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Writing, Reading, and Political Theology: Agnon’s IN THE HEART OF THE SEAS

Tue, December 18, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 1 Ballroom


Over the past twenty years, “political theology” (especially as employed by Carl Schmitt) has become a popular framework in which to discuss Israeli culture in general and Israeli-Hebrew literature in particular. However, as Talal Asad notes, “it is not enough to point to the structural analogies between premodern theological concepts and those deployed in secular constitutional discourse”; rather, one has to explain how these concepts are deployed and invested with new significance whose horizon is the nation rather than the divine. With reference to literature (in the modern sense of the word), one has to rephrase the question: how does a text construe the relationship between the human and the divine word? What strategies does it employ to allow for the juxtaposition of divine logos and human fallibility? And what relationship between the literary word and the extra-literary reality emerges from the text?
In this paper, I propose to initiate a discussion of these questions by looking at S.Y. Agnon’s In the Heart of the Seas, focusing on Agnon’s intertextual practices in the novella. Whereas Agnon’s repeated references to Jewish religious texts have obviously been noted, little attention has been paid to their political significance (and this is particularly true for interpretations of In the Heart of the Seas). I shall argue that rather than the usual themes raised when Agnon’s references to traditional Jewish texts are discussed—nostalgia to a bygone world, exploration of a post-religious world, or examination of belief in modern (and modernized) society—Agnon explores the place of theology in relation to both the writing and reading of modern Hebrew (non-religious) literature and to the Jewish national project in Palestine. In other words, he raises the question of what it means to write and read Hebrew literature in relation to both nationalism and religious history. Ultimately, he sets his literary texts as mediators between the theological and the political.


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