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

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Przemyslaw 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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11 Theology of the Point: Jabès as a Modern Kabbalist

11 Theology of the Point: Jabès as a Modern Kabbalist

It seems that the account of Jabès’ work as epitomising Jewish philosophy of modernity is now complete. The structure of his thinking has been shown to be closely bound up with the modern conjuncture and its modes. Let us now apply the insights compiled so far to one particular theme reiterated across Jabès’ body of writing. Specifically, let us see how the double bind of Jewish philosophy of modernity is involved in Jabès’ Kabbalism.

What is his Kabbalism exactly? References to the Kabbalah – in terms of its cosmology and (a)theology – are abundant in z Jabès’ works,1 but they will not be my focal point in this Chapter. Instead, I will address one special aspect of his Kabbalah-derived inspirations exemplified in speculations on words, wordplay and permutations of letters. Jabès employs them time and again in strictly purposive, rather than autotelic, gestures. As a matter of fact, operations at the basic level of language help him establish and express new, unexpected conceptual links.2 Yet, if such engagement can be called “Kabbalism,” it is only in a highly metaphorical sense of the term, for Jabès does not work on Hebrew, the only language that would give such pursuits a theological validation. Instead, he relies on the thoroughly secular French language.

How is such Kabbalism related to Jewish philosophy of modernity? In this Chapter, I will argue two points. One of them – a simpler one resulting from explorations in the previous Chapters – is that Jabès’ Kabbalism is strictly ←331 | 332→modern, structurally conditioned by modernity and post-Theistic.3 His linguistic manipulations have the same origin as Hegel’s wordplays, Surrealists’ experimentations and the psychoanalytic model of language mechanisms. At the same time, Jabès introduces references to the Kabbalah and other Jewish traditions into this modern framework of thinking by, for example, permutating God’s names. His detachment from the Jewish past surfaces in his choice of French instead of Hebrew, which the kabbalists of old viewed as the only sacred language and, consequently as the only one suitable for this purpose.

My other point, a bolder one, is that in his Kabbalism Jabès does not simply depend on the structure of modern thinking but also comes to realise how this structure functions. The utter simplification attained by the poet reveals perhaps the fundamental line of forces generative of the patterns that organise modern philosophy.

I will explore this point in conclusion to this Chapter. But first, I will attempt to define the sources of Jabès’ Kabbalism and show its two essential versions: associations of letters and meditations on the point. I will discuss the role of the point in Jabès’ texts by juxtaposing it with Derrida’s différance. To finish with, I will describe the movement of simplification and erasure, which permeates the last two parts of The Book of Questions, and examine its meanings within the framework of Jewish philosophy of modernity.

Introduction: Linguistic Kabbalism in Jabès’ Thinking

The first question is why Jabès needs linguistic Kabbalism in the first place. His interpreters have rarely, if at all, inquired into this. Addressing the issue indirectly, they have tended to emphasise the irreducible dual embedment of such language practices in the Kabbalah and in modern literature. “As an heir to Jewish tradition, Jabès subjects French words to the same tests that exegetes and the kabbalists applied to the text of the sacred Book,” states Shillony.4 Shillony argues that Jabès follows the mystics of language in “refusing to believe in a coincident” behind the affinities of words.5 Motte compares Jabès’ letter-juggling to the practices of Abraham Abulafia, one of the most eminent mediaeval kabbalists, and ←332 | 333→to the literary devices used by Jabès’ contemporaries, such as John Barth, Walter Abish, Georges Perec and other members of the Oulipo group.6

Clearly, on these accounts, Jabès’ Kabbalism is not definable fully either as a continuation of techniques developed and perfected by generations of mystics or as a literary game. His Kabbalism is dissociated from the Kabbalah by a modern distance which the poet takes from the legacy of Judaism, to the point of discarding Hebrew. Admittedly, Abraham Abulafia himself used texts in other languages as well, but he considered those languages to be adulterated versions of the Hebrew ur-language.7 This idea is by no means upheld in Jabès. At the same time, his Kabbalism differs from the literary game in not being autotelic. It distinctly serves as a tool for thinking and, more than that, it is an immanent, requisite element of the thinking process, without which, like in the kabbalists,8 thinking could not go on. Jabès’ Kabbalism is both modern and severed from its sources as well as indispensable as a result of the laws governing modern thinking.

What particular features does Jabès attribute to this thinking? He presupposes its incompletion because thinking which follows the principles of inference fails to render truly relevant conclusions. Thinking thus has a certain external dimension to it, which cannot be directly grasped. This is where Kabbalism enters the stage. Permutations of letters and plays on words are moments when thinking veers into the dimension external to it: it abandons the realm in which thoughts are combined based on their meaningful content and comes to rely on seemingly contingent and meaningless linkages. Subsequently, these external associations help thinking find a new course and meaningfully organise its conclusions. Linguistic Kabbalism is, therefore, the moment when thinking confronts its own outside. It is a direct consequence of the fact that this outside is there, embodied in writing.

If it is indeed the case, Jabès’ works should contain traces of quasi-dualism of the utterance’s meaningful content and its material outside – its written form. Let us have a look at the following passage:

As far back as I can remember and as much as I can be sure, I believe the spelling errors I made as a child and adolescent were the origin from which my questioning grew. I had trouble understanding that a word copied a little differently, with a letter too many or ←333 | 334→too few, suddenly did not represent anything, that my teacher could angrily cross it out with red ink and claim the arbitrary right to punish me for inventing it, as it were.

So a word did not exist unless spelled correctly, as someone – but who? God perhaps? – had chosen, had decreed it should be spelled. And how had the letters come to have such power over man that they could lay down the law? What mystery dwelled in them?9 Sometimes I also thought if I spelled a word my way I could be the only one to live with it, to love it. […] Among my challenged vocables, I felt both free and a slave to their freedom.10

Both these childhood memories and Jabès’ later linguistic Kabbalism are founded on the experience of a fundamental discord between the utterance’s meaning and its rendering in writing. The script is the utterance’s condition of possibility, yet changes in it are not translatable into changes in meaning in any straightforward, readily comprehensible way. On the contrary, an ostensibly minor modification – adding or removing one letter – can entirely change the word’s meaning. This effect resembles Wittgenstein’s “dawning of an aspect,”11 that is, a situation in which one and the same graphic form (or drawing) can be perceived in various ways, but because at a given moment only one of these ways is discernible, a sudden realisation that another perception is also possible is surprising and unexpected.

Nevertheless, like Wittgenstein, Jabès views this incommensurability as too weighty to approach merely as an interesting, but marginal, side-effect of writing. Rather, it seems to him to embody the elementary difference between meaning and the outside in which it is inscribed and which conditions it. If so, Kabbalism in Jabès can be expected to hinge on the central tension of the perspectival world. In other words, a seemingly trifling difference between adding one letter in writing and the alteration in the utterance’s meaning can represent the same structure that causes the difference and connection between the imaginary and the real.

Let us look into this idea, revisiting the passage quoted above: “I had trouble understanding that a word copied a little differently, with a letter too many or too few, suddenly did not represent anything, that my teacher could angrily cross it out with red ink and claim the arbitrary right to punish me for inventing it, as it were. So a word did not exist unless spelled correctly, as someone – but who? ←334 | 335→God perhaps? – had chosen, had decreed it should be spelled. What mystery dwelled in them [letters]?” Clearly, Jabès presupposes that the meaning works correctly only if its graphic form abides by the rules whose origin is difficult to establish. If the word is “incorrect” on the plane of letters, it ceases to exist at all on the plane of meaning. An ensemble of arbitrary rules is imposed on writing, determining when and on what conditions it yields meaning.

What follows is that meaning is conditional, and its conditionality is revealed only in confrontation with writing – similarly to the imaginary discussed in Chapter Three. On this model, writing is analogous to the real: it reveals the fact that a set of letters which are meaningless in one order can be meaningful in another order; therefore, particular symbolic orders co-exist within writing. That the same structure which I described before as the principle of Jabès’ negative ontology is at work here is confirmed by the fact that writing, which is the condition, is not autonomous either but is in itself entangled in meaning: seeing letters, we cannot but consider their potential meaning-making character. Writing and meaning are, thus, interconnected and divided by a discontinuity, an inexplicable gap. We know its name: it is Jabès’ tzimtzum. Jabès’ linguistic Kabbalism explores how the immanently limited meaning meets its outside. As such, it is a practice that constantly revolves around tzimtzum.

It is easier to understand now why language operations in Jabès’ texts are suspended between references to the Kabbalah and the legacy of Hegel, Mallarmé and the Surrealists. His Kabbalism germinates in its own soil and solves its own problem, one that has a modern structure.12 But, at the same time, while ←335 | 336→producing a complex re-construction of Judaism, Jabès could not possibly overlook the tradition in which permutation techniques had a theological and cosmological relevance ascribed to them. He could not possibly fail to draw on the uniqueness of the Hebraic text, the reading of which automatically entails a reduced interpretation, for it requires adding vowels to the scripted text.13 The Kabbalah is for Jabès a model of the connection between an ostensibly trifling difference in meaning and the graphic form on the one hand and a fundamental ontological difference on the other. For this reason, in his linguistic practices Jabès adopts the Kabbalah’s forms and vocabulary.14 Nevertheless, the difference they serve to explore is not the difference that the Kabbalah studies. First of all, the former is not the difference between the world and transcendent God, that is, between the literal meaning of the text and its hidden, full meaning, respectively.15 Fullness is supplanted here with the central void of tzimtzum, which can never be reached because it is revealed only in a displacement between two intertwined dimensions.

←336 | 337→

From Letters to the Point

After this introduction, let us have a closer look at Jabès’ linguistic Kabbalism. I will focus on two types of it.

I have already mentioned one of the techniques Jabès applies as he uses the affinities in the graphic forms of various words. As, in Gematria, the same numeric value of two words with entirely different meanings made the kabbalists think their interrelationship, so Jabès builds on similarities in the written form to discover the “encrypted” relationships. What relationships are they? Here are a handful of examples. In the seventh part of The Book of Questions, the word “silence” is shown to comprises the particle “Il” – “He.” What follows is that the sentence “God – He – is” contains another one: “silence exists [silence est].”16 This is supposed to mean that God’s existence is identical with his withdrawal, speechlessness and silence. The far-fetched link on the plane of lettering harbours a trace of truth about tzimtzum.

As the kabbalists speculated about God’s Name, so Jabès often manipulates the word “Dieu.” One of these manoeuvres involves re-ordering its letters and adding one more, which re-makes “Dieu” – God – into “deuil,” mourning.17 The association of God and mourning ushers in the ideas we are already familiar with in Jabès: God is the central void, the great “Absent” one, whose being is mourning because it involves erasure of positive being. A yet another connection, which is based not only on the similar graphic form but also on the homophony of parts of words, is: Dieu = vide = vie d’yeux (God = Emptiness = Life of the eyes).18 This sentence also associates God with the void but identifies him with “life of the eyes” as well, which invites various interpretations. The image may evoke the life of man gazing into the central void, but it may as well convey the gaze that the void itself turns to man, which is what happens with the onset of the Book, as discussed in Chapter Seven. The latter interpretation is consistent with another association: “cieux = yeux + ciel” (the heavens = eyes + heaven).19 The heavens turn out to be a gaze from heaven: a gaze of the Nothing that was brought in by Creation. The same overtones pervade passages of Intimations The Desert:

the word SOLEIL, which contains, how could we doubt it, the words ŒIL and LOI in mysterious order, gigantic pupil, heavenly eye with lashes of fire.20

←337 | 338→

The sun is here the centre of the gaze from the heavens which, at the same time, constitutes the Law. All these images play with the Kabbalah motifs (God as fire), yet they revolve around the radically atheist thought that God, as the centre of non-being, is a negative organisation principle of the world.

Still another association conveys the mechanism of the Book:

“If it is true that within every word another word trembles to be born, look, listen how inside the word SEUIL, ‘threshold,’ there struggles the word SEUL, ‘alone.’”

“Thus you are alone at the deserted threshold of the Book [au seuil désert du Livre].”21

French is perfect for such verbal games, some of which are hardly translatable into any other language. The passage above links solitude to the threshold. In doing this, it parallels Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” where radical singularisation is combined with abiding just before the impassable boundary. Besides, the passage captures our inscription in the Book: as SEUL is inscribed and hidden in SEUIL, so man finds himself at the deserted threshold of the Book: before it and, yet, also in it, which he cannot see for himself.

Each of the examples is closely interwoven with Jabès’ respective thoughts. However, their functions can differ. Some of them just illustrate thoughts as catchphrases which pithily convey the poet’s central idea (e.g. Dieu = vide). Yet, even in such cases, they are ontologically justified: a simple relationship on the plane of the written form corresponds to a link which ordered reasoning can reach only by a detour. Other examples give a “grounding” to more risky correlations and suggest a direction for thinking to follow (e.g. SOLEIL – LOI – ŒIL). Still other ones, finally, play on the very structure of association in order to convey a thought, as the last quotation does. Jabès’ Kabbalism becomes essentially relevant at this point. An idea is no longer separable from the link through which it manifests itself in writing. In other words, to grasp the idea, it is necessary to resort to the utterance overdetermined by inner associations.

This brief survey of examples of letter permutations shows that their functions form a continuum. There are passages in which associations at the level of the graphic form only complement directly conveyable ideas; there are passages in which external connections blaze the trail for thinking; and, finally, there are passages in which permutations are central as they help thoughts organise around the structure of association. It seems that this continuum is ordered by the principle of the growing relevance of the external link in writing to the meaningful content. At each consecutive stage, the material connection of letters grows more ←338 | 339→and more essential to the meaningful content. In other words, this continuum develops asymptotically towards the very outside of meaning. The further position a passage occupies in it, the greater the role of the structure in relation to the content.

Having mapped this continuum, we can proceed to meditations on the point – the other set of Jabès’ techniques, which should as a matter of fact be considered crucial to his work.

Kabbalism of the point results from the evolution of The Book of Questions. Such Kabbalism hardly appears in the cycle’s initial parts, arising only as a consequence of the progressing movement of simplification and condensation. The title of the seventh part is •, the point as such, which provides at the same time the axis of inquiries in the volume. This prolonged movement towards reflection on the point seems consistent with the direction of the continuum described above? If it is indeed the case, this kind of Kabbalism can be regarded as its ultimate form. For, in the point, the meaningful content is most reduced while the structure to which the point belongs is most visible.

In this sense, Kabbalism of the point is the opposite of the technique in which connection in the written form only complements the thought. In reflection on the point, the written form has the central role, and thought is only auxiliary to it. This is clear in Jabès’ choice of • – of something that is no longer a verbal sign – for the title of the last and nodal part of The Book of Questions. Its parenthesised subtitle only supplements this point. In this, Jabès sets out to search for the structure that is the condition of possibility of Kabbalistic techniques in the first place. The force which so far has just combined words of different meanings in their “external” written form and then withdrawn to make room for interpretation becomes here the object of exploration in and by itself.

Below, I will therefore focus on Kabbalism of the point. First, I will provide its theoretical underpinnings, examining the meanings of the point in Jabès, and then I will study its use to establish what it is that Jabès grasps in his Kabbalism.

Introduction to Kabbalism of the Point, or on Jabès’ Materialistic Différance

As already stated, the point results from simplification and condensation of Jabès’ other Kabbalistic techniques. Consequently, to examine its complex nature, let us first ask simply how it differs from these techniques.

Among the examples above, the association of “Dieu” and “deuil” brings together words which differ only little in writing but greatly in meaning. But for Jabès’ atheological thought, they would hardly collocate with each other. The role ←339 | 340→of association lies therefore in bringing together words whose meanings are wide apart, relying on a far smaller difference they display in writing.

How does this change if “Dieu” and “deuil” are replaced by two points: • and •? The difference on the plane of the graphic form ostensibly disappears, for these are the same two points. And yet, they are different for, after all, they are separate and do not overlap. This is, obviously, the old Leibnizian problem of the identity of indiscernibles. Putting two points side by side reveals a deeper and more elusive difference than the one between “Dieu” and “deuil”: this is the difference behind individualisation.22 How about the plane of meanings? The point has no permanent meaning: it can represent the singular, “being” in its individuality and All as well. It is an utterly simplified sign which means simply “something” rather than anything definite. Therefore, juxtaposing two points serves to make visible the fundamental, incomprehensible difference disclosed on the plane of writing when meaning is reduced to the utmost.

This is the source of the paradoxical nature of Jabès’ point. This point is first and foremost a sign of this basic difference, which has a lot in common with Derrida’s différance. It is a sign, for it is the only way of referring to a difference which is itself ungraspable. Between two points there can be no difference in meaning; there is only the most basic difference due to which there can be any separate beings at all. This is the reason why the point serves here as a sign of difference as such. But it is certainly not a sign of classic semiology Derrida speaks about,23 for it does not refer to anything present. The only thing it does is simply referring without ever resting in any stable referent. For difference is not a referent that can be referred to. But paradoxically, the very movement of referring is an operation of that which it is to refer to, that is, of difference! This is the most intriguing conclusion of reflection on Jabès’ point: this point is a sign of difference, it refers to difference which it cannot reach, but this referring itself is differential. In other words, the point is a sign of difference because difference makes it a sign. ←340 | 341→Consequently, the point is both a sign of difference and the “embodiment” of difference’s operation as such. In this fundamental paradox, separating the sign and the signified is pointless.

Let us explore this peculiarity in more detail. The point is a site of self-differentiation. Each attempt to interpret it triggers another difference and separates it from itself: that is why no stable description of the point can be provided. Yet, despite all this, it seems to be located at a certain place. Admittedly, we cannot “offer an account” of the point because of its self-differentiation, but we can refer to the place it occupies in space and regard this place as sustaining – for us – the totality of its movement. As such, this place would be a place where the point works but also where the point is, without going beyond it. Thus, by assuming that there is a certain space distinct from our interpretation, we can refer to the point without triggering differentiation within our own thinking.

Jabès presupposes such a space in his specific materialism, and the point, as I will show below, is for him first of all a dot of ink on paper. Paradoxical though this may sound, if the point is to convey the abstract difference, it must be identified with a material object.24 Ultimately, a purely material difference between ←341 | 342→ourselves and a fragment of matter before our eyes is necessary to prevent the reference to the difference embodied in the point from being absorbed in the difference itself. Materialism consists here in presupposing a special plane – let us call in the plane of inscription – which is in and by itself separate from the movement of difference. As such, this plane is entrusted with the role of sustaining difference based on the distance produced by ostension between the looker and the object.

This leads to more general conclusions. Jabès needs materialism in order to think a framework external to thinking, a certain space in which thinking is inscribed. As a result, thought can refer to itself through mediation of this space. The concept of such space has already surfaced in this volume. It is, of course, the Book, which – though an abstract concept – is by no means randomly material in Jabès. The Book is “material” because it is the ultimate barrier to the working of difference, which must unfold within the Book and, consequently, cannot subsume the difference between the Book and itself. Matter comes to embody the ineffaceable, that which resists thinking and persists as the “point,” “remnant,” “waste” (to use any of the notions cherished in modern philosophy). Therefore, materialism is here a product of thinking itself, which breeds within itself an obstacle and then links it to the representation of matter in order to avoid the engulfing power of difference. In crafting such an obstacle, thinking stabilises itself by presupposing a plane of scrutiny from which it is visible as bound to a certain place.

That materialism and the Book are closely interconnected is not a coincidence. Both concepts presuppose that thought cannot grasp a certain field directly but needs to be looked at itself. As discussed in Chapter Seven, this necessity is a paradoxical consequence of perspectivism: the premise of multitude and fragmentation of symbolic orders makes it necessary to think a radical space of discontinuity which holds the orders and from which they are scrutinised. Jabès’ meditations on the point yield the same conclusion as, ultimately, they must presuppose a bare materiality in which difference is preserved for us so that we can refer to it. The sign does not guarantee such stability because it works based on difference itself; hence, a bare, non-referential materiality is necessary. It turns ←342 | 343→out that the split between materiality and thinking is deeper than the power of difference, which cannot surmount it. By postulating this modern materialism, we essentially turn difference against itself; we make difference separate itself from thinking through difference. Crucially, while so far difference has worked within language or at its limit (as is the case with the point), locating difference in materiality generally seeks to break linguistic communication and transfer thought to the level of ostensive indication of a thing. In the same gesture, we attribute to the thing indicated the possibility to gaze at our own position. Hence, it is not about the Aristotelian primacy of an “at-hand,” subjected to the power of the human gaze. In Jabès’ materialism, which is so closely implicated in the principles of modern thinking, gazing at materiality means, at the same time, being looked at by matter. The power of difference turns here also against thinking itself and disrupts its subjectifying scrutiny, making it particular and inscribed. Therefore modern materialism can be a way in which perspectivism apprehends itself, a way in which the fragmented scrutinises the fragmented. Whatever cannot be expressed in language remains in the awed gaze reciprocated by the silent stare of matter. On this model, to take the position of bare materiality means to experience perspectivism. Consequently, it is no wonder that modern thinking can no longer utter what it considers true and, instead, delves off into the gaze of matter, trying – to no avail – comprehensively to render this effect in thousands upon thousands of written pages.

Insights about thus-conceived materiality are substantiated by Derrida. It is hardly a coincidence that, treading similar paths to Jabès, Derrida referred to différance by means of the material difference between “e” and “a.” He also used the quasi-concept of “infrastructure” (developed later by Rodolphe Gasché), which “relegates” the conditions of possibility of discourse into its “outside” in a quasi-materialistic manner. Nevertheless, Jabès seems to be more consistent than Derrida. He elaborates a single reference to matter into fully-fledged “materialism,” with the Book – a space of ultimate emplacement – as its major quasi-concept.25

←343 | 344→

To conclude this part of my argument, the reasoning above suggests that Jabès’ point essentially involves three inseparable properties. First of all, the point is a sign of basic ontological difference which, when meaning is reduced to the utmost, is the backbone of reality. Second, the point is, at the same time, this very difference because thinking about it absorbs the sign’s referential movement. Third, the point must be identified with a material “dot,” for only then can it be emplaced, thereby halting difference’s engulfing movement. Consequently, the point is a material foothold around which difference continues to oscillate.

Thus-conceived, the point embodies all the paradoxes of Jabès’ universe. Their traces were revealed in the examination of letter permutations: the power of the external, graphic link blazed a trail for constructing new meanings. Yet, the “idea” of the point is not about traces; this “outside” is not imprinted onto meaningful utterances anymore. On the contrary, the point in Jabès is no longer an element in a meaningful inquiry; instead, the point is the movement of the forces of difference themselves around an empty centre. It is a nomen omen anchorage point from which to start exploring the underlying ontological structure. The triple definition of the point – as a sign of difference, difference itself and its material anchoring – represents the same relationship that binds (1) the perspectival world that refers to the inaccessible beginning; (2) this very beginning, that is, tzimtzum; and (3) the Book, in which particular tzimtzums are inscribed.

This theoretical framework will support our analysis of Jabès’ texts devoted specifically to the point. They can be divided into two groups. In the “static” ←344 | 345→group, Jabès depicts the ontological role of the point and reflects on the point as a constitutive “element” of reality. The “dynamic” group approaches the point as an asymptote of the simplification movement, where the point is the accomplishment of the goal pursued by writing. Let me begin from the “static” texts.

The Point as the Basis of Creation

In many passages, Jabès describes the point as a presupposed, basic element of ontology. Let us focus on the following passage:

In the beginning was the point and the point hid a garden.

Guided by their past, the Jews noticed, in their daily practice of the text, that the word had roots. They made the trunk of consonant and a life-giving branch of vowel, like God had made a day star of the flaring point and a night star of the burnt-out [ébloui] point.26

The passage explicitly evokes the Kabbalistic garden motif.27 Like the kabbalists, Jabès employs the garden image to express the idea of the multiplicity of ←345 | 346→ontological layers. With the idea of pardes, the kabbalists could claim that the sensory world and the literal interpretation harbour other, deeper layers, which can be reached through mystical reflection. In the passage, Jabès states that “the point hid the garden.” The point appears at the beginning, holding the garden within itself. If the garden is construed as the entire developed world, the idea the image conveys is that the world is not just everything there is but an entity that is in itself a unit of a deeper structure. The garden-world lies within the point which delimits it from the outside and emplaces it in a peculiar space. If this reading is correct, Jabès uses the Kabbalistic image of the garden to show that there is a level where the internally opulent world can be reduced down to a simple unit. The statement “The point hides the book it contains”28 can be interpreted in the same way. In other words, the book – with all the manifold elements it encompasses – is only a point within a certain dimension. Its parts are not autonomous because they all depend on their position in this point.

Consequently, to see the point means, at the same time, to proceed to a level viewed from which the previously simple “all” turns out to be a limited entity. The point reveals the world, “book,” or “garden” as incomplete and placed in a broader space. For this reason, in the passage above, Jabès identifies the point with stars, which make the world visible. Without the point, the world is but a simple, immediate “all” while, with the point, it becomes properly a world, that is, something delimited and singular.

←346 | 347→

To sum up, in Jabès’ thought the point has two fundamental aspects to it. First, it is the place of rootedness, that is, of inscribing a world or a book within a broader space. Second, it makes a world or a book singular and visible as individual entities. The latter aspect is very directly evoked in Jabès’ texts in which the point is identified with the vowel in an obvious play on the peculiarities of the Hebrew language:

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

“Vowels make us see, make us hear. Vowels are image and song. In our ancestors’ script, vowels are points.”

“God refused image and language in order to be Himself the point. He is image in the absence of images, language in the absence of language, point in the absence of points,” he said).29

The passage posits the equivalency of (1) the point, (2) vowel, (3) break and (4) the gap between the split fragments, that is, consonants. What follows is that the point is the distance which connects and, at the same time, separates shards of reality. This distance only makes them visible. The point is to reality what the vowel is to consonants: it destroys their simple unity and weaves the resulting pieces into a broader plane, where they only become discernible. Furthermore, Jabès associates the point with God, whereby he asserts that the gap left in the world by God’s absence makes it possible to look at this world from outside and spot its limitedness. The point as an elementary form of discontinuity is, thus, the condition of possibility of the world’s perceivability.

You need space to read the world. Readability depends on distance.30

All splits from All to allow us conceive of the All, which otherwise would be unthinkable. Nothing is separate from Nothing so that they might mirror each other and thus be named by Nothing.31

Consequently, thinking about the world is possible only because of disjunction embodied in the point. But this means also that the world which we know through the point must be in advance marked by a split that makes it readable. Even though Jabès follows here in the footsteps of German idealism, such notion of the point does not allow any Hegelian sublation in absolute knowledge. The point must endure for the world to remain readable. The point is, therefore, the condition of possibility of knowledge and, also, the condition of impossibility of ←347 | 348→knowledge (making knowledge always incomplete and dependent on the ultimate remnant it cannot subsume).

Jabès reflects in the same way on human life:

“The road of life is straight as an ‘i’ topped by a point it cannot ever join, which makes it legible to us,” he said.32

He made this absurd statement that each letter of our name was a phase of our life, and if death haunted us day and night, it was because the last letter, drawn like the others by our hand, fascinates us with its singular visibility.

He also said, the fact that the last letter of his first name was unpronounced rather confirmed that this letter was, not dead, but a letter of death.

And added: Sometimes the letter of death divides the flourishing letters of a name.

Against the time of life granted, it silently opposes the eternity of time that is its own.

[…] Could it be that man is a book [un livre] that he can read only in the book [le livre] he will write? And if the very act of writing made it possible?

My life is in the book, and the book is my life.33

Human life must contain an inner split, a negative remnant that resists understanding. This place, at the same time, directs thoughts to a space into which entire life is inscribed and from whose point of view it is a singular entity. “The last letter” of life forms the point which does not belong to life anymore but makes life perceivable: it is “exceptionally visible.” Unpronounceable, it demarcates the destination that life heads towards. Therefore, life cannot be seen – “read” in Jabès’ vocabulary – from within: it will show itself only in the last dot of its final book, where it will no longer be. As long as there is readability, reality continues fragmented, and, consequently, life cannot achieve total coherence.

“Let us make the point. Let us see,”34 exhorts Jabès. Making the point is like a lightning discharge that splits and simultaneously illumines the whole. Consequently, the point can be conceived not only in static terms, as an element of ontology, but also dynamically. The point is the goal of the movement of thinking. Let us focus on this goal now.

The Point as the End of God’s Erasure and Withdrawal

As already mentioned, for Jabès, writing is the movement of simplification. Each consecutive writing act strives to reduce the meaningful content and to focus on the structure behind its cycle. It is in this context that Jabès explores the point’s ←348 | 349→dynamic function. The point is, namely, an asymptote of the simplification movement – a goal this movement pursues but never attains.

This simplification could be deemed only a formal experiment. But those familiar with Jabès’ thought know that he does not even take such notion into account. If not experimentation, what is the aim of simplification? First, it serves to unveil fundamental ontological difference. In the previous section, this difference was discussed as a presupposed element of ontology; here, however, simplification serves to show that as an utterance’s meaning is gradually reduced, the point-difference will remain as an irreducible remnant. Second, the simplification movement involves, in parallel, reproducing the process of God’s withdrawal, which results in God’s reduction down to the point, an interval and minimal absence.

As discussed in the previous section, Jabès identifies the point – elementary difference – with God after tzimtzum. Here, however, he ventures much further. Namely, he suggests that the simplification movement effected by the writer is, mysteriously, co-extensive with God’s withdrawal. Even more intriguingly, the order of ontology is, in this, indistinguishable from the order of epistemology. Namely, the writer discovers the event which has already come to pass and made the negativity of difference the foundation of ontology; and, at the same time, he simultaneously, provokes this event himself in his drive towards simplification. As already suggested, this paradoxical action is a repetition of God’s withdrawal rather than just coming to know God’s withdrawal. The writer destroys the abundance of writing and causes its desertification in order to know the parallel desertification unfolding in the world.

It is easy to notice that, in this way, he falls into a historical pitfall. The process of “desertification” seems, theoretically, to reach into the future: it seeks to unveil the point on the horizon. But this point is, at the same time, the origin. To pursue the beginning means is to enter the future.35 Hence, the idea of the point compromises any concept of both the origin and the goal in which these notions serve to locate inquiry in the stable order of past, present and future. As already mentioned, the essence of the point, as Jabès sees it, lies in separation itself which precedes distinguishing moments in time and makes such distinguishing possible in the first place.36 This is why the way of destruction, which Jabès follows in ←349 | 350→writing, both reveals that which precedes reality and pursues the goal of desertifying it, in doing which God’s withdrawal is repeated. Reality is based on a not-here – whether the past or the future – which it cannot reach. Hence, meditation ultimately focuses on the point itself37 as the centre of discontinuity, no matter where it is located.38 “In the utterances of the book, past and future cannot be distinguished,”39 writes Jabès.

I will return to this paradox in the conclusion because it is a tell-tale aspect of Jewish philosophy of modernity. For now, I will attend to Jabès’ texts to investigate how the movement of simplifying writing down to the point dovetails in them with God’s withdrawal.

Importantly, across the successive parts of The Book of Questions the text is incrementally stripped of protagonists, dialogues and narratives; passages are utterly compressed and stories are getting increasingly skeletal to disappear completely. These processes are accompanied by linguistic Kabbalism, which involves erasing letters. The written words are partly crossed, which reduction yields shorter words, dismantled down to individual syllables. Most of these words contain the particle El, one of the Hebraic names of God.40 As early as in ←350 | 351→the first Book of Questions, Jabès states that the Name of God is what remains after writings have been erased multiple times.41 In the last part of the series, El emerges from the names of the protagonists introduced and removed in the previous volumes:

Y A E L

E L Y A

A E L Y

E L42

Jabès gives his protagonists names that heed the logic of Hebrew names, which contained El as their component, for example Micha-el (“who is like God?”), Rapha-el (“God is healer”) and Dani-el (“God is my judge”).43 Three names of the eponymous protagonists of the fourth, fifth and sixth Book of Questions contain El interwoven with the particle Ya, God’s ancient name and an element of the Tetragrammaton.44 In this way, the divine Name is demonstrated to engender all other names.

←351 | 352→

In another permutation, Jabès applies this procedure to reading, in which the book [LIVRE] and being free [LIBRE] are erased first and then reading itself [LIRE] is crossed out to yield LE: the definite article denoting “He” and, at the same time, “it,” that is, simply, All:

L I V R E

L I B R E

L I R E

L I R E

L E45

“EL” and its reverse “LE” are both erected upon the void which enters – or, more precisely, reveals itself as already existing – within the words it destroys. Consequently, they bear the trace of absence. This encapsulates Jabès’ premise that God is the pinnacle of absence, being both the “only One” and “the One” whose indeterminacy encompasses All. The degradation of God’s Name ends with the restitution of pure EL, as Shillony observes.46 This EL is no longer the ←352 | 353→erstwhile Name, but a form of primordial absence. The death of God is not a singular event but a process of slow and endless withdrawal.

But God’s withdrawal does not stop at disclosing EL as the basis of words; it progresses to reduce also this already transformed Name.47 When the words “God” (Dieu) and “mourning” (Deuil) are erased, L alone remains. As Jabès insists, all mourning is above all the mourning of God (in both senses of the genitive: God’s mourning and mourning for God):

D I

E U

D E

U I

L48

“L” as such is the last stage on the way to the point, on which the rest of the text focuses. In this way, it turns out that “all efforts to write are polarization of the point,”49 arranging it in various combinations. Ultimately, the point appears on the horizon of writing, as its goal, basis and sole object: its condition of (im)possibility.50 “Everything is washed away. Only the point is left, arbiter of obliteration.”51

In her insightful interpretation of the last four parts of The Book of Questions, Brown calls their progression “tracking of the advancement towards the absolute by means of reaching beyond appearances and imaginary representations.”52 Three characters – Yaël, Elya and Aely – are metaphors for the stages of this gradual erasure.53 Aely is, basically, only a remnant left over after the fall of ←353 | 354→representation – an eye, the Law.54 But this name, too, will be erased to have only the point for the title of the last book. In the course of the four books, a certain “active force” comes to the fore, operating from outside of the writer and his characters – a “charged alterity,” which strives to reveal itself through the writer and his characters.55 Its movement erases the characters and demands to speak itself. In this process, Brown goes on, the writer realises that he is not the source of his words, that another force steps in and out, emptying the writing process of meanings. This force intercepts writing to express itself. Writing reaches its “zero level” and turns into the cut-off point [point de butoir] for meaning.56

Brown posits also an interesting theory of the erasure process which is consistent with the conclusions of the previous Chapters. Namely, as she suggests,57 the consecutive forms of writing in the last parts of The Book of Questions are pairings of two dimensions: representation and God. Representation brings about the internal plenitude of passages while God is their empty core and inner movement. In this perspective, the erasure process is nothing else than the disclosure of the empty centre.58 This is the key paradox of Jabès’ Kabbalah: God reveals himself where his ultimate withdrawal from representation comes to pass. In other words, God’s revelation is God’s death conceived in Nietzsche’s fashion. The force which in Brown’s reasoning manifests in and through erasure is thus God’s revelation through his withdrawal from representations. The writer, who is himself erased in the process, gives this revelation writing.59

←354 | 355→

Summing up these insights, Jabès follows the Kabbalah to assert that “When God, El, wanted to reveal Himself, He appeared as a point.”60 In doing this, he suggests that the ultimate path towards desertification is, at the same time, the path of revelation. The wiping-out of the meaningful world down to a simple point is to reveal its ultimate basis, which, being eternally displaced into not-here, is the absent God himself. Therefore, reduction to the point is a way of finding the community of God and Creation:

“I’m inclined to believe that our nothingness and God’s do not at all have [ne sont point] the same scope. One envelops the other. We must see them in this perspective,” wrote Reb Hamouna.

And added, in order to illustrate his remark: “Imagine day engulfing the night, then night engulfing the day. All we shall ever be is nothing within nothing, a circle within a circle.”

And if God were the smallest circle?61

If God, as we know Him, has chosen to manifest Himself in a point, is it not to proclaim His likeness to a point?

[…] “The point reveals God outside resemblance.”62

He tried to read the book within the book and thereby destroyed it in each of its words. But the book also destroyed him, so that nothing was left either of him or of the book except for two small points, one black, one white, which soon fused.

[…] “A point so small, and yet it holds the ashes of all other points,” he said.63

Concluding: the point is ultimately pure difference abstracted from its contentful iterations – an asymptote of the movement of simplification. At the same time, the point comprises all these iterations, the way that the kabbalists believed it did.64 It is the smallest, central circle whence all forms of the world develop and which they encompass. This pattern is unveiled and, simultaneously, repeated in writing.

The final point contains all the remaining ones turned into “ashes.”65

←355 | 356→

Conclusion: What the Theology of the Point Actually Describes

Let us first recapitulate our argument in this Chapter. First, I showed that Jabès’ linguistic Kabbalism begins from the insight that meaningful utterances can be analysed from the perspective external to them, i.e. writing. This means that there is more to language than only content relations. Jabès generalises this insight and views meaning itself as limited and inscribed in another dimension embodied in writing. In this way, an ostensibly simple difference between the content of an utterance and its graphic rendering becomes a form of basic ontological difference which, in the world of perspectivism, divides the finite symbolic order from its outside. This premise causes Jabès’ linguistic Kabbalism to evolve and focus on the point. Jabès’ point is a sign of difference, difference itself and its material emplacement in one. I presented also two functions that the point performs in Jabès’ texts. First, the point is a presupposed, basic element of ontology as it embodies distance that both separates things and makes them visible. It breaks their unity, but, as a void, it forms a new plane of continuity where they become visible. Second, the point is the ultimate goal of the simplification movement that Jabès’ texts undergo. In this function, the point is a negative remnant which is disclosed when meaning is reduced to a minimum. At the same time, this process rehearses the act of God’s withdrawal from the Creation.

I believe that the identification of the point with God and of the erasure movement with God’s tzimtzum is a key to Jabès’ Jewish philosophy of modernity. Let us explore this correlation in more detail. Throughout this Chapter, I have attempted to show that speculation on the point is not actually a religious meditation in Jabès, who does not reflect on the Revelation as the Revelation does not exist for him. Consequently, he cannot be said to continue the Kabbalah. Radical though the kabbalists always were in their speculations to the point of identifying God with nothing, they always found the Revelation essential and viewed their extreme mystical insights as mysteries available to the chosen few and invariably rooted directly in the Torah’s injunctions. As Idel underscores, the kabbalists speculated on the mystical meanings of the Scripture but always regarded it as a message from the divine Author himself.66 To fathom those mysteries meant to rise to the level that transcended reality. Consequently, the most radical conclusion about the nature of God could not possibly breed the idea of his non-existence, for the speculation did not abolish the Torah’s lower meanings.

←356 | 357→

Jabès sees things entirely differently. He discards the God of Theism as a construct of human thinking. The Torah does not matter to him as the God-given Law. What serves as the material of his speculation is any text. For the speculation discovers the relationships which found reality as such and are reflected in every utterance. Like Kant and Hegel, Jabès does not rely on the Revelation as the source proper of knowledge, instead perceiving this source everywhere around him. Reality no longer has a transcendent dimension, but each of its elements reflects the same pattern and principle: the structure of the excess remnant. As such, it can be disclosed in the movement of simplification, which, rather than on the Torah, works on any text whatsoever. This movement results in the Kabbalism of the point, where speculation is brought down to its basic level: to relations constituted around the irreducible trace. This final trace, interval, discontinuity – or whatever else we choose to call it – is identified by Jabès with the “new,” contemporary God.

But why with God actually? The reason is that the role of this basic difference seems so immense to Jabès that it is comparable solely with the position God takes in the world of Theism. “Theology of the point,” which features in the title of this Chapter, shows the movement which elevates the effect of simplification’s philosophical work – difference – to the position of God. The point is here the central place of radically atheistic reality and, at the same time, turns out so vital that it calls for the former Theistic language. In this way, Jabès reproduces the Kabbalah’s mystical speculation, investing it with entirely new meanings.

Does this choice have anything “specifically Jewish” to it? The answer is no, it does not, insofar that before and after Jabès a similar gesture was applied to other traditions. When Kant supplants the Christian notion of God with the idea of pure reason, he follows the same path; when Hegel finds his “proper understanding” of Christianity, filling it with the dialectics of his own philosophy, he also erects the radically atheistic concept to the position of God. And after Jabès, for example, Jacques Lacan states in his Seminar XX:

The Other, the Other as the locus of truth, is the only place, albeit an irreducible place, that we can give to the term “divine being,” God, to call him by his name. God (Dieu) is the locus where, if you will allow me this wordplay, the dieu – the dieur – the dire, is produced. With a trifling change the dire constitutes Dieu. And as long as things are said, the God hypothesis will persist. […] in the end only theologians can be truly atheistic, namely those who speak of God.67

←357 | 358→

Following in the footsteps of Hegel and Lacan, Žižek links God to the minimum, irreducible quantum of negativity, a split that activates reality’s inner movement and, also, makes it excessive.68

A simple comparison implies that both Jabès’ thought and these examples deal with the same base difference. But the issue is far more captivating because whatever differences there are between, for example, Lacan, Žižek and Jabès – and they are by no means negligible – they are all diminished by the very act of questing for a minimum difference. The simplification movement, which unfolds in all of them (perhaps even enforced by the logic of modern thinking), heads towards its ultimate point, invalidating content differences underway. At the same time, each of these separate, albeit parallel, paths, if looked at from the perspective of their end-point, seems to employ these secondary, invalidated differences to cloak itself as radically different from the other ones.

Is it not how Christianity is “employed” by Hegel, Lacan and Žižek, and Judaism by Jabès? They list “proper readings” of each of these religions, arguing how aptly they describe the modern mechanisms of atheistic reality. But, in fact, they comb these respective traditions for meticulously selected resources which are already organised around the structure of the remnant in order to discover in them, in the movement of simplification, an irreducible distance, a split, and so forth, and identify it with God. Does the identical logic behind these gestures not cancel out the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism, which served to make these gestures? And if these differences are cancelled out, what drives this obsessive pursuit of self-distinction, this obsessive emphasis that the thus-discovered thought is “essentially” Jewish or Christian? In this movement of dissolution, which after all abolishes all grounding, what is it that produces and propels the need for the ultimate, inexplicable grounding of the “truly” Jewish or Christian difference?

My take on this issue is that all the thinkers listed above, including Jabès, discover one and the same logic of difference that can be regarded as the logic of modern reality. That the same difference is at stake is warranted by this difference itself as the ultimate goal of the simplification movement. To pursue it, one must first choose “the positive content,” to use Hegel’s coinage; there can be no simplification movement without this initial multiplicity which resists it. Simplification consists in “discovering” the workings of basic difference within this multiplicity. It is a double and inevitably overdetermined gesture: simplification “places” this difference in the positive content, claiming at the same time to discover it. This is ←358 | 359→not the end, however. Reduction leads to the implosion of the initial content, in which nothing is left except basic difference, with the inner variety becoming its function. The final point is utter simplification. This is where, I believe, the thinkers catalogued above make their breakthrough gesture: protecting themselves against the logic of ultimate simplification, they turn back just before its end and reach for an ostensibly external difference to stop this destructive movement. This external difference is not analysed but kept as the last shield against perishment. In this sense, it is material. What kind of difference is meant here? A viable answer is: the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

A very similar movement has already surfaced in this Chapter. Namely, when, following Jabès, I examined the point as a sign of difference and difference itself that engulfs it, I found that this difference had to be emplaced, to be anchored in matter. To stabilise the movement of thinking, an external difference was needed between difference and the characters on the paper, which simply are before us. If used at the beginning of the simplification movement, such an ostensive example would inevitably be deconstructed as a reference to the “logic of presence.” And yet, at the end of this movement, the “present,” looking-and-looked-at materiality is requisite as a barrier against the engulfing force of difference.

I believe that insisting on the rigorous distinction between one’s own path of philosophical simplification and those of others – by arguing that it is “truly” Jewish or Christian, materialist or idealist, leftist or rightist, and so forth – is to serve as the same quasi-“presence” that mounts up a blockade to ultimate difference. The positive content, which served initially as material to be simplified, turns into a barrier against the final act of simplification. The starting point becomes an irreducible anchorage point for difference, making it at all visible. On this account, Jabès’ “materialism” represents the same logic that underpins his “Judaism” and Hegel’s, Lacan’s or Žižek’s “Christianity.” Indication of the differences that are prior to the enacted simplification performs the same function as making an ink stain on paper: it emplaces and retains base difference. It gives respite from the labour of differing on particular issues as it is enough to point to this base difference to make separation from other positions definitive and self-evident. Furthermore, it helps perceive one’s own position as well. In this stoppage that modern thought finds so alluring – in this silent reciprocation of gazes between thought and difference which it has instituted, which it gazes at and by which it is ultimately gazed at – one arrives at self-recognition as a piece on the map of perspectivism.

Hence, it can be said that the self-depiction of one’s philosophy as Jewish or Christian finally inscribes the entire force of base difference within the “contingent” difference of positive content and helps perceive this philosophy as looked at by a ←359 | 360→fixed gaze. There is nothing behind “true” philosophical Judaism or Christianity except one fundamental difference which constructs modern thinking. However, this difference is not directly graspable or describable. “Just before” it is arrived at, “just before” the simplification movement achieves its end, it must come to a halt to avoid being absorbed: in this act of stoppage, base difference is projected on the material that has been annihilated and distinguishes this material radically from all other ones. This explains why history is so essential to modern philosophy. History is, first of all, a dead lump of a broken narrative about events which modern thought revives and saturates with its own difference so as to subordinate to present thinking the past that has led to it. But the same historical material that is so bluntly reorganised provides the last possible point that enables self-distinction. Therefore, it is as much organised by modern thinking as it supports modern thinking as a certain “at-hand” lying before us and having a gaze. Were it not for the historical distinctions, which as such are contingent in the light of base difference, all modern paths would merge into one. A barrier to the ultimate simplification is, thus, put up by drawing a contingent, historical dividing line and attributing an organising power to it, which comes from basic difference. In this way, for example, the difference between philosophical Judaism and Christianity is raised to the status of the fundamental division that has informed the entire Western philosophy. At the same time, our own position is looked at by the fixed gaze of split history.

It is only by renewing this delimitation over and over again, which requires a meticulous separation of Athens from Jerusalem and of Christianity from Judaism, that base difference can be fixed in one place. In other words, the radical self-distinction of one’s way is an ultimate embodiment of fundamental modern difference. Adhering to a clearly demarcated philosophical “position,” to unambiguous identification with “Judaism,” “Christianity,” “materialism” and their likes, indicates thus that the movement of simplification has approached its end and, unable to actually reach this end, it has had to turn back and settle on a compromise difference which blocks thought in confrontation with materiality. As Jabès’ reflection on the point implies, “pure” difference is not available: when approaching it, thinking must flinch and halt at an external fulcrum. In this perspective, the modern humanistic disputes of “truly” Jewish or “truly” Christian philosophical positions are a double sign: a sign of success, that is, of arriving at the common structure of base difference; and a sign of inevitable failure as this difference is projected onto the positive content, which produces positions sustained only by resistance to the force of negativity.

This resistance is highly symptomatic and betrays the tension of modern thinking. For exploring dispassionately an illustrative historical difference ←360 | 361→between Judaism and Christianity would take a painstaking study of differences between particular texts, an accurate examination of how both traditions have evolved and a methodical scrutiny of how they have come closer to and moved away from each other in the process. This is not how Jewish philosophy of modernity spins its narrative: admittedly, it employs historical material, but it does so only to “discover” in it a difference it has presupposed and heads to. It aims to purify, universalise and, then, extend this difference onto issues which seem to have little to do with it. Characteristically, negligible differences can in this way be inflated into absolutely fundamental divisions. Any common measure for more or less significant distinctions disappears as the basic separation is fundamentally relevant while all other differences are entirely overridden by it. In this way, the outcome is settled in advance, and the closure is ostensibly embedded in the already existing historical material, whose stone-hard look suffers no remonstration.

This implies yet another consequence. If, this is indeed how the positive content, simplification movement and base difference are interrelated, discourses informed by this configuration can be expected to have a specific relationship to history. Namely, the past of the tradition on which they draw will not be directly available to them. They will not perceive themselves as located within and determined by its continuity. Rather, I believe, their relationship to this past will be based on the structure of inscription in history, which inscription is an act of re-interpretation consisting in severance. In their perception of history, the discourses will consciously consider themselves to be “a foreign body” which, though apparently discovering the “true” meaning of the old, insufficiently reflexive tradition, is itself based on another speculative mechanism. This pattern is glaringly visible in Hegel’s notion of Christianity. If these insights are correct, an inexplicable discontinuity should arise in the continuum of history as framed by the new discourses – a trace of the projection of base modern difference onto the “historical material.” This trace in history should be closely associated with difference as the goal of the simplification movement.

Jabès’ meditations on the point help notice this association. He states, namely, that “our sources precede us” and that, searching for the ultimately purified point, we are actually searching for the event that gave rise to all our thinking, for tzimtzum. Therefore, Jabès presupposes a discontinuity in history, a discontinuity which is responsible for the end of simplification.

If this reasoning is correct, Jabès’ “theology of the point” tells us more and, at the same time, less than it would like to. It tells us less because, instead of reviving the Kabbalah, it turns the Kabbalah into a material for the movement of modern difference. In doing so, it drags the Kabbalah, and entire Judaism with it, into ←361 | 362→endless wars over what is actually Jewish and what is not. Yet it also tells us more because the white flame of purely modern difference appears from behind the Kabbalistic curtain. Jabès’ writings provide one of the most accurate, radical and consistent accounts of how this difference works.

←362 | 363→

1 David Mendelson observes that, in Jabès, the translated key-words of Judaism, such as “law” and “writing,” form, as they did in the kabbalists, a hidden, inner language through which the “Upper” manifests itself in the “Lower.” David Mendelson, “La science, l’exil et les sources du desért” in Écrire le livre, p. 251. However, in this Judaism after God, the “Upper” is no longer God’s message but the concealed laws of fragmented reality themselves.

2 In this, Jabès is part of the rich tradition of Jewish thought in which the Kabbalah and philosophy tended to intertwine while theosophical speculations were philosophically studied. For example, in the 13th and 14th centuries, thinkers such as Abraham ibn Latif and Josef ibn Wakar endeavoured to reconcile the developing Kabbalah and the Maimonidean tradition founded on medieval Aristotelianism (Hayoun, Petite histoire, p. 74). Importantly, two movements – mystical symbolism and philosophical speculation – historically developed in parallel in the Kabbalah (Gershom Scholem, Kabbale, p. 119).

3 Matthew Del Nevo calls Jabès a “kabbalist after God.” Matthew Del Nevo, “Edmond Jabès and Kabbalism after God,” p. 404.

4 Shillony, Edmond Jabès, p. 68.

5 Ibid., p. 18.

6 Warren F. Motte, “Récit/Écrit,” in Écrire le livre, pp. 161–70, on p. 167.

7 Scholem, Major Trends, pp. 134–5.

8 Ouaknin, Concerto, p. 321.

9 In the original: la mystère… dans ses lettres, which seems to allude to Mallarmé’s “La Musique et les Lettres” (Eng. translation ‘Music and Letters” or “Music and Literature”) and, perhaps, also to Blanchot’s essay on Mallarmé in The Work of Fire.

10 BR II, p. 46.

11 Wittgenstein, Investigations, pp. 192–214.

12 William Franke explains that in Jabès’ Kabbalism “[t];he common noun for book, livre, turns out like the adjective for free, libre, to be subject to voiding at the center: by suppressing their central letter, li(v)re (book) and li(b)re (free) are pared down equally to li re (the infinitive “to read”), and then, by further hollowing out, eliminating all but the first and the last letter in each word, to le, the singular, masculine, definite article for generically designating whatever is anything at all. But le reversed is also the Hebrew name of God, namely, El. In this manner, the Hebrew name of God, which is in principle unpronounceable, silent, is found at the core of the book, and of reading and of naming in general, and so of language itself.

Jabès works with French the way the kabbalah writers worked with the Hebrew language, finding presumable mystical truths of the universe inscribed within it. Mere contingencies of the French language are presented as miraculously revealing the mystery of Creation by the Name of God, the empty and unpronounceable divine Name that creates all from Nothing. But whereas the kabbalists supposed Hebrew to have been the language of Creation itself, Jabès uses French to show how the self-subversive forms and fictive powers of a human language can be seen to mirror an undelimited power of creativity from Nothing. Such power of creation from nothing was traditionally attributed to divine Word and Name alone.” Franke, “Singular,” p. 630. Franke aptly grasps the modern nature of Jabès’ Kabbalism, which is practised in another language and is atheistic. However, it is difficult to share his view that the poet’s aim is to show the “fictive powers of a human language.” I think that something far more important is at stake: Kabbalism does not investigate how fiction comes into being but rather how the basic structure of modern reality functions.

13 The Hebraic script, like other Semitic scripts, basically does not include vowels, with the unique exception of what are referred to as matres lectionis. Vowels tend to be noted in a special way wherever writing a word unambiguously is crucial, which is the case, for example, with some editions of the Torah (though its proper text is not dotted, which opens up multiple interpretive possibilities). Vowels are written by means of a special system based first of all on points (נקודות). Hence the idea Jabès is eager to pick up that even one point can entirely change the meaning of the word, and, as such, whether it is present or absent determines the shape of the world. The (Babylonian) Talmud’s book of Eruvin contains a famous parable in which rabbi Akiba talks to a scribe copying the Torah and exhorts him to be particularly careful neither to omit nor to add any single letter lest he should destroy the entire universe. Ouaknin, Concerto, p. 343.

14 According to Del Nevo, “Kabbalah offers a structural model and helps him [Jabès] organize his metaphysical premises, as well as being a means of giving specific, sensible coherence to universal problems.” Del Nevo, “Edmond Jabès and Kabbalism after God,” p. 405.

15 Idel voices similar insights when he compares the Kabbalistic and Derridean ideas of the text. See Idel, Absorbing Perfections, pp. 78–9.

16 BQ II, p. 374.

17 Ibid., p. 411.

18 Ibid., p. 410.

19 Ibid., p. 410.

20 BR II, p. 73.

21 Ibid., p. 1.

22 Already Moses Cordovero explored the point as the smallest unit dividing being from non-being. See Draï, Pensee juive, p. 145.

23 As Derrida argues in “Différance,” “this structure presupposes that the sign, which defers presence, is conceivable only on the basis of the presence that it defers and moving toward the deferred presence that it aims to reappropriate. According to this classical semiology, the substitution of the sign for the thing itself is both secondary and provisional: secondary due to an original and lost presence from which the sign thus derives; provisional as concerns this final and missing presence toward which the sign in this sense is a movement of mediation.” Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1984), pp. 1–28, on p. 9.

24 How important this assumption is suggested by the fact that the only mainstream philosophical text explicitly quoted in the Books is a passage from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in which the idea of the point is related to matter (thesis 4.063 appears in El; BQ II, p. 345): “An illustration of the concept of truth. A black spot on white paper; the form of the spot can be described by saying of each point of the plane whether it is white or black. To a fact that the point is black corresponds a positive fact; to the fact that a point is white (not black), a negative fact. […] But to be able to say that a point is black or white, I must first know under what condition a point is called white or black […]. The point at which this simile breaks down is this: we can indicate a point on the paper without knowing what white and black are.

… The verb of a proposition is not “is true” or “is false”… That which “is true” must, on the contrary, already contain the verb.” (The first paragraph from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus, p.43, the second – altered – from BQ II, p. 345).

In 4.063 Wittgenstein seeks to show that the assertion can be understood as ascribing to a point in space – symbolising any proposition – either of two colours: black or white, which corresponds to ascribing truth-value or false-value to a proposition. A problem with this comparison is that it does not account for propositions without a sense, which cannot be defined as either true or false. In 4.064 Wittgenstein adds that the assertion does not give a proposition a sense, “for what it asserts is the sense itself.” Therefore, he views the spot image as inadequate in that it seems to suggest that, first, the spot corresponds to every sentence (i.e. it is true or false but cannot have no sense), and that, second, whiteness and blackness obtain before the procedure of verifying logical comes into being and is applied. This explains, I believe, why Jabès quotes this passage. “We can indicate a point on the paper without knowing what white and black are” – in Jabès, the point (Wittgenstein’s spot), as the primary difference, can be indicated only as prior, predating any procedure analogous to Wittgenstein’s establishment of logical value. What in Wittgenstein is only a partly adequate simile would be exceptionally adequate in Jabès, and for the same reason, too. Ultimately, a point can be indicated before telling the difference between white and black because the point embodies difference, which precedes and makes possible any distinction.

25 As explained in Chapter One, I will not compare Derrida and Jabès comprehensively even though the affinity of the former’s différance and the latter’s point is so conspicuous that it actually calls for charting their similarities and divergences. I will offer one observation only. I believe that the basic hiatus between the two concepts lies in that Derrida’s trace “properly has no site,” being a simulacrum of presence which constantly shifts, refers to itself and erases itself (Derrida, “Différance,” p. 24). This assertion stands in contrast to locating difference in the graphic form of différance. Jabès, in turn, apportions his point a place and, even, acknowledges its special space, i.e. the Book. His “impossible materialism,” as noted earlier, makes him continue to refer to the outside of matter. So while the “a” in Derrida’s différance marks that which falls silent, built into the “pyramid” of the word (Ibid., p. 23), Jabès’ point appears as a crystallised embodiment of this muffling and takes its place.

The difference between Derrida and Jabès results from the messianic structure of Jabès’ writing, which, though not aiming at utter silence, uses silence as the key moment of its structure. As such, it enforces the materialistic concept of the Book. This messianic mobilisation and fall are missing in Derrida (at least in his early thought), as a result of which he can rely on the concepts of game and event as well as draw on Nietzsche’s concepts of “dance” and affirmation. Perhaps it also helps Derrida think more radically about deconstruction of presence. In this respect, Jabès is more entangled in the tension generated by metaphysical concepts. For example, he uses the notions of origin, the primordial, finitude and fall, which Derrida criticises as metaphysical, for example, in Heidegger. Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Ousia and gramme,” in Margins of Philosophy, pp. 29–68, on p. 63–64. Nevertheless, it is this tension that fosters Jabès’ vision of radical materialism. In this way, metaphysical concepts, rather than being discarded, are harnessed against traditional metaphysics.

26 P, p. 28.

27 The “garden” obviously invites associations both with the Garden of Eden, man’s first place after Creation, and with the traditional Kabbalistic symbol of the orchard – a פרדס, pardes – which appears, for example in the title of Cordovero’s chief work Pardes Rimonim (Orchard of Pomegranates). The orchard symbol – pardes – serves as the anagram of four manners of text interpretation, applicable to the Torah in particular. According to Scholem, this reading dates back to Josef ibn’ Aqnin, Maimonides’ disciple, though it was fully elaborated in Pardes by Moses of Leon (who probably authored also a major part of the Zohar). According to this work, the four interpretation levels include: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allegorical meaning), Drash (Talmudic and Haggadic meaning) and, finally, Sod (“mystery,” i.e. the hidden mystical meaning accessible only to the chosen few). The first letters of these words make up the word pardes. The orchard symbolism was disseminated as a shorthand for the interpretive levels by students of Moses of Leon in two popular Kabbalistic works: Ra’ja Mehemna and Sefer ha-Tikkunim, and became a common Kabbalistic topos even though authors tended to disagree on what particular levels precisely meant. The idea actually reminds of the mediaeval Christian motif of four levels of interpretation. Who inspired whom is unclear, as noted already by Pico della Mirandola. Gershom Scholem, “Signification,” pp. 117–124. Moses of Leon combined his reading of the four interpretive levels with the old Midrash story about four rabbis who entered paradise (that is, pardes). In the story, three of the rabbis fail while one – Akiba – is successful. Each of them reaches a particular level of interpretation, with Akiba being the only one to attain Sod, the mystical meaning, which enables him to leave the garden. The mystical meaning involves perceiving the internal split of reality and various forms of divine presence, but does not stop at that. Reb Azai, who stopped at Peshat, loses himself in the dualism of Creation. Akiba, however, goes beyond the fragmentation of reality in search of secret coherence. According to tradition, God revealed himself to Akiba exactly as the God of coherence in ultimate silence. “Wind came. But God was not in the wind. And after wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but God was not in it. And after the fire, the voice of supreme silence, in which God passed.” Draï explains that “the last lesson shows the level reached by Reb Akiba, one comparable with the level of prophet Elijah, who was able not to try to see God in material elements but beyond humanly graspable and expressible symbolism […], in the climax [le fin du fin] of epistemic perception, in the subtlety [finesse] of the silence of matter.” Draï, Pensee juive, p. 127.

Jabès’ association of the point with the “garden” displays multiple analogies with the Kabbalah. As will be shown in below, coming to know the point means, in Jabès, immersing in an ever-deeper silence. The epistemic order is opposite to the order of Creation, in which the garden represents the development from the point of a world, determined by this point, with its entire opulence. The point is at the beginning as “the root” of the garden of Creation, and also at the end as the goal of mystical meditation on Creation and approximation of silence.

28 BQ II, p. 393.

29 BQ II, p. 353.

30 BQ I, p. 381.

31 BR II, p. 72.

32 Ibid., p. 28.

33 Ibid., pp. 65, 67.

34 Let us take our bearings, BQ II, p. 105 (quotation altered).

35 Cf. BR III, p. 32.

36 This property of the point, which is always not-here, always deferred, is compellingly grasped by Alberto Folin: “[In Jabès], the point condenses negativity most radically because Difference between Being and Nothing, and one parallel to it – between voice and silence – do not form either an ontological opposition (man vs. animal, animal vs. nature, and so forth) or a temporal opposition (past vs. present). On the contrary, Difference lies in the mutual attachment turned toward the future: it is not [il y a], but it will be [il y aura]. In the point, voice and silence co-exist in such a radically negative way that we cannot state anything about the present because as soon as we break silence by saying a present thing, we have already crossed the limit which made difference possible – we have stepped into future, into death.” Alberto Folin, “La figure du silence dans l’imaginaire moderne: Leopardi et Jabès,” in Écrire le livre, pp. 147–56, on p. 153. Thus difference does not lie within being itself but is prior to it (like Derrida’s différance), though not temporally. Any attempt to utter it immediately severs from it, differentiates and defers. Difference embodied in the point is where it is no more immediate: in the future. In this optics, time is only an attempt to stabilise difference – which is based on not-being-here – by inscribing it in the register of the past or the future.

37 “Questioning the point meant unflagging questioning of the question that had come up with it. Unassailable point, favorable and fatal to all thought – fighting with its own excess – for which it is crest and base” (BQ II, p. 440).

38 “As in a plane or solid system of reference, ordinate abscissa and cure, so the unreasonable, the extravagant and the unexpected help define the position of the vibrant point of any quest” (Ibid., p. 356).

39 BR III, p. 24.

40 Jabès evokes here two main names of God in Jewish tradition: to Elohim (El in an older and shorter version; El appears in the Tanakh mainly in poetic texts and less frequently than Elohim, but as a matter of fact Elohim is the plural form while El underscores God’s singularity) and to the Tetragrammaton. The Tetragramaton figures in Jabès’ writings as multiple allusions to the unpronounceable name, to the four (unnamed) letters which, having vanished, are the pinnacle of God’s absence (see BQ II, p. 437). As regards crossing out and permutating letters (chiefly in The Last Book), these procedures involve predominantly El. Likely, Jabès employs the name El in such contexts because it is shorter and, as such, more easily amenable to the Kabbalistic operation. Nonetheless, both names of God crucially connote different things in Jewish tradition. According to the Talmud, God adopts different names in his different involvements. Elohim is the name of the Judge who judges the creation (ha-beriot) while the Tetragrammaton designates God “of mercy” (Draï, Pensée juive, p. 356). It is not clear whether Jabès observes this distinction, but given his knowledge of Jewish mysticism and the Talmud, it is certainly possible, to say the least. That he uses the Tetragrammaton to describe God’s absence may thus imply that post-tzimtzum reality is devoid of mercy. At the same time, erasure of letters to arrive at El may indicate that God’s withdrawal is, at the same time, an enactment of judgment.

41 BQ I, p. 95.

42 BQ II, p. 376.

43 In Yaël, Jabès himself points out that the eponymous protagonist’s name is similar to such names as Nuriel, Uriel, Rasiel, Raphael, and so forth (cf. BQ II, p. 67).

44 In Debrauwere-Miller’s original interpretation, Yaël – the protagonist whose name serves as the title of the fourth Book of Questions – personifies the Shekhinah (God’s Presence in exile, which is the last, tenth sefirah and also, according to the Zohar, God’s feminine aspect). In Jabès’ text, Yaël is the narrator’s love – a mysterious, changeable and elusive character that tends to be described as the “female half of being.” Like the Shekhinah, she is erotically charged. Her name (as prophet Elijah’s too) seems to be a direct compound of two Names of God: Ya and El, given also to one of Biblical figures. As Debrauwere-Miller concludes, in the Zohar, Ya corresponds to the Shekhinah while El to the sefirah of Tiferet, the centre of God’s consciousness. Both these sefirot were divided before Creation. According to Debrauwere-Miller, Jabès may deliberately use these rather than any other syllables to show God’s inner split in the name of Yaël. Ya and El form two disjoined elements in God, who, as a result, cannot achieve a stable identity. Like the Biblical Jacob, the narrator of the fourth part of The Book of Questions has a revelatory dream of God’s Presence, which visits him as Yaël. Marked with this experience, the narrator wishes to reproduce Yaël’s presence in the book, attesting also to the primary unity of the Shekhinah and Tiferet, revealed to him in Yaël. Undoubtedly, in Jabès, it is the metaphor for the primordial, perfect and complete language. The narrator’s intent is, however, disastrous as he breaks the mystical unity in the act of writing. The properties of writing discussed above are here interwoven with references to the Kabbalah tradition, where the Shekhinah and Tiferet are divided as voice and articulation. The narrator is exiled into Sitra Achra, the demonic “other side,” where he wanders in search of fragmented Yaël, who embodies the originary unity of language. Cf. Nathalie Debrauwere-Miller, “Tree of Consciousness: The Shekhinah in Edmond Jabès’ Yaël,” Literature & Theology, 17/4 (December 2003), pp. 388–406. There is, however, an interesting twist to this reasoning, which sheds light on Jabès’ Jewish philosophy of modernity, for the Biblical name Jael, in fact, is not the compound of two Divine Names and has a different etymology. Thus, Jabès’ speculation is his own invention.

45 Ibid., p. 91.

46 Shillony, Edmond Jabès, p. 18.

47 Also here Jabès draws on the Kabbalah. Two eminent mediaeval kabbalists Judah Halevi and Abraham ibn Ezra observed that both Divine Names – יהוה and אלוהים – consist almost only of matres lectionis. As such, they do not designate anything in the world itself but embody the divine spirit within the universe sustained by this spirit. See Scholem, “Name of God” 2, p. 172. In Jabès, similarly, the names are finally reduced to the point only, which is not a word even, but the material cornerstone of reality, the elementary difference.

48 BQ II, p. 411.

49 Ibid., p. 412.

50 Cf. Josh Cohen, “Desertions,” p. 97.

51 BQ II, p. 392.

52 Llewellyn Brown, “Les metamorphoses du point: • (El, ou le dernier livre) d’Edmond Jabès,” Litteratures, 38 (1998), pp. 145–55, on p. 145.

53 As Bounoure observes, while Sarah and Yukel, the protagonists of the initial parts of The Book of Questions, are annihilated by the spasm of history, the three more peculiar characters in the last parts of The Book – Yaël, Elya and Aely – are destroyed by ‘an abyss hiding in the deepest corner of interiority rather than by any readily locatable force” (Bounoure, Edmond Jabès, pp. 79–80).

54 Brown, “Metamorphoses,” p. 145.

55 Ibid., p. 146.

56 Ibid., p. 147.

57 Ibid., pp. 148–9.

58 Also Guglielmi reads the last part of The Book of Questions as the fall of representation and erasure of God’s image. He writes: “As the books progress, Jabès’ movement destroys ever more radically the form and properties, the established harmony of the dominant transcendental model and pushes further and further away the divine image in order to, on its behalf and in its place, institute henceforth the point, which marks the shifting place where distance, abandonment, distortion and negativity appear and interrogate.” Joseph Guglielmi, “Le dernier état des questions,” Change, 22 (février 1975), pp. 177–8.

59 For this reason, Jabès frames the writer both as the agent and a victim of “God’s death”: “The meandering word dies by the pen, the writer by the same weapon turned back against him. ‘What murder are you accused of?’ Reb Achor asked Zilliech, the writer. ‘The murder of God,” he replied. ‘I will however add in my defense that I die along with Him.’” (BQ I, p. 338).

60 BQ II, p. 341.

61 BR II, p. 28.

62 LR I, p. 31 (in From the Book to the Book, p. 155).

63 BQ II, pp. 341–2.

64 For the kabbalists, the point is a locus of contradictory forces. See Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Tsimtsoum (Paris: Albin Michel, 1992), p. 154.

65 Of course, the image of ashes evokes also the Shoah as another iteration of God’s withdrawal.

66 Idel, Absorbing Perfections, pp. 103–104.

67 Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, p. 45.

68 Cf., e.g. Žižek, Less Than Nothing, p. 110 ff.