Der Nister Criticism - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Der Nister's 'Under a Fence': Tribulations of a Soviet Yiddish Symbolist," in The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature, edited by Uriel Weinreich, Mouton & Co., 1965, pp. 263-87.

[In the following essay, Shmeruk examines "Under a Fence" in light of the restrictions placed upon Yiddish writers by the Soviet government in the 1920s.]

Literary analysis of works produced under a totalitarian regime must depend, even more than any other critical enterprise, on reading between the lines. For the historian, the very existence of "lines" written in Yiddish, like the mere fact of social organization on a Jewish basis, signify—in the light of the grudging toleration of Jewish group aspirations by the Soviet regime—an assertion of Jewish identity and loyalty comparable to more explicit and ambitious manifestations of Jewish nationhood under freer regimes. When a work has literary merit in addition—and a great deal of meritorious prose and poetry was produced by Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union until the liquidation of Yiddish literature in 1949—the interplay of intrinsic literary factors with external political considerations raises fascinating problems familiar to students of Soviet literature in all languages. In the tribulations of "Unter a ployt" ("Under a Fence"), a story by a master of the caliber of Der Nister, we can see reflected the struggle of a great literary artist with the solidifying political system in the 1920's, a period which from the vantage of the 1960's is not without its idyllic aspects.

In 1929, there appeared in Kiev a collection of Der Nister's stories under the title Gedakht (roughly, 'In Mind'). The book contained some of the author's tales and "visions" which had previously been collected in a twovolume edition published, under the same title, in Berlin in 1922-1923. Like the Berlin collection, the Kiev volume begins with "A mayse mit a nozir un mit a tsigele" ("A Tale of a Hermit and a Goat"), in which Der Nister, after initial gropings, found his particular stylistic manner. In this story, the hermit sets out in search of the Seed of Truth, which he finds after overcoming many obstacles and temptations. The fantastic events, grotesquely recounted in a fairytale-like frame, end on an optimistic note. The Berlin edition of Gedakht ends with "A bobemayse oder di mayse mit di melokhim" ("An Old Wives' Tale, or the Story of the Kings"), which also closes on the happy note traditional in folktales, as the hero weds his intended. The Kiev collection, on the other hand, concludes with a new story, "Unter a ployt" ("Under a Fence"), subtitled "Revyu" ('Revue'), which had appeared shortly before in Di royte velt (Kharkov, 1929, no. 7). Here, too, is the story of a hermit, but this time he is put on trial and is convicted for having betrayed the principles of hermithood. While the conviction is depicted as just, the visionary sequence of confessions in "Unter a ployt" bears a distinctly pessimistic character. Thus the Kiev Gedakht collection, although it presumes to be a representative, retrospective summing-up of the writer's output up to 1929, also clearly expresses a certain direction in development of Der Nister's world view.

The summing-up of 1929 acquires special meaning and value if we consider the fact that "Unter a ployt" marks the end of a period in Der Nister's writing, one which we might concisely label as the visionary, fairytale-like phase. Until 1929 Der Nister's individual path in Yiddish literature was apparent in his special stylistic manner, in the artistic devices and the choice of themes expressed in a unique narrative form. For almost two years after the appearance of the Kiev volume, Der Nister kept his silence. It was not until 1931 that he reappeared in print with Tseykhenungen (Drawings). This title corresponds to the Russian o&erki, a genre of timely "feature"-type reportage which underwent lively discussion in the Soviet Union in the twenties and which later became well established in Soviet literature of all languages. Two groups of writers turned to the ojerk: fledgling worker and peasant correspondents used it for their first steps in literature, while more mature writers, who under Soviet conditions had to renounce their previous non-"proletarian" artistic accomplishments and ideological inconsistencies, employed the ocerk in an attempt to justify their existence in literature. The latter group included, among others, the Russian symbolist Andrej Belyj and the Yiddish symbolist, Der Nister. Despite a series of characteristic "relapses and deviations" in his Drawings, it is apparent that Der Nister's turn to a completely unfamiliar genre, after two years of silence, constituted an abrupt turning point in his writing. We hope to show in the present study that "Under a Fence", dating from 1929, already anticipated this turn and revealed the most intimate sufferings which its author was going through.

Der Nister's work of any period has not yet had the privilege of being subjected to detailed analysis and evaluation by Yiddish literary criticism. Hardly a beginning has been made in the interpretation of his tales and visions of the pre-Soviet period or of his "Drawings." The complex problems connected with Der Nister's place in Yiddish literature have been disposed of with generalities that do little to help us understand his manner and the complicated formal and content structure of his work. It is all the more curious, therefore, that it was precisely "Under a Fence" that evoked a sharp discussion among Soviet Yiddish critics.

[In 1929, the] editors ofDi royte velt announced the forth-coming publication of Der Nister's story in a preceding issue (no. 5-6) and gave it the following introduction:

Der Nister is one of our most original artists; although, because of his themes and the manner of his writings, he requires interpretation, and is accessible only to selected individuals, he is unfailingly interesting. His new work, "Under a Fence," is marked by all the features of Der Nister's work. It is a ring of allegoric and symbolic tales, mutually intertwined, expressed in a rich, rhythmic language. According to the problem which it treats, it is a kind of confession, a renunciation of the idealistic view of the world, and it marks a certain break in Der Nister's writing. The matter invites reflection and profound consideration. This may be the beginning of a search by Der Nister of a new path that would link him with reality and give him access to broader circles. [—Shakhne Epshteyn]

The publication of the story subjected the editors of the journal to vigorous attack. Di royte velt was a fellowtravelling journal, officially unconnected with the Jewish Section of the Organization of Proletarian Writers in the Ukraine. But in printing "Under a Fence," the editors had gone too far, even for a forum of this type. Their compliments for Der Nister, although coupled with a forecast of a "new path" in his writing, evoked sharp protest. A. Vevyorke attacked not only Der Nister, but symbolism in general, as well as any other literature intended for select individuals. In the Kharkov daily Der shtern, there appeared an open letter from a "comrade in Odessa" inquiring why Der Nister was published at all.

The editors of the journal, forced to defend themselves, declared that "there had been times, and not so long ago, when such persons as are now disparaging Der Nister considered him one of the greatest phenomena in our modern literature." The tendency of the disputed story, they continued, was clear: "A renunciation of idealism and transition to materialism." Finally, the editors referred to the Party's policy toward fellow-travelling writers which justifled the publication of Der Nister's work.

While this discussion was in progress, there appeared in Kiev the volume Gedkht. In an introduction, Y. Nusinov dwelt on the story in question. In this "edifying fable," he saw a reflection of the intellectual's fate. "All his life the intellectual boasted of his nationalism, his individualism, his search of God, his socialist-Menshevist revolutionary nature; in the light of the great revolutionary effort, this turned out to be historical mildew. Der Nister expresses the present mood of such a 'saint' of yesteryear in his most recent story, 'Under a Fence'."

As far as we have been able to ascertain, the controversy over the story was concluded with a clear judgement by Y. Bronshteyn: "'Under a Fence' is one of the most reactionary tales written by Der Nister. I declare this with full responsibility, even if this will cause me to be excluded from the circle of select individuals."

This discussion reveals quite vividly the situation of a writer like Der Nister at the end of the 1920's in the Soviet Union. It was the situation of a hunted man who had to "renounce" something and "make a transition" to something else if he intended to remain a writer. For someone who was considered an unreserved symbolist, there was no other way out whatever. But the discussion is also characterized by the diametrically opposed views which were voiced in it. Some saw in "Under a Fence" the desired break, while others found the same tale to be "the most reactionary" ever produced by this writer. While these opposite views may reflect a difference in the ideological and emotional attitudes to Der Nister's work, the great distance between them nevertheless remains a mystery, even if we take into account the fact that it is a symbolist work that is involved. None of the critics so much as tries to justify his opinion by a concrete analysis of the text. Is it indeed impossible to discover the meaning of Der Nister's "Under a Fence" from the tale itself ? Could it be that Der Nister himself intended a possibility of opposite conclusions?

The place of "Under a Fence" in the creative development of Der Nister makes it particularly important that a detailed analysis of the story be attempted. In a broader perspective, such an analysis can also help to throw light on a specific stage in the history of Soviet Yiddish literature.

"My sorrow is deadly …
"And only you, my daughter can feel and understand me." ["Under a Fence"]

Thus begins "Under a Fence", a confession of a respected middle-aged scholar addressed to his own daughter. With profound regret, tinged with sarcasm, he tells her about his amorous failure with a circus equestrienne, Lili. The circus environment in which the scholar found himself "with a bouquet of last flowers from his garden" and "with whatever he had left of love" is described in detail. The equestrienne accepts his gifts, without, however, disguising her contempt for the strange suitor. During the scholar's visit in Lili's dressing room, a conflict develops with the circus athlete. The athlete ridicules the scholar and throws him out of the dressing room.

This episode, which does not occupy more than two pages out of forty, is depicted by fully "realistic" means and gives the impression of an "actual" occurrence.

After the scholar's departure from the circus "through labyrinthine-dark little corridors" there begins a kaleidoscopic vision of intoxication and dream, which again concludes with a "realistic" closing of the frame. The scholar awakens in dirt under a fence and "recalls" that "not far from the circus he had come upon a bar and probably drank and after drinking probably set out for home and did not reach it…fell asleep and dreamt the preceding." A policeman takes him home, where his daughter attends to the sick, humiliated father after his strange confession to her. Thus closes the frame which is supposed "realistically" to justify everything that will appear in the "revue." The revue itself consists of dramatized, personified visions portraying the inner struggles and debates of the principal character with himself.

The device of a confession, or a revue, for presenting the inner contradictions and conflicts of a hero had been used by Der Nister before. We find it in earlier stories (for example, "Muser" and "Gekept") and in his novel, Di mishpokhe Mashber. In "Shiker" ("Drunk") the entire story is little but a conversation recounting events that had befallen a drunken man, his metamorphosis, and his double. In Di mishpokhe Mashber, Srole Gol is several times 'led into' intoxication, in order to have him disclose his inner turmoil in conversations with his bottle. Der Nister's method thus prepares the reader, by means of a "realistic" portrayal of a special physiological state of a character (drunkenness or sleep) for an internal, intimate debate of the character with himself. As a rule, the contradictory principles within a character are presented in personified form. This device is hardly new in literature. The figure of "double" which is never brought to the point of physical separation from the character, is represented as a real, live character. It is a temporary, pathological splitting of ego called into being by the liberated consciousness of the character while intoxicated or dreaming. Famous examples of this method appear in Dostoevski's Brothers Karamazov (in the chapter about Ivan's argument with the devil) and in Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf.

Although in Der Nister's story, "Under a Fence", the explicit reference to intoxication and dreaming does not come until the end, one can trace the succession of gradually increasing stages of intoxication, which frees the scholar's inhibition in increasing measure, until his imagination is liberated in a self-disparaging confession. The feeling of guilt, the driving force of the confession, seeks redemption in punitive visions. The three-stage process of guilt-confession-punishment which we find in "Under a Fence" was a favorite with the Nister:

  1. In the frame of the revue, at the inception of inebriation, the motivation is provided by the guilt feelings which a father, turning to a strange woman, bears toward his daughter. This is the point of departure for the confession, which is resolved at the end of the frame and of the revue by the punishment of "actually" wallowing under a fence.
  2. The scholar's guilt feelings are particularized further by a twofold self-revelation before one of his pupils. The vision of an accident involving the daughter and caused by the father is resolved in a vision of death by stoning. All of this takes place in a state of inebriation.
  3. At a dream trial, the accused confesses to the court and is punished by burning.

As was said earlier, the revue begins after the scholar leaves the circus. The scenery (to use a term appropriate to the notion of revue) changes suddenly. The scholar, at home, is visited by a disciple. His appearance on the "stage" begins with a characteristic knock at the door and the exchange: "May I?" "Come in." This is also the way the scene in Lili's dressing-room had begun. The scholar is at this point in an initial stage of intoxication. He engages his pupil in a theoretical discussion about love, but does not tell him of the incident with the equestrienne; the brakes of consciousness are still too powerful. However, this episode is, without doubt, already beyond the "realistic" tone of the initial scene and is the first level of the ensuing visions. The dialogue is couched in the form of an ordinary conversation between a teacher and his pupil. The scholar still speaks sensibly, but the true nature of the scene is determined by the oddity of the topic for such a conversation, even if the discussion does not go beyond general principles.

In the following episode the scholar loses his awareness of "his place and status" and sees himself as "a comedian and in leotards," as a circus equestrian. Together with Lili, he does a turn on horseback before a full circus. What had separated the scholar from the equestrian is overcome by means of a dream transformation. The differences of "place and status" are blurred. His daughter, too, is to enter the same status and to achieve intimacy with Lili. The transformed equestrian now performs an act with both, Lili and his daughter riding the same horse. Lili slips and causes an accident: the daughter falls and fractures her skull.

The scenery changes once more: the scholar returns home with his bandaged daughter. Once more there is a knock on the door and the question, "May I?" Again the pupil comes to visit. After the preceding episode, which was already free of the censorship of the conscious, the pupil's second visit takes place in a new situation. The entire city has heard of the accident. The pupil finds no explanation for his teacher's circus performance. "What were you doing on a horse, and how come you were riding, and no one can understand.…" No one believes in the transformation of the scholar. "They say that the circus director must have disguised one of his servants to look like you …" And, above all, the question: "What does all this mean and what shall I tell my friends, your pupils?" The scholar can only offer confirmation: "It is true; and here is proof, and here is my daughter lying in bed."

The scene changes again. A wall of the room opens. A hail of rocks pours on the scholar and there is shouting: "You old fornicator, and sold your daughter as a circus whore…" This episode is the climax of the second stage of the guilt-punishment sequence and serves as a transition to the next vision. Up to now the drunken man had been reacting to auditory stimuli, he had "heard" the knocking at the door. It does not matter that in "reality" this led to his feeling of being stoned during the vision. One can, however, here trace the transition to sleep and dream.

… And one of the stones, a very pointed one, hit my head, and wounded me and stunned me, and I fell unconscious and I sensed nothing except that my head was bleeding, and that as the blood oozed I felt easier, and I felt emptyish and lighter.

And suddenly, and I was no longer in our room, but as if a stranger in a court-room.…

The visionary sees himself as an accused man, completely losing his bond with his "real" self. He is now an exhermit in circus leotards. He is tried by the senior judge, his former teacher Medardus, of the school for hermits, along with his own pupils. The courtroom scene consists of several parts: the speech by the accused, the judgment, and the accused's justification of the verdict.

During the proceedings, the hermit tells about his transformation. Once, while alone in his hermit's tower chamber, when "one by one, one by one, the servants had begun to leave us, and after the servants also the weaker...

(The entire section is 7792 words.)