My 2023 Reads
Für meine deutschsprachigen Leser gibt es diesen Artikel auch auf Deutsch (PDF, 190 kB).
On Sacred Hangmen, Mythmaking and Hate
The laurels for my last twelve months, literature-wise, go to two non-fiction authors.
To begin with, my most interesting (and just as improbable) discovery was Hyam Maccoby. I say »improbable« because I’m not a religious man, and Maccoby was a writer specialising in the evolution of Christianity and its relation to Judaism. But Maccoby’s investigations are not driven by purely theological and religio-historical interest. Rather his main subject was the genesis and history of antisemitism.
Maccoby’s »Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil« was one of my first reads in 2023. It was so compelling that I also bought his »The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity« in which Maccoby elaborates on his theory about the real, the historical origins (or rather the creation) of the Christian religion with Jesus Christ as its human God who had to be sacrificed for the salvation of humankind. This strange concoction of crypto-polytheism, of Gods mingling with ordinary mortals, and of human sacrifice was, according to his said theory, the invention of Saul alias Paul and the early chroniclers and exegetes of the new church.
Maccoby relates Paul’s ideas to sources like gnosticism and mystery cults (besides Judaism, obviously) and tries to glean evidence for his hypothesis from the only sources that are available: the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and accounts of contemporary historians like Josephus. A crucial point he wants to make is that Jesus was not the outcast as whom Christian tradition represents him but was firmly attached to the Jewish faith and community and was seen by common people as well by the scholars as an »ordinary messiah« – that is: a human, an earthly man who, with God’s help, wants to free his people from the Roman yoke.
Paul, according to Maccoby, was at odds and soon in open conflict with the Jewish scholars (once his idols and colleagues) and resolved on marketing his own flavour of the Jesus story – a mixture that, by removing the element of revolt and adding some pinches of gnosticism, would be more palatable for Hellenestic and Roman gusto.
For the Jews, Paul reserved the dire, but indispensable role of the Sacred Executioners, personified in the figure of Judas Iscariot. You need not be a genius to see the link to antisemitism here …
As you can tell from my rather verbose summary, this was a really intriguing read – just like a blend of history, detective work and a touch of soap opera.
In October, I added »Antisemitism and modernity« to my little Maccoby collection. As its title says, this book revolves around the question of how antisemitism could not only survive the era of enlightenment and the subsequent decline of religion in Western Europe (and thus of the significance of ideas like that of the »Sacred Executioner«) but could even thrive and culminate in the horror of the Shoah.
The book also touches Islamic antisemitism with its different source – the contempt of the young, invincible newcomer for the vanquished and obsolete – and the reasons for its marked rise since the early twentieth century. But this is more of a side note and you’ll find other authors who specialise in examining the antisemitism of the Islamic world (like Georges Bensoussan in his book »Les Juifs du monde arabe«).
From Atatürk to Erdoğan
And à propos Islamic world: my other non-fiction favourite last year has been »Die gespaltene Republik« (The Divided Republic), a history of the Turkish republic in which Çiğdem Akyol draws a rich and unbiased picture of one hundred years of a chequered and troubled development with steps forward and backward, with achievements and hope but also with tragedy and pain.
When I don’t spend as many words on Akyol’s book here as I’ve just done on Maccoby’s works, this doesn’t signify any difference of appreciation (rather I’m feeling a bit concerned about my readers’ patience …). It’s well-written, it’s up-to-date and, perhaps most importantly, Akyol manages to give us a view on developments and protagonists from more than one angle, something that I sorely miss in our public debates today.
(Unfortunately, this book hasn’t been published in English yet but it deserves to be.)
New Objectivity versus Surrealism
As for fiction, my literary 2023 is not associated with a discovery that had an impact on me like some of the previous years’ favourites.
But there were good reads. Hermann Kesten, for example, had been on my »To Read« list for a very long time and I’d stumbled upon his name again and again before, last year, I finally read two of his novels: »Glückliche Menschen« and »Die Abenteuer eines Moralisten«, the former pre-war and the latter from 1961. Kesten not only belonged to the many authors and artists who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s but was conspicuous as a tireless editor, publisher and promoter of other exiled authors.
While Kesten’s own works are subsumed under the label of New Objectivity, Boris Vian was at home in very different genres. I read his very surreal novel »Froth on the Daydream« (L'Écume des jours) and mentioned it in my most recent »Song in Ink« already.
There were also some short stories (my favourite form of fiction): the collection »The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas« (Los gauchos judíos) by Alberto Gerchunoff which, apart from some of its last stories and apart from the interesting historical background, I found rather boring (probably, because the description of the book had made me expect something different). And another collection of grotesque and surreal (and rather gloomy) stories by Eugen Egner: »Der wahre Zusammenhang der Dinge« (translating which into English would be no fun, I suppose).
History Pop Star
While writers like Maccoby and Akyol confine their works to limited fields of which they have firm knowledge, it seems to have become fashionable among some authors to belabour a wider canvas and publish books with lofty titles like »The World From Big Bang To AI« or »On Everything«. I presume that stuff sells – however: the more daunting the title, the lesser the probability that the author manages to produce something commensurate …
Yuval Noah Harari named his breakthrough work »Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind«.
Don’t get me wrong here – I know that Harari is not an idiot but judging from my subjective viewpoint as an amateur and from the reading experience other authors gave me, I cannot but say that Harari did not rise to the challenge of the title he gave his book. »Sapiens« was my most disappointing read last year. Had Harari’s prime target been to impress a school class or an auditorium crowded by young students I’d concede that the mixture of fervour, bias, simplification, (affected) activism, truisms, logical gaps, and the one or other (lame) joke might have done the job. But the book isn’t marketed as a book for youths.
Moreover, the paucity of footnotes, of references to specialist writings, statistics or reports, and of charts and graphs is just as remarkable as Harari’s zeal and self-assurance.
As for me, I simply felt annoyed and am still wondering how the heck »Sapiens« could have gained so much acclaim and become such a huge bestseller. My copy of the book is dotted with angry annotations that I’ve jotted onto the page margins while reading. One recurring nuisance, for instance, is that Harari seems to not be able (or willing) to differentiate between things fictive and things intangible but real. For him, fairies, the Yeti and a kid’s invisible friend are the very same thing as contracts, conventions or theories. Or corporate entities, for that matter …
It would be tedious (for my readers) to quote all my annotations here and as I said: maybe I’m too much of a blockhead and simply didn’t get it. So let me refer you to the critical comments of more qualified judges. Like Darshana Narayanan’s article »Dangerous Populist Science of Yuval Noah Harari« on currentaffairs.org and Christopher Robert Hallpike’s »Review of Yuval Harari's Sapiens« (PDF on his website).
Finally, 2023 was also a year of re-reads. First and foremost, I read Robert Sapolsky’s formidable »Behave« and the equally impressing »The Isles« by Norman Davies for the second time (and I’m sure I will read them a third time). And I re-read some novels, too. Like Dostoevsky’s »Demons«, some books from my youth, and some graphic novels.
This has become quite an article! Maybe, I’d better have written a separate blog post about Hyam Maccoby. But then – no harm done, eh? And the next books are already pressing to be the first to be added to my 2024 list of reads.