Personality and Authority A.M. Klein's Self-Portrait

By J. M.  Kertzer

The recent publication of essays and stories by A.M. Klein has renewed the problem of defining his complex personality, a problem which in turn raises the even more vexed question of the relation between the poet and his poetry.  Additional manuscripts and letters promised by the Klein Research and Publication Committee will undoubtedly focus attention on Klein the man: his background, beliefs, intentions, methods of composition and so on.  The man whom Louis Dudek once called "the most autobiographical poet writing in Canada"1 is also one of the most mysterious.  His work is passionate yet impersonal, loquacious yet discreet.  He had, in his own phrase, a "many tentacled mind" (St, 125)2.  Most difficult of all, any account of his personality must ultimately explain the mysterious silence of his last seventeen years.  It is inevitable too that we read this silence back into his poetry where we look biographically for signs of his impending breakdown, or rhetorically for a poetic silence, a linguistic void within a poetry infatuated with words.  In this essay I wish to consider Klein's presence in his poems in the rhetorical sense.  As part of his discussion of the self in literature, Paul de Man distinguishes four kinds of subject, the last of which is "the relationship that the subject establishes, through the mediation of the work, with itself."  This is "the self that reads itself . . . the author as he is changed and interpreted by his own work."3   I wish to examine the Klein who is interpreted by his own work in order to show how he fails to define an authoritative, authentic, poetic self because he cannot accept the traditional religious, romantic or existential assurances of personality.

     The difficulty in defining Klein's poetic personality can be illustrated by recalling Miriam Waddington's comments on "Reb Levi Yitschok Talks to God" (CP, 146, 47).  She claims that the poems in Hath Not a Jew . . . are not religious but secular in their Jewishness because Klein "was never religious in the orthodox sense, and this is precisely the conflict which lies at the root of so much of his poetry."  In this poem based on the famous scene in which the Chassidic rebbe of Berditchev challenged God to justify the suffering of the Jews, Klein "seems to doubt the existence of God."4  But the complexity of tone and diction makes it difficult to assign a clear attitude to the poem or its author.  Are the opening lines ironic: "Reb Levi Yitschok, crony of the Lord, / Familiar of heaven, broods these days"?  Do they confirm Irving Layton's claim that Jews love to conduct a "domestic quarrel" with God, who is a "generous uncle" rather than the "gaseous, elaborate construction of the metaphysicians"?  Or do they illustrate, as M. W. Steinberg suggests, Klein's nostalgic though mature yearning for the secure comfort of faith?5  Klein repeats these words in an article on Levi Yitschok reprinted in Beyond Sambation: "Where have you been, O crony of the Lord, familiar of heaven?" (BS, 198).  In this case he writes affectionately, although the same words in a different context could have a different effect.  In the article he praises Levi Yitschok for his pious audacity and saintly boldness, and calls him by his nickname.  Derbarimidiger, the Compassionate One.  Traditionally, Levi Yitschok was a fighter.  According to Elie Wiesel, he was impulsive, flamboyant, unpredictable, fervent.  He dared to remind God "that He too had to ask forgiveness for the hardship He inflicted on His people."  He threatened God in order to demonstrate "that one may be Jewish with God, in God, and even against God; but not without God."6

     In Klein's version Levi Yitschok reasons, rages and weeps vociferously, then begs like an ever-querulous child.   "Reb Levi Yitschok talking to himself, / Addressed his infant arguments to God."  Does he talk only to himself, or does God hear his "monologue"?   Is he against God or without God?  Several features in the poem undercut his appeal.  In ironic counterpoint, nature grins, spits, nibbles, snickers and gossips.  The diction (crony, midget, buttocks, scrawny goat, vinegar, chilblains) emphasizes worldly facts, insults and discomforts rather than heavenly justice.  The diminutives associated with Jews (little sins, midget Hebrews, infant arguments), also reduce the grandeur of Levi Yitschok's challenge, but as Waddington and others have noted, the dwarf figure is common in Jewish folklore.7   In contrast to Rebono shel Olam the pintele Yid is all but insignificant.  However Levi Yitschok's bewildered and passionate intensity, which gradually dominates the poem, is not childish.  By the end it becomes the measure of his faith as he sits unanswered on God's knees.  Similarly in "Epitaph," which was published at about the same time (1930), Klein prays, "Yea, I may lay my head, perhaps, / Upon the very knees of God" (CP, 349).  Levi Yitschok's problem seems to be, not that man is without God, but that God is against man.  At times in the Bible, God turns his back on the Jews and ignores their pleas: "then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:23).  Isaiah (1:15) and Job (23:8) also lament their exclusion from God, and when Levi Yitschok asks, "Lord, how long," he echoes Psalm 13: "How long, O LORD? Wilt thou forget me for ever? / How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?"

     Whatever Levi Yitschok's attitudes, it is not hard to verify Waddington's assertion that Klein became a secular Jew.  In an editorial of 1939, he confesses that "the sophistical and much-too-rational education to which we have been subjected has altogether unfitted us for the sweet simplicities of the unquestioning faith" (BS, 48).  Usher Caplan traces Klein's "drift away from orthodox Judaism," and cites supporting passages from Hapaxlegomenon and Stranger and Afraid: "His religion, he had realized, was no longer his mother's religion, with its tabus and superstitions . . . I have lost my father's faith.  I am not of the stuff with which one kindles auto-da-fes."8   In a footnote to his doctoral dissertation, Caplan sums up his own conclusion: "Klein eventually saw himself as neither religious nor anti-religious.  Though he was fundamentally a humanist, he loved and respected Jewish tradition.  He envied the true believer, and he always regretted his own loss of faith."9  Reading through Klein's poetry quickly reveals, however, that there is a discrepancy between the man and the poet as interpreted by his own work.  The former says flippantly, "we have for some inscrutable reason, sedulously avoided matters theologic.  We have not sought, except in an extra-curriculum [sic] way, to divine the divine" (BS, 78).  The latter offers a continual debate with God, conducted through a variety of voices and characters such as Levi Yitschok.  Sometimes he denies faith in despair ("My idols have been shattered into shards" — CP, 87); in horror ("they scurry across its floor, / Leaving the slimy vestiges of doubt"  — CP, 129); in bewilderment ("Psalms XII"); or with "A saecular imperturbability" (CP, 118).  In "Psalm II" he rejects his youthful skepticism and declares "The undebatable verity" of faith, "The simple I am that I am" (CP, 211).  But the debate continues: faith must always be defended and reaffirmed.  In "Psalm XXIV" he counters Levi Yitschok: "I do evoke you, knowing I am heard" (CP, 224).  In Psalm XXIV he admits to new doubts.  In "Psalm 176" he grows weary of the quarrel with God, but when he cries out: "He answers not, / Replies no word, not even a small sharp word" (CP, 261).

     Therefore to define Klein's personality within a single poem or in his entire opus (however calculated: much of it is fragmentary and unpublished) is more than a biographical problem.  We cannot ignore biography because even in formal analysis of his texts we find traces of his many extra-curricular interests: Chassidism, Zionism and Spinoza; Torah, Talmud and Zohar; Montreal and Israel.  W.B. Yeats believed that diverse fragments of personality coalesce in a central, artistic self, which is the true character of a poet.  But the truth is fantastic:

A poet writes always out of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to some one at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria. . . .  He is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete. . . . he is more type than man, more passion that type. . . .  He is part of his own phantasmagoria and we adore him because nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power.10

Unfortunately, the poetic self in Klein's phantasmagoria does not always seem complete or intelligible.  He changes, questions himself restlessly, and then questions his own restlessness.  Through his struggle he raises two inter-related problems, one theoretical, the other practical.  First is the problem of authority: the way a poet's personality lies within and controls a text.  Second is the question of Klein's own personality: he tries to define himself — in Yeats's terms — in relation to the legacy and tragedy of his people, and in relation to his own confused loneliness.

     Leon Edel indicates the essential mystery of personality by using the quotation from Milton's Aereopagitica that serves as epigraph to The Second Scroll: "And ask a Talmudist what ails the modesty of his marginal Keri that Moses and all the prophets cannot persuade him to pronounce the textual Chetiv."  Edel and all the critics provide commentaries (the spoken Keri) on Klein's text (the written Chetiv), but the "written poem is not always identical with that which is read.  There are the poet's secrets, the maze of his mind, the labyrinth of creation . . . the secrets of the heart and mind remain secrets, and we are given brief glimpses, fitful flashes, into human personality and character."11   For Edel, the text provides clues to a deeper mystery that precedes and informs it.  The poem becomes a gloss (Keri) on a hidden, labyrinthine Chetiv.    Elsewhere, Edel calls this mystery the "self myth" which is "the truest part of an individual: by that myth we always seek to live; it is what gives us force, direction, and sustenance."12   It is, like Yeats's poetic self, at once fantastic and intelligible.  The task of a literary pyschologist like Edel, therefore, is to decipher the "unconscious myth" of a subject that speaks in riddles within his work.

     In contrast to this psychological analysis is deconstruction which finds the poetic self equally mysterious, but locates it differently.  Edel gives priority to speech over writing: that is, he seeks truth and validity in a secret inner self which talks and dictates the text.   Klein sometimes supports this view, for example when he compares poetic creation to the biblical Genesis and says of the sixth day: "The making of man in God's image.  The poet's signature.  In his creation, He it is who must be seen.  Behind every artifact, a person."13   Behind every written word, a speaker.  Deconstruction, on the other hand, reverses the hierarchy and gives priority to writing over speech.  The inner self becomes a product of the text.  It is a "signature" or Chetiv already written; it is not Edel's "self myth," but a myth of the self.  Klein sometimes supports this second view, for example when he claims that interpreting a poem reveals the generative power of the artifact rather than the personality of its creator.  If we read "into" The Second Scroll, we find a proliferation of texts, a "seconding of a testament already seconded."14  The disjunction between what is written and what is read directs us ever deeper within the text, not within its author.  Michaelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel provide a prime example: "such is the nature of art that though the artist entertain fixedly but one intention and one meaning, that creation once accomplished beneath his hand, now no longer merely his own attribute, but Inspiration's very substance and entity, proliferates with significances by him not conceived nor imagined" (SS, 106).

     In fact, Klein's own account of the mystery of personality is usually neither psychological nor textual, but religious.  He regards it, not as a constitutive fiction (Edel) or an effect of discourse (deconstruction), but as Inspiration and creative power.  Zailig Pollock notes that the view of Michaelangelo's art as infinitely significant is actually traditional and profoundly Kabbalistic.  The meaning of the Torah is inexhaustable and open to innumerable interpretations, all sanctioned by divine wisdom.15  Other Jewish allusions indicate that the source and limit of meaning can reside only in a transcendent authority.  But as "Reb Levi Yitschok Talks to God" reveals, Klein is unsure of God and His relation to man.  Klein does not reject or deconstruct the notion of authority, but when he transfers it to a divine rather than human personality, he makes it highly problematic:

Since prophecy has vanished out of Israel,
And since the open vision is no more,
Neither a word on the high places, nor the Urim and Thummim,
Nor even a witch, foretelling, at En-dor, —
Where in these dubious days shall I take counsel?
Who is there to resolve the dark, the doubt? (CP, 210)

Urim and Thummim (light and perfection) are first mentioned, though not described, in Exodus 28:30 as objects or ornaments in the breastplate of the high priest: "and they shall be upon Aaron's heart when he goes before the Lord."  They are then associated with oracular communication with God, for example in Numbers 27:21 ("the judgment of the Urim") and I Samuel 28:6: "And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets."  Later during the return from exile, Ezra (2:63) and Nehemiah (7:65) defer the answer to insoluble questions "until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim."   To the faithful, truth is assured, but postponed until the proper revelation is available.  Klein offers another instance of the same principle in The Second Scroll: "taiku stet, the question abides . . . My teacher would then go on to explain that taiku was really a series of initials that stood for . . . the Tishbite would resolve all problems and diffficulties" (SS, 84.  See also BS, 161).  The Tishbite is Elijah, who will precede the coming of the Messiah.  In each of these formulations the ultimate authority is prophetic, inspired and therefore trustworthy, but his answer is set in an incalculable future.  The summation of meaning, the answers to our questions and the full potency of our words lie not in our own control, but in the fullness of time which will restore a lost truth: "Show me again, as you did in my youth / Behind the equivocal text the unequivocal truth!" (CP, 232).  Klein expresses the final truth in religious terms as some glory yet to be achieved.  It is the promise of "signs and wonders" (Exodus 7:3) or the "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19).  It is the "miracle," which serves as password in The Second Scroll, and "The Mystery beyond the mysterious" (SS, 139).

     There is an unequivocal truth behind the equivocal text, but it is a divine mystery.  Through this paradox, Klein expresses doubt that there is a recognizable authority in poetry, either in a clearly defined poetic self (the author) which is master of its own phantasmagoria; or in the text itself, which can clearly limit its proliferating significance.  "O who can measure the potency of symbols?" (CP, 342), he asks, implying that no one can calculate their power.  In a special sense then, the poet is not the author of his own poetry.  That is, he does not control its meaning completely.  His personality is not a familiar reference point to which to refer all problems; it is another one of the problems, another mystery.  Since the poet is part of his poem, his own personality as expressed in it must also proliferate with significances by him not conceived nor imagined.  Another symbol of the personal and textual authority that always eludes us is Uncle Melech.  He has many aliases; he is never photographed clearly; he keeps one step ahead of his eager nephew.  Defining Klein's poetic personality presents a similar problem.  He too has many aliases such as Avram Haktani ("small," i.e. Klein), Plauni-Ben-Plauni ("So-and-so, son of So-and-so"), Velvel Kleinburger and Abraham Segal.  In his earliest poetry he is Mak, A.M. Keats and Antonius Mentholatum Kochleffel.16  In his stories he is Ben Kalonymos.  To chase Klein through his poetry leads in two directions, both suggested by Yeats's comment quoted earlier that the poet is "more type than man, more passion than type."  In one way, Klein reverts to the characteristic types of his ancestry: he defines himself genealogically.  In another way, he is absorbed by anonymous passions and ultimately fails to define himself: he becomes "an x . . . incognito, lost, lacunal"(CP, 331).

     First, Klein defines character through genealogy.  Irving Layton remarked that for all his acuteness, Klein "had little or no insight into himself, or into other people, psychologically."17  His poetry shows, however, that he was fascinated by character, which he judged according to social and literary types.  In "Doctor Drummond" (CP, 286), he criticizes William Henry Drummond for his patronizing portrayal of French-Canadian habitants: "It is to be wondered whether he ever really / saw them, whether he knew them more than type."  The doctor offers "case histories" of "fable folk" and ignores "the true pulsing of their blood."  But Klein himself loves fable folk and devotes much of his poetry to them.  He describes people according to profession and social standing ("Of Daumiers a Portfolio") or humours and morals ("Obituary Notices," "Five Weapons Against Death").  He presents biblical and literary portraits ("Five Characters," "Falstaff") and archetypes such as the lover, poet, demagogue and hero.18 He delights especially in Jewish types who may correspond to actual people (for example, the "Sophist" is his old teacher, Simcha Garber), but who merge with traditional and historical folk characters, as in "Portraits of a Minyan," "Murals for a House of God" and "Design for Mediaeval Tapestry." The titles indicate the formality of the portraits.  These characters also appear in his short stories which, following the example of I.L. Peretz, present rebbe, half-wit, patriarch, pauper, dwarf and scribe.  Later he examines French-Canadian types, not in a patronizing way, but in keeping with familiar types: pilgrim, nun, law student, political orator, notary.

     John Sutherland offered faint praise for these sketches which form "a fascinating zoo, rather than a human community,"19 but a human community is precisely what Klein values most.  He depicts traditional Jewish types in order to call forth a tradition and to locate himself within it.  He characterizes himself through his culture and ancestry.  Robert Langbaum explains how Yeats celebrates an Irish "folk imagination" produced by "one characteristic mind of a particular nation."  Klein does the same in his Jewish portraits.  For Yeats, personal identity is established only when it merges with a matrix of archetypal or communal identities.  The self, to know itself, must be "reconstructed."   It must escape from its "egocentric individuality" and grow into "a self larger than the ego, which can embrace consciousness and unconsciousness and is both inside and outside our skins."  Self-expression means self-transcendence: "Fulfillment means that you turn your body and your known self into a vehicle for the archetype, which is sometimes conceived as buried, sometimes as descending from outside."20  From this point of view, Klein seeks, not a unique "self myth" but a Jewish mythology, not a secret self but a larger identity which he share with kith and kin.  Caplan notes that Klein regarded folk song as "the quintessentially Jewish genre because in it the individual poet is supplanted by the people, the folk.  To be a Jewish writer, for Klein, was to be relatively anonymous and unknown, at worst a lowly ghostwriter, at best a kind of literary lamed vaunik, or hidden saint."21  His aim as poet is not romantic self-expression, but a larger and richer anonymity.

     In many poems Klein speaks "Circled and winged in vortex of my kin" (CP, 294).  Since he is one of "King David's true lineage" (CP, 143), his view extends far beyond his immediate family, through the expanse of Jewish history and legend.  Ideally the limit of this view would be the genesis of personal and folk imaginations, the creative moment which is the basis of Jewish identity.  Traditionally the genealogical source is Abraham, whose name Klein conveniently shares; hence the Psalms of Abraham.  Mythologically it is the biblical creation when God "with the single word . . . made the world, hanging before us the heavens like an unrolled scroll" (SS, 139).  Creation is the mystical origin corresponding to the subsequent revelation of the Urim and of Elijah (taiku).  They are the limits of the human when it touches the divine.  Practically, however, Klein's genealogical vision has no limit, since it discerns endlessly repeated and varied patterns, types and rituals.  He reconstructs these patterns of piety in order to affirm his own significance, for example in "Ave Atque Vale" (CP, 112-13) when he turns proudly to the "sodality" of Talmudic scholars.  When he finds a hair from his father's beard in a holy book, this token of kinship takes him back to the "noble lineage" (CP, 158) of Chassidism.  When he says of the Kabbalistic City, Safed, "Your memory anoints my brain a shrine," he blends metaphorically with a Jewish landscape which is archetypal and permanent.  His own personality conforms to type: "Your halidom is mine.  / Your streets, terraced and curved and narrow, I climbed in my youth, attending on your sages" (CP, 124).  When Solomon Warshawer faces the Nazis in modern Poland, he blends with the archetype of King Solomon who, according to legend, was temporarily ousted by the demon Asmodeus.  When the nephew reaches Israel in The Second Scroll, he and Uncle Melech merge with "the great efflorescent impersonality" (SSi85) of their people.  According to Noreen Golfman: "the central persona of Klein's written work . . . assumes the stance of God, who from some propitious vantage point chronicles all the aspects of Jewish culture in an effort to remind his readers of all the archetypes in the collective cultural memory; so that the Jew who walked through eastern Europe in the middle ages . . . is the same Jew who walks the streets of the urban ghetto in contemporary Montreal."22

     Although not given to Yeats's mysticism, Klein presents those transfiguring moments when the individual is caught up in a larger identity through time.  "In Re Solomon Warshawer" is one example.  In "And in that Drowning Instant" (SS, 141; CP, 267-68), the revelation occurs at the point of death when the unnamed speaker glimpses an "image" of himself extending back through "my preterite eternity."  The prospect of the past reverses the path of the Diaspora and leads to Jerusalem.  The speaker is any and all Jews, just as Uncle Melech is "the ubiquitous anonymity of universal Jewry's all-inclusive generation."23  Although anonymous, these characters are the fullest expression of Jewish identity, and Klein takes his place within the definition they provide: "Not sole was I born, but entire genesis: / For to the fathers that begat me, this / body is residence" (CP, 234).  As poet, he is vehicle and residence for his heritage.  In his prose too he defines personality according to its role in Jewish tradition.  He praises people for being typical or exemplary, personifications as well as persons.  Vladimir Jabotinsky is "the active subconscious of all Israel, the personification of its longings" (BS, 76).   Chaim Weizmann is "the living incarnation of Jewish folk-feeling" who "typified . . . the national hopes of Jewry" (BS, 228-29).   Theodor Herzl became "a legend and a symbol" of "the Jewish will to live" (BS, 14, 17).  Chaim Nachman Bialik is "the personification of the Hebrew renascence" and "tribune of his people."24

     Klein's celebration of the continuity of Jewish culture and of the "folk" testify to the teaching of Ahad Ha-'Am ("One of the People," pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856- 1927).  Once again we find Jewish influences supplementing literary ones.  Klein did not need the Celtic Twilight to learn about the power of a national imagination.  He writes favourably about Ahad Ha-'Am and endorses the main tenets of "cultural Zionism," first in 1928 (BS, 3) and later in 1948 (BS, 324).  His terms often echo Ahad Ha-Am's when he talks of the Jewish will to live, of folk feeling, of the dangers of assimilation, of the Hebrew language and of the heritage of the prophets.  Above all, from Ahad Ha-'Am he learned a cultural definition of the self.  Ahad Ha'Am claims to avoid metaphysical speculation, but despite his vocabulary drawn from psychology and biology, his interests remain philosophical and ethical.  Although he appeals to psychological laws, habits and conventions, to evolution and the struggle of primal forces, his discussion actually serves a powerful philosophical idealism.  It may not be as baroque as Yeats's spiritualism, but it is just as enthusiastic in promoting the prophetic Jewish spirit.  Even the Nietzschean will to live, we are told, requires "spiritual rest" to accomplish its aims.25

     According to Ahad Ha-'Am, the self is not independent and discrete but is a combination of memory and will, past and future:

When a man says "I," he is not thinking of his hair and his nails, which are here to-day and tossed on the dust-heap to-morrow; nor of his hands and feet, or the other parts of his anatomy of flesh and blood, which is constantly changing.  He is thinking of that inner spirit, or force, which in some hidden manner unites all the impressions and memories of the past with all the desires and hope for the future, and makes of the whole one single, complete organic entity.

The basis of the self, its "inner spirit," remains mysterious: it works "in some hidden manner."   Although a single entity, its spiritual powers continually enlarge its boundaries, linking it to a community and to a "national self."  The life of a nation has a spirit, will and history of its own.  It appears as culture, which involves the religion, society and literature of a people.  It appears too in their heroic figures who personify its essential virtues.  The genius of the Jewish national spirit is righteousness: the quest for "the universal dominion of absolute justice."   Therefore the Ego shifts from the individual to the community where it becomes "the national Ego, the eternal Ego of the Jewish people."  Ahad Ha-'Am does not deny the existence of an "essential spirit" for each person, but he insists that it finds its truest being only in relation to larger, ideal forces.  The individual values the community "as his own life, and strives after its happiness as though it were his individual well-being."  This is not just a matter of self-sacrifice, since the self is realized in rather than sacrificed to society:

Society, however, which thus influences the individual, is not a thing apart, external to the individual.  Its whole existence and activity are in and through individuals, who transmit its commands one to another, and influence one another, by word and deed, in ways determined by the spirit of society.26

From Ahad Ha-'Am Klein learned that Jews are "Jews by genealogy, but also by psychology" (BS, 5).  He learned to revere culture, with tradition as its lifeblood, literature as its finest flower and the poet-prophet as its spokesman: "Judaism does not exist in a vacuum; it grows; it has sources; no one can expect to see the tree splendid with foliage, and at the same time cut out the roots!" (BS, 147).  Where Ahhad Ha-'Am treats Moses as the archetypal Jewish hero, Klein treats Joseph as the typical poet.27  He uses Uncle Melech as the "ubiquitous elan"28 of Judaism because, as Monsignor Piersanti explains, "He loves the right word, but he loves righteousness more" (SS, 42).  He sees prophet and poet combining in Herzl and Bialik, "the two titans of the Hebrew renascence" who merge "into a single colossal figure" (BS, 437).  Above all, Klein shares the belief that true identity resides in a collectivity which can master history and provide a spiritual home for the individual: "The primum mobile is neither land nor language; it is people.  It is the folk — and all of it, everywhere — which is the essence.  Domicile, status, speech, etc., these are but adjectival; the substance is Amcho — thy people" (BS, 334).

     However, Klein is not content with Ahad Ha-'Am's idealism, and from their disagreement we can see emerging a second definition of the self.  Klein distinguishes two kinds of poetry.  Centrifugal poetry launches the reader outward "from a tangent into space.  The poem, though an experience in itself, becomes the immediate cause of further experiences."  This growth in experience corresponds to the genealogical account of the self which finds a plenitude of being beyond itself in the condition Yeats called "more type than man."  In centripetal poetry, on the other hand, "the mind of the reader is drawn back into the poem's vortex.  The compulsion is to burrow, to seek the centre."29   Turning inward, Klein seeks a central self but finds only unfocussed and uncontrolled emotion.  The poet is "more passion than type," Yeats said, and was confident that these passions were intended, complete and intelligible.  Klein finds they are not.  He first recognizes the inner displacement of the self as a disjunction between body and spirit.  In this regard he differs from Ahad Ha-'Am.

     Both writers season their arguments with apt quotations from the Talmud, Rashi and Maimonides, although neither claims to be religious in the orthodox sense.  Nevertheless Ahad Ha-'Am retains a philosophical and ethical idealism.  As we have seen, he disregards the hair, nails and flesh as inessential to humanity.  More correctly he claims that at its best Judaism proposes an effortless fusion of spirit and flesh: "The word Nefesh (translated 'soul') includes everything, body and soul and all the life-processes that depend on them."  He opposes asceticism with its antagonism between body and soul, but he clearly favours the soul over the body.  Body serves spirit, and is uplifted, purified and perfected by it: "Such union does not degrade the spirit, but uplifts the flesh, which is irradiated by the spirit's sanctity."30  In the same way the imperfect, mortal individual is redeemed by his eternal, spiritual culture.  M.W. Steinberg finds the same delicate balance of tradition and the individual talent in Klein's criticism.  The poet must be "original and innovative," but can never be utterly original since his true source is the tradition within which he works.  It provides the "framework of values," "national character," responsibilities, loyalties, wisdom and common sense which sustain him.31  Doubtless Klein does propose an easy and reciprocal relation between matter and mind, self and other, poet and tradition, but this ideal proves difficult to realize as his own poetry shows It is fine to make oneself a cultural citizen, an archetype, a national spirit, an efflorescent impersonality.  Unfortuntately Klein discovers tensions within the self and between the self and its community, tensions which he cannot pacify and which subvert rather than sustain his identity.

     Inspired by Spinoza, Klein celebrates a glorious partnership of spirit and flesh.  Man is "dust suffused by light."32   Spinoza "brought to light out of the pulver and the polished lens, the prism and the flying mote; and hence the infinitesimal and the infinite" (CP, 130).  In the light of infinity, matter has a noble role.  Similarly in "The Bells of Sobor Spasitula," the composer Terpetoff tries to hear "the oversoul of mankind" and within its harmony finds a place for evil and good, stench and perfume: "And the height has meaning only because of the depth, the ethereal only in relation to the palpable" (St, 283).  The virtuous heights are spiritual; the vicious depths are physical.  The lower is not good in itself but because it provides access to the higher.  At times, however, Klein's confidence is shaken by an intense and intimate fear which upsets the hierarchy so that flesh dominates and degrades spirit.  To a disappointed idealist and humanist, the triumph of matter is an insult registered as subversion, decay, filth, madness and ultimately death.  Love is degraded if it is "half-angel and half slut" (CP, 280).  Life is crude in "Come Two, Like Shadows" (CP, 266-67) where Plato and Freud "haggle" and wrestle within the psyche.  Plato, who speaks for "Love that is fleshless, passion that is dry," seems hardly more attractive than Freud, who has a "pudendal face" and interprets dreams about "carnivorous ladies."  Nor is there any suggestion that the two might cooperate.  In "Desideratum" (CP, 268-69), there is little comfort in the Kabbalistic doctrine that the flesh is sacred.  Instead it behaves like a tyrant, enslaving the powers of life and condemning them to death ("heap o'bones").  Meanwhile the body goes about its business: "its grosser tasks, ejaculate, excrete, / digest, perspire, micturate."  In "Les Vespasiennes,"33 seraphim are "maimed by metabolism" and suffer the indignities of disease, decay and perversion.  They prove that the "bubbling self" has only a "chemical core," not a spiritual one:

we are not God.  Not God.  Why, not,
not even angels, but something less than men,
creatures, sicknesses, whose pornoglot
identities swim up within our ken
from the graffiti behind the amputate door.

     Although these examples suggest squeamishness on Klein's part, his anguish is deeper and threatens the cultural definitions of character, self and poet that he has so patiently established.  The golem in his strongest image of the body and, beyond that, of matter itself as the mortal substance mocking man's "immortal yearnings" (a phrase from Anthony and Cleopatra that Klein was fond of).  "Talisman in Seven Shreds" (CP, 133-36) is his most painful meditation on matter as the basis of human identity.   It is a sonnet sequence whose decorous formality ironically contrasts its vision of absurdity.  It builds an opposition between matter-clay-dust-mud-mire on one hand, and spirit-spark-germ-logoslanguage-prayer on the other.  The dust does not form a prism to refract the divine radiance, as in the Spinoza poems.  Instead the talisman/tallis is shredded, the light dispersed.  The traditional hierarchy is reversed so that God becomes an image of the golem; reason is befouled and bemired; providence yields to an implacable necessity (Ananke) "driving the human through a mouldy portal."  Jewish tradition is parodied and subverted.  An echo of Psalm 121 serves only to condemn Jews to the alternatives of persecution or conversion: "He sleeps not, neither does He drowse, / custodian of Israel; He entrusts / unto a guided nit-wit his chief house."  Maimonides ("Guide to the Perplexed") can offer no guidance.  The asceticism of the mystics, which Ahad Ha-'Am judged an aberration, here becomes a fumbling authority, filching the logos and granting matter a gross vitality.  The source of life is matter: an "embryo of dusts," a "mystic chromosome," an algebraic formula temporarily serving as "Fons Vitae."  As Klein noted in an editorial, with the golem a clod becomes defender of the faith and mechanical substitute for the "truly human" (BS, 424).  But in the poem the golem dictates what is truly human: "The tongue is bitter when it must declare: matter is chaos, mind is chasm, fool, / the work of golems stalking in nightmare."  With the golem as saviour, Jews are doomed to a history of anti-Semitism and their prayer is merely baying at the moon.  Living in such a nightmare, the individual is helpless and bitter.  He can define himself only in terms of what he abhors.  He is homunculus, dwarf, shard, shred, "guts and pith" and finally "chasm."  He is characterized only by what frustrates him.  The allusions in the last sonnet, by confusing Shakespeasre and cliche, mock the power of creative imagination, the one spark the poet might assert to oppose "the alembic's spue."  Poems, words and spells can only conjure up another golem whose "earthy paw" supplants "the Lord's right hand."   Immortal yearnings are absurd.  At the end of the poem he is left poking the graveyard, wondering whether spirit or dust has prevailed.

     The triumph of matter, even of matter infused with life, is a triumph of death.  It threatens Klein as a person, a poet and a Jew.  From a cultural point of view these three are the same: they sustain each other.  In the later poetry, however, they become fragmented as Klein looks, not outward to the "folk," but inward, centripetally, where he can find no secure centre.  He associates the triumph of matter with the holocaust, which has made life "The hanging gardens of Death" (CP, 270) and has made Jews a cloud of dust and ash:

God's image made the iotas of God's name!
Oh, through a powder of ghosts I walk; through dust
Seraphical upon the dark winds borne;
Daily I pass among the sieved white hosts
Through clouds of cousinry transgress
Maculate with ashes that I mourn. (CP, 290)

The specks of dust resemble the letter (iota or yod) replacing the name of God, which must not be written.  "Elegy" addresses a God who has turned His back on His people: "Look down, O Lord, from Thy abstracted throne!" (CP, 291).  It invokes God if only to make good its curses, and therefore there may be some comfort, especially at the end in the prayer for Israel.  If we adopt Gretl Fischer's approach, there may even be some inspiration in the image of ashes: "he seems to imply that the murdered millions —  turned to smoke and transformed to dust, and towering above the land —   harboured God and became the guides of the living."34   She refers specifically to The Second Scroll and the Spinoza poems.  In this interpretation, matter may at first seem mortal and terrifying, but it ultimately symbolizes spirit.  Through biblical allusion (the pillar of cloud that guides Moses) it represents God's guidance, justice and therefore the essential spirituality of life.   Similarly the "scattered bone" (CP, 293) of the victims suggests Ezekiel's vision of the resurrection of the bones (Ezekiel, 37).  In this view, there is a secure centre for Jews as a people and for the individual soul, a centre which we can recognize if, guided by faith and the wisdom of the past, we learn to interpret its signs.   Specks, ash and bones are prophetic.  However, if we refuse to be inspired by symbols or rituals, if we insist that matter represents nothing beyond itself and cannot transcend itself, if we lack faith, then there is no comfort in the ashes.  There is no assurance of our national or personal identity.  In several poems Klein exhibits this deeper despair.

     In "Meditation Upon Survival" (CP, 288-89), he grows bitter at his "false felicity" because he realizes that his survival represents nothing and guarantees nothing.   Genealogically he participates only in a legacy of death:

At times, sensing that the golgotha'd dead
run plasma through my veins, and that I must live
their unexpired six million circuits, giving
to each of their nightmares my body for a bed —
inspirited, dispirited —
those times that I feel their death-wish bubbling the
channels of my blood. . . .

The only thing that has not expired is the desire for death.  He is inspirited because their deaths give his life its terrible meaning, but he is not inspired.  He is dispirited — not merely saddened, but deprived of spirit —  because he is no longer sustained by his heritage.  It now defines him as guilty survivor, dismembered monster (golem) and relic.  He is "the last point of a diminished race," in contrast to the iota of God's name.  As poet, his powers fail: he can only "cry out the tenses of the verb to die"; he is "Gerundive of extinct.  An original."  The last word is cruelly ironic since he is the end of his line rather than the beginning, since he cannot originate anything but despair, since his own identity is now in doubt.  At the end, bone and ash promise no immortality and no connection with his family past:

What else, therefore, to do
but leave these bones that are not ash to fill — 
O not my father's vault — but the glass-case
some proud museum catalogues Last Jew.

     Klein's alienation grows as he becomes increasingly "dispirited."  He pictures himself as outcast and sole survivor, as the artist excluded from a culture which is the "milieu of his futility,"35 as Joseph cast off by his brethren.  Drawn inward, he contemplates his condition like the psychiatric patient in his story, who retreats "into the oblivious introversion which was his usual state" (St, 236).  The patient discovers a world-destroying violence in himself.  Two poems also suggest the chaos that lurks within an apparently placid character.  In "The Library" (CP, 281-82), a man who seems all sophistication, sweetness and light abruptly reveals his hidden nature: "his secret — where wild beasts / yawned, and waved paw, circled, ran forward, roared / for the week's meat."  In "The White Old Lady" (CP, 287), a frail, pleasant woman also has a secret self associated mysteriously with monstrosity and madness.  When Klein looks within himself, he finds only a formless anxiety:

This globe, this world, this onion of humanity!
Unsheathe it, sheath by sheath
      mask after mask —
Even the core is unsheathable! — 
      pungency, bitterness, tears!36

There is no distinct self beneath the mask, no single core of humanity.  The true self remains undefined because in the midst of its anguish it is silent and empty.  Klein uses a series of images to suggest he can find only shadows within himself.  He sees a phantom, double, ghost, cuckold, usurper, imposter.  He detects a "prowler in the mansion of my blood" (CP, 260), who remains invisible but leaves traces of death.  He is "Sir Incognito  — Rabbi Alias" (CP, 236).  He lives "in the shivering vacuums his absence leaves" (CP, 334).  He is reduced to "a shadow's shadow," "an x . . . incognito, lost, lacunal" (CP, 332, 331).

     Klein's self scrutiny is not the romantic introspection of a selfsacrificing poet who puts his heart on display.   He had recast this traditional pose in Jewish terms in his "Epistle Theological" of 1929: "You first suffer yourself to undergo the self-inflicted Cheshbon Hanefesh, the introspective purgatory, the soliliquy of reminiscence, the summation of the soul so typical of our cautious mentality" (St, 3).  In his later poetry, the soul cannot be surveyed or summed up with such authority since the very principle of authority has been challenged.  It is true that in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" the poet ultimately reafffirms his identity and authority.  He makes a halo of his anonymity and finds a safe refuge in the sea of imagination.   What save him are the creativity and wonder which are his essential powers.  He can still distinguish an essence which sustains him despite his apparent drowning and death.  There is an aesthetic reduction of the self that is not fatal and may even be beneficial, as Terpetoff, another romantic, explains in "The Bells of Sobor Spasitula": "he would speak as of some high blue oblivion, a paradoxical state where all was nothing, and this nothing — everything" (St, 286).  In "Portrait of the Poet as a Nobody" (the original title), the speaker's "status as zero" is a purging that renews his god-like creativity.  In other poems, however, Klein fails to reaffirm an authentic self capable of a self-effacement that does not endanger its essential truth.  Instead his introspection reveals either chaotic emotion or vacancy: "The nulls and zeros of the daylong hours / The wild laocoon cauchemar of the night."37

     Wylie Sypher regards the reduction and denial of the self in art as the characteristic modern experience.  The "romantic self"  — individual, defiant, wilful, Promethean — falls apart and leaves a modern, anonymous, neutral self in its place.  The latter can no longer locate its individuality in thought, desire or action: "The romantic quest for freedom changed into the existential quest for an authentic self capable of being identified and sustained amid the average. . . .  The main post-romantic task is to identify the irreducible minimum of our experience that can be honestly identified as our own."  Klein cannot find an irreducible self, and the minimum of his experience binds him to matter, the holocaust and death.  He cannot accompany Sypher further into the post-existentialist phase, where Sypher finds new, if meagre, grounds for optimism in "some minimal residue of a self that still causes us trouble, malaise, unhappiness.  This minimal self, a nearly spectral identity that refuses to vanish, or that cannot vanish, is the cornerstone on which the new humanism must be based — a humanism so strange it seems not to be humanistic."38  For Klein the only residue of the self is dust and ashes, the spectral identity a prowler in the blood.  In his darkest and barest moments, he cannot even find a minimal self: "matter is chaos, mind is chasm" (CP, 135).  The Siberian exile described in "Letter from Afar" is also a state of being: "The unnegateable negation! . . .  I write from its very centre and vacuum. . . .  They are sounds — these echoes of non-existence — suited to the annihilating nothingness to which I have been condemned" (St, 255).

     With this nihilistic vision, we return finally to the point of departure — Klein's attitude to religion.  Traditionally the authenticity of the individual, and of Jews particularly as the chosen people, is guaranteed by God's covenant: "I behold thee in all things, and in all things: lo, it is myself; I look into the pupil of thine eye, it is my very countenance I see" (CP, 131).  The authenticity of the imagination is also ensured by its analogy with God's creative fiat.  Even the effacement of the self and the impoverishment of the imagination have religious justification: negation is an aspect of mystical experience and of the messianic quest.  In Kabbalism, God is infinitely beyond our comprehension.  He is En-Sof, the hidden, impersonal, inconceivable creator who exists, in the Kabbalistic phrase, "in the depths of His nothingness."39   Man can approach Him through devout self-abnegation and denial, which permit him to cleave or attach himself to God (devekut).  Gershom Scholem writes: "There is one saying of the Baal Shem — apparently the only one — stating that the process of yihud, [unification] which is accomplished through devekut, transforms the Ego, or ani, into the Naught, or ain . . . .  Many of the classical writings of Hasidim overflow with lucubrations on the communion with 'Nothingness' and the path by which man retraces his steps from 'aught' to 'naught.' "40  For Klein too, the lowly self evaporates as it approaches God: "I am lost; before these miracles / I am nothing at all" (CP, 131).  But the loss and dislocation which I have noted in some of his poems are quite different.  They cannot contribute to a spiritual exercise because they arise from despair in spirit.  They are not dramas of self-renunciation in which the self can be renounced safely because it is guaranteed by God.  God, if He exists, is against man and remains silent.  Spirit may exist, but its symbols (words, physical signs, poetry) have no power or validity. The self is assured only in its physical being, but this assures it of nothing.

     Gretl Fischer evaluates the mystical ain (Naught) in Klein's poetry, admits that the doctrine is "put to a cruel test," but concludes that after rebellion and resignation, he works his way back to a hesitant faith. 41 In any critical account of his work, it is tempting to repeat the pattern of The Second Scroll that leads from exile to redemption, multiplicity to unity, despair to faith.  It also leads from the alienated individual, unsure of his powers, to a confident people, united by their destiny.  To compensate for Klein's life, we seek a happy ending in his poetry.  Through our reading, we reconstruct a persona that permeates all his writing, lives an imaginative life of its own, matures from poem to poem and finally receives its just reward.  As Yeats advised, we make this larger poetic presence complete and intelligible.  The speaker of "And in that Drowning Instant" is the hero typical of this drama.  He discovers his death is a recapitulation and a triumph.  However, there is another current in Klein's work that cannot be assimilated to a comic pattern.  In this view, the poet in his poetry cannot assert or even locate his authority; he cannot ensure his own authenticity; he cannot take comfort in faith; he cannot master his destiny.  He finds that after the illusions of youth "All days thereafter are a dying off" (CP, 273) and an irreversible loss.  Phyllis Gotlieb detects "a certain vacuum behind Klein's work, a lack of presence, of the blood and bone he tried so hard to celebrate."42  I have argued that the vacuum or absence is within the work and within the poetic self that it creates.


  1. Louis Dudek, "A.M. Klein," in A.M. Klein, ed. Tom Marshall (Toronto: Ryerson, 1970),p. 67.[back]

  2. A.M. Klein: editions and abbreviations.  Short Stories, ed. M.W. Steinberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983): StBeyond Sambation: Selected Essays and Editorials 1928-1955, ed. M.W. Steinberg and Usher Caplan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); BS. The Second Scroll (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961): SS. The Collected Poems of A.M. Klein, ed.  Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974): CP. I have altered the poems in accordance with the corrections of Zailig Pollock in "Errors in The Collected Poems of A.M. Klein," Canadian Poetry, 10 (Spring / Summer 1982), 91-99.[back]

  3. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 39.[back]

  4. Miriam Waddington, A.M. Klein (Toronto: Copp Clark and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1970), pp. 11, 17.[back]

  5. Irving Layton, "Review of Poems (1944)," in Marshall, p. 24.  M.W. Steinberg, "Poet of a Living Past: Tradition in Klein's Poetry," in Marshall, pp. 102-03.[back]

  6. Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Vintage, 1973), pp. 107, 109.[back]

  7. Miriam Waddington, "The Function of Folklore in the Poetry of A.M. Klein," Ariel, 10 (July 1979), p. 9ff. Tom Marshall, "Theorems Made Flesh: Klein's Poetic Universe," in Marshall, p. 155.[back]

  8. Usher Caplau, Like One that Dreamed (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1982), pp. 36, 44, 105.[back]

  9. Usher Caplan, A.M. Klein: An Introduction, Ph.D. Thesis, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1976, p. 24.[back]

  10. W. B.  Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 509.[back]

  11. Leon Edel, "Marginal Keri and Textual Chetiv: The Mystic Novel of A.M. Klein," The A.M. Klein Symposium, ed. Seymour Mayne (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1975), pp. 16, 19.[back]

  12. Leon Edel, Stuff of Sleep and Dreams (New York: Avon, 1982), p. 27.[back]

  13. Quoted by Noreen Golfman in "Semantics and Semitics: The Early Poetry of A.M. Klein," University of Toronto Quarterly, 51 (Winter 1981-82), p. 183.  The passage is quoted slightly differently by Caplan in A.M. Klein: An Introduction p. 159.[back]

  14. "Some Letters of A.M. Klein to A.J.M. Smith," The A.M. Klein Symposium, p. 13.[back]

  15. Zailig Pollock, "The Myth of Exile and Redemption in 'Gloss Gimel,' " Studies in Canadian Literature, 4 (Winter 1979), p. 29.[back]

  16. Usher Caplan, A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 27.[back]

  17. Usher Caplan, A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 138.[back]

  18. Demagogue and hero are discussed by Zailig Pollock in "Sunflower Seeds: Klein's Hero and Demagogue," Canadian Literature, 82 (Autumn 1979), 48-58.[back]

  19. John Sutherland, "The Poetry of A.M. Klein," in Marshall, p. 44.[back]

  20. Robert Langbaum, The Mysteries of Identity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 176, 150, 170, 190.[back]

  21. Usher Caplan, A.M. Klein: An Introduction, pp. 164-65.[back]

  22. Noreen Golfman, p. 189.[back]

  23. Klein's comment to Leon Edel quoted in "Marginal Keri and Textual Chetiv: The Mystic Novel of A.M. Klein," p. 25.[back]

  24. Quoted by Usher Caplan, A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 164.[back]

  25. Selected Essays of AhadHa-'Am, trans. Leon Simon (New York: Atheneum, 1981), p. 161.[back]

  26. Selected Essays of Ahad Ha-'Am, pp. 80-81, 133, 90, 147, 92.[back]

  27. Klein's essay, "The Bible's Archetypal Poet" is discussed by several critics, especially M.W. Steinberg in "The Conscience of Art: A.M. Klein on Poets and Poetry," A Political Art: Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock, ed. William H. New (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1978), 82-94.[back]

  28. Klein comment to Leon Edel quoted in "Marginal Keri and Textual Chetiv: The Mystic Novel of A.M. Klein," p. 26.[back]

  29. Quoted by Usher Caplan in A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 160.[back]

  30. Selected Essays of Ahad Ha-'Am, pp. 146, 150.[back]

  31. M.W. Steinberg, "The Conscience of Art: A.M. Klein on Poets and Poetry," pp. 92, 85, 88.[back]

  32. "Spinoza: on Man, on the Rainbow," Like One that Dreamed, p. 216.[back]

  33. Like One that Dreamed, p. 200.[back]

  34. Gretl K. Fischer, In Search of Jerusalem (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975), pp. 173-74.[back]

  35. "The Usurper," A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 118.[back]

  36. "Mais c'est pas de me oignons, ca!" A.M. Klein: An Introduction, p. 241; also in Like One that Dreamed, p. 208.[back]

  37. Like One that Dreamed, p. 208.[back]

  38. Wylie Sypher, Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 29, 68.[back]

  39. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 13.[back]

  40. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 214.[back]

  41. Gretl K. Fischer, p. 98ff.[back]

  42. Phyllis Gotlieb, "Hassidic Influences in the Work of A.M. Klein," The A.M. Klein Symposium, p. 63.[back]