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Salvage Poetics: S.Y. Agnon’s A Guest for the Night

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 1, January 2014
pp. 187-199 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Writing Culture

In their now-classic anthology, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, James Clifford and George E. Marcus focus on “the making of ethnographic texts” and look “critically at one of the principal things ethnographers do—that is, write.” 2 Clifford and Marcus’s landmark collection is focused on how culture is inscribed in language; every field study written as the result of a course of ethnographic observation and study, must be considered, first and foremost, as a text. Around the same time that anthropologists sought to understand the role of literary consciousness in the writings of ethnographies, literary scholars were looking for anthropological tools to use in order to extrapolate culture from literature. The “New Historicism” of the 1980s and 1990s, for example, drew from ethnographic terminology in order to lend credence to literary criticism’s own quest to wed the practice of close reading to historical and cultural breadth.3 Thus, literary texts, with the help of ethnographic discourse, were deemed “artifacts” or “thick descriptions” of particular cultures.

In a recent attempt to understand post-Holocaust readings of pre-Holocaust Yiddish and Hebrew literature as a form of popular ethnography, I invited Billie Jean Isbell, a practicing ethnographer from Cornell University, to deliver a lecture at the University of Maryland. Entitled “Anthropology’s Return to Fiction,”4 her talk consisted primarily of reading from a didactic novel she is writing about the culture of transgendered children, a topic she addresses in her current ethnographic fieldwork.5 Her theoretical interests, to the extent that her interests venture into the theoretical domain, are centered on practicing ethnographers who write fiction in order to further popular access to their research. But what of fiction that is received as a witness to a culture, or a “description” thereof, in an “ethnographic” vein, but is not written by anthropologists?

After years of struggling to find an ethnographic treatment of the ways in which certain bodies of literature are read by popular audiences as a form of ethnography, I now realize that it is up to literary scholars to identify, document, and analyze a particular poetics that lends itself to popular ethnographic reception. I have coined the term “salvage poetics” to acknowledge the historical circumstances which motivate the kind of composition and reception which lead to a work of fiction being understood in a popular ethnographic vein. While “salvage” reflects the attempt to preserve something that is either in the process of disappearing, or is said to have already done so, “poetics” gestures towards the fundamentally literary nature of the “salvage” work.

My own formulation of “salvage poetics,” particularly within the context of post-Holocaust reception of arts, draws upon the natural commingling of the disciplines of anthropology and literary analysis at the end of the twentieth century in order to better describe and approximate the blurring of the boundaries between pre-Holocaust aesthetic production as an ethnographically valuable enterprise and as an artistic one. The concept of “salvage poetics” presented here is conceived partly in keeping with the notion of “ethnopoetry,” as introduced in 1908 by author and ethnographer Semyon Ansky (also known as Semyon Akimovitch or Solomon Rappaport.) In his ethnographic expedition from 1912 to 1914, inspired by the contemporary Russian ethnographic movement, one of Ansky’s stated goals was to collect Jewish folk art and folk artifacts in order to “salvage” them for posterity.6 To this end, Ansky recruited artists and writers to serve as staff for his expedition in the Pale of Settlement so they could re-inscribe artifacts of Jewish life (melodies, idioms, stories, etc.) in a uniquely modern Jewish art, thereby salvaging them, but more importantly, rendering contemporary Jewish aesthetic works more authentically “Jewish” because of the presence of “folk forms” within them.7

This understanding of “salvage,” forged of an ethnographic consciousness but not governed by its scientific methodologies, distinguishes “salvage poetics” in a literary sense, from “salvage ethnography” as an anthropological science. Thus, works of salvage poetics, for purposes of the present discussion, are imaginative works that strive to balance an impulse to document with an impulse to create. They document a world in a variety of different self-conscious ways that...


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