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Dan Pagis: Erasing the Self

Published on 
September 14, 2020

Dan Pagis’s name is familiar to non-Hebrew speakers because of a single poem, the oft-cited “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car,” a brief but powerful reflection on the Shoah that has been mined extensively by scholars and educators, both of literature and of the Holocaust. Born in Radautz, Bukovina, in 1930, Pagis survived the Holocaust and arrived in Palestine, virtually alone in the world, in 1947. By the 1960s, in what seems an unimaginable feat, Pagis had become one of the leading Hebrew poets of his generation and a preeminent scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry.

I first encountered Pagis’s work in a graduate seminar with Dan Miron at Columbia University, in 2007, and was immediately drawn to his mysterious poems, which seemed to speak directly to me, even if I often had no idea what it was they were saying. I was struck by their perfect pitch, by the way that they made manifest the inherent musicality of the Hebrew language, by the intertextual allusions subtly woven into these unequivocally modern poems. But above all, I was moved by the way Pagis managed, through his poems, to create and assert a new self, after having survived the unimaginable and emerging into a new language, a new land, a new world.

For Pagis, the construction of a new self was inextricably bound up with the negation of his former self. Hence the decision not only to swap his given German name for the Hebrew Dan but also to guard his former name like a skeleton in the proverbial closet, which he refused to divulge even to those who were closest to him. As Michael Gluzman and others have noted, Pagis’s negation of self is at least in part rooted in a biography marked by loss—from the sudden death of Pagis’s mother when he was just four years old to the deaths of his grandparents and the loss of his childhood during the Holocaust.[1]

If in Pagis’s life self-negation was performed through the erasure of his given name, in his poetry it was enacted through the avoidance of a lyrical “I.” The poems included here are at once simple and also profound because of what they suggest about the assertion of a self, which, for Pagis, depends upon the erasure of what came before—a former self that cannot coexist alongside the new.

In “Hippus” (Search) we are witness to an ostensible performance of self-erasure, narrated in first-person singular, in the present, which is also what enacts the “I” at the poem’s center. Significantly, the word “I” is absent in the original Hebrew. Instead, the negation of self is asserted through the Hebrew construction eineni, connoting a negation of self, which appears four times in the space of the nine very short lines that constitute the poem. Combining the Hebrew ein, meaning “lack” or “void,” with ani, or “I,” eineni is often translated as “I am not” or “I am not here.” Phonetically, the word is nearly identical with its antonym: hineni, meaning “here I am,” a term rich with biblical allusions.

“Search” is one of six poems in the cycle “Meruts” (Race), whose unifying thread is a race against time and destiny that is as inevitable as it is ill-fated. In one poem, a runner competes in a race with only two contestants: his own two feet. In another, a caged Siberian fox receives a “freedom machine.” “When the fox gets tired all he has to do,” says the poem, is jump in “and start running” and the freedom machine “rolls out a dizzying path for his 400 legs.”[2]

Unlike the other poems in the cycle, “Search” contains few concrete images and virtually no detailed descriptions. Through repeated disavowals of presence, the poem asserts an “I” that is not where or who we think it should be, one that will not conform to external expectations. As it moves from the subjunctive fantasy of self-erasure to the indicative assertion of self, and back again, the poem calls into question the very possibility of an “authentic,” original self.

Fantasy, precisely, is what we encounter in “Efoh” (Where), which appeared in the same volume as “Search,” as part of a later cycle called “Yeled” (Child). The playfulness that animated “Search,” whose narrator is engaged in a performance of self-erasure vis-à-vis interlopers, is replaced here by a sense of existential crisis that finds expression in an absurd search for self. The poem unfolds like a game of hide-and-seek, a game popular with infants and crucial for developing their comprehension of object permanence—the understanding that an object continues to exist even when it can no longer be seen.[3] But as anyone who has engaged an infant in this kind of play can attest, timing is critical: disappear for too long and the child quickly ceases to be amused and is instead overcome by the fear that whoever is hiding will never reappear. The irony in this poem, of course, is that the seeker is also the one being sought.

            The poem’s ending is cautiously optimistic: its closing word, hineni, “here I am,” inverts the recurrent eineni (I am not) of “Search.” And like hineni, the phrase immediately preceding it, “I will answer and I will know,” hearkens back to the Bible. In this case, the allusion is to the Sinaitic revelation and the foundational myth of Jewish chosenness, according to which, upon receiving the Torah, the Israelites unanimously declare, “na’aseh ve-nishma’” (we will do, and we will hear).[4] Traditionally interpreted as an avowal of religious faith, the statement inverts the normal order of things, in which knowledge precedes action and thought precedes speech. The implication here is that knowledge is constituted through a speech act, in this case the utterance “we will do.” Similarly, in this poem, the narrator suggests that knowledge of self can come by way of an utterance: hineni.

In “Shelah matsḥikah” (A funny question), we observe what Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi eloquently describes as an “existential shift from where to who—from tenuous location at the very boundaries of existence to an attempt at self-definition.”[5] In its focus on “who” rather than “where,” the poem suggests that a resolution may be within reach. While in the earlier poems, as in much of Pagis’s work, the narrator is neither named nor gendered, the narrator of “A Funny Question” bears the same name as the poem’s author: “Dan.” But as the image of the busy signal suggests, self-definition is not easily achieved.

Ruth Kartun-Blum has noted that despite the lack of biographical details and the fundamental alienation in Pagis’s work, nothing actually preoccupies his poetry more than questions of self, identity, and the possibilities of existence.[6] Kartun-Blum is right to assert that questions of subjectivity are at the center of the poet’s work, but she overlooks something crucial when she suggests that this was the case despite the lack of biographical details in his work. Indeed, as these poems make clear, self-negation was not coincidental but central to the ongoing project of identity formation in Pagis’s life and work.

Scholars like Kartun-Blum, Ezrahi, and others contend that had he lived longer, Pagis may have finally been able to reach an acceptance of his former self and of his past and thus, finally, come home. But homecoming, it seems to me, was never Pagis’s goal. Instead, Pagis’s life and work were directed toward the pursuit, not of home, but of self, a self that he was constantly constructing and reconstructing out of the void of self-erasure.





[1] Michael Gluzman, “Ziḥron lelo sobyekt: ’Al Dan Pagis ve-shirat ha-medinah” [Memory without a subject: On Dan Pagis and the Statehood Generation], in Dan Pagis: Meḥkar ve-te’udot [Dan Pagis: Research and testimonies], ed. Hannan Hever (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 2016), 111–35.

[2] Dan Pagis, Kol ha-shirim [Complete poems] (Jerusalem: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and the Bialik Institute, 1991), 221–26.

[3] See Freud’s discussion of fort/da, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

[4] Exod. 24:7.

[5] Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 172.

[6] Ruth Kartun-Blum, Ha-safa ha-madait viyun ha-ani be-shirat Dan Pagis” [The language of science and negation of self in the poetry of Dan Pagis], in Literature and Society in Modern Hebrew Culture: Papers in Honor of Gershon Shaked, ed. Judith Bar-El, Yigal Schwartz, and Tamar S. Hess (Tel Aviv: Hotzaat Hakibutz Hameuchad; Jerusalem: Keter Hotzaa Laor, 2000), 410–20.