A(braham) M(oses) Klein

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Zailig Pollock

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

In "Political Meeting" A. M. Klein describes an orator addressing an anti-conscription rally in Quebec. The Orator, we are told, is "a country uncle with sunflower seeds in his pockets." The description of the sunflower seeds in the Orator's pockets is the most vivid physical detail in the poem. But it is more than just that. For anyone who knows "Political Meeting," the image of the sunflower seeds has the power to call up the complex mood of the poem, and, in particular, its ambivalent attitude to the Orator. (p. 48)

Klein's ambivalent attitude to the Orator, deep distrust mixed with fascination, even with a kind of admiration, comes through especially in the detail of the sunflower seeds. What are these sunflower seeds? Are they a cynical ploy on the part of the Orator to manipulate his audience's sympathies by parading his humble "country" background? Clearly they are that. But they are also a sign that, whatever his ultimate intentions, he really is rooted in the same world as the people he is addressing and that he is genuinely moved by the same concerns as they are….

Klein's lifework is a single complex whole unified by a central concern, and when we are able to see the image of the sunflower seeds as part of this whole, it takes on a resonance that could otherwise hardly be guessed at. (p. 49)

A. M. Klein's work as a whole can be seen as one extended exploration of a central vision, a vision of the One in the many. That is, although the nature of things is infinitely varied, this variety is the expression of an underlying unity. The underlying unity does not have an independent existence of its own; it is not, in some sense, "out there." It exists only in the variety through which it is expressed: the One exists in the many, not apart from it.

Throughout his career as an artist, Klein is concerned with recreating this vision of the One in the many in the very forms of his poems. Perhaps the most obvious way in which he creates formal equivalents of the One in the many is by grouping poems together under single titles. Nearly half the poetry in the Collected Poems consists of such groups. In this way we are presented with an experience of the many which points to an underlying unity. The most important of these more than twenty collections, and the one in which form most obviously mirrors content, is "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens," which is a celebration of Spinoza, the greatest philosopher of the One in the many. The Second Scroll can also be seen as a kind of collection demonstrating in its form the One in the many. (p. 50)

When we turn to individual poems, we continue to see the principle of the One in the many at work. In "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," Klein speaks of the Poet naming the universe "item by exciting item." This is an excellent description of Klein's method [of cataloging items] in many of his finest poems, as well as in The Second Scroll…. (p. 50)

Another aspect of Klein's art which is even more striking evidence of his concern with the One in the many is his use of metaphor. Klein's use of metaphor is at its highest, most developed form in the poems of The Rocking Chair. Again and again he begins with one particular thing—a rocking chair, a refrigerator, a grain elevator—and spins out of it a seemingly endless string of metaphors which appear to lead off in totally different directions but which all take us back to the actual thing itself, whose essential nature provides them with their underlying unity…. But of all the aspects of Klein's art which point to his central concern, perhaps the most interesting, the one which seems to work on the deepest level, is his imagery. There are certain images which recur again and again in Klein's work and take on a greater intensity as his art matures. These images tend to cluster together in the works which are his major achievements and his major statements on the purpose of his art, works such as "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens," "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," and The Second Scroll. Two of the most important of these images are dismemberment and flowers.

Klein often uses imagery of dismemberment to represent the world of the many in which the unifying vision of the One has been lost sight of. The most powerful dismemberment passage in Klein's work occurs in Melech's description of the Sistine Chapel in "Gloss Gimel," the third gloss of The Second Scroll.

In "Meditations Upon Survival," Klein describes his dismembered people as "longing / for its members' re-membering!" The pun on remembering is important, for Klein often presents the process of unification, of "re-membering," as a kind of "remembering," of locating oneself in a tradition which has been temporarily disrupted. (p. 51)

If imagery of dismemberment suggests a world of the many where the One has been lost sight of, imagery of flowers, especially in bunches, occurs whenever Klein perceives the vision of the One in the many with the greatest intensity…. Spinoza's vision of the One in the many is symbolized by his picking tulips in the sun, which is their ultimate source, and gathering them up as a gift for the One. "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" ends with a similar vision of the poet alone in the garden of the One—the Garden of Eden—planting seeds. (p. 52)

My discussion so far may have suggested that Klein's concern is primarily philosophical or aesthetic. This, I believe, is not true. For Klein, the deepest significance of the vision of the One in the many is that it allows him to define the most important moral question of his age, and perhaps of any age, the relation of the individual to the community of which he is a part. To Klein, whose period of artistic maturity coincided with the age of the dictators and its immediate aftermath, this question presents itself in one form in particular. What is the difference between a hero and a demagogue?

Spinoza, who is the greatest spokesman for the philosophy of the One in the many, is also one of Klein's ideal heroes, for, as "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens" argues, the two go hand in hand. Spinoza's philosophy involves the rejection of the dogma of a transcendent God in favour of a vision of God as immanent…. Klein has Spinoza say to his God "thou art the world," recalling the actual claim of the historical Spinoza that nature, the world of the many, is simply the form in which we perceive the One which is God.

The reason why rabbis and priests present God as transcendent is obvious: by claiming that they are the chosen servants of a God who is beyond the world of everyday experience, they can acquire power as members of a ruling élite…. The ultimate product of the transcendent religion of the rabbis is the demagogue Shabbathai Zvi who is described in the last section of the poem. Shabbathai Zvi was a contemporary of Spinoza's who claimed to be the Messiah and was accepted as such by most of the Jewish world. (p. 53)

Spinoza, with his philosophy of an immanent One in the many, rather than a transcendent One apart from the many, is the precise opposite of Shabbathai Zvi: a true hero rather than a false demagogue. In direct analogy with his immanent God, Spinoza refuses to set himself up to be worshipped. In the end, through his teachings, he exerts a unifying influence on his community which Shabbathai Zvi can only parody. But he exerts this influence unobtrusively from within the garden where he "gather[s] flowers for the One," heroically embodying, in his life as well as in his philosophy, the true vision of the One in the many.

For Klein, the demagogue is always a Shabbathai Zvi, a kind of transcendent God thrown up by a frightened multitude which needs to be reassured by hearing its many voices echoed back from a figure who can arouse a sense of worship. The demagogue is essentially passive and uncreative, a hollow personality constructed out of clichés, who, in the absence of the true hero, simply magnifies all that is most superficial, least vital in the people he claims to lead. (pp. 53-4)

The hero, like the immanent God, the One in the many, never sets himself above his people to be worshipped. Unlike the demagogue he is not a public figure: he is hidden, private. As far as his people are consciously aware, he might as well not exist…. In the most real sense of the word the hero does not exist apart from his society since his identity as a particular individual is what is least important about him. His real existence, all that really matters about him, is the unifying influence he exerts on his society. Because he works through his society's deepest, most unconscious levels, the hero is likely to be misunderstood and perceived as a threat rather than as a saviour. But, though rejected, it is he and he alone who can give continuing life to the community of which he is a part….

Klein gives other examples of the true hero, besides Spinoza. The Poet in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" leaves fame to demagogic "impostors," and accepts his anonymity as a condition for his true heroic task of creation; he "makes of his status as zero a rich garland,/a halo of his anonymity." (p. 54)

The great danger of the demagogue is that, although he is a self-interested manipulator, the impulse he appeals to is, at bottom, a genuine one: the desire of a fragmented people for unity. Klein's portrayal of the demagogue is at its most powerful when he can make us feel this appeal, which he himself feels at the deepest level of his being, and, at the same time, can alert us to its dangers. Klein's attack on Hitler in The Hitleriad is such a dismal failure because he is so repelled by Hitler that he presents him as simply a disgusting buffoon who could not possibly appeal to any feelings that a decent person might share. A demagogue who is merely a buffoon is of no interest; one who, like the Orator in "Political Meeting," taps the same depths of feeling as the true hero is much more dangerous. (p. 55)

The image of the sunflower seeds [in "Political Meeting"] suggests that, although the Orator is a demagogue, a Shabbathai Zvi, he has some of the appeal of a true hero, a Spinoza. On the one hand he consciously manipulates the crowd for his own purposes; but on the other he has genuine links with his people. He really does feel himself at one with them, and they feel the same. (p. 56)

The Orator has brought his followers together, but only to divide them more completely against others of their fellow men. This is a grotesque and evil parody of the true unity which the hero creates by drawing on the most valuable impulses of his people, impulses which perhaps only he is consciously aware of. The Orator, like all demagogues, has perverted what should have been a ritual of re-membering into one of dismembering. In the words of Uncle Melech, the Orator and the rest of his kind "would be like gods; but since the godlike touch of creation was not theirs, like gods would they be in destructions." Behind the figure who presents himself as an Uncle Melech or a Spinoza we see a Shabbathai Zvi; the true nature of the "country uncle with sunflower seeds in his pockets" is clear. (p. 57)

Zailig Pollock, "Sunflower Seeds: Klein's Hero and Demagogue," in Canadian Literature, No. 82, Autumn, 1979, pp. 48-57.

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