Mikhaël, Ephraïm

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MIKHAËL, EPHRAÏM

MIKHAËL, EPHRAÏM (1866–1890), French author. Georges Michel (his real name) was born in Toulouse of an Alsatian father and a Provençal mother. There were strong links and intermarriage with families from Montpellier and Nîmes, for example with the Bernards from Nîmes, whose eldest son Lazare was and remained Georges Michel's dearest "brother" in every sense, personal and intellectual. When both became budding writers in Paris, they changed their neutral-sounding French names for Jewish-sounding pen names – a gesture of Jewish self-assertion. Around 1884 Georges Michel became Ephraïm Mikhaël and Lazare Bernard became Bernard *Lazare. E. Mikhaël's other Jewish "brother" was Camille Bloch, from an Alsatian rabbinical family, who became a leading historian.

E. Mikhaël moved to Paris as a schoolboy with his family. He began his literary career at age 17, while a pupil at the prestigious "lycée Fontanes," where, in a spirit of fraternal poetic exaltation, small literary groups sprang up, fed by intellectual pursuits and love of beauty.

E. Mikhaël's student years (1884–88) were spent at the Sorbonne and exclusive École des Chartes, specializing in Latin and medieval studies, graduating as archivist-paleographer, which won him an appointment at the Bibliothèque Nationale, a post he held until his untimely death.

Mikhaël was a fine scholar, ever broadening his knowledge in the realms of Greek and Oriental studies, philosophy, and comparative religion. His vast fund of knowledge served both his theoretical speculations and his poetic inspiration and the thematic background for his literary creation. He was a prolific and intensive writer in the six years of his student and professional careers and regarded as the most gifted of his generation by Victor Hugo and Mallarmé among others.

Although he is remembered primarily as a poet and quoted in the leading anthologies, he also excelled in poetic prose (tales, prose poems, parables), composed fine dramatic works (see La Fiancée de Corinthe, 1988), and important theoretical essays. Except for one small volume of poems, L'Automne (1886), he published primarily in literary journals, particularly La Pléiade, launched by his own little group and destined to become the famed and long-lived Mercure de France. The bulk of his writings appeared in a fine volume of verse and prose, published shortly after his death.

Though he remained famous for his melancholy poems ("Crépuscule pluvieux," "Tristesse de septembre," et al.), he had a dual personality: on the one hand he had a sad, pessimistic bent and on the other an innate love of life, whimsical and ironic, as in his satirical poems and some tales. He progressed from an idle reverie on the theme of the fatal burden of solitude and self-concern (exemplified in "La dame en deuil" and "La captive" among others) towards an active meditation, no longer severed from real life and commitment. In his last major critical text, he stakes a claim for a "new art," which rejects both the formal luxuriousness of the Parnasse school of poetry in favor of renewed freer expression and the flatly naturalistic novel in favor of a type of literature that would stimulate philosophical reflection. This was to be the program of the "symbolists" for the next 15 years or so.

A similar evolution is noticeable in E. Mikhaël's overtly Jewish works. The author goes from allusive, ambiguous references to meaningful messages. Such poems as "La reine de Saba," "Le mage," "L'automne" remain ambiguous. For example "L'automne" makes a fairly clear allusion to the High Holy Days, but stresses the sadness of the season, the death of the old year, and an uncertain word of pardon rather than the opportunity for the soul's renewal. A comparison between two parables, playing on the similar subject of the messianic messenger, is instructive. In an early tale, "Miracles," a noble stranger arrives in a timeless city, filled with anonymous rabbis and sages, full of "ridiculous common sense" and blind to higher insights. They ignore the stranger (maybe a "divine messenger"). The poet Azahel, a sort of philosopher and seer, remains torn between faith and reason. He retreats in superstitious fear of the unknown. A much later tale, "L'imposteur," takes up the same theme, but in a precise setting in time (month of Elul, ten years after the fall of Jerusalem) and space (Galilee, Tiberias). The story presents a group of authentic pious priests and rabbis, all with Hebrew names, prepared to seek and greet the messianic figure announced in Scriptures. But the unfinished story and the ironic behavior of the supposed messiah warn against deceptive prophecy (cf. the title "L'imposteur"). This is in keeping with the author's evolution toward a rational philosophical outlook, a sane moralistic attitude, and love of life, as an antidote against superstition and esoteric doctrines. In his major tales ("Halyartès," "Le Solitaire," et al.) he presents a series of beautiful adolescent heroes, outstanding for their perfect purity of soul, thus condemned to solitude in a crude, vicious, and hypocritical world. The frequent theme of purity is balanced by a stinging satire of spurious mysticism in the midst of an evil society.

[Denise R. Goitein]

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