Two Paradigms of Aesthetics in Haskalah Literary Criticism: From Satanov to Lebensohn

By Banbaji, Amir | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Two Paradigms of Aesthetics in Haskalah Literary Criticism: From Satanov to Lebensohn


Banbaji, Amir, Hebrew Studies Journal


To the extent that it exists, the early history of Haskalah literary theory and aesthetics is written largely as a branch or offshoot of eighteenth-century German and English criticism and aesthetics. In this perspective, early Haskalah aesthetics follows the well-trodden path from Dryden to Pope and Samuel Johnson, or, in German aesthetics, from Gottsched and Wolf to Lessing and Kant. (1) According to the accounts written over the years by Dan Miron, Uzi Shavit, and others, the history of Haskalah theory and aesthetics is a narrative of emancipation, wherein the earlier, pedagogic conceptions of literature were gradually superseded by a more "advanced" aesthetic theory promoting a more intensive use of literary imagination. Hence, the stress put by earlier maskilim on faithfulness toward biblical narrative and Biblical Hebrew was replaced in the post-1850s period with a greater stress on wit, imagination, and originality, which quickly led to an emphasis on social realism. (2)

Miron's interpretation of Abraham Mapu's letters plausibly shows that in the emerging realm of prose, Mapu's novel (published in 1853, it is considered the first Hebrew novel) marks an important departure from the reliance of the early Haskalah literature (1770-1850) on non-fictional texts, such as philosophical and philological essays, as well as on social satires and moral allegories. (3) More specifically, Mapu's letters are instrumental in understanding the significant role played by the novelist in the process of reevaluating the importance and legitimacy of literary fiction and aesthetic semblance in general. Particularly, these letters highlight the legitimacy and usefulness of mediating the "truth"--whether moral or philosophical--by means of an imaginary, seductive "vision" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or aesthetic semblance ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

This aesthetic attitude, dated by Miron and Shavit roughly to the post 1850s Haskalah, fits in with the growing significance attached, in eighteenth-century European aesthetics, to concepts such as wit and imagination. (4) Examining the arguments of conservative maskilim who opposed the emergence of the Hebrew novel on moral grounds, Miron notes that Abraham D. Lebensohn's stance reflects an earlier maskilic view of the role of Hebrew literature. (5) According to the early maskilim of Russia and Galicia, the purpose of the Haskalah was essentially non-aesthetic and non-fictional: its main aim was "scientific study of factual truth" (6) and the dissemination of knowledge among the Jews. (7)

This earlier perception of literary modernity was very clearly articulated in Isaac Erter's depiction of the merits of the Haskalah. The second installment of his influential collection of anti-Hasidic satires, "[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" (Hasidism and wisdom) was published in Bikkurei Haytim, an organ of the Galician maskilim. (8) As shown by Miron, Erter's seminal satire demonstrates the inferiority of the Hasidic writing and way of life as compared to that of the maskilim, precisely because of the former's love of fictions. The Hasidic irrationality is most conspicuously manifested in their hagiographic narratives (especially [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), often suffused with legendary stories and "superstitious" beliefs. (9) In contrast, Haskalah writings call on the modern Jewish mind to open up for a new and more rigorous study of the world, a study providing its willing audience with factual knowledge as well as a disciplined method for acquiring it. (10)

Miron contrasts this early, rather rationalistic notion of the Haskalah with Mapu's crucial role in legitimating the use of literary imagination and aesthetic semblance in Haskalah letters. While Mapu clearly viewed the literary medium as essentially subservient to the superior, pre-existing order of truth, he nevertheless contributed to solidifying aesthetic semblance as a differentiated mode of expressing truth. …

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