NO STORY, NO HISTORY
Bialik's Stories from Texture to Context (Lecture circa 1998)
(possible errors in text due to conversion from old files)
My topic - Bialik's stories from texture to context - is a condensation of a 300 pages book that I have recently published in Hebrew - under title BE'EIN ALILA namely, without a story, or a plot English title is "no story, no history". It is based on assumption that Bialik could not have written a well wrought story with a linear plot, with traditional heroes and a definite closure. Reasons for these literary deficiencies (which are not deficiencies at all as you can assume) were extra-literary as well as literary. Bialik himself had claimed on more than one occasion that a nation without history surely meant active, independent history has no story to tell. argued that the Jewish people, being a subordinate minority in every place, with a dead language strictly forbidden for everyday purposes, could not have produced stories and novels, epics and dramas with real heroes and and a meaningful dynamic plot. At same time, Bialik also intuitively grasped that modern times require new literary tools and that in 20th century - due to processes of atomisation and disintegration in all western cultures - literature is prone to reflect anti-heroic figures and deeds. The air of relativity and uncertainty that prevailed in Europe at turn of the century, with collapse of the seemingly unshakable establishments of the past (fathers and sons, empires and colonies, patrons and servants, aristocracy and mob) has bred anti-heroic stories with undefinite closures, open to various interpretations. (interpretations that correspond with reader's, with each reader's background and state of mind it goes without saying that the reading public has become increasingly diverse so author could hardly rely any longer on his readers' stock responses).
As opposed to his great predecessors ,namely Yehuda Leib Gordon who was innovator of short story in Hebrew Literature, and Mendele Moicher Sfarim who was first to portray everyday simple-minded people from Jewish Stetl, Bialik's short stories are seemingly devoid of any ideological intentions or tendencies. They describe in a very vivid and convincing manner life of old fashioned Jews (with a few exceptional ¦ uncommon representatives of new order) in Ukrainian village or in semi agricultural suburb of small Ukrainian town, among their Gentile neighbours. These seemingly "naive" and "innocent" stories, at a closer scrutiny, may appear as indirect representations of the ideology of Ahad Ha'am - main opponent to revolutionary Zionism advocated by Herzl.
The first story (Arieh Baal Guf, or Arieh Browny in English translation) is a portrayal of a muscular, rather vulgar, Jew who terrorises his non Jewish neighbours. This is of course an ironic and subversive configuration of all conventions and stereotypes describing Jew as a humble tent dweller careful about his habits and traditions. Arieh has a rich garden well-known for its extra-ordinary yield and a new spectacular house built instead of shabby hut inherited from his father. On one hand it is hinted thatis a new Jew holding no resemblance to his fathers and forefathers. On other hand it is also hinted that all is nothing but appearances, and that in fact Arieh is an old-fasioned Jew who is accumulating money in order to lend it upon interest and who is actually interested in financial properties rather than in real-estate and in agriculture .is only seemingly attached to nature, as even his garden is someone else's property that was confiscated by way of penalty for an unpaid debt. His sons are already half-assimilated so there is hardly a chance that this robust dynasty of muscular new Jews will be of any contribution to the new Jewish renaissance. The ultimate target of this description is to pave new ideological trends justifying Zionist outlook of Achad Ha'am in his famous collection of essays ---------- "On Crossroads", namely that a prolonged educational process must precede any practical steps towards immediate settlement in Land of Israel. Herzl's rapid political achievements were condemned at this stage by Bialik as void manifestations of public relations with no serious grounds. layout
In Meachorey Hagader (naturally translated title "Behind Fence" cannot capture the subtleties of Hebrew idiom) Noah protagonist falls in love with a blond pig shepherdess who is a protege of a witchlike patron owning a frightening dog called Shkoripin and who lives in a Ghetto surrounded by hostile Jews (this unnatural situation is of course an ironic negative, reverse image of all conventions and stereotypes). Again we are confronted with a new Jew who is seemingly interested in agriculture rather than in culture. spends most of his time in raising dogs, in fighting and wrestling rather than in learning Talmud chapters. However when time comes andisrced to make up his mind he marries an ordinary Jewess in a conventional religious ceremony. Bialik shows in this story that in order to revolt against old restrictions and habits one has to go through a long and tedious process and that any outer change that can be achieved overnight will also go with the wind as easily as it was gained. In other words: the slow educational, evolutionary method advocated by Achad Ha'am is preferable in the long run to superficial and shallow changes implemented by Herzl and his followers. Again an innocent story of initiation and love - a Hebrew, East European version of Shakesperean Romeo ¦ Juliet - turns out to be an indirect political manifesto (and emphasis is on "indirect", because if it were direct and deliberate it wouldn't have been so convincing). dialogue that this story conducts with specific chapters from contemporary Zionist writings can show how deeply involved was Bialik in current national dilemmas without being for a moment mobilized, direct or tendentious.
Hachazozra Nitbaysha (Offended Trumpet) is apparently an answer to one of Gordon's stories in which Jewish soldier is described as most successful and most respectable person in his home town. Bialik presents other side of coin. shows Jewish soldier namely the Maskilic ideal of integration and emancipation precisely when is expelled from his village together with his family during his military leave. It is indirectly suggested that autorities treat the Jewish soldier as if were an ordinary member of an outcast minority and not a new type of a Jew who fulfills his civil duties and there deserves to be granted civil rights. implicit conclusion is that Jew with his concern common good, his civic ideals and devotion to national causes should contribute elsewhere since his contribution is unwelcome and regarded with contempt, and that the Jewish tragedy fortunately will repeat itself generation after generation. After all, the story teller himself - who is a 40 years old soldier in the reserve service - did not leave Russia after expulsion that took place some 32 years bre time of frame story. We encounter him as a soldier in the Tzarist army in first World war as if nothing had happened and as if no conclusions were drawn. Again Achad Ha'am's famous saying "Lo Ze Haderech" (This is wrong Way) is hovering on this story which was first published in a Russian magazine designated for Jewish Russian intelligenzia which sought at that time its way to Zionist movements. Consequently, tone in this story is nostalgic rather than satiric idyllic rather than demonic. However calm life of Jewish farmers and villagers is incessantly interrupted by circumstances that are far from being calm or idyllic. Bialik shows here his disillusionment with the promising slogans of the Haskala Movement of Enlightenment, both universal and Hebrew telling his readers without saying it in too many words that only way is to take Makel Vetarmil (staff and haversack) and to start a new path, but not in order to become an eternal wanderer but in order to seek and find a new place to settle down and create a new culture - secular but autonomous and attached to national sources and far from self-effacement and assimilation.
Even Saphiax (Aftergrowth) Bialik's seemingly autobiographical and lyric story which seems so naive and unintentional and detached from any ideological controversy is in fact an indirect defence of the political trend recommended by Achad Ha'am. It shows how bad methods of learning may spoil a child (and a nation) and fill his brain with nonsense. Again, it is argued here in a very subtle and indirect manner that Jews who live in countryside among Gentiles are only seemingly attached to Nature. In fact, this attachment to agricultural surroundings and these affinities with local population are harmful and unnecessary. Again, the conclusion is well adjusted to Zionist theory of Achad Ha'am who claimed that education is prior to any pragmatic steps and that if it is neglected everything is useless - like building a tower or even a simple construction without proper foundations. When child who is protagonist in this story is still very young and ignorant sees Alef - first letter of alphabeth inrm of Marusia a gentile maid the water drawer with splinter bar, but when he is already educated offers a new interpretation to unknown: his imagination converts non-Jewish neighbourhood and turns it into Biblical scenes with East European Jewish flavour. outcome is a strange hybrid bred from totally different components which can never be reconciled.
Bialik's story Merchant (Socher, or Soycher as Bialik would have probably pronounced this word which is actually a Hebraism in Yiddish with many connotations which do not exist in contemporary Hebrew) is also his first sketch. Under this generic title (incidental sketches - or: RESHIMOT KELEACHAR YAD in Hebrew) Bialik included his most modern prose writings. These rare literary gems with their fragmented composition can only be compared to some of Chekhov's best short stories. They were however neglected by readers and critics (unjustifiably neglected andr no apparent reason). only probable reason may be the misleading understatement suggested by the term "reshima" whereas these are excellent stories which outreach most contemporary Hebrew prose, and even surpass some of foreign great models of past. These so-called sketches were not even translated into English, and this is a challenge to those among you who have literary talents - to cope withur excellent prose writings composed by most prominent Hebrew writer: the first is titled ------- Merchant second is ------------------ (meaning: irreparable damage, or literally: that which is crooked cannot be made straight third is titled --------- (deckman) and fourth ----------- (when march shall have dominion). setting of these so-called sketches is usually estranged and alienated modern city or any other international background. stories, as you may know, take place small familiar stetl or little village where problems of identity are less acute. heroes of these so-called sketches are urban and urbane at same time. They are interregnum characters who are doing their best to integrate within new circles of modern society, but who are still preserving some old ridiculous habits from their provincial town or village.
Again it is indirectly suggested that instant revolutions are harmful and useless, and that new habits are acquired only after a long-term process. This burlesque figure of merchant who is also a poet from time to time is on one hand realistic, even naturalistic, with many specific - even idiosyncratic - traits of character, but on other hand this is a symbolic figure representing all archtypal national characteristics: the inability to decide between materialism and idealism, tent dwelling and wandering, conservativism and modernism and so on and sorth. His restless rushing around in a desperate attempt to impress his listeners is pathetic and pitiful as well as it is ridiculous and contemptuous. Again when we are confronted with his bad habits and bad looks we can hear behind scenes Achad Ha'am's reformative slogan -------------.
As you can see my book attempts at proving that these stories are rarely naive characterizations or descriptions of contemporary Jewish life in suburbs and villages of southern Russia. It also attempts at proving that even shorter sketches written by Bialik at a later stage of his literary career are in perfect accordance with the ideology of Ahad Ha'am in his exemplary book On Crossroads. only exception is a so called sketch titled Ish Hasippun Deckman written by Bialik in his last years describing precarious global situation upon the rise of Nazi Germany. This sketch which is a hilarious parody of racist beliefs and biases of all kinds leads to conclusion that there is not a place under sun where Jew can have peace of mind and that a feeling of impending crisis will always accompany Jew - always and everywhere. The brighter side of this story shows that dreams and illusions can come true, and that literature is not only a mimetic reflection of reality. It can also create reality, not only imitate it. Hence this story shows that Herzl's Utopia has turned into reality, and that Tel-Aviv has changed its nature: from name of a far fetched imaginary Utopia and a sweet dream it turned into real city - the first secular and modern city in Eretz Israel.
This is a story of mistaken identities. speaker who is a well-known Hebrew poet, who can easily be identified with Bialik himself, suspects the deckman for being a vile creature and treats him with arrogance and with total disbelief. is sure that his counterpart is a fabricator of lies and of groundless stories. Finally this poet reveals to his great amazement that has misled poor deckman and not vice versa. Due to a minor error made by well-known author and respectable publisher(that is to say: speaker) unjustly believed that deckman's Jewish wife is offspring of one of the most prominent Rabbis in Lithuania (rabbi Israel Lipkinunder of the Mussar movement). consequently, Swedish deckman - an ironic caricature of the Vikings and a pale, unimpressive representative of the Superior race starts stering a superiority complex based on his false belief that his daughters are real aristocrats. This is a subtle parody onrms of racism that infested Central Europe in 30's. Bialik even predicted in this story destruction of German Jewry (in some of the public lectures he delivered during 30'seven used term SHOA as an ominous prediction that was naturally ignored at that time.
Since time is not unlimited allow me to add a few points in a telegraphic manner. These points are of course elaborated in my book:
1. Bialik did not write many stories. composed only four stories (almost novellas in length) and four sketches. This is apparently an inadequate yield for such a prominent author, but it must be noted that each one of these was a pioneering venture followed by multitudes of imitations. We must also remember that this prose should be regarded as a multiplication of its modest visible (or explicit) dimensions and its unlimited concealed (or implicit) depths, so the outcome is not disappointing at all. On contrary, it offers unlimited possibilities for further reading ¦ research.
Consequently (and this is second point) these stories do not lose their relevance. They are evergreen. Even a post-modernistic critic equipped with up-to-date tools of research, such as feminism, minority discourse and so on and sorth will find these stories as an inexhaustible reservoir of post-modernistic postures such as capability to view alternative narrative, to revise ¦ rewrite official narratives ¦ replace them with a new interpretation from standpoint of underprivileged strata of society the ability to reexamine hierarchies of past and establish a new order based on ethnocentric outlook.
and finally, these prose writings have an indefinite closure and much is left to reader's imagination. reader is expected to complete story in his inner eyes and meditate over fate of Arie's sons, over fate of that unexpected child, Noah's child, that will grow up behind the fence, on fate of family that was expelled during Passover from Ukrainian village.
And to sum up allow me another few words: cus of this study is quite clear and specific. I wished to examine Bialik's prose (which encompasses only 8 original stories and one adapted tale) as it emerged out of realistic limits of 19th c. Hebrew prose (Gordon, Mendele) and then to trace migration of this phenomenon - a typical product of the Jewish Pale of Settlement - to West European realms. I was in fact concerned with a relatively brief period of 35 years and a small corpus of literary works. Yet in order to understand forces that brought about the extraordinary birth of what has become a major literary phenomenon with unlimited influence that can even be traced nowadays, I had to portray in this book adventurous path of Hebrew prose writing which was at first product of a language that was considered unfit for love stories and descriptions of nature. To fully understand metamorphosis that took place in Hebrew prose writing I had to go back to norms of 19th century pseudo Classical stories - to trace origins and to carry on from early stages to the most mature literary manifestations written in 20's ¦ in 30's. It occurred to me that the uncovering of political subtext of these stories ¦ sketches is a most efficient tool for tracing processes of development ¦ change, and I hope I succeeded in doing so. thank your listening.