The Jewish Pioneer Whose Melancholy Poetics Captured the Zionist Project's Failures

On a new biography of Israel Zarchi, a writer who lived a short, sad life and whose short stories, novels and other works were lost in the archives of Hebrew literature.

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“Tzionut Umelankolia: Hahaim Haktzarim Shel Yisrael Zarchi" (“The Short Life of Israel Zarchi: A Melancholic Zionist”), by Nitzan Lebovic, Carmel Publishing House (Hebrew), 74 shekels

We would do well to begin with the opening of Israel Zarchi’s short story “Sambatyon”: “One day Reb Moshe Yehoshua found that his heart was empty. Walking from Etz Haim Yeshiva in the courtyard of the ruins of Rabbi Judah the Pious, he realized he’d lost his purpose, and the trails were winding and the road ahead was bad and he did not know what direction to take. For a moment he imagined he’d lost something, but could not remember what it was he’d lost; in any event his composure was shattered and in its place a sense of dejection swept his heart, and he still did not know what had befallen him.”

When we go back to read these lines, where are we summoned to? We are summoned to the road. But the road is bad, it’s an errant road, a forgotten road. It is the road of Israel Zarchi (1909-1947), a writer who lived a short, sad life and left behind short-story collections, a few novels and some other writings, all of which vanished into the archives of Hebrew literature.

Zarchi was born in Jedrzejow, Poland. He immigrated to Palestine in 1929 as a halutz (pioneer) and worked as a road builder and a farmhand before entering the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied Hebrew literature. Around that time he also started to write, ahead of embarking on expeditions to the Near East and in Europe. During the last decade of his life, he lived in Jerusalem, writing and working, until he fell ill and died.

In his book on Zarchi, Nitzan Lebovic suggests a way to read him, but his way, too, is very special. First, though, we should note that even if the author has recently lived far from Israel and even if most of his work has been devoted to general fields and his specialties lie in European history and German thought – his book on Zarchi attests to a commitment to Hebrew culture and Jewish literatures, about which he is well informed. His book reflects a welcome attempt to restore Israel Zarchi’s name to center stage and offer a new reading of his oeuvre. The result is a splendid essay, learned and diligent, but not without resourcefulness of language. It’s a scholarly work that is written like a melancholic novella.

Indeed, Lebovic’s primary focus is Zarchi’s melancholic poetics, his thesis being that the literature of want and loss, whose protagonists sink into abysses of despair and depression, was and remains a thing apart that did not adapt itself to the literary orders in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine. It is up to the author, then, to explain what differentiates Zarchi’s genre of melancholic poetics from the other genres of melancholia in Hebrew literature, as reflected in the work of Uri Nissan Gnessin, Yosef Haim Brenner, S.Y. Agnon, David Fogel and others. The bleak outlook fomented by existential emptiness, into which impuissant protagonists fall with no expectation or hope and with abject consolation, is well known in both the world literature and the Hebrew literature of the first decades of the last century, much of which is steeped in melancholy.

This state of affairs gave rise to contradictions in the literary enterprises of the Hebrew language. Even when the latter dealt with the conquest of the land and the wars with the Arabs and all manner of “revivals” and “heroics,” they were still fraught with resistance, which in some cases was marked by withdrawal into the registers of morose literature, whose protagonists are grief-stricken, enervated, battered by “breakdown and bereavement.” Still, we need to ask: What sets Zarchi’s melancholic poetics apart? What remains distinctive about it that should catch our attention to today?

These are questions that the author himself asks. He answers them by means of a superlative theoretical disquisition that links the question of melancholia and situations of sadness with the conditions that make possible philosophical thought and the genre of criticism. The book’s theoretical underpinning is Germanic, and founded, accordingly, on the work of Walter Benjamin, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl (members of the Warburg school), Freud and their successors (particularly in French thought of the second half of the 20th century). The author’s theoretical maneuvering is sound, though he should also have addressed the question of how European thought, with Jewish-German philosophy at its heart, is replicated in order to reestablish a critical lexicon for Hebrew literature.

As noted, the author wishes to tap the melancholic foundation of Zarchi’s work as a source for critiquing Hebrew literature, and in particular as a mode of “exposing” the theological underpinning of the devotion to Hebrew, which metamorphoses into an ideology of devotion to the Temple.

This is the essence of what Lebovic’s book addresses. Zarchi’s poetics, though it belongs to the genre of the “melancholy of the left” (a term the author takes and redirects from Walter Benjamin, a philosopher who was himself under the “sign of Saturn” and railed against the political degeneration of left-wing circles in Germany during the Weimar period), which expresses a retreat into gloomy poetical regions and a propensity to rituals of loss (melancholic literature revels in its lost objects), does not degenerate and lapse into conservative literature that affirms “what is,” just as it does not surrender to an eschatological approach or to doomsday images.

A Zionist pioneer on guard duty at Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, 1936.Credit: Kluger Zoltan / GPO

Zarchi’s work, which refuses to accommodate itself to the existing situation, offers openings to critical modalities and deconstructions of discourse in the realm of the Hebrew language and its stories. To put it another way: What’s distinctive about the pervasive melancholia of Zarchi’s fictions is that it does not end only with a ritual of loss, the reaffirmation of power structures and the justification of the enterprises of conquest and Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. The author argues that Zarchi’s poetics uncovers the ideological superstructure of the Zionist project, marks its failures and reveals its falsehoods in regard to the redemption of humanity and of the Land of Israel.

His works, though they deal with the history of the Yishuv and with the deeds of pioneers and settlers – for instance, in his 1933 novel “Alumim” (“Youth”) – do not augur the settlement of the land, but once more attest to cycles of uprooting and displacement, ruination and faint consolations. Similarly, his works devoted to the Jewish community in Jerusalem, which he portrays, both in his diary and in his fiction, as a world consisting wholly of desolation, impediments, ugliness and defects, resolve nothing and restore nothing to its place.

The Jerusalem stories – whether they recount the history of rootless, lost, homeless immigrants; evoke legends such as that of the Ten Lost Tribes and the river Sambatyon (in the great eponymous story) and restore to Hebrew literature the grand messianic theme, the mania for redemption that resides and disintegrates in the melancholic body; or offer testimonies from the life of the Yemenite community in Jerusalem – do not reinvigorate the Hebrew ethos of the settlement of the land and its redemption, other than in terms of lamentation and reproof. Zarchi’s work is melancholic in an original sense: namely, it should be seen as a pure keening whose harbingers all exist under the sign of Saturn, hence they are saturnine, hammered by sadness and madness.

What Lebovic finds abundantly in Zarchi’s short stories and novels – a powerful consciousness of want and a severe depletion of erotic force, together with flight and failed prophecies – we find in his contemporaries and his mentors, notably Agnon and Brenner. But in Zarchi – and this is the point – the melancholic poetics is ostensibly purer and not amenable to a metamorphosis of beneficence for the national project. His lexicon of lamentation vitiates the foundations of the language itself by means of monotonous repetitions that inhibit it from saying anything new.

We are familiar with Agnon’s sad protagonists, among them Yitzhak Kumar from “Tmol Shilshom” (“Only Yesterday” in the English translation) whose leg is bitten by a mad dog (the melancholia itself!), and others whose hopes are dashed and who sink into depression. But something remains after them – the message of land settlement, for example, unpublished works or a sovereign remnant, critical reviews and a great prize, and of course an ironic allegory about the future of the Jewish tradition. Zarchi’s works exceed the boundaries of Agnon’s melancholia. The latter’s writing attests vividly to the difficulties of living in Palestine and to the lack and the failures of coupling, and insinuates meaning into the cracks and mold in the walls of houses. Still, the Agnon-style narrator remains ensconced in his house, whereas Zarchi went farther, so to speak, and when he did so and left the house he became lost, and disappeared into his sadness.

Is it possible that he will return now? Possibly his readers needed to grow more despairing, while some perhaps grew more sober-minded, in order to call on him to return. Is this not the gloomy virtue of melancholia? Those who see the world in desolation, see it in emptiness, see with a lucid eye. Zarchi’s protagonists leave us an empty uninhabitable expanse: “a land not sown” (Zarchi used the quote from Jeremiah 2:2 as the title for one of his novels). What remains in his work, open and empty, also constitutes the key to critical analysis.

Zarchi’s fiction empties the new devotion to Hebrew of content and purpose, to the point where its foundations – bodies and names – become empty and therefore also transparent and more pure. His protagonists are not devoted to building the home and do not mobilize for the Yishuv’s projects; they flee to the desert or turn to lamentation and to exegeses of legends that need to be read, if we recall a well-known line of Walter Benjamin’s about Kafka concerning the “untrammeled, happy journey” of “students who have lost the Holy Writ” (translation: Harry Zohn).

Zarchi’s critique of the land-settlement project (Western colonialism and the enterprises of the Yishuv in Palestine), the shift into the language of lamentation and even the attempt to induce people to talk and create a written record of the Yemenite migration story (is it really a “hijra,” is it an “oriental possibility” that first emerges in Zarchi’s story “Siloam Village”?) – all this distanced his writings from the principal reading contexts of his generation. Is it possible to restore him to our time?

Lebovic might have been right in his decision to describe Zarchi’s melancholic poetics as unique, different from the realms of sadness of writers who were his contemporaries. They are more self-righteous or more blighted, and produce a whining literature, suicidal per se, and that ultimately accommodates itself to what there is (to all the evil that there is). Furthermore, in this view, melancholia in its “pathological” political forms ultimately gives rise to the nihilistic forms of violence. The melancholy sovereign individual – to borrow another idea from Walter Benjamin – is not only a “martyr” and a “fool,” but also a shedder of blood.

The question of Zarchi’s uniqueness must remain open. However, we learn a different, crucial lesson from Lebovic’s book: that while we are engaged in melancholic readings of literature, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, and above all to learn how to distinguish the register of resistance from the realms of sadness of Hebrew literature. It’s a matter of “strong reading,” which returns to the estates of Hebrew literature from a period in which it still had the presumption to offer instructions and guidance for life in the Land of Israel. But when we return in this way to the repositories of the new Hebrew, we return to listening to receding speech, to silences and pauses, delays and gestures of refusal; we return to feeling the utter impoverishment that befell it, as its names were voided and its symbols disintegrated already in their finest hour. This reading has the power to create openings and to dredge up, from the misguided confusion, a remnant and a sign of the way ahead. But the way is a stray path and forgotten. Perhaps finally a different movement, freer and easier, will emerge as if we are going to forget, to forget that we have already forgotten the way.

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