Forum on World Literature (V)

The Singularity of Literature

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Harriet Murav, Slavic Languages and Literatures

This paper critiques Casanova and Moretti for linking nationalist historiography, canon, and close reading. Using my current work on the Yiddish author Dovid Bergelson (1896-1952) I argue that close reading can be attentive to various kinds of borderlands within a single literary language (the space between different idioms in a single language, the space between different languages, and the space between meaningful language and sheer sound). Yiddish, written right to left in Hebrew characters, uses a Germanic grammatical frame, has a significant element of Hebrew, Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic languages, in addition to elements from Romance languages. The animation of heteroglossia, multivoicedness, both intralinguistic and interlinguistic, however, is not limited to Bergelson or to Yiddish, but can be found in most literary works.

The tension between the national, the comparative, and the global has already played out in slightly different terms in the former Soviet Union. Literature from the so-called national minorities was to be “national in form, socialist in content.” Socialism, of course, was to have been an international movement of the working people all over the globe; however, “socialist” turned out to mean what the Central Committee of the Communist Party said. As Khrushchev and others famously said, the people equals the party equals the leader. And in post-war Soviet Russia, the people also turned out to mean Russians, and not the national minorities of the Soviet Union. This fascinating slide along the slippery slope of the signifying chain is not the unique experience of the “evil empire.” Didn’t universality turn out to be limited to the particularities of Western Europe and North America? Having jettisoned “universal truths,” the new terminology of globality opens the door to some new form of exclusion.

Therefore not for the sake of a global or planetary literature, but for the sake of literature itself, what matters is not what or how much we read, but how. Attentiveness to the singularity of artistic literature in the first place and the singularity of a particular work are key. "Singularity" does not necessarily call up a unique national literary tradition. A work can be understood as singular in the way that it animates the borderlands that I mentioned earlier. It is not by marking a presence, but by leaving an absence, an incongruity, by re-marking in a second language what had been said in the previous language, leaving a trace on what has already been said, rather than claiming primacy, originality, or unique utterance. The metaphor of borderlands, evoking a space between, better captures attentiveness to multiple languages than the imperial metaphor of globality.

Close reading does not necessarily reinscribe literary scholarship within national historiographies. I am not convinced that, to paraphrase Casnova, it is the national habit of thought that creates the illusion of uniqueness. Close reading rests on the premise that the literary text is irreducible to socioeconomic, political, and psychoanalytic tools of inquiry; there is always some remainder of specific textuality that cannot be translated into other systems. "Art is made of devices," Viktor Shklovsky famously said, and by "devices" he included defamiliarization ("making it strange," prolonging perception and making difficult so that we do not simply recognize objects, but encounter them afresh). The Formalists and Structuralists shifted attention away from semantics to acoustics and grammar; Roman Jakobson talked about the way verbal art makes the sign palpable, quoting "Valery's view of poetry as 'hesitation between the sound and the sense." Even this superficial description shows that close readers are not necessarily associated with national historiography.

My sample close reading comes from my ongoing study of Bergelson's novel Nokh alemen (When All is Said and Done, 1913). Bergelson was born in Ukraine in 1884; he received a traditional Jewish education with a particular Hasidic twist; he started writing in Russian and Hebrew, but switched to Yiddish; he loved the Russian writer Chekhov and the French author Flaubert. Bergelson lived in Berlin in the 1920s, returning to Soviet Russia in 1933, and having been found guilty of nationalism, was shot on Stalin's orders on August 12, 1952. As a prose writer, Bergelson may be compared with Kafka, Joyce, and Babel.

The reading I present this evening uses Henri Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari, and Jakobson to explicate the text. Bergson describes consciousness as arising in the moment when an action cannot be performed mechanically because of some kind of obstacle. When the representation of an action is fulfilled immediately by the performance of the action there is no space, Bergson says, for consciousness. When, however, an obstacle thwarts action, a space opens up for consciousness to appear: "the obstacle creates nothing positive; it simply makes a void" (Bergson 144). Deleuze and Guatarri expand this notion of the void in their analysis of minor literature. "Deterritorialization" refers to an alternative space inside a dominant culture, "what a minority constructs in a major language"{Deleuze, 1986 #592 @ 19}. Deleuze and Guatarri privilege a non-referential use of language, a "void in sense" in which meaning is “neutralized" and the "subject of the enunciation" is effaced. Bergelson, working in Yiddish, is already writing in a minor language. It is therefore more appropriate to characterize his project as a double deterritorialization, because his language refuses the "national" ethnographic trend in literary Yiddish that had dominated until his own work was published.

Nokh alemen, When All is Said and Done, is about a young woman, Mirele, who cannot find herself in either the traditional Jewish world or in "modern" life, with its new opportunities. My focus, however, is not on the existential, socioeconomic, and political borderlands that the work depicts, but the linguistic ones. The singularity of When All Is Said and Done cannot be reduced to socio-economic conditions of 1913. What makes the work utterly unique is its use of deterritorialized language: language that operates in the borderland between languages and in the "void" between meaning and meaningless sounds.

In one scene, Mirele goes to visit her friend, a (Jewish) midwife who rents a room on the outskirts of the shtetl. The midwife starts to read aloud and translate from a book that a landowner's wife, a Catholic, had given her, Dicta Sapentium [Words of Wisdom] (the Yiddish text does not translate the Latin). The midwife:

explained to her verse after verse according to the translation 'Omnis felicitas mendacium est.' Both girls suddenly became like mourners [shivezitserns], and it seemed that they were reading to each other from the Book of Job Martin, 102;

ir eyn posek nokhn tsveytn loyt der iberzetsung fartaytsht: Omnis felicitas mendacium est ... Beyde meydlekh zaynen mitamol enlikh tsu shivezitserns gevorn, un gedukht hot zikh shoyn, az zey leyenen itst eyne far der tsveyter dem poske iov DB 138.

Although Bergelson refers to a translation of the passage from Dicta Sapentium, the passage "Omnis felicitas mendacium est (all happiness is false)," he does not provide a Yiddish translation of the Latin, but leaves the Latin in Latin characters in the midst of the Hebrew characters of his Yiddish. In this refusal of transparency, Bergelson foregrounds the irreducible graphical, acoustic, and semantic differences between languages, he leaves the space, or, the borderland between them just that, a borderland. His insistence on opacity marks the irreducible differences between languages just as it marks the irreducibility of his own art and the demand that it makes on readers to read closely.

A striking example of Bergelson's technique of the borderland between sense and non-sense comes in passage having to do with Passover, the spring holiday celebrating the exodus from Egypt. Passover requires a thorough cleaning of the house to remove all traces of leavened food products. Mirele lies in her bedroom listening to the sounds of the preparations, including her father's recitation of Hebrew prayers and the sounds coming from the stove in the kitchen:

And the sound of the little inner iron door moving quickly back and forth over the flame could be heard here [in Mirele's room]: pakh—pakh--pakh. ..pakh--pakh—pakh... pakh—pakh—pakh ...

Un gehert hot zikh aher, vi s'klopt dortn di inveynikste tshugene tirl, rirt zikh ibern flam, un tsit zikh geshvint ahin un tsurik: pakh—pakh--pakh. ..pakh--pakh—pakh... pakh—pakh—pakh ..."{Bergelson, 1922 #577 @ Vol 5, 180}.

The word in Hebrew and Yiddish for Passover, which appears before the passage cited above, is orthographically identical to the spelling Bergelson gives to the sound "pakh" except for the middle letter (pay, samekh, khet; pey, aleph, khet). The sequence "peysekh ...pakh....pakh...pakh" suggests a comparison between "peysekh" and "pakh." the meaningless sound "pakh" absorbs Passover (which Yiddish speakers pronounce "peysekh") into itself. In this instance Bergelson orthographically and acoustically digs a "void" or "hole" in sense, which beautifully reflects the “void” that is the heroine’s experience.

Close readings that are attentive to borderlands do not necessarily promote or assume hermetically sealed national historiographies: on the contrary, note the evacuation of the traditional, “national” heritage in the example above. My close readings, however, do not matter unless I publish them. The market for work on non-English literature is limited. Unless an author's works are part of the canon and or unless significant English translation is available, publishers are reluctant to consider scholarly studies of such literature. I conclude with two pragmatic suggestions. If we are serious about the need to expand what we teach and research we ought to: (1) encourage more translations by counting them as evidence of significant scholarly and creative work when we grant tenure and promotion; and (2) work collaboratively for hard-wired funding of less commonly taught languages.


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