Schwarz 2


Daniel R. Schwarz. “‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin’: Jewish Perspectives in Disraeli’s Fiction.” Disraeli’s Jewishness. Eds. Todd M. Endelman and Tony Kushner. London and Portland, Or.: Vallentine Mitchell), 2002. 44-49.
  1. Alroy is Disraeli's ultimate heroic fantasy. He uses the figure of the twelfth-century Jewish prince Alroy as the basis for a tale of Jewish conquest and empire. Disraeli found the medieval world in which Alroy lived an apt model for some of his own values. He saw in that world an emphasis on imagination, emotion and tradition; respect for political and social hierarchies; and a vital spiritual life. Alroy anticipates Disraeli's attraction for the Middle Ages in Young England. Writing of the flowering of medieval Jewry under Alroy enabled him to express his opposition to rationalism and utilitarianism. In fact, the ‘historic’ Alroy was a self-appointed messiah in twelfth-century Kurdistan who asserted mythical and magic powers and who was finally executed and disgraced.

  2. Since completing Vivian Grey, Disraeli had been fascinated by Alroy, the Jew who had achieved power and prominence during Jewish captivity. But perhaps he needed the inspiration of his 1830 trip to Jerusalem to finish Alroy. On a journey with William Meredith that lasted almost 15 months, Disraeli visited Gibraltar, Malta, Corfu, Constantinople, Cairo, Alexandria and Jerusalem, a city that was to be vital to his definition of his spiritual identity as a Jewish hero possessing a particular spiritual insight. At his several stops, his behaviour and dress were flamboyant, a studied effort to impress his various hosts with his energy, wit and confidence; the experience was to stand him in good stead later on in his political career, for as Blake puts it, 'the world will take a man at his own.’1 In Greece he thought of himself as an heir to Odysseus: 'Five years of my life have been already wasted and sometimes I think my pilgrimage may be as long as that of Ulysses.'2 His tone also reveals a kind of Romantic listlessness that sometimes interrupts the hyperactive mood of his letters from his Grand Tour.

  3. Disraeli wrote in the preface to The Revolutionary Epick (1834) that the purpose of Alroy was 'the celebration of a gorgeous incident in the annals of that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name'.3 Undoubtedly the tale of a Jew becoming the most powerful man in an alien land appealed to Disraeli, who at the age of 29 had still to make his political mark or artistic reputation. Indeed, David Alroy's first name evokes visions of the David and Goliath legend, which embodies another victory for a Jewish underdog. Disraeli uses the factual Alroy as a basis for his romance, but extends Alroy's power and prowess and introduces supernatural machinery and ersatz kabbalistic lore and ritual.

  4. The fictional editor's notes, interweaving personal recollections of the East with abstruse knowledge of Jewish lore, mediate between the text and the audience. Alroy fuses the myths of the Chosen People, of return to the homeland and of the long-awaited messiah. As is appropriate in Judaic tradition, Alroy turns out to be a heroic man, but not without human limitations. His demise may be Disraeli's unconscious affirmation of the Jewish belief that the Messiah has not yet come to redeem mankind. When Jabaster, a wisdom figure who anticipates Sidonia, rebukes him for not following his mission ('you may be King of Bagdad, but you cannot, at the same time, be a Jew'), a spirit shrieks, 'MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN', the words upon the wall that Daniel interprets to mean that God had weighed Belshazzar and his kingdom and found them wanting.4 Significantly, Alroy regains the Jewish title Prince of Captivity after he is overthrown as Caliph. In his final suffering and humility, he has achieved the stature that the Jewish exiled prince, Disraeli's metaphor for himself, deserves.

  5. The Wondrous Tale of Alroy indicates Disraeli's commitment to his Jewish background. Alroy represents Disraeli's own dreams of personal heroism and political power in the alien British culture. Alroy embodies not only his concept of himself as a potential leader, but his notion that the nation requires strong, visionary leaders who are true to its traditional manners and customs.

  6. Disraeli wanted to establish the authenticity of his wondrous tale. For that reason he created as his editor-speaker a Jewish historian and scholar—the kind of bibliophile his father Isaac was. But he must have known that very few readers would discover that he had taken liberties with the Alroy legend and really knew only scattered bits and snips of kabbalah. One wonders whether the notes are in part an elaborate joke at the expense of readers apt to take the editor and themselves too seriously and accept as serious scholarship what is often mumbo jumbo. Is there not a note of deadpan humour in the following from the 1845 preface: 'With regard to the supernatural machinery of this romance, it is Cabalistical and correct'?

  7. In Alroy, finally, the Jewish desire for a messiah is not fulfilled, but Alroy has significance for others, and particularly other Jews, as an historical figure. His sister Miriam’s epitaph suggests Carlyle's notion of the value of an heroic figure: 'Great deeds are great legacies, and work with wondrous usury. By what Man has done, we learn what Man can do; and gauge the power and prospects of our race. . . . The memory of great actions never dies.'5 Disraeli the imaginative poet is the heir to Alroy the imaginative man. Perhaps, by telling his story of the Jew who rose to prominence in a foreign land, it became more plausible to imagine himself as a political leader. But if Alroy is an objectification of Disraeli's ambition, does he not also reflect Disraeli's anxieties and doubts, specifically his fear of his own sensual weakness and a certain paranoia about betrayal? Perhaps he wondered whether, like Alroy, he would be found somewhat wanting when his opportunity came.

  8. Yet Alroy indicated Disraeli's commitment to his Jewish origins. His surrogate, the narrator, glories in the Jewish victories and in the triumph of the Prince of Captivity over his oppressors and regrets his fall due to pride and worldliness. Disraeli's notes, which are a fundamental part of reading Alroy, show not only his knowledge of Jewish customs, but his wide reading in matters Jewish. They are there not only to demonstrate to both himself and his readers that he has the intellectual and racial credentials to narrate Jewish history and legend, but they give us the perspective of a Jewish scholar who is trying to provide an authoritative edition of the Alroy legend.

  9. Like Oscar Wilde, another flamboyant outsider, Disraeli used his literary creations as masks to disguise his wounded sensibilities and as devices to objectify aspects of himself that society would not tolerate. In his fiction, he freed himself from conventions and traditions, from priggishness and condescension, and found room for his fantasies. He discovered an alternative to the turmoil of his personal life in the act of creating the imagined worlds of his novels. But Disraeli's early novels are more than the creations of an egoistic, ambitious but frustrated young man who found a temporary outlet for his imagination in the fictions he created. For the roles one imagines are as indicative of one's real self as supposedly 'sincere' moments, intense personal relationships or daily routines. In the early novels the title character and the narrator represent the two sides of Disraeli. While the title character embodies Byronic fantasies of passionate love, heroism and rebellion against society's values, the narrator judges him according to standards that represent traditional values and the community's interest. In the first four books of Vivian Grey and in The Young Duke, the narrator represents the political and social health of England; in Alroy the narrator speaks for the interests of the Jews even after Alroy has betrayed them. In Contarini and in the later books of Vivian Grey, Disraeli speaks for a commitment to public life based on ideals rather than cynical self-interest.

  10. Disraeli's first four novels mime his psyche. His emotions, fantasies, aspirations and anxieties become fictional names, personalities and actions. These novels are moral parables told by himself for himself about ambitious egoists. He dramatises the political rise and setback of an unscrupulous young man; the moral malaise and subsequent enlightenment of a young English duke; the flamboyant career of a young count who is torn between politics and poetry as well as between feeling and intellect; and finally the biography of Alroy, a Jewish prince who conquers much of Asia only to lose his kingdom and his life as he compromises his principles.

  11. Disraeli uses his early novels, in particular Alroy and Contarini, as a means of controlling himself, of understanding himself and of exorcising flamboyant postures and forbidden emotions. For example, Alroy reflects Disraeli's fantasies of conquest and his will to power. In his early novels, the distinction between external events and the interior visions of the title character is blurred. The reason is that both are reflections of the author's subjective life and both are dramatisations of his evolving imagination. In Alroy, both the divine machinery and the title character's adventures are metaphorical vehicles for Disraeli's attitudes and states of mind, and have as little to do with the phenomenal world as do William Blake’s prophecies.

  12. Disraeli's career as artist and politician should be seen in the context of the Romantic movement. His imaginative use of travel followed in the footsteps of the Romantics, especially Byron, who regarded the continent, and in particular Italy and Greece, as exotic, passionate, impulsive and liberated from sexual restraints. As Harold Fisch has remarked,
    Insofar as his novels are the expression of his personal life, his feelings, his scarcely avowed hidden ideals, he achieves an appropriately resonant statement. His novels have the subtle egoism of all true romantics, of Shelley, of Wordsworth, of Milton. His subject is himself: he is Coningsby; he is Contarini Fleming; he is Alroy; he is Tancred; and he is the Wandering Jew, Sidonia. From these varied characters we are able to reconstruct the inner vision of Disraeli, the rich landscape of his dreams, his irrepressible vision of grandeur, of power, but power used for glorious and elevating ends . . . Disraeli is certainly an egoist, but if that means that he is impelled by a sense of personal dedication, of election, of being favoured and gifted to an almost unlimited degree, and of being charged with grand tasks and opportunities, then it is the sort of egoism which finds its parallel in the lives of the great romantic poets and dreamers, of Milton, Wordsworth and Shelley.6
    In the early novels, he could be the Romantic figure that so tantalised his imagination without sacrificing the public image that he wished to cultivate. To be sure, he might dress unconventionally and play the dandy, but that kind of socially sanctioned rebelliousness was different in kind rather than degree from the imagined social outlawry of Vivian Grey, Alroy and Contarini.

  13. Contarini Fleming and Alroy are meant as visions rather than restatements of known truths. Disraeli tries to extend into prose the fusion of politics and philosophy—as well as the range and imaginative energy—of the Miltonic epic and Romantic masterworks such as Blake's prophecies, The Prelude, Prometheus Unbound and Don Juan. While Disraeli's works at times seem bathetic when viewed in the context of this tradition, there can be no doubt that he saw himself in the line of Romantic visionaries as described by M. H. Abrams:
    The Romantics, then, often spoke confidently as elected members of what Harold Bloom calls 'The Visionary Company’, the inspired line of singers from the prophets of the Old and New Testament, through Dante, Spenser, and above all Milton . . . whatever the form, the Romantic Bard is one ‘who present, past and future sees’; so that in dealing with current affairs his procedure is often panoramic, his stage cosmic, his agents quasi-mythological, and the logic of events apocalyptic. Typically this mode of Romantic vision fuses history, politics, philosophy and religion into one grand design, by asserting Providence—or some form of natural teleology—to operate in seeming chaos of human history so as to effect from present evil a greater good.7


1 Robert Blake, Disraeli (London, 1966), p. 61.

2 Quoted in Blake, Disraeli, p. 65.

3 Quoted in William F. Monypenny and George E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 6 vols (London, 1910-20), Vol. 1, p. 198.

4 Alroy, Bk VIII, ch. Vi, pp. 156-7.

5 Ibid., Bk X, ch. xix, p. 241.

6 Harold Fisch, ‘Disraeli’s Hebraic Compulsions’ in H. S. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz and I. Finestein (eds), Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday (London, 1967), p. 91.

7 M. H. Abrams, ‘English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age’ in Harold Bloom (ed.), Romanticism and Consciousness (New York, 1970), pp. 102-3.