Dictionary of the Khazars as an Epistemological Metaphor

By Leitner, Andreas | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Dictionary of the Khazars as an Epistemological Metaphor


Leitner, Andreas, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Comments, reviews, articles, and monographs on Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars demonstrate a wide range of ways of approaching, understanding, and interpreting this fascinating, bewildering, and bewitching "Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words." This novel acquaints the reader first of all with a kind of infinite book of the world or of nature, a kind of absolute book, as discussed and propagated by German romantic writers (F. Schlegel, Novalis). In this reading experience one very quickly loses interest in the Khazars, their history, even their tragic fate. One is caught by the legibility of the absolute book as a fascinating means of reading the book of the world, in other words, of solving, deciphering, and unraveling the mystery of man. In hardly any other work of literature is the possible legibility of the world presented so suggestively and convincingly as in Dictionary of the Khazars. And the way one has to read the book is closely linked to the way the present episteme, the present knowledge, interprets the world or reality. Because the described world of the Khazars is based on abstract present forms of knowledge, it can be called an epistemological metaphor. Episteme, understood as the summary of present knowledge, first of all from the natural sciences but also from philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, and the pseudosciences, like esoterics, organizes and interprets our world in a wide sense.

There are works of art like Pavic's Dictionary that reflect in concrete pictures the abstract concepts of knowledge. Such pieces of art render a great service to the emotional and the sensory experience of totally abstract, not-even-conceivable concepts, theories, and hypotheses of modern science.

How science today organizes and interprets reality and how these organizations and interpretations are transformed into concrete literary pictures are pointed out and discussed on the basis of a few outstanding examples below. Present reality is, put simply, interpreted by two contrary forms of knowledge. Both forms determine the reality in Dictionary of the Khazars, or, alternatively, they struggle with the truth. On the one hand, there is the knowledge of being and, on the other hand, the knowledge of becoming (I. Prigogine, From Being to Becoming. The knowledge of being is represented by modern natural science and partly by postmodern philosophers. Both show us reality in its loss of unity and wholeness, in its radical heterogeneity and plurality. The knowledge of becoming is represented by brand-new natural sciences, psychological and esoteric theories, as well as by individual thinkers. They show us reality in a new wholeness, in a universal connection and continuity. On the one hand, we have the loss of the holistic vision of the world; on the other hand, the holistic vision is regained. In Pavic's Dictionary the knowledge of timeless mythology connects being and becoming through meaningful and symbolic coincidences.

Present Scientific Foundations

Russell's proof of paradox and antinomy in the foundation of mathematics, Einstein's theory of relativity, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and Hilbert's foundation of geometry made it clear in the twentieth century that science lost its access to a logical wholeness. It was not only the whole universe but also the individual systems that lost their clarity and transparency and were no longer sources of unfailing and reliable truth. The status of scientific theories was called into question, and undecidable, undetermined, and illogical facts had to be accepted. The extent, for instance, to which quantum theory shook the foundations of mathematics, physics, and the traditional vision of the world is described by the physicist Erwin Schrodinger in his study "What Is Life": "The great revelation of quantum theory was that features of discreteness were discovered in the Book of Nature, in a context in which anything other than continuity seemed to be absurd according to the views held until then. …

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