Page 143 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

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S INGERMAN / NORDAU’S
CONVENTIONAL LIES
137
a hypocritical form o f sanctioned polygamy, a bold statement at
the time as was N o rdau ’s observation a hun d red years ago tha t
one can indeed be capable o f loving several people at the same
time with equal passion and tenderness.
Having chronicled the lies (“spreading decay and putrefaction
everywhere like a mould vegetation!”) afflicting society, Nordau
concludes
Conventional Lies
with his prescription for obtaining
hum an solidarity and ultimate tru th :
to sweep ou t the whole rubbish o f mediaeval institutions; to
trea t the priests, parsons and rabbis like medicine-men, if
we consider them such inwardly; to bow the kings ou t o f
the ir palaces, if we look upon them as puppets or usurpers;
to abolish all laws which can not stand the criticism o f na tu ­
ral science, and to have reason and logic govern all the rela­
tions between man and man.
E rudite, trenchan t, and iconoclastic even by today’s free
standards o f tolerance,
The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization
is
for the most par t laborious reading but worth the experience for
its largely intuitive presentation o f still m odern views tha t were
once scandalous but no longer shock. Such are the sources o f
intellectual history with the eclectic Nordau , always difficult to
classify, most generally placed with the positivists. His cruel
indictment o f religion was in all likelihood the most controversial
aspect o f his book, this reflecting his elevation o f rationalism and
scientific laws as the guide fo r man’s comportment, and u tte r con­
temp t for metaphysics, supernaturalism , and mysticism; in short,
the irrational. It may be noted that Sigmund Freud , a severe critic
o f religion, was familiar with
Conventional Lies
and was influenced
by it in his analysis o f Scripture.
HIS JEWISHNESS
Is
Conventional Lies
a Jewish book? Only in the sense tha t it was
written in a period o f N o rd au ’s life when he was admittedly “Ger­
man th rough and th rough . . . utterly divorced from my own peo­
ple.” From age 16 to 40, Nordau , an orthodox rabbi’s son, was an
assimilated intellectual, trained as a physician, at ease in the Ger­
man cultural milieu which bestowed its rewards on him as an
essayist, novelist, and playwright. In mid-life and over the course
o f many years, he writes, “Anti-Semitism opened my eyes and