More than 20 years ago, George Steiner, meditating on 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, posed the ‘taboo’ question that no one dared ask: ‘Has the survival of the Jew been worth the appalling cost?’ It was not just the horrors of the pogroms or of Auschwitz that ‘enforced’ the question for Steiner, nor the centuries of exclusion and violence but — equally destructive — ‘the fear, the degradation, the miasma of contempt, latent or explicit,’ which has been the hereditary birthright of every Jewish child ‘across the millennia’. ‘Would it not be preferable, on the balance sheet of human mercies,’ Steiner asked, ‘if he was to ebb into assimilation and the common seas?’
For the Orthodox believer, armed with the certainties of God’s covenant with His people, the question might not exist, but for those who cannot go down that road Norman Lebrecht’s urgent and moving history provides a different and stirring answer. ‘Between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries,’ Genius & Anxiety opens,
a few dozen men and women changed the way we see the world. Some of their names are on our lips for all time. Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka. Others have vanished from our collective memory, but their importance endures in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusion or major surgery; without Paul Ehrlich no chemotherapy; without Siegfried Marcus no motor car; without Rosalind Franklin no model of DNA; without Fritz Haber there would not be enough food to sustain life on earth.
I don’t know if Lebrecht actually buys into so simple a description of scientific progress, or whether it is just a good, combative kick-off to a book, but either way the main thrust of the argument is inescapable.