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Prof. Menakhem Perry

מנחם פרי - צילם וינצ'נצו קוטינלי.jpg

Professional Life

Professor Menakhem Perry is a literary scholar, text interpreter and editor. One of the key representatives of the "Tel Aviv School of Poetics." He co-founded the Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature at Tel Aviv University, and later established the Department of Literature. He is the founder of the literary magazine Siman Kri'a and its associated publishing house, Siman Kri'a Books, and is the editor-in-chief of the literary series "The New Library".

Early Years

Perry was born on September 12, 1942 in Binyamina, to working-class parents. In 1960, he was accepted into the academic reserve program for Hebrew literature and psychology studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He completed his master's degree in comparative literature. At the age of 22, while fulfilling his military service, he began teaching in the Hebrew Literature department. During his time at the Hebrew University, he attended classes taught by Prof. Benjamin Hrushovski (Harshav) and crossed paths with fellow student Joseph Haepharti. Both encounters would profoundly influence his future research and academic career.

Tel Aviv School of Poetics

In 1963, Perry began collaborating with Joseph Haepharti on a description of the poetics of Bialik's poems. Their joint article, titled "On Some of the Features of Bialik's Poetic Art," was completed in 1964 and marked the inception of what would later become known as the "Tel Aviv School of Poetics." Perry is widely recognized as one of the key representatives of this school. During the 1960s he published a series of additional articles on Bialik's poetry, drawing inspiration from cognitive psychology. His work gave rise to a new theoretical movement on an international scale, one that regarded the text as dependent on a progress of active processing by readers, full of transformations and reversals. (Iser's publications on reader response theory only began in the 1970s and differ from Perry's theory.)

    In 1966, Perry was invited to teach at the Department of Hebrew Literature at Tel Aviv University. Hrushovski and Haepharti soon joined him in the establishment of a pioneering department in a new field: "Theory of Literature." Concurrently, they founded the quarterly journal for literary studies, Hasifrut. Both the department and the journal had a significant influence on the study and conception of literature in Israel. Perry assumed a central role within the department as the "department coordinator", and served as the editorial secretary for the journal.

    Until 1970, Perry published a series of articles in Hasifrut that presented his theoretical innovations through detailed interpretations of texts. Many concepts he introduced in these articles, such as "text continuum," "reading process," "inverted poem," "gaps, and multiple system of gaps filling," "the primacy effect," "rejected meanings," "re-patterning," and "combined discourse," became widely used in literary critical discourse. Perry's articles presented texts as dependent on the reading process and lacking autonomous and static existence. According to Perry, a text's meaning is not determined by its sentences and the necessary bridging inferences. Rather, comprehension results from an interaction between linguistic signs and the reader, who brings in blocks of schematic knowledge of the world as well as cognitive preference principles, which guide him to the "best" processing of the text under given conditions. Much of our understanding is the result of filling in gaps, and when the hypothesis of understanding changes, so do the gaps. In fact, each reading produces its own text, and while there are no incorrect readings, some readings are better than others. Perry's most significant theoretical contribution, according to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative, are the principles of preference, which he continued to crystallize until the 1990s.

The Poetics of the Biblical Narrative

Perry's article "The King Through Ironic Eyes" (1968), co-authored with Meir Sternberg, was written in the framework of Perry's theory of reading, using the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba as a test case. However, the article stirred up a hornet's nest of reproachful responses from Biblical scholars, prompting Perry and Sternberg to conduct a comprehensive response study on Biblical poetics. As a result, "The King" came to be regarded as a seminal work in the paradigm of "the specific poetics of the Biblical narrative," alongside the first chapter of Auerbach's 'Mimesis.'

    In the 1990s, Perry shifted his focus to the plot and ideology of the Biblical narrative, marking a new phase in his research. Through his analysis of a wide corpus of texts, Perry demonstrated that beneath every Biblical story lies a hidden counter-story, and that each Biblical story represents a convergence of conflicting agendas. These agendas include that of God, who utilizes the concealed feminine agenda to subvert the overtly 'masculine' facade of the text.

Introduction to Fiction

Perry taught the "Introduction to Fiction" course from 1968 until his retirement in 2012, during which he developed his cognitive theory of prose. Many of Perry's ideas were formulated within the context of this course and passed on to future generations. Perry's theory posits that accepted phenomena in narratology, such as point of view, free indirect style, unreliable narrator, plot, characters, and the structure of the story's world, can only be described as arising from our reception processes, and some of them depend on a decision on maximal reading. The text's phenomena are determined according to the effectiveness of their function within such a reading. For instance, the term "combined discourse" (famously introduced by Perry to replace and expand the accepted grammatical descriptions of "free indirect speech") is a contextual phenomenon resulting from reader preferences.

Deep Structure, Text Continuum, Equivalency

In the 1970s, Perry's theory of the "deep structure of a writer" – later named "the writer's prototypical text" – began to take shape. The concept suggests that beyond the diverse range of concrete texts produced by writers, there exists a recurring selection structure and a repetitive process of deconstructing this structure throughout the text's continuum. Perry demonstrated the "deep structures" of various authors over the years, including Bialik, Preil, Hurvitz, Wieseltier, Avot Yeshurun, Hanoch Levin, Amichai, Brenner, Hemingway, et al.

    Perry's theory about the dynamics of the text continuum, which explains how the order of the text determines its meanings, also took shape during this time. He presented this theory mainly in his book The Semantic Structure of Bialik's Poems and in "Literary Dynamics,"his popular article on Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily".

    From Perry's MA thesis on "Analogy in the novel, especially in the novels of Mendele Moykher-Sforin in Hebrew and Yiddish," emerged a research path that continues to engage him to this day. His study of the thematic and structural shifts in Mendele's self-translation from Yiddish led to the study of Bialik's dual writing in Yiddish and Hebrew, ultimately leading to a semiotic theory on Yiddish-Hebrew relations in Hebrew literature and culture.

    The study of analogy in the novel set the stage for works that explored the principle of similarity and equivalency as characteristic of the structure of reality in all fiction. These works challenged from a cognitive point of view Jacobson's famous theory, according to which the metaphorical principle is dominant in poetry and the metonymic principle is dominant in fiction. Perry, who was deeply influenced by Jakobson early on, demonstrated how maximal reading unveils metaphoricity behind metonymicity.

The Threshold of Exhaustion and Maximal Reading

In the 1990s, Perry introduced a key concept in his works: "the threshold of exhaustion." He argued that there are two groups of cognitive preference principles: one group aims to optimize the ease of generating an interpretative hypothesis, while the other seeks to maximize the processing efficiency of these hypotheses, i.e., the exhaustion of the text created under them. There is a built-in conflict between these two groups, and the threshold of exhaustion represents the point where they intersect. The decision of when to raise this threshold, and to sacrifice ease of processing for the sake of effectiveness in exhausting the text, is influenced by "institutional" conventions.

    According to this conception, "maximal reading", which involves a very high threshold of exhaustion, as is typically employed in literary analysis, is a decision on the nature of reading rather than on the inherent nature of the text, and is evaluated according to the effectiveness of its results. Perry demonstrated that attempts to define the "differentia specifica" of literature, made both by Russian Formalists and by New Critics, highlight phenomena that are not necessarily intrinsic to literature, but are rather a result of the reading strategy, a strategy that is commonly applied in the reading of literary texts, but can yield similar results when applied to other texts. Rather than focusing on the question of what constitutes "literariness," Perry focused on describing a type of reading.

    The "maximal reading" involves a second round of reading that utilizes residues left by the first round. This reading foregrounds discarded details that were previously overlooked or deemed marginal, trivial, insignificant, constructing an opposed framework of understanding that imbues the text (rather than uncovers in it) with a two-storey status: a "surface" level and a "hidden" level beneath it. Perry applied this framework to a diverse range of materials, including Biblical stories, Moshe Sharett's diary, Primo Levi's autobiographical writing, dream stories from Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, photographs by war photographer Koen Wessing, the verdict in the Ramon trial, et al. This strategy reached its culmination in his book The Homoerotic Dialogue between Brenner and Gnessin: a Microbiography, which examines in high resolution five months in the lives of Brenner and Gnessin, applying the maximal "detective" reading to life materials such as letters, memories, ads, maps, press clippings, logos, typos, and more, as if they were a dense linguistic fabric of a poem, a total text for maximal reading. Perry's methodology is further exemplified in his complementary book on Celia Dropkin.

Academic Positions

Perry held a full professorship at Tel Aviv University until his retirement in 2012. During his tenure, he served as head of the Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature for most of the years from 1981, and in 2005, he merged it with the Department of Hebrew Literature to establish the "Literature Department."

Perry's Editing Work

In 1972, Perry founded the literary quarterly Siman Kri'a and the Siman Kri'a Books publishing house, initially with Meir Wieseltier. He devoted over fifty years to the various frameworks of Siman Kri'a, editing over 600 books (Hebrew as well as translated literature), leaving a significant impact on Israel's literary culture. In 2013, Haaretz newspaper named him "the most influential person in Israel in the field of literature."

    Perry is an interventionist editor, known for his profound attention to the subtleties of texts and his meticulous comparison of translations to the original. His insights from his research on literary texts inform his work as an editor, and his experiences as an editor enrich his research writing.

    His work as an editor not only changed the literary landscape of the present but also altered the perception of the past. For example, through his editing of Vogel's fiction according to the manuscripts, he transformed Vogel's position on the literary map. With similar effect, he also re-edited Kimchi's The House of Hephetz and Leah Goldberg's And This is the Light.

    In the 22 volumes of Siman Kri'a and the hundreds of books he edited, Perry introduced many authors to Hebrew literature, from David Grossman to Sami Berdugo. More importantly, he redirected into the canon writers and poets such as Jakov Shabtai, Avot Yeshurun, Kenaz, Hendel, Koren, Birstein, Yona Wallach and Hanoch Levin. Throughout his career, he edited the works of some of the greatest writers in Hebrew literature and systematically incorporated them into Israeli literary culture. In addition to the giants of mainstream literature worldwide, from Proust to Morrison, from Gogol to Beckett, he also introduced dozens of books from literary cultures that were considered 'marginal' at the time, mainly from Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch.

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