Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Coat of Many Colors

Sing, whence that much colored coat and whither,
That coat which saw deceit and love and hope,
That torn gifted garment which Joseph wore,
And which his father, Jacob, before him
donned, when he conned his blind father, Isaac,
Into blessing him with the great command:
"Be a blessing," which subsequently he
Did follow, marking himself with destiny,
Tragedy, providence, as well as guilt!
His mother, Rebbecca, had designed it
In spite of the stars' much accursed will
That he should be the father of greatness.
Alas, that he had cast the coat upon
His Son, God-like dreamer sprung from Rachel's
Womb, which barren, had opened to give life
To the world's most luminous face, a trace
Of the Face, which masquerades as surface,
But is really surface and pulse at once
And the dynamic otherness that calls
The I out from under itself to dance and praise
The grand Unrecognizability
Whose footsteps can be heard when the earth quakes,
Whose dynamic breath blows being, language,
Fantasies and ambiguities home.
For had he not bestowed and transferred it,
His most favored God-child would not have passed,
At the hands of his envious brothers,
Into the hands of other o'er-looked brothers,
The Ishmaelites, descendants of Abraham
And Hagar, a war-prize won in battle,
With the help of Elohim and Good Luck.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stories of a House

A glimpse at the words "house" and "story" opens up some interesting thoughts:

The word "house" often enough, both in the Bible and in Homer, refers not only to a physical house in space but to a genealogy or a lineage across time as well. The House of Atreus and the House of David are prime examples. Whereas in a physical house, the entrances and exits of its residents do not affect its fate, in a genealogical house, if the members of the house leave the house or die out, the house itself crumbles. Thus, while in one sense of the word "house," the residents do not constitute the house as house, in the second sense of the word, they are the very materials out of which the house is built.

Now, we all know that a large house tends to have several stories, and that the residents of such a house rarely sleep on the first story. Taking "story," then, in its two senses, we come to the following: A large house possesses stories. As a physical fact, this is no marvel. The number of stories and even the plurality of stories does not impact the being or non-being of the house. But on a deeper level, on the level in which the house is not just a shelter from the elements but a shelter from the decay of time, stories are the mortar and cement that keep in place our lives which are the very bricks of the great structure.

The story/stories of the Jewish people, for example, is/are largely what keep/s the Jewish people alive, and what ensure/s that the house of David does not crumble. Physically and logically one would say that a house must exist for there to be stories, but temporally and thus existentially, one should say that for there to be a house there must be stories.

A story is never original, and yet it is always new. This is the metaphorical meaning of why the master of the house sleeps on the second floor. A story is always a commentary, and thus can never be the foundation, the house, but only a part of the house. A story is always grounded, framed, contextualized, inspired, etc. In the beginning, after all, was not a story, but a word, the word. The word is the house. (Heidegger states that "Language is the house in which Dasein poetically dwells). And it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, the Letter Hay which is said to be a holy letter because it frequently appears in the divine name/s also looks like a house, and comes from other Semitic alphabets in which the letter itself stood for the word "house." Yet the assembly of words, the ordering of them in chiasmus, antithesis, synthesis, or what have you, is the story without which the house could never stand. Words after all, only exist, because of the need and desire to communicate. And communicating is nothing less than storytelling. Even when I say, "Go to the store!" or "Did you go to the store?" I am telling a story. In the first case, I am telling the story of something that has not yet happened but something which I hope, through speech, to make happen. In the second case, I am telling the story, whose end awaits a response from the Other. For if the Other responds in the affirmative, then I have told a story whose conclusion is affirmative, and if negative, negative.

Thus, we see that the story, although it is not original in the sense of being primordial, functions as the ever dynamic layering of the house, whose continuous existence breaths life into its darkest corners, shielding it from demise.

The tower of Babel fell down. Yet, though the house of Babel fell, its stories continue. And thus, the house hasn't fallen, it has simply proven to be a house not of bricks, but of words. It is a house which extends not to the heavens but, even more miraculously, across time. Since languages continue to change, to grow, to die, but also to emerge, we can see that the tower of Babel is still being constructed, that the workers have not yet thrown in their working cards, but continue to toil. Each story builds upon the next, and thus the house that is humanity sits enthroned on the layers of its past. Proust says that the self is but a graveyard of all of its deceased selves, and archaeologists apply this very idea to the study of civilizations when they excavate the layers of history buried below ground. The tower of Babel towers over us in the towering image of history, a towering image, because it is imageless, as imageless as the imageless God. For that which is imageless, ungraspable, unfathomable, is also towering, the way that the galaxies millions of light years away tower over us, not because they appear big, but precisely because they don't, and their smallness, and invisibility (at least to the naked eye), suggests our own smallness.

In any event, we can see now why though the Jews have been homeless, they have not been without a house. The House of David (beit david) endured even when Jewish houses of worship and study (beit midrash and beit knesset) saw their fiery destruction, and even since the destruction of the Second Temple (The Beit Hamikdash, literally, the House of Holiness). Stories, therefore, are the lifeblood of the House. But stories are not mere words. They are the dialectic of words and memories.

Though I have seemingly asserted a dichotomy between the two notions of house and the uses story, it is not without saying that their difference is grounded in a unity, a unity which ambiguates the difference between body and soul, or existence and essence. For, on some level, it has been shown that all language, and thus all stories, are deictic. That is, are physical, are demonstrative and gestural. Every statement we make refers to a this or a not this, and every time we speak, we open our mouths. Indeed, every time we speak, we presuppose ourselves as selves and our interlocutors as not selves, and both require that we have an image of ourself and of the other. I, when I think about who I am, do not simply come up with a list of activities or attributes, but a picture or a video, at any rate, a characterization that not only includes but assumes my identity as a body, as a brown haired, brown-green-eyed, 180 lb. male with the build and glare of a 20 year old.

Thus, we see that the story and the house, in the sense in which I have expounded them, are not mere concepts, but things. And it is fitting that in Hebrew the word for word is the same as the word for thing. A world without words, without stories, is literally nothing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


When Yaakov (Jacob) tricked his blind father Yitzhaq (Isaac) into blessing him as the first born, he did not know that the trick would ultimately backfire, that the blessing of the first born-- that providential but no less onerous grace--would be as the mark of Cain upon him and his descendants. Yaakov received the blessing, but immediately had to flee. Even when he reconciled himself with his brother, the hairy Edomite, he never ceased fleeing. To this day, the children of Yaakov can be seen holding onto the heel of history wishing often enough, though blessed in some fateful and fatal sense, that they had just let go, that they had eaten their lentils in silence, that they had not listened to their treacherously wise mother, Rivka (Rebecca)--that recurring instantiation of Chava (Eve), whose knowledge and curiosity brings life and death into the world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


When Pygmalion, either out of vanity or selflessness, fell in love with one of his sculptures, and when, with his powers, brought it to life, transforming it from a stone It into an enfleshed Thou, from an unnamed thing into a woman named Elise...

Pygmalion could not continue sculpting other beautiful forms, having already attained perfection. But what had most impressed Elise about her lover and creator, what had urged her out of ur-life into the broad and much enduring world, namely, that Pygmalion was an artist, ceased to be the case. And when this happened, although it happened before history itself could take place, in the primordial occurrence of their twain metamorphoses, she became a sculptor, while he became nothing but a fawning, yet impotent lover.

Elise went on to sculpt her own idols, until one day, she, like her creator before her, became enraptured by the lifeless form she had rendered so full of life. She went on living as if it were alive, but nobody can say for sure, whether her power proved to be sufficient. Pygmalion, for whatever it's worth, however, never ceased loving her.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Orpheus and Eurydice

As Orpheus ascended the steps of Hades, returning to the Black Earth, he could hear the footsteps of his beloved Eurydice behind him, and could even feel her panting breath upon his neck. But he knew that if he turned around to face her, it would be the last time he would ever see her, and that she would remain a prisoner of Death forever. And so, Orpheus, out of great fear, refused to give into his temptation. Even when he made it out of the Underworld and could see the radiant light of Helios, he didn’t dare turn around. Orpheus walked the Black Earth one long step at a time, as if still climbing out of Hades, still waiting for the safe moment when he could rush upon Eurydice and welcome her back from the dead. And Eurydice followed him. For years he walked, and Eurydice right behind him. Her sweet footsteps provided the only energy keeping him from collapsing. But one day, Eurydice grew tired, and perhaps bored. She was unable to cry out to her lover, since Hades had ordained that she could speak only when Orpheus turned to look at her. Believing that Orpheus would never turn to look at her and that she would remain mute forever, Eurydice quietly slipped off and walked back down to Hades. When Orpheus noticed that he could no longer hear Eurydice’s footsteps behind him, he turned around. But she was gone even before he could see her.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Dead God, Dead Author, Live Text

The academic world often points to Nietzsche and his posterior cohort of existentialists, phenomenologists, and post-structuralists, as the heralds of the anti-metaphysical worldview that so pervades the way we relate to the concepts of "God" and "Author." For not only, of course, did this sweep of thinkers offer God one final blow, but even the human god that had long been an object of our great adoration, the artist. By proclaiming "The death of God," they sought to liberate humankind from the pitfalls of projecting, wishful thinking, and ultimately, "inauthentic" living. But by announcing "the death of the author," they believed they had absolved humankind from another metaphysical yoke, "Intention." No longer, did we have to enslave ourselves to biographical knowledge of the author, a doomed project. Instead, we could find, in the text, truths that spoke in spite of the author. (Of course, this view itself is not without mystical resonance. "Letting the text speak," and "Being silent before Being," are simply modern reformulations of the medieval mottoes held by the Scholastics.)

But are these views, at once decried and extolled, really so radical? Are they even a blow to God and to the Author, at all? Or do they simply suggest something that was already present in our conceptions of "God" and "Author" from the start?

A famous story in the Talmud, with which Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" bears a striking affinity, recounts the details of a debate among the Rabbis of the Assembly:

The Rabbi who holds the correct opinion, time and again calls on God to give his adversaries signs that he is in the right. First, God causes a carob tree to sprout up, then He stops the flow of a river, next He causes a wall to come crashing down, and finally, He opens up the heavens and sends a heavenly voice to proclaim that the truth is with the lone Rabbi. But the other Rabbis, who witness these miracles, protest by saying that "one cannot bring proof from a carob tree" and that "the rule is with the majority." The story culminates with the Rabbis lifting Scripture out of its original context, and thereby thwarting its simple meaning to support their claims. In a jarring speech-act they shout the words of Scripture as a response to the heavenly voice: "It (Scripture/Law/Meaning) is no longer in heaven to decide." The Talmud goes on to say that at this point, God laughed, and chuckling to himself, cried, "My children have defeated me, My children have defeated me."

But isn't this what every God, Parent, Author, wants, on some level? To be surpassed by one's pupils, one's progeny, one's readers? Were the Rabbis, in their benign disobedience, not indeed, carrying out the divine intention? Were they not, paradoxically, in overturning the decree of the Source, simply bearing testimony to the Source's continual vitality? Does not the Author write for an Audience, knowing that once he has completed it, his text is no longer his? And does he not know that this very fact holds the key to his immortality? For God and Author alike require worshippers, readers, interpreters, creators, writers, even critics and blasphemers, to ensure their existenz. Heidegger's central point, that without Da-sein (his ontologically richer synonym for Man), the world would be but a heap of things, without worldiness, without meaning, a view that the Rabbis, no doubt, understood, guides the actions of God and of the Author. It is why God creates, reveals, redeems, and why the Author writes, revises, and submits a final draft. For God knows that the redemption of Man carries with it the redemption of his own divine self. And the Author knows that the redemption of Reader via his text bears, most of all, his own redemption.

This passage, which already bears the seeds of the modern concepts of "Death of God" and "Death of Author" is not an exercise in nihilism and relativism, but far from it, is an example of "walking with God." For the Rabbis, after all, on the one hand are debating a trivial matter, the criteria for a kosher oven, but on the other hand, are doing so in the belief that even the smallest details bear the potential for holiness and righteousness if done with the proper intention.

Whether thinkers like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, who say "all things are possible, and none necessary" or Blanchot and Derrida, who say, "there is nothing outside of the text," are executioners of the Master of the Universe or Princes bearing his Name to the dark corners of the world, depends on how we take them. If we believe that they expose and assay the questions that God himself compels, we must also say that, in all likelihood, though they are"defeating" God, the Holy One laughs with pride, pleased that his children continue to grow into free-thinking, free-willed beings, demi-gods, even, or images of the Nothing, perhaps. At any rate, Princes of the All.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Indisposable Self

Some Saioian self delights in a flawless shield, which
I abandoned by the side of a bush, fleeing unwillingly.
But I saved my self. What is that perfect shield to me?
Let it disappear. I will possess another not worse.

--My Translation of Archilochus, Fragment 5

The World is God's Bible

If the Torah is a redacted document, a cut-and-paste of fragments-from-different-contexts, this provides insight into the nature of God, the Author of the Book of Fragments. For just as the Torah cannot possibly succeed in correcting its own inconsistencies, God too, can never fully patch together all the modes of his Being.

But just as the textual problems of the Torah open it up for interpretation and call upon its readers, in a way, to rewrite it, and ultimately, to complete it, the very textual problems of God which are manifest in his universe as scribal and syntactical errors, anachronisms, ambiguities and plot inconsistencies, ensure that the Cosmos will continue to interpret itself, and in so doing, complete the creative word of God. God spoke, and perhaps still speaks, but the world must punctuate, must turn the word into sentence. Just as poetry must be sung to be brought to life, and the words of the Torah chanted (on the page they are consonants without vowels, unpronounceable), the world must make itself audible to itself, by continuing to rotate on its axis and revolve in orbit, like a dog chasing its own tail, like a historian chasing his own tale. The song of the world is the music of inexorable flux, of the great ball of earth and clay seeking to sing and listen at once, to participate and reflect all in its one, but ever drawn out, breath.