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The Uncivil Servant: Bambi in Vienna

Mitchell Abidor
September 30, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Bambi’s Jewish Roots and Other Essays on German-Jewish Culture, by Paul Reitter. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, 296 pages.

felix-salten-and-the-branding-of-bambi-bookPAUL REITTER’S Bambi’s Jewish Roots, a collection of the author’s reviews and essays, provides the reader with cause for reflection not only in every selection, but virtually on every page. In examining German-language Jewish writers from the fin de siècle to the inter-war period, Reitter eschews academic jargon (though he is himself a professor at Ohio State) as he roams across the breadth of the literature of the period, discussing the work of Kafka (three times), Freud (twice), Gershom Scholem, and Heine, as well as lesser but still important figures like Oskar Weininger, Arthur Schnitzler (twice), and Stefan Zweig — in the latter case attempting to divine why the author, one of the most translated in the world during his hey-day, was hated and disdained by his contemporaries.

Reitter’s readings are always fair, and when he has a criticism to make it’s done in as even-toned a fashion as possible, demonstrating that academic debate can be a civilized affair in which one-upmanship plays no part. (At times one questions this open-mindedness, as when Reitter praises the following bit of gobbledygook from a book under review: “At stake in the cases of both music and the Jews are non-essentializable products of history, temporally, culturally, politically contingent beings, whose own subjectivities and subject-positions are aesthetically constituted and therefore require an aesthetic dimension from the discourses that attempt to understand them.” Attempt to understand them indeed!)

His essay on Alex Waugh’s 2010 biography of the Wittgenstein family, The House of Wittgenstein, largely panned by the critics, exemplifies Reitter’s style: He is not interested in simply lambasting Waugh, but rather examines the book closely to see what fails and what succeeds in it. If, in the end, the book doesn’t succeed as a biography of this important family, Reitter finds in this a general lesson:

Perhaps if [Waugh] had reflected more concertedly on what the genre of family biography can do, he would have gone farther toward providing an effective instance of it... In a way, then, Waugh’s book and the reviews that assail it are symptomatic of the same problem: our conversation about family biography hasn’t gotten off the ground.

Especially interesting are Reitter’s two forays into the art of translation, as he examines the choices made in the original Kafka translations and the more current ones, and then explicates his own choices in his yet-to-be published translation of the autobiography of the philosopher Solomon Maimon. Reitter’s essays are short seminars in the challenges and delight of translation.

GIVEN THE NATURE of his book, its subjects are limited to what Reitter has reviewed. As a result, Karl Kraus, one of the essential figures of the Viennese literary world, although frequently mentioned by Reitter in passing, doesn’t get the extended treatment he merits (though in fairness, Reitter wrote a book about Kraus and also contributed to Jonathan Franzen’s unfortunate Kraus Project). This would have been all the more important given a theme that pops up in several of the essays: Jewish anti-Semitism. (“Has anyone been accused of Jewish self-hatred more often and more emphatically than Karl Kraus?” Reitter asked in a 2010 essay in Jewish Social Studies.)

In the Wittgenstein essay, for example, we learn that the pater familias Karl advised that “in matters of honor one does not consult with Jews.” Austrian Jewish novelist and librettist Hugo von Hoffmanstahl, we are told, wrote that he viewed educated Viennese Jews “with genuine hatred and disgust,” considering them “lemurs of a parasitical existence.” The most notorious case is that of Oskar Weininger, whose Sex and Character was centered on misogyny and anti-Semitism, and who said that “the genuine Jew is deficient in the inner nobility that generates the dignity of the self and respect for another. There is no Jewish nobility, which is all the more remarkable as Jews have practiced inbreeding for thousands of years.” Reitter addresses this matter directly in his essay on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Unfortunately, it is the least interesting and least lucid of the selections in the book. Given the consistent clarity of Reitter’s thought and writing, one can only regret that he chose to deal with this matter in the only essay in which he descends into the abyss of post-modern academic jargon.

Which leads us to the highlight of the book, the brief essay that gives the collection its title. Bambi, the film so loved by generations of viewers around the world, was based on a 1929 novel by the Viennese Jewish feuilletoniste Felix Salten — born Siegmund Saltzmann — who was also the author of a notorious pornographic novel, Josefine Mutzenbacher. So widespread was his fame that Kafka attended one of his lectures. Unlike most of his Jewish peers, however, Salten was involved in Jewish affairs: a committed Zionist, a regular contributor to Theodor Herzl’s Zionist newspaper Die Welt, and a friend of Martin Buber.

BambiII_Copyright_DisneyAlthough the great Karl Kraus said in 1930 that he detected a Jewish dialect in the voices of some of the animal characters in Salten’s Bambi spinoffs — dialect that Kraus described as “a defense against persecution” — it was only in 2003 that the Germanist Iris Bruce noticed the presence of Jewish and Zionist themes in Bambi. Deer culture as envisioned by Salten, she wrote, revolved around tales of persecution, and the tales they tell their children “are always full of horror and misery.” Bruce also found Bambi to contain a critique of assimilationism, with a deer asking about humans: “will they ever stop persecuting us?” An old deer, named “the King,” is a stand-in for another great figure: “The old Prince of the Forest, then, can be said to represent Herzl.” Reitter admits that “the formulation might be a bit stark,” but ingeniously proceeds to track down other signs of Salten’s Zionism in Bambi, as when the King — who is Bambi’s father — “takes Bambi to see a slain poacher. As the two of them stand over the dead body, the King encourages Bambi to draw a lesson that he shouldn’t see his oppressors as almighty or himself as inferior to them. Other phases of the Bambi novel and its characters echo Zionist themes, with the most assimilationist deer also being the frailest and weakest.

Iris Bruce’s thesis, and its Reitter-augmented form, is a case where its boldness does nothing to detract from its obviousness. There is in fact nothing surprising about a writer deeply involved in Jewish questions carrying those questions — even in disguised form — into whatever he wrote.

There is one unfortunate element to Bambi’s Jewish Roots. Due to a publisher’s error, missing from the book is any indication where the specific articles originally appeared or what he was reviewing. Even worse, the books mentioned aren’t always included in the bibliography, which erroneously states that “the notes contain full references for all secondary sources cited, as well as for primary sources and archival material.” In fact, only one essay has notes. This regrettable oversight, which will hopefully be repaired in an eventual paperback edition, is small beer compared to the joys contained within the book’s pages.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.