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Modernism/modernity 13.4 (2006) 635-655

Jews as Siberian Natives:
Primitivism and S. An-sky's Dybbuk

At the beginning of the twentieth century, European artists created works evincing their fascination with what they called the "tribal" or the "primitive," a trend that has been studied thoroughly by art historians over the past few decades.1 While primitivism has been seen primarily as an art historical category, modernist writers were also inspired by the ideal of the primitive, which they associated with vitality and energy, as opposed to what they considered to be the decadence and decay of their own world. They found examples of the primitive in distant places such as Africa and Polynesia and in the distant past of their own or other nations, and they reached out to it in various ways in their writing. In this paper, I consider the paradoxical status of the Jews in regard to literary primitivism. On the one hand, they might be seen as an ancient people, identified with the past of the Hebrew Bible, or as an Eastern people, preserving a mystical religion (Hasidism) and a patriarchal way of life in their shtetlakh.2 On the other, they might be imagined as the consummate moderns, ably adapting to the capitalist system and fully at home in urban space.3 How did Jewish writers grapple with this conundrum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? In confronting it, did they create a specifically Jewish form of modernism?4 I respond to these questions by examining the writings of and the myths surrounding a Russian and Yiddish writer, revolutionary, and ethnographer, S. An-sky (Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport, 1863–1920), author of the play The Dybbuk (1919), the cornerstone of the modern Hebrew and Yiddish theatrical repertoires. This endeavor involves shifting the geographic focus from the art of Western Europe to the Russian empire [End Page 635] (and, as a counterexample, the United States), where both the Jews and modernism developed along distinct paths.

Literary criticism on primitivism has developed in recent years and conflicting arguments have emerged about it. Some scholars focus on the political implications of representations of colonized peoples by writers from colonial powers, while others counter the postcolonial critique with the insistence that modernist writers inevitably represent the West as well as the exotic other as "a play of projections, doublings, idealizings, and rejections of a complex, shifting otherness."5 In the view of Marjorie Perloff, "It is the essence of modernism … that it encodes the uncertainties of [the dialogical nature of the ethnographic encounter] at the heart of its procedural self-consciousness."6 That is, Perloff argues that modernist writers were deeply concerned with the contradictions produced by their own self-representations vis-à-vis the primitive subject.

In her nuanced revision of the critical debate around modernist primitivism, Perloff cites Russian examples (Gumilev, Akhmatova), and her conclusions are particularly germane for the Russian context. In the Russian Empire and Eastern Europe—as in the United States—modernist writers were consumed by issues of national identity. Slavic modernists worked to re-anchor that identity in folklore and depictions of the local primitive. Stylization—or, as Alexander Ogden points out, the slightly different Russian term, stilizatsiia, meaning "the purposeful reproduction of someone else's style as a defined aesthetic and ideological position in a new artistic context"7 —was an important tactic for the Russian modernists, who refashioned their poems and prose, and often even their speech and dress, after now one, now another model chosen from other times and places.8 The sense that life was like text and could be refashioned according to aesthetic criteria typified the era. The literary historian Alexander Lavrov notes that the "most characteristic feature of the Symbolist attitude toward reality" was "to perceive the world as a quasi-artistic phenomenon, to attribute to reality the qualities of an artistic text."9 The Russian modernists were not, in fact, doing anything new in imitating peasant styles of speech and behavior; after all, the...


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