Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabes

Magazine article Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabes

Article excerpt

No matter where, in cafes, in the metro, while walking, at dinner, on little bits of paper, on matchbooks, napkins, on his memory, Edmond Jabes writes. Because life is a book that needs to be written at any moment.

All his life he practices death, the death at the end of each book, each poem, when the work no longer needs the author and rejects him. Now absorbed into his books. With all his body.

"The writer is nobody" (BQ 27), he says.

As if he would prepare us for his absence.

Edmond Jabes walks, slowly, hands crossed in back, with the steady steps of the nomad, steps sown by the desire of words to come together, the rhythm of question and further question, the cadence of commentary.

      Man does not exist. God does not exist. The world alone exists
      through God and man in the open book. (BYRB 236)

Energy, matter. It exists, but it becomes "world" only in the book, in language, which is created by man and at the same time creates him. "You are the one who writes and is written" stands at the beginning of The Book of Questions. Faced with an undecipherable world we set out to create language, a place where human discourse can arise, and we come to exist as human beings; where, at the same time, we can maintain a relation to what transcends us, the undecipherable, the ultimate otherness, and speak to it under the name of God.

Matter becomes the matter of words, which creates structure, makes legible, interprets, against a ground of unreadable silence.

      We know of silence only what words can tell us. Whether you like
      it or not, we ratify only the word. (F 45)

There are key words, says Edmond Jabes, that engender the book. Obsessive words, words we cannot get rid of. Words that cannot be emptied of meaning: God, Jew, Law, Eye, Name, Book. And graves. His mother's in Bagneux, his father's in Milan, his brother's in Rome.

      Four graves. Three countries. Does death know borders? One family.
      Two continents. Four cities. Three flags. One language: of
      nothingness. One pain. (BYRB 145)

A book about "God and the world." About everything. A book sui generis: an untold story forms the pre-text for rabbinical commentaries, poems, aphorisms, word-play with philosophical implications, and reflective, densely metaphorical prose. Shifting voices and constant breaks of mode let silence have its share and allow for a fuller meditative field than possible in linear narrative or analysis.

A book about the word. Between scream and silence. The word through which we become human. Other. The word which is our mirror and our wound.

      Mark the first page of the book with a red marker for in the
      beginning the wound is invisible.

These words open The Book of Questions. In the beginning is the wound. Invisible. Are we on familiar Freudian territory? Is it the artist's wound, the irritation that causes the pearl, the original lesion that the artist's work forever tries to repair?

More than the artist's wound, it is the wound of the Jew. Sarah deported to a concentration camp, Sarah gone mad, Sarah incarnating Israel's scream of suffering. And Yukel unable to go on living.

The wound of circumcision is metaphysical and existential. It is a wound we all share. The Jew has been persecuted for being "other." But "otherness" is the condition of individuation, the condition of being set apart from the rest of creation in the glorious--and murderous--species of humankind and, in addition, set apart from our fellow humans as individuals, always "other."

Judaism: a paradoxically collective experience of individuation. Exemplary of the human condition.

Let us not forget, says Jabes, that "if we say 'I' we already say difference" (LH 35).

A metaphorical Judaism:

     And Serge Segal shouted at the prisoners around him, who would soon
     be scattered in the various extermination camps prepared for them,
     shouted as if in the name of the Lord to His assembled people: "You
     are all Jews, even the anti-Semites, because you are all marked for
     martyrdom. … 
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