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Meeting in the Book:

Hank Lazer reviews

Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès by Rosmarie Waldrop

Wesleyan University Press — 2002. $45.00 cloth; $17.95 paper

This piece is 3,000 words or about seven printed pages long.

Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lavish Absence is an extraordinary mixture of reminiscence, a study of the writing of the poet Edmond Jabès, reflections on the nature of poetry and translation, and a somewhat autobiographical piece of writing that gives us occasional glimpses into Waldrop’s own development as a writer. I find Waldrop’s book to be extremely engaging. Often, it feels perfectly continuous with Jabès’s own writing, becoming an extension of or a meditation in the same environment of thinking. Lavish Absence represents an appropriately cross-genre and unclassifiable piece of writing — an appropriate portrait and homage to Edmond Jabès, one of the twentieth-century’s important writers of “the book,” a poet who, fittingly, died reading a book.
     Perhaps best known for The Book of Questions, Jabès is a writer of considerable ambition — not personal ambition nor individual accomplishment, but ambition in writing a poetry that is unflinchingly fundamental and of metaphysical and spiritual consequence. As Waldrop summarizes:

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 who 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. (1)

Jabès’s writing addresses and embodies the most fundamental aspects of human being, particularly the paradoxical nature of the human as a being housed within the possibilities of language and, most often, the accidents and wonders of a particular language. A particular assemblage of the possibilities of language is the book. For Jabès, “The world exists because the book does” (15).
     Such a pronouncement about the fundamental relationship of world and book seems to echo the thinking of an important French predecessor, Stéphane Mallarmé, particularly the famous beginning of Mallarmé’s “The Book, Spiritual Instrument”: “A proposition which emanates from myself — whether cited variously as my eulogy or as blame — I claim it as my own together with all those that crowd in here — affirms, in short, that everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.” [Note 1] Jabès’s conception of the book can be seen as a dialog with and a critique of Mallarmé, as Jabès himself indicates in a 1980 interview with Philippe Boyer. Jabès refers to the ground of his book as

the desert, that infinity where there is nothing. It’s fundamentally the white page. My questioning, my obsession with the book, may very well have been born from that white page, which becomes written. I never thought of a Mallarméan book, of a totality. To think of a book in advance, as a project, is to limit it. The book for me should be without limits, like the desert, thus an exploded book. (126)

Jabès critiques and rejects the Mallarméan conception of a grand project — the book-architecture that Mallarmé refers to in a letter to Théodore Aubanel (July 28, 1866), in which he foresees the need for “twenty years for the five volumes of this Work.” [Note 2] But Jabès’s book does resemble Mallarmé’s as a site capable of incarnating the complexities of our being, though Jabès insists simultaneously on the need for the book to be exploded, broken, and questioned. Jabès locates that conception of the book in a Hebrew (not a French) tradition of the book:

My books are for me both a place of passage and the only place where I might live. Isn’t it surprising that the word of God should come from the desert, that one of the names of God in Hebrew should be PLACE, and that the book should have been lived as the place of the word by the Jews for millennia? But at the same time I don’t accept the book as it is. I believe that the refusal is what one also finds in the Jewish tradition.
The Hebrew people obliged Moses to break the tablets. The origin of the Book therefore comes to pass by a breakage. (Boyer, 129)

Waldrop, in Lavish Absence, does not really address the relationship of Jabès’s thinking about the book to Mallarmé’s, focusing instead more steadily on Jabès’s Jewish sense of textuality, and on the implications and nature of the book. Waldrop writes,

It is language, the book, that enables us to perceive — and to live. It is our universe to the point where we ourselves metamorphose into the word. “I took you in as a word,” the narrator says to Yaël. And Jabès to Marcel Cohen: “We become the word that gives reality to the object, to the being.” (15)

As Waldrop notes throughout Lavish Absence, Jabès places his faith in the efficacy and accuracy of the fragmentary:  “‘The fragment, the exploded book, is our only access to the infinite,’ Edmond Jabès says in conversation after conversation. And writes: ‘Only in fragments can we read the immeasurable totality’” (18). Here, perhaps, in a rejection of a totalizing book (or of a book that would achieve closure) lies Jabès’s fundamental difference from Mallarmé’s conception of the book, though the radically dispersed textuality of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés should call into question any such simple conclusion.
     Waldrop herself deserves considerable praise for her translations of Jabès’s writing, for making such an important writer available to those of us who cannot read French fluently, and for the heroism of her persistence. When she began to translate Jabès, the response from publishers was hardly overwhelming: “I had translated about fifty pages and sent them with a description of the book, to twenty American publishers. All declined on the grounds that translations had always lost them money” (5). Eventually, Waldrop translated fifteen volumes of Jabès’s writing. To her credit, Waldrop realizes the inadequacy of any translation, and as she re-reads Jabès, she finds key sentences that, thirty years later, she would have translated differently (now that her understanding, after thirty years’ reflection, has changed):

I look at my translation: “The book never actually surrenders.” This now seems inadequate. The adverbial form weakens the statement, makes us read over it rather than pause to ponder its strangeness and implications. In 1973, I did not see this sentence as I see it today. This pleases me in as far as it shows my reading and interpretation are not frozen. (138)

    Waldrop’s consideration of the complexities of translation inevitably becomes a thinking about the nature of language. She understands and takes some pleasure in the fact that language — in translation, but also in the “primary” act of writing — exceeds our control of it, and “that language is not necessarily a tool we can simply ‘use’” (100). Waldrop’s philosophy of translation resembles Walter Benjamin’s, concurring with his conclusion that a literary work’s “essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information” (7). For Waldrop, such understandings do not lead to the more customary laments about the impossibilities and woeful imperfections of translation. For example, rather than seek a translation that perfects an imagined harmonious relationship of sound and sense, Waldrop realizes (and confirms by way of Giorgio Agamben) that poetry often lives in the particularities of a disagreement or productive tension and discord between sound and meaning. Waldrop writes of Jabès: “His aim is not to invert the traditional hierarchy of sense over sound, but to establish parity between them, or, rather, to establish a dynamic relation between language and thinking, where the words do not express pre-existing thoughts, but where their physical characteristics are allowed to lead to new thoughts” (70).
     Such thinking about language and the word leads, in part, to an endless process of commentary and interpretation: “ ‘Our lot is to interpret an unreadable world.’ ‘In the beginning is hermeneutics,’ repeats Jacques Derrida” (24). Hence, for Jabès the centrality of questioning: “ ‘The Jew has for centuries questioned his truth which has become the truth of questioning’” (26). But an even more interesting consequence of Jabès’s sense of the word is a profoundly compelling notion of the complexities, motions, and exhilarations of reading:

“The name of God is the juxtaposition of all the words in the language,” Edmond Jabès reminds Marcel Cohen. “Each word is but a detached fragment of that name.”
This Kabbalistic idea means that breaking open words and recombining their letters is neither just fun nor impious. It is not even just the Kabbalistic tradition of “traveling inside the word.” For Edmond Jabès, this method “permits a rediscovery, a rereading of the word. One opens a word as one opens a book: it is the same gesture.” More, it is creation in the sense of enacting the possible. (13)

Attention to the word leads to some remarkable perspectives: “According to Kabbalistic tradition this pure spiritual light of the first day was, but did not remain. Where did it go? Into the Torah. That is, into the word” (151).

     Jabès’s thinking about the nature of the word, though, inevitably leads to a consideration of his own complicated relationship to two key words: “Jew” and “God.” Jabès — who lived his life in Paris in exile from his native Egypt — carries the notions of otherness and exile into what Waldrop calls “the double isolation of the unbelieving Jew” (3), a description that from my readings of Derrida’s work of the past twenty years also has important applications to Jacques Derrida. For Jabès, the term “Jew” becomes a term of fundamental otherness:

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. (3)

Jabès’s sustained, intensely spiritually engaged writing — of a professed nonbeliever, of a professed atheist — establishes, oddly, a powerful relationship to the most fundamental issues and questions of belief, of the divine, of our complicated and barely expressible relationships to various abstractions that bear down on our lives with an invisible intensity. His peculiar relationship to God is at the heart of his writing:
     I ask Edmond Jabès:

“You say you are an atheist. How can you constantly write of God?”
     “It’s a word my culture has given me.”
     Then he expands:
“It is a metaphor for nothingness, the infinite, for silence, death, for all that calls us into question. It is the ultimate otherness.” Or, as he puts it later, in the conversations with Marcel Cohen: “For me the words ‘Jew’ and ‘God’ are, it is true, metaphors. ‘God’ is the metaphor for emptiness; ‘Jew’ stands for the torment of God, of emptiness.” (11)

    I find Jabès’s writing — and Derrida’s too — to be the most important religious writing of our time. Yet I find myself wondering how that comes to be: how a non-believing Jew, an atheist, writes a poetry (or, truly, a generically unclassifiable writing) that has such a powerful capacity to engage and to instruct. Perhaps Jabès’s writing demonstrates to us — in book after book — how inadequate and crude terms such as “belief” and “non-belief” are, and that while Jabès may be classified as being a “non-believing Jew” and an “atheist,” the opposing qualities of belief are, throughout his writing, of equal intensity. Perhaps what matters, then, is the intensity (and credibility and the nuanced nature) of Jabès’s relationship to these fundamental portals of “Jew” and “God,” and in this regard his writing is unsurpassed. I sometimes suspect (or entertain the thought) that for Jabès (and for Derrida as well) a direct or simple profession of belief, particularly a profession that assumed a static or definitive quality, would not only be a betrayal of the fundamentals of their thinking and writing and of their profound sense of thinking as always being in motion, but also a violation of an orthodox interpretation of the commandment prohibiting one to have or worship any false images of the divine. For such a fixity of belief carries with it the hazard of actually standing between one and one’s relationship to the divine by becoming a sign or site or formulation that one mistakenly substitutes for that engagement.
      The qualities of exile, of otherness, of removal, of being beside that recur in Jabès’s writing have their foundation (in addition to Jabès’s personal, biographical experience) in Jewish history and in Kabbalistic interpretation. When Waldrop was talking to Jabès about the Kabbalah, at one point she reports,

Edmond seems not to be listening. Then, after some silence, begins to talk about the concept of simsum, which arose in Lurianic Kabbalism around the time of the expulsion of 1492. The creation occurs when God voluntarily contracts himself into nothingness to make room for the world to emanate from him. A projection of exile onto the cosmic plane. (128)

    In a passage cited by Waldrop, Marjorie Perloff declares, “Language is the new Spiritus Mundi!” (87). Perhaps what writing such as Jabès’s demonstrates, is that while indeed it may be true that the attention of poets has shifted to the operations and idiosyncrasies of language itself — and that language has become the site wherein spiritual relationships (or relationships generally to the numinous) have been enacted — we may also be gradually backing into renewed relationships with older modes of that Spiritus Mundi as we’ve found that a devotion to language as an end in itself has its own problems, limitations, self-indulgences, romanticizings, and evasions.
     Waldrop’s wonderful book entertains us as well, by taking this daunting poet and humanizing Edmond Jabès through the intimacy, care, and candor of her portrait of him:

I had half expected a severe ascetic. I come to know a man with an enormous sense of humor, a man who loves food, tells jokes, who at the drop of a hat improvises parodies and skits, who plays the clown for his grandchildren. Faire l’idiot, he calls it. A man who cultivates lightness because he knows gravity? (5)

One important dimension of Lavish Absence becomes the intimate sense we get for Jabès’s daily life. When Rosmarie and Edmond reflect on their first meeting, Rosmarie also suggests, “I guess we met in The Book of Questions.” Edmond adds, “We are still meeting in the book” (57). Such dialogues allow us to realize that indeed through reading we do meet in books — with an intimacy and depth peculiar to the experience of poetry. An unusual and intimate (and often unacknowledged) friendship — not simply among the living, but also between the living and the dead — occurs in this book, and Waldrop’s Lavish Absence offers an affectionate and thorough exploration of such a meeting and its continuing reverberations. The person that we meet in the writing is also a “person” that the writer meets there as well, for that written person is, of course, different (in nature, not simply different in opinions or voices) than the person-in-the-world. As Jabès notes, this difference occurs because “to write means ‘to wait for words that wake our thoughts as they write us’” (119). And thus his views of the experience of writing bear an interesting relationship to poets such as Robert Duncan who often found himself to be a medium during the moment of composition. Thus, while poetry is often thought of as having a revelatory intimacy of autobiography, Jabès points as well to a self in erasure through writing, a self that is absorbed in writing, in the word, and in the book.
     While my own reading experience (over the past twenty years) of Jabès’s writing has been an enriching and very positive one, there are qualities to his work that many others, even partisans of innovative writing, may find off-putting.  Jabès’s work — particularly if read in large doses — runs the risk of coming off as overly “heavy” or too insistently “profound.” There is an obsessive quality, too, as Jabès works and re-works a somewhat limited vocabulary and tone. The humorous and playful qualities that Waldrop finds so active in Jabès’s daily and familial life are not so evident in his writing where his version of the religious runs the risk of becoming portentous, in spite of the somewhat comedic inventive structures of imagined midrash-like commentary that are so much a part of Jabès’s self-modifying books.
     Waldrop’s Lavish Absence partakes, inevitably, of the elegiac — remembering, but also mourning the loss of Jabès, while noting as well his continuing presence in his books. In response to a friend’s mentioning of a Chinese tradition of mourning for one year, Waldrop ends her book with the admission, “I myself have a messier sense of mourning, that it is perhaps never done altogether, that is, like memory for Aristotle, a delayed motion that continues to exist in the soul” (155). Waldrop’s Lavish Absence becomes a multi-faceted demonstration of that messier process of mourning and remembering. It is a process that — like writing, or reading, or translating, or interpreting — cannot be completed, and it is precisely this irritating, engaging, pleasurable, instructive indeterminacy — this engagement without conclusion — that constitutes an attractive feature that allows and encourages an active, ongoing reading of Edmond Jabès’s writing.


Note 1]    Page 14, included in The Book, Spiritual Instrument, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and David Guss, New York: Granary Books, 1996.  “The Book, Spiritual Instrument,” translated and visually interpreted by Michael Gibbs, pp. 14–20.  The passages subsequently cited from Philippe Boyer’s 1980 interview with Edmond Jabès are also included in this same volume, pp. 124–134, translated by Jack Hirschman.

Note 2]    Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Mary Ann Caws, New York: New Directions, 1982, p. 85.

Photo of Hank Lazer

Hank Lazer’s most recent books of poems are Days (Lavender Ink, 2002 — reviewed by Geraldine McKenzie in Jacket 21) and Deathwatch for My Father (Chax, 2003). Forthcoming is Elegies & Vacations (poems, Salt Publishing, Cambridge UK, Spring 2004). Lazer edits the Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series for the University of Alabama Press.

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