Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The Wandering Jew and Immortality by Dorothy Scarborough 1917
The Wandering Jew and Immortality by Dorothy Scarborough, Ph.D. 1917
Instructor in English in Extension, Columbia University
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THE fiction dealing with immortal life shows, more than any other aspect of the subject, humanity’s deep hunger for the supernatural. Whether it be stories of continuance of earthly existence without death as in the legends of the undying persons like the Wandering Jew; or of supernaturally renewed or preserved youth as described in the tales of the elixir of life; or of the transference of the soul after death into another body; or of life continued in the spirit in other worlds than this after the body’s death,—all show our craving for something above and beyond what we know here and now. Conscious of our own helplessness we long to feel ourselves leagued with immortal powers; shrinking affrighted from the grave’s near brink we yearn for that which would spare us death’s sting and victory. Sadly knowing with what swift, relentless pace old age is overtaking us we would fain find something to give us eternal youth. But since we cannot have these gifts in our own persons we seek them vicariously in fiction, and for a few hours’ leisured forgetfulness we are endowed with immortal youth and joy. Or, looking past death, we can feel ourselves more than conquerors in a life beyond.
“Oh world unknowable, we touch thee!
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!”
We somehow snatch a strange comfort from these stories of a life beyond our own. We are comforted for our mortality when we see the tragedy that dogs the steps of those who may not die, whether Swift’s loathsome Struldbrugs or the Wandering Jew. Our own ignorance of the future makes us credulous of any man’s dream of heaven and at the same time sceptical of anybody else’s hell. We are such indestructible optimists that we can take any sort of raw material of fiction and transmute it into stuff that hope is made of.
The Wandering Jew. There is no legend more impressive than that of the Wandering Jew, and none save the Faust theme that has so influenced literature. The story is as deathless as the person it portrays and has wandered into as many lands, though it is impossible to trace with certainty its origin or first migrations. There is an Arabian legend of one Samiri who forever wanders, crying, “Touch me not!” as there is a Buddhist account of a man cursed for working miracles for show, to whom Buddha said, “Thou shalt not attain Nirvana while my religion lasts.” There are similar Chinese and Indian versions and the idea occurs in English folk-tales, where the plovers are thought to be the souls of those that crucified Christ, condemned to fly forever over the world, uttering their plaintive cry.
The first appearance of the Wandering Jew in English literature is in the Chronicles of Roger of Wendover, who reports the legend as being told at the monastery of St. Albans by an Armenian bishop, in 1228, but to hearers already familiar with it. There are two distinct versions of the story appearing in English literature. One relates that the wanderer is a certain Cartapholus, a servant in Pilate’s palace, who struck Jesus a brutal blow as He was led forth to death, and to whom He said, “Thou shalt wander till I come!” The other is of German origin giving the personality of Ahasuerus, a shoemaker of Jerusalem, who mocked the Savior as He passed to Golgotha. Bowed under the weight of the cross, Christ leaned for a moment’s rest against the door of the little shop, but Ahasuerus said scornfully, “Go faster, Jew!” With one look of deep reproach, Christ answered, “I go, but tarry thou till I come!”
The Wandering Jew story is cosmopolitan, used in the literature of many lands. In Germany it has engaged the attention of Berthold Auerbach, Kingemann, Schlegel, Julius Mosen, and Chamisso, in France that of Edgar Quinet and Eugene Sue. Hans Christian Andersen has used it while Heijermans has written a Dutch play on it and Carmen Sylva, late Queen of Roumania, made it the basis for a long dramatic poem.
The theme has appeared in various forms in English literature, besides in fiction where it has been most prominent. A comedy was published in 1797, by Andrew Franklin, though the wanderer is here used only as a hoax. Wordsworth has a poem entitled The Song of the Wandering Jew, and Shelley was fascinated by the legend, as we see from the fact that he used it three times. One of his first poems, a long dramatic attempt, written at eighteen, is The Wandering Jew, a fevered poem showing the same weaknesses that his Gothic romances reveal, yet with a hint of his later power. The Wandering Jew appears as a definite character in both Queen Mab and Hellas, in the first Ahasuerus being summoned to testify concerning God, while he appears in the latter to give supernatural vision of events. In both poems he is very old, for in the first it is said:
“His port and mien bore marks of many years....
“Yet his cheek bore the mark of youth,” while in the latter he is described as being “so old he seems to have outlived a world’s decay.” Shelley follows the German version, as used in a fragment he picked up torn and soiled in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, whose author he did not know.
Mr. Eubule-Evans, in a long dramatic poem of considerable power, tells the story of Theudas, who could be released from his doom of immortality if only he would repent, but he will not. He renews his youth every forty years, growing suddenly from a decrepit man to a handsome, gifted youth, which naturally suggests complications of human love-affairs. Other elements of supernaturalism are used, as angels, demons, and so forth while the Æons and the Intermedii (whoever they are!) appear as chorus.
The Wandering Jew, a Christmas Carol, retells the story with variations and with some power. The Jew here is shown to be very old and feeble, clad in antique raiment, with stigmata of the wounds on hands and feet. He is symbolic of the Christ, of His failure to win men.
“For lo, at last I knew
The lineaments of that diviner Jew,
That like a Phantom passeth everywhere,
The world’s last hope and bitterest despair,
Deathless, yet dead!
And lo! while all men come and pass away
That phantom of the Christ, forlorn and gray,
Haunteth the earth, with desolate footfall.”
The Wandering Jew is seen definitely once in Gothic fiction, in Lewis’s The Monk, where a mysterious stranger, bearing on his forehead a burning cross imprinted, appears and is spoken of as the Wandering Jew. He is unable to stay more than fourteen days in any one place but must forever hurry on. Rev. T. Clark gives a bird’s-eye view of history such as a person of the long life and extensive migrations of the wanderer would see it.
The idea of a deathless man appealed strongly to Hawthorne, who plays with the theme in various passages in his works and notebooks. In A Virtuoso’s Collection, where Peter Rugg, the Missing Man, is door-keeper and where the collection includes a letter from the Flying Dutchman to his wife, together with a flask of the elixir of life, the virtuoso himself is none other than the Wandering Jew. He speaks of his destiny and says that human prayers will not avail to aid him. The touch of his hand is like ice, conveying a sense of spiritual as well as physical chill. The character appears also as one of the guests in A Select Party, of whom the author remarks: “This personage, however, had latterly grown so common by mingling in all sorts of society and appearing at the beck of every entertainer that he could hardly be deemed a proper guest in an exclusive circle.” This bit of satire illustrates how common the theme had become at that time in fiction.
There are various threads of narration tangled up with the Wandering Jew motif. He is said by some writers to have supernatural power to heal disease, while by others he is thought to be the helpless bearer of evil and death. Eugène Sue in his novel represents him as carrying the plague, knowing his awful destiny, yet, while wildly regretting it, powerless in the clutch of fate. Here he appears as a voluntary agent of good toward the Rennepont family and an involuntary minister of evil in other ways. An anonymous story uses the same idea of the plague association but carries it further, for here the wanderer is not a personality but the plague itself, passing like a doom over the world, which shows how far that phase of the legend has gone.
The legend has been utilized variously to impress religious truths. Charles Granville writes a symbolic story with a definite religious message. The idea of the immortal wanderer is represented as the concept of a part of humanity urged by an earnest longing which dominates their whole life and thought, the desire that a new kingdom of God might come. The book is a social satire, an appeal for the coming of a real democracy, real justice and genuine spirituality. George Croly has for his purpose the proving that Christ’s second coming is near at hand. Lew Wallace, who himself uses the theme of the Wanderer, thought this book one of the half dozen volumes which taken alone would constitute a British literature. We are likely to find ourselves questioning Wallace’s judgment in the matter, for while the novel is interesting and has a sermon impressed with some interest, it is by no means a great piece of literature. Salathiel is pictured as a young, enthusiastic, passionate Jew striving to defend his country against the woes that threaten her. His life is given in detail immediately following his unpardonable sin, and his definite career ends with the destruction of Jerusalem, though his immortality is suggested at the close. The book describes many supernatural happenings, the miraculous phenomena accompanying the death of Christ and manifestations following the fate of the city.
In Lew Wallace’s The Prince of India the deathless man appears again. In the beginning of the story he enters a vault from which he removes the treasure from mummy cases, remarking that the place has not been visited since he was there a thousand years before. He has numerous impressive experiences, such as seeing a monk that seems the reincarnation of Jesus, and hearing again the centurion’s call to him. Wallace pictures the Jew as old, a philosopher, in contrast to Salathiel’s impetuous youth. He is striving to bring the sons of men into closer spiritual truth with each other and with God, as Salathiel tries to prevent the material destruction of the city. The sense of responsibility, the feeling of a mission toward others, expressed in this novel, may be compared with that of Eugène Sue’s Wandering Jew who acts as a friend to the Rennepont family, protecting their interests against the wily Jesuits.
The Wandering Jew has been represented in many ways, with stress placed on various aspects of his life and character. He has been depicted psychologically, as a suffering human being, mythologically to illustrate the growth and change in life, religiously to preach certain tenets and beliefs, and symbolically to show forth the soul of man. He appears symbolically as the creature accursed of God, driven forever in the face of doom. Shelley and others show him as vainly attempting suicide, but living on, anguished yet deathless, in the face of every effort to take his own life as in the teeth of torture from others. He stands at once for the undying power of God’s plan, and, as in Robert Buchanan’s version, for the typified failure of Christ’s mission. He is used to prove that Christ’s second coming is near, and to prove also that He will never come. To the Christian he stands for the evidence of Christ’s power of divinity, while to the Jew he is a symbol of that unhappy race that wanders ever, with no home in any land.
Besides those mentioned, other English and American writers who have made use of the legend are Kipling; Bram Stoker, who discusses him in his assembly of Famous Impostors; M. D. Conway, who gives various versions of the story; David Hoffman, Henry Seton Merriman, S. Baring-Gould, W. H. Ainsworth, and others.
A legend closely associated with this and yet separate, is that of a woman who bore the curse of eternal wandering. One version brings in Herodias as the doomed woman, while the character of Kundry in Parsifal represents another feminine wanderer. William Sharp, in his Gypsy Christ, gives the story differently still, saying that it is not correctly told in Parsifal. As Sharp tells it, it is a piece of tragic symbolism. Kundry, a gypsy woman of evil life, mocks Christ on Golgotha and demands of Him a sign, to whom He says, “To thee and thine I bequeath the signs of my Passion to be a shame and horror among thy people forevermore!” Upon her hands and feet appear the stigmata of His wounds, never to fade away, and to be borne by her descendants in every third generation. Various ones of her descendants are crucified, and wherever the wanderers go on earth they bear the marks of horror. The curse would be lifted from them only when a Gypsy Christ should be born of a virgin; but then the Children of the Wind should be dispersed and vanish from among men. In the last chapter Naomi prophesies that she is to give birth to the Gypsy Christ.
The theme of the Wandering Jew, while rivalling the Faust legend in impressiveness and in the frequence with which it has been used in literature, yet is different in having had no adequate representation. No truly great poem or drama or novel has been written concerning this tragic, deathless character. Perhaps it may come yet. Only hints of his personality have appeared in very recent fiction, such as the reincarnation in the character of the young Jew in A. T. Quiller-Couch’s story, The Mystery of Joseph Laquedem, or the humorous reference to him in Brander Matthews’s Primer of Imaginary Geography, or The Holy Cross by Eugene Field, where the wanderer is pitied by a Spanish priest in Cortez’s train in Mexico. His prayers win forgiveness and the tortured Jew dies. After his death an earthquake supernaturally splits a gulf on each side of the grave and a cross of snow appears there, to remain forever. Perhaps the theme is fading out now in fiction and drama, to disappear completely, or perhaps it is lying forgotten for a while, waiting the master hand that shall give it adequate treatment.