Golems, an Update

The overproduction of golems I described back in 2017 in the pages of the Jewish Review of Books continues apace. I recently listened to an audiobook of Servants of War, the first volume in Larry Correia and Steve Diamond’s new military fantasy series. In this novel, golems and the Jews who make them (especially a golem-maker named Amos Low) are the key to breaking a years-long trench-war stalemate between two fantasy empires modeled respectively on Tsarist Russia and Wilhelmine Germany.

In the world of Servants of War, nothing is as powerful as a golem.

In my JRB essay I explained that, even though golems are everybody’s favorite idea of Jewish fantasy, they do not have deep roots in Jewish tradition. In fact, they have a lot more to do with European anxieties about Jews, their modern popularity owing as much to non-Jewish (sometimes openly antisemitic) writers as to Jewish ones. (Cathy Gelbin’s 2011 book The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808-2008 is a must-read on this history.)

There is, for instance, the female golem in the German romantic writer Achim von Arnim’s 1812 novella Isabella of Egypt, who possesses, von Arnim writes, “only that which existed in the mind of her Jewish creator, namely pride, lust, and greed.” This golem is, moreover, one of three simulacra in von Arnim’s story, each one reflecting antipathy or at least ambivalence regarding Jews. In addition to the golem, there is a diminutive mandrake who becomes infuriated whenever his claims to humanity are questioned, challenging all comers to duel. No one will duel this fake man, however, given the uncertainty as to “whether he was a nobleman and a Christian,” let alone “whether he was human.”

One must read this in light of the fact that, in 1811, Von Arnim was challenged to a duel by a Jew who, when von Arnim refused either to apologize or duel (to fight a Jew would demean his honor, he said), thrashed him in public.

Von Arnim’s golem novella is obsessed with and conflicted about Jews.

In addition to the golem and the mandrake, Von Arnim’s title character Isabella is a Gypsy, one of a people doomed, we are told, to wander forever because they refused to show hospitality to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, yet also one day destined to merge their lineage with European nobility and sire a Messiah. Von Arnim’s Gypsies display elements of the Wandering Jew myth (a discussion for a later day) and messianic promise. They are substitute Jews in a story comprised of Jewish substitutes.

It is worth noting, too, that the classic locale of the golem legend, Jewish Prague, features in both antisemitic fantasy and more sympathetic recuperations. In 1868 the German writer Hermann Goedesche published his novel Biarritz, partially plagiarized from an earlier French satire, and that would help inspire the infamous antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Biarritz contains a chapter titled “At the Jewish Cemetery in Prague,” which reveals that the labyrinthine squalor of Prague’s Jewish quarter hides fabulous riches and international Jewish plots to control the world.

There is no golem here, yet Prague’s Jewish cemetery does contain monsters: “these tombs, overgrown with shrubbery, are ready to open… and to let out into the world the restless wanderer with a pack upon his shoulder, with a staff in his hand, in order to go again to strange peoples—to cheat and combat them and to seek a new Canaan—his dominion!” The Jews, “masters of the earth and tyrants of nations,” meeting beneath a giant golden calf, list their weapons in the subjugation and destruction of Christian civilization: international finance capital, real estate, industrialization, atheism, pacifism, subversion of church and army, political reform and protest, citizenship rights for Jews, science, art, and the press—all these features of modernity are revealed to be part of one vast Jewish plot to enslave Christendom. Jewish power and Jewish gold, we learn, “is the mystery of the Caballa.”

Umberto Eco includes Goedische in The Prague Cemetery, his novel about antisemitic derangement

In 2017 I showed how these anxieties about Jews and power at the origin of the golem’s modern popularity can be seen in present-day fantasies such as China Mieville’s Iron Council.

Here I want to propose what I think is the key to the continuing popularity of the golem in our own time, a popularity that has little to do with any Jewish significations, positive or negative. We can see this best in the work of Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett’s golems embody the contradictions in the idea of liberal autonomy. Golems, of course, have no free will; they think and do whatever their programming tells them to. In that sense, they are a figure for human beings in the materialistic, scientific world view: we perform the instructions planted in us by our genes, our conditioning, our societies and economic systems. Yet this dogma of liberal modernity contradicts another dogma of liberal modernity: that each of us is free, free to choose how we live our lives, to create our own values, to give expression to an inner uniqueness. Pratchett tries to square this circle.

The golems in his Feet of Clay (1996) are the property of owners who insert instructions on parchment into the golems’ heads. The golems decide to liberate themselves, first by constructing a golem king to rule over them. This doesn’t work: the creation of a new golem from scratch occasions inevitable flaws and, more importantly, the instructions they give this king to make him a perfect redeemer are simply too much for any leader to fulfill. The golem king malfunctions and becomes murderous, to the golems’ dismay. The dismissal of traditional religious redeemers here is evident.

Pratchett’s golems embody the contradictions in the idea of liberal autonomy

The golems do hit on a way to achieve their freedom, however. Through collective action, they begin to purchase themselves, thereby becoming their own masters, and allowing each redeemed golem to write its own parchment instructions. Pratchett seems to enjoy the Marxist resonances of his tale, with collective ownership of the means of (self-)production resulting in not only economic and political freedom but mental emancipation as well.

The novel is cheerfully indifferent to the contradictions in its materialist fantasy of liberation, never questioning how programmed selves can in any sense be said to choose their freedom. Our culture does not encourage such questions, and Pratchett’s winsome humor makes it easy to forget to ask. Without any programming in their clay heads save what they have written themselves, Pratchett’s liberated golems choose to do the right thing simply because that is what they choose to do. “I Could Kill You,” says one, in Pratchett’s all capitals golem-orthography, “This Is An Option Available To Me As A Free-Thinking Individual But I Will Not Do So Because I Own Myself And I Have Made A Moral Choice.” That this statement is both incoherent and a non-sequitur is not in the book’s purview. Being free to do whatever they want (i.e., whatever their new self-written programming tells them they want), they are happy, moral atheists, and Pratchett makes them the good guys.

Mr. Pump, one of Pratchett’s golems, makes the jump to television in the Sky 1 adaptation of Pratchett’s Going Postal

Pratchett’s golems drag along a bit of the shallow and inconsequential Jewishness that many of our contemporary American golems do. They have names such as “Klutz,” “Bobkes,” and “Shmata”—the sort of Yiddish words that have passed into English and signal the dismissiveness with which immigrant Jewish culture was treated by its new host countries and, even more so, by the descendants of those immigrants. There are more interesting touches though. The golems have a holiday that starts at sundown, and they pass from a Christian model of redemption (the golem king is sold off for the Judas sum of thirty coins) to an economic one.

But ultimately Pratchett’s golems are a free-floating symbol for any oppressed and suspect minority (“I hate bloody golems, takin’ our jobs…” “We ain’t got jobs.” “See what I mean?”) that, should it come to self-awareness (“Well, you know sir . . . Golems are just there, sir. No one notices golems”) will become an unstoppable force. Unstoppable but also reassuringly benign, since his golems are also a figure for a certain fantasy of the liberal self: self-programmed, free, and unflaggingly decent.

Pratchett’s fantasy of autonomy was extended more daringly in Mary Gentle’s alternative history Ash cycle, published just a few years after Feet of Clay. Gentle’s golems index not moral autonomy, but a fantasy of independence from history and, in the person of the books’ heroine, from biology. These works of the 1990s anticipated today’s combination of a materialist enthrallment with self-fashioning with an unquestioning metaphysics of authenticity. Golems, golems everywhere.

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