Questions of Accent (Ch. 2)

Murat Nemet-Nejat
Articles & Essays
Questions of Accent (Ch. 2)

VI. A Jew Without Accent

The seed of an answer occurred in a confrontation over Jabes, whom the workshop presented, at least to the American eyes, as the king of Jewish literary artists, the creator of a “book in exile.” I began to understand what is Jewish about me by analyzing what is false, phony about Jabes, how seeing Jabes as the ideal European Jew implies a negation of me, and other non-Western-Europeans like me, as Jewish writers. Jabes and I have similar backgrounds with radically different choices to our Jewishness. Therefore, I must progress with a short critique of Jabes.

Jabes exists in the United States essentially because Derrida “discovered” him: Derrida discovered, “authorized” Jabes; therefore, he exists. Jabes did not have an independent prior recognition. It is absolutely essential to see that Jabes would not have existed in the States without the authorization of Derrida.Therefore, a critique of Jabes is in fact a critique of Derrida, and, consequently, a critique of the mainstream American intellectual’s concentration on Europe. Why did Derrida discover Jabes? Was it a lucky incident that every artist in his or her garret dreams of? Not at all. By “discovering” Jabes Derrida was legitimizing himself. They have both North African backgrounds, are both North African Jews, a fact with inescapable linguistic ramifications. Derrida spoke French among Arabs, that is to say, the language of the colonialist. When he moved to mainland France, he chose, linguistically and in terms of his career, the side of power. He became one of the “flowerings” of French prose.

Growing up in Egypt, Jabes also spoke French. Jabes’s French, as an Egyptian Jew, is the language of the privileged class in Egypt, the privileged island of power, surrounded by the Arabic “sand.” Jabes’s French is like Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, where the main characters are aristocrats and supposed to speak French among themselves, not Russian. That’s why whole sections of these novels, written in Russian, read like silent translations.

Jabes also, like Derrida, moved to France. His theme of “linguistic exile” is not, essentially, the Jewish or mystical theme of the diaspora or distance from God (Hashem); but his distance, exile from the less privileged people he was surrounded by and left behind, and their language, Arabic. Arabic, at least psychically his true home (if he played with other kids in the neighborhood), has no influence on Jabes’s French. His French has no accent. If it did, it may not be accepted because purity is a French ideal closely linked to a central tradition and resists accents. Egypt appears only as a decorative metaphor (with a touch of the intellectual-exotic: sand, desert, oasis, etc., “arabisme,” acceptable to post-Napoleonic French taste) in his work. As I see it, Jabes has to experience his own “writing” as a discontinuous series of immediate experiences, without memory, memory as negative space (a key aesthetic point for him, for Derrida and for American poets influenced by both) because, underlying it, there is a chaotic political choice: a Jew choosing the side and the language of privilege instead of the underdog. Jabes’s Judaism is false (assimilated) because its real home, “Hashem,” is Arabic which he emasculates by prettifying it. Judaism is a fashionable gimmick to hide his severance from his past, his memory of political choice, his experiences of childhood.

When Derrida “discovers” Jabes, he ignores this most crucial linguistic (therefore power) choice they both make. In a perceptive talk he gave at the Poetry Project in 1992, David Shapiro said that under his “revolutionary” demeanor, Derrida is essentially an academician, achieving a new flowering of exquisite French prose. I had a personal experience of that when, about a year ago, I attended a Derrida lecture at the 42nd Street Graduate Center. His ninety minute speech expounded, ethereally, subtly, how a “gift is not a gift” if acknowledged as such, the mere consciousness, “material utterance” of the act disqualifying it from being such. I also learnt that Derrida was charging $ 20,000.00 for his week visit to the United States. Derrida “discovers” Jabes because Jabes also is, in his ethereal, filigree prose, potentially, a similar kind of star, who has made a similar fateful choice. Derrida’s “discovery” is in fact an act of self-justification.

The Americans essentially accept Derrida’s version of Jabes, which is uncritical and distorted, a version which, subliminally, reinforces Derrida’s views, including his flaws and limitations as a writer, as “natural,” “universal” truths. To stress Jabes’s Jewishness (which to me, without an Arabic imprint, is a fashionable “flavor”)  above everything else about him is very deceptive (and American writers should resist it) because it short circuits, passes by (as Derrida intended) the political dimension of his choice as a writer. Jabes’s Jewish mystical theme, I believe, is a mask covering a political theme, his choice to leave the third world of Egypt and Arabic behind. Seen from this angle, Jabes’s “Jewishness” has a strong “Western,” colonialist dimension, as Paul de Mans’s pure, “non-political” deconstructionism, the American intellectuals such as Harold Bloom have discovered to their horror, has Nazi roots.

From the same angle, isn’t the central act of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the proto North African French work, a racial murder, an Arab murdered by a white man, a stranger to the Arab, on the beach; and the protagonist’s act obfuscated, erased, treated as a foil, the responsibility for it done away with, intellectually justified in the misty mystifications of Existentialism, in The Stranger’s amoral “style”? The protagonist, the stranger to the Arab, is “rationalized” into the stranger to himself. Camus’s Existential lobotomized style and Jabes’s sophisticated Arabisme: parallel acts of political, moral obfuscations set a generation apart. Must a North African Jew always do the dirty work of the white man just to be accepted inside France’s glorious halls?

VII. A Jew With Accent: Ambiguity Towards Power, the Fate of the Un-assimilated Jew

Ambiguity towards power is, in my opinion, the contemporary Jewish theme, what every Jewish writer, consciously or not, willingly or not, must face. This ambiguity is embedded in Jewish history, in Jewish identity, in the conflict between its myths and history. Despite its protestations, the Torah is history written by the powerful, a nation chosen by God, taking somebody else’s land to make its own. On the other hand, the history of the diaspora is the history of the victim, the dispossessed, the Galut, the progroms, the Holocaust. Where does the Jew’s allegiance belong? Does the contemporary Jew ally himself with the powerful or the victim? Though this conflict has become explicit after the birth of Israel, it was implicit, as Jews embraced assimilation and moved physically out of the Ghetto, in the Diaspora also. Often, economically, Jews belonged to the privileged class; but culturally, and linguistically, they were the outsiders, the underprivileged. As Jews, Derrida and Jabes erase, ignore, escape this ambiguity. Their choices are absolute, on the side of power. Jabes’s and Derrida’s writings are accentless, unambiguously French. They represent a Jewish style of assimilation, identification with power. They hide, and their American admirers overlook, the political dimension of their writings.

VIII. What Is Then Accented Writing?

What is, then, writing which has an accent? It is a writing which does not completely identify with the power, authority of the language it uses; but confronts, without glossing over, the gap between the user and the language. Such writing reveals an ambiguity towards power: the writer chooses to embrace a language (because of its pervasive centrality) which he/she knows is not quite his/her own, is insufficient for his/her inner purposes. Accent in writing has little to do with explicit theme or semantic context; it rather has to do with texture, structure, the scratches, distortions, painful gaps (in rhythms, syntax, diction, etc.) caused by the alien relationship between the writer and his/her adopted language. Accent is cracks (many unconscious, the way a speaker is unaware of his or her accent when speaking, does not have to create it ) on the transparent surface.

Accented Jewish writing embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power. By doing that it creates its accent. Kafka, to me, is the first modern, European writer who reveals the Jew’s ambiguity towards power in terms of an accent in the texture of his language. His language of choice as a writer is not Yiddish or Czech but legal German (that of an intricate legal brief), a double embrace of power: first of the cultural mainstream, second, that section of it which codifies its power. But Kafka’s accent subverts that legal code, divests it of its meaning, turns the language of the powerful into a language of the victim, of alienation. To me, Kafka’s subject is a stylistic dialogue about the ambiguity of power, between the powerful and the victim, a sadomasochistic elaboration of the Book of Job, the chosen man of God also chosen as a victim. Interestingly, Kafka’s fiction (as opposed to his diaries) has very few direct references to Jews, almost no semantic, but only stylistic, Jewish content.

IX. The Essence of American Sound, Can It Be the Music of Diaspora?

Why did Kafka write Amerika, why was he attracted to the subject of the United States? German also accents Am-erika. What did he hear in the word Oklahoma? A wild, alien, distant sound in German, Oklahoma!  At the same time, an intimate sound, one of the rare words in English with vowel harmony, which is also, I imagine, in Czech. Kafka hears in Oklahoma the alien ground in which his private soul can nest itself, the synthesis between the powerful and the victim. That is why he associates his open-ended, endless nirvana of liberation in the Theater (Noah’s Ark) of Oklahoma. What is the word Oklahoma after all, but the imprint of the Native American, the victim, the invaded in the language of the master. American English: the language which embodies that peculiar combination, victim and victor possessing the same language, yoked together by fate.

Using American English as a poet is the outsider, the victim, embracing, emulating the language of the master, being constantly beset by the ambiguities of power.

X. American Poetry, The Poetics of Accents

What makes this poetry different from others, from French, from English? Here lies its radical ambiguity: American English, as a poetic language, is not a mother tongue in the usual sense but a pseudo-mother, step-mother tongue. It can have no tradition, its vocabulary no public or mythical, only personal, private resonances. It is the language of pervasive power, without resonance, of authority in which the immigrant, the victim must speak. Writing poetry in American English is a continuous act of translating from a radical inside or from a radical beyond. Its well of inspiration is always outside, never in the mining or contributing to the flowerings of a tradition. The reading and the writing of American poetry must always be discontinuous. Accepting a central, authoritative tradition undercuts its balance of power and victimhood.

Even to the powerful, American English is unstable, its power ambiguous. When the Puritan, for example, spoke English, the Puritan saw himself/herself threatened by the geographic and moral wilderness around, which even destabilized the inner certitudes. His/her language is defensive, doubting its ability to embrace, cope with the darkness beyond the ring of light, the ring of reason.

That alienation, instability between writer and language, a radical skepticism about its ability to reveal inner truth constitute its essential nature. The relation of the poet to the language is inescapably confrontational. American English is the quintessential unnatural, insufficient, weak language which the writer has to bend, distort, to translate into, to interject his or her vision. To me, three nineteenth century writers, none of them Jewish but white protestant, embody this accented writing: Hawthorne, Melville and Dickinson. Hawthorne’s Puritan English prose is tortured, twisted to assimilate both the wilderness beyond on the continent and the wilderness within. (Read the first pages of House Of The Seven Gables; it is Henry James at his purest. All of Henry James and more is in it.) Melville’s compulsive, encyclopedic lists of whaling lore crack up, can not contain the nihilism at the core and must spill into splintered moments of black vision which masquerade as narrative. Dickinson invents a language which only pretends to be English and must be read over and over again to be stripped into its message, a violent sadomasochism. Words are private emblems, the syntax unstable, constantly shifting, not quite an “English” syntax, the smooth “hymnal” surface hiding, shafted with a sadomasochistic violence.  All these works are written by writers, though white Christians,  for whom the given language is not really their own, not really their “natural,” mother tongue.

Contemporary Jewish writing, embodying the ambiguous relationship to power, is therefore a specific example of American writing. Emily Dickinson, the Protestant spinster completely at home at Amherst but completely out of it, is to me the American poet, the Jew, the sister/neighbor in exile, whose enigmatic, excessive, possessive, distant, recalcitrant company I can take only a few poems at a time.


The Bengali translation of this text is available on the following link:

স্বরভঙ্গির কাব্যতত্ত্ব ও মুরাত নেমেত-নেযাত (২য় পর্ব)

Murat Nemet-Nejat. Poet, Essayist and Translator. Murat Nemet-Nejat was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in the United States since 1959. He studied literature at Amherst College and Columbia University in the United States. He is the author of several...

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