Two People Went Down The Chimney In A House

excerpt Two people went down the chimney in a house. Only one of them got his face dirty with soot. The dirty one looked at the clean one and didn't imagine that he might look different, so he didn't wash the soot away. The clean one, on the other hand, saw the dirty face of the other and immediately went away to wash. This short story, with naïve humor, is a Talmudic parable. The reader can find it at the beginning of a book which gathers many other stories and legends, proverbs and folk beliefs, facts and true stories, photographs and images. All of them have a common character. This book seems like a perfect archive, you would say nothing is missing; everything that is related to its character is minutely investigated with the passion of a collector, down to the last detail. I'm talking about Andrei Oi teanu's volume The Imaginary Jew in Romanian Culture, a study which deals with the way in which Romanians and the other peoples of the Central-East European space have imagined, and described, throughout the centuries, a character they had more often than not in their immediate vicinity: the Jew. A study on the way in which they appeared, transformed and survived, often in camouflaged forms, the clichés that have made up the physical, professional and moral portrait of what Andrei Oişteanu calls the imaginary Jew: "I follow – the author says – the way in which popular anti-Semitism appeared and evolved in the Romanian cultural space. But also the way in which popular anti-Semitism (unconscious and passive) influenced the political one (conscious and active), from around the second half of the 19th century until the present day." The Imaginary Jew in Romanian Culture is the second, revised edition. The first edition, published in 2001, received more important prizes, was extensively commented upon in the cultural press and one of its versions, in the English language, is about to be published at University of Nebraska Press. I would say that the re-publication was somewhat logical and a natural thing to happen. Firstly, because we are talking about one of the most important Romanian books of the past few years. But there is another reason too. A few pages from a book written by Andrei Oişteanu are enough to make us understand that the author belongs to that rare species of scholars that never end their quest. The type of analysis that he develops is eloquent: a detail is placed under the magnifying glass, becomes unbelievably important, relates, through explanation, to other details, apparently just as unimportant, and becomes a part of a demonstration, as rigorous as it is surprising, at the end, through the perspective that it offers. The action of the Talmudic parable of those two people that go down the chimney in a house is simple. Much more complicated than it seems at the beginning is the relationship between the characters. Because in the same house, down the same chimney, go not two, but four characters. I shall try to develop the meaning of this story that the author quotes at the beginning of the book. In a way, it contains the minimum, and at the same time the essence, of the mechanism whose deconstruction becomes the preoccupation of this book. Each of the two characters of the little story is accompanied by an imaginary character, by its own projection of itself. From external reality to the imaginary, the road is long and complicated. Andrei Oişteanu talks about the existence of an imagological equation. Naturally, not one, but two are the characters of his book: "The main method resides in redrawing the 'composite sketch' of "the imaginary Jew" and the evaluation of the difference from the 'real Jew' (with all the caution that must be associated with approximations and generalizations connected to identity). The bigger the distance between the "imaginary Jew" and the real one, the more powerful popular Judeophobia was. There is a notable difference between the generally negative portrait of the "imaginary Jew" – a portrait made in Romania after the same stereotypes as in Western Europe – and the image, generally tempered, according to which "the real Jew" was perceived. Deciphering the way in which the image of the other is constructed and of the way in which this construct functions pertains to a relatively recent research field, called imagology, a domain practically non-existent in our country. I would say that imagology begins in Romania with Andrei Oişteanu's volume. Certainly, I overlook a few articles, and some books, that are close to that field, and whose merits cannot be denied. But none of the previous attempts reaches the extent and the analytical depth of Andrei Oişteanu's book. The theoretical thesis of the domain, such as it can be found in this book, can be summarized in a few lines. We need the others in order to define ourselves. The portrait of the other is our own portrait, turned inside out, built according to the opposite of our image. The stranger resembles us more than we think, because internal needs of self definition paint his portrait, a monstrous-aberrant image that has little to do with the real stranger. Little data, distorted, taken from a reality which is often far too unimportant, become the easy and sufficient pretext of a portrait that proves to be wholly a creation of the imaginary. The portrait of the imaginary Jew is made up successively of five portraits presented in detail: the physical portrait, the professional one, the moral and intellectual one, followed by the mythical and magical one; at the end – the religious portrait. From the stereotype of the Jew that smells of garlic to the accusation of ritual infanticide, from the "shameful" trade to the accusation of country treason, from the proverbial cowardice to the finding that "the Jew is not a human", Andrei Oişteanu's book doesn't leave anything aside from what was attributed, at one time or another, to the Jew. Even some apparently positive clichés – the one of the beautiful Jewish woman, or for instance, that of the intelligent Jew – reveal their anti-Semitic background. I should add the fact that the first reading of the book is visual: the illustration of the book is more than mere illustration. Over one hundred and seventy images make up a complementary discourse, an adjacent commentary to the text. The reader has in front of his eyes portraits of "real Jews", but also the pictures of "the imaginary Jew". Caricatures, prints and period illustrations present the Jew in the most grotesque hypostases possible. The Talmudic parable is not a very plausible parable: when two people go down the same chimney, in the same house, and one gets dirty and the other doesn't, one would expect that they talk with each other and only the one dirty with soot to wash his face. There is no doubt that both of them are thieves and their success depends on their getting along with each other. When the nations of Central and East Europe speak of a character that accompanied their history, one would expect their speech to be as real as possible, and not at all fictitious. History, like a parable, does not respect the laws of the plausible. Imagination proves to be more powerful and acquires the force of the real.
Cultura, 2-8 February 2005

by Cătălin D. Constantin