Ibn Khalphun's "When Desire Awakens Me"
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Ibn Khalphun's "When Desire Awakens Me"
On Relativism, Absolutism and Perspectivism
in the Study of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry
Wellek and Warren distinguish three possible approaches to the literatures of the past: the relativist, the absolutist and the perspectivist approach. They suggest:
In practice, such clear-cut choices between the historical and the present-day point of view are scarcely feasible. [...] The answer to historical relativism is not a doctrinaire absolutism which appeals to "unchanging human nature" or the "universality of art". We must rather adopt a view for which the term "perspectivism" seems suitable. We must be able to refer a work of art to the values of its own time and of all the periods subsequent to its own. [...] Relativism reduces the history of literature to a series of discrete and hence discontinuous fragments, while most absolutisms serve either only a passing present-day situation or are based (like standards of the New Humanists, the Marxists, and the Neo-Thomists) on some abstract non-literary ideal unjust to the historical variety of literature. 1 "Perspectivism" means that we recognize that there is one poetry, one literature, comparable in all ages, developing, changing, full of possibilities. [...] Both relativism and absolutism are false; but the more insidious danger today [that is, in the nineteen-fortiesRT], at least in the United States, is a relativism equivalent to an anarchy of values, a surrender of the task of criticism (Wellek and Warren 1956: 31-32).
Dan Pagis (1970: 25-30) was the first to apply this
threefold distinction to the exploration of Mediaeval
Hebrew Poetry, and illustrated it with illuminating
examples. Elsewhere (Tsur, 1987a, Chapter 1) I discussed
this issue at considerable length. In this paper I
propose to consider the question how can this distinction
be applied to one specific poem. This paper will be
focussed on one short poem, Yitshak Ibn Khalphun's
"When desire awakens me", and some attempts
to understand its nature.
One interesting issue related to our business is the constant quest, even in the works of hard-boiled relativists, to reconstruct the poets' biography from their lyric poems. This involves them in typically absolutist strategies. We may call this "the biographical fallacy".
Failure to observe genre conventions is sometimes conspicuous in the analysis of specific poems, especially when scholars attempt to make biographical inferences from highly generalised contemplative poems, stylised love poems and devotional poems [...] From love poetry one may not make inferences about the details of the poet's biography (Pagis, 1970: 147).
If Pagis is right (and I believe he is right) he is
speaking of an approach that is incongruous with relativism
in two respects. On the one hand, the biographical
phallacy is inconsistent with the explicit conventions
of the genre; on the other hand, it imposes a romantic
or post-romantic conception upon Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry.
There are many possible reasons for this need to reconstruct
the biography of poets from their poems; here I propose
to elaborate on only one of them. Precisely those scholars
who confine themselves to the investigation of the
"positive facts" of motifs, conventions and
influences are forced to rely on obscure indications
of the creative personality's impact on the poem, because
they lack tools to account for its aesthetic effect.
The English Romantic poet Wordsworth claimed that "all
good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful
feeling". According to this conception, sincerity
of emotions is one of the greatest aesthetic merits.
Sincerity of emotions in poetry, in turn, is a resemblance
of the emotions expressed in the poem to the emotions
actually experienced by the flesh-and-blood poet. If
we reconstruct the course of the poet's life from his
poems, there may easily arise the impression that the
emotions and feelings expressed in the poem faithfully
reflect the experiences of the empirical poet and the
events of his life. Such a conception is circular;
furthermore, it illustrates Wellek and Warren's comment
quoted above, that "most absolutisms serve either
only a passing present-day situation or are based [...]
on some abstract non-literary ideal unjust to the historical
variety of literature". Later I shall propose
a very different way to handle the quasi-authentic
experiential element in poetry.
In equi-rhymed Hebrew poetry in the Middle Ages the requirements for unity are rather loose. Certainly, there is no room for "organic unity". The longest unit that must satisfy certain requirements for unity is the stich (verse line). Many poems consist of several sections which, quite frequently, belong to different genres; nonetheless, they may have considerable unity owing to, for example, some consistent mood (see Pagis, 1970: 131-141). Pagis presented a variety of factors integrating the various sections into a "complex pattern" (ibid, 139-141). For my purpose, I propose to point out three factors that may integrate a poem (whether complex or simple) and impose considerable unity on it. The first integrating factor is implied by the very definition of the qassida: this form consists in an indefinite number of stichs, with its underlying "pegs and chords" metre, each stich rhyming on the same sounds. However, unity achieved in this way is monotonous, lacks diversity, and is not sufficiently separated from its environment. This brings us to the second integrating factor. When we read such a sequence of units based on the recurrence of one underlying principle, after every verse line we may expect a similar line, until the sequence ceases: no other verse line follows. In such a case, the poem "ceases", but this is not necessarily an "appropriate cessation". Appropriate cessation arises when the reader expects no additional lines after the last line. Barbara Herrnstein-Smith (1971) calls this "poetic closure"; she presents a long list of "closural devices" that may arouse the sense of appropriate cessation.2 One effective closural device Herrnstein-Smith mentions is the deviation from a principle established in the course of the poem: after each item in which the principle recurs expectation arises for an additional item that embodies the same principle. This expectation ceases when a unit that lacks this principle occurs. Thus, there is a significant distinction between the majority of units that constitute the poem and the last unit. However, poetic closure generates not only an appropriate suspension of expectations for continuation, but also a feeling that the poem closes "with a click like a box"; this, in turn, arouses a distinct sense of perceptual separation between the poem and what comes after it. Furthermore, poetic closure constitutes a point from which one can view the poem as a whole, and regard the sequence of lines as leading up to this last line; this, in turn, increases the sense of unity of the poem. Sometimes one may discern a third factor that is capable of integrating equi-rhymed poems -- especially the short ones: a dramatic situation, or a dramatic action underlying it. 3
Before we proceed, we must dispose of a widespread source of misunderstanding. There is a rather common notion that critics who have recourse to aesthetic theories of their own time do this at the expense of historical information and conventions prevalent in the stylistic period under discussion. This notion originates in a simplistic, "all or nothing" view: a critic or scholar for whom historical information is not all-important is supposed to reject it all in all. Such an approach would hardly recognise a piece of criticism as perspectivistic. Perspectivist studies of Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry have, indeed, been accused of disregarding historical information. This attitude, however, is not prevalent only in this domain. Wellek too argues against this position, in a different critical context:
A strawman is set up: the New Critic, who supposedly denies that a work of art can be illuminated by historical knowledge at all. It is then easy to show that poems have been misunderstood because the meaning of an obsolete word was missed or a historical or biographical allusion ignored or misread. But I do not believe that there ever was a single reputable "New" critic who has taken the position imputed to him. The New Critics [...] have argued that a literary work of art is a verbal structure of a certain coherence and wholeness, and that literary study had often become completely irrelevant to this total meaning, that it had moved all too often into external information about biography, social conditions, historical backgrounds, etc. But this argument of the New Critics did not mean and could not be conceived to mean a denial of the relevance of historical information for the business of poetic interpretation. Words have their history; genres and devices descend from a tradition; poems often refer to contemporary realities. Cleanth Brooks -- surely a New Critic who has focused on the close reading of poetry -- [...] argues "that the critic needs the help of the historian -- all the help he can get", but insists that "the poem has to be read as a poem -- that what it 'says' is a question for the critic to answer, and that no amount of historical evidence as such can finally determine what the poem says" (Wellek, 1963: 7).
This quote from Wellek elucidates, then, and illustrates the conception he and Warren propounded above that a dichotomic view of the possible approaches distorts the overall picture and is the source of barren disputes in which innumerable strawmen are killed. Only the threefold distinction can do justice to the complexity of the problem.
When desire awakens me, I leap / like a roe deer to see the eyes of the honorable (girl)
I come and lo her mother is in front of her / and her father and her brother and her uncle
I look at her and I turn back / as if I were not her beloved and friend
Afraid of them, my heart feels (sorrow) for her / like the heart of a woman bereft of her only son.
A few mentions and short discussions have been devoted
to this poem during the past thirty five years or so,
by Mirsky (1961), Levin (1963: 33), Ratsahbi (1969),
Schirmann (1979: 123), and Scheindlin (1986: 116-117). 4
My discussion of
these references will be unfair in a sense, because
they have no pretensions to offer an exhaustive discussion
of the poem, only to present what is relevant to their
business: Mirsky's concern, e.g., is a general survey
of Ibn Khalphun's life and poetic themes; Ratsahbi's
business is a general survey of the conventions of
Hebrew and Arabic love poetry in Shemuel Hannagid's
time and before. As for Schirmann, he devotes all in
all one sentence to this poem, by way of general characterisation,
in his essay on Ibn Khalphun; Levin devotes to it only
one characterising phrase. However, few as their comments
on this poem may be, they are quite representative
of some rather wide-spread approaches, and rather good
illustrations of the issue pursued in the present paper.
Later I shall offer my own detailed reading of this
poem. This reading will be more detailed, first, because
the explicit purpose of this paper is a close-reading
of this poem rather than a general survey of themes
and conventions; and, second, because the present paper
represents an approach to poetry whose main message
can be conveyed only by a discussion of many minute
By way of telling the poet's life story, Mirsky writes: "Ibn Khalphun had his painful share from love's hand; the woman his heart was fond of was, probably, beyond his reach; and the wife he brought to his home, he expelled her again" (Mirsky, 1961: 20-21). This statement assumes that every lyric poem in which the poet says "I" can be taken as an authentic autobiographical document, which reliably expresses the poet's emotions. This is, as I mentioned above, a typically romantic or post-romantic conception, and is alien to eleventh century Hebrew and Arabic poetry in Spain. As Dan Pagis keenly pointed out, only in a few genres, as in the genre of personal complaint, one may make inferences from the poems in which the poet says "I" about his experiences and life events. In most genres, even if the poet says "I", the pronoun does not refer to the poet's own self, but to a fictional, highly stylised, or typical speaker. In most genres, poems are but aesthetic exercises on conventional themes and motives. Pagis astutely shows the odd misunderstandings resulting from ignoring this distinction (ibid, 147, 150). The love poetry of the period is precisely such a conventional poetry, behind which one may not search for authentic experiences. When one proposes, notwithstanding, to regard these poems as biographical evidence, one should give good reasons why this poem is exceptional in its genre in this respect. But let us suppose we agree that this poem is exceptional in its genre in reflecting an authentic biographical event, there still arises the question whether this was some fleeting juvenile adventure, or the great tragic love of the poet's life, as indicated by Mirsky's description. Ratsahbi, at any rate, shows, in harmony with the purpose of his essay, that this poem is based on the elaboration of a convention prevalent in Arabic poetry of the time.
In the love poem "When desire awakens me" the poet tells us that whenever love calls upon him he runs as a roe deer to take pleasure in the gleam of his beloved's eyes; but, unfortunately for him, he finds her in the company of the members of her family. For fear of them he turns his back on them, as if he had nothing to do with her, but he feels sorrow for her like a woman bereft of her only son. What we have here is decent, permitted love, of the lover to his only lass. The motive of the family members who stand as obstacles in the lovers' way is common in ancient Arabic poetry and in the love epics in Arabic literature (Ratsahbi, 1979-80: 139-140).
If, in spite of all, we look for reasons for considering
the poem "When desire awakens me" as exceptional
in its genre with respect to its biographical authenticity
and the genuineness of its personal experience, such
a reason readily offers iself. This poem is marked
for what in Beardsley's (1958: 469) term may be called
some "intense regional human quality". This
quality is what the ancient rhetoricians called "vividness"
(energeia) or, more specifically, is marked by what
elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 72-82) I have called the "illusion
of authentic experience". Thus, apart from the
possible reasons mentioned above for having recourse
to a romantic conception of poetry, it might be profitable
to assume that it is the intense human quality of "the
illusion of authentic experience" aroused by
this poem that the biographical fallacy serves to account
for. I claim, however, that here precisely lies one
of the advantages of perspectivism as compared to relativism.
When the relativist critic attempts to explain how
the common conventions assume the illusion of authentic
experience, he has no choice but to turn to the romantic
conception of the poetic experience as a personal experience,
and even this, without showing how this authentic experience
occurs in the poem itself. Whereas the analytic, perspectivist
critic may rely on contemporary poetic conventions,
on the relationships between them, and on the relations
between parts and wholes. By way of this, he may rely
on psychological processes of human beings in general,
if he has reasons to suppose that these specific processes
have not substantially changed during the past nine
Little as may have been written about this short poem, the differences in its appreciation go beyond the differences between Mirsky and Ratsahbi. There is also considerable disagreement concerning the tone of the poem. Mirsky states that "the topic of the poem is a situation of frustrated love" (ibid, 19); and further on,
Love that arose in the heart, how can be canceled? Indeed, the love is not canceled, and the attitude is not canceled; rather, in the beginning he thought that his attitude toward her would be an attitude of delight; but now, that he failed, it turned into an attitude of sorrow, and his heart feels for her "like a woman bereft of her only son" (ibid, 20).
Schirmann, as I mentioned, wrote only one single sentence on this poem: "In his extant humorous epigram Ibn Khalphun emerges as a light-spirited person, experienced in the adventures of love" (Schirmann, 1979: 123). Levin (1963: 33), who quotes the whole poem, characterises it by one single phrase: "playful affectation"; this characterisation seems to be congruous with Schirmann's appreciation. Scheindlin's brief treatment of the poem (1986) represents yet another reading in Schirmann's spirit. Pagis (1976: 165) too discusses this poem in terms of the conventions of love poetry, and notes that its "distinctive feature is not only the concreteness of the situation presented, [...] but also the speaker's attitude, his self-irony)". The above quotations from Mirsky hardly suggest that in his view this poem bears witness to the poet's light spirits or presents a love adventure, one out of many. Ratsahbi's paraphrase of the first line, "whenever love calls upon him he runs as a roe deer to take pleasure in the gleam of his beloved's eyes" indirectly supports Schirmann's impressions or, at any rate, is incompatible with Mirsky's. We shall have to consider this issue too.
Let us begin, then, our discussion of this poem with
an attempt to decide whether one ought to attribute
a pathetic or a humorous tone to it. The first thing
to be pointed out is that love, and certainly frustrated
love, has to do with emotions. Furthermore, the end
(my heart feels [sorrow] for her / like the heart
of a woman bereft of her only son) is certainly not
to be construed as humorous in tone. The second remarkable
thing is that there is a conspicuous contrast between
the last stich and the preceding ones: the first three
lines (except for, perhaps, the phrase "When desire
awakens me") present the speaker's outward behaviour;
only the last line attempts to present emotions directly.
Consequently, the actions presented in lines 2-3 may
be construed both as humorous or pathetic; only the
last line requires a non-humorous construal. The third
remarkable thing is that the situation presented in
lines 2 and 3 (that is, the relatives as obstacles
in the lovers' way and what has been paraphrased by
Ratsahbi as "For fear of them he turns his back
on them, as if he had nothing to do with her")
was in sixteenth and seventeenth century European drama
and lyric poetry a conspicuously comic convention ("Love's
Labour Lost", if you like; cf. for instance "thy
Hydroptique father" and "immortall mother"
in Donne's "Elegie IV: The Perfume"). The
question arises, then, how can we resolve a playful-comic
tone with a pathetic-tragic one in such a short poem.
Further, some additional questions are to be asked:
How can we account for the fact that the same actions
can be construed as playful or pathetic? And if we
can account for this, is this explanation valid only
for our contemporary readers, or also for readers of
distant ages? Can the afore-said sixteenth and seventeenth
century convention be attributed to Hebrew and Arabic
poetry in eleventh century Spain?
Freudian and post-Freudian psychology has illuminating
things to say about the relationship between the ridiculous
and the sublime: both result from the application of
defence mechanisms against threat. The difference between
them concerns the kind of defence mechanisms -- whether
we do or do not allow the threat its authority (see
e.g. Burke, 1957: 51-56). Take the circus clown, for
instance. He is funny, exhilarating. On closer inspection,
however, we find that all sorts of frightening things
happen to him, things that we would be quite reluctant
to experience. Notwithstanding, we do not perceive
his situation as pathetic or tragic, but rather comic
or playful. If we submit the comic masks to close scrutiny,
we again discover that their expression is frightening.
What distinguishes the comic from the tragic or frightening
is what Bullough (1913) called "psychic"
or "aesthetic distance".
Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism follows Aristotle's
distinction between tragic and comic characters, and
makes a twofold distinction, between the high and low
mimetic mode, and between alazon and eiron. The tragic
hero, in the high-mimetic mode, is superior to ordinary
men in his ability to feel, to express himself or to
struggle with higher forces. The comic character, the
one in the low-mimetic mode, is equal or inferior to
ordinary men in these abilities. The alazon pretends
or tries to be more than he really is. If he is superior
to ordinary men, like the tragic hero, his presumption
assumes the form of struggle against some powers superior
to him, gods or some cosmic power, leading, inevitably,
to his tragic downfall. If his powers are not superior
to those of ordinary people, his behaviour is perceived
as "mere bragging". That is what Frye seems
to have meant by "We are most familiar with such
characters in comedy, where they are looked at from
the outside, so that we see only the social mask. But
the alazon may be one aspect of the tragic hero as
well: the touch of miles gloriosus in Tamburlaine,
even in Othello is unmistakable, as is the touch of
the obsessed philosopher in Faustus and Hamlet"
(Frye, 1968: 39). The eiron, by contrast, pretends
to be less than he really is, "deprecates himself,
as opposed to the alazon. Such a man makes himself
invulnerable" (ibid, 40) to (sometimes fossilized)
In the case of Ibn Khalphun's poem, it is obvious that
the speaker refrains from confronting the fossilized
social forces, and prefers to pretend that his ability
to feel is inferior to what it really is, and thus
becomes invulnerable to family conservatism. In lines
2-3 the speaker is "looked at from the outside,
so that we see only the social mask"; his power
to feel is revealed only in the last line. Two interesting
problems arise here, from the theoretical point of
view we are dealing with. First, does the simile "like
the heart of a woman bereft of her only son" bear
witness to the speaker's ability to feel and express
his emotions, or to his ability to retrieve from memory
an "inlay" phrase or conventional simile,
where real emotion is missing. Our contemporary readers
tend to suspect the second possibility. But such an
attitude would be strikingly absolutistic. The perspectivist
approach demands to consider such a suspicion in light
of the restrictions on expression in the poetry of the period. 5
Second, we have to
ask whether the distinction between the low and high-mimetic
mode is valid in Mediaeval Hebrew poetry. The answer
to this question is an unqualified "no".
Styles are "unashamedly" mixed during this
poetic period. Moreover, one of the plausible solutions
I shall propose to the stylistic problem of this poem
is precisely this possibility. However, not this is
the issue at stake here, but the question whether it
is plausible that readers of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry
perceived a comic or humorous quality in poems in which
the speaker's ability to act, feel and express himself
are inferior to that of ordinary men.
It should be noted that Socrates (or Plato?) too acknowledged the proximity of the comic and the tragic, as suggested by the final paragraph of the Symposium, a paragraph full of subtle ironies (though it is not quite clear whether Plato had in mind the issue in hand; I believe, he had). These are the key-sentences relevant to our concern:
Socrates was forcing them to admit that the same man might be capable of writing both comedy and tragedy -- that the tragic poet might be a comedian as well. But as he clinched the argument, which the other two were scarcely in a state to follow, they began to nod, and first Aristophanes fell off to sleep and then Agathon as the day was breaking (Plato: "Symposium": 574).
It is quite reasonable to suppose that the processes
that generate similarity and contrast between the comic
and the sublime (or the tragic) are not confined to
the dynamics within the individual. Similar relationships
and dynamics may be observed in the processes of collective
consciousness as well. In his two monumental books,
The Golden Bough and Folklore in the Old Testament,
Sir James Frazer claims that carnivals, in which people
put on masks and masquerade (including Jewish Purim),
have their origin in ritual ceremonies in which human
sacrifices were offered. Psychoanalyst Ernst Kris (1965)
claims that the development from the frightful image
of the Devil to the comic image of Mephistopheles in
Faust resulted from the application of similar defence
mechanisms through the generations. The question is,
then, not whether frustrated love can turn into a comic
convention; the question is whether in Mediaeval Hebrew
poetry too it is legitimate to regard this combination
of motives as a comic convention. This is a question
worthy to be put to the investigators of individual
conventions. This is perhaps one way in which the wider
cultural and psychological perspective can contribute
a hypothesis to the historical study of specific conventions.
From this point on we have to proceed by way of assuming
an attitude toward the "merely possible".
As for the ending of the poem and its relation to the
poem as a whole, there are three possibilities. Schirman
seems to ignore this problem, but I shall attempt to
offer an account that is compatible with his succinct
phrasing. One possiblity is that the ending precludes
any construal of lines 2-3 as comic conventions. The
second possibility is that the humorous tone of the
whole poem should prevent us from accepting the simile
"like the heart of a woman bereft of her only
son" literally. There is a widespread view among
the scholars of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry that the poets
of the period were restricted in their vocabulary and
stock of similes, and therefore one may not regard
some of their extreme similes as expressive of some
extreme emotion. In these circumstances, the afore-mentioned
simile may be construed as possibly referring to a
wide range of emotions, ranging from a stance of comic
sorrow through sadness to extreme grief. Accordingly,
there would be no real injury done to the humorous
tone discerned by Schirmann in this poem. The third
possibility is that the poem does exactly what it suggests
at its face: in lines 2 and 3 it develops a comic situation;
in line 4 there is an extreme and functional reversal
of mood. The most obvious way to handle this reversal
is to point out that in the first three lines the speaker
is "looked at from the outside", whereas
the fourth line reveals his inside.
Let me elaborate on further aspects of this possibility.
The effect of the last line is not confined to the
imparting of new information. It also serves as an
effective closure to the poem, a kind of "punch
line". This quality results from the combination
of several devices. The poem establishes a sequence
of outward actions related to movement in space: "I
leap... I come... I look at her... I turn back".
The last line deviates from this sequence and speaks
of emotions. Alternatively, the poem offers a series
of comic devices; the last line deviates from this,
adopting a passionate tone. From this point of view,
it is of the utmost significance that these deviances
occur precisely at the end of the poem, and not at
any other point. Thus, the deviation blatantly disturbs
the unity of the poem but also considerably increases
it. In other words, both the unity and the complexity
of the poem are enhanced at one and the same time.
The ending brings a passionate tone to the poem, but
in a way that achieves a witty effect too.
In my various publications (Tsur, 1975; 1985; 1987a;
1987b) I insisted on a relationship between Mediaeval
Hebrew poetry and European Mannerism. The aspect we
have encountered here is characteristical of Mannerism:
the Mannerist work cannot be satisfactorily viewed
from any one angle. The poem discussed here too cannot
be viewed consistently as a humorous or a pathetic
poem. The major part of the poem is perceived as humorous,
its ending as pathetic; but the reversal occurs in
such a way that it is functional too, with respect
to the poem's structural organisation: the reversal
generates at the end of the poem an effective poetic
closure, with a concomitant witty quality.
This closural effect is reinforced by a metric-syntactic
phenomenon, what I elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 172-180)
have termed "enjambement from the first to the
second hemistich" (although the examples discussed
there are more straightforward than this one). One
of the principles of Gestalt psychology states that
the better the organization of the part, the more it
tends to stand out from the whole, that is, the more
it tends to weaken the organisation of the whole. And
conversely, the weaker the perceptual organisation
of the part, the greater is its dependence upon the
whole, that is, the stronger the organisation of the
whole. When the end of the first hemistich coincides
with the end of a syntacic unit, this point of coincidence
clearly articulates the hemistich and presents it as
a closed and well-organised unit. In such a case, the
two hemistichs tend to stand out and to weaken the
perceptual organisation of the stich as a whole. When
a syntactic unit begins before the ending of the first
hemistich and then runs on to the second hemistich,
the closure of the first hemistich is blurred and there
arises a demand for completion: completion of the first
hemistich interrupted by the syntactic juncture; and
completion of the stich by the second hemistich. When
the expected second hemistich does occur, there is
an effective closure with a concomitant feeling of
relief, increasing the stich's unity; and if the stich
is the last line of the poem, the occurrence of the
second hemistich imposes a vigorous closure to the
poem, and increases the unity of the whole. In the
examples discussed in my afore-mentioned book only
a conjunction occurs at the end of the first hemistich,
meaningless in itself, and thus the sequel is perceived
as highly required imposing an exceptionally vigorous
closure to the whole poem. The phrase is a nominal
phrase with an idiomatic meaning ( = I feel sorry for
her). But the idiomatic meaning is blurred by the syntactic
inversion: the inflected preposition arouses expectation
for a verbal predicate; this expectation is frustrated,
and the inflected preposition takes on the role of
the predicate. In the meantime, the reader expects
clarification in the second hemistich. Clarification
does indeed come in the simile "like the heart
of a woman bereft of her only son", which is,
from the syntactic point of view, an adverbial of mode.
But this clarification only points up the weakness
of the construction: the adverbial modifies a predicate
expressed by a prepositional phrase and not by a verb
or an adjective; this tends to obscure the construction.
This obscurity at the end of the first hemistich arouses
further demand for clarification and amplifies the
requiredness of the second hemistich and, by the same
token, the vigorous closure of the whole poem (see
also Tsur, 1972).
The unity of the poem is considerably enhanced by a very concise dramatic action consisting in a sequence of three (or four) very different attitudes, arising from one another in a plausible but unexpected manner -- to use Aristotle's terms in describing the structure of a dramatic action.
There arises, then, the question which one of the two
readings are to be preferred, Mirsky's, or Schirmann's
(with the above qualifications)? Eddie Zemach suggested
in his various publications on interpretation that
when faced with two different interpretations that
account for the same amount of information in the poem
and are compatible to the same extent with the conventions
of the period and require the addition of the same
amount of outside information, one should prefer the
interpretation that makes the work more interesting,
aesthetically better. In practice, however, he makes
ad-hoc decisions as for which interpretation yields
the more interesting results; he proffers no criteria
that might be applied from one work to the other. Beardsley
(1958: 469) proffers three general canons for aesthetic
evaluation: unity, complexity and some intense human
quality. A work can be said to have greater aesthetic
merit if it can be said to have, other things being
equal, greater unity, or greater complexity, or display
some intense human quality as a regional quality. Such
a theoretical framework would settle the issue in
favour of the humorous-pathetic-manneristic reading
suggested above, in light of unity considerations versus
complexity considerations. In other words, the emotive
deviation from the comic sequence does not only enhance
the complexity of the poem but also, being a vigorous
closural device, it enhances its unity. What is more,
this effectively unified structure may be an essential
perceptual condition of the "illusion of authentic
experience", that is, an intense human quality
perceived in this poem by so many readers. The preference
of this reading may, of course, change as soon as additional
research in the history of literary conventions eliminates
the possibility of conceiving of this configuration
of motives as a comic convention.
As for the "intense human regional quality",
I have mentioned what the ancient rhetoricians called
"vividness" which, in our case, may manifest
itself as the "illusion of authentic experience".
In what follows, I shall attempt to detect the sources
of this quality, in the ornamental, figurative, syntactic
and prosodic layers of the poem. In the second stich
of our poem two formal elements of "the beauty
of the opening" are conspicuous: the first and
second hemistichs rhyme with one another; and all the
metric foot boundaries coincide with word boundaries.
From the first stich, by contrast (where the "beauty
of the opening" should occur, if at all), the
elements of ornamental opening are conspicuously absent.
The two hemistichs do not rhyme with one another; the
first metric foot in the second hemistich ends in mid-word;
whereas the predicate of the clause occupying the second
hemistich occurs in the last metric foot of the first
hemistich. There is no categorical demand for ornamental
opening in the qassida. And its absence may lack any
significance. But this "misplaced" ornamental
opening appears to be conspicuously functional here. 6
It combines with
a number of elements in the other layers of the poem,
and generates with them a special effect. The conflict
between the prosodic unit (the hemistich or metric
foot boundary) and the syntactic unit (the word or
the clause boundary) arouses a feeling of tension,
or fluidity, or sweep. This perceived quality receives
a more specific character, is even amplified, by the
two verbs that occur in the stich: , meaning "awaken",
but also "stir to action"; and (I leap),
referring to light and quick motion in space.
In these respects, the verb would be synonymous with
"run", and would be preferred only because
it conforms with the metric pattern. This verb, however,
conveys some additional semantic information: many
light vertical movements, by way of relatively fast
horizontal movement. This meaning is reinforced by
the simile "like a roe deer". This, too,
in harmony with my argument concerning the simile in
the last line, may be conceived of as of one of the
stock similes of the Mediaeval Hebrew poets (based
on Isaia 35: 6), so that no special significance should
be attributed to it. An alternative possibility is,
of course, that Ibn Khalphun meant precisely what he
wrote, and one should attribute significance to all
the specific semantic information the simile conveys.
In this case, leaping like a roe deer may be conceived
of not only as of suggesting nimbleness, but also joy
and playfulness. This possibility in itself does not
settle the dispute between the humorous and the pathetic
reading (it is compatible with Mirsky's conception
too, according to which "in the beginning he thought
that his attitude toward her would be an attitude of
delight; but now, that he failed, it turned into an
attitude of sorrow"). Finally, the phrase
on from the first to the second hemistich generating
tension and impetuous forward drive.
From the figurative point of view, there is a conspicuous
relationship between overt actions and moods, attitudes
and emotions. Richards speaks of attitudes in terms
of "initial actions", or "potential
actions" (as Scheindlin, 1986, succinctly put
it, "motion becomes emotion"). Psychologists
during the past few decades speak of emotions in terms
of situation appraisal and sudden deviation from normal
energy level, either in the direction of heightened
energy, or in the direction of reduced energy (Tsur,
1978). In this sense, the overt actions in the poem
embody attitudes (that is, potential actions), and
constitute situations appraised as favorable or unfavorable
to the person, and involve sudden increase or decrease
in energy level. The verb "awakens me" designates
in the first place an action consisting in a sudden
transition from low to high energy level. The quality
of the first two stichs is properly understood only
if their opposition is appreciated. As we have seen,
the absence of "ornamental opening" generates
a sense of dynamic movement in the first stich; whereas
in the second stich, the internal rhyme between the
first and second hemistich and the coincidence of metrical
foot boundaries with word boundaries tend to generate
an impression of balance and stability. One may add
to this the pun the effect of which, too, is to foreground
the balance and stability of the two hemistichs. A
similar contrast we find in the semantics of the predicates.
As we have seen, the predicates "awakens me...
I leap... I come" indicate stirring and being
stirred to action; whereas the clause "and lo
her mother [is] in front of her / and her father and
her brother and her uncle" is an adverbial clause
whose structural meaning suggests a predicate of state
indicating the location of the subjects "her mother,
her father, her brother, her uncle". This is how
a sense of maximum contrast is generated between dynamic
movement and a static state. This sense of contrast
is further amplified by the opening of the adverbial
clause: . This word, in the sense of "lo",
serves to draw attention in a story or an exposition
to the appearance of something unexpected. 7
a contrast is generated between the attitudes or emotions
embodied in the actions and the state described in
the two stichs. The overt action "I leap"
is perceived, on the one hand, as a metonymy for joyful
action; on the other hand, in the present context it
embodies the potential action (that is, the attitude)
of "drive toward, attraction to". By way
of contrast, the sudden suspension of movement in the
second stich suggests -- in addition to what is explicitly
stated -- an attitude that can best be described as "stunning,
astounding, stupefaction". These words suggest
a sudden, sharp surprise that affects a person somewhat
like a blow; a state of suspended or deadened mental
activities. The contrast between impetuous activity
in the first stich and static situation in the second
stich is perceived all of a sudden; and the sudden
change arouses a feeling like stunning, stupefaction.
I wish to emphasize, however, that there is no straightforward
expression in the poem that can be construed as stunning;
it is a perceived effect, not a meaning. Or to be more
precise, the contrast is in the second line itself,
between "I come" (perceived as the result
of the actions conveyed in the preceding line), and
the rest of the line.
The syntactic structure of the second line is illuminating.
Its syntactic units arouse no expectations for what
follows. "I come" is an independent clause;
it is followed by another independent clause, "and
lo her mother is in front of her"; this clause
contains all the essential parts of a sentence, in
the most natural word order, and ends at the end of
the hemistich. There is, therefore, an expectation
that in the second hemistich a new issue will be raised,
as it often happens in this kind of poetry. In stead,
the parent is doubled, "her father", constituting
a "recursive" subject, from the syntactic
point of view. In a list of parallel items, the conjunction
"and" is to come, typically, before the last
item. Accordingly, the unit is again perceived as complete;
the reader is not directed to have further specific
syntactic expectations. In a similar fashion, two more
items are added to the recursive subject: "and
her brother, and her uncle". The "and"s
do not herald anymore the end of the list. At any rate,
for the sake of the convention "of the family
members who stand as obstacles in the lovers' way"
mentioned by Ratsahbi, the first item, "her mother"
would have sufficed; one more item, "and her father"
would have been more than enough; still one more item
would have added up to the formulaic number of three
items. But, as we have seen, we are faced here with
four items. The redundancy of items is foregrounded
by the polysyndeton, the use of conjunctions in close
succession. Ostensibly, the purpose of the conjunctions
"and" is to supply the schwas required
by the metre. But here, the main purpose of this rhetorical
device is to emphasize the exaggeration of this long
list, and the resulting impression does indeed tend
to be humorous (and thus to support Schirmann's reading).
Here one might mention an additional effect in this
line, that of requiredness, the principle of which
I have discussed elsewhere (e.g., Tsur, 1972). A syntactic
unit ends at the end of the second metrical foot ("and
her brother"), which does not require to be continued.
At the same time, a list of three items ("her
mother, her father, and her brother") is ended
as well. Moreover, the list of authoritative figures
of the immediate family has ended too (even if we assume
that the girl had more than one brother, only one vowel
aught to be changed, from "akhia" to
"akhea"). Thus, a sense of incompleteness
arises; and the nearer the break to the end of the
line, the stronger this sense of incompleteness becomes.
Thus, the word ("and her uncle") is perceived
as highly required, because it fits into the remaining
portion of the metric pattern as well as into the mono-rhyme
and the list of authoritative family figures. That
is why its occurrence is perceived as witty. This is
further amplified by the fact that the uncle breaks,
nonetheless, the category "immediate family"
established in the preceding three items. Quintilianus
mentions the general effect of polysyndeton together
with that of the asyndeton (the lack of conjunctions):
"the source of both figures is the same, as they
render what we say more vivacious and energetic, exhibiting
an appearance of vehemence, and of passion bursting
forth as it were time after time". This effect
is combined with other devices that arouse in this
poem a sense of energy and vividness.
One of the devices that contribute to the amplification of the sense of energy and vividness is the special character of the hammerubbemetre in this poem. Elsewhere (e.g., Tsur and Bentov 1996) it has been pointed out that this metre (and to a considerably lesser extent the hashalem metre) is disproportionately widespread in the poetry of the greatest poets of the period. The alleged reason for this was that in these two metres the performer may repeat mechanically one type of metric foot, and only in the last metric foot of the hemistich he must deviate to some extent from this regularity, indicating that the sequence of feet has ended, and generating an effective closure for the hemistich. Having established the mechanical repetition, he may focus his attention upon the complexities of prose rhythm, and the rhythmic solutions for resolving the conflict between prose rhythm and metric pattern. In the majority of the other classical metres the performer must direct attention to the metric pattern, where the successive metric feet are not equal, but two kinds of feet (one more complex, one simpler) alternate -- in addition to the regular alternation of shorter and longer syllables within the metric foot. He cannot rely on his "metrical set". Still elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 162-171) I have distinguished two rhythmic prototypes within the hammerubbe metre. The difference between them will become conspicuous if we compare the following two lines:
The structure of hammerubbe metre is . When reaching the end of each hemistich in the second of these quotes, the reader has a feeling that something is missing; in the first two feet he got used to schwa + three vowels (or, in the traditional terminology, one peg + two chords); the third foot has only schwa + two vowels. There is a different impression in the first quote. Here, when arriving to the end of the hemistich, the reader may have a feeling of statisfaction; after the event he may feel that he has been waiting all along for this foreshortened foot; that the foreshortened foot realizes some principle that was implicit in the hemistich from the beginning. In the second quote there is a sense of incompleteness owing to the foot that has been shortened as it were, whereas in the first quote there may be a feeling of harmonious halt. At first glance one may notice that in the second quote every word is stressed on its last syllable. This structure foregrounds the shortening of the last foot: in the first two feet the third vowel is stressed, in the third foot the second vowel. In the first quote there is variation of stress: it is sometimes on the last, sometimes on the last but one syllable. Nevertheless, there is here some kind of regularity. In each foot in this quote, stress is on the second vowel. Thus, a more complex rhythmic model is generated: the third foot refutes and confirms expectations at one and the same time. After having got used to a metric unit consisting of schwa + three vowels, a schwa + two vowels unit follows. This is the unexpected part of it. But the expectation that the second vowel would be stressed is confirmed in the third metric foot as well. This is the source of a special kind of satisfaction: one expectation is confirmed, in spite of the refutation of another expectation. In terms of Beardsley's general canons, in the second quote complexity is achieved at the expense of unity, whereas in the first quote, complexity is achieved by way of enhancing unity. The effect of this complex structure is to amplify the vividness of any quality that may be inherent in the line or in the poem. There seems to be a considerable number of poems that tend toward one or the other prototype of hammerubbe metre. In this respect, feet in which both the first and third vowels are stressed are "ambiguous", that is, they may be assimilated in both prototypes. Out of sixteen feet in Ibn Khalphun's poem, in six the stress occurs on the first and third vowels; in all the rest, on the second vowel. In other words, the rhythmic character of this poem definitely tends toward the unity-in-complexity organisation. This rhythmic character further amplifies any intense human regional qualities there may be in the poem.
In a feminist essay on this poem, Tova Rosen refers at some length to the present paper as it appeared in the essays in memory of Dan Pagis. This is a timely response, because the absolutist approach was not properly represented in the critical utterances discussed in my paper. Furthermore, this essay indicated that I have not made sufficiently clear my point about the relationship between the tragic and the comic. All this may be corrected now. Among other things, Rosen argues against my position as follows:
Tsur links the humorous effect to the functioning of the polysyndeton in the second line whereby the father, brother, and uncle are syntactically linked. In Tsur's opinion, the reference to the mother in and of itself would have sufficed to represent the familial constellation that obstructs the meeting of the lovers, and each "unnecessary" addition serves only to emphasize the absurdity of the situation.
In my opinion there is nothing comic in this line, nor is the listing of the male relatives insignificant. Our knowledge of the Jewish family structure in the Mediterranian during the Middle Ages assures us that the mention of the father, brother, and uncles is anything but redundant. The young Jewish girl, like her Arab counterpart, was under the close supervision of the male members of her family up until the moment when she was delivered to her intended spouse; with her marriage, she passed from one sphere of masculine domination to another. Far from a comic phrase, the list of family members places the situation within the context of the sociofamilial order, accentuating the opposition between uncontrolled desire (represented by the aroused, charging stag) and the established patriarchal system (Rosen, 1996: 8-9).
And so forth. I suppose that the information imparted
in the second paragraph of this quotation makes a substantial
contribution to the feminist thesis of the essay; but
no amount of this kind of information can refute my
claims concerning the comic or pathetic character of
the poem -- and that is why I quoted at such length her
criticism. There is no information in the second paragraph
that can support the claim "there is nothing comic
in this line"; on the contrary, in my present
theoretical framework it may rather support its opposite.
I have claimed above that both the comic and the tragic
result from the application of defence mechanisms against
threat. The difference between them lies in the kind
of aesthetic distance generated by the stylistic manipulations
in the text. Consequently, any emphasis on the threatening
status of the authoritative male figures in the family
points at a factor that reinforces the tragic or the
comic quality of the poem, depending on the stylistic
manipulations. These claims can be refuted only by
such arguments as "The comic does not result from
response to threat", or "The difference between
the tragic and the comic does not reside in the kind
of stylistic manipulations"; or "the stylistic
manipulation of which Tsur speaks do not have the comic
effect he suggests"; or "the stylistic manipulation
of which Tsur speaks do not exist in this poem".
Consider the following quote from Frye: "We are
most familiar with such characters in comedy, where
they are looked at from the outside, so that we see
only the social mask". My analysis makes an effort
to show that in lines 2-3 the characters "are
looked at from the outside, so that we see only the
social mask"; Tova Rosen elaborates in great detail
on the nature of the social mask in the situation.
Had she contested, for instance, Frye's claims, she
may have refuted, perhaps, my claims.
In fact, Rosen confuses syntactic-rhetoric redundancy
which I am speaking of with the semantic-thematic redundancy
by which she is laying great store. My claim is that
the clause "and lo her mother is in front of her"
is complete from the syntactic point of view, has a
subject and a predicate and requires no further elaboration
or completion. The fact that its boundary coincides
with the hemistich boundary reinforces the impression
that this is the end of a statement. It is surprising,
therefore, that the sequel demands to re-open the syntactic
subject, and to add another three items. From this
point of view they are redundant. Furthermore, I claim
that when in ordinary prose a series of parallel items
are enumerated, the conjunction "and" occurs
only before the last item, indicating that the series
has come to an end. Ancient rhetoricians like "Longinus"
and Quintilianus claim that the polysyndeton's effect
is due to a deviation from this proper order. In our
case, the polysyndeton causes the last two items of
the list to be perceived as redundant. That is what
I call stylistic manipulation. All this does not, of
course, detract from the threatening authority of the
male figures. I do have my doubts as for the weight
of this socio-familial information, in view of the
little that has been said about it in the poem. But
if we decide to impart to it its full weight, the male
figures' syntactic-rhetoric redundancy foregrounds
their massive presence (that is, their mention is not
superfluous in the fine social fabric presented in
This attitude is quite common in several current types
of absolutism: feminist, homosexual and third world
criticism. They isolate in the work of literature the
thematic elements with which they are preoccupied;
and they scrutinise them under a magnifying glass,
using as much historical information as possible, disproportionately
to their relative weight in the work of art. This is
legitimate to a certain limit. What counts as crossing
the last limit, the "red line"? When the
absolutist objects to viewing the elements important
to him in the proportions determined by the work. In
1990 I attended a lecture by Edward Saïd "Jane
Austen and Empire", at a Columbia University Seminar.
These seminars draw many guests from all the universities
in New York. Speaking of Mansfield Park, Saïd
mentioned that the landlord went away for a few weeks
to the Caribean Islands to deal there with the slave
unrest in his estates. He elaborated on the importance
of this slave unrest in the context of Victorian imperialism.
One of the guests objected that notwithstanding the
great importance of the issue in the general historical
context, this has no trace in the novel. Jane Austen
wanted to have the landlord away from home for a few
weeks; she needed this to allow for the complications
of the plot to evolve. Saïd refuted this argument
by the invincible answer: "This is just so!".
This kind of fallacy seems to be built into critical
approaches that advocate, for rather good reasons,
"subversive readings"; they easily become
subversive not only toward the dominant social order,
but against the aesthetic order of the literary work
of art too. At any rate, the various kinds of absolutism
can make good use of historical information which is,
supposedly, the exclusive property of relativism.
Rosen's arguments could deny Molière's L'Avar
the right to be called a comedy. The play is centered
on Harpagon's despotism over his children. The two
young girls in the play are destined to marry old men,
for the families' financial interests. It is embarrassing
to admit from the feminist point of view that Harpagon's
son too was destined to marry a rich widow in stead
of his love Marianne; but it is to Molière's
credit that this widow, unlike the old bridegrooms,
never appears on stage. At any rate, ample historical
evidence can be produced that such practices prevailed
in Molière's time, in other periods, and even
in our time. It would appear that patriarchal tyranny
is one of the indispensable props of comedies; even
of some of the most exquisite ones. Critics who insist
that Harpagon has some tragic traits do not rely on
his patriarchal tyranny, but on his power to express
his emotions in the scene in which he laments his lost
treasure box. For feminist criticism, the underprevileging
of young girls and of women in a patriarchal society
is a serious issue. For me, any serious issue can be
treated in a comic or a tragic fashion, the critic's
task being to explore the stylistic features in which
the comic differs from the tragic treatment. It would
appear that stylistic considerations of the kind offered
here are out of bounds in the study of Mediaeval Hebrew
poetry. Thus, Schirmann's and Mirsky's diametrically
opposed responses to this poem was a godsend for me.
My task, as I conceive of it, is to explore the poetic
and psychological mechanisms that may account for these
different responses to one text.
In fact, I am not a firm advocate of a comic reading of this poem; Schirmann is. On the contrary, I consider my job to present all the possibilities, that is, the comic as well as the pathetic one, and the combination of both, propounding the reasons for and against the various options. As a matter of fact and not by way of ironic dissemblance I don't really know whether in the final resort the proper reading of this poem is comic, pathetic or a combination of both; but I do know what reasons can be brought in favour of each one of them. Furthermore, I do know that underlying both the tragic and the comic reading we find the need of defence against threat. And all that Tova Rosen did was to point out the presence of such a threatening force in the poem.
I have propounded a close-reading of Ibn Khalphun's poem. For the purpose of this close-reading I had recourse to information disclosed by the historical research of Mediaeval Hebrew poetry and of Classical rhetoric, with reference to the thematic conventions of the genre (the relatives hindering the lovers), to ornament (ornamental opening, polysyndeton), to metre and to figurative language. Likewise, I relied on the syntactic structure of the poem. I have pointed out that the diverse conventions constitute somehow an integrated closed whole that has considerable unity and complexity, and is characterised by some more than usually intense human quality that is present as a "regional quality". By "regional quality" Beardsley means a quality that belongs to the whole but not to its parts. I tried to show in considerable detail that the vividness perceived in the first two lines, that is, the intense human quality that characterises them is indeed a regional quality, which is generated through the coincidence of certain thematic, syntactic, figurative, ornamental and metrical elements. In the present instance, at least, the intense human quality of the poem is the perceived quality of the whole and it contributes to a greater than usual unity of the poem; whereas the elements that generate this unity contribute to the poem's complexity. This approach isn't novel at all. At the beginning of chapter 20 of the Hellenistic treatise On the Sublime attributed to Longinus we read:
A strong effect arises from the overlapping of several figures, when two or three of them join forces as it were to contribute to one action, amplifying intensity, persuasive power and beauty ("Longinus", On the Sublime, ch. 20).
It should be emphasized that when I quote comments by
Quintilianus and "Longinus" on the perceived
effect of rhetorical devices and of their combinations
I don't mean to suggest that they necessarily influnced
Mediaeval Hebrew poetry in Spain. It is certain that
"Longinus", for instance, had no influence
upon it; but one may assume some indirect influence
of Classical Greek poetics and rhetoric on Mediaeval
Arabic and Hebrew poetry in Spain (this is one of the
differences between the relativist and the perspectivist
approaches: the latter does not require as a matter
of obligation to rely only on poeticians who have a
causal relationship to the poetry under discussion).
I am doing this for two good reasons. First, Classical
Greek poetics and rhetoric are nearer in spirit to
Mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew poetry in Spain than modern
poetics; and second, Quintilianus' and Longinus' comments
serve as evidence that competent readers of remote
ages tended to perceive similar qualities in rhetorical
devices and their combinations. This is a kind of insurance
policy against destructive skepticism (of the "How
do you know that..." kind).
My basic assumption in this essay was a distinction
made by Wellek and Warren. Notwithstandng, in one respect
at least they may have viewed my deliberations with
suspicion, since I too have appealed to "unchanging
human nature". Thus, for instance, I have assumed
that the psychological mechanisms underlying comic
or sublime effects are the same in present-day human
beings as in human beings living in the past, even
in remote ages. It should be noted, however, that I
have so done not in the service of an absolutism that
imposes uniform perceptions on different kinds of poetry,
but on the contrary, in the service of a perspectivism
that makes significant distinctions between various
qualities that result from various stylistic shapings
of one theme. In our case, the same unpleasant situation
may underly a comic or a pathetic work of literature.
It would appear, then, that appealing to "unchanging
human nature" may be useful when it is exploited
for making distinctions, and is harmful if it is used
to impose uniformity upon various kinds of poetry.
Wellek and Warren would perhaps not object to such
a formulation. At any rate, without some such assumption,
we ought to have reached the absurd conclusion that
we can make no significant generalization about the
qualities of poems of distant ages since we cannot
know whether the psychological mechanisms of our predecessors
worked in a way similar to ours. At any rate, in such
instances my position tends to be that the burden of
proof rests on the person who claims that the working
of psychological mechanisms of human beings has greatly
changed during the past eight hundred years.
When Mirsky discerns in Ibn Khalphun's poem a tragic-pathetic tone whereas Schirmann discerns a comic-humorous tone, each one of them relies, necessarily, on the intuitions of a flesh-and-blood reader who lives in the twentieth century. There is no escape from this. The only way to cope with this problem is to recognise it, not to repress it. On this issue, I have elsewhere (Tsur, 1992: 301-302) adapted E. D. Hirsch's presentation of the metaphysical dimension of Heidegger's and his adherents' historicism. Everything we know has been entirely adapted to our historical self and nothing can be known apart from that determining context.
An interpreter must therefore learn to live with his historical self just as Freud would have him live with his subliminal self, not by trying to negate it, which is impossible, but by consciously making the best of it (Hirsch, 1972: 251).
According to Hirsch, the historicists draw from the
Freudian analogy the conclusion that "interpreters
make the best of our historicity not by reconstructing
an alien world from our texts but by interpreting them
within our own world and make them speak to us -- "a
position that is, Hirsch says, "skeptical and
dogmatic at once". Sufficiently misunderstood,
however, this analogy may lead to an altogether different,
or even opposite, position. The interpreter must learn
to live with his historical self, by becoming conscious
of it, just as Freud would have him become conscious
of his subliminal self. The more we know about our
own subliminal or historical self, the more effectively
we can distinguish it from the others. The more we
know about our own cognitive and adaptive mechanisms,
the better we dissociate ourselves from the aesthetic
objects of our judgment, whether present-day objects
or objects from the remote past.
Consequently, when we encounter such conflicting intuitions as Mirsky's and Schirmann's, three courses of action are open to us. First, we may claim, in the name of "scientific objectivity", that all subjective elements should be removed from literary research, and one should focus on the study of conventions and influences only, which qualify as "objective facts". Such a course of action would justify Wellek and Warren's claim that "the more insidious danger today [...] is a relativism equivalent to an anarchy of values, a surrender of the task of criticism". As we have seen, even extreme relativists and positivists cannot refrain from referring to the perceived qualities of literary works of art. Second, we can simply ignore the conflict between responses and avoid all confrontation between them, considering them within their respective essays. This course of action is not very respectable from the scientific point of view, and it too amounts to what Wellek and Warren called "an anarchy of values". But this attitude is rather common, and that is, in fact, what happened to the critical treatment of Ibn Khalphun's poem. The third course of action prevails among the various mentalistic approaches. These approaches attempt to account for the sources of intuitions (of the native speaker of a language or, as in our case, of the reader of literature), to scrutinise them with reference to the text that aroused them as well as to any available historical information concerning the relevant conventions. In this way one may reach one of two conclusions: that both responses are equally legitimate, or that one of the two construals of the poem can eventually be preferred. It would appear that perspectivism will have to adopt eventually this mentalistic approach.
1. The most obvious varieties of absolutism prevalent today would be feminist, third-world and gay criticism.
2. Elsewhere (Tsur, 1969: 175-180), before I became aware of Herrnstein-Smith's work, I enumerated some "termination devices" in Mediaeval Hebrew Poery.
3. I have elsewhere discussed at some length the "dramatic
device" in Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry (Tsur, 1975:
76-86; 1987a: 45-50; 1987b).
4. Rosen's (1996) paper was published nine years after the Hebrew publication of the present paper.
5. Although there is no explicit inlay phrase to which the simile might allude, but berievement -- especially the death of an only child -- is considered in the Biblical world as a strinkingly exemplary instance of unsurpassed sorrow and it occurs in such figurative expressions as "I will make it like the mourning for an only son" (Amos, 8:10). Joseph Yahalom suggests that there are in this poem several linguistic elements reminiscent of the Biblical Jephthah story: "Then Jephthah came to his home in Mizpah; and behold his daughter came out to meet him [...]; she was his only child; beside her he had no son or daughter. And when he saw her..." (Judges, 11:34-35), as against "I come... and lo... I look at her... bereft of her only son" in the poem.
6. Rosen (1996: 12) believes I am exaggerating in missing the ornamental opening in the first stich. I would have agreed with her, had it not occurred, unexpectedly, in the second stich, and had this misplacement not coincided with some other stylistic devices to be considered below. In fact, she admits that "The lack of internal rhyme in the first line of this poem only emphasizes the unexpected inner rhyme [...] in the second line. While the lack of rhyme in the first line adds to the sense of dynamic motion, the presence of rhyme in the second line has the effect of arrested movement, of halting" (ibid, 8). But she overlooks the fact that this is, precisely, my argument.
7. In fact, this function word is ambiguous, according to the dictionary. Idith Eynath-Nov pointed out to me that can also be construed as pointing at something expected.
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