May 27, 2019
On April 18th, I attended “Circular Landscapes: A Symposium on Debora Vogel,” an event sponsored by the Joyce Z. and Jacob Greenberg Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, and hosted by Professor Anna Elena Torres. As an undergraduate involved with Yiddish studies on campus, and as In geveb’s #1 scrappy young reporter, I was invited to come and engage in “reportage,” a word I did not know. After looking that one up, and coming to an agreement with my Intro to Comparative Literature professor that my absence from his class to attend this event was “excusable,” I set off into the grey Chicago early-afternoon. The symposium was located in a classroom on the second floor of one of the more central academic buildings on campus. When I entered, the room was already bustling with participants, surrounding the horseshoe shaped table in the room’s center.
It was time for the event to begin. Professor Anna Elena Torres of the University of Chicago, the organizer of the symposium, introduced Vogel as well as her hopes for this meeting, the first academic event ever to focus on a single Yiddish woman poet. Dvoyre Vogel was born in Poland in 1900 to non-observant, Polish speaking Jews. She would remain in Poland her entire life, studying Philosophy in Cracow (her PhD dissertation was on Hegel) and ultimately settling in Lwów (also known as Lemberg). Though her father was a Hebraist, Vogel mostly wrote in Yiddish and was heavily involved the interwar Modernist scene in Poland.
In her introduction, Professor Torres underlined a significant piece of minutia. In designing the event’s posters, she had some difficulty deciding whether to spell Vogel’s name with an F or V. That is, how to represent her name, when a single English rendering cannot represent her multilingual millieu — to mark her with an F centers her Yiddish work, but she herself used the more Germanic V in title pages. Ultimately, she decided to follow Vogel’s self presentation and went with the V, a decision I have chosen to replicate. This seemingly trivial issue holds a strong relation to the ideas present in Vogel’s artistic and critical work. Material detail and the fraught relations of material reality, as well as the multiethnic and multilingual contexts in which she wrote and was read, were to be the questions of the day.
This line of inquiry generally, and regarding typography specifically, was continued in the first paper presented: “Anthologizing Dvoyre Fogel” by Kathryn Hellerstein of the University of Pennsylvania. It should be noted, Hellerstein continued, that this was likely the first scholarly symposium ever to be held for a single Yiddish woman poet. Being but a Yiddish initiate, I had not realized the importance of this occasion until then. In English and Yiddish scholarly circles, Vogel has traditionally been marginalized in favor of her friend and frequent interlocutor Bruno Schulz. Because of her status as a Yiddish writer, she was all but totally excluded from broader literary and theoretical circles; because of her status as a woman, she was excluded even from Yiddish scholarly circles.
Professor Hellerstein continued with an anecdote relating her first encounter with Vogel. During the long course of her work on an anthology of Yiddish women’s poetry, she had received a package from Itzik Gottesman containing copies of work he thought she would find relevant. In that package was a xeroxed copy of Vogel’s book of poetry mannekinen. She flipped through, but quickly tossed it aside, repelled by the strange, square, sterile font. Instead, she focused on the work of poets like Miryam Ulinover, whose works were printed with stretched type, resembling Jewish manuscripts.
Eventually, she returned to Vogel, and discovered that what she had originally found unappealing in Vogel’s work was indicative of something deeply fascinating. In contrast to the autobiography, confession, and discussion of tradition in the works of poets like Ulinover or Kadya Molodowsky, Vogel’s work was focused on philosophical examination by means of her rigorous and often unnerving aesthetic.
Next to present was Allison Schachter of Vanderbilt University, whose paper was entitled “Dvora Fogel and Women’s Aesthetic Labor: Modernism, Minority, and Culture in Interwar Lwów.” Professor Schachter came to Vogel while researching her upcoming book, tentatively entitled “Aesthetic Labor,” which focuses on the transgressive use of prose fiction by Hebrew and Yiddish women writers. In her work on Vogel, Schachter has primarily focused on her turn from poetry to prose montage. Vogel’s narrative montages are set in spaces such as nail salons and department stores, wherein women operate both as the subject and object of aesthetic labor. They make and are made, sell and are sold, in a process of self commodification that cannot be anything but ambivalent.
Next, the discussion shifted from the literary to the visual, as Anastasiya Lyubas of Ryerson University began her paper, entitled “Debora Vogel and Franz Roh’s ‘New Vision”,” concerning Vogel’s views on photomontage. As I learned over the course of the talk, Franz Roh was a German art critic, whose most influential work, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (“After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting”), theorised the new form and content of painting in the era of the photograph. According to Roh, there is an imminent expressiveness contained in all objects, and the act of choosing these objects is a fundamental aspect of the artist’s expression.
These ideas were highly influential on Vogel’s work, both critical and artistic. They cast light on her aforementioned literary montages, in which narrative forms out of the congealed selection of fragmentary objects, people, and geometries that she selects. This theory of narrative allows the montage to be “epic,” as opposed to “lyric” surrealism.
This distinction was elaborated upon in the short question and answer period that followed the first three presentations. After being prompted by Professor Schachter, Lyubas theorized that Vogel’s interest in the epic came from its ability to cover all facets of an individual’s life, and of the human experience in totality. I was particularly struck by this idea. If so, Vogel’s work constitutes a totally unique sort of epic: one written in Yiddish, concerned with the labor of women, that is just as disjointed in content and form as the lives of those it portrays. The dusty salons and lonely, monotonous suburban towns are epic in their banality.
It was time for a brief break. I descended to the basement to get coffee, where I frenziedly tried to communicate to a friend I ran into just how intensely confusing, unnerving, and fascinating the symposium was so far. It was time to dive back in.
I returned to my seat and was suddenly overcome by a sort of material vertigo. The room decomposed into its material effects. A pendant hung with jade teardrops and an off-white wrap dress hung onto someone seated around the horseshoe table. Maybe I was just hungry, but everything was turning a little too Vogeldik for comfort.
Floundering in my newly discovered material reality, the social aspects of this symposium swam to the fore. This symposium had experts flying in from all around North America, and yet the audience was small. Though it ebbed and flowed, the population of spectators only briefly rivaled that of the participants. This was the result of many, many factors, not the least of which being Vogel’s own decisions. Of all the languages of which she had a command, she chose to write in Yiddish in Poland, where the Yiddish literary scene was particularly conservative and particularly unreceptive to her transgressive portrayals of women’s lives and rigorous, unyielding aesthetic. And as the potential audience for her ideas grew, the number of Yiddish readers shrank. This symposium represents a sort of resurgence, and proves that study of Vogel is of great interest to scholars in a variety of fields, who in spite of presently small audiences will continue their passionate research into one of the most undervalued writers of the 20th century.
Starting off the second half of the conference was Professor Karen Underhill, of whose spoken lightning I often only sniffed the ozone. A professor of Polish and Jewish literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago, her paper was entitled “The Sunday Seminars of Debora Vogel and Bruno Schulz: On the Dialectics of Galician Jewish Modernism.” As the title suggests, a central motif of her presentation was the relationship between Dvoyre Vogel and the Polish-Jewish modernist Bruno Schulz, Vogel’s conversation partner, whose fame often leads to Vogel’s marginalization as nothing more than a figure in his biography. Yet in reality, Underhill argues, Schulz began by refiguring Vogel’s aesthetics. During long Sunday walks in Lwów they would hold long intellectual discussions, in which they shaped the same raw materials with their individual ideological inclinations. Underhill presented these writers’ work as two very different but mutually influenced responses to the political and social pressures and milieu of Jewish interwar Lwów.
The next paper was “Vogel, Witkacy, and the Ends of Art,” by Sasha Lindskog, a lecturer in Polish Literature at the University of Chicago. He started his presentation with the observation that this was likely the first event at which he had presented at which the participants knew more about Vogel than Witkacy. This was certainly true for me personally. Occupied by my furious note-scribbling, the name was so unfamiliar that I was totally unable to parse it, and therefore had to fashion a symbol to represent this mysterious figure in my notes (pictured below). As I learned over the course of the presentation, Witkacy (born Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) was an important Polish interwar artist and critic, and it was at his home in Zakopane that Vogel and Schulz first met and began their intellectual and personal relationships.
Though their personal relationship was important to both of their work, Witkacy’s only written mention of Vogel is in a book-length essay disputing an inconsistency she had identified in some of his theory. Their primary theoretical disagreements came down to their conceptions of the place of art, present and future. Witkacy believed that the constant anaesthetization of the modern world meant that art could only continue to have an effect as it grew more and more disturbing, and that ultimately art would no longer be necessary. Vogel believed in the necessity of art in modernity, but that another form was necessary: one that expresses the cold absence of humanity through a precise geometry that blurs the line between flesh and the mechanical.
The organizer of the symposium, Professor Anna Elena Torres, was the last to present. Her paper entitled “Between Commodity and Community: Fogel’s Ballads of Sex Work” primarily focused on Fogel’s balade fun a gas meydl (“Ballad of a Street Girl”). In this poem, Fogel challenges the Marxist notion that the value of a commodity is purely the result of the human labor put into it by analyzing the figures of the sex workers (the only people in the poem with names). They are living, speaking, human commodities, and their commodification allows them to exist in a temporality — a sort of pleasurable waiting — that is totally external to capitalism.
Now that the presentations had ended, the participants began an unstructured, remarkably pleasant conversation. There was a general, tacit acknowledgement that discussion on Vogel at this depth had likely never before occurred. The air was reverent but lively, as the assembled scholars good-naturedly broke new ground on a figure that has heretofore remained so unjustly buried.
As this report accompanies the call for papers for the upcoming In geveb special edition on Vogel, I will relate some of the questions that were brought up:
- What is it about Vogel that feels so contemporary?
- What is the significance of Vogel’s selection of languages?
- When does Vogel view commodification as positive?
- What is the function of repetition in Vogel’s poetry and prose fiction?
- How does Vogel fit into the larger scheme of Eastern European intellectual history?
As the conversation was coming to a close, one of the participants said that they wanted to know how the remaining spectators (Matt Johnson: a doctoral student at the University of Chicago working primarily on the intersection of German and Yiddish literature; and myself: humble undergrad) felt after hearing so much about Vogel. Matt asked a question concerning Vogel’s relationship with realism. Then the room turned to me. I could only manage to express two things: #1, I was extremely excited to be able to have taken part in this event, and #2, I felt absolutely dizzied by the depth and range of Vogel’s output.
Now, writing this report, I feel a lot less dizzy and just as excited. Though it has languished in obscurity for the past 70 years, the future of Vogel scholarship now looks exceedingly bright.