Dictionary of the Khazars as a Khazar Jar

By Davis, Rachel Kilbourn | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Dictionary of the Khazars as a Khazar Jar


Davis, Rachel Kilbourn, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


In an article on nonmimetic literature entitled "The Khazar Jar and Other False Memories,"(1) Milorad Pavic cites the entry "The Khazar Jar" from his novel Dictionary of the Khazars, in which a student dream-reader receives as a gift what seems to be an ordinary jar. One night before going to sleep, he drops his ring into the jar, only to discover in the morning that the ring is gone. When he reaches his hand into the jar, he discovers that there does not seem to be a bottom on the inside although the jar looks quite ordinary on the outside. When he asks his teacher to explain the mystery of the Khazar Jar, the teacher picks up a stone, drops it into the jar and is able to count to seventy before they hear a splash. Although the teacher warns the student that after he explains the mystery, the jar will be worth far less to him and to others than it is now, the student still wants to know the meaning of the jar, at which point the teacher picks up a stick and smashes it, saying: "The damage would be if I had first told you what the jar was for and had then smashed it. This way, you don't know its purpose and there is no damage done; it will continue to serve you as though it had never been smashed...." The story concludes with the narrator's comment that "Indeed, the Khazar jar serves to this day, although it has long since ceased to exist."(2)

It is not by chance that Pavic chose this particular passage from Dictionary of the Khazars. "The Khazar Jar" is a parable about how easily people are deceived by external appearances and how quickly they jump to evaluate something without first really examining either themselves or the object. In general terms "The Khazar Jar" is about the role of perception vs. reality in the determination of the value of an object, whether that object is a vase, a novel, or even existence itself. In attempting to determine the value of an object, one critic writes that:

Of particular significance for the value of "works of art" and "literature" is the interactive relation between the classification of an entity and the functions it is expected or desired to perform. In perceiving an object or artifact in terms of some category--as, for example, "a clock," "a dictionary, .... a doorstep," "a curio"--we implicitly isolate and foreground certain of its possible functions and typically refer its value to the extent to which it performs those functions more or less effectively.(3)

This is precisely the student's shortcoming in "The Khazar Jar." The teacher in the story understands that the student values the jar only because of its mystery, a mystery that he assumes has a "logical" solution. Nevertheless, the fact that the student believes that the Khazar jar has a bottom inside because its external form leads him to expect one does not necessarily mean that it has one or that he could understand it even if it did. The teacher knows that once the mystery is solved, the jar will not hold quite the same attraction for the student as it does now. Whether or not the teacher actually knows the secret meaning of the Khazar jar himself, he does know that if he allows the student to continue to study the jar with the sole aim of discovering its secret, the student would never begin to consider why the jar puzzles him, nor would he ever realize the inappropriateness of his entire approach to the question. By smashing the jar, the teacher accomplishes two things: he leaves the mystery intact, preserving it until such time as the student is capable of understanding the true meaning of the Khazar jar; and he forces the student to focus his attention on the process of unraveling the mystery, that is, to focus on himself and his perception of the jar, rather than on the jar and its supposed meaning.

Like the student who mistakes the Khazar jar for an ordinary jar because of its external appearance and then is puzzled when it lacks the bottom he had expected to find, we as readers are puzzled by Dictionary of the Khazars when it refuses to conform to our predetermined expectations of it as a novel.

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