Unrenounceable Core

David Nirenberg

  • The Other Within The Marranos: Split Identity and Emerging Modernity by Yirmiyahu Yovel
    Princeton, 490 pp, £24.95, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 13571 7

Shortly before Holy Week in 1391, a crowd of armed Christians gathered outside the Jewish quarter of Seville. They were dispersed by hired guards and government officials, but encouraged by a local archdeacon called Ferrán Martínez, the mob gathered again on 6 June. This time the quarter was destroyed, and most of its inhabitants killed or, at the least, forced to convert to Christianity. By the end of August, Jews had been attacked in more than 70 Iberian towns and cities, and eliminated by conversion or massacre from many of them. One survivor described what had happened in the margins of a Torah scroll he rescued from the ruins of his father’s synagogue:

Wail, holy and glorious Torah, and put on black raiment, for the expounders of your lucid words perished in the flames. For three months the conflagration spread through the holy congregations of the exile of Israel in Sepharad. The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah overtook the holy communities … The sword, slaughter, destruction, forced conversions, captivity and spoliation were the order of the day. Many were sold as slaves to the Ishmaelites; 140,000 were unable to resist those who so barbarously forced them and gave themselves up to impurity.

Few modern scholars believe there were so many converts. But whatever the real figure, it soon increased. These converts, along with their descendants, came to be known as ‘the Marranos’.

Though the origins of the word are obscure, its meaning is clear. It was an insult – ‘dirty pig Jew’ – applied by Christians in what we now call Spain to other Christians who were suspected of being converts from Judaism or descended from converts. The term first appears several generations after 1391, but in The Other Within Yirmiyahu Yovel uses it to describe a ‘subjectivity’ that he believes emerged with the first converts to Catholicism. According to Yovel, these converts couldn’t commit themselves wholeheartedly to any religion. Those who wanted to be Christians could not achieve ‘a natural integration into Catholicism’, since their belief was ‘an act of the will, which is often severed from the person’s actual life’. As for those who yearned for Judaism, they could not return to it openly without risking death or going into exile.

The result was that all these converts and their descendants – from the most fervent crypto-Jew, secretly keeping kosher and circumcising his sons, to the most zealous convert cheering on the Inquisition – developed split personalities, even if externally they seemed to be conforming to the demands of the religious authorities. This Marrano subjectivity, incapable of submitting uncritically to any religion, tradition or law, ‘prefigures’ modernity, according to Yovel. In fact, Marrano split identity played an important role in ‘generating’ that modernity: it was ‘a prodding, a temptation’, that pushed Europe into its future. Yovel is well known for his work on the most famous of these ‘prodding’ Marranos, Spinoza. But in this book he suggests that all ‘the creators of modernity’ – even the overwhelming majority who were not Marranos – ‘often had to act like quasi-Marranos.’ In his view, we are all Marranos: ‘Marranism in a more metaphoric or analogous way exists today everywhere in the world – everywhere, that is, where old compact identities collapse. The reason can be immigration, urbanisation, globalisation and any other pertinent “-ation”.’

These claims are ambitious, amounting to an alternative account of what Charles Taylor calls the ‘sources of the self’. Like Taylor, Yovel is a philosophy professor, and his starting point is a philosophical account of modernity:

Hegel, the philosopher of modernity par excellence, placed the gist of the modern era in the rise of the principle of subjectivity (the subjective mind discovering and asserting itself as the source of value … ) rather than depending on a … non-reflective tradition … or on God’s external revelation. And he saw this shift prefigured in religion – specifically, in the Lutheran Reformation, which had been, he believed, the first to recognise the value of the interior, subjective mind. I think we can identify an earlier and more distinctive source in the Marranos … Hegel, however, understood the modern subject … as potentially harmonious, capable of being reconciled to itself and achieving a higher unified identity; whereas the Marrano subject arose from the start as fissured in its very identity and incapable of fully repairing it. Thus an unsatisfied, split, yet creative modern Self was constituted, which is closer to the unsettled realities of our late modern experience than to Hegel’s reconciliatory expectations (and illusions) of modernity.

Hegel, in other words, was right about the ‘principle of subjectivity’, but wrong about its history and its future. The origins of this worldly modernity can be found in the events of 1391 and not – as works like Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would have it – in the Reformation. Marranism provides the best genealogy for our ‘modern selves’, one that makes sense both of our early modern origins and our postmodern ends.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Yale, 352 pp., £25, July 2008, 978 0 300 12580 1.