Poetically Incorrect

Reviewed by Tsur Ehrlich

Beautiful Motherland of Death: Aesthetics and Politics in the Poetry of Uri Tzvi Greenberg
by Hanan Hever
Am Oved, 2004, 213 pages, Hebrew.

Signup for FREE ACCESS to all content
on AzureOnline


Hanan Hever’s Beautiful Motherland of Death, a collection of seven essays on the poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg, is not so much a scholarly interpretation as an indictment. Hever, a professor of literature at the Hebrew University, concedes that Greenberg is one of the greatest Hebrew poets since Haim Nahman Bialik. Nonetheless, he aims here to prove that Greenberg was not simply a fascist, as others have claimed, but also a poetic fascist—in other words, that fascism pervades not only the content, but also the style and structure of Greenberg’s poetry.
 Hever’s accusation, moreover, is aimed not only at Greenberg, but also at Jewish nationalism and Israeli society. Here, however, an even more serious allegation is added: In refusing to reject Greenberg completely, Israel and Zionism are accused of concealing their own latent fascism.
From the outset, Beautiful Motherland of Death promises to be a pyrotechnic read, given that the critic and the poet come from opposite extremes of the political spectrum. Indeed, Greenberg (1896-1981), who aligned himself with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement of the late 1920s, was too hawkish even for the hawks: His radical worldview, along with his mercurial personality, prevented him from ever finding a permanent home in the mainstream Right. Hever, by contrast, is one of the leading Israeli intellectuals on the post-Zionist Left. A shared radicalism is a powerful catalyst for this kind of meeting of the minds. “Greenberg’s poetry,” Hever has said, “has depths from which I never tire of drinking. I never stop reading him. There is something in his radicalism that fascinates me.”
If Greenberg’s radicalism fascinates Hever, it also disturbs him. In an interview with Haaetz shortly after his book was published, Hever explained that “attitudes of so radical a nature have not been condemned [by Israeli society] in any drastic way, but rather consigned to the margins as the dialogue continues.” According to Hever, Israeli society is guilty of tolerating fascist undercurrents in its midst. In Beautiful Motherland of Death, this claim carries neo-Marxist overtones:
The possibilities for the existence of a common ground between Uri Tzvi Greenberg and the Israeli hegemony, and the fact that there is such a combination of unacceptable political views and their legitimate public airing… bears witness to the structure of the profundity, hidden from view, of a Jewish nationalism that is becoming the norm in the mechanisms of its supremacy and sovereignty.
Hever is thus enchanted by Greenberg’s aesthetics, but despises his poetry’s political content. In this sense he is no different from generations of readers who preceded him. But while they managed to resolve this dissonance by distinguishing between Greenberg’s politics and his aesthetics, Hever finds this solution intolerable precisely because of the way Greenberg’s poetry mixes the political with the aesthetic; indeed, the reader cannot avoid confronting the political subtexts beneath the aesthetic surface. As Hever points out, the “aesthetization of politics” is Greenberg’s trademark, a claim he reiterates throughout the book.
The aesthetization of politics, Hever explains, is a prominent feature of fascist art and of fascism itself. In the view of the fascist founder of the futurist movement, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, for example, beauty is the highest ideal, and politics must be subordinated to it. Morality, on the other hand, only muddies the waters, since “art can exist only as violence, cruelty, and injustice.” Indeed, the Hitler and Mussolini regimes set great store on aesthetics in public life, even if, to them, the aesthetic was merely a means to an end. Fascist propagandists were well aware that it is far more effective to excite the masses by appealing to instinct rather than to intellect.
Thus, in Hever’s eyes, any poet who exalts the values of beauty and glory, and occasionally employs them as moral criteria, is suspect of fascism. If, moreover, the poet happens to be passionately nationalistic, glorifies the return of the Jewish people to its biblical homeland, exhorts his readers to wield the sword in defense of that homeland, loathes socialism, and paints a stark post-Holocaust picture of a wall of eternal enmity dividing Jews from non-Jews—in short, if he is Uri Tzvi Greenberg—that suspicion quickly becomes a conviction.

Tsur Ehrlich is a graduate student in Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the editorial staff of Makor Rishon.

Signup >>
Forgot password? >>

From the

Nietzsche: A MisreadingNietzsche and Zion by Jacob Golomb
The Road to Democracy in the Arab WorldLiberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.
Save the Citizens’ Army
Jews and the Challenge of SovereigntyIs "Jewish state" a contradiction in terms?
Operation Cast Lead and the Ethics of Just WarWas Israel's conduct in its campaign against Hamas morally justified?

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2018