Is it possible to become a citizen of the world? Might not this situation, sometimes forced on exiles and sometimes denied to them, be considered an advantage? Thoughts on reading Bialik’s pessimistic verse.
The Hebrew root shin-vav-bet is the basis of many words whose meanings are different despite their etymological and semantic connection, for example ‘again’, ‘repeat’, ‘return’ to a place, and ‘reply’ or ‘give back’. The noun ‘repentance’ is derived from this root as well and thus it too may be found within the Hebrew title of Bialik’s poem ‘Return’, along with a return to one’s self, and to the blighted past, to standing water, to old and familiar, now cheerless surroundings. A return to the place of origin may also contain a hint of (what becomes in English the more explicit) “return to religion”, regret for choosing what traditionalists consider the path of sin – modern, innovative, and alienated from the past. Bialik writing about his return paradoxically looks forward, while his glance backward encounters deeply upsetting sources of despair, disappointment and frustration.
“Toisen kerran tullessa, kotoinen kynnys korkeampi” is a Finnish proverb meaning “On returning home, the doorstep is higher”. In our world today, leaving one’s home, long travels to distant lands, emigration to a foreign country and the adoption of new ways of human existence are acceptable and common phenonmena. In the 4th century B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Diogenes – one of the Cynics who most influenced the development of Stoicism – had already declared himself a citizen of the world (cosmopolite), a person capable of making moral and political decisions, whose citizenship meant membership in the beautiful order of the universe.
Bialik lived during a period in which, unfortunately, world citizenship was not a realistic option: the second half of the 19th century was witness to the awakening of a new nationalism for which the 20th century paid a price in millions of human lives wasted, to no advantage at all. Today, in a world where people meet and part and meet again, national and cultural traditions serve an important function in shaping personal identity; yet a no less important role, and perhaps more weighty, is the capacity of free thinking and tolerant acceptance of the Other.
According to the Palestinian scholar Edward Said (1935-2003), exile creates citizens of the world. Yet the exile of the Jewish people from their land for two thousand years did not turn all of them into such citizens, and also among other peoples, New-Assyrians, Armenians, Palestinians, Chechens – the list is long – two opposing trends exist: the openness to assimilate into the majority in their surroundings, or a stubborn grip on the familiar, existing for one’s childhood home, sequestered against the new and different. Bialik’s poem is profoundly pessimistic, filled with a challenge to, a protest against the will to stand unmoved in one place and refuse to advance. Pessimism of this kind challenges the existing order and in this way announces that one shall not return to the gutters and become stuck there but rather march forward, onward.