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The NewJew as Poet THE NEW JEW AS POET: TCHERNICHOWSKY'S INVOCATION OF AN ISRAELI DAY by S. Daniel Breslauer S. Daniel Breslauer is Professor of Religious Studies at the University ofKansas. He is the author of several books, the most recent being The Thought of Mordecai Kaplan in a Postmodern Age. He has also edited The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth, forthcoming from SUNY Press. Myth, Poetry, and Politics 11 Myth, as Roland Barthes so ably demonstrates, does not reproduce concrete reality. Its primary task lies in the transformation of words. The term myth refers not to a realistic transformation of the cosmos but to a particular use of language. Barthes shows how various expressions of culture turn out, on examination, to be linguistic indicators, to be a metalanguage about signs and their meaning.! With this in mind Barthes turns to an example that might seem to disconfirm his thesis-that of poetry.2 Modern poets eschew the formal and the literalistic or representational . They refuse to be locked into a particular use of language. They often resist meaning and reject its domination. Ironically, Barthes comments, these poets have actually created a new metalanguage-a language that addresses the meaning of poetry itself. They provide clues to recognizing what is and what is not poetic speech. In short, they have constructed a myth of poetry. 'Roland Barthes,Mythologies. Selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers (London: Random House, 1993). 2Barthes, Mythologies, pp. 133-134. 12 SHOFAR Winter 1996 Vol. 14, No.2 Barthes, therefore, overcomes the argument that poetry which refuses to admit the commonplace relationship between signifier and the signified has escaped being mythical. Nevertheless he does recognize one stronghold impregnable to myth. The productive or the political cannot be reduced to myth. Its language is the language ofcreation, not of reflection. It is only language and never a metalanguage. In such a language, Barthes writes, a person attempts to change reality, to alter what is, rather than to preserve it or give it an eternal, inevitable construction. Politics can never be mythic because it aims at altering the way things are; it creates a new language and can, therefore, dispense with a metalanguage. .As Barthes puts it, when language is linked "to the making of things, meta-language is referred to a language-object and myth is impossible.,,3 Trying to use poetry as a political tool inevitably creates an internal tension and contradiction.4 The plan and program of several Zionist poets, in particular those of the "Hebrew Renaissance," such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Saul Tchernichowsky, contradicts Barthes' contentions. These poets made a political decision even in their choice of language. To write in Hebrew, as Robert Alter points out, was to "invent a new secular Hebrew cultural identity" and to use language as a symbol of cultural autonomy. Evoking a mythic vision was, in itself, making a political and programatic statement .S The writers whom Alter studies, and poets like Tchernichowsky and Bialik, combined a dual motivation-that of myth-making and of political affirmation. Another student of the revival of Hebrew traces its development to an even more complexevolution. The HebrewRenaissance, Benjamin Harshav suggests, arose through the combination of three dimenSions-the religious, political, and social. Through individuals who, in their own lives, combined an experience of Hebrew in each of these spheres, the language revived and flourished.6 Such a combination ofmotivations and experienc- 'Barthes, Mythologies, p. 146. 4In contrast to this claim see the so-called "iconoclastic myth" discussed by Gilbert Morris Cuthbertson in his Political Myth and Epic (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1975), pp. 188-192. 'See Robert Alter, The Invention ofHebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the lAnguage of Realism. The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), pp. 5, 12. 6&e Benjamin Harshav, lAnguage in Time of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). The NewJew as Poet 13 es produced a necessarily complex literary corpus. Nowhere does that complexity both in motivation and execution become more clear than in the attempt to create a new "folk" literature. On the one hand, this literature served a clearly ideological and programmatic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 11-26
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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