Reuven Tsur

Biblical Allusion and Cognitive Processes

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Reuven Tsur

Biblical Allusion and Cognitive Processes

This paper1 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.

According to the Russian Formalist doctrine, poetry is organized violence against language; according to Cognitive Poetics, the response to poetry is organized violence against cognitive processes. It would be in strict conformity with this conception (as it is also implied by the word "organized") to assume that in poetry, there are constraints on the violence against language.

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.

When riddles are used in Mediaeval Hebrew Poetry as mannerist ornaments, they frequently go hand in hand with another kind of embellishment, the so-called "inlay language" (Biblical allusion). The Israeli philosopher and literary critic, Eddy Zemach (1962: 12), arguing that "the Biblical world is the legitimate world" of the Mediaeval Hebrew poets, says among other things:

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 text).

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).

The Hebrew words for "guide" and "course" too have a physical and a spiritual meaning. As Eddie Zemach (1962: 35) pointed out, the Hebrew word for "guide" has an ambiguity that is similar to the ambiguity of the English word: it means "to show the way" and "to teach, instruct". The Hebrew word for "course" too has the two meanings: "path or route along which anything moves", and "progression or direction taken or to be taken". The description of the night sky can be read, therefore, in two ways. If you consider each stich in isolation, the abstract nouns will suggest a spiritual-moral abstraction (generating what Christine Brooke-Rose (1958) calls "Pure Attribution", artificially splitting one idea into two); if you read the twelve-line-long nature description as indicating one continuous landscape, they will be perceived as indicating some intense, emotional atmosphere within a coherent landscape. Thus, we are confronted with two alternative possibilities of activating the Rule of Significance. The reading of the first stich of excerpt (5) in isolation will result, directly, in the conceptual categorization of moral qualities; the reading of the whole passage as a continuous nature description will result in the perceptual categorization of the night sky, presenting the significant human attitude as an emotional quality of the landscape.6

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) Whirlwind
    For you were angry for you schemed [maliciously]
    From afar
    [Lions' or horses'] Mains turned disorderly
    Beyond measure
    Were you perhaps a cry
    Were you perhaps a laughter
    You bleat you rise gloriously
    From afar

    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 approach
    You become thousands of howls.

No 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:

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, 38:1).

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:

       When Lo! I saw a bright green snake
around its wings and neck
as the herbs on which it couched."
                                     (Yarlott, 1967: 135).
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.


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 e-journal.

Tsur, Reuven "Aspects of Cognitive Poetics". Literature, Cognition & the Brain
Available HTTP:    cf. also: Home Page, Reuven Tsur

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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