Poetry : Hannan Hever

4. The Apolitical Intertext

The same poem may be political in one historical reading context and apolitical in a different one. In order to point to the absence of a poem’s political action, that is, in order to reveal the suppression and silencing of the contradiction, we must conduct an intertextual reading that describes its political or apolitical (but ideological) nature as a relationship between two or more texts at a particular historical moment. This reading grasps, or in essence creates, an effect which is either political or not.

Shenhav applies to Zionism Bruno Latour’s idea that “the term ‘modern’ designates two sets of contradictory principles.”

The first, known as ‘hybridization,’ mixes . . . distinct elements. The second, known as ‘purification,’ creates separate ontological zones with no continuity between them. It is only when both ‘hybridization’ and ‘purification’ are at work” that the modern develops as a category of practice and discourse. Zionism, Shenhav argues, “has adhered to the same code in constructing modern Jewish nationalism. It hybridizes the secular with religious . . . while purifying nationalism. . . Through the simultaneous processes of hybridization and purification, the religious is relegated to the pre-modern . . .while the secular is consigned to the modern sphere.24

The process of hybridization of religion and secularity, and purification of secularity as a construction of modern Zionist nationalism may be seen in Shlonsky’s text as a result of intertextuality that mixes the religious and the secular and is carried out, of course, by metaphorical means. The discourse of secular labor is represented in terms of religious ritual; the paving of roads like the laying on of phylactery straps grants the metaphor its major role as intermediary. The metaphor hybridizes two poles—religion and secularism—and then purifies them into nationalism. Purification is carried out by a decisively aesthetic act, one that de Man in an essay on Schiller’s “Of the Sublime” called the “sheltering” function of art, which allows us to experience danger as a fictional reality.25 A threatening hybridization appears in aesthetic form as a metaphor, and therefore as a fiction, and through the process of purification it gives way to the synthetic reality of Zionist nationalism that contains the Jewish religion within. It should be noted that Zionist discourse depicts itself as a movement of Jews whose religious identity has never been separated from their national identity.

Another factor participates in the drama of hybridization and purification, as purification always involves the suppression and expulsion of whatever disturbs it. And so the element of class, which is submerged under the surface of this text, must be added to the binary structure of secularism and religion purified in nationalism. Nationalism is here the product of purification at the particular historical moment of the Zionist settlement project. Shlonsky’s poem sings its praises and the poem flourishes as a hybrid of religion and secularism, purifying the category of socialist Zionism by suppressing class. Socialist Zionism’s primary priority is nationalism; it suppresses class in favor of nationalist needs with a religious metaphor. And so it may be argued that the process here is not only a binary one that hybridizes religion and secularism and purifies them into modern nationalism. In addition, religion has a formative role in the creation of nationalism. Nationalist language suppresses the signifiers of class subjectivity with a theological signifier and in this way enables the subordination of class to nationalism.26

The socialist Zionist version of work culture creates nationalism, therefore, by purifying the religious-secular hybrid while suppressing class. Religion supplies the historic bridge that establishes socialist Zionist discourse as cohesive nationalism, but in fact its two components are contradictory. In 1923, David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish labor movement in Palestine and later prime minister, transformed nationalism and class into theological terms (redemption through the nation and redemption through work), thereby suppressing the idea of class war. Ben Gurion distanced the category of class by intertextualizing nationalist ideology, a hybrid of religion and secularism.27

But the reading suggested here itself constitutes a political act. Exposure of the suppression of class in Shlonsky’s poem, which has guided the reading to this point, is itself a political act that exposes the poem’s ideology—what was until now simply taken for granted—and politicizes it. In other words, a critical reading can turn an apolitical, ideological poem into a political one.

5. A Political Intertext

The basis of intertextual reading is a comparison and contrast of likeness and difference. With such a comparison to another text, in this case a poem by a different author, we will be able to offer an alternative reading of the Shlonsky text. The second poem was published a short time after Shlonsky’s and was written as a parody of the earlier one, which it politicizes via intertextuality. In 1927, Lyova Almi published the book Ba-Sha’ar that opens with the following poem:28

As a mother leads her son to lay down at twilight
so my day brings a night of rest to me.
Lie down, my day!
Tomorrow we’ll waken
back to back we’ll meet
dark and wild,
and we’ll bear,
me – the stone
you – the sun.

Our legs trample mud and sludge
and one will whip a back, a heart, a soul
for a few pennies!
And one (tender-hearted) will sing
–“how beautiful the day” –

[. . .]

Lie down, my day!
Like a mother at twilight launches the night:
— “sons!”29

The intertextual device of parody links the two poems. Following de Man’s discussion of two poems by Baudelaire as existing in a classicism-romanticism polarity, it may be said that Shlonsky and Almi’s poems are located in an imaginism-futurism relationship.30 This is expressed in Almi’s futuristic rewriting of the thunderous silence about the class position of the pioneer-laborer in Shlonsky’s imaginist poem: for Almi, there is someone who “will whip a back, a heart, a soul/ for a few pennies!”

Almi’s poem demystifies Shlonsky’s, exposing the class basis of the family, primarily the mother, who in essence collaborates with her son’s cruel employer, a figure missing entirely from Shlonsky’s poem.

How does the repressed topic of class emerge in the poem? Pierre Macherey speaks of the silence of the text in Freudian terms of the unconscious; psychoanalytic practice articulates those signifiers which often act in opposition to the signifiers on the surface, and brings them into awareness.31 The repressed ideological effect of common sense returns to the surface; the obviousness of nationalism is undermined by giving voice to silences and contradictions. Languages, which contain concepts that do not represent real-world entities but rather create socially constructed meanings, are neither transparent nor neutral but contain signifiers that may contradict each other, as class and nationality do.32

Althusser marked this point as the place where literature parts from the ideology in which it is immersed. In a letter to Andre Daspre, Althusser noted the “internal distance” from ideology created by a literary text and that art makes us see “the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.”33 The ideological representation of what is purportedly obvious often undergoes defamiliarization in political art which opposes the ruling ideology, as Almi’s poem does in its reading of Shlonsky. “Althusser insists,” Michael Sprinker writes, “that the ideological (and therefore the political) effectiveness of artworks derives from their aesthetic power, namely, from their production of an ‘internal distance’ in relation to the ideology that they present.”34

Belsey calls this type of text “interogated.”35 In our case, despite the ideological nature of Shlonsky’s poem, whose signifiers transform repressed class elements into a loving family within a religious framework, Almi’s poem problematizes Shlonsky’s by bringing class signifiers to the surface. The political, then, is created by articulating repressed signifiers.

24. Yehouda Shenhav, The Arab Jews (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006), 80.

25. Paul de Man, Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrej Warminski (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 144.

26. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 67.

27. David Ben Gurion, Mi-ma’amad l’am (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1974), 40-43.

28. Lyova Almi, Be-sha’ar (Tel Aviv: Likrat, 1927), 3.

29. Trans. Lisa Katz.

30. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 254.

31. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 85 and 94.

32. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 3-4 and 41.

33. Louis Althusser, “A Letter on Art in Reply to Andre Daspre,” in Lenin and Philosophy, 222-223.

34. Michael Sprinker, “Art and Ideology: Althusser and de Man” in Material Events and the Afterlife of Theory, ed. Tom Cohen et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000), 44.

35. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, Chapter 5.

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