Poetry : Hannan Hever

7. The Politicizing of an Apolitical Poem

Shifting historical context from the writing of a poem to the reading process enables nearly any poem to become political, although its politics will be different each time, depending on historic conditions. The reason is that in the most profound sense, for a poem to be political in its own time it must also be able to break out of its own historical context and not only remain within it.46 The politicizing of a poem takes place when readers locate a contradiction in the text that problematizes the poem’s historical authority and works against it. The contradiction—repressed and silenced—is activated by the reader in opposition to the poem’s apolitical surface. The apolitical text works against its own ideology the moment the reader discovers its polyphony and locates repressed voices. This is also the point at which the reader identifies contradiction as a necessary condition for the creation of polyphony across the text that had been read, until then, as apolitical. In Shlonsky’s poem, such a contradiction is present in the third stanza, where Abraham prays to a creator while he is at the same time represented as being a creator himself:47

Here the lovely city says the morning prayer to its Creator.
And among the creators is your son Abraham,
a road-building bard of Israel.48

This is a Russian imaginist type of contradiction (like those, for example, of Sergei Yesenin), which distances visual representation far from reality—representations that use a whirlpool of sensation. But the contradiction may be reconciled. It seems that Shlonsky uses Hasidic foundations to connect mysticism with physical labor. The contradiction between a creator and his creatures may be resolved with the Hasidic idea of imaginism, i.e. that no place is empty of God, an extreme view that grants his creatures divine properties. And so, the one who is created is also a creator and may pray to himself.

A reading that ignores the Hasidic underpinnings will set the contradiction against the text itself. In such a reading, the hierarchal, religious contradiction between God and his creatures destroys the power of the religious metaphors to grant ideological authority to the subject of the pioneer.

In contrast, a religious reading that views nationalism through Hasidic theology will see it as “obvious.” Once again it becomes clear that theology is vital to an ideological reading. Only the pressure and contradiction involved in the striving of the subject for a non-contradictory position manage to be translated into an interpellation of the text to the individual reader—out of the intention to turn her into a transcendental subject free of contradictions.49

In de Man’s terms, this is a process of comprehension that rehabilitates the unintelligible. Such recuperation stands in opposition to the way Almi’s secular poem operates; it exposes the illogical semantic nature of catachresis in the theology of Shlonsky’s poem—the contradiction between Abraham’s prayer to the creator and self-representation as creator. A lyric reading exposes the catachresis of the personification of God and makes the poem lyric; the speaker’s back is turned to the reader through use of an apostrophe or a declaration. Catachresis, an impossible figure of speech, such as an illogical mixed metaphor (for example, Hamlet’s “I will speak daggers to her”), does not signify something real but constitutes the play of signifiers that lack signifieds in reality. The reader, who identifies the catachresis as a type of de-mystification, that is, recognizes the contradiction in a god who prays to himself, is able to make the poem intelligible and normative (for example, by using a Hasidic interpretation): this reading takes it out of the realm of phenomenality. It has no lyric signifieds, but stable meaning instead.50

If we follow de Man’s suggestion (which disturbs the interpretive process) and refrain from reading lyric poems lyrically, things are completely different. Even if the contradiction is resolved, no reading will remain stable over time, since readers are always different and never fixed, and produce many possible different meanings and contradictions, as in our case where the reader is torn between religion and secularism. The reader is also torn in relation to the category of class; the way we think about class and its contradictions today is indirect, perverted and flexible, with fluid and unbalanced borders.51 It may be said, as Cora Kaplan does, that “class has been queered.”52

This fluid situation is a constant characteristic of the reader. Neither predetermined nor arbitrary, the reader is in flux.53 Stanley Fish speaks of the existence of readers who create “interpretive communities”; nonetheless, it should be emphasized that even if a reader is part of a community and works within its framework, she too is always divided and does not act according to the liberal, historicizing idea that assumes the existence of a reasonable, individual reader lacking in contradictions.

The shift from an ideological, apolitical understanding of the poem to a political one is more precisely a movement from metaphorical to metonymic reading. A metaphoric reading of Shlonsky’s poem makes an analogy between physical labor and God/religion, creating an unproblematic, “obvious” and harmonious image. A metonymic reading emphasizes the contradictions, in this case a spatial substitution of creation/creature for creator: Abraham as creator praying to the creator—that is, to himself. Neither sharply defined metaphors nor metonyms, these figures of speech conduct an interpellation of the reader.54 They are examples of catachresis, which exists on the fluid continuum between metaphor and metonymy.55 The interpreting reader may move between a political reading (metonymic, contradictory) and an apolitical one (metaphoric, harmonious). Traditionally, catachresis is a rhetorical figure that mixes very different things and was much loved by the Russian imaginists that Shlonsky admired and imitated.

The figure of catachresis in a lyric poem, in effect, translates a signifier and a signified (that is like an image taken from reality) into an apostrophe, an approach that has no direct addressee, that is, no clear signified. But the figure at the center of de Man’s literary thought is prosopopoeia, the animation of dead people or inanimate objects, and which lacks, like apostrophe, a real-world signified, since the dead cannot be brought back to life. De Man points to the resemblance between prosopopoeia and apostrophe in that both contain “the senseless power of positional language.”56 Prosopopoeia also reveals the paradox involved in the identification of a lyric poem that, like apostrophe, lacks a signified in the form of a real-world image like a feeling, and is therefore what is mistakenly called lyrical.

Readers equipped with theories of the Lacanian subject also work in a historical context that may limit the abundance of meanings but never unites them. The split between the self in the mirror and the self that sees and identifies with it means that the subject stance of the reader is inconsistent, and there may even be a contradiction between the subject of the énoncé and the subject of the énonciation.57

There is here a temporal process of a continuing antithesis, a Derridian différance that shifts between the historical and the unhistorical. The historical reader of a political poem is trapped in the conflict of reading the text within and outside history at the very same time and copes with this by moving in time. This is the clearest expression of the fact that it is impossible to develop a critical position with history and impossible without it. In this sense, Almi’s parody preserves a movement between its great proximity to the original text and its distance from it. A parody cannot exist without the text on which it is based. And without distance, it cannot have a parodic effect; that is, the parody is connected to history through the agency of the text it rewrites and that it repels and attracts at the same time. What emerges from all this for the reader is the undermining of the binary oppositions between history-ahistory and political-apolitical.

Instead of binary antitheses, what we have here is the movement between an “obvious” ideology and problematizing, subversive politics. The figuration in the poem materializes ideology the way hegemony is embodied for Laclau and Mouffe. Hegemony, fundamentally metonymic, always includes a fissure; it is not a closed system, and it articulates the political, that is, what is unharmonious and unresolved, by increasing the number of identities and their positions.58 As a system that is not closed, it cannot be marked as totalizing and moves figuratively-politically from metonymy to metaphor via catachresis. Its effect of “obviousness” is always the result of a continuing process of movement from de-totalizing to re-totalizing—a shift from heterogeneity to homogeneity and back. De Man, Laclau says, excelled in de-totalizing discourse that revealed the heterogeneity from which, Laclau holds, figurative movement heads toward hegemony.59

46. John Brenkman, Culture and Domination, 137.

47. Abraham Shlonsky, Be-galgal, 98-99.

48. Trans. Lisa Katz.

49. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 60; Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Screen 17:3 (1976): 85.

50. Jonathan Culler, “Reading Lyric,” 105.

51. Wai Chee Dimock and Michael T. Gilmore, Rethinking Class, 2.

52. Cora Kaplan, “Introduction: Millennial Class,” 13.

53. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 30.

54. Michael Sprinker, “Art and Ideology: Althusser and de Man,” 34.

55. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 284.

56. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 117.

57. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1-7.

58. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

59. Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric” in Material Events and the Afterlife of Theory, ed. Tom Cohen et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000), 230-231.

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