S. Y. Agnon

In the following excerpt from his article "From Story to Dreams in Agnon's Writings," Prof. Gershon Shaked discusses the role of dreams in the novel, A Guest for the Night. (For more about Agnon and A Guest for the Night, see below.)

The novel A Guest for the Night is undoubtedly the most complex of S.Y. Agnon's works. The novel describes the return of the narrator-hero to the village where he was born, recalling Agnon's own personal biography (he was born in Buczacz). This return involves his leaving the Land of Israel and his attempt to revive the study of Torah in his former village in Galicia. The town Buczacz, a representative Jewish town in Eastern Europe, is in decline. After the hero-narrator meets with various families, each of whom has lost sons in the First World War, he comes to understood that his call to return to the religious fold of Judaism is falling on deaf ears. The people are hungry and vulnerable; they long not for the metaphoric warmth of Torah study but for the physical warmth from the furnaces in the House of Learning. Against this background, the hero-narrator dreams two dreams, the first of which we will look at here.

"Before I went to sleep I knew that I would not get through the night without dreaming. And so it was. I myself opened the door to the Master of Dreams, that he might come and provoke me. But I overcame him, and left him behind — and I arose and embarked on a ship full of Jews, old men and old women, lads and maidens. Never in my life have I seen such beautiful people. I might compare the men with the sun and the women with the moon, but the sun and the moon are sometimes covered, and their light cannot be seen; these people shone incessantly. Once, on the Day of Atonement, near the hour of the Afternoon Service, I had seen a marvelous light through the window of the old House of Study and I thought to myself that no light could compare with it. But now I saw suddenly a light more marvelous still. The light I had seen earlier in the House of Study had been inanimate, while this light was alive — or, if you like, eloquent, for every single spark sang. Has a light a voice? Can it speak or sing? This is something that cannot be explained, and even if I were able to do so, I would not — rather, I would enjoy the light.

Now, what were these people doing at sea? The old men and women sat, their hands on their knees, gazing at the sea, while the lads and maidens danced and sang and danced some more. And do not be surprised, for that ship was going to the Land of Israel. I, too, danced, and when I stopped my feet rose up and made me dance again. An old man took hold of me and said, "We are short one man for a minyan [prayer quorum]." I wrapped myself in my tallit, and went with him to the room set aside for prayer.

The congregation was surprised, for it was time for the Evening Service, when the tallit is not worn. The old man went up to the Torah Ark and lit a candle. I went after him to take a prayerbook. The candle touched my prayer shawl and the flames leaped at it. Confused, I jumped into the sea. If I had thrown off my tallit I could have been saved from the flames. But I did not do so; instead I jumped into the sea. Not only was I not saved from the flames, but I was close to drowning. I raised my voice and shouted, so that others might hear and shout and come to my aid. But they did not shout; no voice was heard except my own, crying out, "Comfort the city that is mourning and burned."

I asked myself: Where is the old man? I raised my eyes and saw him leaning against the rail of the ship, not moving or nodding his beard. Another man came up, resembling Daniel Bach, but the Daniel I knew was missing one leg and this man was missing his two hands. I despaired, resigning myself to the waves of the sea. The sea lifted me gently and carried me to a certain place. I saw a glimmering light and thought: The place is inhabited, and surely the Jews here will have mercy on me and bring me to dry land. I raised my eyes to discover the source of the light. The blast of a strong wind blew out the candle. I saw that it was the same candle I had lit beside my bed. I turned over and closed my eyes; sleep overcame me and I slumbered.

After I had eaten breakfast I took the key and went to the House of Study, opened the door, entered, took out a book, and sat down to study. The book gripped me, and I studied with joy...."

This dream, like many other dreams, is based on the "day residue" on the one hand, and on traditional symbols, on the other. The dream's symbols are drawn from Zionist folklore and from the religious realm: dancing youths anticipating their "aliyah" and an old man calling for a prayer minyan (quorum of ten). The dancing youths appear later [in a second dream] as members of the village's Zionist youth movement, and the old man... as one who wishes to hold onto his religious faith and who is unable accept his son Daniel's apostasy and his dream to move to the Land of Israel.

At the center of the dream experience is the tallit (prayer shawl) which goes up in flames; this seems to be an act of divine retribution as it is made clear that the hero-narrator has not worn it at the proper time and at the proper service, as Jewish law prescribes; once the tallit begins to burn, the narrator chooses to jump into the ocean along with the burning tallit, rather than to throw it off his body.... The young people do not heed his calls for help, the cries of a man whose world is self-destructing. The one figure he had hoped would bring salvation turns out to be an amputee, i.e., a man who brings him no hope at all. (Amputation, as a symbol of spiritual impotence, reappears in another dream in this novel.) The hero loses all hope that Jews will come and save him, when he wakes suddenly; he tries to help himself and to save himself from despair by resorting to Torah study.

The dream plot shifts from pursuit of the high ideal of aliyah to the Holy Land, towards the rude realities of suicide, drowning, impotence. The subconscious exposes the absurdity in the hero's attempt to resuscitate the burning exile. So, too, does it signal the final awful awareness that the Zionist dream — the power of whose light was meant to surpass even that of the House of Study — has, in fact, evolved into a dismal Zionist reality of self-destruction, of death, and of spiritual desolation on the part of those trying "to build the land and be built by it."

The unexpected and strange juxtaposition of religious ceremonial objects (prayer shawl, candle, tziziot) with such social activities as Zionist aliyah and dance, gives the dream its symbolic meaning. It brings to the surface the collective repressed unconscious of an entire social group, of whom the hero-narrator serves as representative.

More about S.Y. Agnon and A Guest for the Night

From Introduction by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman in A Book that was Lost and other Stories, by S.Y. Agnon (Schocken 1995)

Throughout his long career, Nobel Laureate in Literature S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970) fashioned and refashioned the myth of himself as a writer. He told the story of his upbringing in Galicia, his journey to the Land of Israel, his extended sojourn in Germany, and his return to Jerusalem in many different versions, placing the persona of the writer at times at the center of the story and at times at the margins as a kind of ironic scaffolding... He shaped the narrative of his own beginnings to produce an image of the artist as a figure at once solitary and part of a community, both a rebel and a redeemer....

The quasi-biographical A Guest for the Night takes note of the writer's youthful rebellion, as its first-person narrator describes his early preference for writing poetry rather than studying traditional texts in the Beit Midrash (House of Study). That bit of personal history is then integrated into the narrator's account of his return [to his home village] for a year-long stay, during which he devotes himself to efforts to revive the dying town and to undo his own early rebellion through a newfound dedication to the study of old texts.

Agnon builds this major novel around the Beit Midrash, which serves as the organizing structure for the efforts of its narrator to bring about a restoration that is both personal and communal.... Agnon uses the novel to acknowledge traditions of learning and piety that the Beit Midrash represent, but also to mark the futility to preserve them in eastern Europe. Written in the 1930s, A Guest for the Night is set in the period immediately following World War I. In a sense, it can be said to straddle history by recording the devastation of the period immediately following World War I, while in retrospect conveying a sense of the greater destruction that was yet to come.

Gershon Shaked is professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University. He was awarded the Bilalik Literary Award in 1986 and the Israel Award for Literary Scholaship in 1993. Prof. Shaked has authored many publications; among the most recent: S.J. Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist (New York Univ. Press 1989); About Stories and Plays (Heb., Keter 1992); Literature Then and Now (Zemora Bitan 1993)



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