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
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 counter-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-history; this 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 The 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 phantasmatically projecting its own demise; or rather is the real concern that the Jewish community relies too much on scare scenarios to rally the collective? Another way to consider the counterfactural in recent Jewish-American writing, however, would be to explore its flourishing in contemporary poetry, where the resourcefulness of non-narrative forms encounters the historical deficits at the turn of this century. Thus this essay will try to examine why, in recent Jewish experimental poetics, we see a rise in ways of "writing through" history to imagine its alternatives. Rachel Blau DuPlessis uses writing through as a long-poem structure to work against the Poundean tradition and his desire to rewrite history. Charles Bernstein's "what if" poems often involve fictitious dialogues, public policy announcements rewritten as poetics, and taking everyday newspeak like "girly man" and charging it with poetic and social tension. The counterfactual device used in "writing through" is the point at which these poets imagine a leftist Jewish relation to history, particularly at moments where history has been drained of these ways of relating to it. Finally, Benjamin Friedlander plays 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. For Friedlander, our understanding of the world is nothing but a series of competing counterfactuals in which exile and redemption no longer make sense as stances toward history, Jewish or otherwise.
These poets consider different ways of being Jewish in history, which is foremost an exploration in what the possible relations of Judaism and history have been and could be. These writers are not connected to history in the two most obvious ways: as historians or as prominent historical actors. Most Jews are not in either position as well. Indeed, I want to stress how difficult it is for any of us to imagine ourselves as acting at the level of history, really making and crafting it as world-historical subjects. Few of us feel at the controls of world-defining events; instead, by and large, we are defined by our distance to historical action, by separation, delay, inactivity, boredom, indirection, non-productivity, post-consumption, and dislocation. The paradigms of exile and diaspora that have been so long definitive of the Jewish experience seem spot on in describing the standard citizen's remoteness of involvement in the big picture.
However, despite the palpable lack of our feeling like actors within history, Jewish or not, the claim here will be that exile and diaspora are not the only or the primary vectors by which to understand the complicated contemporary relations to history. It is no longer evident that Jews in America or elsewhere are in exile from a home or proper place. If a Jewish "center" or "homeland" is what you want, Israel is a short plane ride away (though the visit will likely involve as much alienation as fascination); but my point is rather that the feeling of exile, so powerful especially in modern times, is being reformulated in the many ways persons are aiming to localize and, when possible, feel connected, from community organizing to constant intercommunicating with technological gadgets. If by definition we are in a state of exile and wandering because our world is not fully redeemed, at the same time we no longer view daily Jewish life as a struggle for inclusion in society, and there are no lack of Jewish institutions if one wants to get involved in the community on a moment's notice. Such infrastructure reflects a world very different from the modernist era, where we see a struggle with all levels of estrangement within and from Judaism, captured in Charles Reznikoff's short poem:
How difficult for me is Hebrew:
even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
is foreign. How far I have been exiled, Zion. (2)
Reznikoff may have difficulty pronouncing some basic Hebrew words but he can very well voice one of them: Zion. No doubt he could learn some elementary Hebrew rather quickly, but the point of the poem is to actually affirm exile and foreignness, thus rendering this disconnection a mark of preference for the "difficult." Yet the fact is that hiring more Hebrew teachers or recognizing the existence of a "homeland" cannot address the problem of how to conceive of a meaningful Jewish life when the opportunity for participation in the community is readily accessible, but participation in history in any larger sense is far from evident. What then are the "Jewish structures of feeling," (3) as DuPlessis puts it, that define this particular moment of existence both in and after diaspora?
Furthermore, how best to view Jewish history and Judaism's relation to history has been far from evident for Jews and non-Jews alike. Consider two philosophers of history, Kant and Hegel, neither of whom could fathom why Judaism persisted at all when, according to their views, history had passed it by. Kant, in lieu of recommending mass conversion, argued that the spread of "purified religious concepts" (true Christianity) would prompt Jews to "throw off the garb of the ancient cult, which now serves no purpose and even suppresses any true religious attitude." (4) Hegel, who made the philosophy of history the central axis of his thinking, also could not understand where to place the Jewish remnant in the march of history, the rise of the freedom of Spirit via the universalizing of Christian principles. Hegel actually finds Judaism to be the first religion that grasps the very concept of history; because Jewish religious principles are based on long-term dwelling in their lands, "we have the possibility of a historical view." (5) To be Jewish thus meant being aware of one's role in and through historical events, as opposed to the seemingly ahistorical cyclical and cosmological frames of previous religious experience. Though Judaism may have been the first religion with an historical consciousness, for Hegel, the religion had long since withered and become just another historical milestone. Judaism could not survive because "[i]n Judaism, the 'Jealous God' is known as the negation of the Individual" (p. 120). Unlike Christianity, which affirms the realization of the self in and through the example of the individuality of Christ, Judaism requires submission, to God or to the Law, and thus negates individual freedom. In one of the few references to Judaism in the Phenomenology, Hegel claims for "the Jewish people that it is precisely because they stand before the portal of salvation that they are, and have been, the most reprobate and rejected." (6) Because the Jews would not walk through the straight and narrow gate that Christ opened, history has long since abandoned them. Hegel shares many of the common associations that nineteenth-century Christian historians had about the Jews: they are backward, relics, remnants, ancient, and associated with ruins and long-lost cultures like the Egyptians. The Jews are then the principle of negativity, the negative dialectic, to the Christian advance of history, which must annul its own traces of the Jewish past to fully realize itself in its own freedom.
But, as is often the case with Hegel, this characterization too must be viewed dialectically--during the Enlightenment, the Jews also were seen as being too modern, too mobile, all too willing to play a major role in the increasingly rapid circulation of capital and ideas. These ancient people, so tied to the traditions of the Law, were too much in favor of the modernizing of laws and the upheaval of established traditions. As Emma Lazarus writes, "It is assumed by Christian historians that the Jews, with their inflexible adherence to the Mosaic Code, are, as a people, a curious relic of remote antiquity, a social anachronism, so to speak, petrified in the midst of advancing civilization. This assumption is without foundation; the Jews are, on the contrary, most frequently pioneers of progress." (7) From politics to science to art, Lazarus finds the Jews primarily to be proponents of modernity and its flexible and creative attitudes. Lazarus' portrayal finds Jews at the head of history, but one can just as well make the case for Judaism as advocating detours from modernity or a counter-history. In a recent article, Susannah Heschel has argued that nineteenth-century Jewish historians already thought of themselves as providing "a counterhistory of the prevailing Christian scholarship" (8) where "assumptions about the course of the Christian West were deliberately undermined by looking at its development from the perspective of Jewish experience" (p. 101). Judaism thus has been viewed as both the leading edge of modernity and the counter-trend or break with its Christianized trajectory.
The roles of the Jews in history, the Jewish concept of history, and the implications of modern historicism intertwine in Walter Benjamin's famous "Theses on the Philosophy of History," written shortly before his death in 1940. Benjamin calls his project "historical materialism," and it favors the voices of the oppressed along with an analysis of the collective imaginaries of an era. Of course, this is all very familiar now to those interested in Jewish historiography; Benjamin has been quoted so much it seems fair to ask if he could not be added to the canon and studied along with the Talmud. What I want to briefly stress here is Benjamin's insistence on a special, original experience with history as necessary in grasping its concept at all. In his 1936 essay "Edward Fuchs: The Collector as Historian," where some of the ideas of the "Theses" are tested out, Benjamin writes, "To bring about the consolidation of experience with history which is original for every present, is the task of historical materialism. It is directed towards a consciousness of the present which explodes the continuum of history." (9) Edward Fuchs is an amateur historian, he is first a collector (of non-museum-worthy genres like the caricature, erotica, and leftist memorabilia) and also a cheerleader for socialism. He mediates history through a bricoleur's edgy attraction to its material residues; for Benjamin, the collection is an "original" and idiomatic experience that puts the spark of presence and urgency back into history after it has faded over time. Finally, Benjamin's historical materialism is obsessive rather than objective, strange rather than streamlined, and in cahoots with amateurs, fugitives, and agents provocateurs rather than staid historians or grand historical actors.
I want to stress the varieties of these experiences with Jewish historiography rather than reduce them to poles of exile and redemption. We live in the temporal gap between revelation and redemption--historical time--and my argument is that counter-histories are implicated with the device of the counterfactual in ways that respond to the distance of the messianic while still taking this remoteness seriously. The counterfactual is a mode of dialectical history with a twist--uncovering not just material history that had been obscured, but also uncanny truths that remain latent yet have yet to be realized for a variety of reasons (not always all of them good).
Ezra Pound famously defines the epic as "a poem including history." (10) Everything depends on the ramifications of "include"--one of Pound's preferred figures of the writer is a gardener who must weed out the invasive flora so that certain plants, those that are pre-selected as the included, can flourish unimpeded. Rachel Blau DuPlessis' long poem Drafts explicitly rejects this determined pruning; in DuPlessis' work the garden is already well overgrown and the poet's job is not to impose order but to find meaning in the overgrown excesses. Every one of the drafts (the name of the book is also the name of the individual sections) takes place in medias res in an uncleared space. DuPlessis began her long poem in 1986 and has currently completed more than half of its projected length." With early lines such as "Little whirlwinds of paper caught in the / clouds," (12) one has the sense that a for of writing and discarding of that writing has occurred prior to the poem's outset. The drafts find themselves at "Junctures of saturation / beyond catalogue" (p. 20); the landscapes are strewn: "Waste places from the very first. / Grubbed marginal plots" (p. 52). Pound's pruning shears and T. S. Eliot's infertile waste lands are being baited here, but in the long poem tradition one thinks most presciently of William Carlos Williams' attention to the potency of garbage. Drafts take this detritus, both fertile and infertile, as the very material conditions of the planet, "mishegoss and worse" (p. 83). DuPlessis builds a poetic record from these thoroughly unhistorical materials; a counter-history then begins to be made when the poem charges this mishegoss with a critical meaning.
The long poem always involves a position on the art of editing. Pound's tremendous confidence as an editor of his peers' work bolstered his sense of authorial entitlement when writing the Cantos. His claim that good writers "keep the language efficient" (ABC, 32) stressed the editorial hand that can condense and convey the truly urgent essentials of communication. If the poem includes history, this must be a history rendered efficient; for Pound this meant praising historical agents such as Sigismundo Malatesta, Thomas Jefferson, and Benito Mussolini, who represented condensed figures of action and genius and embodied a primal or quasi-biological urge to modernize their era. Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, analyzes how the fascist power elite borrowed techniques from the avant-garde such as disjunction, condensation, and harshly juxtaposed imagery to generate spectacle and entrance the masses. As world stage directors or editors, the fascists found that history could be easily manipulated if backed by the force of the party. Although the elite might have balked at manipulating a historical record that was already rigged to reward the powerful, they "were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which all totalitarian regimes are guilty." (13) Totalitarianism subcribes to the notion that there was nothing in history that could not be rewritten.
DuPlessis' use of techniques of "writing through" previous texts and already existing historical materials should be seen in the context of the nightmare of violence that occurred once regimes saw history as something fully malleable by modernist techniques. Such a poetics must tread carefully between the selective editing of previous texts versus breaking into them to locate specific points of pain and promise that have been overlooked or undervalued. Writing through history does not mean wholly rewriting history, but rather locating moments where something like a counterfactual might be at stake--a story that could be told in a different way, a fragment that could be redeemed, and an attention to how facts are spun into agendas. Such concerns resonate in "Draft 12: Diaspora," where DuPlessis cites Benjamin's theses but problematizes his rather grand dramatization of counter-history:
"It means seize
hold of a memory
as it flashes up
at a moment of danger."
hole of a memory
Get real! (Toll, 86)
Benjamin's over-confidence in the shock value of a counter-historical memory is here contravened by the "Get real!"--for one of the shocks of memory is how little one can "seize hold of." More likely, one's self is what is seized by the very memory; for example, earlier in the draft DuPlessis writes, "So that the first digits of my MAC card are exactly the number of civilians killed at My Lai" (Toll 86). The numerology is close to paranoia, a condition in which the subject finds meaning everywhere and becomes oppressed by it. DuPlessis then wonders "whether one numbers the dead and the living, or only the dead, or only the living, on either the 'historical plane' or the 'personal.' Or only numbs the living" (Toll 86). Writing through the Benjamin quote, DuPlessis punches a hole in its argument; courting the flashes and dangerousness of memory is not likely to guarantee the care or mollify the pain that marks these difficult memories.
If Drafts indicates opposition to the dominance of the Pound-styled editor, and rejects the test of poetry according to the confidences of charged memory, it all the more relies on rethinking the archive and the remnant. The mishegoss is less to be sorted than to be gathered, if possible, into a meaningful collection. "Gathering all because of being in it, / yet / I am getting the force of it, in" (Toll 27). It is in considering motifs of gathering and archiving that I turn to a set of specific Jewish themes in DuPlessis' poem that revolve around what she calls the "midrashic layering" of her work, (14) Draft 6 is titled "Midrush," mixing the Jewish textual commentary with the sense of being in the midst of a whirling, flooding feeling. The poem begins by announcing a "work[ing] thru" that is a writing through, in part, of the story of Noah's Ark:
Works thru the dead to circle
the living flood-
and came to meet the cowering
in a tarred ark.
doors and houses
edged in blinking. (Toll 33)
In the column on the left, the story of the ark, which raises concerns of both preservation and selection in the rest of the poem, is juxtaposed with the right column, a memory of the Christmastime ritual of caroling before houses gilded in blinking lights. The Noah story is not so much retold as integrated into a set of personal, cross-religious memories and poetic intertexts. Midrash, in DuPlessis' use, is a way of making core stories and myths as the template on which a variety of interactions, stresses, and poetic demands take place.
overlayering stories so,
that calling out the ark, it's
Noah hails and harks
new name and number
what stinking fur and tuckered feather-fobs
did clamber forth
disoriented. Cramped. Half-dead. (Toll 37)
Noah has saved the bountiful species of animals but only according to the binary and domestic logic of the couple, signaling a rejection of the herd or non-nuclear family. The animals that creep out of the ark at the end are drenched in sweat. The description of them as "disoriented. Cramped. Half-dead." cannot help but hint at accounts of the transatlantic slave trade and imply the radical violence of the biblical story. DuPlessis' "calling out the ark" writes through while questioning, especially via feminism, Noah's "hail[ing]" practices. Noah and his wife are the only remaining humans and thus he is assured of a true patriarchy, all due to the patri-ark-ive. However, because Noah has performed the duties bestowed by God, the ark of the covenant is reiterated in his own ark. In Genesis, God says to Noah, "Come into the ark" (7:1), and several Jewish commentators have remarked that Hebrew word for "ark" is teivah, which also means "word," so that God is commanding Noah to come into the word. The ark of the covenant is also the covenant of the ark or word. Noah's entry into the word is constantly re-enacted in DuPlessis' poem; as DuPlessis writes, "I was convinced I had entered a letter and was traveling thru its uncontrollable tunnels." (15)
DuPlessis draws from Jewish sources in a way that proposes the following as a key Jewish principle: to build a Jewish identity means to build a Jewish archive. Judaism involves what Jacques Derrida calls an "archive fever," which is a constant attention to the material fragility and temporal anxieties about the archive that follow in God's command to write and dwell in the word. (16) The covenant's essence is not just to obey but to keep, to archive, that is, to remember. The Hebrew word for the commandment to remember, zakhor, involves a commitment to history. (17) But memory is hardly so secure a contract: "My m-m-ry looked back and turned to salt" (Toll 84). Keeping with DuPlessis as a guide through the word, she reminds us that just as there is no text without an archive, there is also no text without a draft. DuPlessis' secular Jewish poetics looks at how one's Judaism is formed on a continuum of making or constructing (or drafting)--provisional practices that involve composing one's own Jewish archive. Instead of defining Judaism as a preset code of laws or religious rituals, this attention to the collection and labors of gathering emphasizes the more mundane fact that many of us define our Judaism by the kind of books we keep and pore over. The Jewish-styled quarrel with God is now also a quarrel with other Jewish authors.
The Draft of "Midrush," one of the earlier poems, is perhaps best compared with "Draft 52: Midrash," a poem in the middle of the project and one of the gems of the long poem overall. This poem, which is 27 sections in length, features a writing through of the many implications of Theodor Adorno's famous prohibition on lyric poetry: "After Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric." Adorno's phrase has been so quoted that, like Benjamin's "Theses," it has entered into modern Jewish canonicity. DuPlessis' meditation on Adorno's proscription of poetry is remarkable especially in the relentless questioning of why Adorno singled out poetry among all the arts as so miserable. One of the reasons is that, as we have seen, poetry is all too intimately tied to memory and archives, but not in any secure or soundly testimonial way. The poem ends in the middle of the miseries, not consolations, of how memory and poetics are intertwined:
"The abundance of real suffering
permits no forgetting."
Yet memory does not work that way.
It works another way, halfway, a ground lens,
a great stark. One little scrap where something is.
Earlier in this draft, DuPlessis uses the same colloquial phrase of "get real" (Pledge 153) that she leveled against Benjamin. This time the phrase is directed to Adorno as much as the poet. DuPlessis continues,
disabuse yrself, get real
no memorable trophies
no significant reminders
the categories filth
refuse, shit, debris. (Pledge 153)
Like other drafts, this draft never clears away the refuse, which here is not meant to be redeemed through art, only that the poet is part of this mess too and that this refuse is an indelible mark of the modern Jewish experience. "In half-wounded syntax, grid, fragment, / chunk chord and collage, make / things to say things" (Pledge 156). No cleaned up poems means no cleaned up identity or history. It also means entering into the word as it already is damaged. If Adorno wants a "contrarian methodology" (Pledge 154) that combines counter-history and the counterfactuals or negative dialectics of critique, he cannot cast off words or lyric tropes that have been barbarized, for the poem and the critique are using the same literary devices. More importantly, Adorno misses the dialectical implications of his own critique--that it smacks of attempting to rewrite history, which should be the first real prohibition after Auschwitz, and not a ban against the flimsiness of humanist genres like poetry. Finally, if most of all of our history is counter-history, Jewish identity will always make its stand on its very tenuousness. But this means constant engagement with the tensions of "get real"--as if history could be put into bottles and labeled: Do Not Tamper.
Before I turn to Charles Bernstein's poetry, I feel I should mention that the current financial crisis sure smells like a conspiracy among bankers. How else to explain how the "usuriocracy," (19) in Pound's terms, have used the public's money to ... ? Sadly, such conspiracy rhetoric does little but obscure the painful reality of the fragility of global credit schemes that were created with the logic of increasing risk and reward via debt, but then spreading it around world-wide, seemingly reducing the risk for any one company and making credit more easily accessible to all. The conspiracy of the few no longer applies when so many across the world participated in easy credit, for this crisis comes from both the bottom and the top, with banks and average citizens being too aggressive and complacent in borrowing and spending. Still, conspiracy is always tempting as the easy way out of (or into) history, so instead of admitting responsibility and difficulty one says it is the fault of a greedy group of New Yorkers, etc. And whenever the notion of conspiracy is invoked, the Jews are not far behind. Can this feedback loop of association ever be broken? I would argue that the poetries of Charles Bernstein and Benjamin Friedlander aim at shattering the molds that align conspiracy-speak with fear and rage and antisemitism. Bernstein overloads conspiracies with a variety of counterfactual devices; the insular mechanics of identity that conspiracies abet are evoked to be mocked or exaggerated to the point where paranoid cliches topple over themselves. Friedlander conjures semi-fictive conspiratorial figures who integrate themselves within literary history, not to show the conspiracy at the heart of history, but to show what happens when an increasing amount of the world's discourse is already counter-discourse (for example, the internet). I would describe both Bernstein and Friedlander as conspirators of poetry, and argue that the undermining and resignifying of the terms of conspiracy is a long-term Jewish project. At the same time, the way conspiracies do not deal frontally with history bur from the side or underground might suggest new ways of dealing with history at a distance, where no one is in the center.
If Bernstein has often been tagged by critics with the label of being a disjunctive poet, it should be evident by now that such an (anti-?) expressive form is only one device among many in his repertoire. Disjunction, or other names like parataxis and Bernstein's own "dysraphism," can make both the gaps and jumps between words and logics visible. At a certain point, these devices begin to work collectively to show a larger set of discourses circulating simultaneously, both with and against each other. This is the world of counter-discourses and counterfactuals that this essay has been detailing. Bernstein will sometimes load counter-discourses in the same line:
"You say I'm like a Jewish mother but the kid
is losing weight." Turning by turns as though
turns would make it different. Sunny
with shallows all about, the solvent
flush of fiduciary abandon. (20)
In a short poetics essay "The Conspiracy of' US,'" part of a larger section titled "Conspiracies" in Bernstein's first collected poetics volume Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984, he tackles the notion that his own poetry and that of others of his generation demands a certain school of thought:
I don't believe in group formation. I don't like group formation, but
I am constantly finding myself contending with it, living within it,
seeing through it. "Okay, break it up boys." ... But, "for us now,"
group (family, aesthetic, social, national) is merely another part of
our commoditized lives--for we consume these formations, along with
most other things, as commodities, & are ourselves consumed in the
It would seem to be easiest to proclaim an American individualism and self-reliance in the face of such peer pressures, but Bernstein's poems do not simply eschew conspiracy rhetoric, rather he admits to its ambiance and follows this up by shuffling the tropes of many group identities. Bernstein opens his most recent volume Girly Man (2006) with the poem "In Particular" that is a list poem of 115 individuals distinguished by identity and performing acts that may or may not be indicative of their character: "A Filipino eating a potato / A Mexican boy putting on shoes / A Hindu hiding in igloo." (22) What particularizes these persons could be their different identity labels or their acts or what goes on between the subject and the predicate.
Thus one way to consider Bernstein's use of conspiracies and counterfactuals, in regards to the group identity of Judaism, is to observe how disjunctive devices force a deterritorializing of the author that does similar work at the level of the group. Deterritorializing one's Jewish identity does not mean discarding it, but rather indicates a commitment to a wandering within one's identity that is neither singular nor static. As a result, one is faced with what Maeera Shreiber calls "Jewish trouble," punning on Judith Butler's "gender trouble," to describe how the performances of one's Judaism can reinforce group traditions and at the same time show these traditions to be open to variation, adaptation, and reconfiguration. (23) It would be a mistake to view the deterritorialization of Jewishness as tossing away tradition and custom; instead, Bernstein searches for an over-determined relation to these staples of Jewish life that includes normative practices of preservation and transmission as well as other ways of Jewish being via riffing and scatting (as in klezmerized jazz).
The counterfactual as a poetic device often in Bernstein's hands involves putting the poem where structures of capitalism rule social life. A leftist critique is implied by such implantation, but the poem does not really so much undermine the economic conditions (that would be an amazing poem!) as mark the desperations and the fantasies within such conditions that underlie the continuation of daily business. In a recent poem, "Self Help," from Girly Man, the counterfactual becomes a structure for dishing out personal advice, as if a better life is only a dialectical reversal away:
Home team suffers string of losses.--Time to change loyalties.
Quadruple bypass.--Hold the bacon on that next cheeseburger.
Poems tanking.--After stormiest days, sun comes out from behind
clouds, or used to. (p. 171)
The counterfactual here provides the angle of hope but also closes it off with staged optimism; the public discourse of advice is being spun like a weather-vane in heavy wind. In contrast, a more sincere version of what it means to imagine reversals is found in" Let's Just Say," from the same volume. This rime, a pathos haunts the "what if we said ..." rhetorical trope and sustains a minimal hope for a more poetic counter-view of the world. "Let's just say that every time you fall you never hit the ground / ... / Let's just say that if all else fails you at least you can count on that" (p. 10). In yet another deployment of the counterfactual device, "today's not opposite day," from With Strings (2001), Bernstein lifts set phrases that signal capitalism or Americanism and detours them into poetics statements. Thus investors might be surprised to open their shareholder letters with the following statement:" Readers are cautioned that certain statements in this poem are forward-looking statements that involve risk and uncertainties. ... These statements are based on current expectations and projects about the aesthetic environment and assumptions made by the author and are not guarantees of future performativity." (24) Implanting leftist poetics in capitalist linguistic structures turns the anxieties about money and risk into a kind of poetry. One power of the counterfactual prosodic device is showing something that may not or cannot "be," but indeed poetically is.
The planting of poetic devices into ordinary language, or the extraction of devices in ordinary language and inserting them into poetry, are tactics of conspirators that work against the installation of the conspirator himself as hero. To diminish the reactionary tendencies of the conspirator, it may be necessary to plant a counterfactual in that very counter-discourse itself, thus showing how "conspiracy / twinkles, disconsolate / unbudging" (With Strings 63). It may seem we are far away from the concerns that launched this essay over how to imagine alternatives within history without resorting to revisionism, but we need to look at how poetic tactics, which include the tactics of the conspirator, can probe the limits of how acts of "writing through" weave and unweave the historical narratives we live in.
Perhaps we now see the limits of "writing through," when one counterfactual encounters another (and another ... ). If all writing is really writing through, then we are being too pious in erecting prohibitions on revising history, especially now that avowedly liberal nations (Israel and the United States, for example) construct national agendas around competing narratives of history that vie for the control of national policy. History undergoes daily revision in media outlets and presidential press conferences, so to restrict poetry from this would be to naively hope that its own imposed isolation would somehow save it and preserve the power of its critique. Liberalism would gladly rewrite history with itself as the victor--and of course it already has, with free market globalization (who can argue with jobs and technological progress) and the robust "balance" of governmental and non-governmental organizations in the pursuit of various forms of enlightened wealth (who can argue with wanting more civilization: larger houses and more museums and cultural institutions).
In the face of culture's increasing prestige, if one turns to the conspirator or the counterfactual as poetic devices, does this evince a critique of culture's growth? Benjamin Friedlander's poetry offers a glimpse of culture after conspiracy and the wake of the endless flows of factuals and counterfactuals. His poetry is pared down, littered with bite-sized bits of popular culture mixed with details of major historical events, and rapidly alternates between wit and derision, jaded joys, and an addiction to darkness. Friedlander's work often has the feeling of being "rigged," since one of his favored poetic devices is the conjuring of fake authors and imaginary textual sources. In combination, this makes for a poetics of illiberalism. Friedlander's book A Knot Is Not a Tangle (2000) claims to be edited by Kimberly Filbee, whose name just happens to be the homonym of Kim Philby, a double agent for the British intelligence and the KGB during the cold war. Friedlander turns to double agency as a literary strategy--or, at least, that is the suspicion since Kimberly Filbee is only editing materials that come from Friedlander, some of which Friedlander said he had received in the mail from one "B.F." (who composed his poems in the late 1950s and 1960s). Many of the poems in this volume make an art of the "incomplete," sometimes with ellipses demonstrating missing portions or outright omissions, such as the first two stanzas of "Theological Dispute":
Said God to Man, "Your ...
of shit ...
... steaming hot."
Said Man to God, "Your ...
ripe with ...
... comes to naught." (25)
The text is missing perhaps due to censure, a breach in the archive, or because the words are muffled. The poem resonates with itself in rhymes of "hot" and "naught" and its use of parallel structures, but the poem seems to take revenge on these devices of poetical pairing as both sides are angry and bleeping out insults. What makes this poem illiberal is not the vituperative, but the playing of both sides, such that the poem profits from doubles that both bolster and damage each other. In Filbee's afterword to the section from "B.F.," he/she judges that "B.F. is an authentic find, or authentic fraud. ... In a curious way, it doesn't matter which. The interest of the work is real, even if the work is unreal. Real or unreal, the words lay their trap for the reader--a trail of breadcrumbs leading nowhere" (p. 119). Friedlander's volume of what he calls "applied poetry," Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism (2004), enacts several complicated versions of writing through, including rewriting Edgar Allan Poe's witty book reviews and essays so that they refer to contemporary avant-garde writers. (26) Squarely in the tradition of the counterfactual and the conspirator, Friedlander describes this book as involving "the cultural work of plagiarism" (p. 5) and evoking "descriptions of an imaginary universe" (p. 16).
Friedlander is partially attacking the poetic infrastructures that have flourished in the era of triumphant liberalism (authorial intention, the lyric, the coterie), and partially attacking his own reliance on those structures. His poems and criticism profit from the tension between these two modes of counterfactual writing--one is pitted against the pieties of the contemporary avant-garde, the other toys with the baggage that is carried by the reputation of the author in an age of cultural inflation. Friedlander also has found these dissonances unavoidable in considering the relevance of Judaism in his work. In a recent, unpublished poem, "Poetry and Politics," dedicated to Hannah Arendt, Friedlander stages the fraught entanglements these two titular terms have with current Jewish history:
History's loyal opposition,
The Imagination, settles
A claim you
Reject on principle.
Now flowers doom
The sun to
A life of
Dying color. O
Let the arrogance
Of our rage
Blot the page
Whenever we cry
Over spilled milk
And honeyed lies.
Incurring a debt
Then letting it
Slide, through the
Checkpoints of un-
Guarded thought, in
Rage and the mishandling of historical burdens do not bode well for a future Jewish poetics, but Friedlander refuses to let Jewish poetry off the hook. This poem argues that history itself will have to be the counterfactual that stands in the way of lyric imagination and genuflection towards a promised land, if such ideals, however desirable, are built on "Checkpoints of un- / Guarded thought" in occupied territory.
By now it should be clear that counterfactuals and techniques of writing through history are not escapes from the historical but characterize its troubles and intensities, two structures of feeling that are very common in a time in which we are riddled by history but have little historical agency of our own. However, my consideration of the relation of counterfactuals and Judaism is not yet over, for Friedlander has sought to push their difficult relations to yet another level. In an essay for a forthcoming volume on the intersections of secular Jewish culture and radical poetics, Friedlander discusses the legacy of Saint Paul within Judaism rather than Christianity. Friedlander claims that Paul's antinomianism, his break from Judaic law and letter, offers a critique from within Judaism that still carries on Jewish beliefs, albeit in a different form. The Pauline-Jewish antinomian is a form of Jewish counterfactualism, but which is first counter to Judaism itself. Friedlander proposes Paul as a model for secular Jewish culture, for he advocates a form of cultural pluralism and cross-religious social bonds based on the expansion of Jewish beliefs to all. Yet, as Friedlander notes in citing a comment by Jacob Taubes, Paul is truly illiberal; for Paul, breaking the law is more important and holier than keeping it. Perhaps most profoundly, Paul demonstrates an ethical stance that abandons the law and its regulation by prohibition; this ethics is the very behavior one follows when one acts on no law at all, but only on a fidelity to the truth. Friedlander proposes the following Pauline claims for those who define themselves as secular but still Jewish:
Those who name themselves Jews, yet welcome Gentiles in all their
projects, are children of Paul, though they turn away from Christian
gospel. Those who mix with Gentiles, yet uphold a Jewish tradition of
justice, are children of Paul, though they serve humanity instead of
Friedlander is adamant in his assertion that his Jewish version of Paul is without Christ, and thus without messianism. But if Paul's cultural claims are also models for a new relation to history, what kind of history is this?
There is no doubt that Paul himself is one of the masters of the counter-factual. As Paul states, "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Romans, 2:28-29). To be a Jew "outwardly" and to be circumcised, Paul insists, is not sufficient and not really to be a Jew; conversely, one can really be a Jew although not circumcised and not even adhering to the written Jewish law. The external is contravened by the internal--this is both a structure of belief and one of history. For Paul goes on to say that "there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek" (Romans, 10:12) and later amplifies this in his Epistle to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). I would propose that there is an enormous relevance for understanding Paul's model of history in the difference between superseding external marks and truly abolishing all human differences in order to unite all persons. If we say the internal matters more than the external, we have not necessarily said anything false or incorrect about something factually historical: it is indeed the case that one can be circumcised and not at all a Jew. But to say there is no Jew or Greek requires rewriting history. To say there is none bonded nor free, it must follow that even if some have been historically enslaved, this is irrelevant to the ultimate narrative of History. In other words, despite Friedlander's claim that there might be a non-messianic, antinomian Paul, I do not believe that anything Paul says can be separated from his messianic and Christological view of History, which is wholly counterfactual to earthly history.
Before I close, I would like to offer one last claim for a form of counter-factualism in and of Jewish life that I have not been able to fit in so far in this discussion. I propose that one of the most overlooked conditions of Jewish life is that of Jewish friendship. Friendship is a form of secular Jewish culture in that it does not directly concern a vertical relation to God, but a horizontal relation to community; friendship is what is between Jews (and, of course, non-Jews), although it is written that God did address Moses as a friend addresses a friend. Friendship is not exactly contract or covenant, and it is also not kinship, at least according to the prevailing models. Although friendship rarely comes up when discussing core Jewish values, if it is absent, Judaism will go nowhere. Can friendship, instead of antinomianism, be a form of existing in history in which one has no access to the controls of history but has not abandoned history either? Friendship then is a counter factual to the loss of feeling like a historical actor; it is a countertrend to the laws of abandonment and the abandonment of laws at the heart of history's unfolding.
--for friends in poetry, Ben, Charles, Rachel, and Daniel
University of Western Ontario
(1) Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (New York: Vintage, 2004), p. 1.
(2) Charles Reznikoff, By the Waters of Manhattan (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. 14.
(3) Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics," manuscript for Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller, eds., Secular Jewish Culture/Radical Poetics (forthcoming volume), p. 2
(4) Immanuel Kant, Conflict of the Faculties, tr. Mary J. Gregor (University of Nebraska Press, 1992), p. 93.
(5) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, tr. C.J. Friedrich (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 196, italics in orginal.
(6) Georg Wilhelm Fried rich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p. 206.
(7) Emma Lazarus, Selections from her Poetry and Prose, ed. Morris U. Schappes (New York: Biblio Press, 1982), p. 77.
(8) Susannah Heschel, "Jewish Studies as Counterhistory," in David Biale, Michael Gal-chinsky, and Susannah Heschel, eds., Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 102.
(9) Walter Benjamin, "Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian," in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), p. 227.
(10) Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), p. 46.
(11) The most recent full-length published section of the poem is Torques: Drafts 58-76 (Cambridge: Salt, 2007). DuPlessis has completed 95 of a projected 114 poems.
(12) Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drafts 1-38, Toll (Middletowu, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), p. 5.
(13) Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harvest Book, 1979), p. 332.
(14) Rachel Blue DuPlessis, Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), p. 212.
(15) DuPlessis, Blue, p. 235.
(16) Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, tr. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
(17) See Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (New York: Schocken Books, 1989).
(18) Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Precis (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), p. 157.
(19) Leonard W. Doob, ed., "Ezra Pound Speaking" Radio Speeches of World War II (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978), p. 31.
(20)Charles Bernstein, Dark City (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994), p. 61.
(21) Charles Bernstein, Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986), p. 343.
(22) Charles Bernstein, Girly Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 3.
(23) Maeera Y. Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 11.
(24) Charles Bernstein, With Strings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 73.
(25) In manuscript of A Knot Is Not a Tangle (1996), p. 93. Not included in Krupskaya edition of A Knot Is Not a Tangle (2000).
(26) Benjamin Friedlander, Simulcast: Four Experiments in Criticism (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), p. 2.
(27) Benjamin Friedlander, email correspondence, 2008.
(28) Benjamin Friedlander, "Letter to the Romans," manuscript for Morris and Miller, eds., Secular Jewish Culture/Radical Poetics (forthcoming), p. 26.
Source Citation:Schuster, Joshua. "Jewish counterfactualism in recent American poetry." Shofar 27.3 (Spring 2009): 52(20). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 8 Oct. 2009
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