In this essay I want to examine what constitutes the ideology of a literary text. I put at the center of my discussion Aharon Appelfeld's novel Badenhaim 'Ir Nofesh for several reasons.(1) Badenhaim deals with one of modern civilization's most destructive eruptions of ideology, where such ideology is political yet is not, for this reason, any less ideological in the contemporary terms that I intend to specify. The context of the novel's central representation is matched by an equally powerful ideological formation, toward which, as a work of Israeli fiction written in Hebrew, that representation may well seem to point: political Zionism. For this reason Badenhaim has itself been accused of ideological determinism. Yet it is an extraordinarily well crafted and affecting work of art that, though not primarily political either in intention or in construction, is deeply conscious of the problem of ideology for which it is faulted. Indeed, as a work of art within a tradition of such works, it frames and explores this problem and, ultimately, discovers and represents (in both senses) a powerful way of recasting the relationship between ideology and human moral freedom.
Badenhaim is a grotesque, Kafkaesque "allegory of European Jewry on the eve of its annihilation."(2) A group of highly assimilated Austro-Jewish vacationers flock, as they do every year, to the resort town of Badenheim for an annual music festival. There the Nazis (represented by the Sanitation Department) begin the slow process of incarcerating them. Ultimately, they are deported to what we (but not they) know to be the death camps of Poland. Throughout the story the vacationers, a motley and eccentric lot, respond to their approaching doom with disbelief and bizarrely heightened gaiety. To the end they remain optimistic, believing either that nothing untoward will happen or that their imminent deportation to Poland will turn out to be a good thing.
For most readers Badenhaim, like Appelfeld's other writings, represents a powerful confrontation with the inexplicable pain and horror of the Holocaust. It is less concerned with explicating the events than in figuring the victims' incomprehension, a stunned amazement that prevents self-reflection or action. Appelfeld's writing "works to defuse the norms of judgment . . . and to establish in their place a stance of understanding. Understanding is not forgiveness. . . . To understand means to accept that such is the nature of things, that to survive in a world in which what happened happened means to have done certain things and to be a certain way. Appelfeld's goal is our knowledge of that world."(3) Because the novel maintains "respect for reticence, for representational limits," it has seemed exceptional among Holocaust fictions.(4) "Everything having to do with what the French call the concentrationary universe - the transports, the camp, the Einsatzgruppen, the fascination with the Nazis and the paraphernalia of evil, that is to say, the entire stock-in-trade of conventional Holocaust literature - all this is left out. Before, after, parallel to - yes; anything but the thing itself' (Mintz, 206).(5) Both for this reason and because he was among the first Israeli writers to make the Holocaust a subject of Hebrew fiction, Appelfeld has seemed almost unique on the Israeli cultural scene, revalidating for Israelis the disowned and disavowed experience of diaspora Jewry.(6)
In a sensitive and intelligent critique of Badenhaim, however, Michael Andre Bernstein emphatically rejects the dominant reading of the novel:
By representing the Jews of Badenheim as irredeemably selfish and petty, he [Appelfeld] commits the greater offense of leaving unchallenged the monstrous proposition that Europe's Jews were somehow "deserving" of punishment. As Ruth Wisse points out, Appelfeld's allegory can only work by "taking the real terror imposed from without by real human forces and internalizing it, thereby further obscuring its origins and meaning. . . . Fate sits in judgment on all the ugly, assimilated Jews - fate in the form of the Holocaust. The result is a series of pitiless moral fables more damning of the victims than of the crime perpetrated against them." The result described here has nothing to do with Appelfeld's intention, but rather with the logical and rhetorical implications of his formal decisions and with the vision of history correlate with those decisions. (66-7)(7)
This "vision of history," Bernstein continues, has to do with the nationalistic aspirations of Zionism:
Why and with what consequences it is primarily the history of anti-Semitic persecution and the fear of constantly new eruptions of the same disease that are still invoked by the Israeli right to legitimize the actions of the Jewish state rather than the historical values and traditions fundamental to Judaism itself[?] But well before statehood was achieved, Zionist leaders of every political orientation regularly invoked the rights conferred by Jewish victimization in their calculations. . . . So it is scarcely surprising that early in 1992, a senior figure in what was then the Israeli government headed by Yitzhak Shamir said that any territorial negotiations were inherently suicidal because the pre-1967 borders of Israel were nothing but "the borders of Auschwitz."
Understanding the extraordinary pressures that this same cast of mind places on Israeli political discourse and self-conception helps to underscore the significance of the September 9, 1993 Israeli decision "to recognize the P.L.O. as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the P.L.O. within the Middle East peace process" (from the letter of Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, to Yasir Arafat, Chairman of the P.L.O.). The Israeli capacity to negotiate directly with the P.L.O. is part of the general loosening of both the claims and the anxieties of victimhood on the national imagination. (76-7; cf. 13-4, 74-94)
Bernstein faults Badenhaim for being narrowly political. Yet his reading of it betrays a political perspective that extends into Israeli party politics. In fact, it is difficult not to take Bernstein's revisionary reading of Appelfeld as his contribution to the national political debate. Only in a footnote does Bernstein acknowledge that the sentiments he quotes in relation to the Shamir government repeat Labor Party rhetoric of the late 1960s, thus doubling the ideological problematic of his citation of this material.
It is by no means irrelevant to one's thinking about literary and literary-critical politics that Bernstein's view of Zionism resonates powerfully with several recent statements made in academic essays concerning contemporary Israeli issues. In an essay on narratology, one critic feels compelled to note, with no elaboration or contextualization, the way that "Zionism has continued to exclude and marginalize the Palestinians"; a footnote in an article on Chaucer and anti-Semitism makes the point that "Judaic culture" is not "free from violence" and adds that "these days in Palestine [sic] . . . children and adults are being beaten and murdered by Jews in a struggle for territorial expansion"; in a reading of the unresolved tensions in the biblical text, another critic imports her own ambivalence about modern-day Israel to clinch her argument; and, finally, the preface to a book concerning New World exploration and exploitation announces that the study is nothing less than a "critique of the Zionism in which [the critic] was raised."(8) Many critics whom Bernstein cites represent similar political positions on the Jewish political spectrum.
I do not want to mount a defense of Badenhaim simply by attacking the ideological premises of its critics, especially since I am implicated in the debate. Nor do I want to expose the recurring presuppositions of contemporary literary criticism to make the point, however valid, that just as literary texts express unexamined ideologies, so too do critical readings. It seems to me, however, that Badenhaim offers a brilliant response to the very problem of ideology and the literary text that Bernstein and others raise. The issue Bernstein's methodology inadvertently exposes is how we hear the voice in which a particular text speaks - how we disentangle political rhetoric from the nuanced, often tormented structure of a text's engagement with ethics and belief.
The term ideology is slippery. It no longer refers to anything as straightforward as a sociopolitical program or a self-consciously articulated set of beliefs. Rather, it has to do with the relationship among three basic elements in the cognitive process: subject, object, and representation. For many critics the revolution in the concept of ideology occurs with Marx. Before Marx, whether subject is preferred over object or vice versa, or whether subject and object enjoy autonomous or mutually constructed existences, the triadic relationship among subject, object, and representation is marked by some measure of transparency. Representation provides a more or less reliable vehicle of referentiality by which a subject might know the world. With Marx's concept of "false consciousness," representation wrenches loose of the moorings of mind and world to become the instrument that itself fashions consciousness. Whether ideology represents false consciousness, as it does for Marx, or for Michel Foucault or Terry Eagleton, or whether it represents consciousness itself, as it does for such postmodernists as Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, remains a fundamental issue that separates contemporary literary criticisms.(9)
Embedded in the debate is the issue of freedom and moral responsibility. The concept of false consciousness keeps open an idea of freedom, since it remains possible to imagine the act by which the mind recognizes the falseness of culture and its own difference from it. But the idea of the mind's …