My Lexicon - An Introduction by...I. L. Peretz
An Introduction by...Yitskhok Leybush Peretz
Introduction to the introduction:
The galleys of this book, typeset, printed, and not yet bound, lie before me. And suddenly, I’m frightened of publishing it. And when you’re afraid to travel alone, you seek out a companion. I began thinking and thinking, and then I thought that My Lexicon--of Yiddish Poets, Novelists, and Dramaturges in Poland--between the Two World Wars really needed an introduction from the father of modern Yiddish literature, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz.
I entered into dream and began pleading:
“I want an introduction...” I said, terse and quiet.
“I don’t write introductions!” He answered, terse and harsh.
“But I want an introduction for a book about Yiddish verbal artists in Poland: in Warsaw, in Vilna, in Lodz, in Lemberg…” And my voice was full of tears, for I love the memory of Peretz like that of my own father.
“Who are you?” He was somewhat moved, for he is goodness itself.
“Melech Ravitch…” I answered without temerity.
“I don’t know who you are!”
“Father, you don’t remember? In 1912, during the seven fat years of your celebrity, you wrote seven meager words about my first-born book.”
“Indeed! So what do you want?”
“A brief introduction to my new book. It is a strange book and I am afraid to be alone with it. I’ll be misunderstood. It is a book of about ninety intimate portraits of faces--and over all of them hangs the vision of your face, father. The strained faces of the builders of a pyramid, whose foundation was first laid for your scepter had commanded it.”
“But I am old and tired from being so long dead!”
“Father, you’re making fun of me. You are still the youngest and freshest of us all.”
“Do you really think so?!” He gasped.
“I swear, father. That’s the truth.”
“Where is your book?!”
“Here it is, father.” (A cutting wind rustled through my few hundred pages with a sharp sssss and the now-read book was again in my hand.)
“It is written!”
“Where, great father? I see nothing in my hand except for my own book.”
“It is written! It is all there in my work! All! All! I have no more time! Dinezon and Anski are waiting!”
“I know that everything is in your work. I know--if only everyone knew, as I know. But where--your work has been so chaotically collected.”
“I know that! But the introduction is there twice! Once in the eight volume and once in the sixteenth! Find it! And take what you will from there! And be afraid no longer! No one will dislike the book, because “no one dislikes their own photograph!”...(“My Memoir,” Volume 12, page 5).
“Great father, don’t talk like that, it’s too painful to hear--don’t you know that a great, great many of my subjects are already dead, prematurely dead…”
With those words of mine, Yitskhok Leybush Peretz vanished, and the vision and the illusion disappeared...and I was alone with my few hundred pages and there was the introduction, which I had composed, word in word with Peretz’s words--according to the gesture, the decree, of the most golden scepter our entire literature has ever had.
...Literati, just like women, have thus far occupied an artificial place, a false position in social life. Either they are a nonentity, or a sorrow, a plague, or an angel. Not a person, never a person...It is long since time to cut our ties to the old customs, to free our minds from the old misconceptions...a man of letters is also a man, at the very least he must be human...the public...must acquaint itself to the the idea that literary writers are people who work and earn their livings with the pen, just as others do with the axe or the needle. And if it happens that a bellelitrist--that is, a person--steals ribbons from a store...then they will go to prison just like anybody else. That is, if all thieves are sent to prison...The public...must first rid itself of an ugly conceptual mistake, namely, that the contemporary public--if there is such a thing today--either over- or undervalues the man of letters. Over- or undervalues every last printed word: either it is merely a trifle, a fairy tale, an indulgence, or else it is just the opposite: holy prophecy, irrefutable and incontrovertible. They don’t know that a person writes, just as a person talks..regardless of who or when.
What is the meaning of private life? A person lives privately in a desert, a hermit (poresh, פרוש) in the forest, perhaps some premodern Yeshiva layabout loitering behind the besmedresh (House of Study) hearth. A person living among people is never private. He who does something--particularly he who writes--lives socially, publicly; he must be either useful or harmful, and he can, ought, and must be evaluated. True, valuation belongs to the judge, indictment to the prosecutor, denouncement to the informer, and hanging to the executioner…So too are there specialists in the field of literature...if someone simply loves vivisection, something must be done about him.
As I said: everything, everything must be criticized publicly--above all the writer. He who speaks to the public belongs to the public. The public has the right to desire, occasionally, at any rate, for the man behind the pulpit to be exposed, stripped of his tales, and shown just who prays when he preaches, who blows the shofar at his service.
People used to say: Criticize the work, not the author. Today it is the author on account of the work. For even the most cleverly concealed writer’s ugly mug slips out into his work between the lines and between the letters. For no matter how he hides, whom and whatever he commands to speak, whatever he puts in whomever’s mouth--he is the speaker, his heart speaks. And--a word is a man, and a man is a word. And parody, if it is true parody, is nothing more than a key to the puzzle of the work.
And once again:
For even the most cleverly concealed writer’s mug slips out into his work from between the lines and between the letters. For no matter how he hides, whom and whatever he commands to speak, whatever he puts in whomever’s mouth--
He is the speaker,
His heart speaks.
I. L. Peretz, 1905