Recent Posts



Wednesday, 2 December 2009
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, & Zionism: Some Observations

by Ibn Warraq (December 2009)

Part One: A.

eorge Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was first published in 1876, and proved to be her last novel. The novel begins in August 1865, and is thus set in, and a searching analysis of, the Victorian society of her day. Daniel Deronda is at once a love story, and a novel of ideas - two interwoven strands running through it. One strand concerns the life and moral development of the heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, a selfish but sparkling woman of great charm at home in the fashionable, upper-class world of Victorian England, and the other looks with empathy at the world of Jews and their aspirations, mainly in England but also in the wider European context. Bridging the two worlds is the good, wise, compassionate Daniel Deronda, brought up as an English gentleman, who discovers that his mother was Jewish, and by the end of the novel takes up the cause of restoring the Jewish nation in Palestine. more>>>
Posted on 12/02/2009 10:03 AM by NER
6 Dec 2009
Irfan Khawaja

I enjoyed this, as usual, but I think neither you nor Hitchens go nearly far enough in criticizing Said's claims about Daniel Deronda.

For one thing, Hitchens seems only an equivocal ally in your enterprise. He makes a few criticisms of Said, as you note, but in the end, he more or less concedes Said's case (For the Sake of Argument, p. 338). The criticism is that Eliot was ignorant of the problem constituted by Zionist settlement of Palestine. Hitchens implies that it is possible that she was culpably ignorant, and that was precisely Said's point.

I think it's worth stepping back and asking, "What exactly is Said's point?" Once one asks this question of almost any Saidian text, the claims of the text essentially evaporate into thin air.

The discussion of Daniel Deronda is in The Question of Palestine, from pp. 60 to about 67. (It's remarkable in itself that Said devotes seven continuous pages to a novel in a book that is supposed to be making a moral and juridical case for Palestinian rights. The literary criticisms do almost nothing to bolster that case.)

The first few paragraphs of Said's critique simply summarize the character, plot, and theme of the novel. By p. 62, Said suggests that the novel's Zionism involves the search for a sense of belonging, and home. This continues through to the end of p. 63. Hence three pages into a seven page "critique," Said has said absolutely nothing critical, either of Eliot, Daniel Deronda, or even Zionism--unless the desire for a home or a sense of belonging is a vice or an injustice.

The crucial passage comes on p. 64, where Said reproduces a long passage spoken by the character Mordecai. He italicizes six phrases in the passage in an attempt to suggest that there is something untoward in Mordecai's views, hence in Zionism, hence in Eliot's, hence in "the culture of high-liberal capitalism" (p. 66). But every move in this "argument" is a non-sequitur:  (1) We have not been told what is untoward in Mordecai's views. (2) We have not really been given evidence that Mordecai's views are Eliot's. (3) Mordecai is a fictional character, not an all-purpose stand-in for Zionism. (4) And Zionism is not emblematic of capitalism.

The "critique" proper comes on p. 65, and it is little more than a critique of the Mordecai speech. The crux of the criticism is that neither Mordecai nor by extension Eliot give sufficient thought to "the actual inhabitants of the East, Palestine in particular." Said assumes without the slightest argument that failure to think about the natives in a place to which one is emigrating ipso facto implies a desire to expropriate them, dominate them, harm them, rule them, or expel them.

In fact, it implies none of those things. How many Arab or other Asian immigrants to the US,  Canada, and UK give careful thought to the nature of the native inhabitants of those countries? How many would-be immigrants sit around thinking, "I'd like to immigrate to the US, but I'm torn: immigration has adverse consequences on native wages, after all!" Since many of them give no thought at all--the West is a place to make money, not engage in cross-cultural dialogue with Westerners--would Said then infer that they should be assumed to have predatory purposes here? In that case, his reasoning would differ little from that of the average nativist anti-immigrant zealot. What is concealed by his rhetoric is that when it comes to Palestine, that is precisely what he is. The sheer act of a (fictional) Jews' immigrating to Palestine becomes, in his view, a desire to harm the native population.

How does Said demonstrate that a desire to settle in Palestine means a desire to mistreat Palestinians? To demonstrate this, one has to demonstrate that there was no way to settle in Palestine without mistreating them. But this claim is demonstrably, obviously, false. The burden of proof here is Said's, and he doesn't begin to meet it. Indeed, he has no clue that there is a burden there to meet.

Later on the same page, Said accuses Eliot, along with Mill and Marx, of racism. I don't much care to defend Marx (I think he was a racist), but the supposed case against Mill that he makes in Orientalism is highly equivocal. More to the point, he has not offered a particle of evidence for the claim about Eliot. He has simply conjured up, out of the blue, the claim that she must be a racist because her failure to discuss Palestinians in a discussion of immigration to Palestine entails a racist desire to expropriate them. Unfortunately for Said, not a single element of this reasoning has actually been vindicated anywhere in his text. It takes more than overheated rhetoric to show that someone's failure to mention X entails a desire to violate X's rights.

On p. 66, Said makes the vast claim that Eliot's view was representative of "the culture of high liberal capitalism." Put aside the blatant obvious essentialism of this claim, completely at odds with the supposedlanti-essentialism to which he so loudly claims allegiance. What sense does it make? In what way is Eliot a defender of capitalism? In what way is Zionism connected to capitalism? In what way does capitalism have anything at all to do with Daniel Deronda? What, by the way, is "capitalism" and how is it related to "culture"? Without answers to these elementary questions, Said's claims are unintelligible. But he offers no answers to them.

I think the real target of Said's critique of Eliot is something deeper than Zionism. I think what so offends him is the passage from the novel he quotes about how a human life "should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth..." Said tells us repeatedly that this attitude is precisely what he lacked and repudiated all his life (see Culture and Imperialism, pp. 335-6). And yet he spent his life defending a form of nationalism based on the very rootedness he repudiated. That contradiction, like so many in his work, produced cognitive dissonance, and with it, the belligerent incoherence that marks so much of his writing.

OK, well I've gone on a bit, but I don't think Said should ever be let off the hook--any hook.