All Things to All Men

"Jerusalem - Ombre et Mirage," by David Mendelson, French texts translated by Colette Butner, English texts translated by Dori Manor and Anna Herman, Yedioth Ahronoth, 486 pages, NIS 78.

Eitan Bar-Yosef
Share in Facebook
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Eitan Bar-Yosef

"Jerusalem - Ombre et Mirage," by David Mendelson, French texts translated by Colette Butner, English texts translated by Dori Manor and Anna Herman, Yedioth Ahronoth, 486 pages, NIS 78

Mark Twain surveying in gaping astonishment the trickling Jordan River, which he had imagined as being as wide as the mighty Mississippi, or Flaubert sighing with emotion as he first entered Jerusalem - itinerant writers who visited the Holy Land in the 19th century continue to exude a strange charm. The mystique is partly a kind of pleasurable tingling that occurs when we turn the pages of an old photo album. Partly, the charm comes from our tendency to be grateful to any prominent cultural figure who wandered into our remote part of the globe. Some consolation is apparently to be drawn from the fact that so many writers and artists braved dangers and sweltering heat, and made their way to our small, provincial country. Could that mean, we ask ourselves, that there really is something to be found in it!?

It is thus no wonder that David Mendelson's new book, "Jerusalem - Ombre et Mirage," which follows some of these prominent travelers on their journeys to the Holy Land, joins a crowded place on the library shelves, which includes not only pioneering works such as Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh's "The Rediscovery of the Holy Land in the 19th Century" (Jerusalem, 1984), but also a series of journey diaries published by the Defense Ministry (edited by Rehavam Ze'evi), and various anthologies of travelers' tales.

Mendelson's book is really one such anthology. It is a long collection of quotations, some of which are culled from books already found on local library shelves, and others that had not been translated into Hebrew, such as Chateaubriand's "Itineraire de Paris a Jerusalem, et de Jerusalem a Paris," or Herman Melville's obscure poem "Clarel" (brilliantly translated by Dori Manor and Anna Herman).

Quotes in Mendelson's book are arranged in terms of stages in the visits to Jerusalem. Reasons for the journey are followed by the appearance of the city from afar; then come impressions of holy sites, appearances of Jews and Arabs, and descriptions of mundane physical structures (including slaughter-houses) and esoteric messianic dreams; finally, there is the journey home.

But Mendelson's analysis does not end abruptly with the conclusions of visits to the Holy City: He surveys ways in which Jerusalem influenced subsequent works by the writers. With considerable insight, he points to an array of links between travel literature and the painting, photography and even the music of the 19th century. In other words, Mendelson conjures an impressive textual arabesque. Much of the pleasure derived from the volume comes from our heightened awareness of the different methods and moods in the writers' works: There is the inflated ego in Chateaubriand's work, the compelling mixture of vulgarity and refinement in Flaubert, the wry writ in Twain, the depressive melancholy in Melville, the comic grotesque in Gogol, and so on.

Muddled `mirage'

Mendelson's fundamental assumption is that visits undertaken by writers to Jerusalem were dominated by motifs. "One is shadow, which religious tradition likened to Satan's presence, whereas modern philosophy and science used [shadows as a metaphor for] religious obscurantists and the unknown parts of the universe, whereas the second element is mirage, which folklore had dealt with since ancient days, but which the sciences discovered and analyzed in depth only in the 19th century" (page 16).

This thesis is problematic partly because of the lack of clarity of the term "mirage." Readers of the Hebrew translation will initially believe that the author is referring to concepts such as "vision" or "spectacle." The term's meaning as an illusory "mirage" becomes clear only later in the text. Mendelson starts by evoking the term in a limited sense of optical illusion. Eventually, however, he goes well beyond this circumscribed meaning, and suggests that tension between shadow and mirage captures every possible contrast stirred by Jerusalem's past and present landscape and society - the earthly and the heavenly, the old and new, sin and sanctity, the blessed and the cursed, etc.

This elastic use of terms is reminiscent of Shimon Peres' rhetoric, whose introduction to the book is filled with sentences such as: "[Jerusalem] enlightens some and dazes others. When a person wants to leap upward in the city, he can scale the heights, but when he becomes alienated from it, he is liable break into pieces" (page 14). In other words, terms that were supposed to describe subtle shades of experience in the visits of Westerners to Jerusalem mutate, in the end, as a series of prosaic couplings that do not provide much insight.

Mendelson tries to uncover the common denominator linking the writers, yet some of the examples and generalizations do not hold their ground in the analysis. He writes, for instance, that "none of them were religious, apart from Gogol, who incidentally believed with the same fervor in Satan and God" (page 34). But later, he reveals that William Thackeray was an "unyielding Protestant" (page 36) who criticized Victorian society for "lacking a sufficient measure of Christianity" (page 51). Occasionally, the generalizations seem hyperbolic. For instance, it turns out that all the writers suffered from serious medical ailments: Gogol suffered from stomach ailments and had episodes of psychotic delusion; Disraeli suffered from nervous disorders; Thackeray had anxiety attacks; Edward Lear had nervous breakdowns, deluded visions and bouts with melancholy; Melville was wracked by various phobias and tottered on the brink of nervous collapse, etc.

Indians and Arabs

Despite its considerable charm, the book suffers from two main limitations. The first flaw involves the author's strenuous effort to identify points of commonality between the writers. Mendelson sometimes forgets that differences between the writers are sometimes not less important than elements shared by them. For instance, he seldom relates to the gap between Catholicism and Protestantism, which exercised a tremendous impact on the way in which visitors perceived the Holy Land. In his important work on photography pioneers in the Holy Land, Yeshayahu Nir reveals that Catholics tended to focus on holy sites, whereas Protestants preferred to make pilgrimages to hills where, they believed, Jesus wandered. This distinction produced different formulations of senses of ownership of the Holy Land landscape.

Diverse perceptions of Near East spaces derived not only from religious differences. Concrete political experiences shaped an array of feelings and perceptions in the region. In his work "Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient" (1995 edition, London, Penguin Books), Edward Said points to the roots of different responses evoked by French and English visitors. For the French pilgrim, writes Said, "the Mediterranean echoed with the sounds of French defeats, from the Crusades to Napoleon." The French visitor "came to a place in which France, unlike Britain, had no sovereign presence." (page 169). In contrast, for British visitors, whose country ruled India (and, after 1882, also Egypt), the journey symbolized the realization of imperial promise. But Mendelson devotes very little space to politics, imperial interests or Orientalism.

One fascinating discussion in the book deals with Chateaubriand's visit to North America, and a comparison he drew between Indians and the Arabs in Jerusalem. "Everything about the [Native] American attests to savagery, which has yet to reach the stage of culture," wrote Chateaubriand. "Everything about the Arab attests to a man of culture who returned to the age of savagery" (Mendelson, page 131). Melville and Twain also compared Indians and Arabs, but Mendelson chooses not to pursue this analogy or probe its possible cultural and political meanings.

Finally, the fact that Mendelson does not include women in this survey cannot be overlooked. A writer and critic like Harriet Martineau was as well known in her time as many male counterparts who weave their way into Mendelson's study. Billie Melman convincingly shows ("Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918," London, Macmillan, 1995) how gender fashioned the way in which the Holy Land and its inhabitants were perceived, since women tended to write in opposition to, or beyond the borders of, the hegemonic male discourse.

A book such as Mendelson's need not dance to a critical theory, post-colonial beat. Yet there is something strangely redundant about the author's tendency to group together these experiences and travel records: Due to the way in which journeys to the Holy Land were carried out, they were often very, very similar. This feeling of familiarity is well known to anyone who has perused a few 19th-century Holy Land travel chronicles one after the other. In fact, as early as 1852, one of the British weeklies complained: "Oh! Another book about the East. If you've read one, you've read them all. The same Arabs, the same camels ..."

This lament raises the second major flaw of Mendelson's book - its readability. The author explains that his intent is assemble "a mosaic of quotations which can be compared to what contemporary criticism calls a `hyper-text.'" The volume, he writes, is a kind of "instrument to project pictures and quotes, like a CD Rom" (page 18). But in a book which lacks a "Find" command, and also, regrettably, an index, this comparison to a CD Rom is a bit misleading. This is, in fact, a published index card, and the fact that it is an index card compiled by such a learned scholar only compounds the frustration.

Eitan Bar-Yosef wrote a doctorate on the image of the Holy Land in 19th-century English culture.