by: Mark Kirschbaum on February 1st, 2012 | 7 Comments »
It seems appropriate that sitting down and finally getting this particular shiur down on paper seemed like an impossible mission. Several times I fired up the computer and stared at the untitled document in front of me, jumped to the couch, came back, checked email, ate, and then tried again. For this shiur is about the near impossibility of writing, particularly original writing, specifically poetry.
I will attempt a presentation of the void that must be crossed, or split if you will, in order to create a new utterance, a phrase as of yet unheard, a new thought. I suspect that to many of the Hasidic thinkers I will cite, there is no difference between poetry and what they were endeavoring to say in their readings, other than a formal one. Hence, only because I am construing from my own experience, I can’t help but hope that in some sense there is human truth, perhaps ‘universal’ autobiography in these readings, as close that Hasidic masters came to revealing their own truth in creative struggle, a truth of one’s own that they sensed is also true for everyone, a description of how these masters grappled with their own need for, and fear of, their own creativity.
The index text is Shemot 15:1. Israel has just crossed the sea, miraculously, and then watched, from safety, as the waters engulfed and then expelled the pursuing Egyptian forces. The text tells us that the people had great fear or awe of God, and believed in God, and in God’s servant Moshe. We are then presented with a wonderful moment, the first poem uttered by the newly liberated people. However, the use of the future form “Az” which means “then”, syntactically a future tense, in the opening to the poem is odd:
Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael- Thus/Then shall Moshe and the people of Israel sing.
Rashi explains this “Az” that ‘he saw the miracle and it arose in his heart that he should sing’. The Sefat Emet notes a seeming redundancy- of course if he sang it means that he wanted to sing, so what is this explanation adding for us?
The Sefat Emet then sees this as explaining a much deeper underlying question- how can a human being create a literary work that ‘becomes’ Torah? In other words, we can accept that a Divine text might have a myriad of meanings, and be worthwhile of study, but be the result of a human act? Of what value must human creative activity be that it be sacralized?
This question is central to much of critical activity at the present. In a world where everything is commodified, fetishised, of value only if it can be sold or marketed, the underlying worth of the creative literary endeavor is subject to discussion. Walter Benjamin needs to evaluate ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, for example. Much of contemporary criticism devalues the act of genius by dispersing the act over the entire culture- here is Roland Barthes (Image/Music/Text pp148)-
‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’.
Blanchot repeatedly uses death imagery to talk of the creative process-
‘Whoever delves into verse dies; he encounters his death as an abyss’.
Kristeva looks at the creative process in terms of Freudian symptomatology, calling it a third-party negation, that is, a re-signifying of the signifier, with the act of signifying itself being an expulsion of repressed/rejected objects of affection, and so on.
What is harder to identify in the critical literature, is a positive view of the meaning and uniqueness of the creative act itself, that which gives the human endeavor that sense of immortality and greatness, where creativity is not in some way pathological or a road to more misery and destruction for everyone (as it has been in the twentieth century) provides to the sum of human experience that sense of immortality and greatness. Alternative views of the role of creativity are presented, interestingly, in relationship to this first poem in the Bible, and specifically upon this verse.
The Mor V’Shemesh notes a difficulty in the sequence of events the verses narrate. According to the flow of the text, the people were in a state of fear, they believed in God, and then they sang. What was the need for ‘belief’ here? The miracle just unfolded before their eyes, to the observers it was an empirical reality! Rather, he explains, the way the text explains the sequence of emotional activity, the people were in no state for composing verse. They were in a traumatic state of yir’ah, of fear, and one could not expect them to be able to create. However, they now believed that the future would hold for them such possibilities for joy and happiness (in other words, the verse tells us not that they believed in what they saw, but in the future that the miracle implied) that they were immediately seized by this joy, and could sing! Creativity is the resolution of fear as it segues into joy.
The Beit Yaakov has an elaborate set of readings which follow in this vein. He goes back earlier in the perasha, to 14:3, where Pharoah decides that the Israelites were nevukhim b’arets, lost in the desert. The Bet Yaakov says that it is meant literally- there was a necessary moment of madness, of loss of reason, before the redemption. God’s ways are necessarily outside of our own limited ken, and thus frequently we will not be able to understand how what appears to be the most terrible fate is actually the road to salvation. Human reason at the boundary of comprehension is, in essence, insanity, but when the delivery comes we understand God’s intervention and love for us; as Derrida says in the Post Card: quand je la delire ou la deliver, when I am delirious then I can deliver. This non-understanding as understanding is an epistemology, a way of knowing that God wants us to have as a technique of understanding, which God literally sows into us, sowing being word play the Bet Yaakov reads into the phrase ‘v’atem tacharishun’, which literally means ‘you shall be silent’ but the root term lacharosh also means to plow. The Bet Yaakov reads in the etymology as being from the root of ‘charisha’, a plowing, a conditioning, a making space for this important conception of God’s providence beyond our understanding.
He thus reads the words Az Yashir, then they sang, the ‘then’ being the moment when speech was allowed to them again (in other words, they were to be silent until this point, and then allowed to speak), once they came to this understanding of the working and meaning of belief, that belief means the potential for recognizing God’s purpose in this world, that possibility of knowledge caused them to burst forth into song, a song geared toward that future understanding. (The Ramhal writes that our reward in the future world will be exactly that- a full understanding of God’s purpose, which is ultimate joy, as it implies that close a relationship with the meaning behind all things, that being the greatest reward imaginable). In this reading, we should point out, the act of creation is based upon an anticipation, not reflecting or dependent upon any past or present cultural situaded-ness, but towards an as yet only hinted at, unbiased, unfettered set of possibilities.
Now we can return to the Sefat Emet with whom we opened the discussion, who reveals much sensitivity towards the difficulty, almost impossibility of the creative process. He talks much about the nature of shira, song, the Hebrew word which he derives from the term ‘tashuri m’rosh amana’ (shir hashirim 4:8), which means to ‘see’; so that song/poetry is a reflection of a special kind of vision- of seeing God’s providence in any and every thing that exists. For the Sefat Emet, composing a shira is a very special and unique kind of activity. He quotes the Midrash Tehillim 1:18-
‘not everyone who wants to say shira (song/poem) is capable of it- but one who experiences a miracle and can say a shira should know that all his sins are forgiven and it is as though they were recreated anew’!
In fact, the BT Sanhedrin 94. states that the king Hizkiyahu should have been the Messiah, but because he did not compose a poem after the miracle of the destruction of Sennacherib’s army, he lost the chance!
So why didn’t Hizkiyahu compose a song, in fact? The Sefat Emet quotes his grandfather (the Hidushei HaRim) as explaining that Hizkiyahu was such a great believer that he took God’s salvation for granted, thus he wasn’t surprised and felt no need to write or deliver an ode, and this was a failure on his part. Because the song, the poem, is a manifestation of something beyond the mere restatement of an event. It is the uniquely human activity (he uses the term birur, clarification), the transformation of God-activity into human language; the Tana Devei Eliyahu tells us that the angels are unable to sing until mankind sings. The human must do the near impossible in response to a show of divine providence- he/she must ‘l’hitgaber‘, must overcome one’s self and create, which is so unnatural an activity that in another passage the Sefat Emet postulates that the ability to create must also be a gift from God.
It is therefore not surprising that all of the above mentioned commentators also include another reading for the future syntax of ‘az yashir’- the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91:) states that the future tense, the “then” used in this verse implies that at the End of Days, Moshe himself will sing. This is used by the Talmud as a proof text of the future resurrection of the dead. The act of writing is thus also an act of anticipation.
We speak not of the death of the author, but of the future life of the author, in this reading. Perhaps we should be quoting a poet rather than philosophers, a poet who understands the struggle and the self-overcoming necessary for the poetic creation. Here is Seamus Heaney in ‘The Government of the Tongue’ (pp 107):
Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life’ At its greatest moments it would attempt, in Yeats’s phrase, to hold in a single thought reality and justice’ Poetry is more a threshold than a path, one constantly approached and constantly departed from, at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released.
The ultimate song is, as threshold, always yet to come. This song, the Song of the Sea, although immortalized by the Torah, is still inadequate. The Tiferet Shelomo explains that the shira here, at the splitting of the Yam Suf, was deficient because it involved the death of the Egyptians and thus could not be celebrated by all of humanity. ‘Maase yadai tovim bayam v’atem omrim shira- my creations are drowning in the sea and you say shira?’ But in the future, when the ultimate redemption comes, all of the world together, in peace will be redeemed and all people will come together for the great chorus – shiru l’Hashem kol haaretz- the whole world, all of Earth will sing and create in great unified spiritual glory, without any suffering or mourning on any side.