Theses Doctoral

"A Thousand Names They Called Him": Naming and Proper Names in the Work of S.Y. Agnon

Hadad, Shira

This dissertation offers a study of proper names and naming as a conceptual and thematic anchor in the work of S.Y. Agnon. Proper names, I argue, constitute an underexplored and highly fruitful prism through which to read literature, and specifically Agnon's fiction. My study consists of a series of readings in several of Agnon's major and most interpreted texts, all considered milestones of Modern Hebrew literature. Reading these works through the lens of proper names exposes facets of the texts that went largely unobserved by earlier readers, and yields a new understanding of them. The study's primary concern is to determine what names are capable of telling us about Agnon's texts. A secondary concern that emanates from my readings is the converse question, namely, what can Agnon's texts tell us about names? Agnon's literary preoccupations with proper names often line up with the major theoretical issues that concern them: the name as index and as description, the difficulties related to the translation of names, the arbitrariness versus motivation of names, their interpellative potential, and more.

Drawing on various disciplines and theoretical dispositions - analytical philosophy of language, post-structuralism, literary theory, and the traditional Jewish corpus - I explore these theoretical issues and examine them vis-à -vis Agnon's literary texts. Given the name's unique status, across these disciplines, as a sign whose singularity derives primarily from the nature of its link with its extra-linguistic referent, I propose that asking questions about names is crucial to the understanding of language and especially its relation with the extra linguistic world, subjects with which Agnon's work is overtly engaged. In many of Agnon's works, and especially those I discuss in my dissertation, naming and names function as a full-blown thematic and conceptual element. I contend that, more than merely giving his characters `meaningful', `interpretable' names, Agnon undertakes an ongoing investigation of proper names and the questions and problems they breed.

Within his literary world, names are by no means signifiers whose sole purpose is to point to those who bear them, or at most, also to describe them. Names act: they transform and engender transformation; they operate in the fictive world, and their operation often turns out to be deeply consequential. Acts of naming occur frequently in Agnon's works. Babies are named (and sometimes not-named), and their naming is cause for internal and external conflict. Naming does not end with the single initial act whose subject is a newborn baby. Names constantly change, they are forgotten, supplemented by nicknames, substituted by other names. In Agnon's fiction, names are often encountered at moments of extreme failure or distortion, and the radical effect of the name on its bearer cannot be revoked. Names can change lives - for better or worse, although Agnon chooses mostly to contemplate the latter. In Agnon's literary world, they are ultimately a site of catastrophe.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Miron, Dan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 7, 2012