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

by Przemysław Tacik (Author)
Monographs 406 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Jewish Philosophy of Modernity
  • On the Affinities between Modernity and Judaism
  • The Problematic Connectedness between Judaism and Modern Thought
  • The Universe of Modernity I: The Historical Hiatus
  • The Universe of Modernity II: The Structure that Conditions Thinking
  • The Universe of Modernity III: The Problem of Philosophical Account of Judaism
  • The Concept of Jewish Philosophy of Modernity
  • 2 Edmond Jabès: Life and Writing
  • Life
  • Writing
  • Conclusion: Jabès’ Supercooled Modernism
  • 3 Tzimtzum: Jabès and Luria
  • Inaccessibility of the Origins
  • Effects of the Catastrophe
  • The Jabèsian Tzimtzum: An Outline
  • Tzimtzum as an Ontological Principle
  • The Imaginary and the Real
  • Tzimtzum as the Principle of Discontinuity
  • An Example of the Tzimtzum Cycle: The Act of Writing
  • Tzimtzum in Jabès and in Luria
  • Conclusion: The Jabèsian Tzimtzum as a Philosophical Idea of Modernity
  • 4 Negative Ontology I: The Vocable
  • The Vocable: The Concept and its Contexts
  • The Vocable as an Element of Negative Ontology
  • The Vocable as a Trace of the Indicible
  • Representation and Repetition
  • Writing as a Philosophical Practice
  • The Role of the Text as a Path of Tzimtzum
  • Conclusion: Kabbalistic vs. Modern Meaning of the Ontology of Writing
  • 5 Negative Ontology II: God, Nothing and the Name
  • God – Nothing
  • Tzimtzum and the Exigency of Monotheism
  • Language and Monotheism
  • Conclusion: Relentless Theology and the Fate of Jerusalem
  • 6 Messianism of Writing
  • Hope for the Definitive Book
  • Messianism and Jabès’ Ontology
  • Messianism, Time and Truth
  • The Risk of Messianism: “The Edge of the Book”
  • God as the Ultimate Reader: Messianism and Monotheism
  • Oneness and Equality of Things
  • Equality of Things: Possibility and Impossibility
  • The Essence of Messianic Utopia
  • Messianism’s Bi-directional Movement
  • There Is No Salvation Beyond Writing
  • Conclusion: Jabès’ Messianism and Modern Philosophy
  • 7 The Concept of the Book
  • Introduction: The Layers of the Book
  • Whiteness: Continuity and Legibility
  • Whiteness: The Awe of Excess and Sur-vival
  • Whiteness: Existence as Incompletion and Succession
  • The Script of the Book
  • Writing and the Book
  • Writing as Marking the Book: Jabès vs. Hegel and Mallarmé
  • Writing Instead of Knowledge
  • Conclusion: The Book and Jewish Philosophy of Modernity
  • 8 Judaism and Writing
  • Introduction: A Jew and a Writer
  • Writing and Judaism: The Structure of the Book
  • The Wound as the Beginning of Judaism and Writing
  • Historicity: Judaism as a Religion after Religion
  • The Jew and the Writer: A Silent Community
  • The Fusion of Judaism and Writing: Life as Interpretation
  • Conclusion: Jabès’ Judaism and Jewish Philosophy of Modernity
  • 9 The Shoah and Anti-Semitism
  • The Shoah as a Disaster
  • Bearing Witness to the Shoah
  • Anti-Semitism as the Rule of the Name
  • Conclusion: Anti-Semitism and the Modern Depletion
  • 10 Jabès’ Ethics: Repetition, Resemblance and Hospitality
  • Repetition
  • Resemblance
  • Hospitality
  • The End in Whiteness: A Possibility of Modern Ethics
  • 11 Theology of the Point: Jabès as a Modern Kabbalist
  • Introduction: Linguistic Kabbalism in Jabès’ Thinking
  • From Letters to the Point
  • Introduction to Kabbalism of the Point, or on Jabès’ Materialistic Différance
  • The Point as the Basis of Creation
  • The Point as the End of God’s Erasure and Withdrawal
  • Conclusion: What the Theology of the Point Actually Describes
  • Conclusion: Edmond Jabès and Jewish Philosophy of Modernity
  • References
  • Index

As whirlwinds in the south pass through;

so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.

(Isaiah, 21:1)


The time when justifications were given precedence is over, and, clearly, we find ourselves stripped of justifications. “Our sources precede us,” insists Edmond Jabès, but at any rate we are not heading from them and towards them; rather, they wane underway, gliding by like shadows, only to dissolve as something one can no longer continue persuading to exist. This is also true of the origins of this book. But if I were to believe that persuasion has a power to create – more even, that persuasion is the only wall between us and nothingness – I would have to say that this book sprouted out of multiple questions following one upon another. The final text has gone a long way from the concern of philosophical interpretation of a modern kabbalist’s writings to the question of the status of Jewish philosophy in modernity, to an even broader theme of distinctiveness of modern philosophising as such.

This book’s dark prehistory was nurtured by a simple need: a need to interpret Jabès’ writings so as to glean a singular philosophy from them. Jabès, a 20th-century poet and kabbalist, the author of scattered and hermetic texts that explode any generic boundaries, has already invited ample research and critical attention. He has been commented on by poets and literary scholars, by writers, such as Paul Auster, by philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, and Maurice Blanchot, too. Though undoubtedly valuable – and sometimes invaluable – for their minute and yet brilliant insights, all these interpretations fail to face up to the entirety of Jabès’ textual production. They do not seek to make a comprehensive connection between myriads of particles that make up the body of his writing. Moreover, they all fall into a trap set by the author of The Book of Questions. For, when pondering Jabès, one is easily manoeuvred into following one of two well-trodden paths: one either weaves one’s own disjointed and chaotic narrative at the margins of his texts or seeks to come near Jabès writings, interspersing them with a commentary that, as such, ceases to differ from the quoted excerpts. Both approaches bring forth a spectre of Jabès, paler even than it behoves spectres, agonisingly soulless at times and spewing out banalities. By rupturing the writer’s signature and textual continuity in order to pour one’s own, derivative commentary into the fissures, one adds little to his writing while stripping it of much and flouting its right to be given justice to in its entirety.

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Such was the path I wanted to avoid at any cost. From the very beginning, which I can only hold in doubt, it was clear to me that the Jabèsian body of text required powerful thinking capable of entering the lists with other philosophers of the 20th century. It required a very special form of thinking, developed only for this particular occasion and dedicated not so much to explicate the text line by line as to illuminate it from the sidelines. My aim was to surmount the diffusion of his writings and make them yield the underlying structure of thinking that seems to inform them. In other words, besides the typical objectives of a monograph – such as acquainting readers comprehensively with a figure as essential to modern literature as Edmond Jabès, surveying the core motifs of his texts and reviewing his critical interpretations – my goal was also to have philosophy materialise out of his writing.

As Heidegger’s example emphatically shows, philosophy that ventures to interpret a literary text is usually blighted with severe blindness. Well, the discourse of philosophy as such is blindness in action. And yet, there is a flicker of chance in this darkness. If skilfully capitalised on, a grand blackout, preposterous as it is, passes over entirely obvious questions, takes no notice of its own status and potency, but for all that it ventures further. For what other philosophical discourse would have the grit to try and quarry the structure of thinking from a poet-kabbalist’s writings? Planning this book, I have covertly counted on the value added of philosophical arrogance which digs deeper than other discourses in the humanities because it may forget that depth does not exist. If this design succeeded, the Jabèsian work would see another text arise at a distance – a distance greater than literary studies usually venture to tread – one that could legitimately be referred to as Edmond Jabès’ philosophy. Such a Nietzschean gesture of strong interpretation, which shuns no justifiable violence, could help set Jabès apart from his contemporary authors and cleave his work off from the continuum of post-war thinking, demanding a more prominent place for the poet than has been assigned to him. One could also advocate for his position in philosophy, a place he certainly deserves though has never actually been granted.

To carry out this design, I needed a solid footing for thinking of Jabès philosophically. One context offered itself more forcefully than others: the context of modern philosophical re-interpretation of Judaism. In the 20th century – from Hermann Cohen, to Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Lévinas, to Harold Bloom (and further) – the movement invigorated philosophy and other fields of the humanities, infusing them with many fresh ideas, as if purposefully gifted to us for the times that saw metaphysics falling apart. In particular, it renewed the Athens-Jerusalem opposition, binding Greek thought with the declining tradition of Western philosophising and attributing to Jerusalem – a ←12 | 13→symbol of anti-idolatrous, writing-focused Jewish thought – the role of replenishing philosophical discourse. The contrast of the two metropolises is focalised today in the academic doxa of oppositions – of image vs. word, paganism vs. monotheism, myth vs. faith, immanence vs. Messianism and, finally, the cult of death vs. vitalism.1 Embracing the strong opposition of Athens and Jerusalem, such a context for reading Jabès would be natural insofar as it would fully espouse the leanings within Judaism that the poet valued highly himself: anti-mythical tendencies, radical a-theological monotheism, the experience of exile, elaborate hermeneutical tradition with its special attitude to writing, intertextuality, primacy of word over image, the idea of creation ex nihilo and, finally, the messianic element. It would not pose a serious difficulty to portray Jabès as another Lévinas or another Blanchot (in his apology of Judaism), all the more so that in many senses he indeed was both. But in this framework, the poet’s thinking would be reduced to the kind of post-Heideggerian philosophy which vindicates so-far marginalised or excluded discourses. Jabès would become just another proponent of Jerusalem against Athens, and his work would not inventively stray from well-trodden paths.

Such an interpretive approach would entail the risk of taking tautology for a discovery. For Jabès himself contributed to constructing a specific vision of Judaism in the late 20th-century humanities. No wonder, thus, that the vision may be re-traced back in his writings. That is why reading his body of work against academic Judaism would amount to simply explaining idem per idem. Therefore, the context of theses typically propounded as a philosophical re-interpretation of Judaism did not seem a fitting conceptual scaffolding for this book. Discarding it, I realised, however, that Jabès’ thought bears a distressing paradox that not only prompts one not to read it within Jewish thinking as re-counted by 20th-century philosophy but also compels one to interrogate the legitimacy and relevance of this very re-counting. The said paradox involves the fact that going his own way – reading poets rather than philosophers and consistently kindling the destructive movement of the text he was creating – Jabès arrived where other 20th-century thinkers did even though they had little, or nothing whatsoever, to do with Judaism: Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Lacan. The latter two have even ←13 | 14→garnered a reputation of paradigmatic, late-time “Greeks.” And Jabès’ texts are saturated with so deceptively Heideggerian a need to listen for and to age-old silences and absences; and his understanding of reality is so Lacanian in emphasising non-Totality, which, to be constituted, needs a minimum remnant, an absent fragment. At the same time, however, Jabès suffuses his work with a profound subtext of Judaism. He untiringly reaches for various motifs from Jewish tradition to make them part of his argument; more than that, he even proclaims that real meanings of certain concepts of Judaism are fully consonant with his intuitions. A puzzle that presents itself to us is, then, why Jabès entered the path of “Greek” thinking if he walked the “Jewish” way.

This puzzle might be framed slightly differently: Why did the thinker who devoted all his mature works to meditating on Judaism, to contemplating the meaning of revelation and covenant after Auschwitz, and, finally, to pondering the death of God in ways clearly nurtured by Jewish monotheism, come essentially so close to Heidegger and Lacan, two heirs to the decaying legacy of “Athens”? Why does he constantly dwell on Nothing, attributing it a Name at the same time? Why is the body of his writing steeped in the death of God – and not only God – instead of in vigorous vitalism? And why is his text subjected to utter simplification, why does it forfeit the richness of content and devastate the narrative down to a tatter, reducing itself to a single, ultimate difference? Briefly: Is Jabès “really” of Jerusalem or of Athens? Is he a post-Greek thinker donning Jewish trappings, or is he a Jewish thinker secretly haunted by the nihilism of fallen Athens?

Such questions would probably be raised by the academic humanities with their adamant investment in the permanence of the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition. Nevertheless, such questions are pulverised when clashing against the hard rock of Jabès’ writings. What an auspicious coincidence it is that Jabès hails from Cairo. The Athens-vs.-Jerusalem dualism is thus sent into such flutter that it is not only hardly applicable to the author of The Book of Questions but also forcefully doomed to dismantling. At the slightest attempt, the carefully cultivated distinctions between the truly “Jewish” spirit and the intrinsically “Greek” heritage come to resemble a makeshift footbridge over a precipice. Only when an unsettling, excluded position of a “third metropolis” steals into the academic dualism can one look back upon the assumptions underpinning philosophical Greece and philosophical Judaism, and realise how frequently they converge or overlap. Here is one emphatic example: evoking Judaism, 20th-century philosophy highlighted an apocalyptic dimension in its re-interpretation of Jewish Messianism. Benjamin and Bloch, major upholders of this stance, hoped for the coming of messianic justice, which would give singularity its due. Yet, doesn’t ←14 | 15→messianic justice, as pictured by 20th-century philosophy, resemble Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit?2 Is it not informed by similar forces of simplification, seeking ultimate equality devoid of violence? Does the background of messianic justice not harbour a bane of indebtedness to a dark source, which casts a long shadow over modern philosophy, a shadow this philosophy strives to shake off once and for all? Admittedly, the difference between Athens and Jerusalem seems to obtain still – in particular, as regards the way of attaining the ideal of justice – but it remains so closely linked to the movement of simplification that it forces to look into how this very opposition is implicated in the processes behind transformations in the two tendencies it is eager to set apart. For why, in two so different traditions, does a similar desire come to the fore whose object is constituted as a deferral?

When the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition is scrutinised carefully, endeavours to separate lastingly one metropolis from the other come to stir increasing doubt. Threads are revealed which stitched the opposition; and it suffices to compare how various thinkers draw the lines between their respective domains to begin to hesitate profoundly whether the outlines of philosophical Judaism may indeed be demarcated in the first place. While Benjamin repudiates guilt, law and fate, which he associates with the myth and views as a residuum of paganism to be eradicated, Kafka follows the opulent kabbalist and Chasidic tradition to see Judaism as wielding a key to law, guilt and judgment. Given this divergence, does the Law belong with Greek or Jewish thought? If the Law was obliterated, and with relief, too, by the apostles of the Greeks, should it be recovered or rather overthrown in philosophical Judaism? And finally, what is actually guilt that comes into being vis-à-vis the Law? Should it be combated, as a vestige of paganism, or should it rather be considered a treasured ethical value?

The path of suspicion guides us far beyond and above the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition. It makes us inquire whether the tectonic changes that re-interpretations of Judaism are subject to in 20th-century philosophy do not, incidentally, ensue from modern thinking as such rather than from Judaism. Isn’t this philosophical and academic Jerusalem, by any chance, haunted by, not even the Greek, but the modern spirit? May it not reflect distinctly modern philosophising? In this age of ours, thinking has taken a unique form: it is produced by and of a galaxy of dispersed minds that still ←15 | 16→look behind in search of a logic of movement which persistently carries them away in one direction. In this fight for survival, oppositions are valuable, if not outright invaluable, for the one that wants to resist the movement of simplification, but, like anchors, they are part of the drifting ship rather than of the bottom beneath it.

By no means do I wish to suggest here that the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem divide has lost it utility in contemporary thinking. On the contrary, the manner in which 20th-century philosophy vindicates Judaism and contrasts it with the Greek legacy emphatically displays all the peculiarities of modern thought. That is why the meandering path that this book followed started with questions about the feasibility of giving a philosophical account of Jabès’ writings and wound up in the exploration of meanings of the links between Judaism and 20th-century thinking, which in themselves hold a mirror up to the phenomenon of modernity. Ultimately, the issues of ethics as implicated in modernity’s drive to ultimate simplification proved of great pertinence to me. As a result, to salvage the ethical remnant where all ethics seems overthrown is yet another concern central to this study.

Thus, this book spirals around its pivotal point in ever wider circles: Jabès’ work pushes towards the issues of 20th-century philosophical Judaism, which in themselves direct towards the phenomenon of modernity. It is not my aim, then, to abolish the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition (as if oppositions could be abolished in the first place); instead, I want to locate this opposition in the context provided by modern thought. To accomplish this feat, I need a firm foothold of suspicion. In this book, the central suspicion is: Is 20th-century philosophical Judaism not just an attempt – beyond justification and non-justification – on the part of modernity’s immanent drive towards difference to take advantage of Jewish tradition? And, consequently, is Jerusalem, as portrayed in this philosophy, not just a dummy put up by the modern spirit, which has nothing in common either with Greece or with Eretz Israel? Further, is all pre-modern history, as we think it, not this kind of dummy? Or, in other words, does the modern turn not sever us off from the past, forever and decisively, reducing it to the stuff to be utilised in its own constructs? Asking such questions and suspecting that the old oppositions cherished for over twenty centuries may be nothing else or more but a mirage veiling the abyss of the modern shift, we could finally re-think the meanings of the Jewish revival the humanities have orchestrated in the recent decades.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee,” the Scripture says. Love of the philosophical Jerusalem is perhaps the only thing that stands after the Judaism of yore fades away irretrievably in the transparency of ←16 | 17→pre-modern history. To defend Jerusalem against its opposition to Athens, this is this book’s ultimate goal.

Jabès’ writings will serve therein as a paradigmatic example of relations between Judaism and 20th-century thought. His work belongs neither to Jewish philosophy nor to Judaism which tends to tailor philosophy to its own needs. It forms an entirely separate realm of its own, where modern forces of thought deploy the historical matter of Jewish tradition. Suspended between the derivatively and selectively absorbed religion and culture of Judaism on the one hand and the intellectual milieu of the 20th century on the other, the position distinctly espoused by Jabès’ writing is shared also by other writers and thinkers, their throng including Kafka, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Buber, Lévinas, and, to a degree, Derrida. How can these relations be explained? Whence does the revival of Judaism in contemporary thinking originate? And, finally, why do the Jewish insights utilised in the 20th century dovetail so closely with philosophy’s own conclusions – as if they shared a kind of common inner structure?

To answer such questions, I propose to use a new notion in this book, one of “Jewish philosophy of modernity” which goes beyond the categories of “Jewish philosophy,” “modern philosophy,” or “modern Jewish philosophy,” as applied so far. “Jewish philosophy of modernity” is a notion that, first and foremost, captures the overdetermination characteristic of Judaism-inspired 20th-century concepts, in which one may distinguish several equally valid frameworks of reference: (1) modern philosophy, i.e. philosophy created in the modern era; (2) philosophy of modernity, i.e. all the schools of thought that make modernity an object of reflection; (3) Jewish philosophy, which, as it were, is in and by itself a product of the age of modernitas;3 (4) philosophy that draws on a variety of insights of earlier Jewish, both rabbinical and kabbalist, tradition; (5) philosophy that inquires ←17 | 18→into the meaning of Judaism in the modern era; and finally (6) philosophy that relies on certain trends of Jewish thought in seeking to explain the modern crisis of philosophy. All these threads are tightly knotted, actually beyond any unravelling. Therefore, instead of laboriously distinguishing Jewish philosophy from modern Jewish philosophy and Jewish philosophy from Judaism, I assumed a priori an inner interconnectedness of Judaism and modernity. Conceived in these terms, “Jewish philosophy of modernity” is a complex phenomenon forged in a grid of ongoing reflexive mediations between modern philosophy, thinking about modernity as an epoch, and Jewish tradition.

It is exactly reflexivity – in its new sense heralded by the Kantian critique – that is distinctive to the position of “Jewish philosophy of modernity.” Over centuries, Jewish thought has drawn on innumerable external sources: Greek philosophy, religions of the Near East, Gnosis, Arabic philosophy, Sufism, mediaeval Christian reflection, Protestant tradition, and so forth. Maimonides, the most prominent Jewish rationalist of the Middle Ages, best exemplifies the indebtedness of Jewish thought to Greek, Arabic and Christian philosophies. But “Jewish philosophy of modernity” designates more than just another species of continuing “Jewish philosophy,” which in this age derives inspiration from Western thought, just as it was once inspired by Aristotle or Islamic kalam. “Jewish philosophy of modernity” contemplates the very problem of whether there actually is a Jewish philosophy as such. Hardly anything is more typical of contemporary studies of this philosophy than tentative, non-conclusive speculations about what it is that should “really” be called Jewish philosophy.4 Yet, rather than in ←18 | 19→finding a sound answer to this question, the problem lies in the very imperative of raising this question. In other words, the fact that many authors seem to be compelled to identify the defining criterion of Jewish philosophy speaks to their own philosophical position rather than to the object of their reflection.

Summing up, “Jewish philosophy of modernity” as conceived of in this book is a notion expected to reveal the problematic nature of modern philosophical references to Judaism in their internally overdetermined structure. I believe that a philosophical account of Jabès’ thought can help grasp an array of their shared recurrent patterns, more explicitly perhaps than analyses of the philosophical work of Rosenzweig, Benjamin and/or Derrida. Why? There are a few reasons. First, Jabès is not a philosopher; he refers to philosophers very rarely, and his thinking, rather than commenting on traditions already in place, evolves out of and by itself. Curiously, however, his thought tackles the same issues that beleaguer modern philosophy. In this light, Jabès can be assumed to succumb to – besides influences of other authors – a logic that pervades all thinking in modernity. Second, his writings, as I shall seek to show in this book, aggregate into an ongoing meditation on one problem that is getting ever more distilled and simplified, that is, on the question of difference and remnant. That is why Jabès is not only a modern thinker but also an embodiment of the utter simplification and crystallisation of structures that shape an essential part of philosophy of modernity. Third, another author that makes so extensive references to Judaism would be hard to find in the 20th century.5 When analysis Jabès’ writings, there is no evading the question of the status of revision of Jewish tradition. For the trace, the “effect of Jewishness” formed outside the proper discourse of Judaism, as Philippe Boyer writes,6 is exceptionally pronounced in Jabès. Fourth, Jabès is a thinker who found the reconstruction of Judaism a vital response to the spiritual condition of the contemporary era as well as an effective tool for interpreting it.

Jabès’ work displays, and with extraordinary lucidity too, a fusion of two phenomena, i.e. Jewish tradition and modern thought, permeating his texts in the form of a theory of writing and the writer. At the same time, Jabès constantly ←19 | 20→maintains a minimum difference between the two, insisting that he is not a Jewish writer, but “a Jew and a writer.”7

That is why I believe that the author of The Book of Questions best embodies “a Jewish philosopher of modernity,” with the term’s entire overdetermination. All the influences encapsulated in the term factor in making Jabès’ writings a compelling riddle. Hence, like no one else perhaps, he offers a cornerstone on which to develop the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity.

The argument in this book develops in several interlocking stages. In Chapter One, I begin by formulating the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity. I focus first on a handful of examples of 20th-century conceptual frameworks that drew on Jewish tradition and attempt to identify the underlying patterns they share. They are later confronted with a portrayal of the turn that ushered in the age of modernity. This will help define what Jewish philosophy of modernity actually is in its overdetermined position between Judaism and modern thought.

Relying on this theoretical framework, I will develop an in-depth account of Jabès’ philosophy. To begin with, I will briefly report the author’s biography and describe his writings. In the subsequent Chapters, I will address the most pertinent elements of Jabèsian thinking: the idea of tzimtzum (Chapter Three), ontology approximating negative theology (Chapters Four and Five), Messianism (Chapter Six), the concept of the Book (Chapter Seven), affinities between Judaism and writing (Chapter Eight) and, finally, ethical issues, therein Jabès’ reflection on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (Chapter Nine) as well as on three para-ethical notions of repetition, resemblance and hospitality (Chapter Ten). Each Chapter has its own conclusion in which its central thematic concerns are related to the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity. The last Chapter (Eleven) explores the most advanced field of Jabèsian thought: his speculations on the point. It brings together all the previously discussed themes and seeks to grasp the essence of Jewish philosophy of modernity. Key insights into it are comprised in the conclusion to this Chapter while the book’s Conclusion recapitulates the findings of the Chapters and revisits the idea of Jewish philosophy of modernity charted at the beginning in an attempt to define what contribution the exploration of Jabès’ thought makes to its lore.

In this Introduction, I wish to clarify a few more issues. This book is deeply indebted to such interpreters of Jabès as Jacques Derrida, Gabriel Bounoure, Maurice Blanchot, Rosmarie Waldrop, Beth Hawkins, Warren F. Motte, Didier ←20 | 21→Cahen, Steven Jaron, Marcel Cohen, Mary Ann Caws, Richard Stamelman, Adolfo Fernandez-Zoïla, Llewellyn Brown, François Laruelle, Helena Shillony, William Franke, Stéphane Mosès, Paul Auster and many others. Quotes from and references to their texts speak for themselves, which, however, should not occlude the fact that my project differs considerably from the earlier ways of reading and expounding Jabès and, as such, uses the existing interpretations as props only.

In this book, I had to give up on investigating how the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity is, or could be, applied to the reading of philosophers other than Jabès. Even though I do think that the concept can be highly effective in interpreting the work of Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, Lévinas, Celan, Derrida and many other authors, I believe that this must be studied separately. This book only seeks to formulate the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity and to develop it in a dialectical application to Jabès’ work.

Quotes from Jabès’ writings are limited to the absolutely indispensable minimum. His writings are specific insofar that although each piece revolves around a particular underlying idea, all the remaining elements of Jabèsian thinking are invariably braided into it. That is why it is impossible exhaustively to cite all passages that convey a given topos without making this book an imitation of Montaigne’s Essays. Hence, I quote only the excerpts that are most vividly illustrative or open up large interpretive vistas. I view the body of Jabès’ writings through the coordinates of a superimposed grid of a philosophical structure, without however commenting on his particular texts step by step.8 I believe that the notions I propose here are productively applicable to nearly all works of the poet, but I leave these interpretations to my readers.

At this place, I should settle my intellectual debt to two figures whose ghosts persistently haunt this book though they rarely speak in their own voices. These spectral presences are Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. I briefly address a very complex relation between Jabès and Derrida in Chapter Two. Naturally, they share several assumptions and attitudes to interpretation and writing. However, ←21 | 22→my tenet was that, in a book like this one, Jabès must be freed from the shadow of his follower. Consequently, I left aside inquiries into Jabès’ influence on Derrida as an entirely separate question which calls for a comprehensive study of its own. Yet, I tried to show that interpretation of the poet’s writings yields a fully original philosophy without a recourse to the categories of deconstruction. More than that, some of Jabès’ ideas seem to go further than Derrida’s suggestions. Should the handling of the former seem to some readers to be beholden to Derridean deconstruction, I must emphasise that it is not because deconstruction informed my interpretation. Jabès walked his own path, but as it nearly dovetailed with Derrida’s, every interpretation of the poet’s work begets a new and unique species of deconstruction. There is no deconstructive reading of Jabès’ writings, or rather there is only a meta-deconstructive reading of them, because the core of these texts is formed by the very same mechanisms that fuelled deconstruction. In interpretations of Jabès, deconstruction encounters itself, that is, no one but a modestly intervening difference.

As to the other spectre – Lacan – the matters look rather different. Nothing is basically known about relations between Jabès and Lacan, and even less about their reciprocal influences. Nonetheless, as I mention in the book’s Conclusion, they seem to have shared multiple insights. Undoubtedly, the affinity was affected by their common intellectual milieu, that is, post-war French thought. If the interpretations I propose occasionally seem to rely on categories redolent of Lacan’s vocabulary, it is not because I put forward a Lacanian reading of the poet. On the contrary, some of Jabès’ original formulas come considerably closely to these categories. This conjunction is far more interesting than any Lacanian reading as the text itself discloses its affinities with this re-interpretation of psychoanalysis, bidding us to inquire what it actually is that underpins these similarities. I believe that the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity will help us illuminate this question.

To end with, some technicalities should be explained. Most of Jabès’ texts are quoted based on the already canonical translations by Rosmarie Waldrop. Any alterations to them are clearly indicated. Other translations are the joint work of this volume’s author and translator. In the footnotes, abbreviations of titles are used, with the full bibliographical data of the editions provided in the Works Cited. Whoever interprets Jabès’ writings in a language other than French faces the challenge of striking a balance between a literal translation and a translation that renders the original’s poetic depth. In this work, precedence is given to accuracy that conveys the notorious ambiguity of the poet’s expressions. Hence, parenthesised original wordings are often provided as otherwise some of the ←22 | 23→texts’ important qualities, therein punning and homophony, would inevitably be emptied out.

Concluding, I should clearly articulate one more assumption which, though obvious, is too essential to be left for casual conjecture. This volume is a very particular and deliberately selective interpretation. Although it is rooted in a very careful reading of Jabès’ texts, no interpretation, especially one of a writer like Jabès, can be considered the ultimately right one. In addition, polyvalence, inconsistency and inner dispersal of his writings preclude any interpretive closure. Jabès himself was often tempted to venture into regions that he had earlier repudiated; that is why to look for any consistent mapping of a straightforward trail in his texts is an exercise in futility. To contrive a single interpretation of any book of his, be it one book only, is a sheer impossibility. In such exigencies, there is only one adequate response. As I have mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction, the response involves erecting a philosophical construction next to the poet’s work so that their mutual correspondences could reveal structural mechanisms un-thought of before. The ramification of such a decision is that responsibility for this chess-playing puppet rests, basically, with me.

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1 In the Polish humanities, a passionate plea for the relevance and permanence of the Athens vs. Jerusalem opposition is to be found in Agata Bielik-Robson’s Erros. Mesjański witalizm i filozofia [Erros: Messianic vitalism and philosophy] (Kraków: Universitas, 2012), which comprehensively discusses the features of Greek and Jewish thinking I merely indicate here.

2 Cf. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking: A Translation of Gelassenheit, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, with an Introduction by John M. Anderson (New York, Evanston and London: Harper and Row, 1966).

3 To an extent, I endorse here the position of Michael L. Morgan and Peter Eli Gordon, who insist that the term “philosophy” should be rather selectively applied only to such kinds of thinking which question what is taken for granted, including their own foundations. On this model, pre-modern thought developed within Judaism could be called philosophy only metaphorically, if at all, given its strong rootedness in tradition and subordination to rabbinical control. According to Morgan and Gordon, Jewish philosophy comes into being only when the tradition of Judaism comes to be viewed with detachment and its meanings are interrogated. That is why one of the basic questions pondered by this philosophy is what is actually the criterion of Jewishness. See Michael L. Morgan and Peter Eli Gordon, “Introduction: Modern Jewish Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, and Modern Judaism,” in M. L. Morgan, and P. E. Gordon (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Modern Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge et al.: Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 1–13, on pp. 1–9.

Admittedly, I do not subscribe to Morgan and Gordon’s radical coupling of philosophy with (self)reflexivity, but I do believe that this definitional reduction is informed by apt intuitions. Modern philosophy is (self)reflexive. That is why modern Jewish philosophy is bred in and from a remoteness into which questioning pushes the tradition of Judaism. I would not say that Maimonides should be denied the name of a philosopher, yet I certainly agree that he clearly differs from modern Jewish philosophers in that he thinks within religious tradition while they seek to re-think what has remained of it.

4 See, for example, Adam Lipszyc, Ślad judaizmu w filozofii XX wieku [The trace of Judaism in 20th-century philosophy] (Warszawa: Fundacja im. Mojżesza Schorra, 2009), pp. 11–21. As Daniel H. Frank aptly observes, history of philosophy comes into being with the onset of the modern period, and “Jewish philosophy” takes no different course, acquiring visibility only with the advent of a modern perspective, which arranges the thinking of past ages into a sequence and looks for its distinctive features. See Daniel H. Frank, “What is Jewish philosophy?” in Daniel H. Frank, and Olivier Leaman (eds.), History of Jewish Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 1–8.

5 Cf. Miryam Laifer, Edmond Jabès. Un judaïsme après Dieu (New York, Berne and Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1986), p. ix.

6 Philippe Boyer, “Le point de la question,” Change 22 (février 1975), pp. 41–73, on pp. 41–42.

7 JW, p. 27. Citing Jabès’ works, I will use abbreviations explained and documented in Works Cited.

8 Miryam Laifer observed that “the depth of Jabès’s writings compels us to believe that studying every or nearly every word is a prerequisite to understanding his work. After several readings, one always feels that a new reading is necessary because the texts seem to elude us.” See Laifer, Edmond Jabès, p. 104. Indeed, evoking any quote immediately re-directs the course of thinking, as it forces one to go along new paths opened up by the quotation. This pitfall is well exemplified in the existing interpretations of the poet’s work. That is why I limit the number of quotations to an absolute minimum, giving more room to the philosophical structure.

1 Jewish Philosophy of Modernity

Because “Jewish philosophy of modernity” serves in this book as the central interpretive notion, I will start my argument from forging it. I will attempt to construct it against a handful of examples of 20th-century thinking, in which Judaism and modernity are conjoined, highlighting at the same time that the interrelation of the two as intimated in these examples is a moot point, indeed. As opposed to the previous incarnations of Wahlverwandschaften between Jewish tradition and modern thought, I wish to assume their connectedness explicitly and unambiguously. It is only from such a position that questions about where this connectedness originates and what sense it makes can effectively be asked.

On the Affinities between Modernity and Judaism

Many 20th-century authors revisited the idea of a certain kinship between Jewish tradition and modernity. Both terms are, obviously, very general, but their inconclusiveness corresponds to confusions that envelop this complex issue. In earlier frameworks, “Jewish tradition” meant, for example, modes of interpretation developed within rabbinical Judaism, a distinct Jewish experience (e.g. exile, persecution, the Holocaust, survival of “the remnants of Israel,” and so forth), Judaism’s ethical ideals, the Jewish take on monotheism, an approach to language and a multitude of other things. Clearly, the theses about an affinity between “Jewish tradition” and “modernity” are predicated on prior, usually latent, preconceptions about what it actually is that lies at the core of the Jewish. “Modernity” is a by no means less vague or less polyvalent moniker which has been used to designate several different directions that philosophy has taken over recent centuries (particularly in the 20th century), contemporary paradigms of literary studies and, also, the conceptual horizons and the spiritual aura of the epoch, including the human condition in the 20th century. Presuppositions about the character of this “modernity” predate ideas about its overlaps with Judaism although particulars, including such apparently basic ones as its timeframe, remain underdefined.

To inventory all such assumptions would take a separate and extensive study of its own. As this is expressly not my goal, in this subchapter I will focus on selected representative examples to demonstrate fundamental insights concerning the affinity of modernity and Judaism. The first of our models is encountered in Gershom Scholem, the most distinguished historian of Jewish mysticism ←25 | 26→in the 20th century. Admittedly, he ushered into academic research the theme of the Kabbalah, which had earlier been marginalised by the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, yet a vigorous, deeply personal interest in the spiritual legacy of Jewish mystical tradition shines through his objective historical scholarship. Intriguingly, Scholem engaged in the scholarly study of the Kabbalah for distinctly “unscholarly” reasons. He wanted to respond adequately to the formative processes of his age, such as the crisis of Revelation or, even, the withdrawal of God, assimilation, the loss of Judaism’s religious heritage and the predicament of the modern man, for whom the world proved an entirely cryptic code. As attested by his famous letter to Salman Schocken,1 Scholem viewed his endeavours to understand the Kabbalah – over the chasm of time that has passed since its dawn – as part of the toils his contemporary philosophy braved to decipher the enigmatic space in which it found itself.2 In other words, the expanses of historical oblivion stretching between the Kabbalah and the present moment were the same problem to him as the shrivelling of the world’s comprehensibility. That is one reason why Scholem believed that scholarly investigations must strive to give our age a spiritual foothold. If veiled in Scholem’s historical studies, such as his classic Trends in Jewish Mysticism and articles compiled in the voluminous Kabbalah, this aim looms large in his numerous shorter post-war texts and conference papers. Besides philosophising on the condition of modern Judaism, Scholem repeatedly addressed also the preoccupation his contemporary philosophy showed with ideas akin to Judaism. What ideas were they exactly? In one of his conference papers titled “Reflections on Jewish Theology in Our Time,” Scholem rehearses quite a repertory of them. Let us look into the following passage:

←26 | 27→

The notion of continuous Creation is connected with an important concept through which the kabbalists have tried to grasp it intellectually by a bold manoeuvre. Since Creation was at the same time a miracle, they sought to render this miracle intelligible through the concept of tzimtzum (contraction) – though at a price, that of giving up the concept of the absolute immutability of God. […] The universe of space and time, this living process we call Creation, appeared to the kabbalists to be intelligible only if it constituted an act of God’s renunciation, in which He sets Himself a limit. Creation out of nothing, from the void, could be nothing other than creation of the void, that is, of the possibility of thinking anything that was not God. Without such self-limitation, after all, there would be only God – and obviously nothing else. A being that is not God could only become possible and originate by virtue such a contraction, such a paradoxical retreat of God into Himself. By positing a negative factor in Himself, God liberates Creation. This act, however, is not a one-time event; it must constantly repeat itself; again and again a stream streams into the void, a “something” from God. This, to be sure, is the point at which the horrifying experience of God’s absence in our world collides irreconcilably and catastrophically with the doctrine of a Creation which renews itself. The radiation of which the mystics speak and which is to attest to the Revelation of God in Creation – that radiation is no longer perceivable by despair. The emptying of the world to a meaningless void not illuminated by any ray of meaning or direction is the experience of him who I would call a pious atheist. The void is the abyss, the chasm or the crack that opens up in all that exists. This is the experience of modern man, surpassingly well depicted in all its desolation by Kafka, for whom nothing has remained of God but the void – in Kafka’s sense, to be sure, the void of God.3

In this passage, Scholem-the-scholar transfigures into an engaged philosopher. Precise historical references vanish from his considerations; tzimtzum is no longer an idea of the Lurianic Kabbalah but a concept of rather indefinite “kabbalists”; and God’s contraction becomes indistinguishable from God’s modern, post-Nietzschean “death.” The nebulous argumentation seems to disguise quite a bold thesis that Scholem seems to posit. Explicitly worded, the thesis would be that modernity, in which the world becomes incomprehensible, devoid of meaning and suffused with nothingness, could be surprisingly aptly captured in the notion of tzimtzum, i.e. God’s withdrawal. Similarly, the immanent pluralism, if not utter perspectivism, of modern thought is consonant with the Lurianic idea of the world splintered into shards.4 There is thus a kind of kinship ←27 | 28→between the modern “nothingness of Revelation” and the methods of Kabbalistic enquiry, which Kafka’s work comes in handy to corroborate,5 with all its paradoxical parabolic opulence redolent of Jewish mysticism of old and yet making the void its point of reference. Kafka seems thus to seal that recondite coupling of the Kabbalah and modernity.

Another idea espoused by modernity that Scholem evokes is Messianism. “It was better able to stand a reinterpretation into the secular realm than the other ideas,” he insists.6 He is intrigued by the fact that Jewish Messianism, particularly in its apocalyptic version, kindled such interest in the 20th century, engrossing, for example, Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin. Scholem seems to assume that the attractiveness of the revolutionary messianic idea echoes the modern world’s abysmal collapse, which could be rectified only through an act of profound transfiguration,7 if not by a radical historical split. This element of Judaic theology serves Bloch and Benjamin as an all-purpose key to modern philosophy (or, to evoke the metaphorical imagery of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” as a little hunchback of theology driving the machinery of contemporary thought8). Both to Bloch and Benjamin themselves and to Scholem as their interpreter, Jewish Messianism is an idea that, in its peculiar way, harmonises with the modern condition.

But how? Another curious text by Scholem, sporting the Benjamin-resonant title “Ten Unhistorical Aphorisms on Kabbalah,” illuminates this compatibility a bit. It proposes that “[t];he view of the Kabbalists as mystical materialists with a dialectical approach would indeed be completely non-historical, but would not be entirely lacking in meaning.”9 Thesis four argues that an essentially dialectical-materialist mechanism is at work in the thinking of the kabbalists, Luria’s successors in particular.10 If modernity is an age in which dialectics in the strict ←28 | 29→sense came into being and spread while the kabbalists indeed reasoned in this way, the affinity of mystical Judaism and modernity would be well grounded. A similar linkage can be glimpsed in Scholem’s fascination with Kafka’s writings, notably with his parable “Before the Law,” which Scholem believed to encapsulate perfectly Jewish theology, “which in its unique dialectic is not destructive, but, on the contrary, radiates powerful inner melancholy.”11 In this optics, Kafka is credited with the founding of the modern Kabbalah since his works deploy Kabbalistic codes and figures to render the modern condition.12 In Scholem’s view, Kafka’s point of contact with the Kabbalah proper lies in dialectics, which is both materialist and hopeful for the healing of the broken world.

Scholem’s last text that I would like to evoke here is his lecture “Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Messianism in Our Time,”13 which serves as a kind of reckoning of many years’ worth of research into Messianism. If Scholem’s early texts suggested that the present age might be somehow remedied by the historical study of the Kabbalah, this late contribution of 1963 defines such an enterprise ←29 | 30→as inexorably aporetic. Scholem argues, namely, that Messianism last flared over two hundred years ago, and in our times its sparks have already dimmed down. Moreover, rather than a contingent phenomenon, it is tightly associated with the contemporary condition of religiosity, in which mystical experiences, if at all existent, remain purely private and do not found mass movements. Additionally, the transmission of tradition has been interrupted. Forms of religiosity have turned anarchic, Scholem insists, while a lack of faith in the God-conferred authority of the Torah – whose ambiguities once spawned ever new interpretations – bars any possibility of a new Kabbalah. Clearly, the modern condition as such is cited as a condition of impossibility of renewing the Kabbalah whereas earlier this very condition was expected to be mended by Jewish mysticism.

To sum up, Scholem’s lifetime work bears insights about the affinity of modernity and Judaism (even about the utility of Jewish tradition in interpreting the contemporary universe14), but concurrently it addresses time and again the aporetic position of the Kabbalah in the 20th century. Nowhere is the connection between modernity and Jewish mysticism explicitly delineated, and even less philosophically elucidated. It is only through the workings of an abstruse spiritual attraction force that contemporary thinkers are tempted onto the paths trodden by the kabbalist of yore. At the same time, the situation of our epoch remains aporetic to Scholem: the spiritual condition of the present times urges to reach beyond philosophy and into the long-lost past tradition, but the scale and the nature of the loss foreclose the re-creation of the Kabbalah and even more the re-immersion into its flow. What remains is only inconclusive searching, indelibly marked with an imprint of historicity.

Let us move now to our second example. In her influential study The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory, Susan A. Handelman proposes a comprehensive account of contiguities between the development of modern philosophy and literary critique on the one hand and Jewish tradition on the other. Her work stands as a paradigmatic example of the appropriation of Judaism by the (post)deconstructive humanities. It is informed by the idea that, as philosophy’s metaphysical load, identified with the legacy of “Athens,” dissipated in the 20th century, an opportunity appeared for it to absorb ←30 | 31→the abundant heritage of “Jerusalem.” On this model, various threads of Jewish tradition turn out to parallel the ideas developed by philosophy in the 20th century. This mechanism explains why philosophy started to borrow directly from Judaic thought. Handelman analyses “modern Jewish thinkers,” such as Freud, Lacan [sic!], Derrida and Bloom, without however defining this parallelism of modernity and Judaism which compels the philosophers who do not endorse Jewish tradition (e.g. Lacan) to gravitate towards it while inclining those who feel affinity with it (e.g. Bloom) to build directly on its formulas.

Let us first scrutinise the line that Handelman draws between Greek and Jewish traditions and then focus on the latter’s connections with modernity. According to Handelman, the difference between Athens and Jerusalem is particularly conspicuous in their approaches to textual interpretation. Nowhere else is the division between the “Greek” and the “Jewish” modes of thinking more pronounced than in their divergent premises about the relationship between “words and things,” the position of the author, the role of writing and the freedom of interpretation. Clearly indebted to Lévinas and Derrida, Handelman insists that Greek philosophy of the spirit is based on the originary division between words and things.15 Language is, in her view, a conventional tool for describing things – a transparent medium which helps grasp them. True knowledge, in turn, does not exist in language but resides in ideas, with particular utterances only relating the unchangeable truth.16 That is why interpretation is an utterly marginal issue and concerns applications of language as a tool but does not infringe on the status of truth. According to Handelman, this presupposition has enduringly impinged on Western philosophy by bringing in the myth of an ideal, abstract language for ideas.17 It has also effected – through Aristotle’s influential pronouncements in De interpretatione – a degradation of rhetoric and poetics as “corrupted” with language and, consequently vastly inferior to abstract logic and “true science.”18 It moulded also essentially the Christian take on interpretation, in which textual polysemy is always harnessed by the eternal and immutable “transcendent signifier”: “the Incarnate Word” is the ultimate interpretive authority and stabilises the potentially subversive ambiguity of the Scripture. Handelman recognises the primacy of the “Spirit” over the “letter,” instituted by Paul of Tarsus, as, basically, ←31 | 32→abolishing the question of interpretation because the allegorical method, which is the major mode of interpretation touted by the Church, helps read the always already presupposed meaning out of every ambiguity.19 In this way, the abstract meaning is treated as literal, and its metaphorical character is concealed.

In turn, in Jewish tradition, language is inseparable from things. It does not describe objects external to itself but is part of the process in which they come into being. This relationship is symbolised in the already worn-out reference to רבד, davar, a Hebrew term that can designate both a word and a thing. This means that “[f];or the Rabbis […] the primary reality was linguistic; true being was a God who speaks and creates texts […].”20 If Greek tradition prioritises the image, which is sensorily available and, as such, constitutes a stable referent, Jewish tradition accords the central position to the spoken or written word, which must still be interpreted.21 Allegory does not hold sway, nor is there any central agency to fix the text’s polysemy. As a result, its interpretations layer up, each in its own right, while commentaries proliferate endlessly. The rabbinical way of reading presupposes intertextuality, shuns universal formulas and emphasises specific links and continuities between particular cases.22 Interpretation becomes, at the same time, a general method of understanding reality.23 The linguistic element is enmeshed not only in reading but also in all creation: God Himself creates by uttering words, which proves that they are closely interconnected with things.24 This thought seeps down so deep that the Talmudic treatise Shabbat describes the Torah as preceding creation.25

Quoting Erich Auerbach, Handelman lists dissimilarities of Homeric and biblical narratives to explain the difference between Athens and Jerusalem.26 Homer renders phenomena in their external, visible and tangible forms as they are established in spatio-temporal relations; nothing remains hidden and unexpressed while events happen in the absolute “now.” In the Bible, everything is undetermined and contingent, time and space often remain unspecified, and the protagonists’ motives elude expression. There is only the narrative, often residual ←32 | 33→as such; the rest is submerged in darkness. Speech conceals as much as it reveals while the tale is immersed in the layers of history, rather than in the present.

Finally, following Hans Jonas, Handelman discusses what she views as ontological differences between the two traditions.27 In Greek thought, the world is eternal and governed by immutable, universal laws while the Jewish creatio ex nihilo braids contingency and will into the very emergence of the world and makes it dependent on an external power, that is, God. As all things are created, they are, in this sense, ontologically equal. Creation out of nothing emphasises also the particularity of all things created. Unlike in the case of “Athens,” singularity is not just a simple derivative of universality, being instead autonomous and irreducible. As Handelman adds later, the difference between God and the world is central to Judaism and precedes the differentiation into the sign and the thing.28 Hence its anti-mythical and anti-metaphorical tenor; in Judaism, simply, a sign that embodies God cannot exist.29

Demarcated in this way, the dividing line between Athens and Jerusalem, as Handelman believes, overlaps largely with the history of relationships between Western philosophy and Judaic thought,30 at least up until the Reformation. What is it, we might ask, that happens at that point? The answer is: embryonic modern hermeneutics begins to germinate in which there is, admittedly, no “return” to the Jewish take on interpretation, but the text is pushed to the foreground again, and its a-priori given meaning is stripped of primacy.31 Although Luther relies on the reading of the Scripture for finding a direct divine presence ←33 | 34→and a concrete message in it, it is no longer possible to conceal how problematic an issue interpretation is. According to Handelman, Protestant hermeneutics provides a backdrop for the key developmental trajectory of modern philosophy from Schleiermacher to German idealism and Nietzsche, to, finally, Heidegger and Gadamer.32 As approaches to interpretation radicalise, also due to a historical critique and the concomitant crisis of the Scriptural authority, the “Greek” take on the sign is exposed as limited. At the same time, the progressing assimilation of Jews channels elements of rabbinical thinking into Western philosophy, the trend promoted by the internal dismantling of the legacy of Athens. In this way, as Handelman concludes, the 20th century saw thinkers drawing on both traditions to concoct peculiar philosophical amalgams, with Freud as one of the most notable examples.33 In the last stage of this history, Lévinas, Derrida and the Yale school make post-Second World War philosophy openly contest the crumbling tradition of Greek thinking and espouse interpretation as developed by Judaism.34

Reflecting on Handelman’s argument, we could ask what Judaism’s peculiar connections to modernity are exactly. She does not give any direct answer, but her book assumes implicitly that it was the decay of the West’s metaphysical tradition that steered philosophy and literary studies towards conclusions quite alike those with which Jewish thought had come up centuries earlier. If in the 20th century various ideas cherished by Judaism were revived in a philosophical form, it was because they found fertile ground in this philosophy. But, paradoxically, Handelman’s argumentation relies on “Greek” thinking far more extensively than she might wish it to be the case. Handelman builds on the discourses that unveil the West’s “metaphysical” history and its termination – the discourses developed, first of all, by Nietzsche, Heidegger and, to a degree, early Derrida. It would not be an excessive simplification to say that Handelman’s reasoning proceeds from the assumption of centuries-long “Greek error,” which slowly reaches its terminus in modernity and makes room for revived Jewish thought. This insight is commonly found in the academic doxa, which uses the contemporary philosophical reworkings of Judaism. However, the transparency of this historical outline, which seems just to rehearse, one by one, the facts of the history of Western thinking – the initial conquest of the philosophical imagination by the ←34 | 35→Greek blueprint of perception, the disintegration of Greek-ridden metaphysics, the ingress of Judaism into the mainstream humanities – is blurred by the premise that depends on “post-Greeks” (such as Heidegger). For it is the very venture of mounting such historical constructs not an offshoot of the thinking that is to be left behind in philosophy’s quest toward Judaism? Does it not entail strewing the trappings of Jewish tradition on the mechanisms that derive, strictly, from modern thinking?

Before I try and answer these questions, let me discuss the third example in Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism. The book was driven by an attempt to assemble various Kabbalistic inspirations that Bloom had used earlier to construct his theory of influence and belatedness. He presupposes that the Kabbalah – and in particular the Safed Kabbalah (as developed by Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria) – offers an elaborate and precise model of relationships among various entities, one easily adaptable to the purposes of literary criticism.35 According to Bloom, the Safed Kabbalah’s unique structure originates in the historical conjuncture where its founders lived in and wrestled with the vast tradition, compelled to develop subtle revisionist techniques of interpreting and opening up the canonical texts.36 In this way, the Safed Kabbalah can be read as a superb study in the “psychology of belatedness.”

More relevant, however, is the structure of relationships among the aspects of Creation (e.g. Cordovero’s behinot), which Bloom transposes onto relationships within the literary field, showing how the gradual exuding of one aspect by another corresponds to the forming of a new poet in relation to his powerful forerunner.37 Moreover, in a rather flimsy turn of thought, Bloom suggests that the map of relations of behinot or Sefirot corresponds to relationships not so much between writers as such as between poems themselves:

A poem is a deep misprision of a previous poem when we recognize the previous poem as being absent rather than present on the surface of the earlier poem, and yet still being in the earlier poem, implicit or hidden in it, not yet manifest, and yet there.38

←35 | 36→

Refining his theory on the basis of the Lurianic notion of tzimtzum,39 Bloom contends that the interrelations of this structure’s particular elements can be comprehended as continued emergence of new entities through the primal limitation of their antecedents.40 The links and traces that come into being as a result of this reduction are identified with literary tropes by Bloom, who suggests that mental defences theorised by psychoanalysis can also be described through this power structure.41

Here, we arrive at those of Bloom’s insights that are central to our argument in this Chapter. According to Bloom, the structure of relationships among aspects (i.e. poets, poems, tropes, defences, and so forth) borrowed from the Safed kabbalists best suits the post-Miltonic model of Western poetry, and Romantic poetry in particular.42 Bloom’s theoretical sources, i.e. Nietzsche’s and Freud’s writings, also argue that the tzimtzum-based model of thinking and creative work is best applicable to modern developments. Bloom himself observes that the Kabbalah can be regarded as modernism ante litteram.43 In other words, Bloom’s theoretical construct seems to be a borrowing based not on one or another superficial similarity but on a certain latent shared structure that underpins both the Kabbalah and modernity. The text itself leaves these questions largely underspecified.44 Symptomatically, Bloom does not draw a clear line between the Kabbalah “as such” and the Safed thought though he takes the latter as his fundamental framework of reference.

That is why Kabbalah and Criticism describes a kind of alignment between the (Safed) Kabbalah and modernity which consists in that at least some modern ←36 | 37→acts of creation (poems, thoughts, and so forth) are propped by the same structure as creation in Luria’s notion, that is, by the mechanisms of originary reduction (tzimtzum). Like in Safed’s revisionist thought, interpretation in modernity turns out to be an inevitable, veritably ontological misreading of the past. Bloom’s argumentation is entangled in an essential double bind; namely, in his view, Cordovero and Luria implicitly found the “theory of belatedness” because they are themselves belated vis-à-vis Kabbalism’s legacy. In other words, their own revisionism impresses itself on the structure of the concepts they develop. This means that Luria can think tzimtzum as a cosmic event because he performs tzimtzum on the existing Kabbalah himself. On another level, he learns about what he does. At any rate, in Bloom’s rhetoric, the fact that he recognised this affinity is, in turn, an outcome of his own misreading. So the kinship of the Kabbalah and modernity is explained through the identity of the structure that results from the historical positioning relative to the existing tradition, which structure, as such, does not seem to have anything either par excellence Jewish or modern about it.

My fourth and last example comes from Maurice Blanchot’s “Being Jewish,” reprinted in The Infinite Conversation.45 “Being Jewish” is not the only essay in which Blanchot muses on Judaism as an inspiration of modern thought, yet a handful of suggestions expressed in it are representative of Blanchot’s other writings. First of all, he views Judaism as a tradition that is distinctively nomadic and, therefore, perceives the world as changeable, uncertain and defying one truth:

If Judaism is destined to take on meaning for us, it is indeed by showing that, at whatever time, one must be ready to set out, because to go out (to step outside) is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain a possibility of a just relation. The exigency of uprooting; the affirmation of nomadic truth. In this Judaism stands in contrast to paganism (all paganism). To be pagan is to be fixed, to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, to establish oneself through a pact with the permanence that authorizes sojourn and is certified by certainty in the land. Nomadism answers to a relation that possession cannot satisfy. Each time Jewish man makes a sign to us across history it is by the summons of a movement. Happily established in Sumerian civilization, Abraham at a certain point breaks with that civilization and renounces dwelling there. Later, the Jewish people become a people through the exodus. And where does this night of exodus, renewed from year to year, each time lead them? To a place that is not a place and where it is not possible to reside. The desert makes of the slaves of Egypt a people, but a people without a land and bound by a word. Later, the exodus becomes ←37 | 38→the exile that is accompanied by all the trials of a hunted existence, establishing in each heart anxiety, insecurity, affliction, and hope. But this exile, heavy as it is, is not only recognized as being an incomprehensible malediction. There is a truth of exile and there is a vocation of exile; and if being Jewish is being destined to dispersion – just as it is a call to a sojourn without place, just as it ruins every fixed relation of force with one individual, one group, or one state – it is because dispersion, faced with the exigency of the whole, also clears the way for a different exigency and finally forbids the temptation of Unity-Identity.46

Given the fact that Blanchot goes to great lengths to dispel the illusion of unity, identity, certainty and unambiguousness, he seems to consider Judaism as his natural ally. More than that – an ally also of all modern thought that demystifies the idols of permanent truths, eternal places and unchangeable ideas. In other words, he assumes a kind of affinity between the strong Jewish anti-mythical tradition and modernity.47 This interconnection reverberates in his apology of nomadism as a voluntary acceptance of life without enduring guidelines.48

Blanchot continues this line of reasoning to assert that – as distinct from Greco-Christian thought – Judaism does not disown “this world”49 and affirms ←38 | 39→life instead of denigrating it. This clearly ties in with the Nietzschean re-appraisal of philosophy. However, another trait of Judaism that Blanchot discovers as akin and valuable to modernity calls for more scrutiny. This trait is Jewish monotheism, whose most seminal legacy, rather than in the revelation of personal God, lies in “the revelation of speech as the place where men hold themselves in relation with what excludes all relation: the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign.”50 Blanchot makes two assumptions here: first, he believes that Judaism recognises a dimension that is radically external to our world, and, second, that this outside imprints itself on speech in one way or another. What Blanchot offers is, thus, a thorough re-interpretation of monotheism. Judaism’s monotheistic legacy of old, as Blanchot claims, makes it possible to think contact with the absolutely exterior and, thereby, lays ground for relating to the Other in ways that eschew subjugation. This is another point where creation out of nothing by personal God seems to tie in with Judaism’s special approach to the particular.

So, for Blanchot, Judaism is a tradition of thinking whose mode of world-perception seems precious for modernity first of all because it discards an idolatrous version of transcendence. The radicalism of the outside and the endorsement of “this-worldliness” as the human life-world rather than as an illusion from which to flee bring Jewish thinking closer to the epoch in which the “Greek” tenets fall apart. Nonetheless, Blanchot does not delve into the reasons for this confluence. On the contrary, a certain vagueness of his musings suggests that he would also be inclined to accept the Nietzschean-Heideggerian model of the “Greek error,” ←39 | 40→which eventually recedes in the 20th century, while Jewish thought, so far immune to it, is coming in handy to revaluate philosophy.

The four examples surveyed above can be usefully concluded with the voice of Sergio Quinzio, who, in spite of the naive character of his simplifying discourse, captures the reasons for the rise of modern philosophical interest in Jewish tradition:

Relics of the Greek and pagan worlds promote understanding of meaning as an all-encompassing fullness, as a wondrously all-explaining Logos. As a result, we could not but comprehend historical time as uniform continuity, as stairs solidly erected on stable ground and, hence, reliably leading up and up; and we could never think of time, experiencing each moment in it, as – in Benjamin’s description – a small doorway through which the Messiah could enter. In reality, however, the humans of today, who on the one hand are not certain whether the age-old necessity indeed exists and, on the other, have been acutely disappointed with modern, secularised Messianism, experience empty time which, devoid of hope, tumbles into nothing. “Meaning” that could arise from such an experience cannot be a resumption of some perfect wholeness, of the triumphant Logos. The modern age, entirely unconsciously seizing Biblical categories, has drawn a circle, as a result of which the entire world experiences an ultimate risk of time, of reality which is not rational, a hope that comes through the abyss of Egypt and Babylon, through the night of Gethsemane, through the cross and through Auschwitz, through all darkness and decomposition that go with apocalyptic times. Meaning is only a modest possibility, paradoxical and feeble, and yet full of delicacy and mercy as it emerges from the awareness of death and nothingness […].51

My argument above was, by necessity, a bare outline only. I believe, however, that it encapsulated the fundamental ways of conceptualising affinities between Judaism and modernity. Below, I will seek to interrogate these conceptualisations.

The Problematic Connectedness between Judaism and Modern Thought

Despite all their differences, the four examples discussed above display some common patterns in their conceptualisations of the relationship between Judaism and modernity. Let us first scrutinise these patterns and, then, define problems that haunt them. First of all, all our examples presuppose that Judaism and modernity share, among others, fundamental “ontological” outlooks on the world, notions of the human condition and attitudes to text, truth and interpretation. All of them also propound similarities between the two which, though ←40 | 41→rather undefined, concern entirely fundamental philosophical propositions. Second, in each case the assumption of similarity lingers in a kind of penumbra. Seldom proclaimed explicitly, it does not tend to be analytically inspected. And third, the concealment of this assumption is enveloped in two different ratiocinative strategies. In one of them, the alignment of Jewish and modern thinking is framed as a contingent similarity (which is what Bloom basically does in viewing the connection between the Safed Kabbalah and modern poetry as originating in their analogous relations to their respective superfluous traditions). In this case, the problematic tenet of connectedness can be passed over since the comparison involves two phenomena which display certain similar properties only as a result of contingent historical factors.

In the other strategy, the premise of alignment is built into a certain historical pattern which in itself tends to be essentially affected by the very legacy of modern philosophy. This seems to have been the path that Scholem chose to go. Despite the elliptical character of his pronouncements, he can easily be inferred to have treated (at least in his early years) the secrets of the Kabbalah as singularly linked to the modern condition. Interestingly, such a solution can also be detected in Susan Handelman’s reasoning, which is worlds apart from Scholem’s modernist ideas. Ostensibly, her argument does not posit any non-contingent patterns in the history of thinking. It could after all be assumed that 20th-century philosophy was affected by Judaism through great thinkers (e.g. Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Lévinas, Derrida) who just happened to build on such inspirations. But, curiously, Handelman’s reasoning – just like that of the “contingent” researchers of philosophical Judaism – heads towards quasi-historiosophical premises. Unlike in Bloom, modern thought is not envisaged as contingently similar to Jewish thinking. On the contrary, the likeness is an outcome of awakening from the “Greek dream,” of discarding the Hellenistic paradigm of thinking, which results in philosophy’s confluence with Judaism. It is not coincidental that the Tertullian formula of “Athens or Jerusalem” is reborn in the 20th century and outside Christianity, for it suggests that philosophy has only two options to choose from. If “Greek thought” has naturally reached its limit, there is solely “Jewish thought” to turn to. Of course, not all the authors referred to above endorse as extreme a version of this idea as, for example, Lev Shestov does.52 However, all of them – not excepting Derrida, who problematises the ←41 | 42→issue most – consider the modernity-triggered historical crisis of Western philosophy to have catalysed its confrontation with so-far marginalised Jewish thought.

Let us now look closer at this connection by scrutinising “Violence and Metaphysics,” an essay that young Derrida wrote about Lévinas. The text opens with a quotation from Matthew Arnold which ushers in the optics of the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition.53 The first issue that Derrida addresses is the modern crisis of philosophy, which essentially has already suffered an inner death:

That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger – and philosophy should wander toward the meaning of its death – or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying (as is silently confessed in the shadow of the very discourse which declared philosophia perennis); that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring; that beyond the death, or dying nature, of philosophy, perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future, or even, as is said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store; or, more strangely still, that the future itself has a future – all these are unanswerable questions. By right of birth, and for one time at least, these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve.54

The resurgence of the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition would thus be involved, without doubt, in philosophy’s movement towards self-transcendence observable in “Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger,” philosophers and anti-philosophers at once. Why? Derrida toys with the following answer: perhaps it is only philosophy’s inner depletion, its spectral, posthumous lingering that unveils the nonphilosophical ground from which it arose and which it has kept hidden. This fundamental crisis would thus expose questions that philosophy itself is unable to tackle as they pertain to its own construction.

In the face of the crisis, “two great voices” of 20th-century philosophy – Husserl and Heidegger – Derrida continues,55 plunge into tradition, looking to Greece, to find the roots of their thinking there. For Husserl and Heidegger, the decay of Western philosophy is bound up with its Greek origins, which delimit “the ←42 | 43→possibility of our language” and “the nexus of our world.”56 What surfaces here is not so much a new philosophical problem as the problem of the grounding of philosophy as such. This is where Jewish thought enters the stage:

It is at this level that the thought of Emmanuel Lévinas can make us tremble.

At the heart of the desert, in the growing wasteland, this thought, which fundamentally no longer seeks to be a thought of Being and phenomenality, makes us dream of an inconceivable process of dismantling and dispossession […]. In Greek, in our language, in a language rich with all the alluvia of its history – […] in a language that admits to its powers of seduction while playing on them unceasingly, this thought summons us to a dislocation of the Greek logos, to a dislocation of our identity, and perhaps of identity in general; it summons us to depart from the Greek site and perhaps from every site in general, and to move toward what is no longer a source or a site, […] but toward an exhalation, toward a prophetic speech already emitted not only nearer to the source than Plato or pre-Socratics, but inside the Greek origin, close to the other of the Greek […].

In question, therefore, is a powerful will to explication of the history of Greek speech.57

What do Derrida’s suggestions imply? Their implication is that Judaism’s advance into modern thought is another stage of philosophy’s own movement to reach even deeper after the failure of its reflection on “the Greek origin. This insight is informed by several assumptions. First, philosophy in the 20th century is driven by a sense of deep dependence on particular conditions which it cannot penetrate by itself. This dependence is associated with a sense of crisis, and its persistence produces an impression that philosophy, while essentially dead, is sustained by the sheer force of inertia. This results in “posthumous” mobilisations of philosophy to explore the determinants that weigh on it, even at the potential price of abolishing philosophy as we know it. Second, the mobilisations are governed by the following logic: “dismantling and dispossession” surpass actual deadness and appearances. In this way, the movement of “philosophy’s self-accusation” is propelled, which compels it to confront a dimension it has not known so far. This dimension – the mysterious “exhalation,” as Derrida puts it – seems to be philosophy’s precondition even beyond the “Greek origin.” It does not instil any new philosophical content (new identities, sites, and so forth) but forms the fundamental structure of the movement of philosophy (hence “exhalation”). And third, Jewish thought is better equipped than Greek concepts to apprehend this precondition. Therefore, philosophy must reach out to Jewish thought to think through both the crisis in which it has found itself and its own structure as such.

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Thus, Jewish thought appears at the horizon of modern philosophy as a source of inspiration potentially enabling this philosophy to fathom its baseline, contentless, structural precondition, which Derrida calls “exhalation.” If we recall that Luria’s tzimtzum connotes “holding-in-of-the-breath,” Derrida’s metaphorical language will not seem coincidental. Why the authors cited above are captivated with the idea of tzimtzum will also become clear: namely, tzimtzum can be interpreted as constituting a boundary between philosophy and the outside that determines it and that it endeavours to explore. Derrida sees in Lévinas a searcher of “exhalation” from before philosophy, and, likewise, Scholem views the Lurianic Kabbalah as a model of modernity that has grown dependent on the dimension it cannot decipher.

Looking into Derrida, we could thus ask why inquiry into the affinity of Judaism and modernity so readily marshals quasi-historiosophical arguments. As we have seen, Jewish tradition is easily aligned with “nonphilosophy,” supposedly overshadowed by philosophy over the ages of “Athenian” ascendancy. Thus, the nestling of Judaic elements in 20th-century philosophy could be interpreted as a harbinger of philosophy’s stepping beyond itself and toward its “nonphilosophical” grounds. Such assumption entails that the idea of convergence of Judaism and modern philosophy – an idea restricted only to similarities in the content of two different conceptual traditions – is expanded to include an additional dimension, i.e. a relationship between this content and the historical site and tradition in which it was formed. In other words, the dovetailing of Judaic thought and modern thought acquires one more, irreducible component – namely the confluence of Judaism and modernity as such. What is at stake is no longer merely a contingent similitude of ideas, but rather a far more complicated bond between the epochs. We should notice that even when one seeks – like Bloom does – to treat this alignment as contingent and to ignore historical explanations, history still hovers as an irremovable trace. Willy-nilly, Bloom had to define a cut-off one way or another – to identify the point where the Safed Kabbalah began to correspond to poetry or philosophy. Once he chose poetry after Milton as this point, on another occasion poetry after Wordsworth; he also located orientation points for philosophy in Nietzsche or in Freud. In Bloom’s theory the assumption of the historical shift, the onset of a new epoch in which tzimtzum becomes a valid model of creation, lingers unarticulated.

If at the beginning of this subchapter we distinguished two ways of interpreting the confluence of Judaism and modern thought (i.e. either in terms of contingency or in terms of a historical schema), now we can conclude that, in a deeper sense, both these ways refer to history and differ only in the explicitness of this reference.

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How can these interconnections be accounted for? Where does the irremovable trace of historicity in reflection on the relationships between Judaism and modern philosophy come from?

Before I attempt to answer this, I will ask three more detailed questions invited by the above problematisation of ideas about connectedness between Judaism and modernity.

First, as already mentioned, 20th-century philosophy’s movement toward Judaism is associated with philosophy’s inner crisis. Derrida observes that – because of “Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger” – philosophy has suffered an inner death, which produces “a desert,” a place where it encounters Jewish thought. One thing to ask about is thus when the hiatus took place that caused the crisis of philosophy and what this hiatus involved.

Second, there is a problem of the latent determining structure that philosophy has long striven to explore through recourse to Judaism. The question concerns the Derridean “exhalation” and is: What structure is it and how does it work?

Third, if Judaism appears within the horizon of modern thought as a result of this thought’s own movement, does Western philosophy really open to its as-yet marginalised “Other,” or does it rather employ ideas of Judaism in its own field? In other words, is Judaism not just a construct like Nietzsche’s or Heidegger’s “Greeks” or Hegel’s “Christianity”? Is it not, by any chance, a model fabricated by modern thought? If so, is this model actually “modern” rather than “Jewish”?

The Universe of Modernity I: The Historical Hiatus

Let us start from the first of these problems, i.e. the historical hiatus that triggered a crisis of philosophy.

Already quoted, Derrida linked the ripeness of this crisis to post-war thought (and the aftermath of the let-down of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s inquiries) but saw it mellowing incrementally in the philosophy of “Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger.” Therefore, if we were to locate the historical rift, it would have to fall before Hegel. Can a genuine breakthrough be identified in the recent few ages of philosophy to explain why philosophy should suddenly “die” and go on existing only in an incessant return to that event?

In this book, my answer to this question would be: a tectonic change in the workings of knowledge that involved also a breakthrough in philosophy took place in the 18th century. Naturally, this answer is grounded in insights of Michel Foucault, who throughout his oeuvre consistently revisited the turning point positioned towards the end of the 18th century. Because where this point exactly fell and what it entailed precisely tended to fluctuate in Foucault’s prolific ←45 | 46→writings, a certain caveat is in order: I will build on his conclusions in The Order of Things.58 Very briefly, the conclusions are as follows: (1) the transformation we are discussing occurred in the paradigm of knowledge as such, with philosophy and, for that matter, also economy and medicine, only displaying its effects; (2) as such, the transformation cannot be accounted for by positing one or another novel philosophical insight since the very possibility of such an insight results from the shift itself; (3) this transformation concerns the way in which knowledge constitutes reality. In Foucault’s view, how does the shift manifest itself? It produces sequent effects. First, the classical order of representation collapses,59 with signs no longer comprehensively and transparently referring to what is represented. Concomitantly, it becomes imperative to think of a certain deeper level of reality that transcends the directly visible phenomena, which heralds preoccupation with the concept of “the source.”60 There are two modes of reasoning which become particularly relevant: exegesis (of what is hidden) and hermeneutics (necessitated as language has ceased to be a transparent tool and gained depth).61 Besides, historicity acquires a double relevance as the gap between the compass of cognition and what slips outside it62 breeds not only the perception of knowledge as historical but also the idea of this unknowable dimension as a “source” that determines knowing.

If Foucault does not err in his conclusions, the crisis of philosophy we are exploring can be directly associated with the peculiar upheaval of the 18th century. For the sake of terminological consistency, I will refer to the age that follows it as “modernity.” To scrutinise its imprint on philosophy, we need to specify its properties.

Modernity as conceived here is not simply an “age,” that is, one of several periods within continuous history. The very possibility and necessity to set it apart seems to result from the dimension of historicity that it has opened up. Modernity would thus designate both: (1) a historically located epoch; and (2) a basic condition that necessitates looking for its historical locatedness in the first place. Consequently, modernity is an overdetermined phenomenon as it is in and by ←46 | 47→itself an answer to the question that it poses. What this pattern specifically means will be seen in particular examples below.

Let us now depict briefly how modernity as defined here informs philosophy or, strictly speaking, the thought of Kant and Hegel, who best serve as a representative case in point. Analysing the structure of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, one notices easily that its model of epistemology responds to the diagnosis of the crisis. In his Preface to the Critique’s first edition, Kant dwells on the need to deal conclusively with reason’s specious claims known as “metaphysics.”63 Rather than ahistorical and general, this becomes urgent only when metaphysics has revealed its own inadequacy, as Kant insists. This is a strictly history-specific event that comes to pass when dogmatism is no longer capable of defending metaphysics against scepticism:

Now after all paths (as we persuade ourselves) have been tried in vain, what rules is tedium and complete indifferentism, the mother of chaos and night in the sciences, but at the same time also the origin, or at least the prelude, of their incipient transformation and enlightenment, when through ill-applied effort they have become obscure, confused, and useless.64

Kant goes on to aver that his times “will no longer be put off with illusory knowledge”65 but will demand that “eternal and unchangeable laws” be pronounced by “the court of justice” – the tribunal of the critique of pure reason.66 And in the Preface to the second edition, Kant suggests that philosophy’s calling is to divest speculative reason of “its hitherto imagined possessions.”67

The upheaval of modernity features in Kant’s thinking in a double role. First, it is, to Kant, a crisis of knowledge that has already come to pass: metaphysics has ultimately disclosed its lack of legitimacy and cannot be sustained any longer. Philosophy is now challenged to respond fittingly to the crisis. Such a response can be found in critique. The structure at work here seems to be the same one that I outlined in the previous subchapter, following Derrida: philosophy discerns its own, previously unknown precondition that makes its existing form dead and compels it to move beyond its former paradigm. In other words, to salvage itself, philosophy must venture into the territories it has not trodden yet.

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Second, modernity in Kant designates also a new age that commences as critique is undertaken. In this age, all previous endeavours of philosophy are revealed as a series of dogmatic attempts from which thinking was decisively disjoined. Philosophy can inspect these attempts, but it can no longer consider them true. Hence, modernity’s relationship to the past is quite specific. The same crisis that severed off modernity’s direct contact with the past makes it possible to produce a detached account of this past. That is why modernity boasts both a sense of historical ungroundedness and a capacity to scrutinise history that precedes it.

In Hegel’s philosophy, the shift of modernity seems to be even more pronounced. The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel’s first mature work, offers a structure of reasoning analogous to the Critique of Pure Reason. Namely, it opens with a diagnosis of a crisis to which philosophy must respond in an appropriate manner. The crisis, again, lies in that a certain model of thinking has run its course and is dead now. In the Preface, Hegel briefly outlines the genealogy of the crisis:

Time was when man had a heaven, decked and fitted out with endless wealth of thoughts and pictures. The significance of all that is lay in the thread of light by which it was attached to heaven; instead of dwelling in the present as it is here and now, the eye glanced away over the present to the Divine, away, so to say, to a present that lies beyond. The mind’s gaze had to be directed under compulsion to what is earthly and kept fixed there; and it has needed a long time to introduce that clearness, which only celestial realities had, into the crassness and confusion shrouding the essence of things earthly, and to make the attention to the immediate presence as such, which was called Experience, of interest and value. Now we have apparently the need for the opposite of all this: man’s mind and interest are so deeply rooted in the earthly that we require a like power to have them raised above that level. His spirit shows such poverty of nature that it seems to long for the mere pitiful feeling of the divine in the abstract, and to get refreshment from that, like a wanderer in the desert craving for the merest mouthful of water. By the little which can thus satisfy the needs of the human spirit we can measure the extent of its loss [emphasis added].68

Hegel views his times as an age of utter deprivation, in which – in the aftermath of an undefined event of loss – thought has forfeited its one-time abundance. Like in Kant, dogmatic (in Hegel “rationalising”) philosophy still grinds on and denies this fact, pretending that nothing of that kind has happened. And, like Kant, Hegel believes that true philosophy must first of all acknowledge the relevance of the shift and re-think its hitherto development incisively. “Our epoch is a ←48 | 49→birth-time, and a period of transition,” Hegel contends.69 The historical threshold is so remote that it de-legitimises even such apparently well-entrenched disciplines as logic and enjoins constructing them anew.70

How does Hegel envisage philosophy’s response to the crisis? It is pithily sketched in the Inaugural address delivered at the University of Berlin in 1818. Hegel insists that after the upheaval of modernity philosophy must: (1) renounce its former opulence, that is, not only acknowledge loss but also consciously bring it to completion; (2) find itself in the solitude of pure thinking; and (3) only with its help reconstruct the lost content. As Hegel put it:

The decision to philosophise means plunging into pure thinking (– thinking is alone with itself), as into a boundless ocean; all vivid colours, all mainstays have vanished, all friendly lights have faded. Only one star shines still, the inner star of spirit. It is a lodestar. It is natural that Spirit, alone with itself, is beset by terror. One does not know yet where to head and whence one comes; there is many a thing amongst what has vanished that one would be loath to forfeit, not even for the world, but they have not been reinstated yet in this aloneness and one is doubtful that they will ever be retrieved or recovered.

[…] thinking that finds its origin in itself knows the same answers only in their unfolding necessity, and it would be an unbecoming impatience that answers its own questions forthwith to expect to arrive home presently at the very beginning. The Spirit must not be afeared to lose that in which it holds a true interest; that on which what emerges for it in philosophy rests is its… This is why philosophy will restore to it everything that is true in the representations which the instinct of reason first brought forth; but…71

This implies that, in the wake of the modern crisis, philosophy must find “its origin in itself” and, only by reasserting itself in it, reclaim what was true in the ←49 | 50→lost legacy. Hegel’s philosophical programme involves thus choosing a contentless, formal foothold, made possible only by the crisis, from which to start reconstructing the content. This movement involves the following stages: (1) identification of the traces of an incomprehensible loss; (2) acceptance of the loss; (3) deliberate pruning of all content of philosophy away to leave only a vestige of pure thinking, a formal point (called “an inner star of spirit” by Hegel); (4) revisiting the past to reproduce its content based on this point. Apparently, ever since the modern shift, philosophy has split into two – into content and pure movement of thinking. Hegel advocates analysing the movement alone (which in his case produces a dialectical structure) and using it to re-establish the residual “dead” content (“positive content,” as he put it elsewhere).

Analysis of the historical shift suggests the following conclusions. The movement of philosophy toward recreating its “outside” through the encounter with Jewish thought seems to ensue not so much from the 20th-century crisis as from a far earlier one that marked the threshold of modernity. As implied by Foucault’s findings and Kant’s and Hegel’s insights, its consequences were analogous to those visible in 20th-century recourses to Judaism. They include: (1) the sense that the hitherto mode of thinking has been emptied out and is “essentially” dead; (2) the imperative that philosophy work through the event that inexplicably determined it; (3) philosophy’s need to step beyond its earlier categories in order to find a buried structure that conditions it; (4) re-thinking the content of the past based on a new foothold possibly attained through the fathoming of this structure. Should these analogies be correct, a significant portion of 20th-century thinking on the alignment of Judaism and contemporary philosophy would be conditioned by the same modern mechanism of crisis whose puzzle German idealism sought to sort out.

Now we can proceed to the second of the problems formulated above and ask what particular structure of thinking it is that philosophy in modernity hinges on and strives to capture in transcending itself.

The Universe of Modernity II: The Structure that Conditions Thinking

If 20th-century thought and German idealism were indeed driven by the shared mechanism of modern crisis, the structure we are trying to identify would be graspable already in Kant’s philosophy. With this assumption in mind, I shall first try to establish what it was that changed in the very “mechanics” of philosophy after the modern breakthrough. This will help us construct a model of this structure.

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The basic change in philosophy whose paradigm was instituted by the Kantian critique concerns the relationship between knowing and the object of knowledge, and, consequently, the adopted model of being. The transformation can easily be grasped by comparing Aristotle’s classic ontology with Kant’s ontological framework.

Aristotle’s central notion is ousia, that is, following the Latin translation, “substance.” The term is commonly known to have more than one meaning in the Stagirite, with The Metaphysics alone describing it, among others, as “the essence,” “the universal,” “the genus” or “the substratum.”72 Nonetheless, all approaches to ousia are informed by two crucial considerations: (1) ousia is ontologically and notionally primary as well as autonomous; as Aristotle puts it, “that which is primarily, i.e. not in a qualified sense but without qualification, must be substance”;73 (2) ousia is inherent in bodies (for example, animals, plants and other physical entities) in which it is present “most obviously.”74 Inferably, ousia as a notion renders a physical body “at hand” which is, at the same time, a fundamental source of knowledge. Consequently, although to capture ousia may be challenging (hence ways of concluding about it are multiple), there is no epistemological barrier as such between ousia and knowledge. They belong to one and the same realm. In Aristotle’s ontology, the model of being presupposes that the differentiation of substances and their qualities are primally given and independent of knowledge. Moreover, knowledge does not change anything in “being as such.” This model of relationship between being and knowing seems to permeate all pre-modern thought.

The Kantian critique produces an upheaval in which a new model is forged. The Aristotelian ousia no longer constitutes a unity and the olden substance is dispersed into two aspects: the object, that is, “a thing for us” formed a priori by the mechanisms of cognition, and “a thing in itself,” that is, an irreducible vestige which we must assume to remain beyond the whole system of knowledge. In Kant, then, knowledge is no longer neutral vis-à-vis its object. On the contrary, the object that is available to us is always already predetermined by knowledge. Intertwined with this is the necessity to presuppose “a thing in itself” that constitutes the outside of knowledge. If in Aristotle there was one universe of substances that existed in an originary way, in Kant the universe must be split ←51 | 52→into two realms: knowledge, all of whose elements hinge on the same system of conditions, and an exterior remnant.

Why does this remainder come into being? Because whatever is subsumed into the system of knowledge, becomes primally limited. Without looking into details of Kant’s reasoning, as this lies beyond the scope of these considerations, let us ascertain that in order to connect (that is, to know) phenomena in the first place, their originary differentiation must be reduced so that they could be imagined side by side with each other, forming one series. Kant identifies this series with time.75 Two conclusions follow thence: the knowable world is determined by an elementary plane of continuity (time), and we must presuppose “a thing in itself” as that which has not yet become limited – something that does not fall under a continuous, temporal series and, thus, is not imaginable as an ordinarily “abiding” object. Hence, Kantian philosophy structurally harbours the problem of a boundary between the continuous series and what lies beyond it. For Kant himself, the problem is the source of the famous antinomies of pure reason.76 But in later philosophers (Hegel and Nietzsche, to name but two), it will morph into the question of the relationship between the radically singular and the system within which it would be knowable.

We can therefore say that the Kantian critique thoroughly transforms the structure of fundamental propositions which form the very framework of philosophical thinking. Naturally, not all post-Kantian philosophy is fully enclosed in this framework, and many schools of thought repudiate the critical legacy. This, however, does not mean that it remains merely a source of inspiration. On the contrary, I would argue that the Kantian critique is implicated in the very manner in which the modern shift re-cast the operations of knowledge. In other words, structural resolutions of the same problems that Kant raised do not necessarily result from drawing on him directly. They may as well ensue from the fact that these questions are inscribed in the very construction of modern thinking. This insight explains why thinkers who do not refer to Kant at all – Jabès being one of the throng – walk the same paths that he trod. I propose, in this work, to group all the concepts that, whether deliberately or not, replicate the blueprint of Kantian problems under the umbrella term of modern philosophy.77

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As this thesis calls for a more specific substantiation, we should find out which issues outlined in the Kantian critique have since resurfaced regularly in philosophy labelled modern in this book. For one, there is a tension between the finite, limited field of knowledge and the unrenderable residue that persists beyond its bounds. The term “tension” implies that it is not all about a simple and definitive separation of two areas of the universe. The very act of such separation is in itself entangled in this division as it lies within the compass of knowledge. Already in Kant, it proved a challenge to distinguish phenomena from noumena, which were, on the one hand, a fiction of pure reason and, on the other, its indispensable premise. The structure of the tension between knowledge and its remnant was spelled out only by Hegel, who viewed “a thing in itself” as an irremovable vestige of the originary limitation performed by understanding, the first form of knowing.78

One would be hard pressed to find another Kantian problem of equal impact on later philosophical developments. In Nietzsche, it was re-cast into perspectivism, that is, the idea that there are multiple limited forms of knowledge, each of them conditioned in ways it cannot fathom itself.79 This re-casting has ←53 | 54→moulded a considerable part of postmodern philosophy,80 having earlier affected Heidegger’s reflection on the finitude of Dasein.81 The Kantian articulation of these problems may have been thoroughly reworked since the time of his critique, but the basic structure set by him has endured. Its axis is the relationship between finite systems of knowledge (in more recent formulations: symbolic systems or perspectives) and a certain remnant that eludes them, yet determines them all the same. When we look at recent philosophical currents, we can find this relationship both in Lacan (involving the symbolic and the real) and in Derrida (involving metaphysical oppositions and what he describes as their underlying infrastructures82).

A second characteristic trait of Kant-derived philosophy is that it rejects the notion of transcendent God. The point thereof is by no means any simple atheism. Rather, as a result of the re-drawing of relations between knowledge and being, which I sketched juxtaposing Aristotle and Kant, pre-modern concepts of God have become barely tenable. God as the supremely perfect being, a source and a foundation of all other beings, is no longer viable since the very notion of being has been split into “an object” and “a thing in itself” (to use Kant’s terminology). If God were an object, as defined by Kant, he would have to be part of the causal sequence, but as such he could not be the beginning of this series, for objects are its elements and not its origin. The principle of continuity consistently espoused by Kant stipulates that, as all the empirically available reality is subjected to one system of causes, its origin cannot belong to this system. Can God then be comprehended beyond this system? Kant answers:

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For as far as concerns the void that one might think of outside of the field of possible experience (the world), this does not belong to the jurisdiction of the mere understanding, which only decides about questions concerning the use of given appearances for empirical cognition, and it is a problem for ideal reason, which goes beyond the sphere of a possible experience and would judge about what surrounds and bounds this […].83

Whereas Thomas Aquinas, for one, could conceive of God as a cause in a single chain of causes leading up to the world as we know it, Kant could only see the notion of God as concerning solely the field fully exterior to the causal sequence and, therefore, perhaps as an experientially unauthorised idea of pure reason. The God-concept is thus postulative, and his existence cannot possibly be proved as logical thinking has no access to him.

Consequently, after the Kantian critique, the knowable reality becomes ontologically atheistic in being a single, continuous plane devoid of transcendence. If the concept of God is allowable after the critique, it can only be cast in a new role that structurally corresponds to “the thing in itself.” In terms of former philosophy, it is a metaphorical usage with “God” referring to a particular structural principle of atheistic reality. This transmutation is patent in several post-Kantian philosophers. Hegel’s radically atheistic thought frames God as a representational rendition of a particular moment in the movement of the Absolute. Lacan, in turn, identifies the concept of God with the great Other, which is “really” no transcendent being but an entity produced by the operations of language.84 Finally, Slavoj Žižek associates divinity with the pure force of negativity which ruptures the unity of the atheistic world and drives its inner movement.85 The Kantian critique could be said to unsettle the previous notion of God and clear the way to identifying him not with the stable, transcendent being but with an empty vestige that persists in the reality stripped of transcendence.

The third and last issue I wish to discuss is the subverting of the status of philosophy precipitated by the Kantian breakthrough. It results from the changes in the relationship between cognition and being, addressed above. Philosophy, namely, ceases to be neutral vis-à-vis its object and no longer provides general, theoretical knowledge of being, independent of the knowing subject. On the ←55 | 56→contrary, philosophy as such is predicated upon the structure that it ponders. In Kant, this informs the idea that reason analyses its own boundaries rather than any being beyond it. This critical tenet makes Kant-inspired philosophy self-reflexive in erecting its edifice on the very movement of thinking.

Inviting two different appraisals, this feature of modern philosophy indeed propelled two different tendencies. One of them, epitomised by Hegel, edifies philosophy into a universal and fundamental science, with its self-reflexivity acclaimed as a virtue. It is admitted that philosophy as such is dependent on the structure it explores, but self-reflexivity makes it possible to first detect this structure within philosophy itself and, then, to apply the mechanism identified in this way in interpreting the “positive content.” This reasoning appeared also in the previous subchapter, where I quoted Hegel’s claim that philosophy re-establishes what perished in the modern shift and, moreover, in doing so it finds a foothold in itself. This tendency assumes, thus, that because all reality is grounded in the same structure, philosophy’s role is to find this structure in its “pure” version (in Hegel, dialectics is knowledge about it) and, subsequently, to use it to re-interpret phenomena.

The other tendency takes the opposite direction. It assumes that since philosophy is unable to offer knowledge neutral of its object and it shares the same underlying structure with its object, it must be transcended and this transcendence is attainable only in and through a practical act. An embryo of this approach was already inscribed in Kant’s concept of practical reason, radicalised by Fichte,86 while it was hatched into a full-fledged form by none other than Marx.

Still, crucial to our analysis is that in the philosophy of the 19th and the 20th centuries the two lines of thought usually co-exist in a dialectical tension. As a rule, this coupling is underpinned by the following argumentation:

(1) philosophy has so far been fraught with the error of failing to recognise its own precondition;

(2) that philosophy has persisted in its hitherto form is, as such, an outcome of this error;

(3) still, philosophy has a potential to recognise and explain it;

(4) this recognition is bound up with a practical act that makes real change (in life, society, and so forth);

←56 | 57→

(5) as a result, philosophy itself will be deeply transformed or, in many cases, replaced by an entirely new practice.

Thus, philosophy’s position and the need to transcend it turn out to represent two facets of the same problem. Attempts at purification, supposed to yield a pure structure of thought, are analogous to strivings to oust theory for the sake of a pure act of practice. In both cases, that which is must be obliterated to unveil philosophy’s aphilosophical determinants.

However abstract it may be, this pattern is palpable in several key modern philosophers associated with various traditions. For example, Nietzsche considers philosophy as practised so far to have been error-haunted since Socrates in that its false attitude to life produces, in Nietzsche’s own age, nihilism. At the same time, it is philosophy that must see through this error. The “great noontide” of new, incipient philosophy heralds first and foremost an active and affirmative attitude to life and unfolding of things. What is accomplished in this practical act is, actually, breaking with the former philosophy, although the very category of philosophy is still retained by Nietzsche. Heidegger, similarly, views Western philosophy as moulded by the forgetfulness of Being. This fallacy can be recognised only in a new, liminal form of philosophy which, abandoning its former paradigm, will be replaced by deeper-penetrating, non-theoretical and non-aggregating “thinking” (Denken). This kind of thinking, listening to Being and the effort of “emplacing” (Heidegger’s Erörterung) are closer to a practical act than to philosophy as exercised so far. This model is also discernible within Jewish philosophy itself. Franz Rosenzweig, for one, proposes to replace philosophy – based on the illusory knowledge of “the All” and deliberate obliviousness to death87– with the “new thinking” that abandons the edifice of theory, as a result of which “it opens into life.”88 Inspired by Rosenzweig, Lévinas strives to overcome Western philosophy’s prioritisation of ontology by foregrounding ethics, a predominantly practical domain, as the new “first philosophy.”

Clearly, disclosed by Kant, philosophy’s ensnarement in its own object breeds, primarily, endeavours to surmount philosophy and, then, make it catalyse the transformation to be accomplished by fathoming the very structure that ←57 | 58→conditions philosophy as such. The surmounting of philosophy is, thereby, associated with a practical act.

Now we can try and answer the central question of this subchapter: What does the structure involve that determines philosophy which seeks it in self-transcendence? The answer is that the structure involves an irreducible, particular remnant opposed to a perspectival, finite whole. I believe that this structure underlies all three problems of modern philosophy analysed in this subchapter. First, it is to be found in reiterated transformations of “the thing in itself” and in modern perspectivism. Besides, the residue-structure serves as a cornerstone of a new notion of God’s position. The identification of God with emptiness, interval, central lack, force of negativity, and so forth, in so many modern “theologies” implies that this remnant plays a crucial role in modern philosophy. Finally, the remnant-structure answers also to the last of our issues, that is the surmounting of philosophy. How so? Namely, the remnant-structure is not only an object of philosophy but also its construction principle. Modern philosophy searches for a determinant that lies beyond it and opposes its limited knowledge. Hence philosophy’s self-overcoming movement, its cancellation in a practical act, is an attempt to remove the boundary between itself and the remnant that conditions it. That is why modern philosophy (as defined above) perceives reality as determined by the residual structure and, at the same time, is subject to this very structure, due to which it futilely strives to transcend itself in search of its own abolishment.

If this reasoning is apt, we should perhaps re-calibrate our perspective on all the discourses which frame Judaism as a tradition which, though forgotten, is “more truthful” than the Greek one and discovered only after the latter has disintegrated. Therefore, I would posit that vis-à-vis modern philosophy Judaism functions as the vestige constituted by philosophy itself in an attempt to continue its movement through self-transcendence.

The Universe of Modernity III: The Problem of Philosophical Account of Judaism

With this thesis, we can proceed to our last question, that is whether the position of Judaism in 20th-century philosophy is something unique. Is this newly discovered Judaism not just a construct produced by modern philosophy as part of its own movement? If it were the case, we should find also other conceptual traditions that this philosophy utilises in a similar way. And, indeed, it turns out that mechanisms of re-interpreting traditions, particularly religious ones – exterior to philosophy – are detectable at the threshold of modernity, that is, in Kant. Still identifying himself with Lutheranism, Kant professed that “historical ←58 | 59→faith ‘is dead being alone.’ ”89 In the modern optics, it is founded on a doubtful and contingent historical narrative.90 The impact of the modern shift addressed above is evident here: the continuity of tradition perishes. Despite that, Kant does not advocate discarding religion. Rather, he insists that it should be reconstructed based on “the principle of the pure religion of reason, as a revelation (though not empirical one) permanently taking place within all human beings.”91 In other words, the critique of pure reason enables philosophy to establish a new basis for religion and to invest the old beliefs with new meanings. Kant’s reasoning proceeds in the following stages: (1) the crisis of faith is undeniable; (2) philosophy overcomes the crisis through critique; (3) that is why the principles of reason it finds now can found faith in a new shape; (4) when religion is grounded in the philosophical structure, its content will be imbued with new meaning. As a consequence, religion is turned into an external source permanently disjoined from current thinking by the crisis of modernity. This source is subject to reconstruction effected by self-grounded thinking.92

The same mechanism reappears in Hegel. He revives Christian religion smothered by Enlightenment’s rationalism,93 but does so only through reinterpretation based on philosophical solutions. Unlike the detractors of religion, he believes that religion’s “positive content” can – and should – be re-created whereby philosophy’s advantage lies in its capacity for such a reconstruction.94 What would that involve? It would involve a proper understanding of the content of faith obscured by representations before. Although the formation of a given content predates this understanding by many centuries, Hegel avers that this understanding completes Christianity and is its key moment. Clearly, the ←59 | 60→new legitimisation of religion by philosophy95 involves, essentially, philosophy’s employment of an external, prior matter through which philosophy seems to arrive at its own primal condition. What it in fact does, however, is insert its own mechanism in the past content and proclaim to have just found it there.

These examples of Kant and Hegel show that the movement of reconstructing religion is intimately implicated in the workings of modern philosophy which seeks its own exterior remnant. “Dead” for philosophy, faith’s content functions here as an objectively existing, past matter that philosophy ostensibly relies on while actually reconstructing it.

Western philosophy of the 19th and the 20th centuries repeatedly revisits traditions that lie outside it and deploys them in this exact way. Therein, it crucially insists on describing them as “nonphilosophies,” to use Derrida’s coinage, which earlier fathomed the condition that philosophy has failed to recognise. This is how Schopenhauer viewed the Hinduism of the Upanishads, how Nietzsche saw his abstract “Greeks,” how Heidegger framed pre-Socratics and German poets (e.g. Hölderlin and Trakl), how Bataille positioned Gnosticism,96 and how Kojève, Lacan and Žižek, following Hegel, viewed Christianity. Evidently, not just religion but rather multiple discourses from beyond philosophy are used as such points of reference. Their content is selected and configured consistently with the logic of modern philosophy which utilises them. In being re-invented, some of their own tenets that contravene the spirit of modern philosophy are discarded (e.g. this is what happens to transcendent God’s real existence in Hegel’s version of Christianity) while other ones, though by no means given any eminence within these traditions themselves, are accorded the pivotal status through and in their philosophical reconstruction. In Hegel, this pattern is exposed in that he locates Christianity’s uniqueness in Christ’s dialectical nature,97 which is, of ←60 | 61→course, hardly the religion’s fundamental idea but dovetails conveniently with Hegel’s own philosophy.

We could say that the forms of modern philosophy referred to above “descry” in past traditions the very structures they want to descry and prove. By the same token, they disguise the fact that these structures are intrinsically modern because, framed in such ways, the structures come across as ahistorical since existing already in the doctrines of old. It could thus be posited that modern philosophy has a distinct tendency to transform its own structures into oppositions that are supposed to govern the entire history of thought.

This suggests an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this subchapter. Namely, the position of Judaism in 20th-century thought may result from the structural patterning of modern philosophy. The Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition seems a veritably paradigmatic outcome of the projection of this philosophy’s inner movement onto the whole of history. Judaism is consigned to the position of an external “nonphilosophy,” accessible only now. The line between philosophy as known so far and the searched-for “nonphilosophy” is extrapolated as the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition and, in this shape, seems to hold sway over the historical vistas of Western thinking. As can easily be noticed, this opposition structurally mirrors similar pairings produced by modern philosophy also much earlier. “Jerusalem” mimics the function attributed to “Christianity” in Kant, Hegel, Lacan and Žižek, to “Greeks” in Nietzsche, and to “pre-Socratics” in Heidegger.98

Concluding, for modern philosophy, Judaism is one of the many external discourses that it institutes in the position of its own remnant and deploys in its own movement. This is evinced in a characteristic selectiveness with which it sifts Judaism’s vast legacy for aspects of which to avail itself. As I will show in this book (resorting chiefly to the example of Jabès), in making a recourse to Jewish tradition 20th-century thought is happy to reduce it to a few properties (e.g. anti-mythical inclinations, radical monotheism and Messianism) that are akin to its own premises. In this way, a modern construct is generated and transposed onto ←61 | 62→the expanses of history, with its modern origins carefully erased. This, however, does not change the simple fact that it is in discovering its “nonphilosophies” that modern philosophy feels most at home.

The Concept of Jewish Philosophy of Modernity

With these insights, we can formulate the concept of Jewish philosophy of modernity. As the reasoning above implies, modernity is more than just another historical period. Rather, it is a new site where historicity is produced and perceived. It is an epoch which itself crafts the frameworks that make it into an epoch. A considerable portion of concepts it contrives are overdetermined as they rely at the same time on many various points of reference which, in fact, were formed in advanced by the modern structure. Also Judaism finds itself drawn amidst a grid of interconnections configured in this way and devoid of an Archimedean point. Side by side with religious Jewish studies (spared the strong impact of the modern shift), a broad and varied tendency developed, particularly in the 20th century, to employ Jewish elements in philosophy and literature. As the argument above shows, this tendency is laden with patterns of modern thinking. Therefore, I propose, at least within this book, to abandon the simple idea of Judaism’s “influence” on philosophy and, instead, adopt a construct which intrinsically reflects the complexity of relationships among philosophy, modernity and Judaism.

This is the theoretical nucleus of “Jewish philosophy of modernity.” Now its model must be fleshed out to compound its typologically distinct patterns discussed in the foregoing. Bringing them together does not mean, of course, that they must all be stamped on the thought of every author that drew on Judaism in the 20th century. Rather, amassed, they add up to a certain ideal type on which to base any more detailed analysis. On this model, Jewish philosophy of modernity would have the following attributes:

(1) an identifiable trace of the modern hiatus manifest in

(a) recognition of a crisis in contemporary thinking;

(b) dissociation from the tradition of Judaic thought, perceived as more or less lost in its earlier shape;99

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(c) reference to a singular, originary event of loss, formative of the current age – hence popularity of the Lurianic tzimtzum;

(d) a chasm between the (apparently lost or “dead”) content of thinking and its structure;

(e) conspicuous historicity, i.e. attempts to inscribe the contemporary era within a broader historical narrative;

(2) a more or less pronounced presence of characteristically modern premises outlined already in the Kantian critique, such as:

(a) the division of reality into two realms: one knowable, continuous and dependent on an a priori structure and the other unknowable, radically singular, external and, at the same time, forming a possibility condition of the former;

(b) a tension between the continuity of the series and its ungraspable limit;

(c) primal limitation of knowledge, including also perspectivism;

(d) marking of the finite world by the infinite outside;

(e) dismissal of the notion of transcendent God;

(f) a new concept of Divinity as connoting a remnant, a central lack, a pure negativity;

(3) positing the residual structure not only as philosophy’s object but also as its construction principle. As a result, philosophy is perceived as dependent on an ensemble of nonphilosophical conditions that determine the movement of thinking rather than its content. This dependence causes a crisis of philosophy that can be overcome only if philosophy self-transcends towards the as-yet unknown outside;

(4) framing Judaism as a particular “nonphilosophy,” that is, “knowledge” whose structure conditions philosophy. Hence, elements of Jewish thinking are supposed to foster a new, post-crisis form of philosophy (if it is to go by this name in the first place);

(5) linking the “discovery” of Judaism for Western thought to fundamental transformations the latter underwent at the onset of modernity. In this perspective, Judaism seems to have known the “truth” for long while philosophy arrives at it only now;

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Thus, the tradition of Judaism would stand for something more than just a source of inspiration for Jewish philosophy of modernity. Judaism embodies the goal of its own movement. It seems to harbour the “nonphilosophical” truth about philosophy and, as such, to explain also its structural crisis. These conclusions imply that the relationship of philosophy and Judaism is thoroughly organised by modern structures. In other words, that philosophy seeks to absorb elements of Jewish thinking and how it chooses and constructs them reveals more about modern philosophy than about Judaism.

With this theoretical footing, we can now produce an account of Edmond Jabès’ philosophy. I shall attempt to show how his work can be interpreted in terms of Jewish philosophy of modernity and, subsequently, formulate further conclusions that will augment the concept outlined above.

To conclude, Jabès as a “Jewish philosopher of modernity” is a rather specific author. Like Celan, he does not set out from philosophy, but from literature. ←64 | 65→Nevertheless, his movement towards Judaism produces the same outcomes as in thinkers of a strictly philosophical mindset. This is certainly thought-provoking. For it may as well be that the phenomenon which I labelled “Jewish philosophy of modernity” is, in fact, broader and extends over all modern thinking as such, not only philosophy. Perhaps, the movement of simplifying and processing the external content into a redeeming remnant has a far wider compass than philosophy. If it is indeed the case, Jabès’ thought, albeit essentially devoid of any direct philosophical references and focused on the very structure of movement that motivates it, could tell us more about Jewish philosophy of modernity than concepts entangled in internal philosophical disputes are possibly capable of doing.

←65 | 66→←66 | 67→

1 See Gershom Scholem, Le Nom et les symboles de Dieu dans la mystique juive, trans. Maurice R. Hayoun and Georges Vajda (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1983), p. 7 ff.

2 As observed by Stéphane Mosès, Scholem found a peculiar aporia in the position the Kabbalah found itself in in his day. On the one hand, the Kabbalah could be viewed as a dead text-corpus good only for a detached historical analysis. On the other hand, as Scholem believed, the Kabbalah was relevant to the present, yet it could be accessed only through a historical study. The aporia lay thus in that the potency of this mysticism could be revealed only when the historical account suspended the text’s direct meaning, making the Kabbalah essentially impotent. See Stéphane Mosès, The Angel of History: Rosenzweig, Benjamin, Scholem, trans. Barbara Harshav (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009), pp. 130–1, 163–4. It implies that the Kabbalah’s historical situation in the 20th century is in and by itself part of the problem which the Kabbalistic knowledge salvaged from oblivion is expected to solve.

3 Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on Jewish Theology,” trans. Gabriela Shalit in Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser (Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2012), pp. 261–297, on pp. 282–3.

4 As Moshe Idel emphasises, drawing on Harold Bloom, Scholem was veritably obsessed with “the imagery of catastrophe.” See Moshe Idel, Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought (Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), p. 127. The idea of catastrophe recurs both in Scholem’s historical research (as a patent fascination with the Lurianic Kabbalah and antinomic movements) and in his Gnostic view of the present times.

5 Cf. also Karl Erich Grözinger, Kafka a Kabała [Kafka und die Kabbala/Kafka and the Kabbalah], trans. J. Güntner (Kraków: Austeria, 2006).

6 Scholem, “Reflections,” p. 284.

7 Cf. Ibid., p. 285.

8 See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 253.

9 Gershom Scholem, Another Thing: Chapters in History and Revival II, ed. Avraham Shapira (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1990), p. 34.

10 Also in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem clearly preferred the dialectically inflected trends of Kabbalism. For example, he was fascinated with the idea of Ein-Sof, a primordial, boundless form of God that mutates into nothing after creation. This notion makes it possible to reconcile dialectically the radical separateness of God and the world with the dependence of Creation on God. “The creation of the world, that is to say, the creation of something out of nothing, is itself but the external aspect of something that takes place in God Himself. This is also a crisis of the hidden En-Sof who turns from repose to creation, and it is this crisis, creation and Self-Revelation in one which constitutes the great mystery of theosophy and the crucial point for the understanding of the purpose of theosophical speculation. The crisis can be pictured as the break-through of the primordial will, but theosophic Kabbalism frequently employs the bolder metaphor of Nothing. The primary start or wrench in which the introspective God is externalized and the light that shines inwardly made visible, this revolution of perspective transforms En-Sof, the inexpressible fullness, into nothingness.” Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1949), p. 213.

11 Greshom Scholem, “On Kafka’s The Trial,” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time & Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Chipman, ed. Avraham Shapira (Philadelphia, PA & Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society,1997–5758), p. 193. Scholem perceived his era as drenched in melancholy as a result of a crisis of transcendence. Similarly, he displayed an interest in “Jewish melancholy.” Melancholy as a link between the modern condition and the Jewish experience is pondered also by other authors, such as Sergio Quinzio. See Sergio Quinzio, Hebrajskie korzenie nowożytności [Radici ebraiche del moderno/Hebraic roots of modernity], trans. M. Bielawski (Kraków: homini, 2005), p. 73.

12 See Mosès, Angel, pp. 145–68.

13 Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,” in On the Possibility, pp. 4–18.

14 Scholem elaborates on the universality of the Jewish experience also in his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, where he states that “[i];n the Kabbalah the law of the Torah became a symbol of cosmic law, and the history of the Jewish people a symbol of the cosmic process.” See Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1996), p. 2. In his view, Judaism and modernity are “almost inextricably bound” (Ibid.).

15 Susan A. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. 3 ff.

16 Ibid., p. 11.

17 Ibid., pp. 5–6.

18 Ibid., p. 11.

19 Ibid., pp. 15, 82–90.

20 Ibid., p. 4.

21 Ibid., p. 17.

22 Ibid., pp. 47–50.

23 Ibid., p. 30.

24 Ibid., p. 32.

25 Ibid., p. 36.

26 Ibid., p. 29.

27 Ibid., p. 28 ff.

28 Ibid., p. 104.

29 Starting from the same assumptions, Henri Atlan claimed that the prominent role Judaism awarded to writing was linked to the anti-idolatrous mindset. For writing, as opposed to speech, is always supposed to highlight the distance between the reader and the writer, as a result of which the Torah, a divine text, leaves a chasm between the sign referring to God and God Himself. According to Atlan, writing retains an irreducible component of otherness, a residue of sorts that defies interpretation, which makes God, who reveals Himself through writing, ungraspable in notions that strive to grasp Him. Cf. Henri Atlan, “Niveaux de signification et athéisme de l’ écriture,” in La Bible au présent (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 86.

30 This connection is, of course, far more complicated than the simple Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition would seem to imply. The Kabbalah was after all immensely influenced by Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism while the rationalist Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages found itself under a considerable impact of Aristotelianism. At this moment, however, let us leave such doubts aside and return to them in the following.

31 Handelman, Slayers, pp. 123–4.

32 Ibid., p. 130.

33 Ibid., p. 126.

34 Cf. Ibid., pp. 164–82.

35 Cf. Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 33.

36 Ibid., pp. 34, 72.

37 Ibid., p. 67.

38 Ibid., p. 33. Bloom goes on to state that in 19th- and 20th-century discourses, “poem” can be often substituted by “person” or “idea” while the structure describing relations between poems remains applicable to these other entities with equal effectiveness. See Ibid., p. 59.

39 Tzimtzum (both Isaac Luria’s original notion and a version of it developed by Edmond Jabès) will be discussed in Chapter Three. At this point, it is enough just to explain that the notion envisions the primal withdrawal of God, who leaves a void in which the world can only be created. In tzimtzum, it is thus assumed that creation of the world takes place in the realm marked by God’s contraction.

40 See also Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford UP, 1975), pp. 3–4.

41 See Bloom, Kabbalah, p. 74 ff.

42 Ibid., p. 88 ff.

43 Ibid., p. 79.

44 In A Map of Misreading, Bloom draws on Ernst Robert Curtius to observe that literature after Goethe is not yet properly assessable. The late Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism are parts of the same phenomenon, whose continuity or discontinuity in regard to the prior tradition, as Bloom contends, cannot be established yet (Map, p. 33). Consequently, the indefiniteness of connections between modernity and the Kabbalah results, partly at least, from the fact that we still fall under the historical influence of the phenomenon we set out to analyse.

45 Maurice Blanchot, “Being Jewish,” in The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 123–30.

46 Ibid., pp. 125–6.

47 To be sure, this kind of relationship is not Blanchot’s exclusive invention. Rosenzweig, Benjamin and, finally, Lévinas were all inspired by Judaism’s anti-idolatrous investment. The Talmud’s Megillah states that “whoever repudiates idolatry is accounted a Jew” (see Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud: The Major Teachings of Rabbinic Sages [New York: Schocken Books, 1995], p. 6). However, it was only in the 20th century that the Jewish movement against idolatry found philosophical applications. For example, Lévinas insists that “Judaism has decharmed the world, contesting the notion that religions apparently evolved out of enthusiasm and the Sacred. […] Jewish monotheism does not exalt a sacred power. […] Here, Judaism feels very close to the West, by which I mean philosophy. […] Human existence […] is the true place in which the divine word encounters the intellect and loses the rest of its supposedly mystical virtues.” Emmanuel Lévinas, “A Religion for Adults,” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), pp. 11–23, on pp. 14–15.

48 This is another point where Blanchot is close to Lévinas. See also, Quinzio, Hebrajskie, pp. 66–9.

49 Blanchot, “Being Jewish,” p. 128. Also this idea has had a long interpretive history. The Gemara explains: “ ‘What purpose did your God have in speaking with Moses from the midst of a bush?’ […] ‘To teach that there is no place void of the Divine Presence, not even so lowly a thing as a bush’ ” (see Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, p. 9). It is in this sense that Lévinas concludes that “Judaism has always been free with regard to place” (Emmanuel Lévinas, “Heidegger, Gagarin and Us,” in Difficult Freedom, pp. 231–4, on p. 233), i.e. it has treated the world as a unity with no permanent, demarcated sacred sites.

Scholem, in turn, insists that God’s omnipotence, omnipresence and oneness all suggest that reality is a pulsating unity that, subsumed in one spirit, mutates beyond and above the laws of nature; cf. Scholem, Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, pp. 94–5. In these interpretations, reality as perceived by Judaism is not split into the defective world of earthly life and the ideal afterlife; nor are there any delimited places of the sacred. Rather, reality is a unity of equal elements that stand before God. That is why Jewish Messianism, unlike Christian one, does not presuppose spiritual “inner transformations,” tending rather to regard Messiah’s work as a real event in the external world. Cf. Gerhom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), pp. 1–2, 17. Jacob Taubes took issue with this division in his “The Price of Messianism,” in From Cult to Culture. Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2010), p. 3 ff. Izaak Cylkow seems to have shared the same ideas in his commentary on the first verse of Bereshit. Cylkow insisted that it implied “the unity of the world and an absolute solidarity of all its components.” Tora [Torah], trans. I. Cylkow (Kraków: Austeria, 2010), p. 3.

50 Blanchot, “Being Jewish,” p. 127.

51 Quinzio, Hebrajskie, pp. 186–7.

52 Shestov was perhaps the first thinker to insist adamantly that the Greek truth had colonised the Jewish one thoroughly and that the process was bound to have disastrous consequences. Cf. Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Bernard Martin (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1966), particularly pp. 343 ff.

53 “Hebraism and Hellenism – between these two points of influence moves our world. At one time it feels more powerfully the attraction of one of them, at another time of the other; and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.” In Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Lévinas,” trans. Alan Bass, in Writing and Difference (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 97–192, on p. 97.

54 Ibid., pp. 97–8.

55 Ibid., pp. 100–101.

56 Ibid., p. 101.

57 Ibid., pp. 101–102.

58 Cf. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences, trans. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

59 Ibid., pp. 72–3, 123–4

60 Cf. Ibid., p. 249

61 Cf. Michel Foucault, “Les Mots et les Choses”, in Dits et écrits I. 1954–1975 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), p. 528.

62 Cf. Foucault, Order, pp. 400–401.

63 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), pp. 99–100.

64 Ibid., p. 100.

65 Ibid., pp. 100–101.

66 Ibid., p. 101.

67 Ibid., p. 117.

68 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 5.

69 Ibid., p. 6.

70 In the Preface to his Science of Logic, Hegel insists: “The complete transformation which philosophical thought in Germany has undergone in the last twenty-five years and the higher standpoint reached by spirit in its awareness of itself, have had but little influence as yet on the structure of logic […] That which, prior to this period, was called metaphysics has been, so to speak, extirpated root and branch and has vanished from the ranks of the sciences. […] The fact is that there no longer exists any interest either in the form or the content of metaphysics or in both together. […]

Healthy common sense has so much lost its respect for the school which claims possession of such laws of truth and still busies itself with them that it ridicules its laws and regards anyone as insufferable who can utter truths in accordance with such laws: the plant is – a plant, science is – science.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. Arnold V. Miller (New York: Humanity Books, 1998), pp. 25, 38.

71 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopadie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse, http://www.hegel.de/werke_frei/hw108174.htm.

72 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book VII, trans. William D. Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press Reprints, 1924).

73 Ibid., 1028 a.

74 Ibid., 1028 b.

75 See Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, pp. 162–164/178–182.

76 Cf. Ibid., Vol. II, pp. 459–60.

77 Consequently, “modern philosophy,” as used in this book, rather than designating all philosophy practised over the last few centuries (depending on where exactly the threshold of modernity is located) will denote only those of its forms which: (1) embody the structure of the modern breakthrough, and through that (2) dwell on problems that surfaced first in Kant’s critique

78 In the celebrated passage in The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel addresses “the thing in itself” in the following way: “It is manifest that behind the so-called curtain, which is to hide the inner world, there is nothing to be seen unless we ourselves go behind there, as much in order that we may thereby see, as that there may be something behind there that can be seen. But it is clear at the same time that we cannot without more ado go straightway behind there. For this knowledge of what is the truth of the idea of the realm of appearance and of its inner being, is itself only a result arrived at after a long and devious process, in the course of which the modes of consciousness, ‘meaning,’ ‘perception’ and ‘understanding’ disappear.” Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 96. For the primary limitation introduced by understanding, see Ibid. pp. 40–1; and Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology (New York and London: Verso, 2008), pp. 28–35.

79 The structure of relationships between the known and its inaccessible condition is repeatedly addressed by Nietzsche in a variety of forms and throughout his philosophical career. The related insights concern, for example: (1) the relation between language and the “mysterious” X to which it refers – “the thing in itself” (see Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, trans. Daniel Brazeale [Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2005], pp. 12–16); (2) the relation between the meaning of a text and its inner rhythm (see Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, eds. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003], p. 5); (3) the relation between interpretation and the interpreted (see Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist,” trans. H. L. Mencken, § 52, in Anthony Uyl (ed.), Writings of Nietzsche. Volume I [Woodstock, ON: Devoted Publishing, 2016], p. 144; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale [New York: Vintage Books, 1968], § 481, p. 267); (4) the relation between a value-judgment and the life that makes it possible (see Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Viking Penguin Press, 1977, pp. 485–86); (5) the relation between attitudes to and interpretations of the world and the physiological powers of the interpreter (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Judith Norman, eds. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman [Cambridge et al.: Cambridge UP, 2003], § 20, p. 20).

80 See Michał Paweł Markowski, Nietzsche. Filozofia interpretacji [Nietzsche: Philosophy of Interpretation] (Kraków: Universitas, 2001).

81 See Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Fifth Edition, Enlarged, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington and Indianapolis Indiana UP, 1997), pp.18–25.

82 See Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986).

83 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p. 330.

84 Cf. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX: On Femininne Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge. 1972–1972 (Encore), trans. Bruce Fink, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 45–6.

85 See Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 264.

86 Cf. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Science of Knowledge: With the First and the Second Introductions, trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge et al.: Cambridge UP, 2013), pp. 6–10.

87 Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli (Madison: Wisconsin UP, 2005), pp. 9–11.

88 Cf. Ibid., p. 447.

89 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), p. 119.

90 Cf. Ibid., pp. 117–22.

91 Ibid., p. 128.

92 Here, Kant reproduces Luther’s reasoning in which religion is rebuilt based on the irreducible and fundamental act of faith, with the function of this act re-assigned henceforth to the philosophical critique of reason. Kant can thus profess that “we have reason to say […] that ‘the Kingdom of God has come into us’ ” (Ibid., p. 128). Philosophy’s triumph over religion is manifest in that the “Kingdom of God” is an era of reason that by itself reconstructs religion.

93 Cf. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Together with a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God. Vol. I, trans. E. B. Speirs, B.D., and J. Burdon Sanderson (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübnner & Co. 1895), pp. 36–7.

94 Cf. Ibid., p. 32.

95 See Ibid., p. 364.

96 In his “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” Bataille argues that the Gnostics developed an understanding of the matter that approximates present-day dialectical materialism. In this way he presents his own version of the “Hellenistic error” whose dominion over Western philosophy seems to subside. See Georges Bataille, “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., in Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (eds.), The Bataille Reader (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 160–4. I owe this insight to Professor Rodolphe Gasché.

97 See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: Volume III. Conusummate Religion, trans. R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson and J. M. Stewart, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), pp. 314–6.

98 The paradox inherent in the use philosophy makes of these external discourses is exposed in that the mythical construct of the “Greeks” can function both as a “nonphilosophy” sought by philosophy (e.g. in Nietzsche and Heidegger) and as the philosophical error to be repudiated (as is the case in the Athens-vs.-Jerusalem opposition). Of course, “Athens” is concocted in different ways each time. What is more, in Nietzsche and Heidegger, the very construct of Greek philosophy is split into two parts: the “error” (e.g. post-Socratic philosophy) and the looked-for nonphilosophy (e.g. pre-Socratics).

99 This, admittedly, requires a clarification. Many thinkers whom I associate with Jewish philosophy of modernity did profess Judaism (e.g. Rosenzweig, Taubes and Lévinas) but believed that some of its tenets needed a contemporary re-interpretation. Others, such as Kafka, Scholem, Celan and Jabès himself, were exposed to more or less rudimentary Jewish religious education as children, but were isolated from the continuity of Judaism and did not practise it (at least not in an orthodox form). Their visions of Judaism are thus reconstructions of the lost tradition. Still others (e.g. Blanchot) were never involved in Judaic worship and did not attempt conversion, with Jewish religion being just their philosophical inspiration. The differences between these three groups of thinkers notwithstanding, the continuity of Judaic tradition was rather problematic to all of them both philosophically and personally.

100 Why should radical monotheism be so convergent with modern philosophy if I have stated that modern philosophy perceives reality as one, continuous atheistic space without transcendence? The answer is that radical monotheism, unlike the “Greek” idolatrous one, offers a structure that describes an uncrossable and ubiquitous transcendental line between reality and its “thing in itself.”

2 Edmond Jabès: Life and Writing

It is time to step into the universe of Edmond Jabès’ thought. To pave the way, I will first discuss his biography and writings. They are so tightly interwoven, at any rate,1 that without knowing certain facts of his life, one is bound to have only a very cursory understanding of Jabès’ texts. The following account is guided by the idea of dual and simultaneous, though unequal, inspirations behind the poet’s work, which was nurtured by modern thinking and Jewish tradition. Like Kafka, Benjamin and Derrida, Jabès is neither a Jewish philosopher nor a religious Jew who practised philosophy. Severed from the immediacy of Jewish religion, he re-interprets his Judaism in the intellectual environment indelibly stamped by modernity.

This chapter consists of two parts. The first part is biographical, though not very classically so, as it does not merely recount Jabès’ biography but, in a broader view, dwells first of all on the events that he himself regarded as crucial to his life, himself interpreted and himself drew general conclusions from. With this approach, the biographical narrative serves at the same time as an introduction to the universe of the writer’s thinking. The second part discusses Jabès’ texts. Rather than just bibliographically enumerating his works, it analyses the mode of his writing as well, which is, by the way, one of a kind. In this Chapter, I will also survey literary scholars’ commentaries to outline the horizon within which interpreters have addressed the poet’s work so far. In conclusion, I will consider Jabès’ position on the map of Modernism, Late Modernism and Postmodernism.


Edmond Jabès was born in Cairo on 16 April 1912.2

Yet in the case of such a writer, nothing can be as simple and clear. When his birthdate was officially recorded, 14 April was written down in the register by mistake. As Jabès stated, in this way “the first manifestation of my existence was an absence that bore my name.”3 He lived for two days only on paper, so to speak, in a purely symbolic sense, without actually existing as a living human being. ←67 | 68→Throughout his lifetime, that event haunted him as an idea he never ceased to ponder: “As with the book, as with God in the world, the first manifestation of my existence was an absence that bore my name,”4 he would repeat time and again. Giving a universal tenor to this seemingly trifling event, Jabès adds that “the real death precedes life given that the other death at least leaves traces.”5 The statement exudes Jabès’ characteristic dialectics of the symbolic order and real life. Like in Blanchot, the order gives a living being a name and, thereby, marks his life with an imprint of death, of the named and never present. “Then being named would mean accepting the destiny of life from the hands of death [emphasis added],”6 says the writer, assuming that living in language bears an inexpungible aspect of death, which is the price for the visibility of this life. “Lost,” though never really there, the two days made Jabès particularly sensitive, as he professed himself, to emptiness, death and contingency,7 which envelop life and grant it comprehensibility.

What traces framed Jabès’ life? He hailed from a Jewish family that had long been settled in Egypt. Despite the family’s Sephardic background and Near-East milieu, its fortunes mimicked those of Judaism in Western Europe, incrementally shrinking down to a purely formal sign of identity.8 Edmond himself ultimately gave up on any form of religious Jewish worship. Jabès’ family was an heir to the opulent cosmopolitan Egyptian culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, permeated by predominantly French influences.9 The life of a Jewish family in a country where despite the Western influences the population were mostly Muslims always involved difficulties and a serious risk of religious and ethnic persecutions. For this reason, Jabès’ grandfather requested Italian citizenship10 when the Urabi Revolt of 1882 turned against minorities inhabiting Egypt.11 Even though in this way the family became – as the writer himself puts it – Italian “all of a sudden,”12 the impact of Francophone culture by no means ←68 | 69→subsided. Moreover, as at the time there were no Italian schools in Egypt, Jabès’ father attended a French school, and French was also his first language.13 One would indeed be hard pressed to envision a more complex cultural and linguistic melting pot than that in which the poet was growing up. Born and raised in Egypt, a Francophone Italian citizen of Jewish descent who spoke also English, Italian and Arabic14 – none of these many descriptors furnished Jabès with a rock-hard cornerstone to found his identity on. Instead, their mutual tensions made him a perennial outsider. By the same token, Judaism was for him more of a trace of the past than a basis of self-identification.

Jabès’ life was essentially affected by three personal disasters, each of which shaped the series of his Books as he continued to interpret them over and over again. Let us look into these momentous events one by one to understand how he made sense of them in retrospect.

The first disaster, and the pivotal event of Jabès’ childhood, was the death of his older sister Marcelle, with whom he was very close and who was his first guide in the realm of literature.15 For a twelve-year-old child he was then, the death meant infinitely more than just a “cruel loss.” As he stresses himself, it was tantamount to the trauma of a second birth: “If we admit that certain events mark us indelibly, causing important mutations in our personality, then I would be tempted, in my case, to speak of a second birth, or simply of birth.”16

It is likely no coincidence, especially if viewed through a psychoanalytical lens, that Jabès associated the experience of writing with death so closely. It was not only a dead person that opened the path to reading and writing for him; it was also when she was dying that he realised the nearly surrealistic power of language which grapples with the inexpressible. This is suggested by Jabès’ description of the moment of his sister’s death, written in the spirit of Blanchot:

←69 | 70→

My sister died practically in my arms. I was alone at her deathbed. I remember having told her something like “You can’t die. It’s not possible.” To which she replied with exactly these words: “Don’t think about death. Don’t cry. One cannot escape one’s destiny.”

That day I understood that there is a language for death, just as there is a language for life.

One doesn’t speak to a dying person the way one speaks to a living being. And the dying person doesn’t answer you either as he or she might have done only a few moments earlier. Their speech is different. It has nearly reached self-oblivion. Later, I would come across it in the desert: the ultimate reflection, one could say, of a broken mirror.

It is a speaking with the impress of great distance, like a dimension added to everyday words. This tone, this distance have never left me; nor has the meaning of her last words which I interpreted thus: destiny is inscribed in death. One never leaves death.17

At this moment, we could usefully digress from our biographical narrative to clarify this passage as it will weigh heavily on the analyses to follow. Interpreted in the light of Jabès’ lifetime work (as autobiographical reflection is here inextricable from conclusions from his other writings), it suggests that the language of the dying is in a sense truer than everyday language since it does not evade the inexorable. Common language serves to sustain communication among people rather than to express the truth. Although it seems to describe reality, it essentially shelters against reality. When confronted with what is referred to as an inevitable event, which is death, the illusory power of this language is exposed. This language closes itself off from reality and dismisses what it refuses to acknowledge. The language of the dying is different as it speaks in constant tension with that which determines it, that is, with death. In this way, the language of the dying conveys not only its own meaning but also this external determinant: it is death that speaks through it. For this reason, the language of the dying unties itself from the speaking person and becomes the voice of an impersonal truth rather than of an individual agent. Consequently, the language discloses the trace it bears.18

His sister’s death is thus, in a sense, a primal disaster that Jabès’ thought must confront and that moulds his future perception of reality.19 Death demands that ←70 | 71→language always tell the truth, that besides the message as such it always refer to death itself.20 Jabès will strive to meet this demand throughout his mature work.21 It will bear an imprint of an irremovable trace of emptiness and, thus, come across as constantly referring to an originary calamity.

Jabès’ adolescence was fraught with fatalism bred from powerlessness vis-à-vis the fate and with incessant rebellion against injustice manifest, first of all, in death.22 This split not only shaped his books to come23 but also helped him, years later, re-connect with Judaism, which, as the writer put it, “has made the passivity-rebellion duality its very dwelling place.”24 The young Jabès, admittedly, rather early abandoned the formal Judaic worship – unpropped, after all, by any ←71 | 72→specifically Jewish education25– but for years continued to participate in important Jewish holidays, cultivated bonds with the Jewish community and saw to the synagogue named after his grandfather, who had committed himself and his descendants to taking care of it.26 Like Kafka, Scholem and Benjamin, Jabès was disconnected from Judaism by his assimilation-promoting culture, though in his case it was, additionally, a colonial culture radiating from the then “centre” of the empire to the “periphery” of Egypt. French modernism was, as a matter of fact, a far more powerful influence on the young poet than his Jewish heritage, which he did not view favourably.27

If in his later works Jabès undertook to re-think Judaism, he did not set out to do it by returning to the faith professed of old. On the contrary, his personal experiences and reflections stirred him to re-construct Judaism out of individually selected items of Jewish tradition.28 In doing this, Jabès always focused on what appealed to his personal feeling of exile and his rebellion against death. Jabès’ re-invention of Judaism is so profound that even when evoking childhood memories, he picks up only one Jewish element – synagogal singing – and invests it immediately with the meaning he wishes to see in it himself, that of complaint against the historical fate. Of Jewish religious services, he remembers first of all:

the long monotonous chords of the traditional chants with their insistent repetitions, rather like wailing. As they unfolded, they slowly awakened a dark past of suffering to which I felt related in spite of myself. […] As infinite modulation of the word, the Jewish chant has remained glued to the text. It remains very foreign to the Western conception of the chant whose main object is to exalt, to magnify religious feeling. The chant has, in a way, become a work of art that rises towards God, while in the synagogue it is the very words of the sacred, immutable text that let their chant be heard, allowing nothing other to be heard or seen than the word, the infinity of the letter.

It may be of interest to recall here that in the biblical text the inventor of music is given as Jubal, a descendant of Cain. Music therefore appears at its origins as the expression of an unhappy consciousness, of a battered being. It is the very scream of an unbearable suffering stuck, one could say, to the word. These chants carry something like a reproach addressed to God as well as an appeal to his mercifulness – the dazzled awakening of the wounded soul to the sonorities of the Creation.29

←72 | 73→

Judaism, thus, is to Jabès not a particular religion, one amidst many others, but a storehouse of tradition where the bonds of the entire Creation are preserved. Attachment to the immutable text makes Judaism reveal the universal interconnectedness of word, letter, scream and being, which is exposed to death and inexorably fraught with unbearable suffering. Jabès, therefore, feels Jewish not through any formal religious membership but through the experience of Creation impressed in Judaism. This is also the meaning he ascribes to Jewishness in his writings. Still, this is, unmistakably, a re-invented species of Judaism, and rather produced than reproduced in its re-inventedness. Jabès re-interprets Judaism’s legacy beyond its bounds in search of its universal aspect.30

Throughout the 1930’s, Jabès alternated between Egypt and France, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne in 192931 and developed casual ties with the Surrealist movement. To him, France stood for the intellectual and literary centre. This period saw his first mature literary works – poetry and plays32– published in Paris and Cairo. His first volume, Illusions sentimentales, modelled on Lamartine, Vigny and Mousset, appeared in 193033 and was followed by Je t’attends (1931), Maman (1932), Les pieds en l’air (1934) and Arrhes poétiques (1935), playing with allusions to the poet-broker profession.34 In 1936, his most Surrealism-inflected ←73 | 74→collection, L’obscurité potable, was released.35 Unlike his later, barely classifiable writings, these texts are beyond doubt poems. As Jabès himself said in a conversation with Philippe de Saint Cheron, the verses continued the line of great French poetry represented by Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the Surrealists,36 though, importantly, Mallarmé became a truly relevant influence only when Jabès adopted his obsession with the total book,37 that is, no earlier than when working on The Book of Questions. Steven Jaron emphasises that the literary atmosphere of Egypt’s belated Romanticism was an essential point of reference to the young poet.38 Besides, his early poetry reverberates with other modernist readings, such as Kafka and Joyce,39 as well as bears a vital impact of Max Jacob.40 Jabès met Jacob when the latter grew more and more estranged from his contemporary Surrealists and sought religious and mystical meditation in poetry.41 Jacob was instrumental to Jabès’ development in two ways. First, he ←74 | 75→encouraged the young poet to search for his own language42 and, second, he re-defined the role of the poetic text which is clearly recognisable in The Book of Questions. Spanning over several years, the correspondence of the two writers was terminated by Jacob’s death in the Drancy internment camp, another Shoah wound in Jabès’ life.

Jabès’ pre-war poetry heralds, by the writer’s own account, his work to come in later years,43 bordering on apophatic philosophy rather than on literature. If the poems as such are still embedded in the tradition of Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Rimbaud44 (mediated through Jacob, Éluard and Michaux), their aphoristic parts epitomise, in Jabès’ view, the first, semi-conscious application of the method that will go into the making of The Book of Questions.45 The affinity with the Surrealist diction cannot disguise the Cairo works’ distinct interrogatory rhythm, Jabès’ trademark. In the long retrospect, after the publication in the 1980’s of Le Seuil Le Sable – his collected verse, including the juvenilia – Jabès saw his earliest poetry in the following way:

However, read today, after The Book of Questions, they show that they are something completely different [than Surrealism]. There is a certain voice [emphasis added] speaking in them, and besides, there is also interrogation of the text through aphorism. The Surrealists used aphorism, Breton did in particular, but it was a different thing. Central to my poetry was the question “What is this?” But that “What is this?” was not simply asking out of curiosity but made up part of the poem because images kept wrecking my meaning by multiplying it. I needed to destroy, destroy and, once again, destroy, to try to simplify only in order to hear the voice that was in the poem, a unique voice of the text. Hence, I believe, the book belongs [to Surrealism] but at the same time eludes [its] tradition.46

Flirting with Surrealism in his writings, Jabès tended to discover that which wanted to express itself indirectly in script (that “voice from behind” – voix ←75 | 76→derrière) rather than declared himself part of the Surrealist movement or shared its goals.47 In his superb study, Jaron has actually showed that elements which could seem offshoots of Surrealism resulted, in Jabès, from his own evolution, in which he approximated the Surrealist diction yet never embraced its penchant for literary game.48

Still, Surrealism helped Jabès acquire experience in formal experimentation, which channelled that hidden voice into a more distinct expression. Even without the liaison with Surrealism, Jabès could have discovered, sooner or later, the same process of destruction and simplification that guided him form early poetry to The Book of Questions and further on – that unmistakably modern negativity shared by minds so different as Hegel, Mallarmé, Freud and Heidegger.49 But, likely, the process would have been less self-aware, less rapid and, for all that, less harmonious. For, as observed by Marcel Cohen, Jabès’ language displays “exemplary intransigent classicism [which] seems to be in flagrant contradiction with the exploded form.”50 In other words, the classical language and the exploded form are yoked together to produce tension. Starting with The Book of Questions, the formal demolition was not an aim in and by itself but rather served to explore the movement of simplification that represented the withdrawal of God. Perhaps the lessons of Surrealism prevented Jabès from experimenting with form for the sake of form, from indulging in language that forfeits its chance to think of reality.51

Tenuous as it had been before, Jabès’ connection with Surrealism52 was ultimately severed by the events of the 1930’s and the 1940’s. As he recalled years later, in 1936, by which time Jewish refugees from Europe had already appeared ←76 | 77→in Egypt, his French Surrealist friends refused to believe their accounts: “all these allegedly revolutionary groups wallowed in excess, loves and machines while war was already at the gates.”53 Unlike the Surrealists, Jabès actively opposed the progressing spread of Fascism and anti-Semitism.54 The experience of war and the Shoah affected him powerfully. In 1942, when Rommel’s troops were nearing Egypt, he was evacuated by the British to Jerusalem and avoided the Shoah.55 Till the end of his life he considered himself a Shoah survivor.56

Undoubtedly, this was the second (following his sister’s death) crucial event that proved formative of his writing. Admittedly, a long time was to pass before that disaster found expression in his texts. However, it was evident to Jabès that in the aftermath of the war and the Shoah the previous lightness of writing was out of the question. Already in 1943, he renounced everything he had written before.57 He gradually realised the magnitude of the challenge to be confronted by a writer who did not want to fall silent after Auschwitz and was compelled to speak where all normal speaking had become impossible.

Against Adorno’s famous thesis of the sheer impossibility to write poetry in the wake of the Shoah, an imperative to write after Auschwitz is evident in Jabès, as Beth Hawkins observes.58 Writing, however, must re-invent itself and commune with what is expressed in utter despair and inarticulate scream in order to tackle the impossible and absorb it.59 This laborious ←77 | 78→process, the effects of which surfaced in Celan just after the war, took Jabès more time.60

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Jabès was still searching for a language of his own and published Surrealist-tinted poetry in the volumes of Chansons pour le repas de l’ogre (1947), La Voix d’encre (1949), La Clef de voûte (1950) and L’Écorce du monde (1955).61 The first of them was more of “an attempt to revisit childhood while death was rampant all around”62 than an effort to put in words what had actually happened. If Jabès used the language inherited from the Surrealists, he entertained no doubt that the war and the Shoah had put the motives fuelling Surrealist writing, as well as all its social and societal entanglements, to a definitive end, and that “a language for death” in the face of which the playful writing of old was sinfully blind, to say the least, had to be forged anew. Jabès did not simply think that the Surrealist taste for the shocking had become impotent after Europe’s catastrophe, as Adorno suggested.63 He focused first of all on the ethical injunction to understand what it actually was that had come to pass:

Had I retained the slightest inclination to adhere to Surrealism after the war, I would have been kept from doing so by an exhibition organized in Cairo in 1947 by the Egyptian Surrealist group, echoing the one that had just taken place in Paris. It contained, among other things, disemboweled dressmakers’ dummies stained with red ink. Coming right after the discovery of the horror of the extermination camps, this represented an unacceptable indecency.64

In Jabès’ view, if Surrealism resolved to continue its pre-war modes as if nothing had happened, it would be lying in the face of the truth of nothingness, which called for urgent and incisive re-thinking. Worse still, its insensitivity would even make this nothingness present. If earlier it had dissociated itself from its imaginary reality and lingered in the void of sustained negative reference to it, after the war it became clear how close to nothingness reality itself had wandered. Surrealism opposed convention as a stable organisation of being. As soon as convention itself turned out to be a tool of annihilation, Surrealism became impossible as it failed to comprehend and was outdone by “Realism,” which it ←78 | 79→had declared to surpass.65 Still, the collapse of Surrealism can be posited as an opportunity that Jabès seized and turned to his advantage. Surrealists, namely, had left behind a language furnished with vehicles of negativity, which after the war could be used not to break conventions or contest the existing literature but to render what had happened to reality itself. This is what Jabès did, salvaging the Surrealist devices for thinking beyond Surrealism. In this perspective, Surrealism seems to have offered an opportunity to include nothingness in language, which was seminal to Jabès’ apophatics.66

In the aftermath of the war, Jabès seems to have found himself in a limbo of sorts. This did not mean inactivity, though. He continued to publish and started to collaborate on a regular basis with French journals (e.g. Mercure de France, Les Lettres Nouvelles, La Nouvelle Revue Française) and Egyptian magazines (therein La Part du Sable, a literary survey he co-founded). He also had his part in releasing, in Cairo, Le Chemin des Sources, a series comprised of the works of such authors as Jean Grenier, Gabriel Bounoure and René Char.67 He made a living as a broker and, apparently very successful at his profession, was promoted to one of the most important posts at the Cairo Exchange. Yet it took one more event, a third disaster, for Jabès to find his own language and a path to the work that would bring out what had remained latent so far. This shattering personal experience was exile. This is how Israel-Pelletier sketches its historical context:

This multicultural experience came to an end more or less abruptly and catastrophically when tens of thousands of Jews and foreign nationals were expelled from Egypt in a period of a few months, from November to March, following the 1956 Suez Canal War. Harassment of non-Muslim and particularly Jewish minorities was not new to Egypt. There were blood libel accusations resulting in persecutions during the last decades of the nineteenth century; persecutions continued prior to World War I and in the mid-1930s, with the rise of fascism in Europe and the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Hitler’s rise to power and Egyptian King Farouk’s support of the Nazi regime were accompanied by growing anti-Jewish exclusionary acts that struck fear in the community; there were Jewish deaths, large riots, and destruction of Jewish-owned property ←79 | 80→during the period 1946–1948 when Jews, many very young, girls and boys alike, were imprisoned and expelled after being accused of Zionist activity on behalf of Israel.

In 1957, Jabès was a successful poet and stockbroker. As a member of the Stock Exchange Commission he played an important role in stabilizing the chaotic and falling Egyptian stock market. As with other men who held consequential positions in the economy, in education, business, and industry the government kept Jabès in Cairo only long enough to train others to replace him. Threats, intimidation, and humiliation were the strategies used to make men comply.68

His connections with France saw Jabès placed in home detention when the Suez Canal War broke out.69 Ultimately, aged forty-four, he was expelled from Egypt with his family never to return there again. Still, he did not make Aliyah but, regarding himself as a writer of the French language70 and wishing for “his books to come home,”71 he left for Paris, where he had already made friends and garnered some reputation as a poet. Despite that, exile turned out to be a disaster to him,72 and, additionally, revived and made palpably present his earlier experiences of the death of his sister and the flight from the Shoah. It was also the first time, as he claimed himself, that he had been forced to “live” his Jewishness and make it central to his life.73 Whereas earlier, to rely on Paul Auster’s account, Jabès had viewed his descent merely as a contingent cultural fact, he suddenly came to feel it as the only reason for being persecuted and recognised as the Other.74

By losing everything75 and, consequently, having nothing more to lose, Jabès eventually started heading towards the work quintessentially focused on exile as ←80 | 81→an ontological and cosmological state.76 “Intellectually and materially I felt ready for a totally new adventure, though I had as yet not the slightest inkling what it would be,”77 he reminisced in conversations with Marcel Cohen. As Adolfo Fernandez-Zoïla concludes,

the propensity for reflection, meditation and interiority that shines through his verse and aphorisms published before 1957 undergoes a genuine transformation as a result of exile and matures in a process in which the work of self-questioning parallels the composing of The Book of Questions, the first volume of a triptych, which triptych announced itself from the very first moment of writing.78

The exile from Egypt, as Gary D. Mole emphasises,79 ultimately puts Jabès’ earlier poetic mode to an end. The poet definitely closes this chapter in Je bâtis ma demeure, a volume compiling his existing verse, encouraged by Albert Camus and published in 1959. This cut opens the way to a new form, one more suited to the radical, philosophical rather than poetic questioning. Jabès intentionally discards the category of the poet and abandons earlier conventions. Each movement of writing becomes self-questioning for him, a dialogue with that which the just-written content has excluded and which has negatively enabled it in this way. The events of his life made exile the central notion in Jabès’ mature work, not only existentially but also ontologically. Thereby, Jabès summons the ancient Jewish idea of galut. Exile affects also the shape of the poet’s reflection, which relies on distance and retrospection. As Marcel Cohen observers, while Egypt does not feature in any of the poems in Je bâtis ma demeure, it recurs constantly in The Book of Questions series.80 Jabès himself comments:

←81 | 82→

That is the problem every writer faces: we cannot behold things without taking a step back. We are crushed by them. One needs to give writing time to take full possession of things. The writer, like the historian lends meaning to the past, but contrary to the latter, he destroys the past by giving it form. The writer does not try to be the witness. He is only there listening to the words that trace his future.81

The personal experience of exile induced Jabès’ characteristic belief about the magnitude of irreversible damage caused by time. This is the horizon within which the writer’s duty is defined, not in terms of reproducing “the truth about the past” but in terms of revealing the absoluteness of the loss of the object described. That is why, for Jabès (a Jew actually pining for Mizraim!), Egypt is a land salvaged solely through writing. It was only in France that Jabès was able to grasp the traces his birthplace had left in him and to work them through reflectively in his texts. Conspicuously, “Egypt” seems to have the same status as “Judaism,” that is, the status of re-construction, of a placeholder for the object proper of loss.

The lost legacy of Egypt is usefully illuminated by Jabès’ comments on the vital experiences he associated with this country and considered foundational for his thinking. One of them was certainly the experience of the Egyptian landscape resounding with nearly Heideggerian overtones:

The flat landscape of the plain, punctuated by tall palms shooting up to the sky, opens mind to a perception of time infinitely vaster than ours. Nowhere is there an interruption, everything goes on forever. The pharaohs barely belonged to the past.

Over there, time is artificial. Something artificial laid over something real. The real is made up of patiently repeated gestures. The peasant is its surest guarantor. His gestures simultaneously limit and “illimit” him [le limitent et «l’illimitent»]. True to himself, he plants what he has always planted and will continue to plant, in the heart of the seasons. He has inherited his faith from his ancestors and will transmit it to his descendants. That faith is a lighter, a larger breath, an indefinable blue in the motionless blue of the sky. God commands. Life is but incalculable goings and comings along a familiar road. Fatality liberates the peasant from the anguish of death. His words are the wisdom of millennia drawn from the desert – they are the words of the sand, as vast as NOTHINGNESS. That’s because the desert assigns its own slow rhythm – a rhythm from beyond silence, from beyond life [d’outre-silence, d’outre-vie] – to the smallest gesture, the most insignificant word.82

The Egypt that Jabès re-creates after exile is equally a distance-enhanced experience brought out from memory and the work of the writer’s own reflection.83 To ←82 | 83→him, Egypt stands for continuity where things are never apart while time, instead of a linear chain of units, approximates pure duration. Somewhat against cultural clichés, Jabès does not associate Egypt with the land of immanence and life-in-chains but with the desert – a source of sober freedom sensitive to silence. One could say that ontology itself differs there from the model developed by Western metaphysics. The landscape, the sky, the time and human life correspond to one another; beings do not have strong, discrete existence of their own but are rather manifestations of one, enduring whole. An individual life cannot be interpreted without its foundational context of infinity. Being is caught up in a constant relationship with infinity that weighs upon it. Besides its own existence, it is also a placeholder for infinity itself, at which it invariably gestures. In other words, it is an ontology of the context, where being can never be permanently dissociated either from its continuation or from its negation.84

One should remember, however, that the passage exemplifies only one of the Jabèsian paths. In his writings, the poet was never consistent and, hence, statements that we intuitively associate with Jewish thought are interlaced with speculations of a nearly Heideggerian flavour. As the Tanakh accommodates both the Shemot, which restates the Law, and the Ecclesiastes, which offers an utterly havelistic – nay, nearly Greek – interpretation of life as essentially dead and futile, so Jabès’ writing hosts two contradictory tendencies. As such, it is ←83 | 84→useful in exploring the meaning and potency of the alleged difference between Jerusalem and Athens.

Similar conclusions concern the second of Jabès’ formative experiences. Meant here is the desert, which was so relevant as to become one of the central metaphors of his writing. Let us make a detour from the biographical narrative to scrutinise the desert in more detail. The poet’s two personal memories cited below reflect the trajectory of transformation of the desert from experience into a metaphor:

For me, the desert was the privileged place of my depersonalisation. In Cairo I felt a prisoner of the social game […] In those days, the mainly European quarter where I lived and worked – the commercial and business quarter – was barely the size of the Opéra quarter in Paris. In such a confined atmosphere, the texts I published were considered, at best, a kind of intellectual entertainment. Writing was more prestigious than golf or tennis, but was as inconsequential. I rankled deeply to be considered merely an amateur writer.

Hence the desert, which started at the very city limits, was a life-saving break for me. It fulfilled an urgent need of both body and mind, and I would venture into it with quite contradictory desires: to lose myself, so that, one day, I may find myself.

So the place of the desert in my books is not a simple metaphor. I wasn’t really aware – given that I continued to write poems heavily marked by Surrealism, in which image was of course central – that the place was eating away at me, undermining me. Only a few aphorisms written at that time testify to it. Anyway, that undermining, which will take on all its importance after my split with Egypt, will find itself at the core of my writings.

I would often stay for forty-eight hours all alone in the desert. I wouldn’t take any books, only a blanket. A silence of that order makes you feel the nearness of death so deeply that it becomes difficult to bear any more of it. Only the nomads can withstand being squeezed in such a vice, because they were born in the desert.

We just cannot imagine ourselves outside of time, outside of an event. The whole of our culture brings us back to allotments of time. Look at the anchorites: they are more dead than alive, literally burned by the silence. Only nomads know how to transform this shattering silence into a life force. 85

[In my writings] there was a wish to destroy image for the very sake of destroying it, for image disturbed me as contradictory to the experience of the desert. I was looking for a world of absolute bareness. Hence the desire to destroy, the desire to tear down and blast the obstacle – as if images were an obstacle to overcome – that interfered with [finding] absolute bareness.86

←84 | 85→

Weaving together his memories, description and reflection, Jabès characteristically linked the experience of the desert to the work of destruction, which helped him strip his writing of all redundancies and open it up to the voice of pure nothingness.87 Only then could he, in hindsight, aptly capture the experience of the desert. The desert turns out to be a place of “true speaking,” too, the speech that Jabès, in recollecting his sister’s death, recognised as a language for death. It stands in contrast to game both as a social convention and as an intellectual entertainment.88 The import of a text resides not in the social acclaim it garners but in its relationship to truth, which is bred only by the experience of nothingness. Although the experience of the desert apparently should bring Jabès closer to the Heideggerian Eigentlichkeit (also through the awe of death), its goal is not authentic life; it is rather an annihilating experience than an enriching one. Only the nomads, as the writer insists, are capable of deriving a vital power from it while for others the desert might be a place of respite but not of life in its immediate sense.89 The desert, which memory carries out from Egypt, is thus ←85 | 86→something more than just a metaphor to Jabès. It is a live and operative metaphor for negativity, bolstered all the more by the loss of unmediated experience. As observed by Marcel Cohen, in the Jabès’ work the desert accrues at least three meanings: of personal experience, of metaphor of the void and of a biblical allusion to Jewish history.90 David Jasper, in turn, locates Jabès in the context of centuries-long desert mysticism of both religious and literary-poetic varieties.91 Jabès himself explains:

The experience of the desert has been crucial for me. Between sky and sand, between All and Nothing, burns the question. It burns without being consumed. It burns for itself, in a void. The experience of the desert is also one of listening, extreme listening. Not only do you hear what you could not hear elsewhere, true silence, cruel and painful because it seems to reproach the heart for beating. But also, as you lie in the sand, for example, a strange noise may suddenly intrigue you, a noise as of a man or animal walking, coming closer every minute or moving away, or seeming to move away while following his path. A long while after, if you are in the right direction, the man or beast announced by your ears appears on the horizon. A nomad could have identified this “living thing” immediately, before seeing it, just by ear. Of course, the desert is his natural habitat. […]

The desert is much more than the practice of silence and listening. It is an eternal openness. The openness of all writing, which it is the writer’s job to persevere.

Openness of all openness.92

As far as the word desert is concerned, what fascinates me is to see how far the metaphor of the void, from being used so much, has permeated the whole word. The word itself has become a metaphor. To give it back its strength, one has therefore to return to the real desert which is indeed exemplary emptiness – but an emptiness with its own, very real dust.93

The first passage describes the desert as a place of all openness. This is because no depiction can contain the whole of the desert; rather, all depiction is already in the desert and, hence, cannot possibly encompass it. The desert has neither landmarks nor signposts, and all its directions seem of equal value and validity. As ←86 | 87→Claude Nahon writes, the desert has no centre and resembles a ring with a centre both within and without it.94 To us, the fabric of the desert – sand and rocks – does not form singular beings but rather part of an all-embracing whole. And if a thing that does not belong to the desert, such as a wanderer, finds itself there, it will stand out conspicuously. The desert provides a backdrop for discrete beings that have wound up there one way or another. This is of utmost relevance to Jabès’ thought (which I will dwell on in more detail later) because the desert helps us discern how being looms against nothingness.95 In the desert, we acutely experience our own existence: “as if the desert reproached the heart for beating.” Life in the desert is an alien and astounding thing; the blood runs through the body just beneath the boundary that divides it from the perpetual, arid motionlessness. This experience is not so much anti-vital as rather indicative of a startling power of life that has been selected for sentience – if not for bearing witness – from amongst so many particles of lifeless and forgotten matter around. In the desert, being reveals itself in the radical and inexplicable solitude of its being there, a solitude which remains imperceptible when being makes part of the meaningful human world.96 The desert, finally, is a place of specific perception. In the desert, one does not listen to something; rather, one listens-for, intently focusing attention not on one source of sound but on the entire space in which the sound resonates.97 One does not listen in order to find out what being is like; one listens in order to ascertain that being is there, that it leaves traces, that it approaches or departs. In the desert, we rather hear being’s voices from afar than witness its full revelation; its traces and echoes are more frequent than its presence.

←87 | 88→

The second passage quoted above exemplifies the capacity of words to absorb and condense all experiences they have been used to convey, a capacity Jabès was so preoccupied with analysing. When “the desert” is no longer really accessible to us, its metaphorical sense of emptiness is enhanced since it subsumes that which it no longer is. If enduring in time destroys both beings and the memories of them, the power of the desert as a metaphor only consolidates in time just like erosion of the already decayed landscape in the real desert only fosters further desertification.

After this detour traversing Jabès’ experiences in Egypt, let us resume our journey through his biography. France failed to become his real homeland, and manifestations of anti-Semitism in the country further exacerbated his sense of exile. His life revolved around writing, which, as Jaron suggest, was a homeland for a man without a homeland.98 Writing, stripped of acquired forms and emptied out of overtones of the literary game that reverberated in it in Cairo, becomes a domain of the pure questioning, verging on philosophy rather than on literature. Therefore, exile granted Jabès, as he insisted himself, a relief or, more specifically, “the revelation of [his] deepest destiny: the confirmation also of the collective Jewish destiny.”99

It was only at this moment that Judaism re-opened to him as a tradition. Jabès started to read the Jerusalem Talmud he had inherited from his father and never even looked into before.100 He studied also Kabbalistic texts, commentaries and works by “most of the Jewish spiritual masters.”101 As he claimed himself, the Kabbalah had influenced him primarily as “the shape of the thinking, […] spiritual depth, particular logic and inventiveness.”102 All these readings served him not so much as any concrete inspiration but rather as a way to “stimulate [his] own questioning […] to prolong it into an immemorial past.”103 Jabès did not borrow from the Kabbalah, but his thought developed in parallel to it,104 which ←88 | 89→has been shown conclusively by Jaron. Namely, the early parts of The Book of Questions were inspired not by the Kabbalistic sources but by Hamann’s biblical meditations.105 Jabès himself admitted that he had begun to discover the texts of Jewish tradition only when, in the wake of the publication of his first Books, he realised their affinity with Jewish literary forms of old. In a degree, thus, the Kabbalistic “origins” of the Books are just a retrospective fiction.

It was not only Jewish literature that fuelled Jabès’ intellectual life after he had settled in France. As his exile coincided with halcyon days of French thought, bonds of friendship and common readings connected him to many prominent personages of the day. In Paris, he re-connected with Roger Caillois and Jean Grenier, whom he had met earlier; he grew close with René Char, Henri Michaux and Michel Leiris.106 Similarly, he felt friends with Maurice Blanchot, with whom he never got acquainted in person but corresponded abundantly and whose books he always cherished.107 Blanchot’s well-known post-war aversion to public appearances and close contacts aside, their friendship, as Jabès insists,108 could only be impaired if they had actually met as it would have lost its cornerstone of silence. Without a doubt, however, Blanchot’s influence on Jabès was seminal. Jaron’s research implies that it commenced already in the early 1950’s. In some of his later texts, Jabès even employs Blanchot’s notion of neutre.109

Their relationship was certainly anything but one-directional as in his later work Blanchot clearly drew on Jabès; for example, The Writing of the Disaster seems to be heavily indebted to the author of the Books.110 Besides, Jabès had a ←89 | 90→warm relationship with and reciprocated admiration for Lévinas111 and believed they had plenty in common despite disagreeing on some essential points. For example, their attitudes to Jewish religion were very different, if not polar opposites. While Lévinas continued to practise it alongside re-interpreting it, Jabès viewed it as an impediment to the consistent and ultimate questioning.112 Finally, friendship and tacit community of the Jewish fate bound him to Paul Celan, against the cultural differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi varieties of Judaism.113 They may not have fully understood each other’s respective poetics but were, undoubtedly, captivated by them. John Felstiner claims that Celan thought of translating The Book of Questions into German.114

Celan seems to have taken issue with Jabès’ universalisation of the Shoah – as suggested by the “Nein!” he scribbled down in one of The Book’s passages115– yet they continued close friends and kept in touch regularly in 1966–1970.116 That Jabès had a special relationship with Blanchot, Lévinas and Celan is evinced by the fact that he devoted separate texts to them, which were later included in The Book of Margins.117

Jabès’ distinct relationship with Derrida deserves separate attention. Derrida was one of Jabès’ earliest readers, and two of his essays: “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book” and “Ellipsis,” included eventually in Writing and Difference, bear witness to his involvement. Jabès’ significant influence on Derrida showed in the 1960’s, when the two indulged in long discussions.118 The theme deserves, as a matter of fact, a study of its own: it is after all not for no reason that “Ellipsis” concludes one of the pivotal philosophical books of the period. Derrida’s famous dictum that in the last ten years nothing has been written in France that does not have its antecedent in Jabès’ texts dates from 1973.119 Arguably, in the 1970’s Jabès’ impact on Derrida started to subside, but, for that, the vector of inspiration seems to have turned around. Jabès not only read Derrida but also, in the “Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book” included in The Book of ←90 | 91→Margins, tried to think along with him and elaborate on the Derridean concepts in his own language. Although these issues would require extensive research, it seems legitimate to assume that the later parts of The Book of Questions and The Book of Resemblances took shape in the mutual intellectual exchange between Jabès and Derrida.

Derrida must thus seem a permanently hovering spectre to the readers of Jabès.120 This notwithstanding, Jabès ultimately stood apart as a solitary and singular figure despite all the bonds of friendship and intellectual kinship. His work is so unique, so one of a kind, that explicit influences are difficult to trace down in it. Any inspirations that might have lain at its origins are allowed into his sovereign writing based on its own rules. Jabès’ texts on Blanchot, Lévinas or Derrida are an excellent case in point. Not polemical as such, they anyway carry on Jabès’ own reflection – its tenets, pace and conclusions – and inquire, in parallel, into issues these thinkers addressed. In this sense, Jabès evades also the notion of “influence” as he does not borrow ideas directly from other authors, with his entire oeuvre, nevertheless, betraying “elective affinities” to Benjamin, Kafka, Blanchot, Celan, Beckett121 and, even, late Heidegger.122

In 1963, Gallimard releases The Book of Questions, which, in hindsight, serves as a prelude to the vast expanses of writing produced by Jabès till his death on 2 January 1991. It is in The Book of Questions, as Carola Erbertz insists,123 that the poet’s distinct mode of writing comes forth for the first time. The moment of ←91 | 92→its coming – predating the onset of Post-Structuralism – proves that it evolved autonomously and prefigured Post-Structuralist thought soon to come.

It is at this point that the history of Jabès as a Jewish philosopher of modernity commences. Before I focus on his writing, I should add that this central, though late, work garnered particular acclaim expressed in the Critics’ Award (1970), the Award for Arts, Humanities and Sciences of the French Judaism Foundation (1982) and the Grand National Prize for Poetry (1987). In time, Jabès was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour (1986), became a member of the French Academy’s section of Arts and Humanities (1988) and had an exhibition devoted to him put up by the National Centre of Literature (1989). In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he travelled widely at the invitation of multiple universities, among others, to the US, Israel, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany and Spain. His texts even started to be used in synagogue recitations and be counted among the modern classics of Jewish literature.124

What an utterly ironic twist of fate for the thinker of the desert!


Let us now pass to the second part of this introductory chapter and delve into the characteristic features of Jabès’ texts. As Evgen Bavčar states, no greater injustice could be done to Jabès than discussing him as a writer in the traditional sense of the term as this would entail selecting a form or a cliché (copious in literary theory), with the question of Edmond Jabès analysed and sealed before it were really opened up.125 A similar urgency of opening is suggested by Ammiel Alcalay:

Simply put, no ready-made slot exists in which to place an Arab Jew, someone who was both a Levantine heir to Rimbaud and French poetry read through the filter of Egypt, and a European re-reader – through the filter of exile in France – of the Kabbalah, Arabic poetic and Auschwitz.126

Indeed, given these intricacies, it would be an utmost challenge – if not a sheer impossibility – to try and come up with an overall label for Jabès. He seems to have opted for a modern, dispersed space of thinking as his work simply refuses ←92 | 93→to be covered by any single appellation. With such terms lacking, writing as such seems to offer itself as a purely material category whose advantage lies in that it does not impose any specific meanings. Let us, then, scrutinise Jabès’ writing in an attempt to find an opening to his “question.”

The body of Jabès’ writings clearly falls into two parts: the Cairo part (poetic) and the Paris part (series of Books). The former comes to a culmination and an end in 1959 with the publication of Je bâtis ma demeure, a collection of verse from 1943–1957, the only poetic book of his by his own admission.127

The volume with addition of some later short texts (in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Jabès wrote three more short poetic cycles Récit, La Mémoire et la Main and L’appel) was the basis of the ultimate collection of his poems published as Le Seuil Le Sable in 1991.128 I will only seldom refer to this poetic part of his work, wherever the aphoristic form and ideas anticipate or approximate the Parisian work.129 And how can Jabès’ Parisian work be described? It defies any simple ←93 | 94→designation. Some critics have coined the notion of “Jabèstext,”130 which in a way suggests in how far the category of writing overrides the sense of the text.

As already mentioned, Jabès’ Parisian work begins with The Book of Questions. It already bears Jabès’ trademark tensions between the ending of the book and its continuation. The Book of Questions is certainly a separate text in its own right and does not seem to imply any further extension; and yet Jabès from the very beginning had a trilogy in mind.131 An oscillation between the ending and the extension, the ultimate idea and the thought that comes after it anyway, was highly relevant to him. That is why Jabès’ Books always arrange themselves in cycles, which were not pre-planned in advance.132 Besides the first text from which it derived its name (Le Livre des Questions), the trilogy of The Book of Questions includes also The Book of Yukel (Le Livre de Yukel) of 1964 and Return to the Book (Le retour au livre) of 1965. Two years later, Yaël is published, again first as an autonomous text which is, nonetheless, soon continued in Elya (1969) and Aely (1972). In this way, a second trilogy comes into being, initially separate from The Book of Questions series. It is only in 1973, when Jabès publishes • (El, or the Last Book) (• [El, ou le dernier livre]),133 that the two trilogies are, retrospectively, combined and, at the same time, given an ending. In this way, from 1973 on, The Book of Questions is a heptalogy.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Jabès writes two other cycles: the Book of Resemblances trilogy (Le Livre des Ressemblances), comprised of the likewise titled work (1976) and the volumes of Intimations The Desert (Le Soupçon le Désert) (1978) and The Ineffaceable The Unperceived (L’Ineffaçable l’Inaperçu) (1980); and The Book of Limits tetralogy (Le livre des limites), incorporating, retrospectively again, The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion (Le Petit Livre de la subversion hors du soupçon) (1982), The Book of Dialogue (Le Livre du Dialogue) (1984), Le Parcours ←94 | 95→[The Journey] (1985) and The Book of Shares (Le Livre du Partage) (1987). Besides the three cycles, Jabès published also a handful of other texts (partly based on re-editions), to which I will also refer in the following. They are It Goes Its Way (Ça suit son cours) (1975) and Doubly Dependent on the Said (Dans la double dépendance du dit) (1984), both combined in The Book of Margins (Le Livre des Marges) (1987), and, finally, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book (Un Étranger avec, sous les bras, un livre de petit format) (1989). Important are also Jabès’ conversations with Marcel Cohen, published as From the Desert to the Book (Du désert au livre, 1981; extended edition, 1990), in which many of the writer’s thoughts are formulated more straightforwardly than in other works. Finally, his last book, relevant to the interpretation of his oeuvre, is the posthumously published Le Livre de l’Hospitalité [Book of Hospitality] (1991).

With this brief overview of Jabès’ published works, we can now focus on the characteristics of his mature writing. Without a doubt, these writings are distinctly heterogeneous and remarkably fragmented.134 Despite that, Jabès’ texts display a specific and paradoxical continuity. In these texts, the structure of thinking is so profoundly fractured that they articulate an abiding tension of questioning rather than a transition from a thesis to a conclusion, and in this sense, the work is infused with an internal unity by this very tension. If there is any evolution from text to text (at it is a big if), it consists in exacerbating the experience of nothingness and gradual erasure aimed not to extract a single final thesis but rather to bring thinking closer to duration itself. Therein the structure of the Jabèsian text resembles Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy. Each of its passages seems to confront an ultimate question of its own and, as such, is not continuous with other ones in terms of the content, but carries on invariable questioning.

With this observation, we can decide how best to go about interpreting the poet’s writings. We can safely assume that in discussing Jabès’ thoughts most excerpts from various books can be cited in parallel since questions forsaken in one book resurface in another, producing a back and forth movement, as the writer himself puts it.135 However, there are also parts of the text that seek ←95 | 96→to fathom the same issue but filter it through their own, unique notions. For example, The Book of Resemblances “questions by means of resemblance.”136 Besides, Jabès’ work contains also parts in which the tension of questioning is so amplified that it sets them apart from the remaining ones more rigorously than is usually the case. A hermeneutical interpreter of Jabès would thus be well advised to, alongside the “main line” of reflection that can be viewed as tolerably homogeneous,137 attend also to Jabès’ special notions, such as repetition or writing, and to passages that represent the intensifying erasure, the withdrawal of God (featuring particularly in • [El]). Yet the specific character of Jabès’ work makes it impossible to divide his themes into separate threads. It seems that each of them articulates the same concern but from a different perspective; consequently, each of them could serve as a whole work. Jabès’ writing enacts a continuous description that at any given moment endeavours to encompass the totality of unified reality. This is one reason why it resembles incessant forgetting and remembering of things gone by – the meaning dissolving in the past and reverberating again in the present, reminiscing on and recognising a likeness to the old splinters.138 The work’s external framework is provided not by a sustained, sound plan, but by time, to which writing gives itself over unreservedly, letting itself forget and live through memories again.

Let us have a closer look at the form of this writing. Critical attention is more often than not engrossed by its enormous heterogeneity and generic elusiveness,139 deliberately designed to explode any categories one might be tempted to superimpose on it. Warren F. Motte depicts Jabès’ writing in the following way:

←96 | 97→

The language is a curious hybrid of discursive norms. Lyric moments confront patently prosaic ones; dialogical passages play out the theatricality of the text; lapidary essays and prose meditations of various sorts are interpolated here and there; aphorisms abound. These texts teem with voices, some of them located in identifiable characters, some of them emanating from unidentifiable sources. Time shifts without warning in these worlds, ranging from a problematic present to a biblical – and largely hypothetical – past. So too does space, whether it be a question of a shaded Parisian street, a concentration camp or a boundless desert. The page that Jabès constructs resembles no other: words wander thereupon with disconcerting mobility, staging themselves in different ways – flush left, flush right, centered, in roman typeface and in italics, cast within quotation marks or parentheses, or suspended in sibylline ellipses.140

And Walter A. Strauss highlights the formal allusions to Jewish tradition:

The form of writing, undoubtedly, came in first: the pairing of lyrical and narrative passages and aphorisms, all constantly monitored by imaginary rabbis. It is a writing that resembles all forms of the Old Testament, the Talmud, exegeses of the Torah and the Kabbalah, commentaries, interpretations and mythology, and that seeks to re-new Jewish tradition in the Diaspora, to transform the sacred tradition in the settings of remoteness and exile. As The Book of Questions develops, the language is beset by a restlessness which looks for its centre in questions about Word and about God – or, rather, in the questioning of the language devised to re-create the lost names of God and Word, given in the beginning to the Jewish people and imposing on it the lot of writing-in-exile.141

The process of the modern shattering of perspective, the evolution of 20th-century poetics heading towards dispersal and silence and, finally, the wealth of Jewish tradition re-readthrough the Shoah and exile amalgamate at the level of the form itself. It is from this form alone that the image emanates of a world “constantly in peril, in which simple axioms of language are no more,”142 as Shillony writes. Consequently, no generic categories can accommodate a writing that only lends itself to being described by this very word, purely material as it is. Marcel Cohen points out that

Neither title page nor cover [of The Book of Questions] give any indication of the genre. But, most importantly, one cannot uncover a plan, a procedure [le procédé] underlying the writing. At first glance the sentences appear on the white page as if they were the ←97 | 98→reflection of a profound chaos, a kind of weighty, immemorial interior night, as if there was no will to shape the form. In fact, the opposite is true: your major concern seems to be to keep the book from finding its form, thereby keeping it from becoming fixed. It thus becomes clear from the start that it is not a question of a simple refusal of traditional genres but of a “perversion,” an “insurrection” at the very core of writing.143

Symptomatically, this form of reflection is not a purely literary device but parallels the reality that it sets out to depict – a reality stamped by a disaster, shattered and dispersed.144 According to Hawkins,

Jabès constructs a new method of writing that represents the breakdown of language accompanying the collapse of human values. Writing comes to signify a wholly new existential condition, bringing with it a set of wholly new choices.

The movement that Jabès promotes is embraced by the phenomenological method and the strategy of hermeneutics suitable to this method. In much the same way as Kafka does, Jabès incorporates the text-based strategies of Midrash into the ontology of mystical Judaism – particularly Lurianic Kabbalah.145

Apparently, Jabès’ new language, rather than a species of formal experimentation, is a befitting response to the world it is supposed to render. As Kristjana Gunnars observes,146 the fragmentation of Jabès’ language results from the fact that the perception of reality as such is fragmentary; we never grasp the whole, but always, moment by moment, we reconstruct the totality from tiny particles.147 “Fragmented” writing is necessitated by the fragmentation of the reality that it seeks to capture.

←98 | 99→

Jabès’ language challenges the reader from the very beginning. Elliptical, laconic and dense, veritably naked, as Richard Stamelman has it, self-aware and self-reflexive, it neither represents nor creates poetic images.148 It is a threshold at which one must pause in order to, first of all, break one’s own thinking. For, in Jabès, there is no new ontology without a new language and a corollary new mode of perception. The poet’s work, as Joan Brandt puts it, “accentuates on the most basic structural level the problematical nature of language itself.”149

Gary D. Mole highlights another property of the “Jabèstext”:

The unusual typographical disposition of these books is their most immediately striking feature and contributes to the disorientation the reader experiences in first encountering them. But their predominant characteristic is the melancholic tone of suffering, loss, and death, revealed to Jabès at the age of twelve with the death of his elder sister.150

This tone saturates the work’s specific form, which Fernandez-Zoïla labels structure éclatée – an exploded structure, a term suggested by the poet himself.151 The phrase connotes a glare, a sudden illumination, the revelation of the whole in a piece. In this formulation, the fragmentation in Jabès’ writing exposes its potential for thinking. It is, according to Fernandez-Zoïla, mystical thinking, but its mysticism remains materialist152 and fundamentally anti-metaphysical (in the Heideggerian take on metaphysics).153 It is “mysticism, if mysticism is conceived as any attempt at delving into oneself which, in fact, means stepping beyond oneself to head towards the concealed, the undiscovered places of one’s own self.”154 Besides, it would be mysticism “whose core liturgy lay in the practice of reading and writing.”155 Yet Fernandez-Zoïla’s analysis of the relationship between the form of writing and its role does not stop at spotlighting its mystical potential. It also shows how closely connected the “Jabèstext” is to inner dissolution that has ←99 | 100→unremittingly plagued philosophy, literature, arts and music since the early 20th century.156 In this context, The Book of Questions, like Nietzsche’s thought, the texts of Artaud, Leiris, Bataille and Blanchot, the works of Picasso and Klee and, finally, Mahler’s music, is not a neutral description of the disintegration but a testimony delivered from within the process.157 The term “testimony” presupposes that writing actively plunges into the process of unravelling and endeavours to experience what is going on, eventually, to offer a first-hand report of it:

The substance of these books is intertwined with their functionalities because no content could be extracted from them and attributed to an “outside,” located beyond the written form subordinated to the sources that produced it in an utterly material and real history.158

In this sense, Jabès’ writing is not just a distanced account of the unfolding phenomena but attests to them, incapable of shaking off its object’s impact. The interrelation of form and thought is mirrored in Jabès also in the graphic layout of writing. As Ulrike Schneider reminds,

The multiplicity of literary forms includes also specific pagination and the dramaturgical use of typography in some books, which makes them unambiguously recognisable as Jabès’.

[…] italics – with frequent self-reflexive passages – places the text every now and then in a kind of mise en abyme of self-commentary; the fragment appears the only possible form of utterance which subjects itself to questioning and remains incomplete. Because what has been said once can be relativised, if not retracted entirely, in the very next sentence, speaking [das Sprechen] knows no end.159

The breaking of the form is thus the only possibility to radically actualise the questioning that targets itself as well. As the layers of commentary proliferate, writing comes to mean, so to speak, incessant crossing of meta-levels of successive utterances. In Jabès, commentary is not meant to exhaust the commented-on: commentary passes and itself becomes an object of commentary before even having a chance to materialise. Hence, each sentence remains a trace of an unfinished possibility that could not come about because writing is happening all the time and no act of writing could put writing to an end.

Discussing parallels between Jabès’ thought and the form of his writing, one must not neglect the role of oppositions ubiquitous in it. All and Nothing, One ←100 | 101→and Infinity, life and death grapple with each other invariably in these texts. The series of oppositions, as Stéphane Mosès emphasises, reveal the “perpetual dialectics” that keeps Jabès’ writing in tension.160 It is in this way that writing constantly endeavours to grasp the other side of meaning and interact with it explicitly. Besides, Jabès frequently resorts in his writing to chiasmi, underscoring the aporias around which they are constructed.161

Another signature feature of Jabès’ writing is reiteration of key words. Jabès himself foregrounds the basic notions of his thinking: God, Jew, Law, Eye, Name and Book.162 Motte extends the list, adding desert, abode (demeure), sand, void, margin, scream, word (mot), speech (parole), vocable and verbe, which – polysemous and untranslatable – covers the semantic field ranging from “verb” to “word” and “foreword.”163 Eric Gould throws in, further, “silence,” “center” and “absence.”164

Jabès’ key words do not build any pre-planned meaning. Meaning emerges only as a short-lived constellation of their aspect as captured at a particular moment. Because this aspect, rather than curtailing the polysemy of words, only highlights it by its own fleeting and fragmentary character, the entire utterance becomes momentary and atomised. In Jabès, thus, an utterance remains secondary to words and is made possible by their current state in the process of evolution. Meaning does not endure in time; rather, it perishes, leaving behind merely a slight displacement within the semantic fields of key words.

Surveying the development of Jabès’ writing, one easily notices that key words tend to be paired in oppositions. Still, the oppositions do not last: sometimes they are used only within one book, and on other occasions they disappear to resurface only in another work. For example, in The Book of Resemblances “oblivion” and “likeness” bump into each other even though, at first sight, they have nothing in common and, certainly, are no antonyms. However, Jabès incrementally brings them closer together sentence by sentence, binds them first only by an external suggestion and, at last, decisively re-casts their denotative fields to couple them. In this way, the manner in which Jabès works upon words mirrors the Hegelian “dissolution,” used already by Mallarmé.165

←101 | 102→

If Jabès himself insisted that his books were varieties of essentially the same questioning filtered through different words each time, it could be added that the questioning usually is effected through their oppositions. The difference apprehended in a given opposition for a brief moment embodies the fundamental difference, recurring constantly and motivating the questioning as such. Hélène Trivouss-Haïk proposes a similar conclusion,166 observing that Jabès time and again plots “an association grid,” a net of words in which to comprise the entire reality. In other words, Jabès shows how various grids of terms render the same recurring structure. This is the essence of his questioning carried on across his texts.

Conclusion: Jabès’ Supercooled Modernism

Concluding, we could ask: Who was Edmond Jabès after all? His biography, specific though it is, binds him to a group of similar authors: Lévinas, Derrida, Blanchot and Celan. Born and bred on the peripheries, they were all, to a lesser or greater degree, formed by the cultural and intellectual centre of Paris. The ideological environment in which Jabès grew up was not unique to him, either. Many were affected by the twilight of Modernism, which was on the lookout for new paths and wrestled with the horrors of the Shoah.

Jabès’ Cairo poetry amply shows that already in the 1930’s he found himself treading the path that Western philosophy and literature were turning. The young poet’s verses ooze the belief that the place of truth remains concealed – truth shines through but is forever inaccessible.167 This modernist axiom will later transmute profoundly in Jabès, with truth’s one place transfiguring into a myriad delusively oscillating enigmas, underpinned by a shared structure. Jabès is not alone in this evolution, which largely charts the trajectory from Modernism to Postmodernism. Another prominent motif of the Cairo verse – inhabiting, abode, settling – undergoes an analogous transformation. In Jabès’ Paris texts, it will morph into meditations on exile, unbelongingness and lack of definable identity. Thus, while the poet’s pre-war themes sound Heideggerian, his post-war pivots radicalise in an effort to find a new response to the Shoah. Finally, the very appearance of the text evolves from pre-war, Surrealist-indebted solutions to ultra-fragmentation and disintegration of the narrative in the Parisian Books. ←102 | 103→This notwithstanding, a continuity with the Cairo poems shows in Jabès’ fondness for experimenting with the graphic layout.

Still, while there is no clear rift between Postmodernism and Modernism (on the contrary, high modernist texts are almost-already postmodernist), Jabès remains profoundly modernist, at the same time anticipating the shift of the late 1960’s. The belatedness of Egypt’s late Romanticism made Jabès enter late Modernism already with a delay. That is why he ultimately evades any simple categorisation, for he is not, either, a late modernist who consciously reverted to Modernism after the turn that problematised the movement. Therefore, I propose a new term – supercooled Modernism – to label Jabès’ work. In chemistry, a supercooled liquid is one in which temperature has dropped below the freezing level, but the state of matter has not changed because the pure solution contains no condensation-triggering pollutants. There is no stimulus to initiate solidification of this liquid, which, theoretically speaking, should not be liquid anymore. If any foreign particle gets into the solution, a chain reaction is set off in which the liquid congeals, returning to the freezing temperature exceeded before without turning into a solid. A similar process is detectable in the Jabèsian Modernism: in the course of the arch-modernist procedures of purification, refining and distilment of the text, a crystal-clear writing is produced which, formally, is and comes across as postmodernist even though it continues to behave like a modernist state of matter. It crosses the boundary between epochs and, as modernist, is already belated: formally it mimics its environment though its pellucidity binds it to the times past. It is through this clarity that it both opens a new epoch for itself and, in fact, prevents itself submerging fully into it as it preserves a strictly modernist enclave within its Postmodernism. Compellingly, for all his awareness of the new paths – of fragmentation, truncatedness and intertextuality – Jabès imbued his writing with a signature modernist tension. It certainly looks like any slight admixture to this chiselled poetics could immediately trigger a chain reaction in which the entire modernist energy would be radiated out and writing pushed to undergo a shift it missed on its unique way of belatedness. That which remained after such a collapse would constitute a postmodernist, tension-free body of writing.

It seems, thus, that Jabès – for all the singularity of his path – partly emulates the evolution of 20th-century philosophy and literature. Hence, his solitude and his affinity with other authors are inseparable. There is one more element to be added to the landscape of solstitial Modernism, namely the re-invention of Judaism, which provided Jabès with intellectual forms to develop (particularly in the further volumes of The Book of Questions and later texts). This is also where the poet joins Lévinas and Derrida, yet his own interpretation of Judaism ←103 | 104→seems more comprehensive, more innovative and more radical, though at the same time utterly impoverished in its innovation.

In this perspective, Jabès seems to be a paradigmatic modern thinker, one severed from religious tradition, damaged by war and exile, consistently expanding his questioning and, finally, re-inventing Judaism on the basis of his personal experiences. Meet Edmond Jabès, a Jewish philosopher of modernity.

←104 |

1 See DB, p. 9.

2 Cf. the timeline of Jabès’ life in DB, pp. 117–118; see also Didier Cahen, Edmond Jabès (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1991), pp. 305–41.

3 DB, p. 5.

4 BQ II, p. 178.

5 DB, p. 5.

6 BR II, p. 77.

7 DB, p. 6.

8 IEJ, p. 10.

9 Aimée Israel-Pelletier, “Edmond Jabès, Jacques Hassoun, and Melancholy: The Second Exodus in the Shadow of the Shoah,” MLN, 123/4 (September 2008) (French issue), pp. 797–818, on pp. 801–802.

10 Cf. DB, p. 21.

11 Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 305.

12 DB, p. 21.

13 Ibid. p. 22.

14 Admittedly, Jabès was raised in a milieu saturated with French colonial influences, yet the impact of Arabic culture and poetics should not be neglected and, actually, would deserve a separate study. Typical of Arabic literature is the prevalence of the poetic element (cf. Jamel Eddine Bencheikh, Poétique arabe [Paris: Gallimard, 1989], pp. 1–2), which is conspicuous also in Jabès’ mature, non-poetic works. Similarly, the desert motifs endemic to Arabic poetry (e.g. in Al-Sharif al-Radi) reverberate in Jabès’ ubiquitous desert metaphor. See Laifer, Edmond Jabès, pp. 8–9.

15 DB, p. 6.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., p. 7.

18 In this, Jabès resembles not only Blanchot but first of all insights of high Modernism, in particular of Rilke, who perceived death as the other facet of life and inseparable from it. In Rilke’s view, if life is to be fully grasped, the dark light of this covered facet must be restored. See Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale UP, 1985), pp. 6–7.

19 This obviously invites thinking in terms of Freud’s idea in “Mourning and Melancholia” that melancholia ensues from a loss that has not been worked through and consists in the lost object being absorbed within the “self” in order to avoid the recognition of the loss. Cf. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, Volume XIV (1914–1916): On the History of Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (London: The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis), pp. 243–58. Language that refuses to work loss through cannot shake off the burden of the past and activate immediate meanings. But, on the other hand, this language, though dysfunctional for the subject, is paradoxically “truer” as it articulates what remains hidden to the normal sight. Philosophically speaking, thus, it is more valuable than the correctly working language of the subject who has successfully gone through mourning.

Aimée Israel-Pelletier offers an interpretation that Jabès’ primary object of loss was Egypt, a homeland where, through the melancholic incorporation within the self, he belongs more deeply than when he was physically there. See Israel-Pelletier, “Edmond Jabès.”

20 Cf. DB, p. 8. The difference between Blanchot’s and Jabès’ attitudes to language is palpable here. Blanchot theorises language in relation to the primary loss of an object which is replaced with a word; literature cannot persist in the negation of loss and, thus, works with an essentially dysfunctional language. Cf. e.g. Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” trans. Lydia Davis, in Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995), pp. 300–44.

For Jabès, every experience, including the loss of an object, takes place in language. Death does not entail the loss of “a real object” and replacing it with a word. On the contrary, this object, formed in language as it is, has its own speech. “There is a language for death just as there is a language for life,” the poet concludes. Thus the experience of catastrophe is not a transition from reality to language, but a passage from one form of language to another – one that is truer and earnest since it articulates that which limits it from beyond.

21 Cf. Jabès’ own words in QDLB, p. 227.

22 DB, p. 8.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 IEJ, p. 10.

26 DB, pp. 19–20.

27 Steven Jaron, Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile (Oxford: Legenda, 2003), pp. 41–2.

28 Emphatically, “Judaism” is not just a religious designation to Jabès; rather, it denotes all things Jewish.

29 DB, pp. 20–1.

30 That is why controversy about the “Jewish” status of Jabès’ work is rife in literary studies. Joseph Guglielmi denies Jabès any Jewishness because, in his view, the poet is permanently disjoined from Judaism and remains an atheist while his references to the Kabbalah concern “fabricated sources, landmarks abolished by the work of the book and deserted cultural sites scattered by the movement of negation.” See Joseph Guglielmi, La ressemblance impossible: Edmond Jabès (Paris: Editeurs Français Réunis, 1978), p. 23. Laifer, on the contrary, regards fundamental motifs of Jabès’ works as Jewish based on their plentiful similarities to Judaic concerns. For the discussion, see Laifer, Edmond Jabès; see also Jean Starobinski’s position in “Out of this violated mineral night…,” trans. Rosmarie Waldrop, in Eric Gould (ed.), The Sin of the Book: Edmond Jabès (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), pp. 41–2, on p. 41. I believe this is a somewhat contrived dispute. Jabès’ work deploys a plethora of motifs found in Judaism but is so isolated from Judaism that some of its Jewish elements are a pure re-construction. Hence, both parties to the controversy are essentially right.

31 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 21.

32 Jabès wrote plays from adolescence to early emigration; see Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 306 ff. The dialogical passages of The Book of Questions seem to owe much to this dramaturgical experience.

33 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 23.

34 Ibid. p. 37.

35 DB, p. 117.

36 EEJ, p. 65.

37 DB, p. 10.

38 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 83.

39 Ibid., p. 28.

40 Lingering on the periphery of the Surrealist mainstream, always singular and personal, Jacob was relevant to Jabès also in that he always brought the Surrealist-forged language back to reality. Anticipating, in a way, Celan’s mineralogy and geography, he surrounded himself with things – rocks and pebbles – while writing in order to anchor the language in the all too overly real (DB, p. 12). As Gabriel Bounoure insightfully observers, what an uninitiated reader could regard as pretty and sometimes amusing wordplay in Jacob’s poetry conceals a depth spawned by fear; see Gabriel Bounoure, Edmond Jabès. La demeure et le livre (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1984), p. 19. According to Bounoure, Jabès “loved these verses which by means of fake words find amusement in making the absence of truth cruelly palpable, truth which can be guessed to inhabit the depths of waters, the depths of soul” (Ibid.).

Jabès’ recognition of this double dimension of the word – which, besides its own meaning, reveals also its background, i.e. nothingness – was triggered by the same conjuncture that affected Celan’s poetry, namely by reading a culture’s central text at its outskirts. Poems read in Paris have their simple points of reference, but when read in Egypt they are divested of such clarity and reveal themselves in their reality, unblurred by preunderstandings. They speak all the more directly about what is absent from them and highlight the distance between the place of writing and the place of reading. Hence, as Bounoure writes, “Jabès read Jacob in the ennui of the black sun, the burden of whose nothingness Nerval felt only when he travelled to the East” (Ibid., p. 20).

41 See also Matthew Del Nevo, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of Death,” in Tod Linafelt (ed.), Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust (New York: New York UP, 2000), pp. 121–34, on p. 129 ff.

42 Jabès and Jacob had a profound and deeply personal relationship. Jaron suggests that the protagonist of The Book of Questions called Yukel Serafi is modelled on Jacob. “Yukel” is a version of Jacob, and his surname means “my seraph” in Hebrew, which may be a reference to Jacob’s role in Jabès’ life. See Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 88. On Jacob’s role, see also Cahen, Edmond Jabès, pp. 309–11.

43 DEJ, p. 301.

44 According to Carola Erbertz, Rimbaud’s influences are particularly conspicuous in the volume of Je bâtis ma demeure. Cf. Carola Erbertz, Zur Poetik des Buches bei Edmond Jabès: exiliertes Schreiben im Zeichen von Auschwitz (Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2000), pp. 23–4.

45 DEJ, p. 301.

46 EEJ, p. 66.

47 See Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 312.

48 Jaron, Edmond Jabès.

49 Cf. Julia Kristeva, La révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1974). For the English translation (abridged), see Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984).

50 DB, p. 44.

51 Marcel Cohen highlights this when he writes that Jabès cherished Max Jacob’s insight that “Writing for the sake of writing does nothing but show contempt.” So, if Jabès, as Cohen has it, “purifies the books of their contents, empties the traditional genres of their specificity (thereby borrowing from all), states only to negate all the more effectively, multiplies styles so skilfully that none seems his own to him, asks only to reject any tentative answer,” he does so because this is what the profound and uncompromising questioning requires. Marcel Cohen, “Dix anamnèses,” Europe, 86/954 (October 2008), pp. 268–275, on p. 275.

52 See IEJ, p. 9.

53 EEJ, p. 67.

54 Actually, engagement against all nationalisms and chauvinisms and defence of the oppressed, the excluded and immigrants occupied him till the end of his life. Two years before his death, he published a volume titled Un étranger avec, sous le bras, un livre de petit format (A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book) a fervent plea for les sans papiers, in which he argues that otherness is a common inner condition of the human being. The work has had some role in debates on migration policy in France.

55 Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 313.

56 DB, pp. 48, 61.

57 Ibid., p. 118.

58 Beth Hawkins, Reluctant Theologians: Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès (New York: Fordham UP, 2003), p. 156; see also Berel Lang, “Writing-the-Holocaust: Jabès and the Measure of History,” in The Sin of the Book, pp. 191–206, on p. 193.

59 Berel Lang calls this change a transition from “writing about the Holocaust” to “writing the Holocaust”; Ibid., p. 196.

60 Basically, the possibility of writing after the Shoah is first confronted only in The Book of Questions, which, according to Erbertz, institutes “an Auschwitz-stamped poetics”; Erbertz, Poetik des Buches, p. 20.

61 Warren F. Motte, “Hospitable Poetry,” l’Esprit Créateur, 49/2 (Summer 2009), pp. 34–45, on p. 34.

62 EEJ, p. 67.

63 In Erbertz, Poetik des Buches, p. 23.

64 DB, p. 13.

65 See also Maurice Blanchot, “Reflections on Surrealism,” trans. Charlotte Mandell, in The Work of Fire, pp. 85–97.

66 In this context, it seems interesting that Celan during his short stay in Bucharest after the war associated with a group of Surrealists; see Edouard Roditi, “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality,” World Literature Today, 66/1 (Winter 1992), pp. 11–20, on p. 13. Far less engaged with Surrealism than Jabès, Celan also relinquished its influences on moving to Paris.

67 DB, p. 119.

68 Israel-Pelletier, “Edmond Jabès,” pp. 802–804.

69 Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 320.

70 DB, p. 29.

71 QJQW, p. 16.

72 EEJ, p. 67.

73 Q JQW, p. 16.

74 IEJ, p. 4.

75 Leaving Egypt, Jabès had to abandon most of his library collected by several generations of his family. He lost many original editions of religious, mystical and world literature classics. “No doubt that loss has contributed to reinforcing in me the idea that my uprootedness affected my culture in its most ancient ties,” he insisted later (DB, p. 35). Marcel Cohen lists the volumes that Jabès bought again in France. Kafka and Proust seem to have been his priorities. He managed to get Ulysses out of Egypt. Besides, he bought first of all works of his fellow and younger poets; Marcel Cohen, “Anamnezy” [Anamneses] in Edmond Jabès, Aeli, trans. A. Wodnicki (Kraków: Austeria, 2006), p. 197. Though its significance should not be overestimated, this biographical detail intimates something about the poet’s interest in contemporary and modernist literature and, for older works, in Jewish mysticism and Talmudic studies.

76 Christophe Wall-Romana calls the work of Jabès and, as a matter of fact, the entire school of French poetry he influenced, exilique et exscriptif. Christophe Wall-Romana, “Dure poésie générale,” L’Esprit Créateur, 49/2 (Summer 2009), pp. 1–8, on p. 4. The latter term, borrowed as it is from Jean-Marie Gleize, plays both on Derrida’s concept of inscription and on the Lacanian coinage of “extimate.” In relation to Jabès, it aptly highlights the central idea of writing down in the Book as a foundation of being (cf. Chapter Eight).

77 DB, p. 36.

78 Adolfo Fernandez-Zoïla, Le Livre, recherche autre d’Edmond Jabès (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1978), p. 25.

79 Gary D. Mole, Lévinas, Blanchot, Jabès: Figures of Estrangement (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1997), p. 10.

80 DB, p. 30.

81 Ibid.

82 Ibid., p. 16.

83 Cf. Ibid., p. 26.

84 An irresistible question that offers itself is why actually the writer so heavily reliant on Jewish tradition refers to Egypt as his homeland without mobilising the contexts which Judaism associates with Egypt, such as slavery, subjection and idolatry. Does Jabès’ voice echo the complaint of the sceptical among the Israelites who, unequal to the hardships of wandering in the desert, accused Moses of leading them to certain death? Does he by any chance miss the land which, though devoid of freedom, still offered some certainty of life? These and similar questions could be raised by the adherents of philosophical Judaism of the belligerent and rebellious variety that boldly plunges itself into the desert if only freedom is to be found there. How can such questions be answered? First, Jabès indeed views the desert as a space of freedom, but things more terrifying than such freedom, which comes at the price of the permanent risk of death, are few and far between. The preachers of the desert often have no idea how monstrous a choice they champion. Second, in Jabès’ memories, Egypt is primarily a desert and not a city, which the poet sought to flee. In this way, the opposition of Cairo and the surrounding desert is more relevant than the opposition of Egypt and Sinai. Jabès recalls the Egypt of the desert and not urban Egypt. Third, what kind of creature would it have to be to have a heart that never looked back to the place where everything had been left behind? In the desert, one is a naked being; deliberately to forget what one has been means to fail to understand the choice and, in fact, not to make any choice at all.

85 DB, pp. 13–14.

86 Mary Ann Caws, “Edmond Jabès: Sill and Sand,” L’Esprit Créateur, 32/2 (1992), pp. 11–18, on p. 11.

87 The desert is the central metaphor that captures both Jabès’ writing and his ontology. Guglielmi writes: “The poet turned his fascination [with the desert] into his impossible dwelling place, a site of tragic uncertainty that, from book to book, provides a basic bond, a system of particular signs invigorated by a pluralising, dispersing force that gives the work its structure […]”; Joseph Guglielmi, “Edmond Jabès ou la fascination du désert”, Critique, 28/296 (janvier 1972), pp. 32–52, on p. 33. The desert recurs in Jabès’ writings so frequently and in so multiple settings that it makes more sense to discuss them separately as related to particular motifs. Still, even at this point, it seems obvious that the desert is, first of all, a place to him: a place that extends where individual beings, therein the author and God, cease to exist. The desert is what goes on and “does not come to the end of ending” (BQ II, p. 129), which is why it has survived after the withdrawal of God.

88 Agnès Chalier encapsulates Jabès’ search for the desert: “Jabès’ meditation in the desert was becoming urgently indispensable for him just in order to breathe, […] to celebrate thought.” Agnès Chalier, “Le désert jabésien et la notion de vide dans la philosophie classique chinoise,” in Richard Stamelman and Mary Ann Caws (eds.), Écrire le livre autour d’Edmond Jabès. Colloque de Cerisy (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1989), p. 194.

89 As Rosie Pinhas-Delpeuch aptly points out, Western culture has often interpreted the desert in the Torah as, solely, a symbol, thereby missing on its literal sense whereas the desert was a punishment, an ordeal, an experience but never a permanent dwelling place unless for the nomads. A similar obliviousness to the actual experience of the desert may distort the reception of Jabès. The Jabèsian desert of reality must not be viewed simply as a spectacular symbol loaned from Jewish tradition. Rather, it is a place of real agony and irremovable horror of death. Rosie Pinhas-Delpeuch, “Dans la double dépendence du désert,” in Écrire le livre, pp. 181–90, on p. 181.


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (May)
Edmond Jabès Jewish philosophy modernity deconstruction Kabbalah Shoah
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 403 pp.

Biographical notes

Przemysław Tacik (Author)

Przemysław Tacik is Assistant Professor at the Jagiellonian University of Kraków. He holds PhDs in philosophy and law and was a visiting scholar at several universities (Buffalo, Nice, Paris, Heidelberg and Lisbon). His main fields of interest are modernity, contemporary and Jewish philosophy, and international law.


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