Fantasy Fiction, Morality, and Jewish Self-Hatred

February 14, 2024 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

Born in London in 1939, Michael Moorcock is the author of some 100 books, most of them works of fantasy and science fiction, genres to which he was a leading contributor in the 1960s and 70s. He was also the son of a Jewish mother, and Jewish characters and themes play important roles in a few of his works. One of them is the Pyat Quartet, an attempt to reckon with the Holocaust and 20th-century totalitarianism, about which Michael Weingrad writes:

The quartet is not fantasy literature but, at around 2,000 pages, it is a historical fantasia as ambitious as any novelistic project of our time. Darkly brilliant, the first book in the series, Byzantium Endures, shuttles between Kiev, Odessa, and Saint Petersburg during the first two decades of our own twentieth century. This is the rail-crossed, blood-soaked landscape of some of the greatest works of modern Jewish literature. Yet to an extent more extreme than any character one encounters in the works of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, I.J. Singer, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and others who seem (especially Babel) to haunt the novel, Moorcock’s protagonist is a self-hating Jew.

In fact, the phrase may not quite be applicable since it is not clear how much of a self Colonel Maxim Pyatnitsky really possesses. Though “Pyat” is utterly convinced that he is of noble Cossack stock, and despite the near-constant stream of anti-Semitic and racist jeremiads delivered by this profoundly unreliable narrator, it is clear to everyone he meets that he is a Jew.

While Weingrad finds some of this engaging, it ultimately crashes against Moorcock’s limited moral horizons and “pretension to political significance” in the second half of the series:

Moorcock seems to think that his depictions of Pyat’s orgies with Hitler and pages-long fulminations against the Jews tell us something about the real nature of the modern West. But Nazism wasn’t a form of sexual dysfunction, as Moorcock seems to propose, and Pyat isn’t symbolic of anything except his own sociopathy.

Indeed, Weingrad suggests these literary failures stem from a blinkered moral vision apparent in some of the author’s other writings:

It is not just that Moorcock is unable to credit Christianity as a coherent moral response to the “world’s pain,” viewing religious faith as sinister hypocrisy. It is also that he requires a conservative enemy—Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in fiction, Reagan and Thatcher in politics—upon which to project his own moral flaws and distract from his own philosophical incoherence.

Moorcock’s Jewish identity . . . is mainly concerned with the Holocaust, disdainful of religion, and (in his online musings) taken up with sniping at Israel accompanied by a disinterest in getting to know that country firsthand. In this regard, he is typical of many assimilated and left-leaning Jews in both England and America.

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