Poetry : Hannan Hever

The reader recognizes the poem as mimetic, that is, an imitation of familiar reality through artistic means. But a poem, Catherine Belsey says, is a real experience and not merely a claim to experience.19 An understanding of the poem as an experience is based on the challenge to realism—that is, mimetic language—made by the post-Saussurian linguistic theory of Roland Barthes and, similarly, of Jacques Derrida. The claim to experience stems from post-structuralists grappling with Ferdinand de Saussure’s principle argument about the arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified, and their inseparable existence (like two sides of a single sheet of paper).

Post-Saussurians undermined the assumption that every signifier was permanently accompanied by one exclusive signified, and that in every mimetic act, a sign is a mark of one specific signified. This mimetic principle is also undermined by Derrida’s concept of différance: the movement of signs pursuing signifieds, with each stage of the pursuit mediated by another sign. In Shlonsky’s poem, we are faced with the experience of the movement of signs and not a definitive, mimetic representation of signifieds by signs. As there are always more signs between the signifier and the signified, the movement of signs that are not accompanied by privileged signifieds, in effect, kills off the author as a privileged, primary origin who causes the signs to exist. In this way, the author is negated as the humanistic source of significance, that is, of signs with fixed signifieds, and the situation is, Derrida confirms, that “the subject . . . is engraved in language, a ‘function’ of language,’ ” and not the source producing it.20

Subjects, constituted as subjects by the literary text, accept the built-in transparence of ideology that according to Althusser,

imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’21

Shlonsky’s poem creates this effect by using the signifiers of a loving family. But the representation of what is “obvious” nearly always also involves repression. In this case, the poem circumvents or represses signifiers of the working class within labor movement discourse. Althusser rejected the Marxist topographical model of ideology—that is, a material basis with an ideological superstructure—as a distortion of reality. Following him, we will view ideology as a practice of signifiers that always has a material foundation.

Take, for example, Christian belief embodied in the practice of participation in mass, or the swallowing of sacramental bread, which in effect represents the carrying out of a fictional relationship to reality. These practices are real experiences of the representation of representation; they appropriate the ideological text from the classic Marxist model of ideology as a distortion of reality, and relocate it in representational practices: that is, the signifying practices that operate in discourse. The fact that this is not an ideological process that distorts reality allows us to see the ideology of Shlonsky’s poem—in the movement and clash of signifiers of the nuclear family—as a metaphor for the entire nation, which sends out, the nation like the mother, the laboring pioneer to his day of toil. The unmistakable interest that the metaphor represents is obvious: to subordinate the sign of class to the sign of nationalism, that is, to establish a nationalism whose ideology—socialist Zionism—cancels out the articulation of class, and class hierarchy as well. This is an ideological and not a political representation; it offers a hermetic ideology whose sign neutralizes the problem of the question of the relationship between the signifiers of nationalism, class, and theology, discussed below. All these signifiers exist in the semantic field of Hebrew poetry in Palestine, but their pattern of movement creates a subject that marginalizes those signifiers that could complicate a harmonious, nationalist world view.

How exactly is class suppressed in favor of the “obvious” ideology of cohesive nationalism? The ideological mechanism that facilitates such a reading is the fact that religious identity underlies nationalist identity. Religion is the mechanism that attempts to combine the unaligned elements of socialist Zionism and turn them into an ideology that is taken for granted, that is “obvious.”

The contradiction between the obligation to the concept of nationalism and to that of class is expressed, for example, in the evasions around the question of labor. When Hebrew labor rejects the Arab laborer in the name of Jewish nationalism, this rejection creates a conflict between the nationalist and class positions among those who have defined themselves as universal socialists. The contradiction only appears to be solved in socialist Zionist discourse through synthesis with a Jewish theological signifier. Shlonsky, who wrote explicitly in his 1923 manifesto Tselem (image) about religious revelation authorizing metaphor, used the metaphor of building roads to blend the signifiers of physical roadwork with the spiritual work represented by donning phylacteries (a strip of leather wound around an arm is “like” the building of a winding road “by hand”).22

If so, socialist Zionism represented itself as an “obvious” nationalist ideology that uses theology to transcend the contradiction between nationalism and class. The universal nature of class behavior, like the presence of the labor movement in public discourse at the time, was merely paid lip service by the Jewish population, but is repressed completely in Shlonsky’s poem. Theology, a kind of particularism of a group of believers, becomes transcendent, replaces the universal signifier of class with the help of nationalist ideology, and appears in the poem as a comfortable, natural solution to the sharp contradiction between a harmonious, unifying nationalism and a community divided into classes.23

19. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Routledge, 2002), 115-116.

20. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison and Newton Garver (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1973), 145-146.

21. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 160-161.

22. Benjamin Harshav, Manifestim shel modernism (Jerusalem: Hamahon haisraeli l-poetika v’semiotika al shem Porter, Tel Aviv University, 2002), 205-206.

23. Zeev Sternhell, Binyan uma o tikun hevra (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1995).

« Previous // Next »