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Peripheral Modernisms

ISSUE 9, fall 2020
Issue Editors:
Vered K. Shemtov, Melih Levi

This article examines antigrammaticality in the work of the so-called first “native” modern Hebrew poet, Esther Raab, focusing in particular on how Raab deploys the constraints of Hebrew’s highly gendered grammar in her poems. I begin by considering the broad implications of grammatical gender for how we think and act in the world, while also taking into account specific, concrete examples of gender policing that Raab recalled from her own early childhood. I then offer a close reading of a single, untitled poem to demonstrate how, from her position at the intersection of multiple margins, as a native-born female poet in a literary milieu dominated by immigrants, most of them male, Raab effectively subverts both gender and grammar norms in the construction of a nonconforming gender identity.

The date in the article’s title hints at Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that in this month “the human character had changed,” a change that, according to Woolf, altered the forms of literary representation of subjective experience and marked the rise of twentieth-century modernist literature. Interestingly, in this month or in the month preceding it, the prominent Hebrew writer Y. H. Brenner published his Hebrew novella Nerves. I argue that in the Jewish Hebrew context December 1910 marked precisely the decline of the early Hebrew modernist turn, parallel to the establishment of a new literary center for Hebrew literature in Eretz Yisrael. I first shed light on the story’s complex treatment of the figure of “nerves” and argue that through this figure Brenner’s story articulates the irresolvable tension between two forms of life as two forms of representation. I then contextualize the tensions inherent to the historical and poetic figure of nerves within the wider discussion of the process of decline of Hebrew modernist poetics at the very moment in which the language performed its national “return” to its native soil.

This essay presents an initial foray into the rich field of modern Arabic poetry after the canonization phase of modernism in midcentury Beirut. Though by no means offering an exhaustive account, the chosen case studies are claimed to cover major orientations in forms of second-wave modernism that swept across poetic writing in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As Beirut became the prestigious metropolitan center for modernist poetics, shifts of sensibility are viewed in relation to its dominant modes and in terms of an altered imagining of the center-periphery duality. I follow two trajectories: a mode of exile, for which the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus is representative, and a mode of domestic development. For the latter, I look to the cultural fringes of the Arab world — the Gulf and the Maghrib — to analyze how the Beiruti paradigm moves into new territories of culture, society, and politics. Even within a monolingual transregional literature, I argue, setting a dialectic in motion with a centralized tradition generates in each reiteration unique patterns of continuity and change. Ideological faults are redressed and, by consciously forming fissures, Arab peripheries propose a reintegration of poetic modernity into a more historically grounded, inclusive, and synchronized project.

The December 1989 Revolution that overthrew the Communist regime brought Romanian literature back on the international literary market and dramatically changed the conditions for production and circulation. However, there was a lively circulation of foreign literature through translation into Romanian well before 1989. Here I will argue that Mircea Cărtărescu’s two major texts written in the late 1980s — the verse epic Levantul (The Levant) and the poetic novel Nostalgia — can be seen as works of world literature through their intertextual dialogue, even though they were created with no expectation that they would ever circulate through translation beyond national borders. With their intertextual rewriting in an ironic and parodic manner, Cărtărescu’s works have been presented abroad as landmarks of Romanian postmodernism, but this essay argues that Cărtărescu’s manner of rewriting is closer to the nostalgic, serious, and constructive rewriting found in radically modernist texts. Cărtărescu’s The Levant and Nostalgia illustrate Pascale Casanova’s point that the revolutionizing of literary practices comes from the periphery of the literary field. This was doubly so during a politically controlled period that allowed Cărtărescu to choose his intertexts in the absence of any strategic hierarchy that would please the center and free from any expectation of gaining recognition from the world literary space.

Contesting the use of the geospatial concepts of “periphery” and “center,” this essay argues that a mathematical metaphor, the Möbius strip, better expresses the continuously morphing, interrelated, dynamic mesh that we call modernism. One of the major but still understudied nodes on this strip was Kyiv (Russian: Kiev). Flourishing between 1905 and the early 1930s, modernism in Kyiv was distinctive by virtue of its historical-political circumstances and by its rapid acceptance, vitality, and astonishing efflorescence. After an overview of some of its most salient features, the latter part of this essay is devoted to the work of the self-proclaimed modernist stage and film director Les Kurbas and to two of his most important productions, Macbeth and Jimmie Higgins.

The map of modern Jewish literature is made up of contiguous cultural environments. Rather than a map of territories, it is a map of stylistic and conceptual intersections. But these intersections often leave no trace in a translation, a quotation, a documented encounter, or an archived correspondence. We need to reconsider the mapping of modern Jewish literature: no longer as a defined surface divided into territories of literary activity and publishing but as a dynamic and often implicit set of contiguities. Unlike comparative research that looks for the essence of literary influence in the exposure of a stylistic or thematic similarity between works, this article discusses two cases of “hidden contiguities” between modern Jewish literature and European literature. They occur in two distinct contact zones in which two European Jewish authors were at work: Zalman Shneour (Shklov, Belarus, 1887–New York, 1959), whose early work, on which this article focuses, was done in Tsarist Russia; and David Vogel (Podolia, Russia, 1891–Auschwitz, 1944), whose main work was done in Vienna after the First World War.


The modernist fascination with the Far East is a well-known phenomenon, driven among other things by the “decline of the West” zeitgeist. When adopted by peripheral communities involved in nation building, it often served other needs and, in the process, became distorted or disproportioned. This article focuses on the representation of the Far East in the Hebrew and Yiddish literatures of the interwar years. Its main argument is that the longing for the Far East in these literatures has contributed to their self-fashioning precisely as occidental and modern. Accordingly, this is an intriguing test case that sheds light on how one peripheral culture gazes at another, how one Other gazes at another — as opposed to traditional postcolonial research that tends to examine Self-Other or majority-minority relations. The article proposes the term “second-order modernism” to describe the fertile changes and disruptions inherent to the displacement of any modernist model onto a peripheral culture.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to Hebrew, Jewish, and comparative literature.

Editorial Board

Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University