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Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Historical Crisis

by Robert Alter

Bibliographic information

TitleDefenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Historical Crisis
AuthorRobert Alter
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectGeneral Jewish-Interest Literature


Robert Alter is among the most consistently interesting and trenchant voices now speaking to the issues of Jewish writing. In his latest collection of essays – on a variety of modern writers working in English, Hebrew, German, Russian, and Yiddish – he approaches Jewish writing as a symptomatic if extreme instance of the predicaments of twentieth-century literature in general. With characteristic clarity of thought and precision of expression he provides a multifaceted, informed account of the troubled encounter between the literary imagination and modern history as seen through the strong focusing prism of a dozen or more Jewish literary figures. These include Osip Mandelstam, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, S.Y. Agnon, Lea Goldberg, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Charles Reznikoff, and Bernard Malamud.

The destructive course of public events since 1914 has encouraged the growth of a powerful apocalyptic tradition among serious writers, one that has received abundant critical attention in late 70s. These essays, by contrast, focus on a significant counter-tradition in modern literature, in which writers, instead of articulating visions of impending doom, have chosen to affirm through their work the prerogatives of the imagination, using it inventively and courageously to demonstrate through art the very possibilities of human wholeness that the realm of politics has so often threatened.

Though this antiapocalyptic stance is not in itself distinctively Jewish, there is a special poignancy and an exemplary boldness in its adoption by these writers belonging to the people that, from Europe of Hitler and Stalin to today’s besieged Israel, has found itself so vulnerably at the crossroads of historical disaster: Robert Alter’s critical and biographical essays offer analyses of a spectrum of poems, stories, historical and critical works that bear on this large question of literature and historical crisis. What emerges from the analysis is an evocative sense of how these writers have found varying ways to be witnesses for humanistic values in the most ghastly historical circumstances.

About the Author 

Robert Alter ---

Robert Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of, among other works, After the Tradition, Modern Hebrew Language, and Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. He is also a contributing editor of Commentary (where most of the essays in this collection were first published) and of TriQuarterly. His criticism has appeared there as well as in The New York Times Book Review, the (London) Times Literary Supplement, and in a wide variety of other publications.


xiii Preface


3 Defenses of the Imagination



25 Osip Mandelstam: The Poet as Witness

47 Walter Benjamin: The Aura of the Past

67 Gershom Scholem: History and the Abyss

91 Lea Goldberg: Poetry in Dark Times

103 Uri Zvi Greenberg: A Poet of the Holocaust

119 Charles Reznikoff: Between Present and Past

137 Eliot, Lawrence, and the Jews: Two Versions of Europe


155 Jewish Humor and the Domestication of Myth

169 A Novel of the Post-Tragic World

187 Agnon’s Mediterranean Fable

199 Shtetl and Revolution

213 Fiction in a State of Siege

233 Updike, Malamud, and the Fire This Time

249 A Problem of Horizons


It is an instructive paradox that one of the grimmest stretches in Jewish history—the recent centuries of Yiddish-speaking culture in Eastern Europe—should also prove to be the period in Jewish history that produced the most richly distinctive humor. Especially since popular stereotypes of Diaspora Jewish history tend to represent it wholly in the image of the ghettos of Central and Eastern Europe and the townlets of the Pale of Settlement, it is worth stressing that rarely before had Jews been so physically constricted, so continuously depressed economically; and perhaps not since the Crusades and the Black Plague did they feel so repeatedly threatened by physical havoc as in Russia during the last decades under the czars. In such circumstances, it has been suggested, a shrewdly ironic humor became a source of necessary inner strength, a mode of survival. Maurice Samuel, the eloquent expositor of East-European Jewish culture, states the case pointedly:

There was nothing jolly and hilarious about the destitution that lay like a curse on millions of Jews in the Yiddish-speaking world; and it would be grotesque to speak of Sholom Aleichem’s and Mendele’s kaptsonim [paupers] and evyonim [indigents] as “poor and happy.” They were miserable, and knew it; but the question that haunts us historically is, why did they not disintegrate intellectually and morally? How were they able, under hideous oppression and corroding privation, under continuous starvation—the tail of a herring was a dish—to keep alive against a better day the spirit originally breathed into man? The answer lies in the self-mockery by which they rose above their condition to see afar off the hope of the future.

This is beautifully apt, but the implications of “self-mockery,” and its relation to a sense of the future, deserve exploration. The European cultural tradition, I would suggest, characteristically conceives suffering as a mystery, beginning with and drawing on the cultic or literary formulation of the mystery of suffering in Greek tragedy and in Christ’s passion. Affliction is the medium through which man must realize his humanity, or more-than-humanity; accordingly, he must view both himself and his suffering with the utmost seriousness, defining his time, which is the time of human fulfillment, by the internal rhythm of his suffering. Hamlet, Werther, Dmitri Karamazov, Camus’s Stranger, are paradigmatic figures of this European tradition; against them, one might usefully set Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye, who acts upon the wisdom of the Yiddish proverb, “Burdens are from God, shoulders, too,” never for a moment imagining that it would be appropriate to seek fulfillment through suffering, to create a mythology out of suffering, and who uses his shoulders as much to shrug at adversity as to bear it.

Jewish humor typically drains the charge of cosmic significance from suffering by grounding it in a world of homey practical realities. “If you want to forget all your troubles,” runs another Yiddish proverb, “put on a shoe that’s too tight.” The point is not only in the “message” of the saying, that a present pain puts others out of mind, but also in its formulation: Weltschmerz begins to seem preposterous when one is wincing over crushed bunions. If in the tradition of Jewish humor suffering is understandably imagined as inevitable, it is also conceived as incongruous with dignity—thus the sufferer is at least faintly ridiculous, his complementary comic embodiments of schlemiel and schlimazel become central in the folk tradition and the literature deriving from it. The perception of incongruity implies the perception of alternate possibilities, humor peeking beyond the beleaguered present toward another kind of man and another kind of time; for the very aura of ridicule suggests that it is not, after all, fitting for a man to be this pitiful creature with a blade of anguish in his heart and both feet entangled in a clanking chain of calamities.

As the sense of inner crisis has deepened in modern literature, one important direction taken by writers beginning with Conrad, Mann, and Eliot, has been a conscious re-mythologizing of literature, usually in order to make it sound the full cultural resonance of our collective disorders. Against this general drift of literary modernism, writers significantly touched by the Yiddish heritage have often been de-mythologizers, using the wryness and homey realism of Jewish humor to suggest that a less melodramatic, less apocalyptic, perspective than that of myth might be appropriate for viewing even the disquieting state of affairs of the modern world.

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