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The “Child Prodigy” and the “Wandering Mare”: Nineteenth-Century Japanese and Yiddish Works Satirizing Idealism and Attacking Cynicism

Wednesday, February 15th, 2023, at 12:00 pm
Shipley Recital Hall in the Frank Center

Abstract:  In the later nineteenth century, many Japanese and East European Jews, respectively, perceived their polities to be under threat from Western governments.  At the same time, some also found hope in the humanitarian idealism that the West promoted.  This talk explores this mixed atmosphere by examining two satirical works:  Japanese democratic activist Nakae Chomin’s A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government (1887) and foundational Yiddish novelist Sholem Abramovitch’s The Mare (1873).  Each story has an idealist whom other characters criticize.  Each also has a cynic—an ultranationalist and a devil, respectively—who is shown to be both wisely realistic and foolishly vicious.  By reading these works carefully, we gain a new appreciation for the hard choices that peoples around the world faced as the West rose to a position of dominance.

David B. Gordon teaches Asian history for the Department of History at Shepherd University.  He earned a PhD in modern Japanese intellectual history at the University of Hawaii in 1997 and is now in his 23rd year of teaching at Shepherd.  In addition to publishing a biography of the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yatsen, he has composed several biographical essays for Education About Asia, a journal for educators seeking to increase Asia-related content in their courses.  Most recently, he undertook a research sabbatical in Fall 2022, during which he composed and submitted an essay on the topic of today’s lecture.