Biblical Allusion and Cognitive Processes
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is relevant to "intertextuality"
at two levels: first it will consider the use of Biblical
allusions in Mediaeval and Modern Hebrew poetry, and
then will observe the effects adjoining poems may have
on a poem. At this level it will explore the semantic
processes that may take place as a result from the
interaction of two or more texts. As for more general
cognitive processes, it will explore the device of
shifting mental sets, and will touch upon the problem
of the monopoly of cognitive hypotheses. One important
assumption of the present paper is that literary communication
(even that of riddles) is governed by communicative
competence (including linguistic and poetic competence)
governed by a social contract. Otherwise authors and
readers would not understand each other. Intertextuality
and the use of Biblical allusions are no exception.
When speaking of Biblical allusions, one should distinguish verbal and thematic allusion. Mediaveal Hebrew poets called the former "inlay language". This is a kind of literary allusion prevalent in Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry in which words and phrases taken from the Bible or other authoritative texts are used to convey the poet's message. The two are usually used in all sorts of bizarre combination. Some Hebrew critics rely on inlay language in the interpretation of both Mediaeval and Modern poems. Before going into this issue, I will briefly present some cognitive mechanisms involved.
Inlay Language and Mental Sets
A mental set is the readiness to respond in a certain way. It is, obviously, an adaptation device of great survival value, and is required for handling any situation consistently. Of no less great survival value is the adaptation-device called shift of mental sets. This may be defined as the shift of one's readiness to respond in a certain way. It is required for handling changing situations in extra-linguistic reality. The use of these two (opposed) kinds of adaptation mechanisms may yield different kinds of pleasure. The mental set is a typical instance of gaining pleasure from the saving of mental energy. The shift of mental sets yields a kind of pleasure that is derived from the certainty that one's adaptation mechanisms function properly. Wit can now be described as the unique conscious quality of shifting mental sets, and the sense of humor as the ability to apply wit to difficult life situations. Emotions too are versatile adaptation devices: fluctuating streams of information used for fast orientation. Cognitive Poetics assumes that in the response to poetry, adaptation devices developed for survival are turned to aesthetic ends. One conspicuous characteristics of poetic language is that it requires more frequent shifts of mental sets than non-poetic language. I submit that refusal to shift mental sets is maladaptive both in extra-linguistic reality and in aesthetic response.2
The gist of my argument is as follows. Present-day Hebrew critics frequently attribute meanings to Mediaeval as well as modern poems by filling in real or imagined gaps with information imported from the Biblical verses. I shall argue that this practice concerns, at best, only one and not the most interesting use of inlay language. It is, I claim, in conflict with the nature of poetic language, in that it exempts the critic from facing the evasive meanings of the text, allows him "to make his own arbitrary poem" and, in terms of the foregoing distinctions, involves a refusal to shift mental sets. A survey of the Mediaeval treatises on poetics in Arabic quoted by David Yellin (1972: 118) supports this last point made on present-day theoretical grounds. The phrases may be repeated in the same meaning as in the source, or in a changed meaning; some of them mention even blasphemously changed meanings; but none of them mentions inlay language as a clue for the interpretation of a poem or a source for filling gaps in it. Thus, for instance, Moses Ibn Ezra says:
The Arab poets have an additional wonderful practice. They take a phrase from their Koran and use it in a new way that suits their goal. [...] Our poets too had recourse to such modes of expression, and introduced phrases from the Holy Scriptures into their verse and construed them in a way that suited their goal.
I will illustrate this use of Biblical allusion by a fairly extreme example. Rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra wrote a girdle poem beginning with the line "The breasts of a beautiful girl embrace at night". In the last stanza of the poem he preaches to do as the priests, Aaron and his sons did, alluding to the Biblical verse "And you shall consecrate the breast of the wave offering, and the thigh of the priest's portion [...] since it is for Aaron and for his sons" (Exodus, 29: 27). He ends the poem with the couplet:
(1) Do not cease to suck lips and saliva,
Until you seize your portion: breast and thigh.
The wit of the couplet resides in the sudden shift of
contexts and of mental sets, from the breast and thigh
offered from the ram of ordination which is the priests
portion, to the breast and thigh of the beautiful girl
which is the addressee's portion. Such shifts of meaning
in inlay language is the rule rather than the exception,
though this is an unusually extreme example; it is
the libertinism of the poem that is rare but by no
means unique, not the shift of meanings.
In the next section I will consider additional uses of Biblical allusions, in the perspective of Riddles and Communicative Competence.
Communicative Competence & Riddles
Some linguists, psychologists, semioticians, and philosophers speak of a social contract between the users of human communication systems: a "contract" that the "cooperative principle" will be observed, and that the systems will be used according to their rules and principles. There is a sense of stability and security, as long as all parties may be confident that the other parties, too, will stick to the contract. The term Communicative Competence is used "to cover a person's knowledge and ability to use all the semiotic systems available to him as a member of a given socio-cultural community. Linguistic Competence, or knowledge of the language-system, is therefore but one part of Communicative Competence" (Lyons, 1977: 573). The other systems include Literary or Poetic Competence.
In ordinary, nonpoetic language, we typically "attend
away" from the signifiants to the signifiés:
sometimes we remember the information, but not the
exact words in which it was conveyed; sometimes we
can't even tell in what language we received some information,
or whether it was in the verbal medium at all. Poetic
language, by contrast, compels us "to attend back"
to the signifiant or, rather, to ever higher signifiants
in a great chain of signs: from the extra-linguistic
referent to the verbal (semantic) signifiant; from
the semantic unit to the string of phonological signifiers
and eventually, perhaps, to the graphic signifier of
the phonological unit. The phonetic patterning of poetry
(rhyme, metre, alliteration) typically directs attention
away from the semantic to the phonological component
of language; whereas figurative language (and many
other semantic devices) direct attention from the extra-linguistic
referent to the verbal sign. Acrostic and picture poetry
direct attention to the patterning of graphemes.
This process can be most readily appreciated when it
breaks down, as in riddles. Consider the following
riddle, common among children: "Which cheese is
made backward?" "Edam". Our linguistic
competence requires us to run through the hierarchy
of signifiers, from the string of graphemes, through
the string of phonemes, the semantic units, right down
to extra-linguistic reality, and look for some odd
production processes in the dairy. The riddle is, precisely,
a riddle, because the understander is forced to exit
this chain of signifiers and at some theoretically
unspecifiable point, at that. In the present instance,
the exit occurs at the graphemic level: "edam"
is the string of letters that constitute "made",
in a reverse order. If we contrive an admittedly less
elegant riddle, "What matronly woman is made backward?",
the exit will be at the phonological level of the same
chain, the solution being "dame". In poetic
language no exit is forced on the understander: the
whole chain of signifiers is realised, but the understander
must linger at some of its earlier stages.
They [the deviations--R.T.] achieve poetic effect only when the deviation has a specific regularity as its basis, when they stop being merely violations of the grammatical rules. This means that poetically effective deviations must be explainable in terms of rules of deviation which themselves specify the conditions and form of deviations (Bierwisch, 1970: 110).This brings us to an initial comparison and distinction between poems and riddles (which will be supplemented presently by an additional distinction). The effects of both poems and riddles are derived from deviations from, or violence against, ordinary language. But in riddles, in contrast to poems, these deviations and violations are either ad hoc and cannot be explained in terms of rules, or the rules of deviations themselves are thoroughly disguised, so that it is difficult to discover them. In most instances, the latter appears to be the case; otherwise it would be impossible to solve the riddle. In other words, if in poetry we may expect mainly additional "rules of deviation", literary riddles are typically generated through the willing suspension of certain processes required by Linguistic and Poetic Competence; and in some instances, at least, it is hard to discover at which point of the hierarchy of rules the suspension occurs. Notwithstanding, riddles in literature must be considered within the terms of reference of aesthetic processes. We shall consider an instance, in which the riddle eventually succumbs to those processes and is turned into a different genre. I suggest that this phenomenon is no mere freak of literary history.
I propose to present some of the issues involved using
Samson's riddle: "Out of the strong came something
sweet" (Judges, 14:14). This is a good example
of an unfair riddle. It refers to a specific event
unknown to all but the person who propounds the riddle.
Indeed, Samson himself claims: "If you had not
ploughed with my heighfer, you would not have found
out my riddle". In terms of our present theoretical
framework, no amount of general constraint-location
could lead to the solution of this particular riddle.
In the course of the centuries, however, what Culler
calls "The Rule of Significance" (the primary
convention of Literary Competence) was applied to this
riddle in collective consciousness, that is, "Read
the poem as expressing a significant attitude to some
problem concerning man and/or his relation to the universe"
(Culler, 1975: 115). Through the application of this
convention, the Biblical verse referring to a specific,
unusual event became a proverb in Hebrew: it assumed
a highly general, abstract meaning: "out of something
bad something good came out".3
If one accepts another assumption
of Culler's (ibid., 147) that "the function of
genre conventions is to establish a contract between
writer and reader so as to make certain relevant expectations",
one may suggest that the proverb qua proverb instructs
the reader to interpret the text as expressing a significant
attitude to some most general problem concerning man
and/or his relation to the universe. The process of
abstraction from the proverb's figurative material
must go all the way to the widest and most abstract
generalizations. Going "all the way" in abstraction
is a basic requirement of Literary Competence, if interpretation
is to be constrained to a plausible set of meanings.
The regular mode of Poetic Competence consists in the
constant application of the Rule of Significance. From
this point of view, the distinguishing mark of the
riddle is that it instructs the respondent to disrupt
the working of the linguistic rules he is accustomed
to, as well as the Rule of Significance. The primal
difficulty with the interpretation of riddles is that
the respondent is inclined to apply the linguistic
rules and the Rule of Significance to which he is accustomed;
hence the default interpretation does not suit the
riddle. The second difficulty is that after having
discovered the need to disrupt the linguistic rules
and the Rule of Significance, the respondent does not
know at which interim stage he has to exit the normal
interpretation process, in order to find the solution
of the riddle.
If the poet says "brother of Aner", we must recall the Biblical phrase "Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner" (Genesis, 14:13), because the poet is alluding to a bunch of grapes for wine.4 [...] If we read a verse-line "And the son of Avinoam came with mighty waters", the poet requires us to call to mind [...] the original Biblical phrase and understand that he means "lightning" (alluding to Baraq the son of Avinoam from the Bible).5
These words require supplementing. Zemach illustrated his general argument by two examples that belong to a specific kind of "inlay language". The device mentioned fits exactly the above description of the riddle genre (but one should not infer from this that every instance, or most instances, of "inlay language" should be turned into riddles). The phrases "the brother of Aner" in a drinking song, or "the son of Avino'am" in a nature description is perceived as meaningless. The application of the Rule of Significance (which governs the understanding of metaphors too) will soon lead to a dead end; then the reader may discover that he is dealing with a stylistic device of the riddle genre. In order to describe the linguistic-literary process whose disruption has generated these riddles, let us compare two verse-lines, one quoted above by Zemach, and another one quoted from a war poem by Shmuel Hannagid:
(2) And the son of Avinoam came with mighty waters
(3) And do to me as you did to Baraq and Debora
Both verses allude to Baraq's and Debora's victory over Sis'era, recounted in Judges, 4-5. In excerpt (3), the reader encounters the graphic sequence Baraq, from which he automatically passes to the phonological sequence [baraq], from which he goes on, again, to Baraq, the person. Here he applies the Rule of Significance, and abstracts from Baraq's deeds the general abstraction "great victory" or the like; thus, Baraq's deeds serve as the vehicle for "great victory", the spiritual tenor of the verse line. After the event, the phonological sequence [baraq] too becomes active from the aesthetic point of view, via repetitive sound patterns commonly in use in all poetic periods (alliteration or paronomasia), through the first two words of the next line, "send a lightning" [beroq baraq]:
(4) Send a lightning, my God, and disperse them.
In the examples due to Zemach, by contrast, the natural
process is disrupted at a relatively early stage. The
phonological sequence [baraq ben avinoam]
or [eshcol ahi aner] (or, in
abbreviation, [ben avinoam] or [ahi
aner]) designate the persons known by these names.
However, as I have said, in a drinking song or a nature
description, the normal process fails to yield acceptable
results. Nor can the application of the Rule of Significance
help to settle the incongruence. At this point, the
process must be disrupted. Instead of passing from
the phonological signifiant to the semantic signifié,
the reader must go to the phonological sequence of
the omitted part of the proper name, which is an accidental
homonym of a lexical word. From this phonological sequence,
one must proceed to the semantic signifié of
the lexical word (meaning "bunch of grapes",
or "lightning"). This is a legitimate instance
of riddle, where the text uniquely describes the gap
that must be filled by the solution. According to the
present conception, many (or most) instances in which
critics use inlay language to fill in gaps in poetry
turn the text into a riddle; what is even worse, the
critics sometimes rely on single words that are not
inlay language proper (in Hebrew, every word is taken
either from the Bible, or from some other authoritative
We have examined the riddle with reference to the Rule
of Significance, and in conjunction with allusion to
Biblical phrases. The primary convention of Literary
Competence, Culler suggests, is "The Rule of Significance".
The riddle typically requires the willing suspension
of "The Rule of Significance" (as well as
of some rules of Linguistic Competence). Evidence for
the supposition that such a suspension is hard to manage
we find in the fact that there is a tendency to apply
"The Rule of Significance" and turn Samson's
riddle into a proverb. Further evidence for this supposition
we find in the fact that varieties of mannerist and
modernist literature exploit the suspension of "The
Rule of Significance" for the arousal of a sense
of confusion and emotional disorientation. In this
respect, the riddle may be one of several disorientating
devices (along with sensuous metaphor and the absurd)
in the service of mannerism and modernism, where "The
Rule of Significance" must be suspended.
As we have seen, the relationship between riddle and
poetry is quite complex. First, both are generated
by deviations from the rules of Communicative Competence.
Second, these deviations reflect different kinds of
logic in the two. Third, riddles may, nonetheless,
occur in certain types of mannerist poetry, as playful
embellishment, when sufficiently conventionalized to
lose their possible disorienting effect.
Now I would like to consider a more complex instance, in which both kinds of meaning (through the riddle and "The Rule of Significance") blend in one description. In a long philosophical poem by Ibn Gabirol there is a longish section describing the night sky as the poet saw it in a dream. I am going to quote the first two verses only.
(5) in my sleep, when the sky was clean of hand
and the moon was pure of heart and honest
lead me in the courses of reason
and guided me with its light leading and guiding
The phrase "clean of hand" as an attribute
of "sky" may be construed as a riddle exactly
as in the foregoing instances, although no proper name
is involved here. But here too we are required to disrupt
the the chain of signifiants and signifiés (though
not at the same points as in the foregoing examples)
and to leap from the poetic phrase to the Biblical
verse "Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand
is rising out of the sea" (1 Kings 18: 44). The
reader must go, again, to a Biblical verse and use
the omitted word as relevant to the context. Indeed,
Schirman and other commentators construe this phrase
as "when the sky was free of clouds". According
to this explication, it is a physical description of
the sky, that makes no conspicuous suggestion of human
significance. But the verse line as a whole activates
a much better-known Biblical phrase as well, as the
source of the inlay: "He who has clean hands and
a pure heart" (Psalms 24: 4). Considering the
structure of the verse line, there are here two prominent
embellishments: distribution (distributing the two
parts of the Biblical phrase as attributes to two nouns);
and what, paraphrasing Dr. Johnson, could be called
"two heterogeneous sets violently yoked together":
"sky" and "moon" belong to the
semantic field of nature description; "clean hands
and a pure heart" belong to the semantic field
of moral qualities, one of them being attached to the
sky, the other one to the moon, in an arbitrary manner.
The fact that the two phrases occur in the same Biblical
verse bestows validity both upon their distribution
between the two natural objects and upon the "arbitrary
yoking together" of the two semantic sets. The
allusion to the verse from the Book of Psalms serves
here, then, to enhance the unity of the nature description,
split as it is between two domains. Regarding The Rule
of Significance, the phrases "clean of hand"
and "pure of heart" are construed directly,
with no need for semantic transformations, "as
expressing a significant attitude to some problem concerning
man". Consequently, one may regard the phrase
"clean of hand" as one in which two conspicuous
inlays blend together, suggesting different levels
of general human significance (one of them suits the
physical description of the sky, that has no human
significance, the other suits a moral description).
Whirlwind or Holocaust
The upshot of the foregoing discussion is that inlay language has a wide variety of functions in poetry (and this is only a subset of the possible functions). Its use as an external clue for interpretation is only one, and not the most interesting function. Having recourse to only one function necessarily leads to misinterpretations. As Abraham Maslow suggested, a person whose only tool is a hammer will tend to treat everything as a nail. Many critics use the Biblical verses from which the "inlay" is alleged to be derived as a clue for the interpretation of the poem. I said "alleged", because they sometimes arbitrarily declare a single word (necessarily drawn from some authoritative text) as an "inlay". The present suggestion is, by contrast, that the critic may not evade grappling with the poetic text; and only after having done that he may use the text as a filter, in Max Black's (1962) sense, to decide what elements may be imported from the source texts. I will present the issue through a short modernist poem by Shlonsky.
(6) WhirlwindNo literal translation can do justice to the hypnotic force of the sound patterns of this poem. So we can dwell only on a few semantic and thematic elements in it. This poem is focussed on the sense impressions aroused by the approaching and increasingly impetuous whirlwind--culminating in its last line ("you become thousands of howls"). Asher Rivlin discusses this poem in an essay intended for high school teachers. Among other goals, he states the following goal of teaching: "To guide the students to a correct interpretation of the poem, with the help of Biblical connotations and allusions". Here I shall confine myself to what Rivlin considers as "inlay language", in an attempt to demonstrate that with the help of the Concordance one could find Biblical verses other than the ones proposed by Rivlin, more similar to the poem's language; and that with their help one could arrive at an interpretation of opposite character or, in fact, at any interpretation. Rivlin comments on this poem as follows:
For you were angry for you schemed [maliciously]
[Lions' or horses'] Mains turned disorderly
Were you perhaps a cry
Were you perhaps a laughter
You bleat you rise gloriously
Until the wilderness exposed its [lions'] teeth
Until the wilderness was filled with raging weather
Until Man cried out for help and perished
You lie in wait
You become thousands of howls.
This poem has the appearance of a nature poem, but the Biblical allusions emerging from the verse lines support the assumption or intuition that it refers to the Holocaust and the thousands of howls it inflicted on us: "from afar" ("the storm which will come from afar" [the Hebrew Bible uses the word shoa]; Isaiah, 10:3); "mains turned disorderly beyond measure" ("Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure", Isaiah, 5:4); "until Man cried out for help and perished" ("when panic strikes you like a storm [shoa], and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you, then they will call upon me, but I will not answer", Proverbs, 1:27-28); "you become thousands of howls" ("Our sister, you become thousands of ten thousands", Genesis, 24: 60)--a blessing that turned into a curse (Rivlin, 1975: 76).
The similarity between the last line and the Biblical
phrase goes much beyond what is apparent in the English
translation. The Hebrew word for "ten thousand"
is revava, for "howl"yevava. This is
an indisputably genuine inlay.
Rivlin's paragraph suggests that a Hebrew poet cannot open
his mouth without speaking in riddles. Many Hebrew
critics and teachers seem to think like him. He treats the
words of the poem in exactly the same way as I have
treated the riddles in Mediaeval Hebrew poetry, going
to the Biblical verse, and then bringing in some of
the neighbouring words into the interpretation. But
notice that this is a continuous nature description
with no gaps that uniquely define the "source"
text in the Bible. Rivlin started out with a certainty
that the whirlwind means Holocaust; and then looked
for Biblical verses in which the words of the poem
occurred; with some acrobatics he succeeded to "prove"
that the whirlwind did, indeed, mean Holocaust. If,
however, one starts out with a certainty that the whirlwind
is of a very friendly character, one may do an even
better job. There is no reason on earth to content
ourselves with such a small number of Biblical "allusions":
most present-day Hebrew words are taken from the Bible.
This, however, does not necessarily turn them into
an inlay. Consider the wonders one can do with Rivlin's
technique. The verb anaph ("was angry")
in past tense, second person with the conjunction "for"
occurs in the Biblical verse: "I will give thanks
to thee, O Lord, for though wast angry with me, thy
anger turned away, and thou didst comfort me"
(Isaiah, 12:1). Here you have the opposite of Rivlin's
finding: anger turned into comfort. This reading is
supported by the next verb. The Hebrew verb zamam suggests
in the first line "scheme maliciously"; but
in the following Biblical verse it means "purpose":
"so again have I purposed in these days to do
good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah; fear not"
(Zechariah, 8:15). As for "from afar", the
word occurs in "Peace, peace, to the far and to
the near" (Isaiah, 57:19). The word "near"
in this phrase is derived from the same root as "you
approach" in the second stanza. Or one could,
perhaps, conclude that the whirlwind symbolizes the
conflicting attitudes of God: benevolence and arbitrariness.
The verb ga'a in the seventh line means "triumphed
gloriously" in the following Biblical verse: "I
will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea"
(Exodus, 15:1). The phrase "the horse and his
rider" in this verse may be associated with the
phrase "mains turned disorderly/ beyond measure"
in the poem. Now the two expressions meet in Job, 18-19:
"she laughs at the horse and his rider. Do you
give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with
main?" It should also be remembered that this
sequence is in the section beginning with "Then
the Lord answerd Job from the whirlwind" (Job,
The foregoing exercise indicates that it is but an illusion
that one can "prove" the "truth"
of any interpretation with the help of Biblical "allusions";
one may prove with them only irrefutable, that is,
a-priori, assumptions. The inlay suggested by the line
"you become thousands of howls" must, by
contrast, be taken seriously. This is, undoubtedly,
a genuine allusion. The Biblical and the poetic verse
share a considerable stretch of words. The effect of
the allusion is most conspicuous; but it cannot support
any "correct interpretation". The effect
of this inlay is generated by the shift of semantic
sets. In fact, all the words of the line are derived
from Rebecca's blessing. The last word of the poem
displays a minimal opposition to the last word of the
blessing (revava/yevava) in the phonological
component. In the semantic component, by contrast,
it displays a maximal contrast: at the parts-of-speech
level it displays the opposition NUMERAL~NOUN; at the
semantic level the opposition [+/-SUCCESS] or the like.
This shift of sets has a witty aspect, constituting
something like a punch line, and an aspect of energy
discharge that turns the last line into the peak of
the description of the whirlwind and its energy. Consequently,
the powerful peak is generated here both by the contents
("thousands of howls") and the shift of semantic
sets originating in the inlay. The line is perceived
as having a conclusive tone and a vigorous closural
quality generated by several factors. The peaks of
two amplification patterns meet here: of the whirlwind
and of the noises. The shift of semantic sets sonstitutes
a punch line in the poem. And there is here a process
that can be described by paraphrasing Aristotle's definition
of "pleasure" in his Rhetoric: the soul settles
here into its natural state (using plain language)
after "a certain movement" into a less natural
state (into an attempt to express oneself by frozen
phrases derived from an authoritative text).
Rivlin conceives of the poem as having a conspicuous
purpose: to indicate the Holocaust. According to the
present conception, the emotional quality of the poem
as a nature description displays what in Kantian terms
can be described as "purposefulness without purpose".
Such human emotional terms as "Were you perhaps
a cry/ Were you perhaps a laughter" serve in the
poem as a sensuous metaphor for the inanimate noises
of the whirlwind. At the same time, the questions suggest
uncertainty of perception. There is a repeated component
in words like "main", "bleat",
"[lions'] teeth", "lie in wait":
BESTIALITY. This repetition reinforces the perception
of "purposefulness" in the poem. But it is
percieved as "purposeful" owing to the repetition,
and not because it is subordinated to some external
goal--it is without purpose.
Now let us return to the question of the poem's possible
relation to the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, it
is the opening poem of a collection of poems on World
War II and the Holocaust. But even this does not justify
Rivlin's exercise "proving" with the help
of inlay language that the poem was, in fact, about
the Holocaust. One must still be attentive to evasive
semantic processes, to the subtle qualifications semantic
elements receive when they enter into a poetic context.
What seems to happen is this: an interplay is generated
between some semantic elements in the nature description
and the adjoining poems. Thus, for instance, the meaning
components indicating bestiality or cruelty, or the
human emotional features in "cry", "laughter"
and "howl" (originally used for a sensuous
description of natural noises in the whirlwind) are
promoted in the hierarchy of meanings and subordinated
to an external goal: the Holocaust. This intertextual
process elicits an additional shift of mental sets.
In a symposium on perception and personality Jerome
Bruner (1951) discussed the adaptive value of cognitive
hypotheses. He pointed out that the greater the number
of hypotheses at a person's disposal, the more flexible
his adaptation. When one hypothesis has monopoly, it
leads to maladaptive behaviour. The present conception
is that inlay language has a wide variety of functions
in poetry. Its use as an external clue for interpretation
is only one, and not the most interesting function.
Having recourse to only one function necessarily leads
to misinterpretations. I have quoted Abraham Maslow
who suggested that a person whose only tool is a hammer
will tend to treat everything as a nail.
I have argued that the reading of poetry is subject
to the constraints of communicative competence. In
poetic language, when words or phrases enter into a
context, they undergo far-reaching qualifications.
This requires the reader to be sensitive to subtle
and minimal cues in the text. When one is aware of
a different context as a source of the phrases, it
requires a readiness to experience shift of mental
sets. I have pointed out a variety of legitimate uses
of Biblical allusion in literary interpretation, and
there are some more such uses. The justification of
a predetermined reading that grants the critic licence
to ignore the subtle cues in the text is not one of
them. Our treatment of Shlonsky's "Whirlwind"
pointed up an interesting aspect of intertextuality
that has not received sufficient attention from theoreticians.
Intertexuality is not just about some mutual effect
of two texts that may be accounted for in vague general
terms. There may be some fine-grained semantic processes
not unlike the ones encountered in metaphor. In fact,
in the present instance at least, these semantic processes
are continuous with some metaphoric processes that
take place in the isolated poem. Consider the lines
"Were you perhaps a cry / Were you perhaps a laughter
/ [...] You became thousands of howls". When the
predicates "cry, laughter, howl" are applied
to the natural noises of the whirlwind, the feature [INARTICULATE SOUND] is foregrounded, whereas the feature [HUMAN EMOTION] is deleted or, at least, rendered relatively
low-salient. When the poem is significantly placed
in the context of poems about World War II and the
Holocaust, the new context may promote such low-salient
features again, and even organize them into new schemata
derived from the neighbouring poems. The trouble is
that many critics have recourse to intertextuality
precisely as an excuse for not attending to those
fine-grained processes. 7
1. This paper has been extracted from my earlier
writings: "Picture Poems: Some Cognitive and Aesthetic
Principles"; Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics;
and various Hebrew books.
2. I shall imply, but
will not explicitly argue, that the need to change
mental sets or to face the unique, unclassifiable sensation
is particularly offensive to certain personality styles,
and that some critics use arguments about intertextuality
as a defence strategy against them. I have elsewhere
discussed at great length issues concerning "the
implied critic's decision style" (Tsur, 1987:
1-59; 1992: 471-500).
3. The idea that this
Biblical verse is a good example of a riddle turned
into a proverb was suggested by the late Dan Pagis.
The analysis is mine.
4. The proper noun Eshcol is an accidental homonym of the Hebrew common noun meaning "bunch [of grapes]".
5. Here, again, the proper noun Baraq is an accidental homonym of the Hebrew common noun meaning "lightning".
6. In my paper " Aspects of Cognitive Poetics" (see also Tsur, 1992: 362-365) I discussed Keats's Elgin-Marbles Sonnet. I discerned a similar possibility of two readings in the lines:
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship, tell me I must die
Like a sick Eagle looking at the sky.
I claimed that romantic landscape descriptions frequently make use of orientation devices to generate emotional qualities in poetry. Accordingly, one might expect that the "pinnacles and steeps" amplify the emotional quality of mortality, by increasing its diffuseness. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Alternative mental performances may be involved, and the reader may switch back and forth between them. Horizontally, "Each imagined pinnacle and steep" may be conceived of as of part of an actual, continuous landscape; vertically, as of strikingly representative examples of "godlike hardship", that is, of a circumstance in which excessive and painful effort of some kind is required. Qua exemplary, the landscape tends to bring the conceptual nature of hardship into sharp focus. Now, the more emphasis is placed on the actual (rather than the exemplary) nature of the landscape, the softer (the more diffuse) becomes the focus of perception of the abstraction hardship. Alternatively, the more our awareness is focused on the shapes of the "pinnacles and steeps", the sharper the definition gets of the conceptual quality; and, conversely, the more one's awareness is focussed on locating oneself in space and time with reference to the pinnacles and steeps, the more diffuse (the more "perceptual") the concept becomes.7. The recourse to intertextuality as an excuse for not attending to the fine-grained processes of poetic language seems to be ubiquitous. I have observed such practices in my paper "'Kubla Khan' and the Implied critic's Decision Style". Geoffrey Yarlott, for instance, suggests that we ought to "consider Kubla Khan in relation to the rest of Coleridge's poetry, especially in the imagery it employs". He performs a double intertextual inquiry. He compares Coleridge's text to Purchas'; but interprets the differences in light of Coleridge's other poetry. He assumes that certain expressions preserve their emotional tendency in different poems, and receive no qualifications from the new context. "Coleridge seems to have deliberately modified the attractiveness implicit in Purchas's original description", one of his examples of modification being this:
The substitution of "bright/sinuous" for "pleasant/delightful" produces sinister, almost reptilian, associations, recalling perhaps The Ancient Mariner or this description of the "thing unblest" from Christabel, where snake joins "bright" and "green" (the only colour details found in Kubla's garden) in a cluster of positive malignancy:This is an exquisite example of the refusal to shift mental sets and of the reluctance to face unique, unevaluated sensations. Yarlott determined his emotional attitude toward "bright" and "green" as attributes of snakes, and perseveres in his mental set when those adjectives qualify "gardens" or refer to "sunny spots of greenery". What is more, he does this in the service of turning a unique, unevaluated landscape description into a sinister one. A benign description is more pleasant than a sinister one; but a sinister description is still less offensive than an unevaluated one.
When Lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck
Green as the herbs on which it couched."
(Yarlott, 1967: 135).
Bierwisch, Manfred (1970) "Poetics and Linguistics",
in Donald C. Freeman (ed.), Linguistics and Literary
Style. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 97-115.
Black, Max (1962) "Metaphor", in Joseph Margolis (ed.), Philosophy Looks at the Arts, 218-234. New York: Scribner.
Brooke-Rose, Christine (1958) A Grammar of Metaphor.
London: Secker & Warburg.
Bruner, Jerome S. (1951) "Personality Dynamics
and Perceiving", in Blake, Robert R. and Glenn
V. Ramsey (eds.), Perception -- An Approach to Personality.
New York: Ronald Press. 121-147.
Culler, Jonathan (1975) Structuralist Poetics. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Lyons, John (1977) Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Rivlin, A.A. (1975) Spreading Out a Poem. Tel Aviv:
The Institute for Teaching Aids (in Hebrew).
Tsur, Reuven (1987) The Road to "Kubla Khan":
A Cognitive Approach. Jerusalem: Israel Science Publishers.
Tsur, Reuven (1992) Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics.
Amsterdam: Elsevier (North Holland) Science Publishers.
Tsur, Reuven (1997) "Picture Poems: Some Cognitive
and Aesthetic Principles" Psyart--A Hyperlink Journal
for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available
HTTP: Psyart - a hyperlink
Tsur, Reuven "Aspects of Cognitive Poetics".
Literature, Cognition & the Brain
Available HTTP: http://www2.bc.edu/~richarad/lcb/home.html cf. also: Home Page, Reuven Tsur http://www.tau.ac.il/~tsurxx/
Yarlott, Geoffrey (1967) Coleridge & the Abyssinian Maid. London: Methuen.
Yellin, David (1972) Introduction to the Hebrew Poetry
of the Spanish Period. 2nd ed., Jerusalem: Magness
Press (in Hebrew).
Zemach, Eddy (1962) Like the Tree's Root. Jerusalem: Akhshav (in Hebrew).
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