Through ironic narration and developed symbolism, Agnon illustrates the condition of a writer in Palestine through his detailed portrait of Hemdat in “Hill of Sand.” At the start of the piece, Hemdat constructs a self-image of pride, worth, and content, but this myth soon crumbles under the pressures of doubt, denial, and illusion. As Hemdat’s defenses to preserve his self-approval collapse with a romantic relationship, his anxieties encapsulate Agnon’s personal criticisms and regrets about his own experience as a writer in Yaffo. The short story chronicles the disintegration of Hemdat’s self-acceptance through the narration of his house keeping, hair integrity, and diet. “Hill of Sand” highlights the hopelessness in the struggle to maintain self-awareness, meaningful relationships, instinctual desires, and the future of the artist in a new land.
The narrator introduces the myth of the self at the very opening of “Hill of Sand.” The repeated claim about Hemdat’s more respectable status over his pitiful tutee Yael Hayyut raises suspicion of over-compensation. As he reassures the readers that Hemdat is honorable for offering the charity of his wisdom to the pathetic girl, the narrator mocks Hemdat by reporting Hemdat’s over-stated rationalizations in this repetitive manner. The narration embodies Hemdat’s thoughts in order to expose his personal doubts about his worth and stature. With such repetition, Hemdat’s assertion that he was divinely chosen to aid poor Yael apparently aims to convince himself, not only the readers, that he is deserving of this praise. Hemdat reassures himself that he is a happy, inspired, and independent writer who fulfills the ideal artistic lifestyle in the Promised Land.
The presentation of Hemdat’s room at the beginning of the story reveals his initial adherence to this fragile myth. The narrator describes Hemdat’s home by first emphasizing its relation to the various landscapes of Palestine—the dunes of Nevei Tsedek, the sea, the sand where Tel Aviv will be built, and Emek Refaim’s railroad tracks. Windows from Hemdat’s room face each of these locations, emphasizing his proximity to the expansive opportunities in the Land of Israel. He prides himself on his self-made and self-preserved room, filled with boundless delicacies and maintained with honorable order. With this illustration of Hemdat’s home, readers understand that Hemdat’s perception of himself is just as self-made and self-preserved as his room. His myth is in constant need of repair and maintenance. He hopes to prove that he is immersed in Palestine’s idealized society as an independent, orderly man, but subtle clues from the narration uncover his hidden reservations.
Readers learn that Hemdat values his green curtains as much as—if not more than—his expansive windows. Hemdat can draw himself away from the land and shut out the confusion and excitement of Yaffo. With this, Hemdat foreshadows his future, when the myth of his self is so broken that he becomes isolated in a room that traps him, rather than offer him the fruits of Palestine that originally inspired him. It is also in this initial description of Hemdat’s home that the narrator points to another blemish in his myth. Agnon writes: “He came from a well-to-do, bourgeois home in which a day spent in idleness was a day stolen from its Creator” (97) These words are some of the few faint reminders of Hemdat’s bourgeois and traditional background before moving to the Land of Israel. Hemdat boasts that his self-sustainability is due to his honorable and religious up bringing, but this interjection also reveals that Hemdat is not fully removed from his previous life abroad. Although the myth he constructs presents Hemdat as a renewed man who is concerned only with the new Jewish land, Hemdat refuses to admit that he still relies on and anchors himself in his past, outside of Palestine.
Another vital motif in “Hill of Sand” is Hemdat and Yael’s hair. Throughout the narrative, the state of their hair symbolizes their openness to and reservations about their romantic relationship. At the beginning of their relationship, Yael admires Hemdat’s hair and mourns her long, beautiful hair that she lost before moving to Palestine. Yael is attracted to Hemdat, but her frequent reminiscing of her happy past, far from the Land of Israel, will become an obstacle in sustaining a successful relationship with Hemdat. The first moment of physical contact between Hemdat and Yael’s hair occurs as a subconscious move—Hemdat is unaware when he touches her hair. Hemdat opens himself to a romantic relationship with Yael only as an uncontrollable, dreamy instinct. This sensual move does not fit into the strict outline of Hemdat’s image, but his unconscious actions undermine these self-imposed rules. Even the door of his room, at this point of the story, is wide open, which symbolizes his vulnerability in allowing Yael to enter the well-ordered quarters of his self.
Hemdat’s relationship with Yael and its eventual demise cause Hemdat’s myth to break down, forcing him to deny his contradictory feelings in hopes of avoiding the unpleasant reality of his selfhood. This inner struggle is represented by Hemdat’s diet. There is a correlation between meat and sexual desire. Hemdat frowns upon those who indulge in their carnal impulses and denies his own instincts to maintain his more honorable self-image. This concept is clear in the restaurant scene, after Yael orders meat and Hemdat orders fish and dairy, as it reads, “Hemdat did not eat meat. The truth was that he would have given up fish too, but he did not want to be labeled a vegetarian” (124). Hemdat has a moral aversion to meat eating, which equates to sexual desire. But it is apparent that Hemdat denies his ambivalence to the erotic appetite, since he is defensive about being labeled a vegetarian. If others were to recognize his reluctance toward sexual encounters, his over-compensated doubts might be revealed. Another instance of this symbolism occurs in the market, when Hemdat sees hanging meats covered by tinsel and bugs. This imagery displays Hemdat’s conflicting attitudes towards his carnal desires, which both entice his instincts and avert his moral standards.
Yael is immediately associated with this animalistic symbolism with her name, meaning “gazelle,” and with Hemdat calling her “that beefsteak” (99). Just as meat-eating correlates to the sexual desires that threaten Hemdat’s created self-image, Yael is also presented as a danger to the myth of Hemdat’s selfhood. This motif intertwines with the symbolism of hair during the climax of Yael and Hemdat’s physical relations, when Yael bites off a lock of Hemdat’s hair. The scene invokes an image of Yael as an animal eating her prey. Her animalistic character is accentuated by the words, “What a she-devil she was, this quiet, sedate young lady!” which deny her humanity in this event completely (102). While Hemdat cannot control his pleasure and excitement from this physical encounter, his conception of Yael as an animal indulging in her bodily desires is a reflection of his anxieties about their relationship. Hemdat denies that he is giving in to these unworthy instincts, but readers see that his defenses are failing. As stated earlier, hair in “Hill of Sand” represents the characters’ degrading conditions in regard to relating with each other openly. So when Yael bites off a chunk of Hemdat’s hair, it is symbolic of the expression of their sexual desire as a barrier to Hemdat’s openness to their romantic relationship.
As Hemdat continues to lose his hair, he proceeds to shut himself off from Yael, his friends, Yaffo, and the world. Agnon prescribes this self-produced isolation to the condition of the writer, with the exchange between the barber and Hemdat during his haircut: “The barber noticed his good mood and delivered a poetic speech about authors, who would sooner style their hair and their prose and cut their long locks than a word from their books” (121) Since hair integrity signifies one’s ability to create and maintain significant relationships, Agnon claims here that authors are more willing to cut down their relationships than to cut down their writing. Agnon criticizes this behavior through Yael’s reaction to Hemdat’s bald head: “It was like a stand without a use ” (121). A writer without relationships is useless. But Hemdat continues to grasp for his ideal self and so justifies his failure with Yael as a necessary surrender to his role as a writer. At the end of the story, when Hemdat finally admits his loneliness, he comforts himself by regarding his poetry as a “gift-offering” (128). Hemdat’s character sheds light onto Agnon’s understanding of the artist as one who lives an illusion of self-sacrifice for the sake of art, while in reality this artist lacks self-awareness and isolates himself from the world that originally inspired him.
“Hill of Sand” also comments on the impending future of a writer in Yaffo during the Second Aliyah. The short story is littered with subtle hints concerning the imminent lure of abroad. Though readers cannot know what Hemdat will do next, Agnon’s writing creates an undeniable feeling that Hemdat will soon leave the Promised Land. Hemdat’s future is referenced vaguely. Mrs. Mushalam tells him she is convinced that Hemdat will eventually live abroad. This prediction seems to be engrained in Hemdat’s personal projection of his future as well. He imagines Yael’s future life with a rich husband. He predicts: “One day, gaunt from suffering, he would return from afar and come see her” (110). The word “afar” hints at Hemdat’s understanding that his future will require his departing from Palestine, and the word “return” foreshadows his later return back to the Promised Land. This forecasted journey mirrors Agnon’s own experience. Agnon hopes to prove that a young artist in Yaffo must undergo these challenges and leave Israel in a hopeless, confused condition before returning to the Land with a revived, sturdy selfhood.
Through the narration of Hemdat’s house keeping, hair integrity, and dietary restrictions, Agnon chronicles the decaying myth of the writer’s constructed selfhood. Hemdat’s character portrait embodies the struggles of romance, isolation, hope, and idealism that are unique to his time and context. By uncovering Hemdat’s doubts, self-illusions, and denial in “Hill of Sand,” Agnon confronts his own inner-conflicts concerning the persona he strives to exude as a public figure upon his return to Israel. Perhaps Agnon hopes to overcome his previous struggles with a new effort for self-awareness by reflecting on his past. Or perhaps Agnon is finally surrendering to his conflicting criticisms—perhaps Agnon is simply mocking himself as he creates a new self myth in his unchanging desperation to uphold illusion.
By Lucille Marshall, written for The Fiction of S. Agnon with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Agnon, Shmuel Yosef, Alan L. Mintz, and Anne Golomb Hoffman. A Book That Was Lost: Thirty-Five Stories. New Milford, CT: Toby, 2008. Print.