On the 50th anniversary of S.Y. Agnon’s acceptance speech
A dazzling examination of the life of one of the most powerful and enigmatic figures of the nineteenth century. A dandy, a best-selling novelist, and a man of political and sexual intrigue, Benjamin Disraeli was one of the most captivating figures of the nineteenth century. His flirtation with proto-Zionism, his ideas about power and empire, and his fantasies about the Middle East remain prophetically relevant today. How a man who was born a Jew—and who remained in the eyes of his countrymen a member of a despised minority—managed to become prime minister of England seems even today nothing short of miraculous. In this compelling biography, renowned poet and critic Adam Kirsch looks at Disraeli as a novelist as well as a statesman, recognizing that the outsider Jew who became one of the world’s most powerful men was his own greatest character. Though baptized by his father at the age of twelve, Disraeli was seen—and saw himself—as a Jew. But he created an idea of Jewishness to rival the British notion of aristocracy. Disraeli was a figure of fascinating contradictions: an archconservative who benefited from England’s liberal attitudes, a baptized Christian who saw Jewishness as a matter of racial superiority, a perennial outsider who dreamed of glory for England, which, in the words of one contemporary, became for Disraeli “the Israel of his imagination.
Benjamin Disraeli’s career seems almost the stuff of legend. At a time when many European Jews lived in abject poverty and most had yet to gain the right to vote, he reached the very pinnacle of British politics. Intimate with royalty and the elite of British society for the better part of the nineteenth century, he was twice prime minister. Yet all the while, thanks to public discomfort with both his Jewish background and his roaring ambition, his loyalty to England was often questioned and his honesty was a frequent topic of debate. Blending his astute political skills with his talents as a novelist, he worked tirelessly at his own personal mythology, fashioned from an enhanced family background, sweeping ambition, and his self-described status as “blank page between the Old Testament and the New.” The following questions are designed to help guide you through his life and work and perhaps spark further discussion. The Jewish Thinker and Writer “I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.” —Benjamin Disraeli “The only liberation a Jew needs is liberation from Judaism.” —Benjamin Disraeli Adam Kirsch talks about Disraeli’s “eccentric understanding of his Jewishness.” What exactly does he mean by that? Did Disraeli see Judaism as a race or a religion? Why did Disraeli feel such a need to aggrandize his family background? How did that fit in with his sense of who he was? How did he, as Kirsch puts it, “reimagine his Judaism as a glorious inheritance”? Disraeli was baptized at the age of twelve by a father who had, at best, a tenuous Jewish education himself. He grew up without any real knowledge of the Jewish religion or its rituals, yet was always proud to call himself a Jew and to use that definition to his own advantage. How? When Disraeli claimed he was “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New,” what did he mean? How does that statement reflect his understanding of his own background and what he aimed to accomplish in life? Where did he place himself within the span of Jewish history? What do you think he meant when he said, “Christianity is Judaism for the multitude and the Arabs are only Jews upon horseback”? How does that reflect his attitude towards religion overall? In what ways did Disraeli trade on the relative exoticness of his background? Or as Kirsch says, how did he “turn his Jewishness from a handicap into a mystique”? Is his life story a particularly Jewish one? That is, is there something within it that speaks of the Jewish experience, whether in the nineteenth century, or in England, or, in its confrontation with modernity? How is Disraeli a quintessentially modern figure? The Political Animal “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” —Benjamin Disraeli “We shall certainly try to knock up the Government again, if only for the fun of the thing.” —Benjamin Disraeli “The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes.” —Benjamin Disraeli As leader of the Tory party, his beloved “Party of the Nation,” how could Disraeli have seen himself as a “vindicator of English traditions when to all practical appearances he was always seen as an alien”? How did he reconcile his unique position with the party’s lack of support for Jewish causes, such as its refusal to back a change in the law so that legally elected Lionel de Rothschild could take his seat in Parliament? Historian Asa Briggs said of Disraeli, “Intelligence and dexterity allied with creative imagination formed an unusual blend of qualities in an English party leader.” How did he use his “creative imagination” in the political sphere? Did his own personal mythology help him politically? Disraeli was the supreme political opportunist: candid in owning up to his motives, brazen in his use of charm and flattery. How did his charm work both for and against him? Kirsch writes of Disraeli that “it was the unavoidable fact of his Jewishness that made his ambition suspect.” Why do you think that his ambition seemed such a negative aspect of his political career to observers? Why, given the stigma attached to him, would he want entrée into a world that deemed him and his ambition so deeply suspect? Biographer Robert Blake wrote that Disraeli was “unsympathetic to all forms of nationalism except English nationalism.” How was that reflected in his foreign policy decisions? How did it affect his thinking about the British Empire? Looking ahead, do you think he would have been supportive of Theodor Herzl? What would he have made of Zionism? Disraeli revered both the British Crown and the Empire. Why? What fueled his enthusiastic support of the British Raj in India? Do you think his position as an outsider in British society contributed to his zealous support of Britain’s imperial status? Or should it have made him more sensitive to the realities faced by the Empire’s subjects? Literary Life “Throughout his life Benjamin Disraeli was addicted to romance and careless about facts.” —Robert Blake “Mediocrity can talk, but it is for genius to observe.” —Benjamin Disraeli Adam Kirsch talks about how, in many ways, Disraeli lived his life as a novel. What does he mean by that, exactly? How was Disraeli’s public persona as much a product of his literary talents as his novels were? Kirsch focuses heavily on Disraeli’s literary life, on the idealized representations of Disraeli’s self often found in his novels. What sort of discrepancies existed between how he represented himself as a novelist, or with how he represented himself in his novels, and how he acted as a politician? Being a novelist was, in many ways, a natural outgrowth of who he was and was deeply connected to his political self. How did he use his novels as political tools? The character of Sidonia, the wealthy banker and eminence grise, appears in several novels—Tancred, Sybil, and Coningsby. He is both a figure of great power and prestige, someone to be emulated and admired, yet, in many ways he embodies typical nineteenth century European stereotypes and prejudices about Jewish control and influence. Kirsch write about the character “as a sort of exultation in Jewishness, that it could bring a sort of power and pride. Today, can this character be seen in the positive light in which Disraeli wrote about him? Who do you think served as models for Sidonia? In his novels, such as Alroy, Coningsby, and Tancred, Disraeli in many ways fashioned himself as a sort of Jewish national leader, imagining Palestine as a romantic homeland. Yet politically, he in no way furthered the aims and needs of Jews in either Britain or Palestine, even assiduously avoiding such dealings. Why? What elements in his life do you think made him behave in such a way? Do you think he found the literary world to be a safer forum for expressing his Jewish side? Outsider versus Insider “Actor and spectator both, the two characters were so intimately blended together in the odd composition that they formed an inseparable unity, and it was impossible to say that one of them was less genuine than the other” —Lytton Strachey “We are all dreadfully disgusted at the prospect of having a Jew for our Prime Minister.” —Lady Palmerston “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.” (The old Jew, he’s the man) —Otto von Bismarck Kirsch uses the words of Hannah Arendt, describing Disraeli as an “exception Jew”. What does he mean by that? In what way does Disraeli fit into that category? Was his Jewish background just a means to an end for him? Kirsch writes that Disraeli was “torn between the possibilities of individual and collective redemption.” What did Kirsch mean by that? Do you think Disraeli was torn? How did he reconcile his desire for power and status with his desire to lead England? Were they even separate desires? For all his stunning success and integration into the upper echelons of English society, Disraeli remained, for all practical purposes, an outsider, always perceived as a Jewish parvenu. How so? How could one be an outsider and be so intimate with the Queen? How did he avoid being perceived as a court Jew in his relationship with her? Kirsch writes of Disraeli’s life as, in many ways, a tragedy, and of Disraeli as a man who had achieved at the highest levels possible in his society, yet for whom there was always a lingering sense of disappointment. Do you think that this was the case? Why would he have been disappointed? How have things changed since Disraeli’s time? Has the stigma of the “racial taint” that followed Disraeli throughout his career diminished? Did his presence in English politics in fact change anything or blaze a path for anyone? Or was he sui generis, as much as product of his own imagination as time? Could you imagine a Jew as prime minister of the United Kingdom today? As president of the United States? What sort of legacy do you think Benjamin Disraeli wanted to leave for himself and for England? Though married, his wife was substantially older and they had no children; he left no one behind to carry on his work and his name. Is this in any way significant? Was he his own best creation? And indeed, is this obsession with self, with his own mythology, the essence of Disraeli? Does this make him very modern?
“Adam Kirsch has produced a charming and absorbing aperçu into one of the most fascinating statesmen of modern history. A delightful read.” Continue reading
“Kirsch has written an important and compelling book about Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister of England, who famously replied, ‘Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.’ This engaging biography gives nuance and meaning to one of the most enigmatic men of the Victorian era.” Continue reading
“This is a lively, inquiring biography that reveals the prideful, exceptional man behind the famous politician.” Continue reading
ADAM KIRSCH, a book critic for the New York Sun, is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New Republic. He is the author of two poetry collections, The Thousand Wells and Invasions, and two works of nonfiction … Continue reading