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Critical Aesthetics in Tahel Frosh’s Avarice

In the next three Growl posts, I dive into the poems of Tahel Frosh and examine their impact on the relation between poetry and social transformation. I do this through the lenses of several aesthetic theories such as those of Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. I interpret Frosh’s poems in line with neo-Marxist aesthetic theories that view art as a counter site to the reigning instrumental rationality. In my view, Frosh creates her own political lyricism that re-appropriates notions of desire, money, and labor by exposing their inadequacy with regard to what they pertain to be and what they are in reality. Exposing this non-identical aspect of these concepts allows Frosh to potentially transform our consciousness, a necessary step towards a radical praxis and social transformation, as opposed to some theories of art that advocate a straightforward form of political art that manifests in the content of the artwork. Frosh’s technique of introducing the reader to her own personal experiences and with that constructing the universal experiences of everyone in society informs us about how things have gone wrong in society and lights the way to where we should head next. The content of the following Growl posts will be as follows:The first growl post deals with the notions of desire and money; the second post works with Frosh’s idea of the abolition of labor; and the last tackles the ideas of theory and praxis, the relation between poetry and social transformation, and how they coexist in Frosh’s poem ‘Accountant.’
On Labor: Reading Tahel Frosh’s Political Lyricism: The Notion of Desire and Money

Tahel Frosh is an Israeli poet, living in Israel, who published her first major poetry book in Hebrew in 2014, entitled Avarice 1. Avarice is collection of book length poems, comprised of seven parts, that deals with the downfall of society through the prism of human beings’ passions. I would suggest that one of the key factors that instigated Frosh’s book were the events of The 2011 Israeli social justice protests that began in July 2011. The protests were part of a global uprising of people from different socio-economic backgrounds who gathered to express various discontents, but mainly stood against capitalism and social oppression. In the beginning the protest focused on the “rising in the cost of living”; however, the impetus shifted to form an opposition to the existing social order that was preventing a decent life. All in all it wasn’t a revolutionary process. Frosh’s Avarice offers a documentation of the discontent in Israel and all over the world, a universal aesthetic analysis of the social order, which is much more radical than the one that was subverted in Israel 2011 and in other places around the globe.

In Hebrew avarice is taavat betsa (תאבת בצע), which can also be translated into the English greed. Frosh decided to leave out the first part of the concept taavat betsa, the taavat, and focus on the betsa. Taavat can be understood as desire, in the form of greed, for example an “excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain.” But Frosh’s insistence on omitting the Hebrew word connoting “excessive or insatiable desire” has a specific purpose. Frosh wishes to destabilize the concept of greed, exposing the contradictory meaning of the betsa without tainting the beautiful desire with which it is intertwined in a Gordian knot.

The word betsa is not exhausted by the concept of avarice. Avarice has a negative connotation. In current times, it denotes a strong and often uncontrollable compulsion to attain wealth. Its etymological origin dates to Old French avarice "greed, covetousness," and in Latin avaritia means "greed," from avarus "greedy." The core of the adjectival form of avere conveys the "wish, desire" 2 and “to crave, long for.” As such, avarice holds within it a desire for a cut of the pie, a piece of the wealth, which is conveyed in the Hebrew betsa⎯meaning “a cut of something,” detached from any negative connotations, simply stating the-thing-that-is-sliced (like a loaf of bread or a piece of meat).

Frosh’s poems try to reiterate the desire that we all have for a piece of the pie, a part of the wealth, which is, as Marx depicts in The Communist Manifesto, only allocated to a few by a few, the elites, the capitalists, while most people fail to obtain “a cut of something.” Frosh wants us to retain that desire, that wish for a different society; rather than bringing back avarice in its original meaning, Frosh wants us to yield and construct a new meaning, one that is universal and not particular like the one we currently have. In The Mountains of Spain, Frosh asks us to imagine, to believe in a somewhat religious way, things that are impossible—for Frosh this might be talking about money “during sex.” Similarly, one can assume that having sex and closing a business deal while at it kind of ruins the mood. As if Frosh is saying that talking about money during sex is a twisted combination of an abstract and cold notion (money)—which is usually done in sterile business rooms—and an act of carnal lust, a mixing of flesh. Perhaps even a contamination of the idea of love by inserting instrumental reason into the realm of emotion and desire. Frosh has us imagining someone in the middle of a sexual act and, as she climates, screaming with pleasure/pain: “we sold for millions” 3. Indeed a painful and ridiculous image.

This is one way to understand Frosh’s imagination of the impossible. Another way concerns the translation of the sentence from Hebrew to English.The original phrase in Hebrew can indeed be translated as “during sex” as Adriana X. Jacob has it, but can also confer the idea that there are those who speak about money in an intimate way. In this sense the Eros of the desire to be able to sustain oneself, or the Eros that exists in the desire to accumulate wealth, are transposed to the domain of language, tainting concepts when they are understood in a pejorative way—since we are not supposed to, or in any case do not normally talk about money in intimate way. Money is a means to an end, an abstract concept that might govern our existence; however, whenever we encounter someone who speaks of it with flare and enthusiasm we are somewhat embarrassed for her, as though she has fetishized her feelings for things when they are supposed to be reserved for other living organisms. Thus Frosh’s suggestion that she cannot say those words with desire, she cannot talk about money in an intimate way, nor during sex, but can in fact sustain that desire or perhaps the inability to desire money (to desire a piece of the pie, her legitimate share, the ability to sustain oneself in society) by reverting to the aesthetic sphere: “I am writing what is impossible.” 4 There desire is turned into a failed attempt to speak the unspeakable.

The impossible that Frosh depicts is related to the idea of limits of art. Herbert Marcuse writes that no ideology or political regime can “resolve all the conflicts between the universal and the particular, between human beings and nature, between individual and individual. Socialism does not and cannot liberate Eros from Thanatos.” 5 Art, he claims, represents the “struggle for the impossible.” 6 In this case Frosh’s attempt to write the impossible only accentuates Adorno’s argument that “[a]esthetic experience is that of something that spirit may find neither in the world nor in itself; it is possibility promised by its impossibility. Art is the ever broken promise of happiness.” 7 In her poem ‘Urgent Protest,’ Frosh writes:

This is an urgent protest. In any of the following cases please stop working immediately and get out to the streets. Stop working: if in your workplace there are salary differences between the roustabout and the executive, if you witness abusive executives or there are any at all, if you or anyone next to you need to work more than seven hours a day, if you noticed that workers who are sick come to work, if you are required to state your whereabouts, if you have to drive your car to work every day, if you must turn a blind eye, lie, sell products that no one needs, if you need to dress appropriately, if you are not paid enough to: own a house, eat, study, have a child, buy books, listen to music, visit the theater and watch a movie. 8

Frosh’s poem calls for political and social action: to stop working. This action could have several outcomes. It seems to me that Frosh hopes this will eventually lead to an economical breakdown and possible alteration of the mode of production. However, I believe this poem alludes to the inability to make people actually stop working and to the impotence of poetry to transgress the limits of the aesthetic sphere and move into the political sphere. Frosh urges us to stop working as one of the many conditions that she mentions in her poem. However, it is quite clear that people today do not have the luxury of not showing up for work. Frosh recognizes this fact, but still tries to drive the limits of art and call for a political action to transform society for the better. This poem advances the idea that the impossible cannot be given up: namely, the hope for a changed society, or in Frosh’s case the possibility of political action. However, it is likely that she is well aware that this kind of action, which is relatively simple: simply not showing up to work is hardly feasible. Nonetheless, Frosh wishes to reiterate through this poem the impossibility of calling for action from the pages of her book, but attempts to do so as the possibility of being able to ignite political action from a poem is exactly what Adorno envisions in his above dictum: “Art is the ever broken promise of happiness.” Although the possibility of achieving the good life is blocked in society, the promise of happiness—for Frosh , it takes the form of the possibility of political action—is sustained in the poem itself in the cry for change that cannot happen.

Work Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Hentor. London and New York: Continuum, 2002.

Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott. London and New York: Verso, 2005.

Frosh, Tahel. Avarice. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2014.

Frosh, Tahel. “Two Poems, by Tahel Frosh.”World Literature Today. 2015. Accessed May 09, 2016. http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2015/may/two-poems-tahel-frosh.

Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. London and New York: Routlegde, 2007.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Skeat, Walter W. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. London: Forgotten Books, 2013.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Notes:

1. From now on all translations of the poems from Hebrew to English are done by me, except from the two poems translated by Adriana X. Jacob. In this essay all poems are taken from Frosh’s book Avarice (which was not translated to English). The only two poems that were translated to English by Jacob are “The Mountains of Spain” and “Accountant,” and appear in this essay as “Two Poems, by Tahel Frosh”.
2. Walter W. Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 72.
3. Tahel Frosh, “Two Poems, by Tahel Frosh,” World Literature Today. 2015. Accessed May 09, 2016. http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2015/may/two-poems-tahel-frosh.
4. Frosh, “Two Poems”.
5. Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 72.
6. Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension, 72.
7. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Hentor (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 135-136.
8. Tahel Frosh, Avarice (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2014), 47.