Literature and Crisis
The unity of any event and the integrity of the world are guaranteed merely by enigmatic, although visible, symbols, which are necessary because without them the visible world would fall asunder into unnameable, bodiless, dry layers of cold and transparent ash.
—Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers
Children of a dark century, we tend to look into our literature as in a glass darkly. The glass itself, in our most recurrent images of it, is thought of as cracked and splintered and skewed so that through its own violent fashioning it may mirror more faithfully the twisted confusion of faces that modern reality has assumed. If we ask ourselves how writers have been able to go on making poems and plays and novels while mankind runs amok, irresistibly bent, it often seems, on the simultaneous destruction of its own past and its own future, our most common answer is that literature has served as a uniquely sensitive seismograph of the age’s disasters, or, indeed, as a warning-system for disasters still to come. There is of course much justice in this answer and it could hardly be otherwise: unless literature were no more than an escape from reality into self-caressing fantasy, it would somehow have to body forth the historical darkness through which we all grope. But if, as Saul Bellow was arguing persuasively not long ago, the apocalyptic stance among writers has declined through constant repetition into an empty gesture of piety, one may also wonder whether criticism itself has not perpetuated a similar cliché on the level of interpretation in so often describing the role of the modern writer as a conjurer with apocalypses. For well over half a century, poets and novelists have conspicuously used the resources of their art to lay bare the death’s-heads and dry-rot of a crumbling world, but there also persists among them a powerful impulse simply to make beautiful things, even in the valley of the shadow of apocalypse, and the nature of that impulse deserves some reflection.
If much of the major literature of our century has turned upon some historical or moral abyss, it is also true that literature in this period has been turned in upon itself to an unprecedented degree. The Trial, Women in Love, and The Sound and the Fury are, of course, exemplary works of the years of deepening inner trouble that followed World War I, but just as exemplary, in a very different way, are Valéry’s Le Cimetière marin, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, Joyce’s Ulysses; and the Thomas Mann who wrote The Magic Mountain in these years would also work, both early and late in his career, on Felix Krull, a radiant portrait of the artist as protean master of experience. Mann’s example should suggest that the impulse to look into the depths has often been intertwined with the impulse of the artist to reflect on the processes of making art. Proust’s patient evocation of the growth of an artist’s consciousness through time concludes with a whole cultural order in ruins and the reverberation of German bombs in the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Conversely, Sartre’s Nausea, which begins with a traumatic exposure of its protagonist to the formless abyss of the absurd, ends on a resolution to transcend meaningless existence by, of all things, writing a novel.
There are, to be sure, certain escapist or elitist tendencies in this recurrent preoccupation of modern writers with art as the subject of art. To cite a relatively recent example, the French New Novel of the 50’s and early 60’s, for all the insistence of its manifestoes that it sought to confront a world stripped of predetermined value, represented a retreat of the imagination from history after four decades of historical trauma, and thus reduced the novel to a laboratory of narrative technique. Elsewhere, however, literary art has often been driven to reflect on itself out of the deepest inner necessity, recapitulating its own past through complex strategies of allusion, imitation, and parody; brooding over its own nature and ends; exploring its connections with all that is not art—in order to make literature still possible in a world that threatens to overwhelm it, and through the assertion of literature’s prerogatives to keep alive as well the idea of a more humanly livable world.
The two major works of Hermann Broch offer an instructive paradigm of this dialectical relationship between the literary consciousness of history and the literary consciousness of art. His trilogy, The Sleepwalkers, written in Austria on the eve of Hitler’s ascent to power, moves step by careful step, from 1888 to 1918, toward what Broch himself calls the “disintegration of values” of European civilization. The darkening historical landscape is appropriately reflected in the shifts of narrative texture from one part of the novel to the next. The poignant muted lyricism of the 1888 section gives way in the middle volume, set in 1903, to a harsher satirical mode of representation in which a discursively meditative narrator views the sexual and commercial shenanigans of the characters as despairing acts of creatures hungering for an unattainable salvation. The last volume, set in the closing months of World War I, is deliberately disjointed, moving back and forth nervously among different, barely related stories, interweaving verse-narrative with the prose, interpolating chapters of a historical-philosophical essay on the decay of European values in the modern age. It is Broch’s contention here that with the breakdown of an overarching system of value, competing “partial systems,” representing different techniques, interests, spheres of life, tend to absolutize their own values and thus to translate destructive unreason into social and political action on an unprecedented scale. “There arises a specific commercial kind of thinking, or a specific military kind of thinking, each of which strives toward ruthless and consistent absoluteness, each of which constructs a deductive schema of plausibility to suit itself, each of which has its ‘theology’ or its ‘private theology.’” Forty years after the writing of these words, they seem at least one likely way of explaining the various kinds of mentality that could invent a Final Solution, a global strategy of overkill, and “plausible” scenarios for the pacification of Southeast Asia. Yet the very sharpness of Broch’s analysis has the effect of cutting the ground from under him as a novelist. Like most ambitious writers, Broch clearly wants to make literature work as an art of the whole—pulling all characters and events into an orchestrated system of values, seeing individual lives and life at large in a unified field of vision. But how can an art of the whole function among the broken pieces of an age of partial systems? Not at all, one is led to infer from the end of The Sleepwalkers, where the novel, caught in the toils of imitative form, seems to confess the inability of the literary imagination to produce coherence in an incoherent world.
I have underscored the predicament of the novel-form implicit in The Sleepwalkers because it helps make clear why Broch’s later work, The Death of Virgil, is both a logical development in his own career and, for all its seeming peculiarity, part of an important current in 20th-century literature. Viewed superficially, the writing of such a book looks like an act of mere withdrawal: a major European novelist, in exile in America, at the very moment when his native continent is in flames, turns his back on two thousand years of history to recreate in an elaborate poetic novel the death of a Roman poet. Obviously, there are many ways of talking about so anomalous a book: as the longest lyric poem in the German language, as the closest approximation in fiction to the formal effects of music, or—in connection with the predicament of the novel raised by The Sleepwalkers—as a threatened literary art undertaking a sweeping review of its own resources and limits, of its own ontological grounds. The choice of the historical setting, then, is doubly apt, because it allows the writer to focus on an archetype of the European poet with an intense introspective purity, and because the whole novel thus implies the relationship between the act of writing and the cultural past that is so central to the problematics of literature in an age of disintegrating values. Broch is careful not to project too crudely the troubles of his own time onto Virgil’s, but, like Yeats, he thinks of history as a series of two-thousand-year cycles, and so can see a structural correspondence between Virgil’s age and ours as periods of critical transition. Accordingly, he suggests that already for Virgil poetic invention had become a self-conscious, self-skeptical act; that the Latin poet was already isolated from the people, the people itself become a potentially anarchic mob; that great political forces were changing the face of the known world and making imperious demands on the writer to be their voice. “Oh, Augustus,” Virgil calls out at one point in his long colloquy with the emperor, “the ground is shaking . . . nothing shook for Homer or his heroes.”
What is perhaps most impressive about Broch’s oceanic meditation on poetry is the way it avoids easy resolutions, swinging back and forth in great dialectic movements between doubt and affirmation. The dying Virgil knows how the calling of poetry has kept him apart from other men, always self-bent on the fashioning of his own edifice of fame, but as an artist he will not relinquish the idea of “an affiliation with the human community, which was the aim of real art in its aspiration toward humanity,” and his own luminous poetic consciousness in the novel of the living and the dead finally demonstrates how art can reach outward from the prison of the self to embrace mankind. Virgil is haunted by a still more troubling fear that his whole life has been only a game with words, that all words can do is to embellish, imperfectly duplicate, and thus falsify reality. “Nothing unreal is allowed to survive,” he announces to his dismayed friends in order to explain his decision to burn the Aeneid. The major part of the novel is caught up in the backward and forward surge of debate over this harsh resolution. In the end, Virgil leaves the manuscript of the Aeneid in Caesar’s possession, whether out of uncertainty, or inclination to compromise, or sheer fatigue, or some glimmering hope that his epic may not after all be entirely unreal.
Language, the dying poet perceives, is an instrument of treacherous duplicity, forever tempting us to take the resonant word for the thing itself. Yet if all reality, as Virgil tells Augustus, “is but the growth of perception,” language remains the necessary medium for the realization of perception, and cadenced language shaped into images is our chief means of making the world around us real, binding the fragments of transient experience into a ring of lasting significance: “Human life was thus image-graced and image-cursed; it could comprehend itself only through images, the images were not to be banished, they had been with us since the herd-beginning, they were anterior to and mightier than our thinking, they were timeless, containing past and future, they were a twofold dream-memory and they were more powerful than we.”
Perhaps it begins to be clear why this self-consciously “literary” novel was no self-indulgence for Broch. He began working on it not long before his months of imprisonment by the Nazis and his subsequent departure from Austria in 1938, and his very choice of this subject at that time and place suggests how the nightmare of history has driven much modern literature back upon itself, led it to rehearse the process of literary creation in order to discover what use literary creation might conceivably have in a world of nightmares. The chief use of literature that emerges from The Death of Virgil is as the one road of escape from what Broch calls the “herd-experience”—that primordial condition in which each individual creature cowers before the menace of death in his animal aloneness, crowding against the bodies around him for the surface warmth and solace of sheer physical closeness. Language, as the unique human instrument, and poetry, as the most complex ordering of language, lift man beyond the herd by placing his consciousness in touch with others, with the collective consciousness of mankind, with the shared human experience of the past back to its evolutionary beginnings, through all these allowing man to project an image of the future out of his trapped moments of existential dread. Sounds and colors and shapes have a timeless quality, always present as materials for the artist, but language is the one artistic medium that develops perceptibly through historical time, bearing the marks of past uses upon it, and thus literature is before all the others the memory-laden art, the one that resumes its past in the very act of exploiting its full resources for the expression of the present. Paul Goodman has recently formulated this essential operation of the literary imagination with a fine lucidity. “Man is the animal who makes himself and the one who is made by his culture. Literature repeats the meaning and revives the spirit of past makings, so they are not dead weight, by using them again in a making that is occurring now.”1 The possession of a past, then, is a necessary condition for the imagining of the future; the vaster and more varied the past, the richer the possibilities of the future will be.
Viewed in these terms, the very end of The Death of Virgil is not an outrageous self-assertion of poetry but a resonant culmination of Virgil’s long inner journey. The poet’s fantastically restless, image-spawning mind having explored the far reaches of personal and collective memory, Broch creates for him an apotheosis which fuses the Western literary memory of two great moments of creation, the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of John, memory thus triumphantly passing into renewal. The Logos here is not an embodiment or intermediary of the Divinity but is in itself the generating nub of existence, the image of the fulfilled perfection of language making reality, toward which all the imperfections of earthly poetry aspire; “The word hovered over the universe, over the nothing, floating beyond the expressible as well as the inexpressible, and he, caught under and amidst the roaring, he floated on with the word. . .; it was the word beyond speech.” It is characteristic of Broch that this assumption of the poet into eternity did not end his own inner dialogue on the worth of literature. Haunted by the revelations of the Nazi horrors, he resolved in his last years to abandon literature for the direct action of politics and the chaste precision of mathematics. Nevertheless, circumstances led him to rewrite for publication two earlier works, The Tempter and The Innocent, and it seems clear that there was some inner necessity as well that impelled him again to the making of fiction.
The novels of Vladimir Nabokov offer a suggestive complement to Broch precisely because the two writers are so obviously antithetical in the way they approach history and art—Nabokov playfully elusive and ironic where Broch is argumentative or grandly assertive, Nabokov coolly dismissing (in the afterword to Lolita) all manifestations of the Literature of Ideas that is Broch’s natural medium. On the surface, Nabokov might seem to be a preeminent example of the escapist tendency in 20th-century literature, and, indeed, one study of his English novels has adopted the unfortunate title, Escape into Aesthetics. Art and the artist are, in varying ways, the subject of all his novels, and his self-conscious fictions reflect infinitely greater interest in the history of the novel than in history as such, from the ingenious parody of Madame Bovary in King, Queen, Knave down to the great composite parody of the genre’s development in Ada. Nevertheless, I would contend that the awareness of history significantly shapes Nabokov’s perception of art in most of his work since the early 1930’s, and that his art-centered literary enterprise must finally be seen as a rescue operation on behalf of human consciousness in a world variously contrived to obliterate such consciousness. Stalking after the figure of the artist in many of Nabokov’s fictions is some embodiment of Yakob Gradus, the imaginary and all-too-real assassin of Pale Fire, who is the perfect modern political man—the mindless instrument of his ideological masters, humanity reduced to an ambulating fleshly extension of the finger on the trigger, a creature of pure anti-imagination.
In this regard, Nabokov’s two novels set in totalitarian states, Invitation to a Beheading, written in Berlin in 1935, and Bend Sinister, written immediately after World War II in this country, constitute an instructive test-case of his relationship to history, and of the general effort of the modern literary imagination to affirm its own abiding validity. Both books are formally constituted as novels about the construction of novels; in both, the protagonist is a kind of writer whose vivid inner life is about to be extinguished by a totalitarian regime that properly regards him as the ultimate subversive. Totalitarianism is seen in both novels as an insidious, not-quite-credible farce, rendered in a weird slapstick mode that surprisingly touches to the quick of the totalitarian principle by showing its crude mechanical reduction of the variety of human life, the wooden rigidity and crassness of its attempt everywhere to manipulate what cannot be manipulated. In such a world, the figure of the artist emerges as the most steadfast representative of mankind, and the act of imagination, far from being an aesthetic luxury, is the means by which humanity makes itself human and keeps itself human.
One of the most damaging effects of the imperious insistence of political life in recent decades has been an expectation that writers should respond directly to the political sphere, in its own terms; and in this respect it is noteworthy that neither Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading nor Krug in Bend Sinister has any interest in writing about the totalitarian state which seeks to destroy him. Instead, both Cincinnatus the diarist and Krug the philosopher ponder the mystery of their own irreducible selfhood, the outrageous fact of mortality, the myriad ways in which circumscribed, inexhaustible consciousness constructs reality. Thus, the book Cincinnatus dreams of writing, which he adumbrates in his prison-cell diary, is not a denunciation of his stupid captors but a way to express the aching wonder of being a man, as men have done with artfully-ordered words since the shadowy beginnings of literary culture: “I issue from such burning blackness, I spin like a top, with such propelling force, such tongues of flame, that to this day I occasionally feel . . . that primordial palpitation of mine, that first branding contact, the mainspring of my ‘I.’” And just a moment earlier, Cincinnatus sums up his aspiration: “I have lived an agonizing life, and I would like to describe that agony to you.”
Literary allusion, as I have already intimated, has a peculiar centrality in much of the serious literature of our century. The frequency and complexity of allusion in writers like Nabokov, Joyce, Mann, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Borges, even Faulkner, are probably unprecedented, at least since the time of Dryden and Pope. In contrast, moreover, to the neo-classical writers, who could assume the literary past as a common point of departure, however ironically it might then be used, these moderns give the appearance of laboriously working through a vanishing or esoteric past, reconstituting it by an act of determined will, musing over the enigma of its pastness, variously using it to flesh out an otherwise hallucinatory present. Allusions can, of course, serve to reinforce a cultural elitism, but in Nabokov they generally act both to heighten a sense of play and to sharpen the focus of critical self-consciousness in the work of art. Literature, he constantly reminds us, is condemned to work with the models, conventions, and techniques of its own past; his parodistic invocation of past models turns them into objects of critical scrutiny even as they operate to evoke an imaginable world out of mere paper and print. In the second of Nabokov’s two “political” novels, where the allusions are far more abundant and specific, they serve an implicitly thematic purpose. At first thought, it may seem gratuitously playful to mark a somber totalitarian landscape with references to and quotations from Mallarmé, Melville, Joyce, Flaubert, Maupassant, and a motley variety of other writers, but it is through such allusions that authorial intelligence—“the anthropomorphic deity” is Nabokov’s phrase for it—asserts its power to move freely in a realm outside the totalitarian prison world, to exhibit a lively and witty awareness of imaginative possibilities transcending the field-gray uniforms, underground torture chambers, and other hackneyed formulas of the police state.
From this thematic viewpoint, it makes special sense that the central allusion in this novel is to one of the richest and most ultimately mystifying achievements of Western literature, Hamlet, with the figure of Shakespeare as poet of the ages looming like some monumental wraith through the half-lights of Adam Krug’s bedeviled world. Perhaps with a gesture of obeisance to the library scene in Ulysses, Nabokov devotes an entire chapter, at the midpoint of the novel, to a discussion of the meanings of Hamlet and the elusive identity of Shakespeare, who emerges as the perfect paradigm of the Nabokovian artist-figure (“His name is protean. He begets doubles at every corner. . . . Who is he? William X, cunningly composed of two left arms and a mask”). In order to bring the police state in proper relation to Shakespeare, Nabokov treats us to several pages of a Marxist-National-Socialist-populist-mechanist reading of Hamlet. (The real hero is Fortinbras, Denmark is a decadent democracy “criminally misruled by degenerate King Hamlet and Judeo-Latin Claudius,” the greatness of the plot is in the historically significant working out of mass justice, and so forth.) Against this, Krug’s friend Ember, who is translating Hamlet, conjures up a possible film scenario of the opening scene that shows a ripe baroque inventiveness, finally pushing its own excesses into an open spoof of film convention, yet demonstrating how a responsive imagination has been moved into sudden life by a great imagination of the past. Ember then proceeds to recite to Krug a sample of his own translation of Hamlet into their native Germano-Slavic tongue while the philosopher contemplates the twin mysteries of creation and translation:
Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country, was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labor, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given.
Shakespeare, as archetypal poet, is an inexplicable but ultimate fact of our shared existence in culture. A creature in nature, with a shell of skull-bone encasing gray matter like any other man, he could achieve such prodigies with words, themselves mere constructs of convention, that to explain what he did one is forced to invoke theological metaphors of creation and breathing life into inert things. Other life lives simply because it is born, one with the “herd-beginnings,” living from moment to encapsulated moment in an unreflective present. Human life, because it possesses consciousness and memory, because consciousness generates language as its necessary instrument, must continually make more life through these uniquely human means if it is not to begin going dead. Nabokov sees that the most murderous aspect of totalitarianism is not the killing of people but the systematic extinguishing of consciousness—through social institutions, language-rules, pseudo-art, and simple terror—which could some day leave no survivors. Shakespeare’s potent presence, then, in the minds of two citizens of this police state, becomes an aperture looking out “to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty,” as Nabokov wrote of a rather different device of authorial intervention in his 1963 introduction to Bend Sinister.
One should note that the most appropriate response to a presence like Shakespeare’s is the desire to translate him, however futile and “unnecessary” the effort. Translation is one of the great recurring concerns of Nabokov’s fiction, literal translation and translation in a series of related metaphoric applications. Each individual experience of a literary work is in effect a form of translation, the actual conversion of a text into the words of another language being only the most gross, and often painful, illustration of a process that goes on constantly at other levels. Thus, the commentary in Pale Fire, which itself devotes some attention to Zemblan translations of Shakespeare, is an extreme instance of a fantastic “translation” of John Shade’s poem, flamboyantly demonstrating how a writer’s work must always exist through the active mediation of someone else’s imagination. Original literary composition is also a kind of translation—if one likes, a translation of immediate experience into words; in any case, a translation of earlier literature into the author’s own idiom and mode of perception through his need as a writer to absorb and remake the literary past. To cite one central example that remains for Nabokov a crowning achievement of modern fiction, Joyce’s Ulysses is not an imitation, not, according to the usual limiting acceptation of the word, a parody, but, in the sense I have described, a bold translation of Homer and the Bible, Swift and Fielding, Dickens, Flaubert, and many others. Ember’s dedication to translating Hamlet under a regime that thinks of a machine as the ideal writing instrument means a stubborn commitment to sustaining the precious life of consciousness by remaking a past embodiment of it for the present time and place. Behind Ember stands Nabokov the artificer, affirming the high prerogatives of art by transmuting totalitarian terrors into the stuff of an ironically intelligent novel of flaunted artifice, where a poised perfection of style is the token of a state of grace, proving the power of plastic imagination to transcend the pervasive deathliness of the totalitarian world. Literature, then, turns out to be not an escape from history but the last line of man’s defense against a history gone wild.
As in many other matters of cultural history, the Jews constitute an especially peculiar, troublesome, and finally instructive case for the understanding of this general phenomenon. There are good and manifest reasons for writers with a deep Jewish consciousness to be suspicious of the saving power of art. The Jews have had no tradition of aesthetics as an autonomous realm, no historically-rooted notions of the poet as hero and guide. Some Jewish writers seem vaguely uncomfortable with the very idea of artistic originality, even as they aspire to it, as though it were something they had filched from European Romanticism without ever being quite sure of the genuineness of the article. Recalling a heritage that stressed sharpness of exegesis and legal argument, moral wisdom grounded in belief, Jews have generally found chill comfort in art as they saw themselves flung into the maw of modern history, too often its principal victims. In their vulnerable position of exposure and deracination, Jews have frequently proved to be the modernists par excellence, but, at least in some notable instances, they retain a lingering suspicion that the whole dramatic agony of modernity is not worth the candle, that there is something perhaps bogus and certainly futile in the effort to be authentically modern through a heroism of the imagination. It may be that Kafka’s ultimate Jewish gesture is his deathbed instruction to Max Brod to burn his writings. “Nothing unreal is allowed to survive,” and for Kafka the construction of mere stories without a Wahrheitsgrund, a substratum of truth theologically confirmed, must have finally seemed a deceptive play with alluring unrealities. (It is not surprising that Broch, a Jew converted to Catholicism, should comment on Kafka’s last resolution with finely perceptive empathy.) No one has grasped this aspect of Kafka more firmly than Walter Benjamin, and Benjamin’s own attitude toward modern literature in general exhibits a strange doubleness, richly responsive to its innovative daring and apprehensive of its possible factitiousness. Seeing the atrophy of experience as a basic process of modern history, he is not really willing to accept the adequacy of a merely literary response to this radical devolution. The controlled note of skeptical pessimism in his description of Proust’s effort to recreate verbally the life of the imagination is characteristic: “A la Recherche du temps perdu may be regarded as an attempt to produce experience synthetically, as Bergson imagines it, under today’s conditions, for there is less and less hope that it will come into being naturally.”
The pressing dilemmas of history and art felt by the modern writer are likely to be sharpened if he is a Jew, and become even more acute if he writes in Hebrew. The unique history of the Hebrew language and its modern literary revival make Hebrew at once an anomaly among modern literatures and a paradigm—illuminating through its very extremeness—of literature trying to cope with the maelstrom of modernity. If, as I have suggested, language is the memory-laden medium, the Hebrew language is so thoroughly suffused with three millennia of historical and theological memories that some writers have felt they had to struggle actively against it in order to make it speak personally for them. One must imagine the peculiar interplay of dissonance and resonance when a language echoing Genesis, Jeremiah, the Psalms, the Talmud, the Midrash, and the liturgy, in its idioms, vocabulary, syntax, tonalities, is called on to respond to a pogrom, a revolution, a world war, genocide. Of course I don’t mean to imply that there is anything particularly miraculous about the mere writing of a modern poem or story in Hebrew, but rather that it often creates imaginative difficulties for the writer, at the same time giving him an intermittent perspective of historical distance from the contemporary world he is rendering. In the case of the greatest modern Hebrew poet, H. N. Bialik, the perception of an unbridgeable gap between his grand biblical language and a modern spiritual decadence eventually led him to abandon poetry: nothing unreal could be allowed to survive, and the inner emptiness of the age finally made his language seem to him infected with unreality.
Stephen Spender has recently proposed that the Jewish poet, in contrast to poets deriving from the Christian and Greco-Roman traditions, sees himself above all as the voice of his people, and so writes with “purposes . . . didactic and mystical, not aesthetic.” This seems to me decidedly an outside view of the matter. It is true that on occasion some modern Jewish poets have assumed the mask of the poet-prophet, but the very act of choosing to work through the European world of literary forms has generally meant a deep identification with European conceptions of art as individual expression and aesthetic value as an end in itself. Even Bialik, who speaks as an alienated, despairing prophet in The City of Slaughter, is more thoroughly characteristic of his own major phase when in The Pond and Splendor he conceives the poetic imagination as the creative center of existence. Especially in the case of poets writing in Hebrew, one can sometimes detect a dialectic tension between the prophetic and the aesthetic impulse, but for this very reason Hebrew, so long employed chiefly to record the course of God and His people through history, provides striking evidence of the self-affirming impetus of art in modern literature. Probably the most notable instance in Hebrew of such self-affirmation is the poetry of Bialik’s great contemporary, Saul Tchernichovsky. This poet of the Crimea-Ukraine border region, an eyewitness to the mayhem of world war, revolution, and civil strife, often responded in his work with cries of outrage and anger, occasionally even with the fulminations of a militant Jewish nationalism. It is noteworthy, however, that Tchernichovsky’s supreme assertions of the power of poetry occur in the midst of two historical cataclysms—his two sonnet-cycles, To the Sun and On the Blood, conceived in Odessa during the Russian civil war, and The Golden People, his long narrative poem on bees (and through the bees, on nature and art, poetry, history, and the future of man), written in Tel Aviv during World War II, near the end of his life.
Of the two sonnet-cycles, On the Blood is the more centrally concerned with art and politics, unabashedly affirming art as the sole redemptive force in a history where the loftiest ideals, once politicized, are translated into the most cynical and ruthless ideologies. On the Blood is flawed in comparison with its companion cycle, at times unnecessarily crabbed in expression, occasionally lapsing into oratorical rhetoric, but the effect of the ensemble is stunning. The cycle, or “corona,” is an intricate interlocking of fifteen Petrarchan sonnets, the last line of each poem constituting the first line of the poem after it, and the fourteenth sonnet ending with the first line of the cycle, followed by a final sonnet made up of all the preceding first lines, in sequence. Tchernichovsky’s adoption of this extraordinarily difficult Renaissance form to face the historical chaos around him is suggestive: in a world of universal havoc, the poet insists on an elaborate traditional form that requires fine control and conciseness, a ramified syntax of words and images and ideas, thus confirming the power of poetry to make order even out of the dark night of the Western soul. The historical landscape here is what one might expect. As the end of the fourteenth sonnet renders it, man is drowning in rivers of blood, “A twilight of culture . . . confusion of realms. . . ./ Is darkness descending or dawn breaking?/ Stunned, we peer into the thick of the twilight,/ Tired of mankind and the legacy of the past.” Every political ruler, every priest of a world-redemptive faith, finally becomes an inquisitor, announcing a doctrine of truth and love but creating a world where “falsehood reigns” and “Love goes sour like yeast in dough,/ Stinking over the heretics’ pyres.”
Against this grim historical reality, the poet can at least aver that his “mastery”—and Tchernichovsky uses a Hebrew root usually associated with tyrannical rule—of the realm of beauty is a form of power that does not involve the shedding of blood. But what good can it do? Tchernichovsky’s answer, in the thirteenth sonnet, has been attacked by commentators as an instance of towering naiveté: “Masters of song and her lovely mysteries,/ Only you unite pasts and futures./ In the hymn of Akhneton, sung among pyramids,/ And the psalms of the son of Jesse poured forth in supplication.” It is the quiet beauty of song, in the next quatrain, that strengthens the heart of slave and worker, stirring them to hope; and at the end of the sonnet: “If God has decreed a redemption to come,/ The world will be redeemed through poetry and song.” Tchernichovsky, in the view of Baruch Kurzweil, one of his major critics, foolishly posits here an autonomous realm of poetry while unwittingly contradicting himself by choosing as examples two poet-kings very much implicated in the brutal processes of history, one of them the ruler of an empire built on the exploitation of slaves, the other responsible for both individual murder and the deaths of thousands in battle.
The contradiction between politics and poetry in Akhneton and David is in fact so glaring that it is hard to believe Tchernichovsky’s reference to them could have been inadvertent. The choice of these two ancient rulers as exemplary bearers of the redemptive word of poetry is surely meant to point up a paradox. Poetry is not an autonomous realm but it has a power to work through history, transcending the political actions and intentions even of its own creators. The fact that David was a warrior king, that he murdered Uriah the Hittite, that, implacable even on his deathbed, he commanded Solomon to pay off old scores with his enemies, may affect the generations of man far less than do his psalms. The consequences of a deed done in history are of a limited magnitude, or at least eventually are no longer clearly traceable in the endless criss-crossings of subsequent historical events. The words of the poet-king, on the other hand, live on through an unending progression of literal and figurative “translations,” kindling the imagination of an Augustine, a Judah Halevi, a George Herbert, opening up the feelings of countless men and women to a sharing of anguish and longing as facts of their humanity, to a trust in the coming of light after darkness. Poetry thus becomes the medium for an ongoing “affiliation with the human community”; in Tchernichovsky’s words, it. “unite[s] pasts and futures,” thus sustaining the vision of a possible human community. This is not, I think, a naive faith in poetry. The assertion that the world will be redeemed through poetry and song is preceded by a conditional clause—if there is to be any redemption at all. Poetry here, as in Nabokov, is defined in terms of what politics cannot be. The opposition is formulated in the sonnet-cycle through a central metaphor of cult: the priests of worldly power are the perpetrators of a mendacious, murderous idolatry; the priests of poetry may in the end perhaps not avail, but at least they keep faith with making and remaking life instead of death in the name of life.
Tchernichovsky’s affirmation of poetry attains still greater resonance in The Golden People, less by direct assertion than by demonstration through the wonderful moments of serene imaginative amplitude that occur in the long poem. Written, like The Death of Virgil, in the dark Hitler years, it, too, is from one point of view a taking stock of the resources of poetry; but it also brings to play in a single poetic edifice all the identities that were Tchernichovsky—naturalist, classicist, pantheist, nationalist, wondering child on the Russian steppes, bemused old man in Zion, a Jew speaking to Jews and reaching out for the wisdom and understanding of all men. The structure of the poem, then, itself illustrates the unique unifying power of poetry. The beehive to which the narrator constantly returns, surrounding it with a cloud of personal and literary recollections, is variously an image of the kibbutz, of the dreaded new collective order of mankind, of a perfectly adjusted harmony between individual and group, creature and nature. Correspondingly, the song of the hive—the same Hebrew word means “song” and “poetry”—is a “dirge of slaves . . . bemoaning strangled feelings,” or a beautifully attuned answering voice to nature’s timeless song. On the one hand, the poet worries analytically at the meaning of the hive and its song in expository hexameters; on the other hand, he evokes the song itself in stanzaic forms (like that of “The Ballad of the Hive”) which attain an exquisite lyric purity scarcely equaled in modern Hebrew poetry. War, revolution, and the prospect of the end of mankind flicker darkly in the background of the poem’s sun-drenched perspectives, but in the foreground poetry delights in the beauty that it produces, demonstrating the mind’s firm hold on a unity that is not mechanical and repressive, keeping the incipient apocalypse of the present in touch with past visions of order and peace after violence.
Exemplary in this regard are the three short poems grouped together by Tchernichovsky under the rubric of “Honey Songs.” The subject of the first is Biblical, the second, Greek, and the third, Roman, so that a community of civilization among the three source-cultures of the Western world is implied in the very sequence of the poems. The second and third poems are in fact adaptations of poetic epigrams preserved in The Greek Anthology, while the initial poem is an original invention. The first poem ponders the riddle of Samson and the lion, eliciting from the paradox of sweetness out of strength some suggestion of poetry’s alchemic working on the violent stuff of experience. (One might recall that Yeats in “Vacillation” settles on just this enigma of the lion and the honeycomb as the emblem of poetry transfiguring history and death.)
The road to Timna lies bare from Zorah
on down to the valley.
On both sides are vineyards. By the dip,
A leonine skeleton, bone-sinews
still clinging to it:
Beautiful bone by a marvelous
bone of sheer power.
A swarm of bees buzzing casts sacred song in its
Labor over each flower, each bush
and each tree.
In the carcass, at its midmost, honeycomb
wealth to be taken
By the man who smote the lion: for from
the strong will come forth sweet.
A young lion he met, a young lion did he smite:
Young lion, young beast, young lion
and human young . . .
Man, why fear desert-lion’s wrath—
you will rend him!
Wild beast has never stood ground before man.
I fear that my crude approximation of the original can give only the dimmest notion of the quiet poise of the Hebrew, which combines classical hexameters with Biblical diction and a hint of Biblical cadences. The serene control with which lion, beesong, and young Samson’s triumph are evoked betokens a faith in man and his imagination, uncannily makes the fantastic assertion of the last line a plausible conclusion to the poem. The middle piece of the group of three poems, recasting lines by Apollonidas, is, after the implicit violence of the Samson verses, a hushed entreaty to let no harm befall the bees as they fill their chambered home with golden nectar. Finally, the third poem balances the first by conjuring up a matching image, after Philippus, of song and sweetness issuing from the relics of violence. Realizing for the Hebrew reader of 1941 a still moment of peace after war drawn from the ancient Roman world, the poem nicely illustrates the necessity of poetry and the literary heritage for the modern imagination. Any statement about killing yielding to beauty extracted from the poem and asserted discursively would have to seem only wishful thinking. Embodied concretely in the poem, which is itself meticulously placed in a larger poetic context, such an implication has the conviction of experienced truth. The poem, conceived at the nadir of historical horror as a “translation” of ancient poetry, creates a moment of grace in words, becoming thus a guarantor of spiritual sanity by intimating through a wholeness in language that there is a possible wholeness outside of language which man may yet attain:
Prow sheathed in iron, war-galley’s
weapon, remains of
The battle of Actium—rests on the
shore of a quiet sea.
Become now a beehive and honey-filled
hollows of wax.
All around it the buzzing swarm
The sacred boon bestowed by
Caesar: he decreed,
And the enemy’s armament sends forth
the blessing of peace.
1 “An Apology for Literature,” COMMENTARY, July 1971.