Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Linguistic Drama and the Voice of the Child in Bialik's Aftergrowth

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Linguistic Drama and the Voice of the Child in Bialik's Aftergrowth

Article excerpt

I

Bialik's late essay, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Revealment and Concealment in Language]" (1915), has been read as a kind of ars poetica and a key to the writer's poetic oeuvre. (1) A concern with words as camouflage or disguise, voiced in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] figures importantly in much of Bialik's lyric production. Many of his works echo, reinforce, or modify the essay's central contention that conventional language is but the husk of meaning. External and shallow, such language is easily disassociated from the matters of spiritual significance to which its words may refer. In this scheme of things poetry serves to break open the bonds of conventional language and so rediscover meaning by uncovering perceptions previously masked or blocked by stale formulations. This prospect is seen by Bialik as at once beckoning and frightening, for it allows truths both beautiful and terrifying to emerge to consciousness even as it provides new access to deeper recesses of the individual's being.

The ideas articulated in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] affirm a modernist understanding of the fundamentally non-mimetic nature of language and the consequent distrust of language that this understanding has engendered. Given Bialik's concern with the irreparable rift between world and word, the impact of modernism on this poet's thinking should not be underestimated (2) While often heralded as twentieth-century inventions, however, these concerns also hark back to the Romanticism with which Bialik's name is so firmly linked. The impenetrable subjectivity of ideas is a fundamental postulate of Romantic aesthetics (Aarsleff 1982:27). "The sad incompetence of human speech" to which Wordsworth referred in his "Prelude" is a concept close to Bialik's heart. (3) This is a concept, too, that reverberates throughout Bialik's Aftergrowth ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), a piece of prose fiction written in installments between 1908 and 1923. In this narrative, strained relations between language and individual experience receive sustained thematic treatment. Indeed, the topic attains a new intensity and crystallized focus as it coincides with Bialik's central interest in childhood. Linguistic drama finds a natural stage in this story of semiotic initiation as the plot follows a small Eastern European boy's first encounters with language, his discovery of reading, and his exposure to sacred texts at the heder.

The gap between the sayable and the unsayable generates the narrated events of Aftergrowth. It also fundamentally affects the narration itself. The various artistic approaches taken by the author in this account of boy hood all center on a mature narrator who reminisces about the past but can never recover it satisfactorily in words. In this way the text underscores one of the most problematic aspects of retrospective self-narration. The present verbal act can never recapture the non-verbal reality of past experience. Aftergrowth accentuates this problem for it begins with a child character defined as an infant in the etymological sense of the word, meaning "one without language." Dealing with a pre-linguistic phase of life, this text delineates the radical difficulty of inhabiting the perspective of the child, that is, of describing in words the inner life of a creature who has not yet entered the universe of discourse employed by the adult writer.

For these reasons the entire text is also informed by issues which have recently gained prominence in the theoretical discussion of autobiography. The autobiographical enterprise has increasingly been viewed as self definition or self-invention which entails an alienation from self. There is a growing tendency to acknowledge writing as a process of loss and to view language as an instrument that distances literary expression from a lived past .4 Yael Feldman (1988) argues that the new models of autobiography share in common a recognition of

   a gradual historical shift from the belief in some kind of presence
   (be it physical metaphysical, psychological or metaphoric) which
   has warranted the possibility of restitution, to a contemporary
   awareness of absence (of a tangible life, an imagined self or the
   language to reconstruct it), one that may spell out the death of
   autobiography. … 
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