Monday, June 30, 2003

The last thing on my mind this afternoon is an essay by Murat Nemen-Nejat that I've been mulling over—it's at (in? around?) August Highland's muse apprentice guild. I was struck by his assertion of the importance of "accent" in writing and his attack on Derrida and Jabès for choosing an accentless assimilation into the French language (and by extension French culture and imperial power). He and Ammiel Alcalay have done a lot to broaden and problematize my sense of the meaning of Jewishness beyond the Ashkenazi cultural emblems that I was raised with, as summed up in this list from Nemen-Nejat's essay: "poems containing chicken soup and Matzo balls (gemutlich), tailors and the Shtetl (Isaac Bashevis Singer and "Fiddler On The Roof"), Lewis Warsh's wonderful poem about the movement from the Lower East Side to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, pre-war European poems in translation about the conflict between the Yiddish and goyish cultures, and translations of haunting Holocaust poems by Primo Levi." Thinking of what Alcalay likes to call "the Levant" as a possible epicenter of Jewish culture reorients me from my inherited sense of the Jewish "old countries" of Poland and Hungary and Russia's Pale of Settlement (I was always fascinated by that phrase when I was younger—"pale" is a funny word in that it can refer both to coloring, to a geographical region, and to a kind of cognac, aka Very Special Old Pale).

Alcalay's book After Jews and Arabs is something I'd really like to read if I ever get a break from Kant, Virgil, Adorno, and other exam readings that I'm supposed to be doing. Of course he opens the book with two epigraphs from Derrida and Jabès (the famous lines in which they equate Jewishness with writing), the favored culture heroes of the postmodern set that Nemen-Nejat wants to take down a peg. According to him, Jabès is Derrida's creature, and the language that they are estranged from isnot French but the Arabic of the countries (Algeria for Derrida, Egypt for Jabès) that they left behind them as young men. "Jabès's Jewish mystical theme, I believe, is a mask covering a political theme, his choice to leave the third world of Egypt and Arabic behind. Seen from this angle, Jabès's 'Jewishness' has a strong 'Western,' colonialist dimension, as Paul de Mans's pure, 'non-political' deconstructionism, the American intellectuals such as Harold Bloom have discovered to their horror, has Nazi roots." This rings true for me on the level of the American reception of Jabès, though I think it's a little unfair to the man himself (I don't have the text here, but there's a moment in The Book of Questions where the speaker is assailed for not being Jewish enough by a group of his fellows—"My head is cut off" he says to himself—and you could imagine him similarly answering Nemen-Nejat's accusation of his not being "Arab" enough). I'm generally appreciative of Nemen-Nejat's reimagination or articulation of what it means to be a Jewish writer now—a Jewishness that is neither disaporic-assimilationist nor aggressively Zionist. It's worth quoting this paragraph from his essay in full:
VII. A Jew With Accent: Ambiguity Towards Power, the Fate of the Un-assimilated Jew

Ambiguity towards power is, in my opinion, the contemporary Jewish theme, what every Jewish writer, consciously or not, willingly or not, must face. This ambiguity is embedded in Jewish history, in Jewish identity, in the conflict between its myths and history. Despite its protestations, the Torah is history written by the powerful, a nation chosen by God, taking somebody else's land to make its own. On the other hand, the history of the diaspora is the history of the victim, the dispossessed, the Galut, the progroms, the Holocaust. Where does the Jew's allegiance belong? Does the contemporary Jew ally himself with the powerful or the victim? Though this conflict has become explicit after the birth of Israel, it was implicit, as Jews embraced assimilation and moved physically out of the Ghetto, in the Diaspora also. Often, economically, Jews belonged to the privileged class; but culturally, and linguistically, they were the outsiders, the underprivileged. As Jews, Derrida and Jabes erase, ignore, escape this ambiguity. Their choices are absolute, on the side of power. Jabes's and Derrida's writings are accentless, unambiguously French. They represent a Jewish style of assimilation, identification with power. They hide, and their American admirers overlook, the political dimension of their writings.
Nemen-Nejat's notion of the accent is what "embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power," with Kafka's writing being the first major European exemplar. (Nemen-Nejat's "accent" sounds analogous to or rather constitutive of the "minor literature" that Deleuze and Guattari describe in their book on Kafka.) I'm interested in what the accent might look like in my own poetry, given that I am, unlike Nemen-Nejat, a native speaker of the language, American English, that nonetheless no one, as he claims, is truly a "native speaker" of (we in American have no "mother tongue"). Perhaps it manifests to some degree in my manuscript The Nature Theater of Oklahoma (the title comes from the last chapter of Kafka's Amerika, to which Nemen-Nejat makes reference in his article)—certainly I think some of the poems explore what he refers to as Kafka's "synthesis between the powerful and the victim." Anyway, it's getting busy at the store and I should get back to work, but I'm glad to have these prickly contradictions of Jewishness and Jewish ethics in writing brought back to my attention. Perhaps eventually I'll find a role for these ideas in my thinking about latter-day pastoral.

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