"I will remain silence and scream": Edmond Jabes and the wound and witness of language.
This essay argues that Edmond Jabess Tfce Book of Questions, Volume I radically questions the presumably inherent authority of the witness in distinct yet interconnected ways. Heavily influenced by Derridian deconstruction, his text challenges conventional assumptions involving the witness, particularly the implied extra-textuality of horrific events (such as the Holocaust) and of those who provide testimony to them. Jabes's unique rethinking of the witness is made even more legible through the productive parallel he draws between the Jew and the writer. This parallel, for the author, is a reflection of the inescapable status of both as witnesses to the originary wound of language. Further, Jabes complicates the authority of the witness through his insertion of a rabbinical commentary throughout his text, a framework that fundamentally blurs distinctions between testimony and its interpretation.
In The Book of Questions, Volume I, Edmond Jabes draws upon elements of Jewish theology and philosophy in order to craft a work of literature that is as beautiful as it is poignant and as poetic as it is paradoxical. Throughout the text, the author explores the concept of the witness in regard to both language and the Holocaust, not as a firsthand witness to the Shoah himself (his fictional characters Yukel and Sarah fulfill this role), but rather as a witness to the inherent and originary holocaust of language, Jabes cannot personally testify to the horrors of the Holocaust because he was not a direct victim, having spent the war in the relative safety of Egypt; however, as a writer and a Jew, he is both haunted and driven by the necessity to testify to what he terms the "wound"(1) and' scream"(2) of language. I maintain that, in his work, this wound is unspeakability, and that, for Jabes, language is forever lacerated by its own inability to represent, an "original illegibility"(3) that Jacques Derrida enigmatically describes as "the very possibility of the book "(4) Thus, in this paper I propose that by offering his own paradoxical testimony, Jabe's calls into question the authority of the witness in three distinct ways. First, I contend that Jabes's clear and significant incorporation of Derridian deconstruction into his text enables him to interrogate conventional assumptions regarding the witness, particularly in terms of the extra-textuality of the witness and the events to which he/she testifies. Second, I assert that the author further complicates this concept by drawing a direct parallel between Jews and writers, a relationship built from their mutual inability to represent and their shared status as witnesses to this irreparable failure. Third, I argue that Jabes challenges the authority of the witness by inserting a framework of rabbinical commentary into his text, which renders indistinguishable testimony and its interpretation. In addition, I dedicate much of my effort to constructing a survey of the theory informing Jabes's text and the rich scholarship on it in order to situate within this context my own argument regarding the uniqueness of the authors approach to the concept of the witness and to acknowledge the indebtedness of his project and my own to that work.
The Question of the Witness
Conventionally, we bestow upon the witness a privileged position, whether in history, literature, news, judicial proceedings, or the court of public opinion. Characterized by firsthand and sensory knowledge of a situation, the witness is granted a unique authority, firmly steeped in his own personal and verifiable experience of a "real" event. Testimony, or the depiction of the event by a witness, is then conferred similar authority to represent the event "accurately" While not considered truth itself, testimony, according to John D, Caputo, in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, is a "promise to speak the truth,.. to keep on speaking it, to stick with one's word, again and again, to repeat, to reiterate, to confirm that I am speaking the truth"(5) though an outside, independently authoritative institution is usually responsible for establishing its "truth-value."(6) In the first chapter of Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Shoshana Felman describes the act of testifying, or providing testimony, as "to vow to tell, to promise and produce one's own speech as material evi-dence for truth."(7) She continues, "In its most traditional, routine use in the le-gal context--in the courtroom situation--testimony is provided, and is called for, when the facts upon which justice must pronounce its verdict are not clear, when historical accuracy is in doubt and when both the truth and its supporting elements of evidence are called into question."8 Here Felman asserts that testimony and the witness are traditionally endowed with an inherent level of veracity, granted by the law and grounded in the direct experience of an event. In his text, however, Jabes challenges this veracity, deeply questioning the authority of both the witness and his/her testimony, and denying them, in particular, any direct relationship to or claim upon truth. And, while this radical rethinking is not unique to Jabes, but rather an approach that can be found in the work of Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Maurice Blanchot, among others, I assert that the methods of questioning he employs, three of which I address in this essay, are distinctly his own and offer productive insights into this concept.
In The Book of Questions, Volume I, Yukel is presented as a witness to the Holocaust who posthumously narrates, writes, and interprets the text. Jabes explains, "In these pages, little will be said about Yukel Serafi. He will, however, often be appealed to. For Yukel Serafi is the witness."(9) Despite fundamentally challenging the claim of the witness to any sort of particular testimonial authority, Jabes, through his strategic employment of the term, does not disregard the witness or his individual, yet still unavoidably mediated, experience. Like all survivors of the Holocaust, Jabes's character, Yukel, has witnessed atrocities that the author and the rest of the people fortunate enough to have escaped its barbarity can scarcely imagine. And, though Jabes specifically refers to Yukel as "the witness" in this passage, I argue that it should be read as a sympathetic acknowledgement of his horrific personal experience in the concentration camps and not a definitive endowment of authority upon him or any witness based upon that experience; such authority would be impossible within Jabess theoretical framework, in that the witness does not and cannot exist independently of language (a term I employ throughout this paper to denote "trace-structure"),(10) For Jabes, as for Derrida, there is no exterior to language because words and things share the same inherent instability--a common condition that paradoxically unites them and keeps them apart. As he puts it (reimagining Derridas own famous declaration(11)): "The world exists because the book does."(12) That which is conventionally thought to be external to language--the so-called "historical reality" of the "physical world"--necessarily shares in the same intrinsic decentering as language itself, which, Jabes and Derrida both assert, it fundamentally is and is of In this sense, there is no transcendental signified, no origin outside of language to stabilize words and things. In this thoroughly linguistic domain, truth cannot be distinguished from lie because truth must exist outside of language but never can--one cannot escape the word. As Jabess character Reb Samuel says, "You can free yourself of an object, of a face, of an obsession. ... You cannot free yourself of a word. The word is your birth and your death."(13) Reb Leca echoes this idea when he states, "You try to be free through writing. How wrong. Every word unveils another tie."(14) Inextricably bound to words, the witness cannot exist in a space of pure, embodied truth, because no such space is possible, but rather must inevitably live in the realm of language and lie. Thus, while, for Jabes, Yukel's personal experience of the Holocaust cannot and should not be disregarded, that experience--it must be acknowledged--is nevertheless essentially linguistic and, as such, denied any unique authority to represent; in other words, it can testify to nothing but its own inability to testify.
Similarly, in Remnants of Auschwitz, Agamben asserts the impossibility of bearing witness by arguing that there is an irreducible discrepancy between what happened during the concentration camps and the "facts' that constitute it. The Shoah, he contends, is "a reality that necessarily exceeds its factual elements,'(15) surpassing the limits of history, logic, law, and language that attempt to explain or represent it. For Agamben, this surplus makes particularly apparent the two "impossibilities"(16) of testimony: the essential lacuna at the core of language and the inability of the "complete witness"(17) to bear witness. In terms of the former, he argues that "the survivors [of the camps] bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to";(18) they necessarily testified to a void, or absence, in language that "discharges the survivors of authority"(19) In other words, because there is no stable, present center to language, no transcendental signified, even the testimony of a survivor of Auschwitz has no innate authority--like all of language, it testifies to nothing but its own untes-tifiable lacuna. And, in terms of the latter "impossibility" Agamben maintains that the only true, or "complete " witness to Auschwitz is the Mustlmann, the walking dead, the "marked threshold in which man passed into non-man,"(20) who cannot speak and cannot be spoken for. Any attempt to testify to or in place of the Muselmann, he argues, merely bears witness to the impossibility of bearing witness.(21) However, for Agamben, these two "impossibilities" do not justify silence in regard to the Shoah--a transformation of Auschwitz into "a reality absolutely separated from language"(22)--but rather demand resistance to such silence that must nevertheless be rigorously submitted to "the test of an impossibility of speaking,"(23) to erasure, an ethical obligation echoed by Jabes, Derrida, Blanchot, and others. In this sense, the unrepresentable yet irrepressible testimony given by the witness to the "truth" of an event simultaneously and paradoxically acknowledges that in language there can be no truth. Like wise for Jabes, Yukel, despite being referred to as "the witness," can nevertheless merely testify to the impossibility of the task.
The Originary Wound
Through Yukel's inevitable inability to provide authoritative testimony, Jabes, in The Book of Questions, Volume I, challenges the authority of the witness in several ways, most notably, perhaps, by mirroring Derridas deconstructive paradigm throughout the text. I propose that this Derridian framework not only complicates the idea of the witness, but reveals an underlying fissure in the scholarship surrounding Jabes's work, between those who think of the wound of language as originary and those who conceive of it as initially inflicted by the Holocaust, and in particular a tendency among scholars to blur this crucial distinction (even among those who read Jabes through a deconstructive lens). Fundamental to Jabes s conception of deconstruction and to my own argument in regard to his text is Derridas assertion, in Of Gratnmatology, that language has no stable origin, or transcendental signified, and that this instability always already was because of the difference inherent within the origin itself. He contends that"[f ]rom the moment that there is meaning there ate nothing but signs," (24) and that, due to this simultaneity, there was nothing before difference, that the origin of language is and has always been non-origin, forever marked by its own incompleteness and lack of presence. Derrida argues that, despite its impossibility, language seeks to achieve fullness through supplementarity, but the supplement, which itself lacks being and presence, cannot actually constitute a transcendental signified because such stability and immediacy are unattainable. He asserts that the supplement is always "incomplete, unequal to the task, it lacks something in order for the lack to be filled, it participates in the evil that it should repair." (25) Thus, addressing one lack with another reveals the differance--the difference and deferment--inherent to language, that Derrida terms "arche-writing," (26) referring by it to much more than simply the act or result of putting pen to paper. Because of this play, the homogeneity of word and thing can never be fully present in language, although a paradoxical trace of such a deferred unity does remain. However, Derrida claims that this trace is not a trace of actual presence--"the trace itself does not exist (to exist is to be, to be an entity, a being-present)" (27)--but rather a trace of a trace in that there is no transcendental signified to which it can ultimately refer.
Thoroughly deconstructive in spirit, Jabes's text embraces the uncertainty inherent within language itself, asserting that meaning in language is only defined by its distance from other things and that its significance is deferred and ultimately unstable. He writes, "We know the word which makes us see, hear, dream, and judge does not exist except in terms of the reality it creates and yet eludes." (28) For Jabes, meaning in language is perpetually elusive--we only see the residue of attempts to establish meaning, but never meaning itself. In other words, meaning, while impossible outside of language, is nevertheless forever deferred within it. In "Book of the Dead," a brief essay on and interview with Jabes, Paul Auster writes, "To Jabes, nothing can be written about the Holocaust unless writing itself is first put into question." (29) Through his texts unique construction, Jabes forces the reader into an initially disturbing new world--a world hidden in the word--in which one soon realizes that meaning inevitably escapes through the book's abundant margins, putting into question all hope of authoritative testimony. What at first glance appears to be confusing and unclear then becomes a poignant example of the originary un-representability of language and the paradoxical nature of the witness. As Josh Cohen argues in "Desertions: Paul Auster, Edmond Jabes, and the Writing of Auschwitz," regarding Jabes' work: "to come to the problem of witness by way of the process of writing is to put in perpetual question the relation of an unspeakable history to its representation," (30) which is precisely what Jabes does in his text. Meaning perpetually eludes efforts to capture it in language, and the reader is left with only the residual traces of attempts to establish such meaning, while it remains forever deferred. In "Nomadic Writing: The Poetics of Exile," Richard Stamelman claims that, for Jabes, "language is in a state of profound and irreversible exile: a rootlessness that reflects the essential separation and distance at the center of being." (31) Later, he continues, "His books not only recreate the experience of exile; they are the experience. The void of exilic existence is buried deep within the ephemeral meanings and fragmented forms of Jabes's words. History is transformed into text, world into book, and the traces of footprints on the desert sand into the evanescent signs of words on a page." (32) Stamelman equates the deferral of meaning that is central to deconstruction with the state of exile that Jabes's text not only exemplifies but embodies, an irreducible distancing inherent to the relationship of word and thing. In an essay entitled "Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book," Jabes himself writes, "Everything is again set in motion--called into question--by writing. As we speak, nothing is ever said so completely that it could not be said over, differently. So that saying is a revelation, with the promise of farther saying. Deconstruction functions on this level also, arranging and preparing those moments when utterance splits apart and is neutralized by its reconciled opposites " (33) Here Jabes explicitly identifies his project of questioning with Derrida's deconstructive paradigm, arguing against any understanding of language as present, grounded, or centered. Instead, his work seeks to decenter language, removing the limits arbitrarily placed upon meaning in discourse by the presumption of presence and opening language to the freedom of endless play that constitutes its "exilic existence." Language is thus the ultimate exile, forever separated from its own meaning and wounded by its own inability to represent; however, language bears within it a paradoxical promise. For Jabes, as for Derrida, this promise constitutes a hope in and a messianic passion for the to come, in its very deferral, in it's to-come-ness. "What I mean by God in my work " he tells Auster, "is something we come up against, an abyss, a void, something against which we are powerless. It is a distance ... the distance that is always between things." (34) For Jabes, God is the impossibility of closure, that which is always endlessly and necessarily to come. As he states, Always on the way, the Jews God never arrives." (35) Thus, with closure ultimately deferred, Jabes's Reb Mendel declares: "Only the hope to be right is real. Truth is the void." (36) And, later, Jabes offers, "Truth is the movement toward it. (37) In this sense, Jabes's hope is not in the static transcendence of decidability or totality, but in the "quasitranscendence," (38) as Caputo terms it, of the wholly other that is always coming, but necessarily never comes. This approach to the wound of language as unflagging hope in but ultimate deferral of the to come simultaneously shatters any understanding of language as presence and stable meaning (i.e., as representation), enabling language to be thought in its creativity and novelty (i.e., in its expressibility), due to its infinitely open structure.
In The Book of Questions, Volume I, Jabes demonstrates that, due to this distancing, the testimony of the witness can never communicate the "truth" of historical events, regardless of how mundane or extreme they may be, because language has always already been wounded by its own inability to articulate. Before the reader has even begun the text proper, as he stands precariously at what the author terms "the Threshold of the Book," (39) the fictional Reb Alee directs the reader to"[m]ark the first page of the book with a red marker. For, in the beginning, the wound is invisible" (40) This wound of the book, of the word, of writing, is simultaneous with and inseparable from the inception of the text itself, and, though the wound remains "invisible," in that it has long been and continues to be misunderstood, overlooked, and/or denied, Jabes's work is in large part an effort to make it visible for all to see. That is why, for Jabes, the "story of the book" is not simply the story of the "scream," of its cause or its origin, but rather the "[b]ecoming aware of a scream" (41) (emphasis added). This mark at the genesis--"in the beginning"--of the text is meant to affirm that languages unspeakability is originary, not a wound inflicted by the Holocaust, but rather one stained red by the blood of six million Jews, "people of the book," as Jabes calls them, whose deaths, he asserts, have made horrifyingly visible languages primordial wound. Language, as many scholars have noted, is altered by Auschwitz (the most famous declaration of which was undoubtedly made by Theodor Adorno (42)); however, this alteration does not lie in the assertion that, due to the Holocaust, language is unable to speak (for it has always already been unable to), but rather that it has now been plainly marked, like the biblical Cain, for a life of displacement, distance, and exile. In a strictly deconstructive sense, the Holocaust is no more unrepresentable than any other historical event. For Jabes, to localize the wound of language in the Holocaust or to maintain that the scream only'speaks" a single historical event is to narrow its inherent scope, a scope that is all of language, that is the entire book, and that, as the book, is everything,(43) He writes, "It is not one country that the scream accuses, nor one continent, but the whole world. It is not one man, but ail." (44) By asserting here that the scream does not accuse a single country, continent, or, by extension, historical event, regardless of its devastation or extremity, Jabes implies that it issues from an originary wound, one that was intrinsic to language far before the Holocaust and one that continues to be an essential aspect of it.
Although it fundamentally aligns with Jabes's deconstructive paradigm, this implication divides scholars and creates and/or perpetuates misunderstandings of his work, of deconstruction, and of language in general. Many scholars, discerning the deconstructive orientation of his text, have observed and articulated the originary nature of the wound and its significance to Jabes's work. In fact, Derrida himself dedicates two essays to The Book of Questions, Volume I, both in terms of the distinct texts that comprise it and in terms of its completion in the last book of the trilogy.(45) In an essay on the initial book of the volume (itself titled The Book of Questions), he writes that in Jabes's text "[a] powerful and ancient root is exhumed, and on it is laid bare an age-less wound (for what Jabes teaches us is that roots speak, that words want to grow, and that poetic discourse takes root in a wound'' (46) The "ageless wound" Derrida refers to here is originary difference, a "powerful and ancient root" that Jabes's text "exhumes" and "lays bare" by bringing it continually and painstakingly to the fore. And, while later in the essay Derrida critiques this first book for its apophatic implications (a critique that was, at times, made of his own work (47)), he nevertheless commends the authors understanding of the nature of language, which lies in the very agelessness of the wound. Stamelman echoes Derrida's reading of Jabes's approach to language when he writes that, for Jabes, "[t]he birth of human language coincides with the moment of exile."(48) Here Stamelman rightly asserts that in Jabes's work these two events-- language's birth and it's exile--are simultaneous and coextensive, a notion that is critical to the author's own deconstructive framework. Many other scholars view Jabes's text through this deconstructive lens, including Eric Gould, the editor of The Sin of the Book: Edmond Jabes, a collection of essays dedicated to his work, who describes The Book of Questions, Volume I as one of "the basic documents of our contemporary sense of apocalyptic displacement in language,"(49) noting the "consciousness of the deconstructive play of writing"(50) and his dedication to "a questioning of the nature of writing itself"(51) that typifies Jabes's text. By directly connecting the "apocalyptic displacement in language" with "the deconstructive play of writing," Gould implies that Jabes's approach to language is founded upon an understanding of the originary and irremediable difference within it. Likewise, Gary D. Mole, in Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, reiterates the importance of deconstruction to Jabes's work by differentiating between his approach to language as always already wounded and the perception of language as initially wounded by the Holocaust. He writes, "Auschwitz in Jabes's economy ... points toward an irreparable crisis in language--the wound of writing--that prevents the negativity of absence from being taken up and maintained in the discourse of presence. Auschwitz does not so much name absence as present itself as a trace, Auschwitz, for Jabes, is of another order altogether"(52) Here Mole does an admirable job of emphasizing that, within Jabess deconstructive paradigm, the Holocaust is seen as making visible--"pointing toward"--the wound of language, rather than initiating that wound itself. He asserts that, for Jabes, Auschwitz is a powerful symbol of the originary displacement within language and not the first cause of that displacement. It thus constitutes neither a presence nor an absence in language, but rather, in graphic fashion, indicates the movement or trace of perpetual distance and deferral that marks it. And, similarly, in his essay, Josh Cohen initially seems to distinguish in Jabes 's work this same fundamental distinction when he writes: "To attempt to write the Holocaust is to be brought face to face with the irreducible lack at the heart of the word,"(53) which suggests a crucial difference between, on one hand, the Holocaust as an encounter with the originary wound of language and, on the other hand, as that very wound itself.
While it is thus apparent that many, and arguably most, scholars do at least acknowledge, whether implicidy or explicidy, the importance of deconstruction to Jabes's work, some of those same scholars blur the fundamental distinction between the originary nature of the wound and what I have termed the marking, or making visible, of that wound by the Holocaust. For example, in two different essays,(54) Stamelman, who clearly establishes that, for Jabes, the dawning of language and that of exile are one and the same, nevertheless also suggests that language was, prior to the Holocaust, capable of immediacy and presence,(55) And, though it is not unique for scholars to assert that language was initially damaged by an event as massive and horrific as the Holocaust, it is important to note that such an assertion directly contradicts the approach to Derridian deconstruction that Stamelman previously alluded to in Jabes's work. Similarly, Mole can be seen to, at times, perpetuate this same confusion regarding languages initial wounding. In his book, he quotes a section of Jabes's discussion with Marcel Cohen (56) in which he describes the Holocaust as "that unceasingly revived wound,"(57) a "break" that, Jabes contends one "has to write out of";(58) however, Mole interprets Jabes to mean that he believes that "the word since Auschwitz has been wounded"(59) (emphasis added). While, admittedly, Mole's interest in this passage relates to Jabes's firm belief in the ethical imperative to write after Auschwitz, rather than the importance of the originary nature of the wound to Jabes's deconstructive paradigm, his reading of the quotation nevertheless implies that the Holocaust itself has inflicted the wound of language,(60) The scholar who perhaps most explicitly conflates the two approaches to languages wound in Jabes 's work is Josh Cohen, who directly argues that "the Holocaust introduces into writing its own impossibility--brings describing into proximity with its describing other. We can know the Holocaust only in its unknowability, as the negative which refuses to be sublated into the order of positive meaning"(61) (emphasis added). Cohen suggests that the Holocaust inflicted upon language its initial wound, implying that language before the Holocaust operated without such difference, that it was fully capable of accurately describing, rather than, as Cohen himself puts it, simply "describing," or effacing itself. (62) It is thus clear that Cohen, like many Jabes scholars (even those who intend to read him through a deconstructive lens), blurs the crucial distinction between an understanding of language as always already wounded and language as wounded by an historical event, fundamentally contradicting Jabess approach to language and misrepresenting his understanding of Derridian deconstruction.
There are also, however, those scholars who resist reading Jabes through a deconstructive lens, preferring instead to interpret his work from a variety of other perspectives, including Kabbalist, (63) humanist, (64) and Hegelian. (65) Most of these approaches take the form of a critique of his work. Perhaps Jabes s most vehement critic, and a primary example of applying a non-deconstructive approach to his text, is Berei Lang, who, in his essay," Writing-the-Holocaust: Jabes and the Measure of History," accuses the author of failing Jews, language, and the Holocaust in his work. Specifically, Lang argues that by attempting to write-the-Holocaust (i.e., to conflate the medium and its object in order to let the object speak itself), Jabes's text claims for itself a measure of the history, or "reality" of the event that is inherently inadequate to the "facts"(66) of the event itself, an objective standard against which, he contends, the text should be judged. And, if such a process involves language accurately articulating an external reality, Lang is, in this sense, correct in asserting that the Holocaust fails to write-itself in Jabes's text; however, given Jabes's implicit contention that such representation is impossible, it stands to reason that, for him, conversely, all language does and necessarily must write-the-HolocausL From the title of the essay itself, it is clear that there is a significant distinction between Langs theoretical orientation (i.e., history, transcendence) and that of Jabes (i.e., decon-struction). On one hand, Lang thinks of the Holocaust as an independent, historical event that transcends textuality, while, on the other hand, Jabes thinks of the Holocaust as the condition of textuality itself, asserting that the world exists because it is in and of the book. Lang contends that the Holocaust cannot write-itself because, in order to do so, language must diminish the enormity of the event--an event that is far too massive and horrific to be represented in language. Jabes agrees that such representation is impossible, but does so for very different reasons. For his part, Jabes maintains that the "historical event" of the Holocaust cannot be made present in language because no event can ever be made present in language, not because the Holocaust itself is uniquely unrepresentable, but because deconstruction reveals as nonsensical any distinction between the historical and the linguistic, in that they both share the fundamental instability of textuality. In this sense, for Jabes, the Holocaust as an event in and of language, as all events inescapably are, cannot help but be written in every word that is penned because language can express nothing but the catastrophic displacement at its core. Auster makes this indistinguishable discontinuity of event and text explicit when he writes that, for Jabes, "The question is the Jewish Holocaust, but it is also the question of literature itself. By a startling leap of the imagination, Jabes treats them as one and the same."(67) In this sense, all language must speak its own inherent and originary alienation, exile, and distance from meaning--every word must, then, write. the-Holocaust This approach to writing is born directly from Jabes's decon-structive framework, but such a framework is precisely what is missing from Lang's reading, a void from which misunderstandings and misinterpretations on many levels emerge. While acknowledging the importance of deconstruction to Jabes's work, Lang nevertheless critiques his text by forcing it outside of the movement of the thought that it both is and is of. Reading Jabes divorced from the approach to language that should be considered coextensive with his work is not reading Jabes. And, by insisting on distinguishing historical reality from text and applying such a distinction to Jabes's text, Lang constructs his argument on the effacement of the very distinction upon which Jabes's text is built. Such an approach is intrinsically flawed and necessarily synthetic, and can result in nothing more than a critique of a text that is no longer the text it intended to critique.
An understanding of Jabes's deconstructive paradigm, however, is not only critical to avoiding the application of alien and contradictory theoretical assumptions to his work, but also to questioning the authority of the witness and, in particular, to thinking the paradoxical wound of language--its unspeakability--as ultimately optimistic in nature. In contrast to the traditional Western metaphysics of logocentrism, which asserts that language, and by extension testimony, can fully represent, Jabes offers no such stability; rather, he maintains that language can only express by perpetually performing its own unrepresentability. Thus, Jabes challenges the idea that the witness can represent any sort of objective or immutable reality Representation, in this sense, implies a transcendent "Truth" exterior to language against which it can be judged, while expression suggests a "truth" interior to and inseparable from language. He asks, "You, who think I exist, how can I tell you what I know with words which mean more than one thing, with words like me, which change when looked at, words with an alien voice?"(68) Jabes's work exhibits the multiplicity of meaning underlying every text, showing the conflict between the paradigm of precision, which is conventionally thought to guide language, and the inherent imprecision that inescapably attends its employment. He addresses this unavoidable uncertainty through an imaginary rabbi, Reb Ivri, who writes: "Pick up some sand ... and let it glide between your fingers. Then you will know the vanity of words. Sand is only sand, and the word, the struck flag of the word ... Can you swear that the grains of sand you pressed in your hand are the same which ran over your knee? They have become a thousand others which you did not know. So it is with your words, once they have been unleashed in the world filled with words,"69 In a world that is because the book is, Jabes 's text challenges the idea that words can refer to or represent objective truth; however, his presentation of the continual deferral of meaning, from one signifier to another, like grains of sand slipping through ones fingers, also demonstrates the impossibility of closure in language through its originary play, which gives birth to creativity, novelty, and eloquence. In his essay, William Franke writes, "This infinity and emptiness of the word.., [is] an open question and an open desert for wandering, a space of errancy. And only in this openness is there any room for human expression."(70) Anne Golomb Hoffman, in Between Exile and Return, echoes this approach to the openness of language in Jabes when she writes,"Displacement and exile are the conditions for a writing born out of a void of shifting sands. The writing of Jabes is concerned with an opening of the book, a rupture that occurs through exile and makes utterance possible."(71) As both of these writers note, the "errancy" or "rupture" at the heart of words, their inherent and originary imprecision, is also the space or interval that makes language possible. Were language capable of presence and immediacy, this opening would be closed, and word and thing, word and meaning, would be fused. There would thus be no room for the plurality and originality of expression; rather, the thing itself would be its own and its only articulation.
In his letter to Derrida, Jabes writes, "You have often explained [differance]. It destroys and creates a space where everything is canceled as it faces, as it opens to, its potential difference by deferring it."(72) And, later, he continues, "So the space created by 'differance' is at the same time a space for leaving traces " (73) For Jabes, there is an inherent and necessary distance between signifier and signified within language, a separation which, in the deconstructive framework, is affirmative and vital. This distance, the space of the trace, rather than dooming language to meaningless and nihilism, actually enables reading, writing, and thinking through open and endless interpretation. If this interval, this play, were to be removed, it would constitute closure, immobility, and death. Josh Cohen describes this approach to language as the "Jewish textual dynamic" meaning by it that "the word's impoverishment, its failure to make present its object, is also the very source of its plenitude, its availability to ceaseless interpretation and re-interpretation"(74) He continues,"If a connective thread can be traced through the modern Jewish literary tradition, it would surely be formed of this view of language as productive failure."(75) While, for Jabes, language "fails" in the sense of fusing word to meaning, he suggests that this "failure" ultimately succeeds in ensuring the vitality, creativity, and newness of the word. However, what Cohen identifies as the "Jewish textual dynamic" is not merely a thread that connects modern Jewish literature, but rather a significant aspect of a tradition that can be traced back to Moses Maimonides and beyond. It is not "Jewish" in an essentialist sense, but rather in that it is distinguished from the "Christian" rhetorical tradition that dates back to Augustine. This "Jewish" lineage eschews the classical Augustinian model of language as a pure conduit for divine revelation in favor of an approach that seeks to decenter language, radically rethinking the relationship between sacred text and rabbinical commentary, akin to the one Jabes uses to question the authority of the witness in his work.
The Jew and the Writer
In further complicating the concept of the witness in The Book of Questions, Volume I, Jabes draws a compelling connection between Jews (i.e., people of the Word--YHWH) and writers (i.e., people of words), asserting that both have been irrevocably wounded by languages originary unspeakability For Jabes, language, due to its inherent instability, cannot authoritatively articulate, and, because it is intended to accurately represent, but inevitably fails to do so, language is wounded by its own inability. He asserts, "The book is a moment of the wound."(76) Every word is a gash buried deep within all words, and the book is a collective wound painfully reopened with each new reading. For Jabes, this wound lies at the center of language--"The center is a scream, an open wound, a key"(77)--and perpetually performs this injury upon the Jew and the writer. He writes, "I am bleeding. The word is a thorn "(78) Languages inherent unspeakability is then its own wound, but also a weapon that wounds others.
For Jabes, however, there exists a pure, if paradoxical, form of expression. He explains, "It is the whole truth I wanted to express. And truth is a scream, a stubborn, ineradicable image which pulls us out of our torpor. An image which overwhelms or nauseates us."(79) Confronted with the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, which have marked language, making visible the originary impossibility of accurate representation, language gives rise to the scream--its own ultimate and necessarily inarticulate articulation. In "The Writing of the Disaster," Blanchot describes this incomprehensible scream as a "voiceless cry" yet one that nevertheless "tends to exceed all language,"(80) For Jabes as well, the scream of the wound at the center of language remains silent, an expression of pain too pure to be conventionally represented. This idea is perhaps best communicated in the words of his character, Sarah, who states: "I do not hear the scream. ... I am the scream."'(81) In Jabes's text, the symbol of the scream works on two distinct levels--one inaudible (i.e., that of literal silence) and the other inexpressible (i.e., that of metaphorical silence, the inherent unspeakability within all language), both of which ensure the impossibility of conveying extreme events. The scream, then, can never fully express, but must be excruciatingly embodied in the person of the Jew. This image of the scream, however, is not an entirely negative one, not solely a symbol of suffering and the inability to fully express it, but also the very dawn of the text. He writes, "The book rises out of the fire of the prophetic rose, from the scream of the sacrificed petals,"(82) The scream itself is the inevitable response to suffering, the painful yet necessary sacrifice implied within all language that both wounds and gives rise to the book. Inherent to and yet exceeding all language, the scream signifies the space and movement in words that embodies both their failure and their eloquence. It is in this sense, then, that Jabes writes, "This white sketch on the white page is the sketch of a scream."(83) The white space in and around the text symbolizes the distance between words and their intended meanings, the space that gives words the novelty, creativity, and freedom necessary to always mean more, Thus, the scream, for Jabes, is not merely the expression of excruciating and embodied exile, but the infinite and endless hope within all language that he terms "the light of Israel."(84)
In Jabes's text, the Jew, as heir to the scream, stands as a metaphor for the exiled, a refugee forever distanced from what he is, what he wants, and what he loves. The author writes, "There is nothing at the threshold of the open page, it seems, but this wound of a race born of the book, whose order and disorder are roads of suffering. Nothing but this pain, whose past and whose permanence is also that of writing"(85) From an historical and cultural perspective, the Jew was displaced from his people, his country, and ultimately his God; the only thing that he is not banished from, Jabes claims, is his own suffering, which all roads inevitably lead him back to. Importantly for Jabes, however, we are all in a sense Jews, a single wounded race of the expelled, fundament tally distanced from each other and ourselves by the inescapable medium of language. (86) He writes, "I am a Jew, as you are, in each of my wounds."(87) Here, to be a Jew does not imply an extra-textual identity, but rather a shared injury, a mutual wound inherent within the book. Mole makes the function of the Jew clear when he writes, "In the Jabes text, the Jew and the condition of exile become synonymous, the one reflecting the other."(88) He continues, "The Jew, in Jabes, is a metaphorical figure,'the Jew, as the figure of exile.'"(89) The Jew is thus a symbol for the universal exile of all mankind from truth and meaning, an exile that was not perpetrated on the metaphorical Jews by the Holocaust, the breaking of the tablets, or any other devastating historical or biblical event, but is and always already was originary. For Jabes, this separation is coextensive with the birth of language. In this sense, one is a "Jew" not through ethnicity or religious affiliation, but through ones inherent separation and suffering. Stamelman further articulates this idea when he argues that"[t]o be Jewish is to live a life of continuous displacement,"(90) Therefore, like the Jews who are considered people of the book, born from and into words, as metaphorical Jews, we all must live in and through language, a thoroughly mediated and alienated existence. In this sense, Jabes writes,"So the country of the Jews is on the scale of their world, because it is a book. Every Jew lives within a personified word which allows him to enter into all written words. Every Jew lives in a key-word, a word of pain, a password, which the rabbis comment on. The Jews fatherland is a sacred text amid the commentaries it has given rise to."(91) For Jabes, the homeland of the Jew is the book; it is, paradoxically, the textuality from which we cannot escape and the deferral of meaning from which we are inevitably exiled. This land has no borders and must be lived in, lived as, and lived through. It is a book and, as such, it is infinite, a text that gives rise to an endless array of texts, a wilderness of words that is ever-changing and ever-expanding. In Jabesian terms, to be born of such a land is to be exiled to the desert of the book. However, the"Jew"as a metaphor of exile is not cynical, as some critics assert, (92) but rather affirmative in that the state of exile is the necessary state of the book. The desert is the distance and void that makes language possible, which is why Derrida writes that, for Jabes, "the Jew ... protects the desert which protects both his speech (which can speak only in the desert), and his writing (which can be traced only in the desert)."(93) The metaphorical Jew as exile to and guardian of the desert thus ensures the "positive fraudulence of a word"(94) Here Derrida asserts that, for Jabes, the desert of language is intrinsically and necessarily lie, and that the Jew, by virtue of being born of that desert, stands as both its victim and its defender. The Jew, in this sense, protects the fidelity of the lie, safeguarding the undecidability and eloquence of words from the closure of truth.
This paradoxical approach to the wound is perhaps most obviously emblematized in Jabes's symbolic use of the writer whose fate perfectly mirrors that of the Jew. Though he must continually try the writer can never accurately represent in words and is thus forever exiled from his subject--a subject that he must betray with every attempt. Jabes states, "I talked to you about the difficulty of being Jewish, which is the same as the difficulty of writing. For Judaism and writing are but the same waiting, the same hope, the same wearing out."(95) In his interview with Auster, Jabes makes this connection even more explicit when he says, "I feel that every writer in some way experiences the Jewish condition, because every writer, every creator, lives in a land of exile."(96) Haunted by inevitable failure, the writer shares the wound and exile of the Jew, a wound that lies at the core of the task he is compelled to undertake yet never complete. Like the Jew, the writer is doomed to distance, forever separated by the very language he necessarily employs and is of. Jabes writes, "Faced with the impossibility of writing, which paralyzes every writer, and the impossibility of being Jewish, which has for two thousand years racked the people of that name, the writer chooses to write, and the Jew to survive."(97) The writer can never accurately articulate because the medium of language, the only medium he has access to, will not and cannot ever allow it. While the writer will never be able to "explain" because, as Jabes asserts, "The word and he are strangers,"(98) he is, as a witness to the wound of language (like the Jew is a witness to the Holocaust), nevertheless driven to testify. This desire, however, inevitably leads to what Jabes terms a "double despair,"(99) a hopelessness born from the impossibility of stable meaning and from the corresponding relationship that the writer and the Jew share with language. In delineating the significance of this fundamental equivalence, Susan A. Handelman writes, in "'Torments of an Ancient Word:' Edmond Jabes and the Rabbinic Tradition," that "[t]he identification of Jew and writer is not, for Jabes, merely a convenient analogy or apt metaphor; it is the essence of his vision."(100) In fact, Jabes himself, in his "exchange" with Benjamin Taylor, states, "This connection between the Jew and the writer is for me no whimsy or conceit. It is a conspicuous matter of fact. The more thoroughly I live the one condition, the more thoroughly I live the other."(101) The correspondence of the Jew and the writer, while in part an analogy built of shared exile, is nevertheless not only a metaphor, but also the actual hope inherent within language--both of which, in their coextension, Jabes, himself, lives. He writes,"I believe in the writers mission. He receives it from the word, which carries its suffering and its hope within it."(102) For Jabes, the metaphor of the writer, like that of the Jew, symbolizes not only the suffering of languages wound--its inability to represent--but, more important, stands as the very promise of writing itself, and this promise constitutes the "essence," as Handelman puts it, of his poetic vision. In the text, Yukel writes, "Reb Jacob, who was my first teacher, believed in the virtue of the lie because, so he said, there is no writing without lie. And writing is the way of God.'103 Here, the virtue of the lie (i.e., languages failure to represent) is tied to its inseparability from writing, to writings dependence upon it to the point that, without lie, writing could not and would not be. In other words, the goodness of lie is located in its ability to make writing, language, and, by extension, testimony imperfect but possible. Thus, by asserting that the Jew (i.e., the witness) and the writer (i.e., the one who testifies) are fundamentally linked by the paradoxical wound of unspeakability, Jabes radically questions the authority of the witness by conferring the essential exile of the Jew upon all people and by elevating all writers to the status of witnesses.
The Rabbinical Framework
Finally, Jabes challenges the authority of the witness in The Book of Questions, Volume I by inserting a Jewish rabbinical framework into his text, a framework that complicates both the idea of the witness and of testimony. He invokes the tradition of rabbinical commentary becoming part of the text it is commenting on in order to create a seamless synthesis of testimony and interpretation, which are both granted equal status. The text's continuous commentary, spoken by a seemingly endless array of imaginary rabbis, addresses the characters, the narrator, and the writing of the book itself. Disembodied and displaced, for Jabes, these rabbis are voices that not only interpret but question the book and the authority of the witness as well. A significant element of a rich literary history, the practice of integrating rabbinical commentary into scriptural texts has long held a privileged place in the Jewish religious tradition. In Rei-magining the Bible, Howard Schwartz describes the place of rabbinical commentary in the history of Judaism as being "held in high esteem"(104) and writes that "these commentaries have taken on the aura, over time, of the sacred texts they explicate."(105) In the rabbinical tradition, Schwartz asserts, scripture (i.e., the word of God) and interpretation (i.e., the word of man) fundamentally blur; commentary is thus granted the authority of the original text. Rabbinical interpretation is not seen as a perversion of scripture, but as a necessity for accessing and understanding the multi-layered meaning of the Torah. In this sense, even two contradictory interpretations of the same passage are understood to shed equally valuable light on the original scripture. This paradoxical approach, however, does not simply work on the level of exegesis, but, more important for Jabes, extends to the theory of language itself. While rabbinical commentary is believed to bear the significance of scripture, the roots of this significance cannot extend beyond the text to a transcendental signified because no such stable foundation is possible. Thus, like all textual authority, rabbinical commentary, due to the originary wound of language, is afflicted by its own inability to be fully authoritative. It is "silenced," not in the sense of lacking a physical voice or even apparent confidence in what is said, but in the sense of its failure to fully speak. This awareness permeates such commentary in that it is not treated as static and singular, but as dynamic and multiple, open to endless writing and re-writing, interpreting and re-interpreting. Rabbinical commentary, for Jabes, is then a confident production of meaning on the part of those who know that no stable meaning is possible within the text, those who speak and write under erasure, in the full knowledge of the "silence" of their efforts. This confidence, despite languages inherent and necessary instability, constitutes precisely the ambiguous and contradictory nature of rabbinical commentary. Handelman, in The Slayers of Moses, asserts that, regardless of this paradoxical nature, or perhaps precisely because of it, such commentary was granted unparalleled authority. She writes that in this tradition interpretation and text were ... inseparable and seen as twin aspects or the same revelation,"(107) She continues, "Thus interpretation is not essentially separate from the text itself--an external act intruded upon it--but rather the extension of the text. ... Since the oral Torah is the revelation of the deeper aspects of the written, it also has divine status."(108) Here Handelman addresses the convergence of oral and written Torah that is at the heart of a proper understanding of rabbinical commentary and its significance in Jabes's text. According to Jewish tradition, God gave the written Torah to Moses during the days on Mount Sinai; however, at night, God supplemented that Torah with an oral version, the combination of which is believed to contain everything that ever was, is, or will be. In essence, the black of the page (i.e., the ink of the letters) constitutes the revealed written Torah, and the white of the page (i.e., the space in the margins and the gaps between the letters and words) constitutes the mysterious oral Torah, both of which are vital to a complete understanding of God's law. While God revealed the written Torah (static and unchanging) to Moses on Mount Sinai, the rabbis to this day continue to supply the oral Torah, a dynamic and evolving interpretation considered necessary to fill in the gaps and holes of the original text. Far from subordinate, rabbinical commentary carries the weight and authority of scripture, an authority great enough to overrule even its divine author. Thus the text and its rabbinical interpretation are considered distinct yet complementary testimony to the revelation of God, the latter, in a critical sense, completing the former.
Jabes's insertion ot the rabbinical structure into his work is meant to evoke a very specific understanding of the relationship between original text (i.e., testimony) and the interpretation of that text (i.e., commentary). He uses this paradigm to make subtle but significant assertions regarding both testimony and the authority of the witness. Though the actual storyline of his text, if it can be said to have one, is fragmentary, cryptic, and incomplete, Jabes does eventually reveal that Yukel and his lover Sarah, both French Jews, are arrested and sent to concentration camps. While they manage to physically survive the Holocaust, somehow salvaging bits of written testimony to their mutual love and their experiences in the camps, the psychological impact of the atrocities they witnessed proves overwhelming, as Sarah returns insane and Yukel, after his release, eventually commits suicide. Throughout the novel, rabbis provide continuous and enigmatic commentary on the lives and deaths of these characters, as well as the intricacies and impossibilities of writing their equally tragic fates, Yukel's first-person narration, fragmentary journal entries from both characters, repeated insertions by an unnamed authorial voice, "portraits" representing a series of themes and motifs, and brief appearances by various other characters, such as "scholars" and "chance guests,"(109) all provide rich fodder for rabbinical commentary. However, in regard to these contrasting elements, the author imposes no hierarchy of voice or perspective upon the text. For example, in a brief, one-page section entitled "Portrait of Sarah and Yukel in the Scream,"(110) the author combines a comment from the imaginary rabbi, Reb Lezer, a brief, anonymous prose poem, a comment from another imaginary rabbi, Reb Gamri, and a quotation from Yukel himself. And, between these four seemingly disparate entries, there are no transitions or overt thematic connections--nothing but substantial amounts of white space tenuously connects them to one another on the page. The rabbinical commentary is thus conflated with Yukel's testimony in the text and, by extension, in the mind of the reader. Drawing on the institutional authority of the rabbinical tradition, the text and the commentary are seen as inseparable, and Yukel's authority as witness is radically questioned. The presentation of firsthand experience and the interpretation of that experience by the rabbis become one and the same. Therefore, by putting Yukel in the position of witness to the unspeakable events of the Holocaust and at once challenging the authority of that position, Jabes is asserting that the firsthand witness can testify to nothing more than language's inability to testify. In Stamelmans words: "Nothing can be told except nothing itself''(111) Thus, due to our necessary relation to language and to its inherent and originary wounding, we are all made witnesses, equal in authority, to languages ultimate unspeakability. And yet, the decentering effect of rabbinical commentary in Jabes's text also bears its own paradoxical affirmation. The author suggests precisely this approach to such exegesis when he writes, "Inquiries and meditations of unreal rabbis are the boundary marks which the book, each time, joins for a brief stop and a new departure."(112) In this sense, rabbinical commentary at once delineates and extends the boundary of the book, marking and yet blurring the distinction between original and secondary text in an effort to extend the book and its interpretations indefinitely. In her essay, Handelman argues that rabbinical interpretation reinvigorates scripture by opening it to radical and contradictory readings in order to prevent the closure, or death, of meaning. For the rabbis, far from threatening scripture itself (which they adamantly believe must not be altered, even down to the letter), this process actually helps strengthen and perpetuate its meaning. Therefore, the rabbinical framework within Jabes's text, while fundamentally questioning the role of the witness and the claims made to the authenticity of his testimony, nevertheless succeeds in extending the dimensions of the book to infinity, opening it to an endless play and multiplicity of meanings that are the lifeblood of the text.
In The Book of Questions, Volume, I, Jabes challenges conventional understandings of the authority of the witness and the truth of testimony. Within a theoretical framework distinguished by the deconstructive linguistic paradigm established by Derrida, the simultaneous and synonymous effects of the originary wound on the Jew and the writer, and the tradition of rabbinical interpretation and its relationship to scripture, Jabes complicates the presumed purity of uncorrupted, unmediated, univocal representation. Haunted by the specter of the Holocaust and driven by the necessity yet impossibility of speaking its unspeakable horrors, he questions not only our ability to accurately represent in language but language itself As a witness to the wound of words, Jabes is necessarily compelled to testify with words that silence themselves and are themselves silence. By vigorously interrogating his own fictional witness to the Holocaust, Jabes both challenges and embodies the role of the witness, offering his own cryptic testimony to languages inability to truly represent, which also, enigmatically, constitutes the condition of possibility for its very existence. Thus, in the final pages of his text, undaunted by language's own inherent unspeakability and emboldened by its enigmatic expressibility, Jabes powerfully but paradoxically proclaims: "I scream my truth."(113)
(1.) Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1991), p. 13.
(2.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, p. 16.
(3.) Jacques Derrida, "Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book" in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 77.
(4.) Derrida,"Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book."
(5.) D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 157.
(6.) Naomi Mandel, Against the Unspeakable: Complicity, the Holocaust. and Slavery in America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 26.
(7.) Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 5.
(8.) Felman and Laub, Testimony, p. 6.
(9.) Jab[pounds sterling]s, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 13.
(10.) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator s Preface to Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. xxxix,
(11.) "There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n'y a pas de hors-texte]" (Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976], p. 158.
(12.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 31.
(13.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 101.
(14.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 37.
(15.) Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 12.
(16.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 39.
(17.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 39.
(18.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 13.
(19.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 34.
(20.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 47.
(21.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 34.
(22.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 157.
(23.) Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, p. 157.
(24.) Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 50.
(25.) Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 226.
(26.) Derrida.f Of Grammatology, p. 56.
(27.) Derrida, OfGrammatology, p. 167,
(28.) Derrick, OfGrammatology, p. 53.
(29.) Paul Auster, "Boole of the Dead: An Interview with Ednvond Jabes," in Eric Gould, ed., The Sin of the Booh Edmondjabh (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p. 8.
(30.) Josh Cohen, "Desertions: Paul Auster, Edmond Jabes, and the Writing of Auschwitz," The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2000): 96.
(31.) "Richard Stamelman, "Nomadic Writing: The Poetics of Exile," in Gould, ed., The Sin of the Book, p. 93.
(32.) Stamelman, "Nomadic Writing," p. 95.
(33.) Edmond Jabes/'Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book," in The Book of Margins, trans, Rosmarie Waldrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 44.
(34.) Auster,"Book of the Dead," p. 19.
(35.) Benjamin Taylor, "The Question of Jewishness and the Question of Writing: An Exchange with Edmond Jabes," The Threepenny Review, No, 21 (Spring 1985): 17.
(36.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 117.
(37.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume lt p. 319.
(38.) Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. 12.
(39.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 13.
(40.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 13.
(41.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 16.
(42.) "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (Theodor Adorno, Prisms: Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought [Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1983], p. 34).
(43.) Berel Lang "surmises" that Jabes, in attempting to write-the-Holocaust, chooses to write in the "assumed presence of the events, tak[ing] the existence and enormity for granted" (Lang, "Writing-the-Holocaust: Jabes and the Measure of History," in Gould, ed., The Sin of the Book, p. 194) and to rely on the reader to bring that presence with them into the text. I would, however, counter that Jabes takes the enormity of the Holocaust more fully into account than Lang himself, not only by acknowledging its unparalleled barbarity in the lives of Yukel and Sarah, but actually making it more enormous, if such a thing is possible, by thinking it as the making visible of the wound of language as a whole. In addition, it is difficult to understand how Lang could accuse Jabes of writing in the "assumed presence of the events" when Jabes's own deconstructive framework explicitly maintains that language itself cannot presence anything, let alone the horrors of the Holocaust. To take the "enormity" of the Holocaust for granted would be to suggest that it could be entirely reduced to historical "facts" or to imply that it could be represented in any way, and it is abundandy clear that, for his part, Jabes does not entertain either of these notions.
(44.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 51.
(45.) While he highly praises Jabes's text, in his first essay on the author's work,"Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book," Derrida nevertheless critiques The Book of Questions, the initial entry in Jabes's trilogy of the same title, for its inclination to replace one transcendental signifier with another--subtly substituting absence for presence at the center of language. He writes, "This is Le livre des questions, the poetic revolution of our century, the extraordinary reflection of man finally attempting today--and always in vain--to retake possession of his language (as if this were meaningful) by any means, through all routes, and to claim responsibility for it against a Father of Logos" (Derrida, "Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book" p. 73). Derrida asserts that Jabes assumes a Logos exterior to language--implying transcendence beyond the pages of his text--which he attempts to wrest control of language from by accessing it, even in its (or as) absence. In other words, he contends that in the text absence ispresenced in its non-existent existence, implying closure rather than the infinite deferral that Derrida himself envisions. Thus, for Derrida, Tab's initial text does not entirely escape a paradigm of transcendence. However, in his second essay on Jabes, a very brief but important essay entitled "Ellipsis," Derrida celebrates the trilogy's final installment, Return to the Book, for doing just what the title suggests--returning to the book itself. He writes, "In the serenity of this third volume, The Book of Questions [Volume I] is fulfilled. Fulfilled as it should be, by remaining open, by pronouncing nonclosure, simultaneously infinitely open and infinitely reflecting on itself, an eye in an eye,' a commentary infinitely accompanying the'book of the rejected and called-for book,' the book ceaselessly begun and taken up again on a site which is neither in the book nor outside it, articulating itself as the very opening which is reflection without exit, referral, return, and detour of the labyrinth. The latter is a way which encloses in itself the ways out of itself, which includes its own exits, which itself opens its own doors, that is to say, opening them onto itsel[pounds sterling] closes itself by thinking its own opening" (Jacques Derrida, "Ellipsis," in Writing and Difference, pp, 298-99), In the end, Derrida applauds Jabess trilogy for ending where it began--in the book, in the inescapable instability and openness of the text.
(46.) Derrida, "Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book," p. 64.
(47.) Some scholars have characterized the work of both Derrida and Jabes as apophatic in nature. For example, William Franke, in "The Singular and the Other at the Limits of Language in the Apophatic Poetics of Edmond Jabes and Paul Celan," New Literary History, Vol. 36 (2005), argues that philosophers like Derrida, Levinas, and Blanchot, along with poets like Celan and Jabes, "consciously work in an apophatic vein still replete with theological underpinnings" (Franke, "The Singular and the Other," pp. 622-23). In his essay, Franke outlines "two distinguishable lineages and logics of apophatic thinking, one based on the ineflability of the singular existence, whether of God or of the individual human person or event, and another based on an ineffability inherent in language itself" (Franke, "The Singular and the Other," p. 635). He continues, "The latter is traditionally figured as the unutterable Name of God. The word at the origin of all words, too hol(e)y to be pronounced, is the missing ground or abyss into which all language slips" (Franke, "The Singular and the Other, " p. 635). Despite undeniable elements of mystical Judaism in Jabes and Derrida, I maintain, along with Caputo and Derrida himself, that approaching texts of either author through the lens of negative theology, which implies a transcendental God (whether speakable or unspeakable), inevitably leads to misreadings of their respective work. In The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, Caputo contends that deconstruction, a framework that both Derrida and Jabes bring to bear in their work, is built not on a belief in transcendence--of stability, stasis, presence, and centeredness--but rather in a hope for "quasi-transcendence"--of a wholly other that is forever to come. Thus, while both authors can be said to fit Franke's second "lineage" of apophatic thought in their deconstructive approach to language, they nevertheless exceed negative theology through their approach to the" tout autre" (Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, p. xviii), as neither present nor absent, effable or ineffable, but rather ultimately deferred, a trace of a trace that is always on the way.
(48.) Stamelman, "Nomadic Writing," p. 98.
(49.) Eric Gould, "Godtalk," in Gould, ed., The Sin of the Book, p. 162.
(50.) Gould, "Godtalk."
(51.) Gould, "Godtalk."
(52.) Gary D. Mole, Levinas, Blanchot>Jabes: Figures of Estrangement (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), p. 146.
(53.) Cohen, "Desertions," p. 95.
(54.) Stamelman, "Nomadic Writing," pp. 92-114, and'Tlie Writing of Catastrophe: Jewish Memory and the Poetics of the Book in Edmondjabes," in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and "the Jewish Question" in France (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 264-79,
(55.) In "Nomadic Writing" Stamelman writes in regard to language: "What was once so proximate has become increasingly distant; what was once so familiar, so intimate, has become exceedingly different" (Stamelman, "Nomadic Writing" p. 96). He asserts that instead of separating word from meaning, language at one time brought them together, implying that its current state of distance and difference was not originary, but rather externally imposed upon it. And, in "The Writing of Catastrophe," he makes it clear that the external event that wounded language was the Holocaust itself, when he asks: "What can in fact exist after Auschwitz ... if not silence and ineffability?" (Stamelman, "The Writing," p. 267). He continues, "The scream is what happens to language when it passes through the nothingness of Auschwitz, when it witnesses unnamable atrocities, when it is struck by inarticulateless. Language can never again be the same" (Stamelman, "The Writing," p. 271). Here it becomes quite evident that for Stamelman the Shoah inflicts upon language an unspeakability that was not inherent to it.
(56.) Marcel Cohen, From the Desert to the Book, trans. Pierre Joris (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1990).
(57.) Cohen, From the Desert to the Book, p. 93, quoted in Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, p. 145.
(58.) Cohen, From the Desert to the Book, p. 93, quoted in Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, p. 145.
(59.) Cohen, From the Desert to the Book, p. 93, quoted in Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, p. 145.
(60.) Mole's interpretation does not accurately reflect Jabess statement in which he clearly contends that Auschwitz "revives"--resuscitates or reanimates--and never stops reviving the wound, but does not assert or even suggest that it initiates it. In fact, this quote provides much stronger evidence for my own reading of Jabess understanding of the Holocaust as the marking or making visible of the long invisible and intrinsic wound than it does for the argument that the Holocaust delivers that initial wound. To his credit. Mole continues by returning to Jabess understanding of the originary nature of languages wound in an attempt to clear up some of the confusion born from the blurring of these two approaches that took place in the aforementioned reading. He writes, 'Auschwitz, then, according to these formulations, is a metaphor for the wounded word, the sole property of the writer, and Jabes will claim the right to express this wound without in fact speaking of Auschwitz at all ... 'What language has become for me. I read a sentence, and I see the wound of the sentence,'" (Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, p. 145). Here Mole draws on Jabes once again to create a clearer distinction between the Holocaust as the initial wound of language and the Holocaust as an analogy for the continual "apocalyptic displacement" in language that is coextensive with its birth. It is clear, then, that when Jabes himself reads a sentence, he does not read the wound inflicted by Auschwitz, but the wound of language that is always already intrinsic to it.
(61.) J. Cohen, "Desertions" p. 96.
(62.) In his essay, Cohen writes, "Thus history for Jabes, and especially history after Auschwitz, does not determine meaning but disperses it, thereby engendering the wound in language which is the very condition of the book" (Cohen, "Desertions," p. 100, emphasis added). He asserts that, for Jabes, history, and by implication a historical event like the Holocaust, was the first cause of the wound of language, a wound that enigmatically also makes it possible. While Cohen is accurate in asserting that the wound of language is this "very condition," within a deconstructive framework, it cannot be considered a state initiated by the Holocaust itself. To maintain that language was not always already wounded is to assert that it once had a transcendental signified to which it referred, but, according to both Jabes and Derrida, this is not, never has been, and never could be the case. The transcendent God did not die, as Nietzsche declares; he simply never lived. From its birth, then, the book has been coextensive with its own wound, its own unspeakability, and, in this sense, the Holocaust, as horrible an event as it inarguably was and as pervasive an impact as it continues to have on a variety of levels, is no more unspeakable than any other event.
(63.) Matthew Del Nevo,"Edmond Jabes and Kabbalism After God,"Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 2. (Summer 1997): 403-42.
(64.) MEdward Kaplan, "The Problematic Humanism of Edmond Jab[pounds sterling]s," in Gould, ed., The Sin of the Book, pp. 115-30.
(65.) Joseph G. Kronick, "Edmond Jab[pounds sterling]s and the Poetry of the Jewish Unhappy Conscious," MLN, Vol. 106, No. 5 (December 1991): 967-96.
(66.) Berel Lang,"Wricing-the-Holocaust: Jabes and the Measure of History, "p. 204.
(67.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 3.
(68.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 40.
(69.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 113.
(70.) Franke, "The Singular and the Other"p. 631.
(71.) Anne Golomb Hoffman, Between Exile and Return: S. Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), p. 59.
(72.) Jabes, "Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book," p. 46.
(73.) Jabes, "Letter to Jacques Derrida on the Question of the Book," p. 47.
(74.) J. Cohen, "Desertions," pp. 94-95.
(75.) J. Cohen, "Desertions," p. 95.
(76.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 196,
(77.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 359,
(78.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 190.
(79.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume J, p. 122.
(80.) Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. 51.
(81.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 166.
(82.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 42.
(83.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 205.
(84.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 164.
(85.) Jabes, Tfoe Book of Questions, Volume I, pp. 25-26.
(86.) The assertion that we are all Jews applies, for Jabes, only "in [the] sense" that we are all necessarily exiled from stable meaning through textuality. In this same sense, I am not arguing that Jews are "a single wounded race," expelled from all but their own suffering, but rather am proposing that Jabes thinks them as such in order to mobilize a powerful metaphor in his work. However, for him, this metaphor is equally as affirmative as it is cynical. He contends that the inherent exile of the metaphorical Jew is one of inevitable distance and suffering within language, but also one that makes creativity, eloquence, and newness possible. In this essay, I do not seek to judge the accuracy of that metaphor (like any metaphor, it is at least to some extent reductive), but rather to analyze how and why it operates in this way for Jabes and how it thus enables a reconceptualization of the witness.
(87.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 61.
(88.) Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabis, p. 58.
(89.) Mole, Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes, p. 59.
(90.) Stamelman/'The Writing of Catastrophe," p. 270.
(91.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, pp. 100-01.
(92.) In"Writing-the-Holocaust: Jabes and the Measure of History" Lang criticizes Jabes for misrepresenting the relationship between the Jew and writing in his work and for thus perpetuating a negative stereotype of Jews, He writes, "Jabes is right but for the wrong reasons. Jewish life and history are tied to the life and history of the letter, the word, the book--but not because of the alien and driven presence he claims is common for those histories, challenged wherever they would settle, contingent, permanently in exile. ... But the convergence is in affirmation and assertion, in a common and extraordinary will to exist--not in hesitation or doubt or anxiety" (Lang,'Writing-the-Holocaust," p. 191).
(93.) Derrida,"Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book," p. 69.
(94.) Derrida,"Edmond Jabes and the Question of the Book," p. 71.
(95.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 122.
(96.) Auster, "Bookof the Dead," p. 12.
(97.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 223.
(98.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 50.
(99.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 60.
(100.) Susan A. Handelman, '"Torments of an Ancient Word': Jabes and the Rabbinic Tradition" in Gould, ed., The Sin of the Book, p. 56.
(101.) Benjamin Taylor/The Question of Jewishness and the Question of Writing," p. 16.
(102.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 58.
(103.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 85.
(104.) Howard Schwartz, Re-imagining the Bible: The Storytelling of the Rabbis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 31.
(105.) Schwartz, Re-imagining the Bible.
(106.) Susan A. Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. xiv.
(107.) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 31.
(108.) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 39.
(109.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 223.
(110.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 205.
(111.) Stamelman,'"Ihe Writing of Catastrophe," p. 273.
(112.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 181.
(113.) Jabes, The Book of Questions, Volume I, p. 390.
Andrew J. Ploeg University of Rhode Island
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|Author:||Ploeg, Andrew J.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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