nun, the great aunt of his grandfather, lifting the curse that was on his family for four generations. Thus, everything can then go back to normal (at least for some time): the catharsis is satisfactory and the purification complete. However, in “Ethan Brand”, even though the eponymous character throws himself into the fire (an extremely intense form of epiphany) and thus purges the world from his sinful presence (as little Joe admits, “that strange man is gone, and the sky and the mountains all seem glad of it” [44] – and indeed the landscape seems to have regained his lost stillness and peacefulness), our impression, as readers, is one of suspension and of frustration. Indeed, too many questions remain unanswered by the end of the tale: what was in fact the Unpardonable Sin? Was it lack of humanity? Pride? Did he really find it? Is there any such thing as an Unpardonable Sin? Is death (and, more specifically, suicide) the only possible and satisfactory answer to the meaninglessness of all the sublime endeavours of men? Furthermore, the process of purification through which Brand attempted to destroy his body altogether is not complete when the short story ends since his heart, which seems to be “made of marble”[45], could not be burnt down by the first – and so does the heart of the tale remain untouched. This ending is true to the spirit of the legend, for as long as the Jew walks on, there can be no resolution, and “Ethan Brand” must remain “an abortive romance”[46].

II) Conflicting Representations of the Legend: The Wandering Jew As Healer, the Wandering Jew As Corrupter

One can easily observe that, despite various similarities, the roles of the two Wandering Jews in the diegesis of the two texts are poles apart, and that they are quite differently characterised. We will argue that this ambiguity over the figure of the Jew resulting in conflicting characterisations in The Monk and “Ethan Brand” results partly from the ambivalence of the legend itself as it developed in European folklore, so much so that the two texts may actually not have been inspired by a single, consistent and coherent legend but by two conceptually opposed fragments of a splintered arch-legend whose extraordinary polymorphism we previously hinted at.

Indeed, Maccoby[47] drew attention to the fact that there existed two main versions of the legend and that they diverged drastically in their perspective on the fate of Judaism and the Jews: some accounts of the tale (a majority, he observes) offered the Jew a hope of reparation, regeneration and redemption – in which case the Jew was a convert to Christianity, a repenting sinner who bitterly regretted his dismissal of Jesus, whom he had then come to recognise as the saviour of mankind. Most of the time, these versions insisted on the saintliness of the character, on his good deeds and thaumaturgic skills. In the other accounts, which he calls “the negative versions”[48], most of which emerged from cycles of popular literature and are attributed to “belated German romanticists”[49], the character is “not a convert to Christianity, but an unregenerate Jew, with evil magic powers derived from his long experience of life and his association with the Devil”[50], and in these versions he “maintains the power to corrupt and harm others”[51], so that, being bound in alliance with Satan and related to Antichrist whose coming he announces, the Jew sows the seeds of sin and corruption everywhere he goes. It is this more recent representation of Ahasverus, which presented him as a foil or an antagonist rather than as a repenting villain, that participated in the rise of the 19th century stereotype of the sly, malefic Jew, and not its more optimistic (at least from the viewpoint of the Christian theology of the time) counterpart.

In “Ethan Brand”, the openly anti-Semitic function of the legend is quite obvious, and it is the second version that is explored and exploited, for, while the Wandering Jew does accomplish prodigies (though one may find a rational explanation and a supernatural one for all of his tricks and pranks[52], as is often the case in the works of the American Gothic[53]), they only produce monstrosity (“the German bade little Joe put his head into the box. Viewed through the magnifying glasses, the boy’s round, rosy visage assumed the strangest imaginable aspect of an immense Titanic child, the mouth grinning broadly”[54]) or elicit Ethan Brand’s despair, to the point that he eventually kills himself. In this context, “Ahasvérus apparaît comme celui qui apporte aux mortels (…) la maladie de l’âme”[55] – in Ethan Brand’s case, this malady takes the form of doubt; since, after the departure of the German Jew, he is no longer sure that his quest for the Unpardonable Sin was fruitful, nor that it had any purpose at all. Like the “foolish old dog” that the Jew presents him, he was probably, as he himself realises, “in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained”[56]. Moreover, as we previously mentioned, the mysterious apparition and disparition of the Jew take place at night, endowing the Wandering Jew with the “nightly face of the executioner”[57] (translation mine), a creature of the darkness whose role is not clearly stated but whom we may define as a a sorcerer, and a figure of the nocturnal mythology of evil.