Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Counterfactualism in Recent American Poetry

Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Counterfactualism in Recent American Poetry

Article excerpt

This essay argues that there is currently a cultural prohibition in Jewish literature against rewriting history. Jewish artists cannot abandon history and cannot condone historical revisionism, but they can present alternatives within history either to redeem it or critique it. Poets Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein have turned to the counterfactual (the "what if") as a narrative and poetic structure in order to imagine a different, and Jewish, relation to history and to take stock of the dangers of this intervention. For both poets, the counterfactual device is used to imagine a leftist Jewish relation to history, particularly at points where history has been damaged or drained of these ways of relating to it. However, Benjamin Friedlander's poetry and essays play the foil-his poetry fakes history to show that there really is no taboo in inventing history, but the consequence is that Jewish poetry has drifted increasingly further away from anything like Jewish historical action.

This essay argues that there is currently a cultural prohibition in Jewish literature against rewriting history. To rewrite history means to change or even erase the historical record with an agenda that treats history as a fully malleable means to an end. Some examples of rewriting history would be to replace historical fact with a known myth, to airbrush persons out of a photograph, or to begin a new calendar at year zero. The main source of this prohibition is the burden of historical seriousness of Jewish life after the Shoah; in the aftermath, what is not permitted is anything that smacks of historical revisionism.

But who is happy with the historical record as it stands, and how do we represent this discontent through art without implying a rejection of history outright? Jewish artists cannot abandon history and cannot condone historical revisionism, but they can present alternatives within history either to redeem or critique it. Recently, some writers have turned to the counterfactual (the "what if" or the countet-historical) as a narrative and poetic structure in order to imagine a different, and Jewish, relation to history and take stock of the dangers of this intervention. I mean to define the counterfactual as quite large, including imagined histories that parallel real ones, futurist speculations, warnings of the "this could happen" variety, conspiracy-styled subcultural scenarios, narratives of persons left out of history, and recharging forgotten or banalized historical details through new writing techniques. The counterfactual is a device of writing that follows a commitment to counter-histoty; mis trope of literary appropriation takes history both seriously and imaginatively but goes against the grain of the standard narratives and events that underwrite official worldviews that preserve current states of power.

It may seem that fiction would be the first place to look for features of the counterfactual in recent Jewish writing for certainly one of the clearest examples is Philip Roth's Tfce Plot Against America (2004). The novel begins with one possible alternative path in history already taken:"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews."1 The "if " scenarios that are wondered about are cleverly doubled counterfactuals of their own, with the narrator trying to imagine a different world from the Charles Lindbergh presidency that has become real in the book, while the reader must imagine how such a possible world could have occurred at all. Are these memories fearful because, at the intersection of these two counterfactuals, they describe recent Jewish life that is frequently phantasmarically projecting its own demise; or rather is the real concern that the Jewish community reUes too much on scare scenarios to raUy the collective? …

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