Shmuel Yosef Agnon Essay - Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) (Vol. 8)

Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) (Vol. 8)

Agnon, S(hmuel) Y(osef) 1888–1970

Born Shmuel Yosef Tchatsky in Buczacz, Galicia (formerly Austria-Hungary; now Poland), Agnon settled in Palestine (later Israel) in 1924 and remained there until his death. Agnon found the material for his fiction, which possesses an ironic, lyrical quality, in ancient Hebrew folklore. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, the first Israeli and the first author writing in Hebrew to receive this award. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[The title of Agnon's story,] "The Face and the Image," is a metaphorical translation of the Hebrew Ha-panim la-panim, which literally translates into "The Face to the Face."… Presumably the reference exists to establish an ironic contrast: the proverb [from which this phrase is taken] asserts that man comforts man, but the narrator of the Agnon story is an isolated individual. As is characteristic of many titles, the title ["Ha-panim la-panim"] provides crucial guidance to the central meaning of the story. But we do not realize the full nature of this guidance unless we recognize that this phrase not only appears in Proverbs; more crucially, it appears in a variant form—panim el panim, "face to face"—in Genesis and in Exodus. In Genesis 32:30, after his famous wrestling match where he has been renamed Israel, Jacob says, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." And in Exodus 33:11 it is written, "And Jehovah spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." These are well-known passages: panim el panim is as famous a phrase to a Hebrew speaker with a minimum knowledge of Jewish culture as, say, "Home of the Brave" would be to the average American. Therefore, part of the content of the Agnon title is in its echo of panim el-panim: that is, in the contrast between the face confronted by its mirror-image and with "God."

The central plot situation in the story is the narrator's failure to be able to visit his ill—dying or perhaps already dead—mother as a result of a series of awkward mishaps set up by the narrator himself. "The Face and the Image" is from the collection The Book of Deeds, and the characteristic story there is non-realistic…. [The] mixture of realism and surrealism in "The Face and the Image" encourages a symbolic interpretation of this story in which the mother emerges as, say, the "old faith," certainly as its representative…. Thus the narrator at the end of the story is not sitting face to face with his mother, the representative of the old faith, but rather in strange surroundings. He is surprised by a mirror-image of himself "reflecting back every movement of the hand and quiver of the lips, like all polished mirrors, which show you whatever you show them, without partiality or deceit." Significantly, the "image rose" when he is trying to avoid recognizing the consequences of his not being by his mother's side. In the final line of the story, the "I" says that "it, namely, the revelation of the thing, surprised me more than the thing itself, perhaps more than it had surprised me in my childhood, perhaps more than it had ever surprised me before." Presumably what is revealed to him is his isolation, his folly, his impotence.

Instead of wrestling with God or speaking to Him face to face, the narrator at the end is speaking with himself and wrestling with his own self-image: man in his folly, his self-confusion and isolation, in his impotence, and perhaps in his vanity as well, cannot return to the old faith—some such statement emerges as the central theme of this story, a meaning that is anticipated by the title Ha-panim la-panim, and by its echo of the more famous panim el panim. (pp. 184-85)

Bernard Knieger, "Shmuel Yosef Agnon's 'The Face and the Image'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Spring, 1975, pp. 184-85.

Agnon, in his private life, was a religious, observant Jew, and his profession of faith is, indeed, apparent in his writings. However, there is no doubt that he was a modern writer, experiencing and expressing the basic problems of the modern Jew. His manner of presentation can mislead the reader to assume that Agnon is a writer of the old school, for he developed his own style by adopting some classical forms of Mishnaic Hebrew along with a style that had flourished in Hasidic writings. His themes, too, may mislead the reader to consider Agnon as representing the traditional life of the past. While this may be true with regard to Bilvav Yamim (In the Heart of the Seas) and Hakhnasat Kalah (The Bridal Canopy), in Ore'ah Natah Lalun (A Guest for the Night) the quest for one's identity and for the meaning of the past is already subtly introduced. Indeed, one may find nostalgia in Agnon, but one also finds nightmare. This is especially true in many of his short stories in Sefer Hama'asim (The Book of Deeds). Indeed, it is this ambiguity of religiosity and secularism that is most characteristic of some of Agnon's writings. (p. 456) Judaism, to Agnon, can never be attained in a secularistic context. Jewish nationalism, too, as may be seen from his point-of-view, is part and parcel of traditional, normative Judaism…. In order for the Jew to maintain his Jewish identity, he must remain within the framework of traditional Judaism. However, Agnon was sensitive enough to know that the modern, atraditional Jew desires very much to retain his Jewish identity, but has difficulties finding his satisfaction within the norms of traditional Judaism. (p. 459)

Moshe Pelli, in Judaism (copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Congress), Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall, 1976.

The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is the most sacred of Jewish Holidays and, not surprisingly, a recurring theme in modern Hebrew literature. (p. 37)

A son and a grandson of Jewish scholars and community leaders, Agnon personifies the religious consciousness of modern Hebrew letters. Agnon is also strongly nationalistic, and Zionism and its ideals are closely knit with his religious tenacity. [The] ghetto becomes in Agnon's hands a viable community, distinguished by its cultural uniqueness and moral excellence.

In spite of Agnon's profound admiration for the pietistic way of life, he is aware of the dissonances within it and of the forces of disintegration slowly but steadily washing away its foundations. In his writings, therefore, strains of nostalgia clash with visions of a nightmare; idyllic lyricism, which suffuses the evocations of the past, is countered by macabre surrealism when Agnon turns his attention to the realities of the present. (pp. 37-8)

Yom Kippur serves Agnon as a setting for the portrayal of both the harmonious state of man at peace with God and his soul and for the state of chaos and disorientation when man has lost his way to God and to himself. The contrast between two such Days of Atonement is brought out in a story "Pi Shnayim" ["Twice as Much"], told by the protagonist in the first person. His childhood memory of the Day reflects an ideal belief and a beauteous harmony; the experience of the present adulthood conveys loss of way in the Dantesque sense … and a resulting chaos.

[The] ideal Yom Kippur as retrieved from the treasury of the childhood memories … [is described as a] lyrical evocation … imbued with muted tenderness and gently modulated strains of awe. The images and figures of speech are closely bound with the sense of smell and with visual pictures. It is the smells of hay, wax, and honey which lend the memory its earthly roots, but it is light that infuses it with a spiritual significance…. The source of light is not in the burning candles but in the hallowed figure of the father which is interchangeable with that of Moses. It radiates the light which the candles only reflect. The spirit in its perfect purity emanates a sanctity which settles on the material world and illuminates it. This Day of Atonement shows man at peace with the Almighty, and the Almighty bound by loving kindness to His people.

In contrast to the idyll retained from childhood memories, the Day of Atonement experienced through the consciousness of the adult narrator is a demonic distortion of the dream, coming in fragmented episodes. First, there is a sinister occurrence in the synagogue on the eve of the solemn day:… "I noticed that they were unrolling the Torah for the Day of Awe, and that they were unrolling it upside down, the written part down and the empty one up. I was grieved that the Torah was treated with such irreverence, but I kept silent because I was a guest."… This uncanny event is followed by an open outrage—people feasting on the day of fasting, the son of the rabbinical judge (dayan) among them…. This gluttonous eating is described not only as a religious outrage but even more so as a repugnant spectacle of excess, its dehumanizing effects reminiscent of Pieter Bruegel's "The Land of Cockayne." This scene is followed by another, surrealistic and even macabre…. [A] mysterious figure which takes the narrator's place in the synagogue might have been death itself, or perhaps the narrator's alter ego. But whatever its identity, there is no doubt about the impact of the entire image of Yom Kippur in this sequence. It is chaotic, confused, haunted by an unspecified fear and sinister fantasies—a far cry from the harmony and sanctity of the child's memory of the Day. Man has lost his wholeness and his harmonious relationship with God.

The story "Pi Shnayim" is part of The Book of Deeds, a collection of some of Agnon's most concentrated attempt to translate into modern idiom the peculiarly Jewish consciousness of the contemporary universal malaise. What Kafka did in German, Joyce and Beckett in English, and the existentialists and avant-garde writers in French, Agnon did in modern Hebrew. The haunting fear, the sense of sin and guilt which pursue modern man's consciousness, and the lingering feeling of a gradual dissolution of the whole web of familiar culture, typify the stories of The Book of Deeds.

Agnon drew on the wealth of popular themes and motifs in Jewish legend and religious thought thus creating a literary medium with which he evokes an atmosphere of alienation and bewilderment. The macabre touches of death, shrouds, spectres and grotesque desecration, are part of the popular aggadah inherited from the strange messianism of the Lurianic Kabbalah. This demonology of the beit-hamidrash (house of prayer and study) is artistically manoevered by Agnon to bring out the modern feeling of spiritual rootlessness. Thus he expresses the plight of secularized Jewish awareness in authentic Jewish concepts. The dislocation of faith experienced in the sanctuary of religion reveals particularly vividly the anguish of the disinherited mind.

Agnon's great achievement is to have forged a vehicle for conveying this plight in a fictional form. Motifs charged with a significance peculiar to a distinct culture have been recharged by him with new vitality and made into symbols of universal human value. The modern preoccupation with nihilism and with the absurd has found a means of expression in those archetypal forms.

Agnon's style in The Book of Deeds is Kafkaesque. Dream and reality merge and mingle, "until the things of dream were like the things of wakefulness"…. Particular objects and experiences lose their distinctiveness and fade off into a mass of disjointed memories and shreds of impressions. Time plays mischievous tricks on the protagonist and creates a surrealistic mood. The Days of Atonement, which serve as a pivot for the Jewish consciousness and a reliable starting point for measuring the cyclic rhythm of time, merge and collapse one upon the other…. The image of the perfect Yom Kippur, again conveyed as a harmonious memory from childhood, is described in Agnon's Introduction to a new edition of The Days of Awe…. As in "Pi Shnayim," this scene is an apotheosis of an ideal as seen through a child's eyes. But there is an additional element in this picture: for the child all the people are one. The child discovers a concrete manifestation of the idea of a true community of spirit on this solemn occasion. The sanctity of the House of Prayer and the intensity of the moment reveal to the child an ideal which he conceives as absolute and eternal…. [The] infinite and the immortal seem to be included in this vision which has neither a beginning nor an end: "It did not occur to me that one can stop it." The assurance of continuity which the scene conveys to the child is the longed-for mode of existence of the adult. (pp. 38-40)

In one of Agnon's major novels, A Guest for the Night, the narrator is the guest who comes back to his native town to reestablish his old ties with it and with the tradition for which it stands. But it is a belated return. The town is in ruins, the tradition in shambles, and the narrator, instead of drawing on the old sources to invigorate his own spirit, finds that the roles have to be reversed, and that it is he who must rekindle the dying embers of life. His arrival coincides with the eve of the Day of Atonement. (pp. 40-1)

The Day of Atonement is identified with radiance, and the dreariness of the present augments by contrast the radiance of the past. The contrast between the present and the past is further emphasized by scenes connected with the river Stripa. In his memories the river acquires a sanctity which emanates from the holy day….

The water comes and the water goes; as it comes, so it goes, and an odor of purity rises from it. It seems as if nothing has changed since the day I stood here with Father, of blessed memory, and nothing will change here until the end of all the generations….

The narrator tries to recapture a mode of feeling by going through the motions which he knows by heart. The reminiscenses in which the father figure is the focus, and the setting which connects the present with the past—the bridge, the flowing water—all blend into the holiness of the day and are raised into a picture of sanctity and Divine Grace. The passage is a poetical evocation of an elegiac mood. The repetition of "comes" and "goes," the never ending renewal of the flow of water, elevate the river to a symbol of continuity and accentuate the narrator's yearning for the past. A melancholy nostalgia for what was and is no more is exquisitely presented in this nocturnal scene.

With the nostalgia goes a feeling of trust in the absoluteness of the old values. To convey this conviction Agnon uses a subtle technique. When he writes "The water comes and the water goes; as it comes, so it goes," he introduces the cadence of Ecclesiastes ("The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down," "… unto the place from where the rivers come, thither they return again"; Eccl. 1:5 and 7). But whereas in the biblical text the cadence is used to emphasize "vanity of vanities," the futility of it all, Agnon for once is not ironic, but sees in this rhythm cosmic stability and absolute values. (p. 41)

On this Day of Awe, when God judges his creatures, decreeing life or death, forgiveness or damnation, Agnon sees fit to judge the Judge. Agnon's criticism is implicit. He does not directly point an accusing finger at the Almighty. He does not even turn his attention to the most obvious injustice—the suffering of his people. Instead, he dwells on the flaws in the religious service which, of course, are due to the deprivation and suffering of the people, which, in turn, are implied to be the Almighty's responsibility. (p. 42)

The Day of Atonement serves as a means for Agnon to criticise God and express his anguish about the disintegration of the stetl. As befits the solemn occasion of Yom Kippur, the narrator ostensibly pays tribute to the Almighty, but in truth it is a mock tribute: "See how humble is the King who is the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who said, 'Mine is the silver and mine is the gold,' but has not left Himself even an ounce of silver to adorn his Torah."… The sarcasm is doubly blasphemous, because the words which are used for expressing a pious reverence are here twisted into a parody of God's insufficiency; and because the occasion, which normally calls for contrition and self-effacement, is turned into a denunciation of the Judge.

Nonetheless, the accusation of God, the doubts of His omnipotence, or benevolence, are not meant to express a total despair of God or unequivocal rejection of belief. Agnon's sardonic tone remains within the bounds of religion. For, ultimately, Agnon does not want to reject God. He clings to Him, for he wants to escape modern man's loneliness and the existential fear of cosmic indifference. It is the fundamental clinging to God that explains Agnon's argument with Him, as is the case with Agnon's biblical precursor, Job. (p. 43)

Miriam Roshwald, in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), January, 1977.