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The Freedom of Lights: Edmond Jabès and Jewish Philosophy of Modernity


Przemysław Tacik

Edmond Jabès was one of the most intriguing Jewish thinkers of the 20th century – a poet for the public and a Kabbalist for those who read his work more closely. This book turns his writings into a ground-breaking philosophical achievement: thinking which is manifestly indebted to the Kabbalah, but in the post-religious and post-Shoah world. Loss, exile, negativity, God’s absence, writing and Jewishness are the main signposts of the negative ontology which this book offers as an interpretation of Jabès’ work. On the basis of it, the book examines the nature of the miraculous encounter between Judaism and philosophy which occurred in the 20th century. Modern Jewish philosophy is a re-constructed tradition which adapts the intellectual and spiritual legacy of Judaism to answer purely modern questions.

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3 Tzimtzum: Jabès and Luria

3 Tzimtzum: Jabès and Luria

Let us now focus on Jabès’ thought. Its most conspicuous feature is probably that it concerns an utterly dispersed and scattered reality, as a result of which the text itself is fragmented to the utmost. This pervasive fragmentation deserves to be discussed first. A pertinent question is, of course, what caused this disintegration. Jabès himself does not shun the question. His texts reiterate the idea of a primordial catastrophe, a drastic event of the beginning. Most commentators agree to view this as analogous to the Lurianic concept of tzimtzum. In this Chapter, I will however show that the Jabèsian version of tzimtzum is far more akin to modern Western philosophy than it appears to be.1

To start with, I will consider whether, in Jabès’ view, the initial catastrophe is knowable in the first place. Subsequently, I will focus on the disaster’s consequences for the world that it gave rise to. Taking stock of these sequent effects will help me not only fathom the nature of the catastrophe itself but also identify Jabès’ fundamental philosophical tenets. Based on this, I will attempt to describe the mechanism of his tzimtzum. To do so, I will first recount the poet’s insights as worded by him and, then, outline a more abstract, philosophical model of that event and, additionally, depict the act of writing, which Jabès construes as a model of creation. To conclude, I will compare Luria’s and Jabès’ notions of tzimtzum to bring out the modern character of the latter.

Inaccessibility of the Origins

The first thing to be noted about the idea of a discontinuous beginning is that, according to Jabès, it is not knowable directly and can be accessed only through a kind of fiction:

“Commencement, ‘beginning’: comment se ment? How does the beginning lie to itself in order to compel recognition as beginning? How does it, in lying to itself, lie to us and ←105 | 106→establish its lie so firmly it makes us believe we begin with it [que nous commençons avec lui]”?2

The passage implies that any idea of the beginning which we are tempted to place at the origin of continuous history as a discontinuous event, is a “lie.” A lie, in this context, is meant not so much as a negation of truth but as a patent fiction that offers itself as the inaccessible origin. “Beginning is a human invention, an anguished speculation about origins.”3 The beginning would thus be that which we are compelled to think instead of thinking an event that, radically strange to us, defies any description since description as such is made possible by it in the first place:

We are unable to think origins. It’s the origins, one after another [successivement], that think us.4

Thinking about the beginning is impossible for no other reason than that the beginning

itself makes thinking possible (and, in this sense, it “thinks us”). Jabès insists that we are perpetually dependent on an originary event which is identifiable only in retrospect.5 Still, the plural number in the quote implies something else, too. Namely, the beginning is not reducible to one primal catastrophe that brought forth the entire reality. On the contrary, there are several beginnings which, importantly, succeed one another. That reality is sustained at all results, thus, from the subsequent, unfounded beginnings, each of them giving rise to a certain form of the world and appearing to it as its own originary void.

Effects of the Catastrophe

What follows is that the primal disaster can only be rendered in an explicitly fictional account spun from its effects backwards. Therefore, before focusing on the nature of that catastrophe, we must scrutinise the consequences it caused.

←106 | 107→

The first effect is the discontinuity of time. Here are Jabès’ central formulations that provide us with interpretive guidelines:

There is no continuity in time.6

Stability of beings, things, the world – you are but a scant time of respite between two escapes; imperceptible time we rely on which became illusory: our indigent time.7

[…] time means separation, and we live in time.8

These three passages are only seemingly contradictory. In fact, they convey a rather complex structure of time posited by Jabès as he actually seems to presuppose two kinds of time. Time as expressed in the first excerpt could be called “real”9 and is a pure, repeated discontinuity – a chain of entirely discrete moments. Time as rendered in the second excerpt is an illusory “human” time that guarantees an ostensible stability of beings. According to Jabès, we live in a kind of protective “indigent time,” which breaks down the radicalism of change ushered in by the real time into separate, measurable moments. This illusory time is delimited by “two escapes,” standing, we might think, for manifestations of the real time, which it flees and to which it eventually returns. In this light, the third passage could be construed as indicating that the time in which we live essentially isolates us from the real time. Inferably, what the disaster brought about is a lack of any objective time that passes uniformly for the entire reality. Instead, there is the real time as a sequence of radical discontinuities – inconceivable to us and separated from the illusory time, in which beings can continue, though it is only a seeming duration. For, inextricable from the illusory time, the real time affects us even when the illusion prevents us from recognising its workings.

This is evidenced by the second effect of the catastrophe, that is, by the impermanence of a sentence’s validity in time:

[…] If only our thought were longer than a moment, we would get a foretaste of eternity.10

[…] You write. But doesn’t what you write hold for the moment?

←107 | 108→

The infinite excludes all improvisations of the finite, just as eternity crosses out, with one unbounded pen-stroke, the moment expressed in all that it expresses and valid only at and for the moment it occurs.11

Jabès does not believe that an utterance could possibly hold past a certain defined time. The articulated thought is so tightly bound to the moment in which it emerged – or, more precisely, to the configuration of conditions that made it possible – that it can by no means survive the passage of time. In other words, each utterance is inscribed in its own origin, which passes and is replaced by another one. Its ostensible stability is but an effect of the illusory time. Temporality is conceived here so radically that it affects also the most general conceptual frameworks, which also perish. What Hegel and Nietzsche discovered as putting the entire prior thinking about truth and history to the test is the very starting point in Jabès. Importantly, Jabès is not tempted to opt simply for relativism, in which each thought would be equally irrelevant. On the contrary, he assumes that, all the reservations notwithstanding, a thought, on emerging, has a relevance of its own. How to reconcile the idea of the thought’s relevance with its radical temporality poses an entirely new challenge to philosophy.

Third, the foregoing suggests that, as a result of the catastrophe, meaning is not reproducible in time. The passage of the real time seems to destroy the comprehensibility of an utterance irreversibly. That is why an alleged reproduction of it in later reading is only illusory as it rather entails producing a new thought that veils what has been lost:

One reads only one’s own reading.12

Factual truth means only that others (and we ourselves) accept our interpretation of an event.13

…facing the text, the writer is in the same position as the eventual reader, the text always opening up to the degree that we are able to read it. It is each time the text of our reading, that is to say, a new text.14

That new text is by no means an arbitrary variation on the prior one as it is shaped through and by the experience of loss. The quotations above imply two conclusions. First, the very nature of time in Jabès makes the text take on two different forms: a material form that persists in the real time and is inaccessible to us as soon as it is written down, and a fractional interpretation that emerges ←108 | 109→from reading and inevitably differs with every passing moment. Any hermeneutics as apperception of the original meaning is precluded a priori. Second, in the epistemology that ensues thereof, the very catastrophe makes it impossible to grasp a catastrophe as an event that marks the beginning of time because the catastrophe ruptured the continuity of time. Third, in effect, there is no common measure that, by accommodating simultaneously the moment of the beginning and the moment of thinking, could make comparing them possible.15 Even supposing that the meaning of the catastrophe was discovered, it would not survive beyond the moment of being forged. In this sense, the catastrophe still continues and affects reality moment by moment.

Fourth, the catastrophe also shattered truth. As time was split into the illusory and the real one, truth falls apart into two as well. What we actually have is a perspectival truth,16 holding for a brief moment within which it is capable of sustaining its validity in time. This truth – or, rather, these truths – can be verbalised in language. But because they emerge as a result of disowning transience, as a result of disguising their own perspectivism, they do not convey the truth of the whole. The latter is described by Jabès only as a negative liminal point, a fiction reflexively crafted by perspectivism. Since all articulation and all meaning are perspectival, the truth of the whole cannot possibly be articulated. In this sense, Jabès can propose that “truth is the void”17 and its voice is a “[f];atal call of the void.”18 Also, these insights apophatically bring us closer to truth, but insofar as they are part of a perspective, they are not truth. “For truth is a mirage of a summit which our mountains point toward,”19 Yaël insists. Truth is a mobilisation which, though unreachable as such, can be indicated by truths of individual perspectives in their temporary mobilisations (hence the “mountains”).

The interrelation of the two forms of truth is represented in Jabès’ notoriously ambiguous assertion that “la verité est en poussière.”20 One of its meanings is that “the truth lies in dust”: there is no unified, universal truth as the disaster made it impossible. “Truth is incessant invention since it contradicts itself, since ←109 | 110→only the provisional is true, only what can be shared.”21 What is more, each of the dispersed, fleeting particles preserves a moment of common truth, just like the Lurianic spark does. “What you call Truth,” The Book of Shares proclaims, “is truth in shreds. To each his own. Once ripped from the Whole, this miserable shred has no reality except its misery.”22 This is how the immanent Jabèsian perspectivism, highlighted by Waldrop, manifests itself.23 The particles of truth are separated by a discontinuity, a space of pure nothingness, in the same way that specks of dust are separated by empty space. The catastrophe means a raid of that pure nothingness into the universe and causing the originary truth to disintegrate into perspectives. The present tense of the sentence ascertains that this is the current state of affairs, and any disaster we could possibly imagine to have happened in the past – likewise the primal total truth the disaster could destroy – remains our fiction at best, cloaking the inaccessible.

The sentence can also be construed to mean something else. “The truth is in the dust” – it is the fragmentation that is the truth, and the truth can be read out from its entirety.24 This is the “truth of the void” evoked above. “The truth is in the dust” can be also taken to imply that truth can be found in that which is most useless and pointless, in the remnants left over after the dissolution. In this sense, the truth would be what has persisted beyond disintegration, what survives successive catastrophes because it is nothing but dust. Dust is utterly pulverised matter, matter that has been eroding for so long that it has reached the very end of destruction, and erosion cannot affect it anymore. In the philosophical parlance, Jabès claims that truth can be found only in that which has been purified in consecutive disasters and utterly evacuated of meaning, refusing to accrue any new meaning in subsequent perspectives – that whose essence is duration itself.

Fifth, the catastrophe also brought about writing as Jabès conceived of it. Writing issues from a basic incommensurability between the meaning that we give to the word as it is being written down and the processes that the word ←110 | 111→undergoes later. The incommensurability is easily perceived when compared with the functions of a memory prop and a speech supplement that Western metaphysics ascribes to writing.25 The basic assumption of this functional attribution is that the relation between writing and meaning remains essentially the same from inscription to reading. Of course, misreadings cannot be ruled out as the past written down can become so estranged as to resist simple reading; nevertheless, both the writing-down and the reading are events located within the same temporal sequence. In Jabès, the word written down parts ways with the meaning that was there while writing. A fundamental quasi-ontological displacement happens because the meaning perishes alongside the perspective that produced it whereas writing itself still carries on. In this way, writing becomes autonomous vis-à-vis the meaning it was supposed to preserve.

Any word which eludes the meaning bent on fixing it is free in terms of an absence which is its freedom to live and die, towards which it has always gravitated;

[…] Words lose their transparency in being read.26

This loss of transparency implies that the word holds something more than the meaning it seems to bear. Writing down the meaning makes it possible to see it pass in the real time exactly because the word that it leaves behind becomes opaque. Writing does not serve to prop memory; more than that, it exposes the discontinuity within memory by explicitly pointing out the absence of the lost meaning. In this sense, for Jabès, writing is not a space of perpetuated and legible signs; rather, it is a radically apophatic dimension which, moment by moment, shows us the finitude and perspectivism of any meaning.

Sixth, another effect of the disaster is what we can call “the solipsism of the present moment,” for the first time identified as part of Western philosophy by ←111 | 112→David Hume.27 It refers to the fact that, if the very possibility of a meaningful utterance depends on certain conditions of possibility bound up with a given moment in time, the utterances about the past and the future have no universal grounding. There is no universal history because there are no enunciations that could possibly retain validity across it. In a sense, our knowledge is a knowledge of the present moment only; a proper knowledge about the future must be the knowledge of this very future and, as such, it requires a passage of time.

How can I know who I am if only the past can teach me that? Tomorrow can’t be questioned.28

That is why the human identity is not continuous, either. This is another point in which Jabès seems to share Hume’s position:

To delve deep into ourselves in search of identity, what an illusion! There is no continuity in being. Everything within us is laid waste, O layers upon layers of ashes!29

But if in Hume the self was simply an outcome of impressions,30 in Jabès the self is comprised of “ashes” – that is, of failed attempts at establishing a proper identity. Hume neither suggests anything beyond a sequence of simple impressions nor posits any human need to derive identity from them. Jabès, however, seems to claim that such a vision is unacceptable to us. We strive to establish an identity, to enclose life in meaning, though it ends up, essentially, in ruin. That is why “we” are “layers upon layers of ashes” rather than a sequence of sensations.

Because of this “solipsism of the present moment,” meaning parts ways with life comprehended as duration of a living being in time. Related in the previous Chapter, the mistake while registering his birth date helped Jabès express this pattern vividly: according to him, to be (physically) born is one thing and to ←112 | 113→come to the world another. This difference holds everything that distinguishes a human being – as a symbolic entity – from the purely corporeal life.31 The divergence of life and meaning surfaces also in thinking about death:

“When death comes, he won’t see me.

In this way, he won’t know whether he fell behind the schedule or maybe I was ahead of my fate,” a sage wrote.32

Death does not come at the end of eternity but out of the moment [de l’instant].33

The duration of a living being terminated in death cannot be inscribed in meaning; it exceeds meaning. One can think of death, imagine it and place it in the future as an end of the imaginary chain of events starting this very moment. But death will always come too late or too early compared to where one has placed it (“the schedule”), and for this reason we are unable to think death meaningfully. It will come “out of the moment.” At this point, Jabès’ thought resembles the insights of Giorgio Agamben, who shows the parting of meaningfulness and “bare life” defined as a duration to which meaning does not apply.34 The death that we ponder has essentially nothing in common with real death, which belongs to the order of pure duration and is entirely exterior to knowledge. Real death is an end that disrupts duration and automatically terminates meaning, remaining as alien to it as bare life is. “Death is the gratuitous act par excellence,”35 writes Jabès. He thus clearly dissociates death as a figure of thought employed by himself and used in philosophy by, for example, Hegel, Heidegger and Blanchot, from real death, which is alien to meaning.36

Therefore, what the disaster produced is complete incommensurability of pure duration and meaning in which we wish to frame it. No utterance can possibly invest duration with a permanent meaning without it being always already exceeded. In trying to describe duration, meaning only exposes itself to its own transience:

There is no goal that, at the very moment it is reached, is not already surpassed.37

←113 | 114→

[…] to create means only to show the birth and death of an object. We speak, we write but for the moment. Duration is not for us.38

The sentence dies the moment it is put together. The words survive it.39

This brief survey of the consequences of the catastrophe implies that its fundamental effect is discontinuity, which makes various perspective, various moments in time, writing and meaning as well as life and meaning incompatible. Because this discontinuity is all-encompassing, the entire reality gets pulverised and each resulting particle is incommensurable with all the other ones even though all of them re-enact the same atomisation. In this sense, reality is utterly dispersed but, paradoxically, homogeneous in its incessant discontinuity as it is re-enacted ubiquitously all over again. Hence, the desert is Jabès’ central metaphor for reality because in the desert everything finds itself ultimately fragmented and, yet, because of it, appears unified.

The Jabèsian Tzimtzum: An Outline

Having sketched the general “mechanics” of the catastrophe, we can focus on the vision of the originary event that initiated it. As elucidated above, the vision is an explicitly self-proclaimed myth and an imaginary rendition of the event.40 For Jabès, thus, describing the disaster is not part of either theology or metaphysics since this kind of disaster invalidates theology and metaphysics as such because thinking about the disaster re-enacts it rather than refers to it. Therefore, the description of the primordial catastrophe can be regarded as nothing other than one of Jabès’ innumerable descriptions of the present catastrophe.

Let us assemble the bits and pieces left over from this fictional cosmo-theogony. Jabès’ texts put forward a new version of the Lurianic idea of tzimtzum – the ←114 | 115→withdrawal of God in the act of Creation.41 The first point they make is the evanescence and perishment of God, who existed once in one way or another, but now only the void remains after him.

[…] God will die in a conflagration.42

Nobody has seen God, but the stages of His death are visible to all of us.43

←115 | 116→

When I call to God, I call to the Sense of the Void.44

God’s absence is the infinite void that holds up the world.45

Clearly, Jabès does not simply assume that God does not exist; rather, building to a degree on Nietzsche, he presupposes an event as a result of which God does not exist in the present.46 God’s non-existence is not a simple refutation of the thesis that he exists; instead, it is a real, piercing and nearly palpable absence that calls for embracing the fiction of the disaster in which God died leaving emptiness behind. Therefore, God continues to be a fundamental structure organising the world, but its principle lies in absence now. “He is an image of lack.”47 If in Western metaphysics God could be the fullness of being, in Jabès he is the centre of absence:

… God, the Absent, but beyond the power of absence, hence bound to be present where all presence has been revoked?48

The disappearance of God does not affect only him; on the contrary, it stamps itself on reality as such because in place of presence it instils absence as a constitutive principle. And if absence has replaced presence, the new, absent God has likewise replaced the old God. But on closer inspection, we can see that the event did not change some primordial, “normal” reality into a new, absence-based one. As in Luria, Creation itself entails absence; the negative principle of reality has been in force since the very beginning.

Thereby, Jabès turns out to be an heir to a vast philosophical and theological tradition that differentiates between God from before Creation (in the Kabbalah usually referred to as Ein-Sof) and God after Creation.49 The latter is ←116 | 117→co-determined by Creation or, even, was created in it himself, supplanting the primordial, undifferentiated God from before Creation. The fiction of these two forms of Godhead is conveyed, for example, in the following passages:

God let go of God in death and set himself up as an example.50

God, the uncreated, that is, created before God, being where nothing exists. God, the creator and hence destroyer of God, because the All had to show proof of its innate Totality as it faced the void down to the final stripping where victim and hangman embrace and sink into baffling absence.51

Time affirms, confirms what is; eternity denies.

God is in time, not in eternity.

Thus God has killed God.52

God-the-Creator replaces God-the-Uncreated. In the principle of reality, which is absence, he can exist only as the absent one; that is why the God present before Creation had to die. In Jabès’ thoroughly paradoxical, apophatic thinking, God still exists but, exactly, as non-existent because Creation is now grounded in absence.

However, unlike Luria, Jabès identifies the act of Divine vanishing with God’s use of the word, with Divine speech. In other words, Creation and Revelation, tohu vabohu, as well as Sinai, are one and the same event to him. God dies not only in the act of Creation but also in his book:

God is silent for having once spoken in God’s language.

[…] The death of God in the book has given birth to man.

[…] “If I spoke the language of God,” […] “Men would not hear me. For He is the silence of all words.”53

The divine word is disquieting smoke. It has never been a blast of strange and terrifying sounds, but a harmonious coiling of a trace burning in the warm air coming down from Sinai. Trace of a trace reverberating in its infinite interdiction.54

“God was the first to break silence,” he said. “It is this breakage we try to translate into human languages.”55

“We read the word in the sunburst of its limits, as we read the Law through Moses’ angry gesture, through the breaking of the divine Tables,” he said.

In the exploded word, God collides with the hostility of the letters.

Even outside the Name, God is a prisoner of the Name.56

←117 | 118→

This would imply that God is the only writer, and every book a privileged moment in the reading of the Book.57

The Book holds God’s absence. O word sealed for oblivion. Men received it not, but loyal to the Letter, they multiplied the book […].58

God spoke, and what He said became our symbols. […] His voice is inaudible, but it is the supporting silence which allows our sounds to be discrete […].59

This is where one of Jabès’ most essential assumptions lies. Namely, as the passages above imply, the death of God is linked to him leaving a message. In other words, God is subject to the same process as any writer and, generally, any creature that produces an utterance within a symbolic system. Of course, the thesis could be construed as rehearsing a Romantic cliché: the author disappears from the text and, as he is no longer present in it, only his trace is left behind, bedimmed. But Jabès posits something far more poignant: he views each utterance as a failure caused by the very structure of reality, for articulation entails subordination to the order which is structurally other to the utterer. The utterance means dismantling the illusory sovereignty of a being that interacts with a network of structures. Any attempt at speaking leads to a fundamental ontological displacement whose effects are marked by the catastrophe.

The same displacement happens also in the act of creation. That is why Jabès can identify Creation with Revelation. They are, apparently, completely different acts: in Creation, God issued forth things while in Revelation He handed down the Law, thereby leaving his utterance behind. Nevertheless, in Jabès’ view, both these events involve the C/creator entering the realm entirely beyond H/him, in which H/he fails. Creation – or the utterance – produced in this way is erected upon the absence of the C/creator. Therefore, it can be proposed that, in fact, the originary disaster is not a cause of the disintegration whose outcomes we witness. Rather, it seems the first manifestation of an inevitable conflict inscribed in the very structure of reality.

This is what lies at the core of the universality of the Jabèsian tzimtzum, the mechanism of which involves God as much as any writer.

←118 | 119→

Tzimtzum as an Ontological Principle

Having discussed the consequences of the catastrophe and its underlying mechanism, we can engage in more abstract philosophising. I will attempt to show how the effects of the catastrophe – therein the change of presence into absence and of God-the-Uncreated into God-the-Creator – are all reducible to a fundamental ontological displacement which can be identified with the Jabèsian version of tzimtzum. Jabès’ tzimtzum differs essentially from Luria’s, and the two will be compared below. My analysis is informed by the idea that any act of creation and the writing process are identical.

The following three passages are crucial to my interpretation:

We are all equal before language.60

Before the Creation, God could expect everything of God, just as the writer can expect everything of his pen before the book, and the book everything of the book before it is written.61

God’s heritage could only be handed on in the death He ushered in. […] At this time before time, […] one small point in space contained, like a bubble, all the wanderings of the worlds. When it burst, it freed the universe, but gave form to exile. God had disappeared, existing only in Creation. […] Never again will we escape exile. The book is among its true stages.62

The first passage implies that by “language” Jabès does not mean human language. Rather, “language” designates first of all – and in keeping with some insights of Jewish tradition (picked up anew in the 20th century by Benjamin) – a system whose rules one must observe to actualise anything. Everybody, God Himself including, is equal before it. Therefore, God finds Himself in the same position as a writer starting to write. This position is encapsulated in the second passage: any creation is preceded by envisaging or hoping; a maker can “expect everything.” Jabès seems to suggest that God and a writer both expect to produce a perfectly tractable work and to execute fully the conceived design. Before the act of creation, no element defiant of the author mars the vision.

The third passage discloses, however, that the vision is just an illusion engendered by the creator’s specific position before the work, and fails in and with the act of creation. The “time before time” evoked by Jabès is nothing other but the illusory time possible only where the real time has not set in yet. The illusory time is a period of a unique pleroma, where “each point in space contains all the ←119 | 120→wanderings of the worlds.” As in Parmenides, it is sphere-like and impeccably symmetrical. Hence the space from before creation is perfectly homogeneous. Given this fact, the C/creator’s misbelief must be induced by the illusory time in which he is steeped, and the perfection he envisages must reflect only this primordial, empty homogeneity.

This idea finds further confirmation in the third passage, which describes the catastrophe that happens at the moment of the real creation. Jabès foregrounds at least two of its aspects. First, a previously hidden dimension is revealed: “the universe is freed.” The earlier sameness is destroyed, and a new, internally asymmetrical space comes into being. In this optics, the fullness of the initial vision seems to veil a space that has already been there and is entirely incommensurable with the vision. The act of creation turns out to be self-destructive as it puts an end to a vision that made it possible in the first place and, at the same time, reveals an otherness that defies the design. Second, the author (God, too) is himself destroyed, which indicates that also his existence was part of the initial vision. As a result, the space of the created things becomes a domain of exile. This means that the author, in a way, lingers on after the catastrophe, but he does so only in a mutilated form: his nature, as entwined with the fullness of the vision, remains fundamentally incompatible with the created space he is now destined to inhabit.

These conclusions will help us specify the mechanisms of the Jabèsian take on tzimtzum. Emphatically, unlike in Luria, Jabès’ tzimtzum is not a single disturbance in the act of Creation but a permanent effect of a fundamental incongruity between the imaginary and the real.

The Imaginary and the Real

What is the difference between “the imaginary” and the “real”?63 How come they are so fundamentally incommensurate that when they meet, a disaster happens?

←120 | 121→

Here, we come across a compelling element of Jabèsian thinking that sets him apart from Luria’s cosmogonic speculations and brings him more in unison with the core of modern Western philosophy. To Jabès, the difference between the imaginary and the real does not mirror the incommensurability of the Divine power and the capacity of the “vessels” which are to hold it. Such a classic Lurianic explanation, albeit potentially relevant philosophically, does not accommodate the issues pondered in Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. Jabès, on his part, locates the principle of tzimtzum in re-configuring the relation between singularity and multiplicity, which immediately confronts him with the same problems that bothered Kant.

To explore these insights, we can start from observing that in Jabès the domain of the imaginary makes up a singular symbolic system that has multiple equal elements for its objects. The imaginary enables the author to shape his work at will, assuming a dominant position vis-à-vis his subordinate objects. The imaginary itself does not seem to be subject to temporality at all: at any moment, the elements appear to be determined in the same way and can be combined and re-combined as the author wishes. The imaginary is thus analogous to the Kantian and Hegelian understanding (Verstand). First, it seems universal in the realm it organises; second, it predetermines certain objects, making them amenable to arranging in freely chosen relationships; and, third, its basic construction seems unchangeable over time. Consequently, the imaginary is a mode of shaping relations between singularity and multiplicity in which the apparent unity of a system enables it to produce an effect of multiplicity within it. Nevertheless, this effect is possible only at the cost of a fundamental, internal limitation (selectiveness) of the system and its elements.

The real functions in the opposite way. Its primary organising principle is multiplicity of fundamentally incommensurable elements. Each of them is singular in an entirely different way than elements of the imaginary: rather than embedded in a universal system (a “concrete universal,” to use the Hegelian term), singularity is primordial and inexplicable. For this reason, in Jabès, the real is asymmetrical and does not allow either passing freely from one element to another or, even less so, arranging them in relations. As such, the real on this model cannot be accommodated in one dimension of time, for, as Kant showed, this would presuppose a homogenous “temporal series” shared by all the elements whereas the “elements” of the real resemble the Kantian things in ←121 | 122→themselves, lacking a shared dimension in which to compare them. Hence, the Jabèsian real is a mode of forming relations between singularity and multiplicity in which the primary multiplicity of “elements” entails their radical singularity. As such, the real is not subject to any limitation and seems to encompass everything that exists or can exist.

Thus, the imaginary and the real seem to be uniquely interrelated and mutually dependent. The imaginary would not be possible without the real, which it conceals and, subsequently, reveals when failing. At the same time, the real could not be known even in a flawed way were it not for the symbolic system that fosters the imaginary.

Notably, Jabès employs a characteristic strategy. He does not explore the details of mechanisms behind the imaginary and the real, unlike his contemporary structuralists and poststructuralists (e.g. Lacan and Derrida), who puzzled over them, albeit under different names and in different configurations. Instead, he is preoccupied with the dislocation of the relation between singularity and multiplicity and with the effects thereof. Of course, this focus is easily explained by recalling that Jabès is more of a poet than a meticulous theoretician, but his strategy might be informed by a deeper philosophical insight. Namely, he analyses the most elementary structure of relations that seems to determine both knowledge and existence. Hence, he can think in the same way of Creation and Revelation, of bringing forth a being and writing a sentence and, finally, of God and a writer. There is, in this strategy, a striving to radically simplify, in which central concerns of modern Western philosophy are given a re-thinking and which, unexpectedly, revives traditional themes speculated on of old in Jewish thought, such as framing Creation as a linguistic act.64 Paradoxically, the simplicity of this radicalism can make Jabès come across as questing for some species of “first philosophy” in confrontation with the wilderness of post-war thinking. That is why in this, and only this, sense, the conclusions his works suggest can be referred to as ontology even as this ontology overthrows all tenets of Aristotelian ontology.

Tzimtzum as the Principle of Discontinuity

Having outlined the differences between the imaginary and the real, we can resume our discussion of the mechanism behind the Jabèsian tzimtzum. As already mentioned, tzimtzum is engendered by the incommensurability of the imaginary and the real. But what is tzimtzum as such? We can posit that, to Jabès, ←122 | 123→tzimtzum – manifest in any act of creation or writing – constitutes a moment of discontinuity in which the imaginary collapses and mutates into the real. Given the properties listed above, it entails a dislocation of the relation between singularity and multiplicity. In tzimtzum, the prior multiplicity of the elements of the imaginary is revealed as spawned by a single system, with this apparently universal system being at the same time exposed as one of many. If, earlier, multiplicity ensued from the basic singularity, after tzimtzum singularity of entire systems is disclosed to be an effect of their fundamental multiplicity. Clearly, Jabès’ insights about tzimtzum are directly related to Derrida’s notion of inscription, albeit they concern (conventionally speaking) the ontological plane.

Starting from these observations, we will attempt to discuss the essential features of the Jabèsian tzimtzum not as explicitly portrayed by the poet himself, but as translated into an ontological abstraction. First, to Jabès, tzimtzum is not a lone event that separated Ein-Sof from the creation once and for all; instead, it is a perpetually repeated point of dislocation of various relations between singularity and multiplicity. Jabès actually does not envision a universal history since history is either a perspectival construct (referred to above as the illusory time) or a persisting discontinuity of the real time. Hence, there cannot be one, single, definitive event. To construe it as an incessant repetition of tzimtzum or as a manifestation of one and the same tzimtzum is equally valid.

This has far-ranging implications. First, the function that philosophy tends to attribute to time is, in Jabès, invested in space, and in a specific, extended sense to boot. Since time is dependent on the transition from the imaginary to the real and both forms of time – the illusory and the real – exist either before or after a given act of tzimtzum, time as such can no longer feature as a universal series for all events. The role is, instead, performed by space conceived as a set of all points of tzimtzum.

Second, tzimtzum is a point of discontinuity. Indeterminate though the term is, we would be hard pressed to come up with a better moniker to describe the collapse between the imaginary and the real. Discontinuity as conceived by Jabès is a successor to both negative theology and the Kantian “things in themselves.” As such, it cannot be accounted for or depicted other than from a distance, for it demarcates the boundary between two orders of being. And it is the outermost point in each of them. For this very reason, no account provided by these orders can accommodate discontinuity; namely, the imaginary does not explain how a created thing comes into being while the real does not render the moment of moulding by the meaning that was part of the imaginary. Tzimtzum, therefore, seems not only a transition point between the orders, but also a site where they are revealed as mutually determined. Tzimtzum as such, however, is nothing; as ←123 | 124→in Luria, it can be described only in terms of negation – as a curtailment or a withdrawal that wrecks one order and commences another one.

Third, in Jabès, tzimtzum stamps each of the two orders with a primal flaw, which makes them incomplete. As a result, neither of them is adequate in and by itself. Let us look into them one by one. The order of the imaginary is incomplete insofar as it calls for a real creation. Despite its correspondence to the pleroma, it lacks the realness which it tries to form in its semblance. It is therein that its “original sin” lies:

[…] original sin was only an insane quest for divine harmony. To be a world in a hand and a word. To say what is written, to create what is read.65

Jabès ascribes to each of these orders a moment of utopia, located exactly where their imperfection resides and inciting the respective order to move towards self-transcendence and, thus, towards the tzimtzum point. The utopia of the imaginary is a utopia of harmonious creation in which the meaning and the matter of writing remain in perfect concord.66 The real is incomplete insofar as it cannot find contentment in its material, mute existence but continues to strive for self-understanding, thereby breeding a new imaginary. Its utopia lies in self-understanding and self-accommodation. Through these moments of utopianism, tzimtzum imbues the world with an inner dynamics.

These observations indicate that tzimtzum takes place not only in the passage from the imaginary to the real (that is, creation or writing in Jabès’ model) but also in the opposite conversion. For if both the imaginary and the real are incomplete orders interlaced in a certain discontinuity, tzimtzum seems symmetrical to them. But when is it that a transition from the real to the imaginary takes place? As Jabès suggests, it is when a new writing design surfaces.

If so, tzimtzum would be the node that binds the imaginary and the real, determining both these orders and experienced whenever one folds into the other, which happens as a result of their internal movement propelled by incompleteness.

To trace this movement, I will now analyse the cycle of tzimtzum as it unfolds in the act of writing.

←124 | 125→

An Example of the Tzimtzum Cycle: The Act of Writing

As already discussed, the structure of tzimtzum determines all creation – both Divine Creation and the work of a common writer.67 Although tzimtzum as such is not directly graspable, if it constantly repeats itself, it can be experienced in a way. With this in mind, we can follow Jabès and try to pinpoint manifestations of tzimtzum. Undoubtedly, we come across them twice. First, tzimtzum must give rise to the imaginary by abandoning the domain of the real and bringing forth a design of creation. Afterwards, it will come to pass again as the design fails.

To start with, let us explore the first tzimtzum. It is expressed in the following passage:

If anything exists, there is no creation at all [Si quelque chose existe, il n’y a point création].68

Jabès, a kabbalist of the French language, mingles two ideas in this sentence. First, he suggests that if anything already exists, creation is out of the question. For creation must enjoy a stretch of freedom, of emptiness unmarred by any prior existence. By the same token, a writer cannot venture to write knowing that something has been written before. How is it then possible that creation happens anyway? This is explained by the other insight, conveyed by the operator of negation “ne… point” [“not at all”]. The negation, namely, can be construed in keeping with the Jabèsian premise of the negative nature of existence proper. On this take, “ne… point” will mean the negative existence of a point dividing the existing thing from creation, and the whole sentence will read “if anything exists, there is a point of creation.”

What does it mean? In the light of Jabès’ other observations, it means that since some things exist before new creation, creation is possible only if preceded by the rise of a dividing point of discontinuity. All creation must eschew the past and ←125 | 126→engender its own, separate plane.69 It is in the moment of this primal – and specifically determined reduction of reality that the contraction of tzimtzum takes place, fostering the design of creation. A writing venture, likewise, is possible only if the past is erased:

[…] All creating involves a splitting of time [fraction du temps], which, devoid of the past, is obliteration in itself.70

The “first” tzimtzum entails thus an erasure of the past and a breakdown of time: as the real folds into the imaginary, the real time mutates into the illusory time. The way to the “pleroma” of the creative imagination is opened, and the freshly arisen author is at liberty to manoeuvre the building blocks. Now, however, he inexorably faces a creative act bound to induce another manifestation of tzimtzum.

So much for the “first” tzimtzum. Its second manifestation can be gleaned from a longer passage in an interview with Marcel Cohen:

Writing is risk-taking […] There is a notable difference between expressing oneself orally and in writing. One does not speak up without having a more or less clear idea of what one wants to say. In the first case one can say only what has been done, achieved, finished. The spoken word is limited by time and space. It is a first degree récit [a story, a telling]: everything has happened and the end is known beforehand.

In the second case [of writing], everything is in flux, in gestation, and we are riveted to this world of vocables being born. We are ignorant not only of what the book will be, but also of what it tries to express objectively – and even implicitly against us – insofar as the words have the initiative. The risk consists in indefinitely opening the book to the book. This opening also is the chasm, the abyss in which the writer stands [emphasis added].

[…] What book is written? What book is read? Are we facing anew risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if the future comes through words [passe par les mots] – and words are never innocent and prepare enactment [passage à l’acte], in the sense that the book forms our minds and sensibilities at the same time – what future is it?

Any author [createur] would thus be, against himself, responsible for a future [un futur] which he has no way to command. Simultaneously, he fully grasps the importance of interpretation, commentary which can distort the text so much that it will be irreversibly adulterated even though no adulteration will have happened.71

←126 | 127→

In the excerpt above, “the spoken word” is contrasted with “writing” as the former lacks the originary tzimtzum: it refers to things that have already happened, relates the past and does not seek to create anything new. Therefore, a spoken utterance is easily formed since it does not rely on a design but on what has already come to pass. Writing, in turn, entails risk, including also existential risk, because of tzimtzum, which opens and closes it. In the latter (closing) tzimtzum, an incongruity is revealed of the imaginary and the written words expected to execute the design. No longer safeguarded by the illusion of the imaginary, the words return into the real. That is why tzimtzum cuts off the design from the execution, imposing on the author a peculiar responsibility for the future he cannot control. The future belongs to words which exist in a different temporal order than the one available to the author. Therefore, the catastrophe is intrinsic to the act of writing itself as the design must concern the domain which it does not encompass due to the very fact of having been executed.

In Jabès’ account, tzimtzum turns out to be an inexorable discontinuity which makes creation possible (because the real alone cannot craft anything without the imaginary) and, at the same time, causes its disintegration (because the imaginary cannot be fully transposed into the real). The discontinuity must be transcended twice – before and after creation.72 As a result of tzimtzum, created things bear indelible traces73 that represent the specific rhythm of the toppling ←127 | 128→of the imaginary and the real. The traces are easily observable in writing, which always makes “too little” sense to be fully interpretable and, simultaneously, “too much” sense to be treated as a common, material thing. So while the act of writing embodies the cycle of tzimtzum, its outcome – the text – offers a model of any created thing that is fragmented, harbours inner contradictions and defies any interpretive closure.74

Tzimtzum in Jabès and in Luria

Having outlined the theory of tzimtzum useful in interpreting Jabès’ writings, we can examine how it compares with Luria’s original framework. Which elements of Luria’s concept are re-configured in Jabès and why? And, essentially, with Jabès, have we not strayed too far from the proper Safed mysticism to speak of tzimtzum legitimately in the first place?

To start with, I must admit that, in the foregoing, I identified Jabès’ tzimtzum with two moments of creation which Luria viewed as entirely distinct, i.e. tzimtzum and shevirat ha-kelim. The Lurianic tzimtzum conveys the undifferentiated pleroma of Ein-Sof into a ruptured universe consisting of the central void – tehiru – filled with the dark matter of golem and enveloped in the withdrawn light of Ein-Sof. This Divine “inhalation” generates only two dimensions ←128 | 129→in which Creation-writing will be possible, referred to by Luria as the Divine light and matter. Only after this division can Creation (giving shape to matter) be attempted, which results in a disaster – the shattering of material vessels intended to hold the Divine light. On this take, shevirat ha-kelim explicitly hinges on tzimtzum.

In Jabès, the undifferentiated pleroma is already part of the imaginary bred by the primordial curtailment of the real. His Ein-Sof, a hopeful writer, was engendered by tzimtzum. Unlike Luria’s God, who is the master of the universe at the beginning at least, Jabès’ C/creator is already thrust into it, subject to its laws, and tzimtzum is not so much an activity of the C/creator himself as a movement that predates and gives rise to him. That is why the catastrophe that unfolds in the act of writing is the same primordial movement working in the opposite direction. The writer emerges from the real only to dissolve in it again, together with his design.

Two properties of this cycle – i.e. that it is continually repeated and uncontrolled by any power – suggest that, unlike Luria, Jabès views tzimtzum and shevirat ha-kelim as two facets of the same event. Of course, he implicitly distinguishes “tzimtzum as such” (the onset of a new book) from shevirat ha-kelim (the failure of the creative act), but he is preoccupied with one, central discontinuity manifest in both these events. For this reason, in my account of the Jabèsian version of tzimtzum, I used the term in its deeper meaning of any crack between the imaginary and the real.

Intriguingly, on this view, Jabès uses a nearly Kantian strategy to re-work the Lurianic myth. Instead of rendering the single event of cosmogony in a metaphysical description, he focuses on its conditions of possibility. In this essentially structural elucidation, the Lurianic tzimtzum and shevirat ha-kelim are one and the same mechanism of ontological displacement. Consequently, instead following Luria in the study of the origin of the fragmentation of reality by tracing the homogenous history back to its beginning, Jabès in fact analyses one point which is both prior and posterior as it eludes historical continuity. From which angle the point is examined – whether in terms of the contraction of the real into the imaginary or in terms of the perishment of the imaginary in the real – is irrelevant to the rupture that this point constitutes. Also, it can be experienced in any time. Hence, Jabès, as already mentioned, inscribes time in an abstract space.

Therefore, we may ask whether tzimtzum is actually a valid notion in the framework of Jabès’ thought. The answer is positive because the movement of “shrinking” and, then, “breaking” of the creation is based on the idea of reduction, of delimiting an area by contraction, which is tantamount to tzimtzum. Moreover, the Jabèsian tzimtzum is not just the moment of Creation anymore, ←129 | 130→but a fundamental and common law underpinning reality as a whole, with beings not so much experiencing it, the way they did Luria’s Ein-Sof, as rather arising because of it in the first place. With tzimtzum governing the Jabèsian universe, there is no space free of it: free space as such is, exactly, an effect of tzimtzum. Clearly, Jabès not only picked up Luria’s old idea but also radicalised and expanded it.75 This transition from 16th-century Safed to 20th-century Paris would not have been possible without the legacy of modern philosophy. In conclusion, I will address the role modern philosophy had in re-inventing tzimtzum.

Conclusion: The Jabèsian Tzimtzum as a Philosophical Idea of Modernity

Let us first recapitulate the insights of this Chapter. Starting from ascertaining the inevitable fictionality of thinking about the initial catastrophe, I surveyed the consequences of this catastrophe, all of which are classifiable as incommensurability. Incommensurable are the illusory and the real time, writing and reading, the possibility of a meaningful account and its validity over time, a perspectival truth and the liminal “truth of the void” and, finally, the meaning and duration of life itself. The disaster is also an event that has left behind the palpable absence of God and, generally, changed the principle of existence from presence to absence. In the next move, relying on the structural correspondence of C/creation and the act of writing, I sketched the dislocation of the relation between singularity and multiplicity, which embodies the nature of tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is the basic determinant of the Jabèsian universe as it brings forth, divides and determines the imaginary and the real as well as triggers their constant movement vis-à-vis each other. Finally, I spelled out the difference between tzimtzum as conceived by Jabès and Luria, showing that Jabès, though indisputably indebted to the Lurianic tradition, distils it radically to define tzimtzum as, essentially, an ontological relation. Thereby, he locates his work at the centre of modern philosophical concerns. At this point, we can ask what tzimtzum would eventually mean in the modern philosophical language.

←130 | 131→

First, it would mean the point of the primary reduction of the real to a limited symbolic order. Second, it would be where this order bordered with its own outside. As such, tzimtzum is a basic break within all meaning, in which a single element must be related to the entirety of the order it belongs to and, at the same time, this order is one of many like ones. In this sense, tzimtzum represents the paradox of perspectivism. Third, and most importantly, the Jabèsian tzimtzum is absence as a construction principle behind all existence that is based on a distance between the real and the symbolic order within which this existence unfolds. On this take, individual existence arises because, though determined and brought forth by the symbolic order, it contains its own ne plus ultra – a chasm in which it reveals itself as being one of many orders. For this reason, a thing is not exhausted either in its attributes or in the assumption that it exists outside of them. On the contrary, it exists as this very rupture that is nothing else but tzimtzum. This peculiar “atemporality,” which forces existence out of its current, albeit historical, framework and makes it deafly inert vis-à-vis meaning – with the inertia seemingly stemming from time immemorial, though in fact only abolishing the illusory time in which the imaginary comes into being, and yet not passing into the real time – is a mode of existing in the Jabèsian universe. Consequently, tzimtzum can be construed as the central principle of the world that is given to us, a world that defies being definitively contained in any symbolic order, exposes the multiplicity and particularity of these orders and, at the same time, produces the effect of a deaf, deceptively primeval, meaningless thingness. Therefore, tzimtzum would be a peculiar, empty haecceitas of the modern world, a site of an inner superfluint of all being.

On this model, there is no simple existence as such, no Aristotelian “being at hand.” Existence arises where the symbolic order contacts its outside. In other words, in each thing there is a chasm between a meaningful world and all the worlds in which this thing has had other meanings once. Hence the essentially modern effect of superfluity of things and their resistance to meaning, which is so peculiarly bound up with the experience of their materiality and primordiality that Jabès conjures up time and again. The effect, however, would be nothing else but a consequence of the modern perspectival universe. The new materialism surging in the age of modernitas would then be necessary for the emplacement of the excess ensuing from tzimtzum.

If we juxtapose this notion of tzimtzum and the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity as outlined in Chapter One, tzimtzum would seem to embody the collapse of transcendence as an ontological principle, i.e. one of the basic tenets of this philosophy. “Restful” and discrete substances of autonomous existence are replaced by objects as defined by Kant, i.e. given shape by certain a-priori ←131 | 132→orders. In Jabès, these orders are identifiable with the imaginary. By necessity limited and incomplete, they find themselves in constant tension with the outside from which they mark themselves off. The tension is aptly theorised in the Jabèsian tzimtzum, which first gives rise to the curtailed imaginary only to unveil its selectiveness and return to the real. Tzimtzum punctuates also the incessant internal movement of the universe that has been stripped of transcendence, consequently becoming superfluous and “restless,” to use the Hegelian diction. Finally, tzimtzum is the same unthinkable boundary between the continuous series and its singular beginning, which corresponds to the antinomies of pure reason in Kant.76

Second, Jabès’ tzimtzum is the “originary” event in a paradoxical manner. Although a fiction in itself, it must be presupposed because of the fragmentation of reality. At the same time, because of its effects, it cannot be considered a single, one-time event; on the contrary, it incessantly manifests itself in subsequent re-enactments. As such, it demolishes the differentiation between an event and being that arises from it. Tzimtzum, though ostensibly an act of creation, does not create any being separate from itself because it must persist as the void to bind and, at the same time, divide the orders of the imaginary and the real.

Given these two properties, Jabès’ tzimtzum can be said to work within the structure found in Jewish philosophy of modernity. On the one hand, it evokes the fiction of a primordial event which determined the entire reality and which thinking strives to fathom. On the other hand, however, it is still a functional construction principle of this reality. Reeling back to the event of the beginning, thinking only reproduces its continually effective condition. In other words, it examines in the fiction of the origin an empty residue that constitutes its current structure. It is no coincidence, therefore, that Jabès implicitly evokes the event of tzimtzum, which engrossed Scholem and Bloom, two other “Jewish philosophers of modernity.” Perhaps it is in the persistent resumption of the idea of tzimtzum that this thinking renders its own trace left in it by the shift of modernity.

In conclusion, Jewish philosophy of modernity seems to be a crucial factor in the Jabèsian re-working of Lurianic inspirations. Tzimtzum is no longer the cosmological event of the beginning, but rather an abiding empty centre of the ←132 | 133→world. It can be associated with the originary catastrophe, but such an association must be of mythical nature. Thus, Jabès portrays a world which, at the fundamental level, has been cut off from its beginning, wrested out of the continuum of history and formed by the ubiquitous force of negativity.

As it is still tzimtzum, it is Jewish philosophy, but the essence of the event consigns it to modernity.

←133 | 134→←134 | 135→

1 Before we proceed any further, it must be clearly stated that Jabès never directly speaks of the concept of tzimtzum. Still he refers time and again to the idea of the withdrawal of God leaving emptiness behind. He also repeatedly plays on associations with “inhalation” and “exhalation,” which are supposed to be at the core of the act of creation. Such connotations explicitly evoke the Lurianic tzimtzum (which I will describe below). That is why, following some commentators, I will refer to “the Jabèsian tzimtzum,” distilling a notion analogical to Luria’s from the poet’s writings. Emphatically, however, this formulation remains just an interpretive construct.

2 BR II, p. 22.

3 Ibid., p. 21.

4 LH, p. 21.

5 Similarly, the Haggadah in Talmud’s Chagigah explains: “Why does the story of Creation begin with the letter beth [in the Bereshit]? … In the same manner that the letter beth is closed on all sides and only open in front [ב], similarly you are not permitted to inquire into what is before or what was behind, but only from the actual time of Creation.” Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, p. 27. As Scholem points out, the Kabbalah revived mythical speculations about Creation, but precisely as patent myths occluding the inaccessible beginning. See Scholem, Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, p. 101.

6 LR I, p. 97.

7 LR I, p. 111.

8 BQ II, p. 40.

9 Jabès uses the phrase “real time” in The Ineffaceable The Unperceived to describe a time in which eternity looks into itself and realises its own nature (BR III, p. 63). Here, I extend this term to include all the cases in which Jabès ponders the time of infinity itself.

10 LR I, p. 33.

11 BR II, p. 26.

12 LH, p. 62.

13 BQ II, p. 66.

14 BM, p. 124.

15 Clearly, this represents the same problem of continuity and limit of a continuous series that Kant grappled with (particularly in his antinomies). Cf. Chapter One.

16 Admittedly, Jabès does not use the words “perspective” or “perspectival,” but given the utility of these concepts, boosted by post-Nietzschean perspectivism of Western philosophy, I will employ them in further interpretations.

17 BQ I, p. 117.

18 BQ II, p. 60.

19 Ibid., p. 60

20 LH, s. 41.

21 BQ I, p. 175.

22 BS, p. 18.

23 Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès (Middletown, CT: 2002), p. 17. In an interview with Benjamin Taylor, Jabès explains that his texts profusely feature statements attributed to various invented characters (predominantly rabbis) to underscore that while all of them have their own respective alleged truths, their truths neither add up to a whole nor can be conclusively regarded as final (QJQW, p. 17). The writer employs multiple characters to convey perspectivism through them.

24 See also IEJ, p. 19.

25 This issue was comprehensively discussed by Derrida in Of Grammatology, where he cites, for example, Rousseau and Plato. Rousseau viewed writing as “a supplement to the spoken word” and fully subsumed in the logic of the supplement. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), p. 7 ff. The role of the sign makes for a central philosophical difference between Athens and Jerusalem. Gross reminds that in the Biblical tradition the word was not considered distinct from the meaning that it conveyed, with this idea being part of the Greek legacy. See Gross, L’aventure, pp. 79–83. In this optics, Jabès, in whom the message is tightly intertwined with the word and autonomous language is irreducible to a mere tool, follows in the footsteps of Jewish thinkers.

26 BQ II, p. 250.

27 Hume’s “solipsism of the present moment” ensues from the dualism the philosopher adopts. He distinguishes between present sensory perceptions with their legitimacy claims from illegitimate statements about the past that depend on former impressions preserved by memory. See David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003) p. 61. In fact, the link between different moments in time is provided by memory only and has no objective existence. “[…] there appears not, throughout all nature, any one instance of connection which is conceivable by us. All events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them.” David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel (Pearson, 1995), p. 47.

28 P, p. 21.

29 BR II, p. 14.

30 See Hume, Treatise, p. 180.

31 Cf. Ddier Cahen, “Jalons,” Europe, 954 (Octobre 2008), pp. 263–7, on p. 263.

32 LH, p. 19.

33 Ibid., p. 33.

34 Cf., for example, Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998).

35 BQ II, p. 33.

36 This is what is meant in It Goes Its Way: “Impossible to give a name to death” (BM, p. 66).

37 DB, p. xiv.

38 BM, p. 172.

39 LSLS, p. 163.

40 The Return to the Book recounts: “And one morning shortly after dawn, Elohim died of the death of His people. The desert counted its wrinkles; eagle and falcon rushed to spread the news. Since then every day is twelve hours of mourning for the day” (BQ I, p. 321). If Jabès first seems to describe an event bound to a particular moment (“one morning”), towards the end of the passage, the event turns out to be a fiction only as it presupposes day, night and, consequently, also that morning. The originary event already assumes that which made it possible and, as such, it is just an imaginary rendering. By the way, the excerpt interestingly plays with the Nietzschean motif of God’s death and animals from Zarathustra.

41 Briefly speaking, Luria’s concept of tzimtzum explains the preliminary stage of Creation in which the primordial, undifferentiated pleroma of Divine light (or, more precisely, Ein-Sof) must transform to make room for creation. Discussing Luria’s ideas, Chaim Vital explains that before creation there was no empty place (םוקמ פנוי, makom pnui) for beings to occupy. Thus “[w];hen [Ein-Sof] determined to create its world and to issue forth the world of emanated entities, to bring to light the fullness of His energies […], names, and qualities, this being the reason for the creation of the world […], Ein-Sof then withdrew itself from its centermost point, at the center of its light, and this light retreated from the center to the side, and thus there remained a free space, an empty vacuum.” As the Divine presence clustered at the sides, in the middle tehiru, a void, was produced. In the same process, Ein-Sof shed the elements of harsh judgment, Din, which remained in tehiru. In this way, they amassed into amorphous matter, golem, encircled by Ein-Sof. This preliminary phase of Creation involves, so to speak, a preparation of materials going into Creation proper. Interestingly, Luria’s metaphors draw on the paraphernalia of an artist or a sculptor as after tzimtzum Ein-Sof sends a beam of its light towards the matter of golem to give it shape and mould it like a sculpture, making vessels (kelim) emerge from it that will serve to take in Godhead. Nevertheless, when the vessels were being filled with Divine light, they turned out incapable of holding perfection. Only the first three vessels were able to take in the God-emanated sefirot while the following ones fell into pieces. In this way, קליפות, kelippot – shells of shattered vessels composed basically of the dark matter of Judgment – came into being, still containing some sparks of light. Some of the sparks are souls lost after the fall of Adam. The primordial catastrophe of Creation directly necessitates salvation effected through partial acts of tikkun, repair, to which man is summoned. See Lawrence Fine, Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003), pp. 126–44, quotation on p. 128.

Luria’s system is very elaborate. Additionally, the various accounts of it handed down by Luria’s students differ widely. However, the fundamental structure of this Kabbalah is recognisable. It frames Creation as consisting of two movements: (1) first, Ein-Sof contracts as a result of tzimtzum, whereby a space is created to hold both beings and the matter from which they will be formed; and (2) then, Ein-Sof creates the world. At the latter stage, the catastrophe takes place.

42 BQ I, p. 160.

43 BQ II, p. 224.

44 Ibid., p. 157.

45 F, p. 20.

46 Cf. Handelman, “Torments,” p. 56.

47 P, p. 34.

48 BQ II, p. 230.

49 For example, the Zohar speculates that in the opening of the Torah, ‘Elohim in “bereszit bara ‘Elohim” serves as the direct object rather than the subject. As such, it reproduces, so to speak, the creation of God-’Elohim out of Ein-Sof. ‘Elohim in turn is God whose name combines two attributes: Mi and Eleh. Mi, i.e. the Hebrew “who,” refers to the subject – to “the eternal subject…the great Who, Mi who stands at the end of every question and every answer” (Scholem, Jewish Mysticism, p. 220). Eleh is the “determinable world,” a sphere of “this and that” – of all the attributes of the Divine being about which questions can be asked and answers obtained. Simplifying somewhat, ‘Elohim, by merging the realms of Mi, the subject, and Eleh, the object, belongs to the world in which there is knowledge, attributes are separable from the thing and the knower from the known. ‘Elohim overshadows unknowable and unobjectifiable Ein-Sof, barely pointed at as a glimmer on the horizon but entirely incompatible with thinking (see Ibid., p. 221).

50 BQ II, p. 186.

51 Ibid., p. 225

52 BQ II, p. 277.

53 BQ I, p. 224, 226, 255.

54 BQ II, p. 188.

55 Ibid., p. 353.

56 Ibid., p. 377.

57 Ibid., p. 378.

58 Ibid., p. 386.

59 Ibid., p. 400. In this passage, Jabès seems to draw directly on the Zohar’s vision of Creation: “God spoke – this speech is force which at the beginning of creative thought was separated from the secret of En-Sof.” In Scholem, Jewish Mysticim, p. 216.

60 LR I, p. 79.

61 BQ II, p. 224.

62 Ibid., pp. 143–4.

63 Importantly, although “the imaginary” and “the real” may be redolent of the Lacanian imaginary-symbolic-real triad, here they have a decisively distinct meaning of their own. I propose to understand them without any Lacanian subtext. Separated from the real by tzimtzum, the imaginary penetrates deeper than RSI by shuffling off l’imaginaire, an element that is essentially alien to the triad and a residue of Lacan’s early thought. In Jabès, the imaginary is closer to the symbolic. Thus, the realm that Lacan theorises only through le réel could be rendered by us in two categories: reality and tzimtzum. This, as I will show further in this book, makes it possible to grasp both the indescribable outside of the symbolic order, where it collapses, and the realm of multiple unmediated symbolic orders, in which a given form of the imaginary-real oppositions turns out to be one of many.

64 See Gross, L’aventure, pp. 19–20.

65 BQ I, p. 401.

66 It comes in the form of a future harmonious creation and of the past lost perfection. It is in this sense that Jabès writes that “the age of transparency haunts [hante] human memory” (LSLS, p. 282).

67 Like many Jewish thinkers before him – such as, for example, Jehuda Halevi – Jabès equates Creation with the foundation of writing, a matter formed by meaning in a way. Cf. Gross, L’aventure, pp. 53–4. In this way, he subscribes to thinking about creation as writing and about the real as made of Divine signs, a movement initiated by the Sefer Yetzirah. See Gershom Scholem, “Name of God and the Linguistic Theory of the Kabbalah,” part 2, Diogenes 80, 1972, pp. 164–94, on pp. 181–6. The late kabbalists, such as Moses Cordovero, identified this process with a rupture in which the erstwhile complete Torah accrues materiality and becomes the imperfect textual corpus that we know. Gershom Scholem, “La signification de la Loi dans la mystique juive,” in Le Nom et les symboles de Dieu, p. 133.

68 LH, p. 50.

69 Jabès shares this belief with Benjamin, to whom the bare, absurd continuity of history is just a pile of debris. Creative practice hinges upon an originary curtailment. Both Benjamin and Jabès describe this reduction using the notion of oblivion.

70 QQLS, p. 17.

71 DB, pp. 81–2.

72 Also in this respect, Jabès’ tzimtzum parallels Luria’s. In some versions of Lurianic thinking, the process of creation commences from God inscribing the Name into the emptiness of tehiru. The inscribing starts with the letter jod (י), often identified by the kabbalists with a point. See Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Concerto pour quatre consonnes sans voyelles. Au-delà du principe d’identité (Paris: Payot, 2003), p. 96. This inscription becomes a trace of the Divine presence that has removed itself from the world. God must first undergo a contraction to later perish in writing. In a further analogy between Jabès and Luria, tzimtzum is a prerequisite of the sheer possibility of writing – of the formation of the triad of a writer, a design and matter in which the inscription is made. Only then can the withdrawal of the writer from the work take place.

73 To express the discontinuity of tzimtzum that stamps the creation, Jabès frequently uses the metaphor of a wound. The first Book of Questions opens with musings on wounding: “Mark the first page of the book with a red maker. For, in the beginning, the wound is invisible” (BQ I, p. 13). Waldrop argues that it concerns both a writer and a Jew, in whose case wounding appears as circumcision, which makes him part of a community irrevocably marked by the event of Law-giving (Lavish Absence, p. 3). Nevertheless, also this discontinuity is only a re-enactment of the primary discontinuity resulting from Creation itself. For, as Nahon emphasises, “the primordial separation” is a kind of continually repeated “wound” or “burn”: creation takes place incessantly and each moment witnesses a cut of a new beginning. Nahon, “Question,” pp. 67–8.

74 Commenting on this Jabèsian idea, Derrida insists that writing generally provides a model of a specific kind of creation – ruptured and fragmented: “No ‘logic,’ no proliferation of conjunctive undergrowth can reach the end of its [writing’s] essential discontinuity and non-contemporaneousness, the ingenuity of its under-stood […] silences. The other originally collaborates with meaning. There is an essential lapse between significations which is not the simple and positive fraudulence of a word, nor even the nocturnal memory of all language. To allege that one reduces this lapse through narration, philosophical discourse, or the order of reasons and deduction, is to misconstrue language, to misconstrue that language is the rupture with totality itself. The fragment is neither a determined style nor a failure, but the form of that which is written. Unless God himself writes – and he would still have to be the God of the classical philosophers who never interrupted nor interrogated himself, as did the God of Jabès. (But the God of the classical philosophers, whose actual infinity did not tolerate the question, precisely had no vital need for writing). As opposed to Being and to the Leibnizian Book, the rationality of the Logos, for which our writing is responsible, obeys the principle of discontinuity. […] Assuming that Nature refuses the leap, one can understand why Scripture will never be Nature. It proceeds by leaps alone.” Jacques Derrida, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” in Writing, pp. 71–2.

75 There is a relevant parallel between the literal connotations of tzimtzum (holding the breath) and Jabès’ metaphors. He often references inhaling and exhaling as a basic rhythm that determines writing. Inhalation is the beginning of the book, as it makes place for it, and exhalation is its execution. Besides, embodying the Freudian category of symptom, Jabès experienced this movement in his own body. Namely, he suffered from asthma, which subsided as he commenced a new text and suddenly worsened when it was submitted to publication.

76 “All figures tell the limit. The unlimited could not be a number. It is before the limit, before figures,” writes Jabès, addressing directly the same problem as Kant did (F, p. 75).