Commentary Magazine

The Figure of the Dybbuk

Raymond, Raymond, thou art
Raymond, Raymond, I am thine.
In thy veins while blood shall
            I am thine!
            Thou art mine.
Mine thy body, mine thy soul!

The figure of the revenant—in the form of a ghost or in some other shape—stalks through Romantic literature. He is a presence not to be put by. In a time of radical novelty, of emancipation from tradition in all its forms, the past nevertheless lays its palsied hands on the present. The doggerel verses quoted above are spoken by the Bleeding Nun, a figure from the past who threatens to blight the life and loves of the young hero in M. G. Lewis’s Gothic novel The Monk (1795). She is got rid of eventually, her bones being decently reinterred and laid to rest. And paradoxically enough her removal is accomplished with the help of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. It is he who releases Raymond from the spell of the revenant, and thus enables him to go forward into the light, liberated from inherited guilt. Raymond might very well have remarked, in the words of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. It was the Jew who helped him to wake up.

But the Wandering Jew is himself a revenant, a compulsive visitor who comes to remind us of such past events and responsibilities as we would rather forget. Thinly disguised as the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s ballad, he lays his skinny hand on the Wedding Guest and forces him to hear his tale of woe and deliverance, of old unhappy far-off things. And yet the same Wandering Jew is for Coleridge a persona of the poet himself, a rebel and iconoclast. It is Ahasuerus who, in Shelley’s early poem Queen Mab (1813), announces that a new era is beginning, and that Reason and Freedom are “now establishing the imperishable throne of truth” and thus frustrating the curse of ancient religious tyranny. Ahasuerus, a great favorite of the Romantic poets, seems to be both Disraeli and Karl Marx wrapped up in one.

The Romantic writer’s relation to the past is thus nothing if not ambiguous. With the French Revolution, modern man had the sense of being out in the open air, freed for the first time from the heavy weight of traditional loyalties, and yet never has the mesmeric force of the past been more sharply rendered than at that time. Romantic literature, says W. J. Bate, is “crazily split down the middle by two opposing demands.”1 He notes that there is both a nostalgia for the past and a sense of the inexorable need to be liberated from it. How was the man of imagination to arbitrate between the two? Or to keep to our imagery of ghosts and revenants, how was he to exorcise the demon? It was no easy task.

This is the problem which underlies, for instance, many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. He tries to show the dead burying their dead in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But it is the ancient house itself, fatally flawed though its fabric is, which holds our attention. Until we have come to terms with it, we can hardly come to terms with ourselves. It oppresses the imagination, and when it falls (as it does at the end of the story) it leaves us shocked and horrified. “There was a long tumultuous shouting like the sound of a thousand waters.” Chaos is, so to say, come again.

The most insistent of all the revenants for the Romantic poets is probably John Milton. Keats was obsessed with the Miltonic model and Wordsworth declared in a famous sonnet: “Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!” Some would say he was, because Wordsworth himself bore a remarkable facial, as well as stylistic, resemblance to the dead poet. But it is Blake, the most dialectical of the Romantics, who celebrates Milton’s return to the England of 1800 in full and meticulous detail. Arriving in the poet’s garden at Felpham in the year 1803, Milton enters blake’s body through his foot. It is a moment of incomparable revelation, and also one of disaster. Following “the vast breach of Milton’s descent,” Blake tells us that

all this vegetable world appeared
    on my left Foot
As a bright sandal form’d immor-
    tal of precious stones and gold.
I stooped down and bound it on
    to walk forward thro’ eternity.

—“Milton,” Plate 23

The significance of this event is that Blake may now draw directly on the biblical vision of the 17th century, an age of faith and vision. It is an age in which Ololon (the “Emanation” of Milton) can be pictured as a “sweet river of milk and liquid pearl” flowing through Eden. And fortified with this vision, Blake, now the reincarnation of Milton, can become the true poet of Revolution. The present has become suffused with the glory of the past.

And yet, viewed from another angle, this long “prophetic” poem of Blake’s is one long fierce contention with Milton and all that Milton had stood for. Blake rejects the older poet’s Puritan world-view, the “thunders loud and terrible” which his presence conjures up. His body, he says, “was the rock Sinai”—which is about as bad a thing as Blake could say about anyone’s body. And, as a result, when Blake gazes at his left foot in another passage he sees “the black cloud redounding spread over Europe.” All that is bad in the Europe of Pitt and George III, its blindness, its institutionalized forms, its social tyrannies, may be traced back to the evil authority of the past, with Milton as the dark Urizenic figure looming up out of the center of that past!

Blake’s way of dealing with this “crazy split” in his own relation to the inheritance of the past is typically Blakean. It even bears a slight relation to the solutions offered by the Marx Brothers when they run into impossible situations. In brief, the past has to change. In the course of the poem Milton is cured of his Puritan proclivities. We see him at the end casting off and annihilating his selfhood. He “bathes in the Waters of Life, and washes off the Not Human” (Plate 48). Thus the irreversibilities of history are abolished, and the poet can come to terms with a past that has become plastic and malleable. It is like space travel. Blake’s world is one in which the law of gravity no longer operates. Time itself is abolished, so that in the infinite space of metahistory he may build the great city of Golgonooza, where mankind is delivered and all contraries are made one. It is a notable achievement, but not surprisingly there are many of us who cannot go along with Blake all the way. There are many who feel that precisely at the point where the past confronts us, there we reach the limit of our freedom. It may change us, but we cannot change it. It is this consciousness which invests the revenant with his peculiar pathos. He is fixed and determined by the tale that he tells. And telling it to us he reminds us that our liberty, too, has its bounds, and that we, too, shall eventually be transfixed in the resin of history as it flows inexorably on.




There is a Jewish formulation of this paradox which I think is of more than local interest. In fact, I would like to suggest that it is rather like one of the archetypes discussed by Northrop Frye, those fundamental myths through which mankind articulates its basic existential responses.2 Except that Frye in his “archetypal criticism” is concerned with Myths of Nature which derive their authority from the seasons of the year or other such permanent repetitive factors of human experience, whereas here we have what may be termed a Myth of History, a strategy designed to deal with a situation of a non-cyclical, non-repeated kind—in this case, that of modern man in the era of emancipation following the French Revolution. He is liberated from the past, and yet the past, whether conceived as his own personal prehistory or as the collective vessel of tradition, authority, and moral law, has him in thrall.

The extraordinary popularity of S. An-ski’s play The Dybbuk—the play on which the new Hebrew stage, its actors and producers first cut their teeth a half century ago3—suggests that here we have a collective myth of great power. Its portrayal on the stage under the direction of the great Vakhtangov, had, like the classic dramas of ancient Greece, the effect of a ritual. In this case it was a ritual designed to assuage the anxieties created by the impact of the past upon the present, as indicated by its subtitle: “The Two Worlds.” The date, 1916, need not surprise us, because for Jews the crisis of emancipation reached its acute phase in the early 20th century, in the writings of Brenner, Tchernichowsky, and Bialik—the latter two incidentally are among the chief Hebrew translators of the English and German Romantic poets of the early 19th century. Bialik also translated An-ski’s play (which had originally been written in Russian and then in Yiddish), and it was in Bialik’s translation that it finally reached its true audience, namely, the new Yishuv in Palestine, the new Jew who found himself at the crossroads of history. He had cast off the old world, and had eagerly turned to the new, but his soul was not at rest. The Burden of the Past was upon him. And it was a schizophrenic burden: he could neither live with it, nor without it.

In the Dybbuk-archetype the relation between the past and the present is conceived under the image of possession. It is not merely a case of a revenant, but of a revenant who enters and controls the personality of the living. What had been for Monk Lewis a bit of Gothic fustian, now becomes the main theme of the literary work, and a serious theme at that. “I am thine!/Thou art mine./Mine thy body, mine thy soul!” said the Bleeding Nun. This, in effect, is what the Dybbuk says to the person whom he invades, in An-ski and the other Jewish writers whom we shall mention.



The word “Dybbuk” comes from a root meaning “to cleave,” and goes back to Hasidic legends relating to unfortunate people possessed by the spirits of the dead. The Kabbalistic (or possibly even Pythagorean) sources of the archetype do not concern us here, nor do its implications for parapsychology, if any. (I know a man who once witnessed a Dybbuk in action in a Jewish village in Poland.) What concerns us here is its psychic power as myth, as a literary structure serving to articulate the special problem of the new Jew confronting the challenge of the past. In An-ski’s play, the heroine Leah is in the grip of the spirit of her dead lover Hanan. She had been promised to him by her father before their birth, but her father, Sender, had failed to honor the terms of the pact. Central to the whole drama is the ambiguity in the personalities of the two chief characters and also the ambiguity in the experience of possession itself. Hanan is an intensely devout student of Kabbalah: we see him in a central scene gazing in rapture at the Scrolls of the Law in the Holy Ark:

The scrolls of the law . . . there they stand like comrades, shoulder to shoulder, so calm, so silent. All secrets and symbols hidden in them. And all miracles from the six days of creation, unto the end of all the generations of men.4

He is, in other words, himself a witness to antiquity (like the Wandering Jew), to the compelling force of ancient inspiration. But elsewhere he declares that “I am one of those who sought new paths.” He is a witness to the new restlessness. In the climax of the play, speaking through the mouth of Leah, he confronts the rabbis who have come to expel him and fiercely claims his right to love and freedom. The symbolism is utterly clear: he is the new emancipated man, a rebel in league with the devil, like Cain in Byron’s play.5 Leah, too, is attached with the utmost devotion to the memory of her deceased mother. This is the hinge of her personality, and yet she is also (through a Kabbalistic word-play on the letters of her name) literally “the godless one”—her love for Hanan symbolizing her rejection of her father’s authority and of the traditional society to which he belongs. The same “crazy split” is to be noted in the nature of the union between the Dybbuk and his victim. Hanan’s lodgement in the heart and body of Leah is a source of ecstasy, a traumatic release from an environment dominated by bourgeois narrowness and rabbinical obscurantism. But it is also a state of subjection; the dead lover, whose power over her stems from ancient solemn obligations, relentlessly invades her personality. In an important sense the theme of the drama is her struggle to be free from the grip of Hanan. This she finally achieves when the Dybbuk is expelled with bell, book, and candle. But she does not survive the expulsion. As in the fall of the house of Usher, the collapse of the fabric of antiquity and with it the breaking of the spell, are themselves disastrous. Leah dies. As for the basic problem of the “Two Worlds,” An-ski’s solution is sentimental. The two lovers will be united beyond the grave in an after-life where the pressures of history no longer operate. Unlike Blake, An-ski is not in a position to change history itself. He cannot magically change the terms of the pre-contract, the inexorabilities of the historical forms we have inherited; but he can and does console himself and his audience with the dream of the lovers going hand in hand in some paradisal world to come. In other words, there is no solution, and the audience, whose basic spiritual problem the play has ritually enacted, go home, wiping their tears away, comforted only by the thought that in death all contraries are made one.



In S. Y. Agnon’s remarkable short story “Edo and Enam,”6 the heroine, Gemulah, has two “lovers.” There is her husband, Gamzu, a one-eyed antiquarian bookseller who is clearly a man of the tradition with a warm attachment to the synagogue and the house of study. And there is also Dr. Ginat, a man likewise engaged in the study of ancient things, but in a modern spirit, his approach being objective and scientific. Once a month when the moon is full Gemulah loses her normal personality and is possessed by what one can only describe as the Spirit of the Past. She leaves her bed in a trance-like state, and walking in her sleep toward the lodgings of Ginat, she sings the strange hymns of her ancestors in the lost language of Edo. These are the Enamite hymns to the study of which the philologist Ginat has devoted his life. And something of his passionate involvement flows over into the imagination of the reader.

For Gemulah, too, the Dybbuk-experience is dualistic. She is in the grip of an alien force from which her husband and her friends seek to ease her. But, on the other hand, the invasion of her personality is literally a matter of inspiration. It is like the recovery by Blake of the sweet milk and liquid pearl of 17th-century divinity. It is while in the agonizing grasp of this force from the past that Gemulah finds the richest release of her personality. Of course, the tragic dilemma is ultimately insupportable. Gemulah falls to her death from a roof in Jerusalem during one of her somnambulistic excursions, and Ginat dies in a vain attempt to rescue her. The ending is non-sentimental: there is no hint of comfort beyond the grave. But there is a hint of comfort in the ongoing processes of history. For Ginat’s work on the Enamite hymns, in spite of his request that it be destroyed, will in fact be published, and it will have its effect—slow but sure—on the world we know:

As usual the dead man’s orders were not carried out. On the contary, his books are printed in increasing numbers, so that the world is already beginning to know his works, and especially the Enamite Hymns with their grace and beauty. While a great scholar lives those who choose to see his learning, see it, those who do not, see nothing there. But once he is dead, his soul shines out ever more brightly from his works, and anyone who is not blind, anyone who has the power to see, readily makes use of his light.

Salvation, if it comes, will come in our everyday environment. But the hope of it is faint and problematical. It stems from that light which, if we have eyes to see, will one day shine from the scholarship of Ginat, a scholarship which brings to bear the spirit of the present upon the heritage of the past. But will there be eyes to see? The only survivor of the trio, after all, is Gamzu; and he, we are told, is blind in one eye. The exorcism of the Dybbuk, therefore, leaves us with questions which still await an answer.



The Dybbuk in altered form, but still quite unmistakable, continues to haunt the pages of more contemporary Hebrew literature. In Aharon Megged’s recent novel The Living on the Dead,7 the past presses down upon the present in the form of the dead hero, Davidov, a figure from the nation-building, road-making, swamp-clearing era of pre-State Israel whose epic life-story a young author, Jonas, has been commissioned to write. The situation is a little like that projected in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, and, as in The Aspern Papers, the records of the life of the dead man are lost at the end of the story. What binds Jonas to the dead man is thus the written contract with the publisher which, while it opens up for the young anti-hero opportunities for creativity and fame, also depresses and cows his spirit. His problem is to escape from this intolerable burden of obligation. It may be noted that the idea of a pre-contract, a binding covenant or scripture entered into in the past and somehow linking past and present, is central to the examples we are discussing.

In An-ski, the power of Hanan over Leah derives from a prenatal promise made between the two sets of parents. In “Edo and Enam,” the control over Gemulah’s destiny is connected with some mysterious leaves of papyrus inscribed in antiquity which pass from the possession of Gamzu to that of Ginat. In the case of Jonas the contract which he has entered into binds him in a more than formal sense to the dead man. His private life becomes disarranged as he, in mesmeric fashion, relives the career of his hero. He becomes as heartless to his wife and unborn child as Davidov had been to his wife and family. For in the novel the heroic world of Davidov, the whole epic image projected by the halutzic founders of the State, is savagely pilloried, and yet it is a presence not to be put by. Davidov has constructed the world we live in: it is he who has set up for us the aims and purposes which continue to drive us forward; without them we sink back into emptiness and nihilism, a state represented in the novel by a squalid Tel Aviv night club to which Jonas resorts when his responsibilities to Davidov become too much for him.

Paralleling the strange relation between the dead Davidov and the living Jonas is the latter’s equally mysterious bond with the dead sculptor, Polishuk, whose studio, with its litter of plaster casts of heroes, pioneers, and dead leaders Jonas now occupies. Most of the sculptor’s junk has been tossed into the bathroom, but one particularly imposing larger-than-life figure covered in white cloth wrappings stands at the entrance to the hall, oppressing Jonas in its grotesque majesty. It stands as a metaphor for the whole relation between the living and the dead. The values of the earlier generation are no longer an ideal to be worshiped, but they are not to be eluded either. They haunt us. “I do not believe in ghosts,” says Jonas, “but when I sometimes go out at night for a breath of air, I see that silent image standing at the door and I distrust it.” Jonas never wholly escapes the oppressive grip of the past. At the end, when involved in a court case for breach of contract, he testifies that this paralyzes his creative work. “As long as that case is hanging over my head, I can’t start anything new.” This may stand as a fitting summation of the mood of a man in the grip of the Dybbuk. The past has him in thrall, and until he has come to terms with it there is no possibility of a new life.

In a recent comic example, “The Dybbuk from Neve Shaanan,”8 by a young dramatist, Amitzur Eilan, the pressure upon the hero of the presence of his dead father (and of the society which the latter had helped to create) is expressed through the father’s last will and testament, from the terms of which the son desperately tries to escape. In the end we witness him simply fleeing from the house on his motorcycle. It is an example of what Frye would call the “low mimetic” version of the archetype.




We have spoken as though the obsessive presence of the past has the same meaning for the Jewish imagination as it has for the English or American imagination. But, of course, this is not so. There are important differences. Take Ibsen’s Ghosts. Oswald is in the grip of a past which both enthralls him and releases his spirit. For if he owes his father his inherited disease, he also owes him his ecstatic love of life, his search for freedom and joy. So far this is like the dualistic situation of Leah or Gemulah. But Captain Alving’s Ghost is a figure inviting to a life of self-indulgence and pleasure. In a word, the appeal is to Nature and the gods of Nature. For the Jewish writers, the figure from the past represents rather trial, responsibility, and effort. Even for Megged, Davidov, unattractive though he is, pulls us away from the “den” and its easy pleasures and indulgences. The Jewish Dybbuk, we may say, belongs to the superego; that of the non-Jew to the id. Captain Alving, insofar as he points to the past, points back to the Maypole, to the fertility religions which dominated Europe before Christianity got there. We find a similar downward tendency in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, another story of enchantment and spiritual alienation. If Kurtz is in the grip of the ancient barbarisms of the Congo, the narrator, Marlow, discovers in himself the same primeval heart of darkness. We sense it, too, in the environment of the River Thames at the beginning of the story, in the memory of the early savageries practiced there nineteen centuries ago, when the Romans came to settle England and bring it painfully into the light. Such a novel reveals to us the seamy side of Western romanticism. It tells us what the return to Nature is all about. It is not only Wordsworth’s heart dancing with the daffodils: it is also Kurtz sinking back into the barbarous and vivid life of the jungle, and dying with the words “The Horror!” on his lips, and it is also Oswald’s imbecile reaching out for the sun at the end of Ibsen’s play.

To be quite precise, the Western world has two Dybbuks: one, which has clear affinities with the Judeo-Christian tradition, generally introduces himself as the burden of the Puritan conscience. We meet him as Blake’s image of Milton, inspiring and overpowering at the same time, like the Rock Sinai. The other, whom we meet in Conrad and Ibsen, represents the pagan past, the downward drag of Nature. And both are at work in Western literature in the period with which we are dealing, haunting their victims and seizing them body and soul.



As the most compendious tale of enchantment in both these aspects, and as a conclusion to this discussion, I would like to take finally a famous mid-19th-century American novel, Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. Never has the Burden of the Past been more emphatically described. It lies heavily upon the two young persons, Holgrave and Phoebe, whose destiny is the subject of the book:

Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?” cried he, keeping up the earnest tone of his preceding conversation. “It lies upon the present like a giant’s dead body! In fact the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times—to Death, if we give the matter the right word!” . . . “We read in dead men’s books. . . . We worship the living deity according to dead men’s forms and creeds. Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a dead man’s icy hand obstructs us.

The dead hand of the past is symbolized in this novel by the fathers of the Pyncheon race, in particular the old Puritan Colonel Pyncheon whose presence lies upon the living in the form of an oppressively realistic portrait on the wall of the family mansion, and who is reincarnated in the person of the contemporary Judge Pyncheon, a gloomy figure who casts his shadow over the present inhabitants. He in a manner haunts the house built by his ancestors two centuries before, and will continue to haunt it until his death at the end of the story. Only then will the young people be freed from the spell of the Puritan past and be able to emerge into the sunlight.

But the dead hand of the past also operates through another parallel influence, that of the rustic sorcerer, Matthew Maule, another figure from the early period of settlement in New England. In a recalled central episode we watch his son, a low-born carpenter, casting an evil spell over the beautiful Alice Pyncheon. It is an enchantment involving the invasion and corruption of the latter’s personality. “She is mine!” said Matthew Maule. “Mine by the right of the strongest spirit.” (Almost the words of the Bleeding Nun to poor Raymond.) Alice becomes subject to somnambulistic fits, like Gemulah in Agnon’s tale, during which Maule’s power over her has the effect of dragging her down into the abyss, into the Conradian heart of darkness. The overriding metaphor is that of abasement.

A power that she little dreamed of had laid its grasp upon her maiden soul. A will, most unlike her own, constrained her to do its grotesque and fantastic bidding. . . “Alice dance!” and dance she would, not in such courtlike measures as she had learned abroad, but some high-paced jig, or hop-skip rigadoon, befitting the brisk lasses at a rustic merrymaking. It seemed to be Maule’s impulse not to ruin Alice, nor to visit her with any black or gigantic mischief . . . but to wreak a low or ungenerous scorn upon her. Thus all the dignity of life was lost. She felt herself too much abased, and longed to change nature with some worm!

Maule’s curse lies like a heavy burden upon the Pyncheon race and the curse will not be expiated until Phoebe (the last of the Pyncheons) marries Holgrave (the last Maule). Then the contraries are made one. It is an ending marked by the imagery of the Garden of Eden, signifying a return to a remoter and more wonderful past than that suggested either by Puritan New England or by the witchcraft of the jig and the Maypole.

Interestingly enough, the image of a written document or contract is central to this tale. An old roll of parchment (actually a legal contract conveying a great tract of Indian land to the first ancestor of the Pyncheons) is hidden in the house. It testifies to the greed of the early Puritan settlers, and it also, in a way, controls the destiny of their offspring and provides the ground for the retribution which overtakes them. Until the document is found, the past will continue to haunt the present. The controlling influence thus given to a record or contract drawn up in antiquity will immediately remind us of the Jewish Dybbuk stories we have considered. But there is a characteristic difference. When the past gives up its secret, and the parchment is finally recovered, it is found to be worthless. The past no longer binds. Its dreams of wealth and conquest turn out to be mere will-o’-the-wisps in the light of 19th-century reality. The driving force of 17th-century Puritanism no longer moves us. For, after all, we can opt out of American history and move out of the House of Seven Gables to retire into a pleasant cottage and garden—as Phoebe and Holgrave do at the end. With the young lovers of the Jewish tales it is different: but then, Jewish history is different, too.



1 The Burden of the Past, Harvard University Press, p. 133.

2 Cf. Fables of Identity, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 7-20; Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, p. 133ff.

3 See M. Kohansky, The Hebrew Theatre: Its First Fifty Years, Ktav, p. 32.

4 From the English version by H. G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin.

5 A Russian critic, M. Zagorsky, saw in The Dybbuk an image of the Soviet Revolution: in Palestine, on the other hand, it was sometimes criticized as being a glorification of the life of the ghetto and its superstitions (see Kohansky, pp. 45, 94).

6 Translated by Walter Lever in Two Tales by S. Y. Agnon, Schocken Books, pp. 232-3. For another discussion of “Edo and Enam,” see “Agnon's Quest” by Baruch Hochman, COMMENTARY, December 1966.

7 First published, Tel Aviv, 1965. English version by Misha Louvish, Cape (London) 1970; to be published in the U.S. later this year by McCall.

8 Successfully produced at the “Zavit” Theater, Tel Aviv, 1966. Published in the collection Emptied House (Hebrew), Tel Aviv, 1970.

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