"Dan Pagis: Erasing the Self" at the 2016 NAPH International Conference in Providence, RI

Friday, July 8, 2016

Jewish Studies & Comparative Literature graduate student Shoshana Olidort attended the 2016  National Association of Professors of Hebrew International Conference on Hebrew Language, Literature and Culture was held at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Shoshana presented on June 23 in the 10.2 "Literature: Body, Self, Text" panel.

In my talk I examined the performance of self-effacement in the life and work of the late Hebrew poet Dan Pagis. I began by outlining the backdrop--biographical and social--against which Pagis’s poetics of self-erasure emerges. I then went on to offer a close reading of two poems, “Search,” and “Where,” from the perspective of performativity and speech act theory. Drawing on these theoretical frameworks I argued that the Pagi’s self-negation is a performative gesture that opens up new realms of possibility in the poet’s life and work. 

Pagis’s lifelong refusal to divulge his birth name, instead shrouding it in secrecy and then guarding it like the proverbial skeleton in the closet was driven by a profoundly personal need for a radical break with the past that would allow him stake out a viable future in this world. If we take seriously Michele Foucault’s insistence that the proper name is not simply indicative, that “more than a gesture, a finger pointed at someone it is, to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description,”  it is not at all surprising that Pagis would choose to obliterate his given name, Severin.

In her theory of gender performance, Judith Butler demonstrates how the move from gender is, to gender is made, allows us to imagine new constructions of gender. Such a shift necessarily requires the eradication of received notions of gender as a priori. While less provocative, perhaps, than gender performance, the move from a given name to a name one makes or takes on for oneself similarly allows for new constructions of identity. For Dan Pagis, the adoption of a proper name of his own choosing opened up the possibility for a new mode of being. But as with gender performance, the shift from one mode of being to another was dependent upon an utter erasure of the earlier mode, in this case the given name and the past, which had to be obliterated for a new name and a new future to take hold.