- From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking
Just as Dan Miron was putting the final touches on this book advocating inclusiveness and permeability in the study of Jewish literary history, the physicist Freeman Dyson, leaning on Isaiah Berlin’s and Archilochus’s famous comparison between the fox and the hedgehog, divided mathematicians into birds who “survey broad vistas . . . bring[ing] together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape” and frogs who “live in the mud below,” focusing on details and “solving problems one at a time.”1 Trying to evade such dichotomies, Miron combines the best of bird and frog approaches. With an extraordinary range of literary knowledge he confronts issues from diverse parts of the Jewish literary historical landscape, but he also stops synchronically to anatomize details of particular complexes at the junctures where various subsystems intersect and connect. His main argument is that a search for many points of contact — or contiguities — yields a more productive literary history than a concern for ideological and aesthetic continuities and ruptures among authors and works.
In Miron’s scheme, Jewish-oriented works of literature live in various degrees of relatedness to each other, as cousins or siblings — whether they get along nicely with each other or not: Kafka’s relationship to Sholem Aleichem, [End Page 173] for example, exhibits a positive sense of contiguity because Kafka embraced the Yiddishist’s ethos — even if gingerly; his relationship to leading Hebraists such as Bialik and Brenner, on the other hand, exhibits a negative sense of contiguity, for Kafka deliberately avoided engaging with them, though he was well aware of their work.
Ensconced between discussions of Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, Bialik, and Berditchevsky, Kafka is discussed as a model of in-betweeness: a German-writing Jew whose work does not exhibit overt Jewish content yet who nevertheless belongs to the literary historical framework traced by Miron. Through Kafka Miron clarifies the polarized Zionist and anti-nationalist positions underlying the Hebraic and Yiddishist agendas that Kafka regarded with unequal measures of discomfort. Objecting to a characterization of any Jewish writer as culturally eviscerated, Miron insists that every aesthetic product, along with its chosen language, is “a separate world unto itself” that operates according to its own logic within a “multifarious entity consisting of different connected, semi-connected, and unconnected particles” (303, 275).
Miron pays close attention to the ideological positions that underlie an author’s choice of language(s), genres, and levels of engagement with ancient, rabbinic, and modern intertexts. Yet above all, his book offers a critique of literary historians — that is, a meta-literary history that cuts across the linguistic and geographic categories that have conventionally divided the study of national literatures since the nineteenth century. He examines the ideological agendas and literary-historical choices that affect the methodologies of various scholars, paying particular attention to the worldview of his teacher, Dov Sadan. He compares Sadan to Barukh Kurtzweil and other literary critics of what Miron labels the “old” school of discourse, against which he now pits a “new discourse” freed from worrying about questions of continuity and discontinuity between past and present Jewish culture(s).
To some extent, this is banging on a door already wide open, both within the humanities and in Jewish Studies. The World Congress of Jewish Studies in Israel and the yearly AJS meetings in North America have long accepted belles lettres in a variety of languages and from different cultures; and departments of national literatures are increasingly being amalgamated into programs of multi-cultural studies. But precisely because of such interdisciplinary activity on the ground, one needs a functional theoretical basis for assessing the commonalities, differences, and stakes operating behind and between the various literatures under discussion. Although intersections between Jewish and “other” literatures are not part of Miron’s project, such studies can comfortably extend from the broad comparative framework that he proposes.
When a suma like Miron’s book appears on the literary critical scene, it establishes an invigorating framework capable of...