- On the Margins and Other Impossible Spaces
My friend tells an old Yiddish joke about a rabbi who comes into the synagogue during the Days of Awe, prostrates himself in front of the Holy Ark and says: “Master of the universe, forgive me for I am nothing.” A few minutes later, the chazn (cantor) walks in, prostrates himself in front of the ark of the Torah and says: “Master of the universe, forgive me for I am nothing.” After yet a few more minutes, in comes the lowly shammes (synagogue sexton), who prostrates himself in front of the ark and says: “Master of the universe, forgive me for I am nothing.” Hearing this, the rabbi sits up, pokes the chazn, and, pointing to the shammes, says: “Look who’s a nothing!” (ze nor ver s’iz a gornisht).On the Margins of Modernism1
If the students of Chana Kronfeld form a Wittgensteinian rope, which “consists of fibres, but . . . does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to the other, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping,”2 then the fiber that constitutes my own part in the cohort of Chana’s students twists its frizzy way near the top of that rope. If we are rather a braid—Chana’s more feminine and Jewish term for a complex interweaving of periods and trends connected through partial overlap and complex “family resemblance”—I am down near the bottom, in the narrowest part just beyond the hair band. What I mean by these elaborate metaphors is that I was there at the very beginning of Chana’s teaching career at Berkeley, having arrived as a doctoral student in the fall of 1984, the semester before Chana started. The first seminar she taught, if I remember correctly, was held around her living room sofa since Chana, pregnant with Maya, was on bed rest. Somehow we discovered that she was craving loquats, and we brought her bags of the fruit, a curious twist on the way American students, back in the days of the one-room schoolhouse, brought their lady-teachers a red apple. I had never tasted a loquat before, nor had a teacher anything like Chana Kronfeld.
We all became aware soon enough of Chana’s breadth of knowledge, clarity of mind, and methodological rigor. But along with all that came a sense of her particular and even peculiar tastes and enthusiasms, not only for certain hard-to-find fruits and one particular color (purple) but also for specific writers (David Fogel, Dvora Baron, Yehuda Amichai), biblical texts (Genesis 22, the Song of Songs), literary movements, trends, or schools (modernisms of all [End Page 9] stripes), musicians (Leonard Cohen), films (Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) and jokes (the one cited in the epigraph above, to which we were introduced in Bluma Goldstein’s Yiddish rendering.) These enthusiasms were illuminated but hardly exhausted by close reading, just as Chana’s fierce disdain for gossip masquerading as literary criticism was explained by, but also somehow exceeded, her neo-formalist training and inclinations. To the range of fallacies inherited from the New Critics, the intentional, the natural, and—my own personal favorite—the pathetic, we learned another Kronfeldian set: the religious fallacy (particularly prevalent among organizers of solemn national-memorial events in need of poetry that could be misread as pious) and its cousin, the Jewish fallacy, to which American Jews were particularly and embarrassingly prone. The study of Baron led us to a new set of fallacies, the ethnographic and the biographical, which were especially egregious not so much for their wrongness as for their favored target: women writers. It was with Baron, perhaps, that we recognized that close reading was not only rigorous academic practice, but also a cultural recovery mission, in which a long-undervalued woman’s voice was not only recovered (and translated into English) but also shown to contain complexities diminished by the purely biographical view. Alongside such pitfalls as the biographical and religious, into which I found myself habitually stumbling, we also acquired the sense that there were entire subjects...