The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modern Hebrew Poetry, by Michael Gluzman

Article excerpt

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 250 pp. $49.50.

In the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, the literary canon served as a central battleground on university campuses; at the polarized extremes of the debate, campus radicals slammed the traditional canon as the collected works of a pantheon of Dead White Men while conservatives rose to the defense of the canon's universal, timeless value. Amici this mostly dispiriting fracas, a number of important critical works emerged that aimed to illuminate such questions as how the literary canon (a more fluid construct, as it turned out, than either the radicals or the conservatives described it) had taken on its various contours, or how a literary canon could serve pedagogical or national interests, or how the apparently subjective and individual phenomenon of aesthetic taste might be shaped by such factors as class or ideological affiliation.

Whatever comparable debates shook the Israeli cultural scene during that period were concentrated primarily in the field of Zionist historiography. While a new generation of post-Zionist writers were entering the literary arena, with Mizrahi writers newly prominent among them, the established canon of great Hebrew writers has remained not only unexamined, but even largely unchanged -- some notable exceptions are the new prominence of Mizrahi writers on the literary scene, the rediscovery of David Fogel and Dvora Baron as writers of the first rank, and, from the point of view of criticism, Dan Miron's study of the belated appearance of Hebrew women poets in the 1920s. Yet the Hebrew canon, even more than the American one, invites an ideological inquiry into its foundations -- the link between Zionist ideology and the production of Hebrew literature is hardly, after all, a subterranean one. The Hebrew canon functioned for some of its formative history, after all, as a substitute for the nation, in the absence of the usual political apparati. Moreover, the canon of modern Hebrew literature, and particularly of modern Hebrew poetry, is much more clearly delineated than most, with a national poet (and even, as Dan Miron notes, an exiled prince in Uri-Tzvi Greenberg) as well as a clearly differentiated chain of literary "generations," each with its central figures, its manifestos and declared concerns. The Hebrew literary scene has been so intimate that in certain periods a poet's relative ranking in the canon might be measured by the placement of his table at Tel Aviv's leading literary café.

It is in such descriptions as of Avot Yeshurun's literal "marginalization" in the Café Roval that Michael Gluzman's newly published work, The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modern Hebrew Poetry, renders visible the subtle, often unstated and probably unconscious workings of the Hebrew literary canon, the determination of which writers will be considered important and whose work will be carried out on the outer edges of the literary scene. Gluzman's method is simple and elegant: to explore the canonical by analyzing what canonicity excludes. It is a crucial part of his thesis, in fact, that such exclusion is an unavoidable part of canon-formation, just as forgetting is an inevitable component of national consciousness (as Ernst Renan has famously argued). Such exclusion comes in various forms, from critical evaluation that one writer is of minor importance to the forthright ostracism of another for breaking cultural taboos.

Gluzman is particularly acute in remarking that the development of Her brew poetry cannot be read outside an international context. Unlike other nationalisms, which were typically associated with literary romanticism, the height of Zionist nation-building coincided with the participation of Hebrew writers in international modernism. Among the markers of Anglo-American modernism, for instance, was a fascination with and even valorization of exile as the condition of the writer; the Jew, as exemplary exile, often acted as a figure for the exilic position. …


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