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Conversations with strangers and three autobiographies


'I want them to know that I'm Jewish'
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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And then there are those who then later, not only start thinking about it, come to terms with it, but then flaunt it, and in some respects I fall into this category. Although my flaunting is flaunting in the context of only making the point that I want them to know that I’m Jewish, and that’s particularly true in my present mode of having had some form of reconciliation with my Austrian childhood, but I want them to be perfectly plain that the person who is willing to meet them partway is a Jew, and not anything else, and that they kicked me out. And whenever... in these many lectures I give, and I'm always being introduced now, and then the German, let's say the Austrian Government gave him... gave him citizenship, and medals, and... left in 1938, and I always interrupt, even though I left in '38, of course they know what it is, I was kicked out. Please, get it straight. I want no, you know, embellishment of this term. That’s why I was pleased in the stamp that I showed you, that they admitted it... it was their choice, I was kicked out.

But the question what does that mean, what does Jewishness mean to someone who is not religious, so it has to be something else? And... and that... that’s complicated and it takes a long time, and the play that I’m working on now, by working... I haven’t started it, well, I've written a few things, but I’m still doing a lot of reading, and I will do much more reading during the next few months, because I’ve just put the finishing touches on my last play Taboos, which really will come out soon, as it’s now been finished. The name of the play is called Benjamin’s Grip. Grip, G-r-i-p, as a pseudonym for a briefcase, rather than the other meanings of the word grip, handgrip, or something like that, and I purposely pronounce it the German way. I mean when you read it, anyone in England or America would call it Benjamin’s Grip, but his name was Walter... Walter, not Walter, Walter Benjamin, because he was a German from... from Berlin, and one of the most important literary critics of the last century. His entire fame and everything was posthumous. No book of his had been published prior to his death. Articles, of course, had been published, but not books, and since then you have collected works that are 16 volumes, and he hadn’t seen these, and some of the great minds, Hannah Arendt, and other people, were very much involved in Jewishness, and so on, and also had these mixed histories. All were part of that circle, or he and she were in fact even related... cousins.

I want to write about him, and about his last year when he committed suicide. Again, also a German suicide, so of course it’s so important. And all the characters but one, or at least I think that one will be in there, are Jewish, but one is Bertold Brecht, who also was a person with whom he had a lot of dealings. And all of these... well, with one exception, Gerschom Scholem, were German Jews who were more German than the Germans, and either denied, or wanted to forget their Jewishness, and he was one of them. Benjamin, Adorno, and so on, all fell into this category, and they’ll all be characters in there, because the ultimate... even though that’s not a dramatic... and you can’t build a play necessarily around this, but the theme of it is just that: what does it mean to be Jewish to those people, who were brought up in a culture, which clearly was not Jewish culture, to which they contributed enormously, but in fact contributed as Jews to that? That outsider status was very crucial for them to make that particular contribution, cultural contribution, and there are lots of people like that. Stefan Zweig would be a very good example, and then he also committed suicide after he left. In this case Benjamin's was no different.

So I... it’s a subject that is very... very much in ferment. I don’t think that I can really make it very plain as yet. I don’t know that I ever will, because it has so little to do with religion, or essentially nothing to do with religion, and to define that... that characteristic is not easy. What is also ironic, and you see this in my fiction; in every fiction, in one way or another, not deliberately, there’s always a male character or two that are always Jewish. None of the women are Jewish, and that’s perhaps also an example; none of my three wives were Jewish, and yet two of them, number two and number three... I shouldn’t call them that way, although I call my wife, my present wife, sometimes, la ultima, meaning both that she’s the ultimate in every respect, including the last one also. But are very interested in this, and in some respects know more, or read more into it than I do, but it’s... I think I’ll probably leave it at that, and it is interesting that in all my life, the early stages, and now, I always am curious when I meet someone, whether is there a question, frequently there’s not, but they could have said, is he Jewish. And I am more interested in that question than, is she Jewish? So the question is why, and I think it is because I always considered it more threatening, the undertone after all, that curiosity is invariably... the worst overt anti-Semites were men, although it’s probably not true, that fundamentally it could also be women that were, I don’t know, concentration guards, and so on, but on the whole, and that is particularly the real evil, the physical evil, was mostly male, and I think there’s something behind that.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Taboos, Benjamin’s Grip, Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin, Johanna "Hannah" Cohn Arendt, Hannah Arendt, Gerschom Scholem, Gerhard Scholem, Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, Stefan Zweig, Theodor W Adorno, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund, Norma Lundholm Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook

Duration: 7 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008