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Aesthetics, Politics, and the Haskalah: Krochmal's Philosophy of History Revisited

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Backbay 2 Complex

Abstract

Despite his status as a seminal figure in the Haskalah and Jewish modernity, Nachman Krochmal is rarely studied in North America. I revisit his neglected voice to shed new light on the Haskalah, recovering the role of aesthetics as a terrain for maskilic political thought. I show that Krochmal ascribes considerable significance to pursuits such as poetry and the visual arts, and I argue that he does so to resist a political vision championed by his influential predecessor Moses Mendelssohn.
According to Krochmal, although the Jewish nation undergoes the same processes of growth and decline that befall all groups, Jews recover after periods of decay because they view God as the "absolute spiritual"-as in some sense encompassing all cultural phenomena. Linking God to all realms of cultural activity confers value on such pursuits, disposing Jews to preserve these inheritances despite adversity.
I show, first, that Krochmal ascribes substantial historiosophic import to painting, poetry, and similar pursuits. While excessive production of beautiful objects generates obsessions with pleasure and luxury that foster national decline, artistic pursuits also inculcate the theology that enables national renewal: captivated by creations such as biblical poetry, Jews will explore these inheritances and encounter depictions of God as the absolute spiritual. I show, second, that Krochmal derives key elements of this argument from Mendelssohn's Hebrew writings. Worried about societies undergoing processes of growth and decline fueled by the excessive proliferation of aesthetic pursuits, Mendelssohn takes Judaism to form adherents into citizens who protect the polities they inhabit from such threats.
The Krochmal-Mendelssohn encounter, I suggest, reveals the political stakes of maskilic aesthetics. By claiming that Jews safeguard polities from aesthetically-driven decline, Mendelssohn casts Jews as productive citizens within non-Jewish societies. Despite drawing on this argument, however, Krochmal points in a different direction: instead of protecting non-Jewish societies from aesthetic excess, his Jews secure Jewish national survival when confronting such threats. Krochmal is thus resisting his predecessor's politics. While accepting Mendelssohn's emphasis on the connection between aesthetics, society, and Judaism, Krochmal suggests that Mendelssohn errs by mobilizing this link to depict Jews as engaged citizens of non-Jewish polities.

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