Looking for telling echoes in poems and memoirs, Leslie Morris explores the making of cultural memory, diasporic identity, and history itself.
Leslie Morris recalls with bemusement that she vowed for years “never to go into a ‘foreign language.’” Growing up in a Chicago home steeped in French culture, with French and Hungarian spoken as often as English, and amid the odd shadows of her family’s sub-rosa Judaism, Morris had the restive desire for normalcy typical of many children reared bilingually. “I felt I had to fight to claim my own language and identity,” she says, recalling a childhood spent cringing from petits-beurre while gazing wistfully toward Oreos. “I fervently wanted to be American.”
Morris looks back now on her childhood cultural farrago as a great gift she was unable to appreciate at the time. “It’s the lens through which I see everything now,” says Morris, who pointedly majored in English, at Smith College, before deciding to go to Germany to study German. More specifically, she says, “I discovered what most intrigued me was exploring that ‘edge between’—between languages and between experience and representation.” A doctorate in Germanic languages and literatures gave her a new vantage point to do just that, first as a faculty member at Bard College and, since 1998, in Minnesota’s GSD department, where she last year was promoted to associate professor and named director of the interdisciplinary Center for Jewish Studies.
With three books and many articles to her credit, Morris has made a name for herself in literary theory and Jewish cultural studies. Focusing on “translation” in its broadest sense, she probes deeply into—and beyond—works of postwar German and Austrian poetry and memoir to explore the changing face of Eastern Europe and East Central Europe, the overlapping links between German and Jewish history and culture, and the complexities of Jewish identity across time and space.
“Memory and history are the overarching themes in my work,” Morris says. “I come to these themes with a literary angle, but I don’t see literature as separate from history, culture, and context.” More than a text itself, Morris explains, she is interested in “textuality”— essentially, the dynamic interplay between what lies within the text (including echoes of other texts) and what lies outside of it (including what the reader brings to the reading). Both writing and reading are, stresses Morris, acts of translation.
Sound and echo
Her interest in “that edge between” plays out prominently in her provocative exploration of how poets and memoirists address issues of exile and the diaspora that are central to the experience of Jews, especially since the 1930s. Studying East Central European poets Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer, among others, Morris seeks insights into what she calls “Jewish diasporic consciousness,” a sense of “Jewishness” as an ongoing dialectic involving “place and exile, sound and echo.” This dialectic invokes a shared history, Morris says, and yet is not dependent upon geography, language, genealogy, or even religion.
“I don’t think about ‘diaspora’ in the conventional sense,”emphasizes Morris, who credits Jewish poets such as Celan, Allen Ginsberg, Dan Pagis, and Edmond Jabés (as well as other writers such as Octavio Paz, Mahmoud Darwish, and even Wallace Stevens) as “incredibly important” in her thinking. She explains, “I’m interested in how the thoughts and echoes of memory and history are translated, questioned, and carried on through literature— not to arrive at a fixed or containable or ‘pure’ notion of ‘Jewishness,’ but to gain a deeper understanding of what ‘Jewishness’ means as a fragmented, diasporic identity.”
Poetry such as Ausländer’s, Morris says, “is often seen as straightforward ‘Holocaust literature,’ but actually is more complicated and ambiguous. Ausländer’s meditations on her homeland, her relationship to German language and culture, her exile in New York and eventual return to Germany—it’s a multilayered working out of what it is to be Jewish,” Morris says, “and I think even speaks to a notion of diaspora that lies beyond a singularly Jewish conception.”
Looking at Ausländer’s work alongside the work of other writers, such as Celan and Pagis, Morris says, “You see they have in common this way of ‘hovering between.’ There’s this ‘Jewish’ consciousness, but it’s provisional, open-ended—an ongoing translation. Jewish identity may be linked to homelands that no longer exist and languages no longer spoken, and to a sense of exile. It may be tied to memories that blur with echoes of memories— think of newsreel images—removed from the thing itself. It may involve things that can’t be named. It’s incredibly messy, and ultimately, it suggests that Jewishness itself is highly transitive, defined always across a border of loss, or imagined loss.”
Morris has joined other scholars in rethinking the widely accepted notion of a symbiotic relationship between Germans and Jews. “The notion of a German-Jewish symbiosis keeps Germans and Jews locked in history—in an inevitable, tragic trajectory,” says Morris, who last year coedited (with GSD’s Jack Zipes) a volume of essays on the topic. “I would argue that to have a German-Jewish symbiosis, you have to have a pretty static idea of what ‘German’ is and what ‘Jewish’ is. But you have only to look at memoirs by Holocaust survivors to see how that notion breaks down.”
Post-Holocaust literature only underscores the notion of a transitive Jewish identity,Morris says. “You see how the representation of memory and identity takes various hybrid forms—how memoirists grapple reflectively with what can be remembered and told, with what’s authentic, what’s an echo.”
Morris saw in her own family the complexity of these issues. Her father was an American Jew of Russian-born parents; Morris had morphed out of Moskowitz by the time her grandfather landed in Chicago. Her mother was born to Hungarian parents (one of them Jewish) in France, where they survived the war.Yet Jewishness, in Morris’ family, “was quite suppressed, more or less subsumed under ‘Frenchness,’” Morris recalls.
“It was rarely talked about, taboo. There were certain set stories I heard, repetitively, and snatches of ‘Jewish’ words that were never explained but that somehow thrilled me. In some ways, my task of literary interpretation is a way of getting to the heart of my own family’s stories, of trying to unravel the layers, to translate the unreachable.”
Banality and the elegiac The unreachable may be just that, Morris allows. Through her research, she has come to believe that attempts to represent Holocaust experiences “almost invariably are less rich and interesting than the discussion about the impossibility of representation.” “One would think that elegiac texts would be connected to the sublime, but most Holocaust poetry is really quite banal—flat, obvious, cliché-ridden,” Morris explains. Using the reflective, personal voice she brings to all her scholarly writing, Morris explores this topic in a recent book chapter titled “Berlin Elegies: Presence and Absence in German Holocaust Remembrance.”
“Banality and the elegiac often come together. People grappling with loss often fall back on poetic repetition—which is, of course, relevant to our understanding of how memory and history are ‘translated’ in texts.” Translation itself “is fundamentally elegiac,” Morris points out, in that it inevitably carries with it the possibility of loss. For Morris, “a preoccupation with ‘the absent’ is the thread that runs through all of the writers and theorists I’m interested in.” It’s also a theme that Morris sees as central to many issues in Jewish studies and to “questions about Eastern Europe and East Central Europe in the wake of the Holocaust.”
A sharp sense of loss and a preoccupation with grief are at the root of the current preoccupation with commemoration and memorialization in Germany and Eastern Europe, Morris says. She has focused on the city of Czernowitz, the birthplace of Celan and Ausländer, formerly a part of the Hapsburg monarchy and then variously part of the USSR, Romania, and now the Ukraine.
What particularly interests Morris is the interplay between the fabled Jewish history of cities such as Czernowitz, Vilna, and Krakow, and their postwar state of destruction. “I’m interested in the ways in which these former centers of Jewish culture and life become fetishized in the current climate of obsession with memorialization of past Jewish life, of absence,” Morris explains.
Morris’ interest in Czernowitz is tied to her work on Yiddish poetry, as Czernowitz was the site of a famous 1908 conference on Yiddish culture. Having learned Yiddish in graduate school, Morris has written about Ausländer’s poetic ties to her Landsmann, the Yiddish modernist poet Itsik Manger.
Reckoning with the past
Morris finds encouraging another development in today’s Germany. Debates about that country’s role in a reconfigured Europe have spurred a new public reckoning—one that recently has expanded to permit “leftist public intellectuals who are non-Jews but antifascists to begin the
conversation about the bombing of Dresden,” Morris says. “This breaks the longstanding taboo about looking at German non-Jewish victims of the war. In my view the conversation will be richer when it includes all of the complexities and contradictions of history.”
“It’s an interesting moment right now for German- Jewish studies,”says Morris, who assumed directorship of the Center for Jewish Studies (CJS) a year ago. “There’s a lovely debate unfolding about the role of Jewish culture within German culture, a questioning—‘how Jewish should German studies become?’”
Articles and conferences more and more have taken up the topic, notes Morris, who is a member of the newly constituted Academic Advisory Council of the Leo Baeck Institute, the main national organization for German-Jewish studies.At Minnesota, Morris notes, “Jewish studies have long been an integral part of the fabric of German studies.
“It’s one of the things I love about GSD,” says Morris. “I don’t think a lot of German departments are as comfortable as this one with interdisciplinarity, with engaging with the provocative, with pushing the boundaries.”
Interdisciplinarity isn’t just a buzzword for Morris. As director of the CJS, she works closely with faculty in classical and Near Eastern studies, as well as with some in the departments of history, American studies, English, music, anthropology, and French.
Her classes, too, are interdisciplinary. Morris last year taught a graduate-level course on diaspora poetics crosslisted by GSD, the Jewish studies program, and the cultural studies and comparative lit department.“I brought in Hebrew texts; and Arabic,American,French,Portuguese, and Spanish texts—in addition to works by German writers such as Celan and Kafka,” Morris says. “Still, I would maintain it was a German course, crucial to German studies.”
Morris finds her students up to the challenge of complex conversations. “One student last semester sat quietly in the class for several weeks, and then one day brought in his own translations of a Palestinian poet we were discussing,” she marvels. “My students surprise me all the time.”
FOCUS: Postwar German and Austrian poetry and Jewish studies; the poetics of exile, diaspora, and the border.
EDUCATION: Ph.D., M.A., U Massachusetts, Amherst (Germanic languages and literatures).
RECENT PUBLICATIONS: Contemporary Jewish Writing in Germany (ed. with Karen Remmler, U of Nebraska Press, 2002) x Unlikely History: The Changing German-Jewish Symbiosis (ed. with GSD ‘s Jack Zipes, Palgrave, 2002).
FAMILY: Partner Shevvy Craig, a lecturer in English and cultural studies and comparative lit; dog, Theo, a 2-year-old German Shepherd. HOME: A 1925 Dutch colonial in Minneapolis ‘ Tangletown neighborhood—“directly under a major airport flight path, which I love. I ‘m fascinated with planes, which to me represent the same kind of liminal space I explore in my work. I also like the sense of being directly connected to Europe. I ‘m terrified of flying, though.”
LAST GOOD MOVIE SEEN: All of Egoyan‘s films—Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat.
ON MY NIGHTSTAND: Poetry by the Russian Osip Mandelstam; dog mysteries (“There ‘s a whole genre, specialized by breeds. I am fascinated by writing about dogs, from mystery novels to Cervantes ‘ tale of the talking dogs. I ‘m just fascinated by dogs, period”).
LANGUAGES SPOKEN: German, French, Yiddish, and passable Italian (“I ‘m teaching myself biblical Hebrew; I ‘m pretty terrible, but I ‘m still working on it. I love listening to languages that I don ‘t speak or understand. That was part of the joy of living on the border to Poland [on a Fulbright fellowship just before coming to Minnesota]—I loved listening to the sound of Polish, a whoooshing sound”).