Mandrakes from the Holy Land.
Aharon Megged's recently translated novel, Mandrakes from the Holy Land, at once elegantly wrought and erudite, offers an unusual portrait of Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. His protagonist, Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, is a disconsolate member of the English social elite whose unfashionable spiritual yearnings and unrequited love for Vanessa Stephen, Virginia Woolf's less famous sister, impel her to embark for Turkish-ruled Palestine in 1906, where she intends to paint the flowers of the Bible. Beatrice conceives of her spiritual and artistic pilgrimage as a return to the roots of Christianity and an escape from the repressive morality of Edwardian England.
The novel's conceit is that we learn of the fictional Beatrice's adventures in the Holy Land, and of her earlier experiences as a participant in bohemian London's Bloomsbury Group, through a series of letters she writes to Vanessa Stephen and through passages from her private diary. These writings have been surreptitiously collected and commented upon, in turn, by Dr. P. D. Morrison, a paragon of Victorian pedantry sent by Beatrice's family to investigate her apparent mental breakdown and refusal to return to England. The perspective afforded by Beatrice's intimate letters and her diary allows Megged to describe pre-state Palestine and the establishment of Jewish settlements there--an enterprise in which the author himself played a role after his emigration from Poland as a child in 1926--from the perspective of a religious and ideological outsider. Megged also devotes considerable energies to examining the aesthetic and philosophical challenge to Victorianism posed by the Bloomsbury Group's zealous iconoclasm. That stance is made to seem superficial or even hypocritical when juxtaposed against Beatrice's earnest Christian spirituality and her passion (presumably also Megged's) for the classics of Christian art: she makes reference to Dante (but not explicitly to his Beatrice), Giotto, Titian, El Greco, Milton, Bach, and others.
Megged's depiction of Beatrice as simultaneously attracted to European Christian iconography and the utopian political impulse of the Palestinian Jewish yishuv is a daring stroke of artistic creativity. It is also a subversive one. A fat woman (Beatrice repeatedly alludes to her ample body shape) who is a devout Christian pilgrim and a repressed lesbian counts as a pronounced antihero in Israeli fiction and hardly a typical champion of the Zionist credo, as Stanley Nash has pointed out. (1)
Beatrices ideological commitments are surprising in another way as well. Her rejection of Bloomsbury bohemianism would be utterly puzzling, particularly given the group's notable tolerance of homosexuality, were it not that she has another, more complicated, aesthetic agenda. Her declared artistic ideals hark back to the work of the British religious painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), co-founder in 1849 of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt, who visited Palestine four times to paint biblical scenes in a style that came to be known as "religious realism," was influenced by the concept of typological symbolism put forward by the critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). In essence, Hunt's ideas promoted a style at once realistic and symbolically prefigurative, so that a solitary goat on the shore of the Dead Sea in his 1856 painting The Scapegoat was meant convey the desolation of the landscape realistically while symbolizing the suffering of Christ. Beatrice likewise says she will paint the Palestinian flowers, including the purportedly aphrodisiac mandrake flower, "as holy flowers, flowers of the soul" (p. 36), but her paintings and sketches are also intended to be botanically accurate.
Megged's preoccupation with aesthetics may be merely a matter of attention to historical verisimilitude, but it is not hard to imagine that he is slyly encouraging his readers to adopt an analogous aesthetic attitude. As Beatrice criss-crosses the countryside with her Arab dragoman, Aziz, in search of flowers, her visits to biblical sites provide the opportunity for Megged to meditate on the long and tortuous history of that ancient land--a history shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The immediate political backdrop of Beatrice's travels, however, is the arrival in Palestine of a wave of some 40,000 Jewish immigrants, referred to as the Second Aliyah (1904-14). Her outsider's tale thus ultimately provides a pretext for Megged to revisit his own insider's story and to deliver a loving portrait of the Jewish settlers' resolute political idealism in the face of harsh physical conditions in pre-state Palestine.
Is Megged suggesting, mutatis mutandis, that Beatrice herself be understood as a paradigm of the politically or religiously inspired oleh (Jewish immigrant to Israel)? The possible parallels are fascinating: like the early Zionists, Beatrice's cultural imagination of the East is inspired by the Bible. She and other characters repeatedly refer to the English as Christian "Zionists" avant la lettre: as the British consul Blech exclaims, "we were Zionists before the Zionists!" (p. 42). Beatrice's reason for going to Palestine, according to Vanessa Stephen, is to extricate herself from tangled relations with her parents and society--a motive that symbolically encapsulates the Zionist relation to Europe and the Diaspora. Even Beatrice's latent antisemitism, which intrudes not when she is in the company of Western-educated Jews like the agronomist Aharon Aaronsohn, but rather when she visits the Jews of Mea She'arim ("they looked to me like a flock of ravens that had landed on a corpse" [p. 55]), can be likened to the contempt for traditional Jewish culture expressed by early Zionist ideologues.
The most subversive implication of this comparison is that Zionism-inspired Jewish immigration to Palestine could be seen, according to the typological symbolism that Beatrice prefers, as a recent iteration of the ancient practice of religious pilgrimage. Unable to resolve the contradictions of her desires and spiritual inclinations, Beatrice's ultimate descent into what appears to be holy madness might in turn represent the fate of many religiously or ideologically motivated pilgrimages, including Zionism, which begin idealistically but soon become mired in the conflicts entailed in reconciling a complex reality with an abstract ideal. Megged seems to proffer a solution to this conundrum in Beatrice's lesbian and gynocentric relation to the harsh Palestinian reality: she calls Palestine a "mad ... male, violent country," lorded over by two angry, jealous and vengeful male gods--that of the Jews and that of the Muslims. "It is no wonder," she continues, "the Jews had driven off that gentle, delicate, weak son, His pale face suffused with mercy, the shadow of death like a cloud above it ... for He has nothing of their violent masculinity" (p. 197). While typical of Christian theological disdain for the religion of the Jews, this passage may also be read as Megged's plea for a broader syncretic spirit, a greater understanding of the universalism of human striving and suffering, that would merge the "masculine" god of action with the "feminine" deity of love, thereby forestalling the madness that afflicts Beatrice and, analogously, the Jews and Muslims of the Holy Land.
While no such resolution presents itself in the novel (or, thus far, in reality), Megged's premise, provocative as it is, suffers in one respect from its own cultural biases, or perhaps from failing to extend his typological symbolism far enough. Although Beatrice is presented as a mediator between the cultural ideals of Christian Europe and those of Palestine, she seems unable to understand the Palestinian Arabs, who remain ciphers in the text. By contrast, Russian Jewish immigrants fresh off the boat, Sephardic Jews native to Palestine, and the Zionist visionaries of early Jewish settlements such as Zichron Ya'akov are presented with an affection that surely stems from Megged's own early personal history and political affiliations as a Dor ha-Palmach (1948 Generation) writer, Megged simply seems unable to represent Palestinian Arab history with a comparable deftness and sense of sympathy.
Beatrice's two rapes--one by an Arab and one by a Jew--count as the most egregious example of Megged's awkward attempts to present her as a mediating figure who can comprehend Palestine from a position beyond its immediate internecine conflicts. Dr. Morrison, the supercilious redactor of Beatrice's writings, claims that she has invented the twin rapes out of racist guilt, but the weird symmetry of the rapes suggests rather that the psychological spotlight ought to be shone on the implied authorial intent. Megged's problematic attempt to achieve political balance reveals the extent to which Beatrice serves as a foil for the author's own political passions and allegiances, yet this does not overly detract from what Megged is trying to do in examining the connections between the mythologies of European Christians and those of Jewish Zionists. Mandrakes from the Holy Land reveals that such myths are indeed universal insofar as they are fired by deep-rooted beliefs that can lead to transcendant art or terrible acts of violence.
University of South Alabama
(1) Stanley Nash, "Authors and Women as Antiheroes in Aharon Megged's Later Works," Modern Judaism, Vol. 22 (2002): 32.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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