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


Przemysław Tacik

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

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2 Edmond Jabès: Life and Writing

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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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 | 105→

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.

90 DB, pp. 14–15.

91 “Like the Christian Fathers of old, he crossed the ecological boundary between the city and the desert, so that later as a writer – a poet, philosopher, and perhaps even theologian – the desert functioned at many complex levels as a metaphor in his poetry. Perhaps even more than that: for Jabès book and desert, sand and letter become absolutely inseparable, the desert and its truth reconstituted each word of the text.” David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 82.

92 BR, pp. 45–6.

93 DB, p. 15.

94 Claude Nahon, “La question de l’origine et l’œuvre d’Edmond Jabès,” in La Question de l’Origine (Nice: Z’éditions, 1987), p. 64.

95 A passage from the Zohar cited by Ireneusz Kania in his essay on Jabès may be illuminating here: “And so we, too, have abandoned the world of men for the harsh desert in order to study Torah there and confound the Other Side [Sitra Achra, i.e. Evil]. And also because only there are the words of Torah fully clear […]”; Ireneusz Kania, “Jabès, czyli o składaniu rozsypanego Tekstu” [“Jabès, or on assembling a scattered Text’], in Edmond Jabès, Powrót do Księgi, trans. Andrzej Wodnicki (Kraków: Austeria, 2005), p. 129. Undoubtedly, Jabès shares the Zohar’s idea of words “being clear” in the desert, the difference being that, in Jabès, words are not only the words of the Torah, but words as such.

96 That is why Jabès can say: “Desert, transparent universe” (BR III, p. 80).

97 Le Parcours tells us: “[…] the desert [is] a desolate land of silence and listening; a land propitious to silence and infinite listening, where silence gets intoxicated with its echoes, and listening with the sounds caught at the heart of silence” (P, p. 82).

98 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 2.

99 DB, p. 25.

100 EEJ, p. 70; DB, p. 72.

101 DB, p. 48.

102 Ibid.

103 Ibid.

104 Even when the Jewish legacy had been “reclaimed” for his work, Jabès’ attitude to Judaism remained rather complicated. Consistently atheistic, he would not be confined in any fixed form of worship though, admittedly, towards the end of his life, he was glad to have his texts read out in synagogues. His Judaism was, clearly, a personal construct, so to speak, into which certain elements of tradition were incorporated when and where they were useful. In an interview with Benjamin Taylor, the poet stressed that he spoke only of “the singular and eccentric Judaism that is my own,” “bound up – identified, even – with écriture” (QJQW, p. 16). The attitude of fascination with and resistance to Judaism undoubtedly affected Derrida’s likewise complex, though less intensely manifested, relation with the Jewish legacy. Cf. Henry Sussman, “Pulsations of Respect, or Winged Impossibility: Literature with Deconstruction,” diacritics, 38/1–2 (Spring-Summer 2008), pp. 44–63, on p. 50.

105 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 10.

106 DB, pp. 37–8.

107 Ibid., p. 38.

108 Ibid.

109 See, for example, BM, p. 13 ff.

110 Cf. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln and London: Nebraska UP, 1986), p. 2. Emphatically, Blanchot was reluctant to speak about Jabès’ works in the belief that “discretion” was the best way of approaching them. See Maurice Blanchot, “Interruptions,” trans. Rosmarie Waldrop and Paul Auster, in The Sin of the Book, pp. 43–54, on pp. 47–8.

111 EEJ, p. 72.

112 Ibid.

113 Ibid., p. 74 ff.

114 John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet. Survivor. Jew (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001), p. 233.

115 Ibid.

116 EEJ, p. 74.

117 They are “There Is No Trace But in the Desert (With Emmanuel Lévinas),” “The Unconditional (Maurice Blanchot),” parts I and II, and “Memory of Paul Celan.”

118 Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 324.

119 Cf. IEJ, p. 3.

120 In this book I will not tackle the complexities of relations between Jabès and Derrida. For one, this all too broad theme deserves a study of its own. Besides, juxtaposing the two thinkers could produce a misleading impression, which readers of Derrida anyway tend to be deceived by, that Jabès is, at best, his “literary source of inspiration.” This book’s focus is Jabès’ work as philosophy in its own right. Moreover, many explicit intuitions in The Book of Questions precede Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction. That is why Jabès and Derrida should only be compared in a separate study when Jabès himself steps out of his powerful successor’s shadow. In this book, Derrida will be fundamentally just one of the commenting voices.

121 In an interview with Paul Auster, Jabès said that he subscribed to the notion that his concept of writing could be summed up in Beckett’s maxim that “To be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail.” Cf. Josh Cohen, “Desertions: Paul Auster, Edmond Jabès, and the Writing of Auschwitz,” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 33/3 and 34/1 (Autumn 2000 – Winter 2001), pp. 95–102, on p. 102.

122 Gabriel Bounoure lists three sources of Jabès’ work: Kabbalistic Platonism, Romanticism of the “Tübingen trio” (Hölderlin, Hegel and Schelling) and the Jewish faith in the value of word and letter. Cf. Bounoure, Edmond Jabès, p. 69.

123 Erbertz, Poetik des Buches, pp. 14–16.

124 Cf. Gil Anidjar, “Literary History and Hebrew Modernity,” Comparative Literature Studies, 42/2 (2005), pp. 277–96, on p. 289.

125 Evgen Bavčar, “Mots pour Jabès,” Change, 22 (février 1975), p. 216.

126 Ammiel Alcalay, “Desert Solitaire: On Edmond Jabès,” in Ammiel Alcalay, Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays 1982–1999 (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1999), pp. 55–9, on p. 56.

127 LSLS, p. 399.

128 The volume consists of two parts. The first one, titled Le Seuil, contains the earlier Je bâtis ma demeure, and the second, titled Le Sable, includes late verse. The volume’s meticulously spelled-out chronology shows a lengthy gap between 1957 and the second half of the 1970’s, connected with the work on the Books. Le Seuil Le Sable seems to comprise that which appears before the threshold of the Books and after they are abandoned – that is to say, sand. The titles are not merely metaphorical. On the contrary, The Book of Questions is, in fact, an epistemological threshold to Jabès: the issues it sounds, resonant with the form in which it is written, radically break up with his earlier texts. The Book of Questions heralds the entry into the space of profound and consistent apophatic thinking. At the same time, it discards verse as a form and discovers the space of writing which, always surrounded by whiteness, configures itself in various groupings undefined by dictates of poetics. Hence, the poetry composed after the Books series has an altogether different shape: it is diffused, freed from the form, internally pulverised by whiteness – with sand as its metaphorical rendering. But the difference between the “threshold” and the “sand” is also philosophically potent as it signals a transition from a reality based on the Law, unknown though it may be (as in Scholem and Benjamin’s famous debate on Kafka), the threshold of which we seek to cross, to a reality devoid of any single organisational principle, deprived of the Law, and made up of a space of fragmented meanings which, like grains of sand, co-exist in the desert. So, indeed, as Derrida had it, The Book re-directs the reading of Je bâtis ma demeure; the writer’s life produces a chasm that divides the threshold from the sand. Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 77–96.

129 Critics tend to neglect Jabès’ Cairo works as, allegedly, unconnected to the Paris writings. However, Steven Jaron in his insightful Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile shows that this is an ungrounded assumption. The Parisian works, albeit formally different in abandoning verse, are thematically linked to the Cairo texts.

130 Ulrike Schneider, Der poetische Aphorismus bei Edmond Jabès, Henri Michaux und René Char: zu Grundfragen einer Poetik (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998), p. 54.

131 DB, pp. 53–4.

132 For a comprehensive bibliography of Jabès’ works, see Roger Eliot Stoddard, Edmond Jabès in Bibliography: “Du blanc des mots et du noir des signes”: A Record of the Printed Books (Paris and Caen: Lettres modernes Minard, 2001).

133 This text’s proper title is a dot, one that Jabès emphatically wanted to be (and Gallimard’s original edition took care to make) red. The subtitle was a compromise with the publisher refusing to have a book with a dot alone for a title. I will discuss the symbolism behind it in Chapter Eleven.

134 The aphoristic form of The Book of Questions owes a lot to the manner in which it was being written. Jabès composed it on the underground, commuting to work, as it was the only spare time he had. See Cahen, Edmond Jabès, p. 322. This is also how Nietzsche wrote, after all, “reaching [his] thoughts by walking” and excelling in aphorism (See F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows,” No. 34, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Viking Penguin Press, 1977, p. 471).

135 EEJ, p. 72.

136 Ibid.

137 The homogeneity does not mean that there is no difference between the early parts of The Book of Questions and its last texts. Jabès’ thought was evolving slowly, affected also by other authors. As already mentioned, Derrida’s essay most likely induced the writer to deconstruct the quasi-notion of the Book (for more details, see Susan Handelman, “ ‘Torments of an Ancient Word’: Edmond Jabès and the Rabbinic Tradition,” in The Sin of the Book, pp. 55–91, on pp. 71–2. But at the core of the Books lies the very tension of questioning, which time only enhances. There might be readings in which a differentiation of Jabès’ concepts over his lifetime would be attempted, yet this is not the goal of the present volume.

138 Cf. Warren F. Motte, Jr., Questioning Edmond Jabès (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), p. x.

139 On the predicament of classifying Jabès’ work faced by literary critics, see Henri Raczymow, “Qui est Edmond Jabès?” Les Cahiers Obsidiane, no. 5 – Edmond Jabès (Paris: Capitales/Obsidiane, 1982), pp. 158–67.

140 Motte, “Hospitable Poetry,” p. 34. Interestingly, in using various text layouts on the page, Jabès patently follows in the footsteps of his powerful precursor Mallarmé in Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.

141 Walter A. Strauss, “Le Livre des questions de Jabès et la question du livre,” in Écrire le livre, p. 295.

142 Helena Shillony, Edmond Jabès: une rhétorique de la subversion (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1991), p. 3.

143 DB, p. 42.

144 The structure of the text itself seems to link the Books series with the Lurianic Kabbalah and its idea of split. Jabès’ predecessor in this is Nachman of Breslov, a 19th-century Judaic mystic, who inferred from tzimtzum that Hebraic letters were sacred still – as tradition had them – but because of the breaking of the vessels did not come together in correct forms anymore. That is why, Nachman insisted, the linearity of time and the logical, i.e. natural, course of language should be abandoned as, resulting from a catastrophe, they obscured the real kinship of letters. Language’s real structure must be found, which could be achieved only in new modes of writing. Consequently, Nachman relinquished the classical Kabbalistic treatise form and took to writing tales and fables; Benjamin Gross, L’aventure du langage. L’alliance de la parole dans la pensée juive (Paris: Albin Michel, 2003), p. 131. Similarly, Jabès’ writing in its specificity is a response to his idea of tzimtzum.

145 Hawkins, Reluctant Theologians, p. 156.

146 Kristjana Gunnars, Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2004), p. 83.

147 Cf. also IEJ, pp. 20–21.

148 Richard Stamelman, “The Strangeness of the Other and the Otherness of the Stranger: Edmond Jabès,” Yale French Studies, 82/1 (1993), pp. 118–34, on p. 124.

149 Joan Elizabeth Brandt, Geopoetics: The Politics of Mimesis in Poststructuralist French Poetry and Theory (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997), p. 172.

150 Mole, Lévinas, Blanchot, Jabès, p. 11.

151 Fernandez-Zoïla, Livre, p. 12. Jabès describes his writing as récit éclaté in an interview with Paul Auster; IEJ, p. 14. Cf. also Gunnars, Stranger, p. 83.

152 Fernandez-Zoïla, Livre, p. 13.

153 Although she refuses to call Jabès himself a mystic, Rosmarie Waldrop agrees that he knows “mysticism of the book”; Rosmarie Waldrop, “Miroirs et paradoxes,” Change, 22 (février, 1975), pp. 193–204, on p. 194.

154 Fernandez-Zoïla, Livre, p. 13.

155 Ibid.

156 Ibid., p. 39.

157 Ibid., pp. 39–46.

158 Ibid., p. 108.

159 Schneider, Poetische Aphorismus, pp. 59–60.

160 Mosès, “Edmond Jabès,” in Écrire le livre, p. 48.

161 Helena Shillony, “Edmond Jabès: une rhétorique de la subversion et de l’ harmonie,” Romance Notes, XXVI/1 (1985), pp. 3–11, on pp. 3–4.

162 BR II, p. 70.

163 Shillony, Edmond Jabès, p. 14

164 Gould, “Introduction,” in The Sin of the Book, p. xiv.

165 Cf. Kristeva, La révolution, pp. 101–116 (Revolution in poetic language, pp. 107–126).

166 Trivouss-Haïk, “Désirer lire la mise en acte de l’écrit,” in Écrire le livre, pp. 271–6, on p. 271.

167 Jaron, Edmond Jabès, p. 118.