February 2009

Elizabeth Bachner


Dead Books, Dead Bodies: Reading Edmond Jabs and The Book of Dead Philosophers

“You think you are dreaming the book. You are its dream.”—Edmond Jabès, The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion

I’ve been punched in the stomach by good luck. I found another twenty lying on the street. I had a dream in which I lived in this same apartment, but it had ten or twelve magnificent floors, with gardens and terraces and decked-out Balinese beds. I managed, even though he was apparently one of France’s most famous poets, to never hear of Edmond Jabès, so I got to discover him last week, clutching The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion to my chest and flying into a Kabbalistic tailspin, unsure anymore of whether my organs were on the inside or the outside of my body. I am an atom and this book is splitting me. No. I am made up of atoms, and this book is splitting each of them. I am made up of atoms. Metaphors are entirely literal. This is how Jabès, an atheist, wrote exclusively about God.

“To every book, its twenty-six letters. To every letter, its thousands of books.”

Tonight I was coming home from Brooklyn, 1 a.m. on a typical Sunday night, a typical Monday morning. I was reading the beautiful book Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès by Rosmarie Walthrop, Jabès’s translator, staring down at the Tom Otterness sculptures in the subway station, walking past the strange assortment of large men in camouflage jackets with hoses, stepping around the puddles of bleach on the floor, and I realized I’d finally gone somewhere irretrievable, like Franny Glass. It turned out that I was being read, that my atoms were splitting, that I was a rearrangement of letters, long before my discovery of Jabès.

“The fragment, the exploded book, is our only access to the infinite.”

I thought, or I knew, that I would never find another poet to love in the raw, painful way I love Vasko Popa or Primo Levi or T.S. Eliot. I was wrong, which means I could be wrong about so many other things, too -- I could still learn to long-jump, I could sprout wings, Ricky Schroeder of Silver Spoons could still come to rescue me in a white Jaguar, like I hopelessly fantasized when I was nine at the edge of a lonely Florida schoolyard. There could be a door into a world filled with lions and Turkish delight at the back of my tiny Manhattan closet. There could be whole countries where -- instead of gobbling up the fatuously “spiritual” memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert in between eating Lite desserts and shopping for leggings produced by children in sweatshops -- writers are exploding the language, and readers -- well, readers are letting them.

“Is there another book hidden in what I read? Yes, the book you are writing.”

All of this, of course, has gotten me thinking about the difference between human life and the life, the body, the magic, the poison of a book. My Jabès reverie hit just as I was finishing Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers, which is about the ways that “190 or so” philosophers, from Thales to Deleuze, passed away. They wrote (or, in the case of Socrates, dictated) all of this immortal prose, and then, like the rest of us, they suffocated in cow dung, or got stabbed to death, or got the Plague, or ate too much truffle pate, or jumped out the window because they couldn’t stand their emphysema anymore, or had a heart attack while swimming, or got gassed at Auschwitz. Every great philosopher, every great poet, has had platelets and intestines, mirror neurons and dead skin. Although there are many, many things worse than death (as Sarah Kofman, my own favorite philosopher not included in Critchley’s book, knew well) death is awfully final. After a philosopher dies, or a poet dies, he or she won’t write again, although this may be debated by some mystics. We are left with books, which have a thrilling, viral, eternal life in the world’s future.

“You can only count the days you lose.”

Critchley’s begins his foray into thanatology by considering Cicero’s claim, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” He concludes that to philosophize is to “learn to love” the difficulty of our own morality, our creatureliness, the fact that we are fragile and limited. Lavish Absence is very much about Jabès’s creatureliness -- the salt-free diet he continually breaks, his rush to make sure Walthrop finishes translating his masterworks while he is still around to answer questions, the asthma that gets worse whenever he spends time with a rabbi. This brilliant and transformational poet had a penis and a pancreas. He lived in a human body just like everyone else. On the other hand, the mortal body can be a pleasure and a triumph. He did not only grow old and die. He loved a terrific woman, read beautifully, wrote out his poems by hand, listened to Oum Kalsoum, ate at Chez Panisse, and spent the 1930s looking like a dashing young Rudolph Valentino.

“Aging wounds us. All our setbacks are bloody. But sometimes, at the lowest point of the curve, a spark of love is enough to brighten our night.”

Waldrop remembers crossing the Seine with Jabès in 1971. It’s heartbreaking, because this is where Paul Celan ended his life a year before, jumping into the river. In The Book of Margins, Jabès remembers spending an afternoon with Celan shortly before the suicide: “The last. The last. Paul Celan at my house. Sitting in this chair that I have right now been staring at for a long time. Exchange of words, closeness. His voice? Soft, most of the time. And yet it is not his voice I hear today, but his silence. It is not him I see, but emptiness, perhaps because, on that day, each of us had unawares and cruelly revolved around himself.”

“Having opposed God to God, Thought to Thought, Book to Book, you will have destroyed one by the other;
But God survives God, Thought outlives Thought, and the Book the Book.
It is in their survival that you will continue to provoke them.
The desert is followed by the desert, as death follows death.”

“Writing is not the activity of a single person,” Jabès tells Walthrop. “I am only one partner in the process. It is an interaction between the writer and language. So the gender of the writer is of very limited importance, except in as far as it determines the experiences the writer draws from.” Similar, then, would be the experiences of being Egyptian, Jewish, an exile. Walthrop, the translator, takes exception to the idea that language is gender-neutral, or neutral in any way. But Jabès’s exploration of the relationship between our body, our creatureliness, our languages, our mortality, death, God, and the project of writing is so transforming that it is almost wounding. Reading him, I keep thinking that it’s no surprise that books were among the things the Nazis burned.

“What is beyond the book is still the book.”

Some of the poets and philosophers who have stirred me most, who have helped me live, did not survive survival. Celan, Kofman, Primo Levi. Others, like Gérard de Nerval, did not survive life. It’s interesting that modern Westerners associate death with sadness and life with happiness, when we have centuries of experience to teach us that each end and beginning is a heady mix of both. Simon Critchley, age 48-ish, writing The Book of Dead Philosophers in West L.A., thinking about Adorno, thinking about O.J. Simpson, is going to die someday. He imagines that he will be pursued by a bear. Elizabeth Gilbert’s readers will die, flat and bland, most of them without ever visiting India or Italy or Indonesia, without ever reading Jabès or Critchley or Celan or Kofman or Waldrop or Levi. In his final years, Jabès was alarmed by the rampant xenophobia in Paris, decades after the Holocaust had ended. His book A Foreigner, Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book, takes its title from the wee copies of the Old Testament that the Marranos, the Christianized Jews of Spain, hid in their sleeves while they were forced to attend mass. A small subversive act. A book as a secret, containing the real God.

“Writing a book consists perhaps in giving the deciphered moment… back to eternity.”

Walthrop asks Jabès how, as an atheist, he can constantly write of God. He replies that God is a word his culture has given him, “a metaphor for nothingness, the infinite, for silence, death, for all that calls us into question.” Then reading Edmond Jabès is a way of meeting God, of escaping God, of heading into the desert, of escaping death, of dying, of studying some end-of-history Philokalia, of muttering a prayer over and over again, ceaselessly, like a heartbeat -- a way of continuing to write.