Momaday, of course, was already well-known as the first native American to win a Pulitzer Prize, and by now is honored as the pathbreaker for the rich outpouring of contemporary native American writing. Despite his major differences from Momaday or Islas in background and experience, there must have been important core affinities, perhaps amounting to the shock of recognition that "if he could do it, I can do it too. In Speak, Memory , over and above the information that the book provides about his life, its agile, high-spirited modulations of topic and tone give voice to a rich and fascinating interweaving of multiple influences — French and English as well as Russian, visual as well as verbal, scientific as well as poetic, and more besides.
It is in this demonstration of how widely varied cultural strands can flourish within a unique individual and in the zest with which the autobiography enacts this multiplicity that Nabokov contributes the most subtly and provocatively to debates and discussions of multiculturalism. As a curricular initiative, it is often promoted as one useful way of ensuring that students acquire the broader awareness of the world's peoples and cultures that current economic circumstances would seem to mandate. Taken too literally, of course, such an approach runs the risk of sacrificing literature, in the sense of richly expressive structures of language, for the sake of information about the world.
This is not the vision of world literature that Nabokov would want to be identified with. We all know how witheringly contemptuous he was of the kinds of fiction that embrace sociological generalities and issues of burning public interest. But when conceived more broadly and flexibly, world literature can mean works from elsewhere, read either in translation or in non-domestic versions of one's native language, which enlarge one's sense of human possibility, add detail and texture to one's inner map of geographical assumptions, and above all nourish one's imagination in new and valuable ways.
Obviously one's own literature can do much to fulfill these goals, but arguably world literature can do it even better. Reading works in translation of course does entail some loss in linguistic and cultural nuance, even a drastic loss in the case of poetry. But balancing that loss is a gain in widened horizons; and in any case no advocate of world literature would seriously maintain that people should stop reading their own literature, just that they stop reading it exclusively.
This is the way that Nabokov is normally represented in my country's current spate of world literature anthologies, where if included at all he is categorized with labels like "Writing Across Boundaries" or "Cosmopolitan Exiles. This link between exile and world literature acquires a deeper basis in words first cited by Erich Auerbach, then popularized by Edward Said, both well-known scholars who were themselves exiles and who had interests in world literature.
Citing the medieval monk Hugo of St. Victor, they both emphasized how essential the experience of exile which should be understood in a metaphoric as well as a literal sense was for any writer. Through exile writers, and for that matter people in general, can grow imaginatively and so achieve an enlarged outlook better attuned to the world as a whole: "It is therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things…" 15 Without a doubt, Nabokov became a seasoned adept in this discipline of "changing about"; and he also clearly recognized, when he identified his exilic loss of place with "a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood," 16 that his experiences in being uprooted needed to be understood as a special, heightened confrontation with the general transitoriness of things.
Even Nabokovians will have to admit that if possession of a "global outlook" is held to be the standard, their author does better as an entomologist than as a reader or writer. Still, "Eurocentric" as a pejorative label appears manifestly unfair, first on biographical grounds in light of Nabokov's stateless predicament from to during his first sojourn in Europe, then culturally given the oversimplification of aligning Russian literature smoothly and unproblematically with the Western traditions of the French and the English.
Nabokov's strong distrust of centers, as shown for example in his preference as a soccer player for "the goalie's eccentric art" or in his fondness for spirals seen as circles that have "ceased to be vicious," suggests that "Euro-eccentric" might be a better formula for his cultural posture. In Nabokov's gloss, this rarely used word should be taken to mean "a honeysuckle ornament, consisting of elaborate interlacements and expanding clusters.
Not only do the "expanding clusters" correspond to Russian literature's off-center relationship to the West, as already noted; but, if we enlarge on the notion of interlacement, the emblem could prove fruitful for envisioning world literature itself as a complex intermingling of varied expressive traditions. If his translations have been controversial at times, still it is significant that the first words in the valuable Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation , preceding even the obligatory allusion to Goethe's seminal ideal of Weltliteratur , should be "Pushkin, according to Vladimir Nabokov…" 20 However, Nabokov's goal in this major effort as a translator did not really involve the creation of an English version of Eugene Onegin that would be suitable for world literature anthologies.
It was, instead, to give English-speaking students of Russian a shortcut to reading Pushkin in the original before they had mastered the necessary vocabulary.
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They would then be in a position to appreciate such untranslatable items in the work as rhyme, rhythm, sound patterns, and word order, without the tedium of flipping through a Russian-English dictionary or the challenge of trying to discriminate among possible meanings. As a contribution to world literature, Nabokov's Eugene Onegin aims above all at affirming Pushkin's status as a world-class author; the poetic richness of this masterpiece would be more widely appreciated once it became more readily accessible to readers who had learned at least a moderate amount of Russian.
Nabokov's effort has succeeded to the extent that world literature anthologies in the United States now do regularly include Pushkin, though mainly in shorter pieces like "The Queen of Spades" or "The Bronze Horseman. And if Nabokov's ulterior motive was to clear the way for Pushkin to supplant Dostoevsky on short lists of global greats, no such revaluation of the canon has yet occurred. In part, that is because his focus has been on poetry, and on the obstacles, not just in theory but in the painful details of actual practice, to any reasonable transfer of one language's expressive resources into another.
Yet Nabokov's penchant for loopholes is in evidence here as well.
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He can write a poem in English mourning the loss of his fluency in Russian, yet in doing so demonstrate the impressive, even strikingly innovative command of his new language that can make Nabokov's prose so exciting for native English readers. Or, despite the obstacles to making Pushkin's genius shine outside the Russian language, he can still pursue the possibility, though with the key proviso that anyone serious about world literature should be willing to learn at least something about more of the world's languages.
My candidates would be works from the late thirties like "Spring in Fialta," "Cloud, Castle, Lake," or "The Visit to the Museum," with their startlingly abrupt, emotionally jarring, but also thought-provoking shifts in temporal, cultural, or spatial perspective. In the actual practice of today's anthologies, however, the answer has been a disappointing "No.
Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, and Solzhenitsyn represent the fate of Russian literature under Soviet rule, in situations more desperate than Nabokov had to face; while Hitlerian evil, whose potential Nabokov recognized but luckily eluded, finds ultimate expression in Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and Tadeusz Borowski's "Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber.
Miniaturists like Borges and minimalists like Kafka can thrive in such venues, while Tolstoy and Joyce must be represented by stories like "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "The Dead," not by narratives with the moral-psychological depth or the structural and stylistic complexity of Anna Karenina and Ulysses , or for that matter Proust. In measuring his own achievements on a scale that can accommodate major novels like these, Nabokov has suggested at least two criteria for world rank.
One would be the number of languages into which his books, especially Lolita , have been translated, with the caveat that he has no means of knowing how faithful the translations have been. Still, it is an initial index of Nabokov's claim to world rank that his reputation, or at least that of Lolita , has circulated so widely, well beyond the already significant core area of English, French, and Russian.
World literature as a term to conjure with can have many implications, among them those of offering a selection of works that exemplify a broad array of the world's cultures or ones that have excited significant interest world-wide, among cultures other than the writer's own. But for Nabokov the term can only mean world-class masterpieces according to standards that give priority to vivid detail, inventive technique, and stylistic bravura. In that case the top candidates among his novels would probably be The Gift for its richness of detail, Lolita for its stylistic edginess, and Pale Fire for its technical ingenuity.
If autobiography also merits a place in world literature, then Speak, Memory would be a strong contender for its eloquence and gusto. In assessing these recent ventures to include works from East and South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, I expect that Nabokov could have applauded their virtue of curiosity.
But he would worry that, in needing to rely so heavily on translations, such courses could not avoid sacrificing a large part of the ecstasy that literature can inspire. This book attempts to address this question in a series of innovative and engaging close readings of major texts by Gertrude Stein, Mary Antin, Jean Toomer, O. In The Number of the Heavens , Tom Siegfried, the award-winning former editor of Science News , shows that one of the most fascinating and controversial ideas in contemporary cosmology—the existence of multiple parallel universes—has a long and divisive history that continues to this day.
We spoke to him about the possible existence of a multiverse and the co ….
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Yet this is not to say that Call It Sleep supports the survivalist mandate of contemporary Jewish Studies any more than Halpern's work does. If the ostensible claims of Roth's novel are taken seriously, it is difficult to see it as anything but an argument for modernist vision and an argument against traditional Judaism. Not only does the novel feature as a comic villain that stock character in much modern Jewish writing, the hapless Melamed , but the novel's denouement powerfully asserts the primacy of subjective experience over any and all communal structures.
In the novel's final triumphant paragraph, the protagonist comes into an awareness of his ability imaginatively to reassemble the fragments of his chaotic experience just before dropping off to sleep. He comes into a sort of visionary power, which the text calls "strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. It cannot end until the protagonist recognizes his creative powers, enabling him to translate the ruins of experience into illuminated vision. Like Halpern, Roth subverts the popular narrative of Jewish immigration. The "old country" turns out to be anything but the site of familial stability and integrated communal life.
As it turns out, the protagonist's mother has been banished from a Galician shtetl, shunted off to America to conceal her affair with a non-Jew. Like Halpern's poem but more explicit, Roth's text raises the specter of the Jewish woman's promiscuous longings for a gentile man. Like Halpern's text, Call It Sleep calls upon the reader to feel solidarity not with the forces of cultural continuity and tradition, but with the banished mother. Her illicit longing for the romance of the gentile world becomes a symbolic analogue for the artistic imagination of the sons.
From these examples, we begin to discern a dominant impulse in much modern Jewish writing: the impulse to critique and displace the myths and institutions that have structured traditional Jewish communal life. Other salient examples include Saul Tchernikhovsky's early poems, Nietzschean meditations decrying the "life-denying" import of rabbinic Judaism; Mary Antin's autobiography, The Promised Land , written with the expressed purpose of liberating its author from the "weighty dress" of her Jewish identity; Anna Margolin's lyrics, with their transgressive appeal to the world of paganism; S.
Ansky's The Dybbuk , which displaces the folk motif of exorcism with a narrative of triumphant romantic love; and nearly every page in the opus of Philip Roth, for whom transgression and defilement have almost become a sort of counter- Halakha. Geoffrey Hartman has emphasized a somewhat different tendency in modern Jewish writing, a practice of rewriting previous texts in a mode that recalls the rabbinic form of midrash. But Hartman also calls attention to the way this practice dislocates the tradition.
But the operative term here is "insubordinate. The performance of midrash upon a canonical text reinforces the centrality of that text precisely by discovering in it a plenitude of readings. Rabbinic midrash is at least in this sense at some remove from modernist pastiche; in the latter, authority has shifted over to the organizing mind of the artist. A tradition once considered the repository of all significance becomes a plaything for the idiosyncratic modern sensibility. All of this is perhaps no more than to assert that the basic work of literature—at least since the emergence of the modernist sensibility—is to untie solidities, to stray from home, to confront the settled and the known with the unpredictability of subjective consciousness.
The works that define the canon of modern Jewish literature gain their impetus in one way or another from this modernist spirit of revolt. In celebrating such writing at our cultural moment—with an ethos that celebrates cultural retrieval and restored continuity—one would seemingly be undermining one's ostensible project, rebuilding the house with defective tools, as it were.
Yet Modernism, as more than one commentator has remarked, is Janus-faced, and one need look no farther than the very same Joyce who fueled Henry Roth's rebellion for a rather different formula for the literary: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. The question is whether and to what effect Stephen Dedalus's anthem might be brought into the Jewish Studies classroom. Phrased in a different way, what kind of a conscience is forged in the soul of the Jewish writers I have invoked?
As exemplars of this tradition, he cites figures ranging from the Talmudic personage known as Aher to the Enlightenment thinker Solomon Maimon to the hermeneuticists of suspicion Marx and Freud. All of these heretical figures, Deutscher argues, are linked in their animosity to traditional Judaism; and the regularity with which such figures appear suggests that they constitute a sub-tradition of their own. The proposal of Deutscher's talk is simply that negation can come to acquire the substance of a tradition. Students who enroll in a class on modern Jewish literature gain access to something resembling Deutscher's "non-Jewish" Jewish tradition.
Even if Deutscher's claim is rejected, even if his "tradition" is dismissed as too disparate to constitute any sort of unity, the very mechanism of the college course—with its course title, requirements, its intricately mapped syllabus, its structured beginnings and endings punctuated by midterms and finals —makes the tacit assertion that the works under consideration adhere to one another. The college syllabus, in short, performs the cultural work of affirming continuities even where they may not necessarily exist.
Lest those engaged in the work of a "salvage project" find such a heterodox tradition too marginal to what has hitherto been considered the main thrust of Jewish culture, it should come as a relief that the logic of negation requires a confrontation with what has been negated. One can even imagine a new, reverse itinerary of Jewish Studies that would begin with a writer like Halpern and move on to a study of Yiddish, and subsequently to Hasidic storytelling, and perhaps end up with rabbinic literature and the Bible.
Of course these "foundational" texts would then be read through the lens of their subsequent, modernist subversions—not a bad idea since it would remind us that our own desires and ideological investments mediate our grapplings with tradition anyway.
What we salvage, we adapt to our needs. Such a version of Jewish Studies—merging heterodox and orthodox strains—finds a curious emblem in the first post-Communist era edition of Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel, The Magician of Lublin. On its cover, the publishers have put a picture of Menachem Schneerson, the former Lubavitcher Rebbe, gazing fixedly through his dense beard. This is a certainly an odd choice for a novel about a consummate Don Juan who eventually shuts himself off from the world in frantic hopes of saving his corrupted soul.
But the Russian publishers seem to realize that the cultural significance of a work of art can transform the work's ostensible, internal meaning. Singer seems to provide an avenue of cultural return, his profound idiosyncracies notwithstanding. Thus, to advertise his text, the Russian publicists used a portrait of Schneerson, a semiotic guarantor of Jewish authenticity.
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Certainly, Singer's father would never have imagined that one of his son's "poisonous" writings would be categorized as rabbinic script. But when a new generation sets to work reformulating a tradition, using the materials of the past to understand the present, the most ready-at-hand is often the first to get pressed into service. The Torah, according to a common rabbinical dictum, speaks the language of men and women.
Alexander Marx, "Address. I, New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, , 5. Quoted in Michael A. Ibid, In twentieth-century America, the endeavor to find suitable models in rabbinic literature has played itself out in the retrieval of Hillel as a kind of liberal humanist avant la lettre.
Bernstein made this comment at a public debate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on 10 May See Sara R. David Biale et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer , ed. Arthur A. Skip to main content Skip to quick search Skip to global navigation. Quick search:. Home About Search Browse. Jewish Studies: From Wissenschaft to Ethnic Studies Since the s, when Jewish Studies programs began proliferating throughout American colleges and universities, the discipline's borders have become increasingly porous.
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