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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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'?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.