The Jew: Essays from Martin Buber’s Journal, Der Jude, 1916-1928.
by Arthur A. Cohen.
Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel. University of Alabama Press. 305 pp. $25.00.
In 1916, in the middle of World War I, Martin Buber, then thirty-eight years old, launched the periodical Der Jude, with the cooperation of Robert and Felix Weltsch, Hans Kohn, and Max Brod. This was an extraordinary publication, not least in the forthrightness of its name. It struggled on for eight years, employing the talents of nearly all the main Jewish figures then writing in German, and some writing in other languages; included were Franz Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Hermann Cohen, Gershom Scholem, Gustav Landauer, Jacob Klatzkin, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, Franz Werfel, Hugo Bergmann, Romain Rolland, Benno Jacob, Josef Meisl, and Elias Auerbach. But throughout, the main informing spirit of the periodical was Martin Buber himself, who contributed many weighty articles later published in book form and sought, through Der Jude as through his other activities, to raise Jewish consciousness and pride and to advocate the Zionist solution to the contradictions of Jewish existence in exile.
At first, as Arthur A. Cohen points out in his introduction to this volume of selected articles from Der Jude, Buber was not free from confusions that might have destroyed the value and influence of the periodical. His romantic attachment to nationalism took the form of an enthusiastic endorsement of the war, which he considered a training-ground for manly virtues and even as an occasion for the alliance of Jewish with German nationalism. Buber did not, however, go so far in his war fever as did the philosopher Hermann Cohen, who regarded the conflict as the ideal ground for a fusion of his German and Jewish identities; being an anti-Zionist, Cohen saw no contradiction here at all. The strength of the Jewish illusion of German-Jewish symbiosis, of which Gershom Scholem has in our time written so eloquently, can be understood a little better from the reactions to the war of these two great men, both of whom, in their different ways, stood for a strong Jewish identification.
At any rate, Buber’s war fever did not last. Chiefly through the influence of his old friend Gustav Landauer, who wrote a long letter criticizing his stance point by point, Buber became convinced that there was nothing admirable in German imperialism. In subsequent articles in Der Jude, Buber repudiated his former standpoint, thus retaining his moral ascendancy over his Jewish contemporaries.
It was certainly an excellent idea to provide for the English-reading public a selection of articles from Der Jude. Nothing could give a better sense of that brilliant and energetic generation, through whom Judaism and Zionism achieved intellectual status in the modern world. Arthur A. Cohen, the cultivated and subtle author of The Natural and the Supernatural Jew and other books, would seem the ideal person to implement such a project, I approached the present book, therefore, with pleasurable anticipation. Unfortunately, I finished it with a sense of disappointment.
I do not quarrel with the editor’s eccentric but defensible decision to exclude items of purely historical interest, and also all items available in English elsewhere—even though this austere move has meant sacrificing much of what is humanly interesting and brilliant in Der Jude. Nor do I quarrel with the editor’s actual selection, which includes such unfamiliar gems as Hans Kohn’s “Nationalism,” Jacob Klatzkin’s “Germanism and Judaism: A Critique,” Gustav Landauer on Strindberg, and Franz Rosenzweig on “Apologetic Thinking.”
It is with the execution, rather than with the design, of the book that I find myself dissatisfied. It starts well enough, with a lucid and helpful introduction, outlining the history of Der Jude and giving its place in Buber’s development and in the revival of Jewish nationalism and culture; this is an editorial task well performed. The rest consists of the translations themselves, prefaced by explanatory notes or introductions of varying lengths by the editor. In these, Cohen often writes in a most impenetrable style. Sometimes one has to turn to the article itself in the hope of understanding his intended explication. Here is a not unrepresentative example; “Indeed, unlike psychoanalytical inquiry, where the mechanism of the aphasic unconscious is near at hand and obdurate, the motives to the writing of history appear less opaque.” Translated into English, this would read: “Historians often have subjective motives. These motives, being nearer the surface of consciousness, arc easier to understand than those investigated by psychoanalysts.” On the same page we find: “It is often a question of determining the governance of the imagination to decide whether its logic has been coherently observed, but it is rarely the case that a well-made poem or a great novel or an enduring play is constructed without an obsessional drive, a premise of causality, a notion of how persons and events cohere.” I despair of translating this into English, as I do not understand the syntax of the first clause.
On reading the translated articles themselves, I was often afflicted by the same sense of bafflement. Here at least I had a remedy: when bemused, I could look up the original German. Cohen refers in his acknowledgments to the frequent obscurity of the texts, which “not even the splendid Joachim Neugroschel could always overcome.” But in most cases, when brought to a halt by the translation, I found on investigation that the German was perfectly clear. In other cases, the fault is not in the translation or in the original, but in the editing. For example, page 201 of the English text is unintelligible; the reason, I discovered, is simply that 33 lines of the German text have been omitted (presumably the editor lost a page of the translation). A similar catastrophe occurs on page 173, where 22 lines of German text are missing, with chaotic results.
I do not mean to dismiss this entire work as a failure. It is, after all, a huge undertaking, a great deal of which is valuable. We are not likely to get another anthology in English from Der Jude, and this book fills a gap. But it is not really comfortable or pleasurable to read, and lapses such as those cited above undermine the confidence that is so desirable in reading a work of translation.
The trouble, I think, is that the editor has fallen between two stools. He has wanted to be much more than an ordinary editor—to conduct a full and equal dialogue with his chosen authors. This is a laudable ambition in which at times he succeeds, especially when he becomes sufficiently engaged to forgo obscurity. At such times he argues with and even roundly criticizes his contributors in a way that annihilates the distance between them and brings the issues to life. But in pursuing a high editorial ideal, he has neglected the no less demanding editorial task of insuring a certain level of readability, intelligibility, and accuracy. The result must therefore be judged only a partial success.