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Protocols

A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction

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Umberto Eco in Milan, Italy, in February, 2011. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
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The Chmielnicki pogroms in Ukraine killed a third of the Jewish population. In Spain, the entire population was expelled. In medieval England, the entire population was murdered or expelled. The entire Jewish populations of major cities in Germany were exterminated during the Crusades. The technology may have been lacking for global murder, but certainly the spirit was strong.

They were not accused of conquering the world. They were different and they were disturbing and they were speaking another language. They refused to be converted. Everybody who wouldn’t be converted had to be killed. Fine. But I think Hitler couldn’t have his elaborate vision on the grounds simply of religious anti-Semitism. He needed secular anti-Semitism. That’s the Protocols—exactly that. Because the Protocols are not so naïve to say that the Jews kill babies for God. They are dominating the banks, the newspapers. It’s a different view.

One of the things that’s always darkly funny to me, as a Jew, about anti-Semitism—and it comes out in the novel too—is that you can find people on opposing sides of every political spectrum who are united by Jew-hatred. Voltaire was a terrible anti-Semite. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church he despised was also anti-Semitic. The Jews should be eliminated either for religious or for secular and anti-religious reasons. The Jews live too long. The Jews are physically weak. Jews are wealthy and dominate everything. The Jews are poor vermin and pose a danger to public health.

I have been always fascinated by that, maybe because according to some of my friends I have a Talmudic spirit.

The Name of the Rose was an exceptionally Talmudic novel.

My grandfather was a foundling. So, I always said, maybe he was. But my grandmother was clearly a goy, so I am not Jewish. But I remember when I met the wife of Elie Wiesel in Paris. She said, “Comment allez-vous?” [He switches into French to explain that he answered Wiesel’s wife by complaining that he had a cold, rather than answering that he was happy and well, to which she responded by saying that he was clearly Jewish.]

Novelists are generally very sensitive at whatever level in their own psyches to whatever is going on in the worlds around them. So, why did you write this book now?

There can be many reasons. One is that I was interested in forgeries and then in Protocols. Since the Foucault’s Pendulum I have written many, many essays on that. At a certain moment, as it happens when you have finished a previous book and you are looking around—oh, why not? I was a devotee of popular novels of the 19th century. The literature on the Protocols is enormous. And there are some excellent books, historical books, like Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide. But being old, academic books they were not as accessible, and the Protocols are still believed. So, maybe I wrote my novel to give it a narrative form, to explain, through narrative, how such a concoction is possible. Maybe it can reach a larger number of people than the academic literature can.

But in the beginning I was not convinced because the material was dirty, it was stinky. I felt a certain embarrassment. To jump over my nose-reaction and to give a punch to the stomach of my reader with the first pages, I used all the existing clichés. The anti-Jewish part is Céline, Bagatelles Pour un Massacre. The anti-German is half Nietzsche and half a book written by a Frenchman at the beginning of the First World War, the one in which the Germans produced more fecal matter than other people.

Within the Jewish community one of the historical reactions to the moment that you write about, to the Dreyfus case, was Zionism. You have Theodore Herzl, a Viennese journalist, who is sitting in Paris at the same time as your Simonini is.

I stop at that point.

Why?

Herzl was like Disraeli. Disraeli, being a Jew, wanted to demonstrate how Jews are smart and produced half of the anti-Semitic clichés of the period. And in fact, Toussanel was using Disraeli to say that, it is true, there is a Jewish conspiracy. “Do you know the prime minister in Russia is a Jew? Do you know that this one is a Jew?” He was offering arguments for the Jewish conspiracy while his intention was to show how Jews were smart and intelligent. And this being a narrative, you can’t ask, why didn’t you speak of that, of that, or of that?

But still: It’s rare now in Paris or London or Madrid to find people who say that a conspiracy of Jewish rabbis controls the world. It’s no longer “the Jews” who are controlling the world, but “the Zionists”—who also happen to be Jews involved in a global conspiracy that controls governments, the banks, and the press.

The moment that there’s a Jewish state, once again the whole story changes. There are people who are not anti-Semites by nature but leftists. Being with the Arabs and becoming anti-Israeli, they automatically become anti-Semitic. I had to open a critical discussion with the boycotters, especially in England, in the journal Translation, a very good journal. There were two Tel Aviv scholars, notoriously critical of their government, who were expelled, which is obviously another form of racism. Because you are not responsible for what Netanyahu is doing in this moment, as I am not responsible for the deeds of Berlusconi even though he and I are both Italians. The shifting from anti-Israel-ism to anti-Semitism is pretty natural.

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Fascinating, particularly the distinction between theological antisemitism and the ascription to Jews of a desire for world domination. The last paragraph reminds me of some famous lines from Auden, the Herod’s soliloquy:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions… Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old… Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish… The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Stephan Pickering/Chofetz Chay says:

Reb Eco…when I finished THE NAME OF THE ROSE, I confess that I, a post-Auschwitz Torah Jew, wept…the power of your words opened windows so that I could, however fleetingly, see a vanished world. You may be a goy, but YHVH has blessed you with a Jewish consciousness. It has always been my hope that you and Reb Wiesel would collaborate. Kol tuv uv’racha…may you be blessed with all that is good. Tzeth’a LeShalom VeShuvh’a LeShalom…go in completeness, return in completeness.
STEPHAN PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham

Shalom Freedman says:

This is an intelligent and interesting interview. Still it left me with an uneasy feeling.
Would it have been too much for David Samuels to somehow connect the present- day – use of the ‘Protocols’ to the effort to delegitimize and destroy Israel?
Would it have been too much to suggest that in some cases, Celine, Wagner, for instance the degree of the anti- Semitism, the viciousness, the hatred precludes a consciencious Jewish reading from ‘enjoying’ their art?

david samuels says:

Dear Shalom,

I think there are many kinds of Jewish readers and readings. I can easily imagine a Jewish reader who would prefer to take their pleasure elsewhere than Celine. I like misanthropic writers, and I experience Celine’s vicious hatred of Jews in the context of his rather insistently hateful art. I think it would be harder to defend my enjoyment of a writer who loved Jews and hated women, or Serbs, or Muslims, or some other group to which I didn’t belong. If Celine was a bad writer who was also an anti-semite I would dislike him on both counts.

As for the connection between the anti-semitic conspiracy theories of the Protocols and anti-Zionism, I asked Eco three questions on the subject, which seems like enough. He’s a novelist, not Abe Foxman.

jacon.arnon says:

I liked the discussion.

However, David did something minority readers (like me) often do when they try to sound enlightened. They say about a racist author like Celine that they love the work even though the writer was a bigot.

To me such a view is untenable. It also puts the people under attack in a masochistic position viz a viz the bigoted author.

In general if the writer is not a monster I would suggest that her or his views are not important, but not if the author is a murderer or condones murder as Celine did.

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Protocols

A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction