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On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics

On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics

by Chana Kronfeld

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Modernism valorizes the marginal, the exile, the "other"—yet we tend to use writing from the most commonly read European languages (English, French, German) as examples of this marginality. Chana Kronfeld counters these dominant models of marginality by looking instead at modernist poetry written in two decentered languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. What results


Modernism valorizes the marginal, the exile, the "other"—yet we tend to use writing from the most commonly read European languages (English, French, German) as examples of this marginality. Chana Kronfeld counters these dominant models of marginality by looking instead at modernist poetry written in two decentered languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. What results is a bold new model of literary dynamics, one less tied to canonical norms, less limited geographically, and less in danger of universalizing the experience of minority writers.

Kronfeld examines the interpenetrations of modernist groupings through examples of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry in Europe, the U.S., and Israel. Her discussions of Amichai, Fogel, Raab, Halpern, Markish, Hofshteyn, and Sutskever will be welcomed by students of modernism in general and Hebrew and Yiddish literatures in particular.

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University of California Press
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Contraversions: Critical Studies in Jewish Literature, Culture, and Society Series
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On the Margins of Modernism

Decentering Literary Dynamics
By Chana Kronfeld

University of California Press

Copyright © 1995 Chana Kronfeld
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520083479

Chapter 1—
Modernism through the Margins:
From Definitions to Prototypes

The term “modernism,” though highly equivocal, commonly refers to a cluster of international movements and trends in literature and the arts. Beyond this rudimentary labeling, however, there is little agreement about the term's meaning and scope. In some cultural centers one talks of modernism as early as the 1880s; in others, as late as the 1950s. Although there seems to be some consensus that modernism's “high points”—itself a charged and problematic description—were reached during the first thirty years of this century, critical opinions are as divergent about the meaning of modernism now as they were fifty years ago, despite the massive literature devoted to the subject in recent years.

Three logically distinct sets of difficulties seem to have led to this impasse, each at a different level of discourse: the sense of the term itself, the nature of the category modernism constitutes, and the general conceptual map of literary groupings of which it is part. Distinguishing among these three levels of discussion is only a preliminary methodological gesturebut—it seems to me—quite a necessary one given the conceptual fog in which the debate over modernism is often conducted.

(a) The term. “Modernism” remains a complex and contradictory literary label which, in the very process of naming, provokes some fundamental questions: Is modernism by any other name (“modernity,” “avant-garde”) still the same? How does the meaning of the label change when it is applied across media (literature, art, architecture, music); across genres within the same medium; and, still moreproblematically, across cultures, geopolitical centers, languages, even generations? Since my focus is on modernist poetry, the most relevant questions for my purposes deal with literature proper: Do the modernist labels “Russian futurism,” “German expressionism,” or “Anglo-American imagism,” actually refer to the same literary phenomenon? And within the same subtrend or current, is there any sense in which the modernist label means the same thing when applied to main-stream, dominant European literary systems, as when it is used to describe Hebrew or Yiddish (or Arabic, Latin American, Carribean, African, Japanese) poetry? Clearly, there are reasons to expect an expressionist Hebrew poem written in Palestine in 1947 to be radically different in its expressionism from an expressionist poem written in Germany in the mid-twenties.1 But are differences within a period or trend all we are left with, as deconstructive literary criticism would have us believe, with no possibility of internal semantic cohesion of any kind?2

My response to these problems will focus on the ways in which the various senses and uses of “modernism” define a dynamic semantic hierarchy. In Part 1 of this book I describe the shifting pragmatic contexts of the term's use, its historicity and tendentiousness, as well as my own bias (for I am yet another reader trying to effect yet another change in modernism's signification to fit my own cultural—literary, social, linguistic, political—conceptual scheme). In the process, I reject both the extreme skepticism of focusing exclusively on difference, which may deny modernism any signification at all, and the extreme positivism of reducing the term's complexity and heterogeneity to the lowest common denominator. Specifically, I propose that the semantic structure of “modernism”—as that of other terms designating literary groupings—be described as a “fuzzy set” of meaning horizons determined functionally and contextually, and clustered in dynamic hierarchies of degrees of salience.3 The salience of one modernist position (or set of positions) over another is determined pragmatically by the particular aesthetic, social, and political contexts in which it is used.

(b) The category. The critical literature (as well as the manifestoes and other meta-poetic pronouncements of the modernists themselves) exhibit a persistent confusion about the categorization and classification of the concept modernism: Is it a period, a trend, a style? Is it a literary, an artistic, a cultural, or a political phenomenon? Is modernism, ontologically speaking, a process or an essence? Do certain conditions need to exist in order for a work or a poet to be considered modernist, or does modernism (or any of its subtrends, such as expressionism, imagism, futurism) include simply all those poets who are affiliated with one of its international branches? And how is affiliation determined?

Many of the methods of categorizing and classifying modernism run into serious difficulties. My job in Part 1 of this study will be to illustrate these difficulties and identify the extreme positivism or extreme nominalism behind them as procedures for analyzing literary categories and classes. Subsequently, I provide the rudiments of an alternative conceptual framework for the analysis of the literary category modernism, a framework which does not need to suppress either modernism's special kind of cohesiveness or its fluidity, opaqueness, and open-endedness. I show that although categories such as modernism evade classical criterial definitions, they are marked nevertheless by strong and salient features about which readers, critics, and artists all have strong intuitions—and opinions.

(c) The conceptual map. Scholars writing about modernism—as well as readers and writers of modernist texts—do not, as a rule, have access to any viable theoretical model for literary movements or trends as such. What, if anything, does modernism as a literary movement or trend have in common—in its conceptual structure—with periodic literary groupings such as epoch, period, or generation? What, if anything, does it have in common with typological literary groupings, like genre, mode, style? Is the very distinction between periodization and typology a viable one? By describing modernism as a transitional concept between classical notions of period and genre, I try to establish the motivation for a more pluralist model of literary groupings, a model which treats trends and movements as symptomatic of these categories' heterogeneity rather than as murky notions that resist all analysis.

Where, as far as these three questions are concerned, have the last fifty or so years of theorizing about modernism left us? To the extent that critics have attempted a conceptual analysis of modernism (and most of them have not),4 they have usually been content with the questions raised in (a) above, acknowledging the complexity and vagueness of the label and little else. Very few have gone beyond this level to an exploration of (b), the special kind of category that constitutes the concept modernism, and even fewer have examined (c), theimplications of modernism's semantic and classificatory complexity for a general theory of literary movements or trends. Accounts of modernism have never been informed by a sustained comparative theory of literary groupings (genre, period, school, generation, trend, movement) for the simple reason that no such theory is as yet available.

It would be a shame, I think, to resort to extreme skepticism or nominalism in order to address these questions if only because critics usually want to preserve the intuitions on which literary consumers and producers have been acting for so long—namely, that what they were engaged in was somehow, however vaguely, part of a real international, cross-cultural movement (or period or trend). Indeed, such a universalist feeling permeated much of the modernist experiment itself, even if at times only in hindsight. At the same time, it would be a shame for the critical account of the complex and contradictory label modernism to remain classicist and positivist if only because many modernist trends themselves embraced contradiction, antinomy, and antithesis in their implicit and explicit poetics, in a direct challenge to traditional, set-theoretical notions of meaning and categorization. That modernism's contradictory tenets were enhanced, even determined, by the drastically different historical and geopolitical conditions of each modernist wave and center goes without saying.

The salience of modernism's own valorization of the universal and the incongruous, the common and the contradictory, gives pause to persistent critical treatments of difference and similarity as an all-or-nothing proposition. Moreover, given alternative theories of meaning and categorization, such as frame and prototype semantics,5 it no longer follows that if “modernism” is interpreted as having a set of different senses, then the label ceases to signify altogether; and, similarly for the other extreme, the term “modernism” can have meaning without being reduced to a fixed checklist of common and distinctive features. Thus, both modernism itself and contemporary theories of meaning and cognition suggest that critics may want to question their own methodological dichotomies and develop flexible procedures for determining the semantic structure of heterogeneous categories such as modernism.

Given the three levels of discussion sketched out above and their attendant conceptual confusions, it should be clearer now why discussions of modernism have so often gotten stuck in one of two methodological extremes. When they have followed the tradition of classical genre theory, accounts of modernism have tended to provideinventories of modernist traits, styles, and themes, and to ignore the difficulties which modern genre theory has had to confront; JC<rgen Fohrmann (1988: 277) asks “how b& changes [can] b& be explained when the model is constructed as essentially classificatory” and he expresses skepticism about working “in terms of identity in temporal contexts ” (italics in the original). Indeed, the classical notion of genre, according to Michal GlowiL nski (1969: 14) is “anchored so deeply in the literary consciousness” as a model for literary classification that “it has been accepted without reservations, as if it were a gift of nature.”6 When, however, critics have followed the period model, they have tended to reduce modernism to periodical divisions which, as RenC) Wellek and Austin Warren ([1949] 1963: 262) realized a long time ago “devoutly respect the date lines” but are “unjustified by any reason save the practical need for some limit.” This most common approach has traditionally denied modernism even the unsatisfactory treatment that it received under the typological model of genre. It would often result in the assimilation of the discussion of modernism into period studies of “twentieth-century literature” or the “interbellum generation,” rarely providing an account of the many ways in which modernism as a literary trend does not fully correlate with the total literary production and consumption of the period.

Both the positivism of the classical model of genre and the extreme nominalism of the dateline approach have proven quite useless for the analysis of modernism. Among studies that do not abandon the categorization project altogether, though abdicating the classical model, the most exciting advances have occurred in a variety of apparently unrelated systems-theory approaches to literature. From formalism, through text and story grammar, to French and German socioliterary and evolutionary-system models, researchers have developed differentiated, dynamic methodologies for dealing with the central issues of literary history. However, little of this research has focused directly on the literary trend, which is still subsumed for the most part under either periodization or a more historically sophisticated version of typological genre studies. Within the genre or the period model, the emphasis seems to be, almost exclusively, on transitions or borderlines between periods or genres rather than on the internal structure of the category itself.7 This emphasis also holds beyond the systems approach, as is evidenced by the global, trendy, and voluminous dispute over modernism versus postmodernism. This dispute, which, by the way, the present study carefully sidesteps,may well prove to be one of the last vestiges of bipolar thinking in modern critical theory, lagging behind the radical disruptions of conceptual dichotomies with which both the modernists and the post-modernists are so strongly associated.

As literary trends go, modernism is probably one of the most heterogeneous and fuzzy categories around. No list of common traits or goals can apply to all or most versions of modernism even if we restrict ourselves to poetry alone. Furthermore, as I suggested above, contradictory features can be found, and in many instances were even self-consciously embraced, within the same modernist subtrend, poet, or individual work. In fact, the tendency of these -isms toward schism has been described by Bradbury and McFarlane ([1976] 1981: 202) as perhaps the movement's only unifying trait. Yet, this negative formula does not really provide a way out of the impasse either because modernism is not the only trend to embrace oppositions, contradictions, and schism, even though it may do so in a way that is perceived as more radical. In other words, while schism may turn out to be a necessary condition for membership in the category modernism, it cannot claim to be a sufficient one: two of the trends that typically flank modernism—romanticism and postmodernism—have also been construed as embracing oppositionality in various ways.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that modernism defies reduction to simple common denominators, one study after another, after asserting the complexity and heterogeneity of the various manifestations of modernism, proceeds to attempt the impossibly positivist task of providing a definition of modernism; and this usually means, explicitly or tacitly, an attempt at what logicians call an intensional definition —namely, a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for all modernist trends. (See, for example, Gorsky, [1974] 1981:78–79; and Leonard, 1957:289-90.) It is no accident that this definitional drive is usually shared by critics who still uphold the classical genre paradigm of literary classification—what Tzvetan Todorov (in, for example, 1981:63) describes as the “organic model.” While it would be nice for a theory of modernism to have the explanatory power that an intensional definition can facilitate (by showing clearly what makes all the branches of modernism part of one distinctive movement or trend), such an approach would force us to restrict severely the extension of what we could term modernist. Many important works, authors, and even entire groups that identified themselves as modernist and that are commonly perceived to be subsumed under thisadmittedly tattered and oversized umbrella would have to be kept out. There simply is no set of distinctive features that can apply to all the subgroupings of modernism (from futurism to surrealism) and separate them from all nonmodernist groupings (classicism, baroque, romanticism, and so forth).

Let me offer here one brief example to illustrate this point. For quite some time it has been a commonplace belief among scholars, from Harry Levin's seminal paper “What Was Modernism?” (in Levin, 1966:271–295) to Paul de Man's famous article “Literary History and Literary Modernity” (1971:142-65), that modernism was fundamentally antihistorical. This proposition is certainly true for Italian futurists, whose call to burn down museums and libraries and destroy the Latin past is well known. However, antihistoricism is certainly not typical of other branches of international modernism, such as Anglo-American imagism and vorticism, with their emphasis on classical allusion and historicist (though unchronological!) theories about tradition and the individual talent. Similar exclusions result from critical attempts to formulate the differentia specifica of modernism on the basis of any number of thematic or stylistic features, from an aestheticist focus on the “poetic function” to the “crisis of the subject” and the “explosion of form.”8 What critics present as a set of distinctive features is actually always only a selective modeling of modernism, determined by the critic's special purposes and perspectives.

If a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for all modernist trends proves to be too positivistic a methodological requirement, the second common approach—which attempts to define the scope of modernism simply by enumerating and describing the various -isms that are conventionally associated with it—strikes me as too relativistic. Beginning with symbolism and impressionism as early or proto-modernism, these descriptions move through futurism, expressionism, and imagism as representatives of high modernism, leading up to surrealism and dada as late or neo-modernism. This practice, common in various periodization-oriented handbooks on modernism and typical of the dateline approach in general, is implicitly based on the logical concept of an extensional definition. It does end up including everything one would want to include but preserves little explanatory power since it cannot tell us what makes all these -isms part of one heterogeneous yet oddly distinctive international movement.

The alternative which I outline in this study aims to set up a less positivistic—and, I hope, more rigorous—rudimentary frameworkfor the discussion of modernism. While I believe this framework may be appropriate—with certain modifications—for the study of literary trends in general, it is particularly well suited to the special needs of the modernist poetic trends examined in this book: the two or three waves of Hebrew modernism in Europe and then in Israel;9 and the two waves of Yiddish modernism in the United States and their counterparts in Eastern Europe. I explore the conceptual structure of the category modernism, its limits and internal organization, and I treat these marginal poetries as emblematic and symptomatic of modernist poetry rather than as historical anecdotes. In the process, I also examine and call into question the poetics and politics of canon formation in general.

The informal model which I am proposing here has three components, based on theories developed within several disciplines. These three components are extensions and fusions of Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance; Eleanor Rosch's, Charles Fillmore's, and George Lakoff's work on prototype and frame semantics and theory of categorization; and Itamar Even-Zohar's and Benjamin Harshav's [Hrushovski's] work on literary dynamics.10

Lakoff has pointed out in his important book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, that Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance was “the first major crack in the classical theory” of categorization (1987:16). To the classical conception of a category as having clear boundaries and being defined by a common checklist of properties, Wittgenstein offers a more pliable alternative. Although family resemblance is the illustration that became synonymous with his approach as a whole, Wittgenstein uses other illustrations, each of which sheds a slightly different light on the ways in which a category such as modernism may be constructed. Here I summarize briefly only three of his major examples. First is the example of family resemblance proper. Members of one family share a variety of similar features: eyes, gait, hair color, temperament. But—and this is the crucial point—there need be no one set of features shared by all family members. The second example concerns the concept of game. There is no set of features which all games share. Some are forms of group play, without any winning or losing, others involve luck, still others—skill; some have rigid rules, others are free form; and so on. While some share some properties, no one feature is common to all (Lakoff, 1987:16). The final illustration, which Wittgenstein develops the least, may nevertheless be the most applicable to diachronic literary categoriessuch as modernism. It has come to be known as the rope analogy, even though Wittgenstein (1972, Part 1, Section 67) actually talks about a thread “In spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the fibre does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.”11

Within this framework, modernism can remain one clear category even though no two subtrends within it may share the same features. Although I do suspect that few other literary and linguistic categories answer to lists of necessary and sufficient conditions, I am not claiming here that all such categories are constructed on the model of family resemblance. It does not trivially follow that if modernism is a “fuzzy” category in Zadeh's sense (1965), it is therefore necessarily structured on the principle of family resemblance. As Lawrence Barsalou (1983) has pointed out, ad hoc categories, constructed solely to achieve a certain goal, do not even show family resemblance among their members.12

While the model of family resemblance (in its three different formulations) aptly describes modernism as a category “with blurred edges” (Wittgenstein, 1972, Part 1, Section 71), in itself it cannot adequately account for the way the center of the category is conceived. In other words, we need to understand not only why we are sometimes uncertain whether a work is modernist, antimodernist, or post-modernist (the “blurred edges”) but also why particular works, poets, or positions have come to be conceived as better examples of modernism than others. In their treatment of these questions recent contributions to prototype theory of categorization and cognitive semantics may prove useful. Briefly, a prototype, in the technical sense developed by Rosch and others, is a member of a category (for example, birds) which is considered a “best example” of that category (sparrow, swallow, or robin, but not turkey, penguin, or chicken).13 Note that even though this example uses objects as category members, the prototype model is neutral with respect to the ontological status of its constituents. It is therefore possible for me to argue, in Chapter 2, against any essentialist view of modernism and, at the same time, to advocate the prototype model as a functional construct which allows people to zero in on relevant segments of a heterogeneous category.

The question whether a member of a category is more or less prototypical of that category marks a centrality gradience for the various members. In the example above, sparrow has a higher centrality gradience within the category bird than penguin does, although bothare members of the class. When, as Wittgenstein has already pointed out, the category itself has unclear boundaries (unlike birds but like red or tall things), we can distinguish not just a centrality gradience within the category but also a membership gradience marking degrees of membership in that category (Lakoff, 1987:12–13). In other words, something either is or is not a bird (no membership gradience), but something can be kind of red and kind of not, tallish rather than tall. It seems to me that modernism presents so many difficulties for the literary theorist partly because in its different constructions it involves both centrality and membership gradience. Thus, a poet or a work may be more or less modernist, or both modernist and anti- or postmodernist (in different aspects of his or her poetics), as is the case with most of the Hebrew and Yiddish poets I discuss. Modernism, furthermore, is a category with diachronically and culturally fuzzy boundaries, where “best examples” or prototypes of each subtrend are often quite atypical. And yet they tend to (misleadingly and at times subversively) stand for the whole.

A literary prototype, in my view, need not have more features in common with more members of a category than a nonprototype. Diverse and complex factors, such as experiential grounding, cultural convention, the specific social and historical context, and the discourse conditions of a given text may combine to affect judgments of literary prototypicality. In certain contexts, this variability may even be true of prototypes in general.14 For example, in most cases the reason robin can serve as an excellent example of a bird probably has something to do with the tendency to focus—in the absence of particular contextual constraints—on flying as the most salient property of birds. But this salience is itself context-dependent. When the discourse purposes change, and the goal is to teach someone how to cook a bird (as, say, in a cookbook), turkey suddenly becomes a much better prototype than robin, and flying ability ceases to be the most salient feature.

For the purposes of literary theory, a dynamic, context-sensitive conception of the hierarchy of prototypical members within a category becomes particularly crucial. While this flexibility is important for all literary categories, it becomes absolutely vital for those literary systems that are diachronically or synchronically on the margins. The need for some such alternative model is even more poignant for the recovery of marginalized or submerged currents—whether within dominant or decentered literary systems—such as the poetry ofwomen and minorities. This double marginality is certainly characteristic of Hebrew and Yiddish modernisms. It is, to a certain extent, also typical of America—as opposed to British—modernist poetry. In order to account for the importance of these decentered positions in molding the dynamic, heterogeneous make-up of modernism, I propose to combine the perspectives of family resemblance and prototype theory with modern systems theory. I am interested in the possibilities opened up by a critical, historicist revision of Israeli neo-formalist models of literary dynamics, which, following the Russian formalist model, describe the movement between center and periphery, marginal properties and dominant ones, as necessary for literary change.

It is no accident that these neoformalist models were developed in part as a response to (and within the same intellectual and poetic climate as) the Israeli neomodernism of the Statehood Generation poets of the 1950s and 1960s. Nor is it accidental that the theoretical and ideological roots of these models lead back to Russian formalist poetics, which in turn was intimately affiliated with and was responding to the needs of its contemporary early modernists, the Russian futurist poets. That poetics and poetry go hand in hand, forming part of the same system, is as true of the modernist era as it was of earlier ones. My own theoretical collage, perhaps itself a throwback to the modernisms that formed my taste in art and literature, is thus in a sense also a product of the poetic system. This perspective, however, delimits the bias and tendentiousness of my own project: to revise the map of both “international” and Hebrew and Yiddish modernisms to include those voices which I particularly want to hear. Here then in a nutshell is the “empirical” motivation “from the field” for adding such a third system-dynamic component to the analysis of the category modernism.

My investigations of Hebrew and Yiddish modernist poetry have consistently presented a fascinating paradox: that although many modernists defined very clearly their poetic principles (typically formulated in rather strong terms by group manifestoes or individual aesthetic credos), the best examples—or prototypes—that came to represent these trends (individual poets or even individual works) are often quite atypical of or only marginally consistent with the principles of the group. Focusing on these modernist prototypes tends to foreground one or two highly salient poetic features which fulfill or match some particular (artistic, linguistic, ideological, or social) need.

In each case, there are specific reasons, which need to be reconstructed and analyzed, why a particular feature came to be perceived as exemplary within the particular conditions for the creation and reception of a particular brand of modernism at a particular historical and cultural juncture. This contextually motivated salience raising15 creates, among other things, a series of “deviant prototypes,” artistic paragons and exemplary texts that do not centrally belong to any trend but have nevertheless come to represent it.16

I use this model of marginal prototypes to analyze some puzzling aspects of the dynamics of modernism in Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. What I describe as the first wave of Hebrew modernism, the antiformulaic poetry (anti-nusach ) (the first innovative volumes of which were published between 1910 and 1923), went almost unnoticed by the contemporary reading public. The one poet who eventually came to be most prototypically associated with that wave, David Fogel, was canonized and enshrined as a model for emulation some forty years later, primarily by Nathan Zach. In manifestoes that establish the principles of the third modernist wave (dor ha-mdina, or Statehood Poets), Zach uses Fogel's example to attack rather mercilessly the poetry of the second modernist wave (the moderna poets of the pre-Statehood Generation). Thus, as in the Russian formalist model, a literary son rebels against the father by embracing the poetics of an (adopted) uncle.

Fogel's case is particularly instructive because his demarginalization succeeded against all odds. His brand of modernism was a truly unique mixture of impressionism and expressionism, the transition often taking place in the course of one brief poem; moreover, one of his major poetic principles was the blending or blurring of stylistic distinctions (such as mixtures of biblical aspectual grammar with a modern tense system). His poetry consistently and quite self-consciously adopts a low membership gradience in the category it is used to define; it inhabits those “blurred edges” between adjacent categories (impressionism and expressionism, for example); and, to top it all off, it is exceptionally low-key and self-effacing in its rhetorical stance, at a moment in Hebrew literary history when the opposite traits are the common practice.17 Nevertheless, Fogel's poetry became most instrumental two generations after its original publication, as a retrospective prototype used to discredit the extroverted maximalism and high centrality gradience of the second modernist wave, which immediately followed Fogel's (and, one may add, of thesimilarly maximalist premodernist national romanticism of Chaim Nachman Bialik's generation, which immediately preceded it).

In order to understand the belatedness of Fogel's salience we need to look at the forces within the Hebrew literary system which caused the entire modernist wave of antiformulaic, minimalist poetry to remain submerged and largely unrecognized to this day. That many of the practitioners of this modernist style were women (Rachel, Esther Raab, the early Yocheved Bat-Miriam, and the early Leah Goldberg) was no doubt an important factor in maintaining this modernist trend's prolonged invisibility. Thus, even when Zach adopted Fogel as a model for the poetry of his late-modernist Statehood Generation, it was only as an individual paragon (Lakoff, 1987:87–88 ff) and not as a prototype of a collective current.

A different kind of salience raising of prototypes from the periphery comes up in my discussions of Yiddish modernist poetry in the United States and the Soviet Union. One of the most outstanding representatives of the impressionist/aestheticist group di yunge [“The Young Ones”], the first Yiddish modernist trend in North America, was the poet Moyshe Leyb Halpern. Though centrally featured in the group, he was in fact all along writing intensely idiosyncratic expressionist verse that prefigured—in its implicit poetics—many of the major subversions of di yunge 's principles, which the next wave of modernists, the introspectivists of the in zich group, later on adopted and used in their direct attacks against their predecessors. This seems to be one of the general tendencies in the dynamics of modernist trends and perhaps of literary trend change in general: the implicit poetics of a deviant or marginal prototype of one wave becomes the explicit poetics (manifestoes, articles) of the dominant, activist prototypes of the next wave. Unlike Fogel, Halpern was never clearly acknowledged by the introspectivists as a proleptic paragon, perhaps because he already was highly salient within di yunge, the group of which he came to be such an atypical and reluctant prototype.

Finally, the great contemporary Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai has become, for a variety of reasons, a prototype of what I describe as the third wave of Hebrew modernism, dor ha-mdina, or the Statehood Generation. Yet Amichai's use of allusion and metaphor, his populist views of poetry and ordinary language, and his “archaeological” view of personal and collective history provide both paradigmatic examples and devastating critiques of major modernist tenets. Thus, Amichai's example illustrates an important fact about literarycategories: that the same poet, work, or trend may have both a high and a low membership gradience in the same category. Furthermore, Amichai's self-acknowledged ties to the work of two great modernist foremothers, the German Else Lasker-SchC<ler and the Hebrew Leah Goldberg, deepens the motivation for a revision of the modernist Hebrew canon, a revision that would unveil the major role that women and antiformulaic poets played in Hebrew literary dynamics, albeit almost tacitly and from the sidelines.

The various theoretical contexts from which my model for modernism is drawn cannot be applied without some major modifications because of the difference in the object (or rather subject) of study and in the questions one asks in each framework. First, the notion of best example, which underlies prototype semantics and categorization theory, needs to be revised if it is to apply to literary groupings such as modernism. Marginal prototypes need to be acknowledged as necessary for the very life of the linguistic-literary system, and categorization has to be viewed as a process that changes with time, place, and context. All this rather complicates the tasks of both literary theory and prototype semantics, but I believe complexity should not deter rigorous investigation.

Second, the formalist model of literary dynamics, with its two emphases—the center-periphery shift and the uncle-nephew line of heritage18 —while still a productive conceptual paradigm, needs to be revised to allow for a less mechanistic—and nonsexist—approach to the literary system. Instead, we may want to talk about hierarchies of context-dependent specific types and degrees of centrality or marginality, and about aunts and nieces and a variety of other family members.

Third, as the example of modernism suggests, we need to make our semantic and historical models more messy and nuanced and less mechanistic and predictable. Our contemporary postmodernist, poststructuralist spirit of (anti)literary (anti)theory notwithstanding, it is possible to strive for a relatively clear and more or less precise conceptual analysis of the literary groupings readers, writers, and—yes—especially critics employ so confusingly and yet so intuitively. The fuzziness and opaqueness of the literary category under discussion need not generate a fuzzy or opaque study of that category.


Excerpted from On the Margins of Modernism by Chana Kronfeld Copyright © 1995 by Chana Kronfeld. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

David G Roskies
A milestone in the study of modern Jewish literature. It seriously engages and recontextualizes all the scholarship that came before, and by so doing sets it on a new course: applying a rigorous definition of modernism yet insistent upon methodological diversity; deeply grounded in Hebrew culture yet unabashedly diaspora-centered.

Meet the Author

Chana Kronfeld is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the coeditor of David Fogel: The Emergence of Hebrew Modernism (1993).

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