Quoting ‘In our Synagogue’


« Franz Kafka »

Miguel de Cervantes, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem are linked by a strong, subtle and flexible taste for quotation.

They are not the only ones. This list of five authors could of course be extended indefinitely, and include even more famous names.

Cervantes has been said to probably be a « crypto-Marrano », and Kafka, Kraus, Benjamin and Scholem may be labelled as ‘German Jews’, in particular because they have in common the use (and a masterly command) of the German language.

I say that Cervantes was ‘probably’ a « crypto-Marrano » because we know in fact very little about himi, and I use the expression ‘German Jew’ because it is how Gershom Scholem wanted to define Walter Benjamin – rather than ‘Judeo-Germanii‘ , meaning that he had kept the distance of a foreigner, of an alien, of an exiled, vis-à-vis Germany. This distance was probably also shared by Kafka, Kraus and Scholem himself…

What are the links of these five characters with quotation ?

They all considered it as a process of sanctification.

We shall begin with a quotation from Gershom Scholem, himself quoting a short judgment of Walter Benjamin, which the latter made concerning Karl Kraus : « Walter Benjamin finds in the ‘Jewish certainty’ that language is ‘the theater of the sanctification of the name’.» iii

Scholem’s quotation is in reality rather truncated, and also probably wrong on one very important point: the absence of an initial capital N in the word ‘name’. It should in my opinion be spelled ‘Name’, we will see why in a moment.

It is interesting to compare this particular Scholem’s quotation with Rainer Rochlitz’s more faithful and complete version of Benjamin’s original text:

« For the cosmic to-and-fro by which Stefan George ‘divinizes the body and incarnates God’, language is nothing but Jacob’s ladder made of ten thousand rungs of words. In Kraus, on the contrary, language has got rid of all hieratic elements. It is neither a means of prophecy nor of domination. As a place of sacralization of the name, it is opposed, by this Jewish certainty, to the theurgy of the ‘verbal body’.»iv

Given the context, it seems to me that the ‘name’ in question here is actually ‘the Name’, which is the term used by pious Jews to designate God (ha-Chem).

In the original German, by the way, the word ‘name’ (Name) has always an initial capital, as all German nouns have.

Moreover, the capital letter should have remained in the English translation to reflect the subject matter, namely the question of the relationship between language, the ‘theurgy of the Word’ and the incarnation of God (through His ‘Name’).

The ‘theurgy of the Word’ is presented here as an antagonist to what is the object of ‘Jewish certainty’, namely the ‘sacralization’ or ‘sanctification’ of the Name, as the only possible ‘incarnation’ of God.

We see that we are entering directly into the heart of an immensely complex subject, — that of the role of language as an instrument more or less suitable for ensuring the preservation of (Jewish) certainties and affirming the inexpressibility of God, including through His Name (or Names).

Walter Benjamin’s main interest in Karl Kraus is not about the way Judaism deals with the names of God, but about the more general, difficult relationship between (human) language and (divine) justice.

« It has been said of Kraus that he had to ‘defeat Judaism in himself’, that he had ‘passed from Judaism to freedom’, and that in him, too, justice and language condition each other; this is the best refutation of these theses. Worshipping the image of divine justice as language – at the very heart of the German language – is the authentically Judaic somersault by means of which he tries to escape the grip of the devil. »v

Let me underline in this text of Benjamin the expression « the authentically Judaic somersault » and the use of the word « devil ». In a moment, we will find them again in two (essential) texts by Kafkavi. This is certainly not by chance.

But before addressing these points, let us return to Kraus, as interpreted and quoted by Benjamin.

« It is the substance of the law, not its effects, that Kraus indicts. He accuses the law of high treason in relation to justice. More precisely, he denounces the high betrayal of the concept with regard to the verb to which it owes its existence: homicide with premeditation on the imagination, because the imagination dies as soon as a single letter is missing; it is in its honor that he sang his most poignant lament, his Elegy for the death of a phoneme. For above the jurisdiction [Rechtsprechung] there is the spelling [Rechtschreibung], and woe to the former if the latter is damaged. » vii

Yes, spelling is of paramount, theological, and even metaphysical importance…! One might perhaps get an idea of this from the following sequence of rabbinic quotations about a verse from Isaiah whose interpretation of its spelling reveals something essential.

(Indeed essential : nothing less than the creation of this very world as well as that of the world to come may be due to the difference between two Hebrew letters , ה (He) and י (Yod).)

Here is the rabbinic quotation :

« To these words Rabbi Youdan the Nassi cried out: ‘Woe, they have left us [those who knew how to answer], we can no longer find them! I once asked Rabbi Eleazar, and it was not your answer that he gave me, but this one: ‘With YH (be-yah) YHVH shaped the world. (Is. 26:4): The Holy One blessed be He created His world with two letters [Yod (י ) and He (ה)]. Now we cannot know whether this world was created with the ה, and the world to come with the י , or whether this world was created with the י , and the world to come with the ה. From what Rabbi Abahou said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan – be-hibaram is be-Hé baram – we learn that this world was created with ה (…) The world to come was created with י : like the י which is bent, the fallen ones in the times to come will have their waists bent and their faces darkened, according to the words: ‘Man’s pride shall be brought down’ (Is. (Is. 2:17) and ‘all false gods will disappear’ (Is. 2:18). « viii

This text explains quite well why « above the jurisdiction [Rechtsprechung] there isthe spelling [Rechtschreibung], and woe to the former if the latter is harmed »….

It is a matter of finding and recognizing the « origin » under the spelling, the letter or the phoneme.

Walter Benjamin comments further on Kraus’ text: « ‘You came from the origin, the origin which is the goal’, these are the words that God addresses, as a comfort and a promise, to ‘the dying man’. This is what Kraus is referring to here. »ix

And he then explains: « The theater of this philosophical scene of recognition in Kraus’s work is lyric poetry, and its language is rhyme: ‘The word that never denies the origin’ and which, like beatitude has its origin at the end of time, has its origin at the end of the verse. The rhyme: two loves carrying the devil to earth. »x

For rhyme is love, love of the word for the word, and love of the verb for the Verb.

« No one has more perfectly dissociated the language from the mind, no one has linked it more closely to Eros, than Kraus did in his maxim: ‘The closer you look at a word, the further it looks at you.’ This is an example of platonic love of language. The only closeness the word cannot escape is rhyme. The primitive, erotic relationship between proximity and distance is expressed in Kraus’ language as rhyme and name. Rhyme – the language goes back to the world of the creature; name – it raises any creature up to it. » xi

Here we are back to the ‘name’. Or, rather, to the ‘Name’.

This ‘Name’ that only angels may ‘quote’.

« In the quotation that saves and punishes, language appears as the matrix of justice. The quotation calls the word by its name, tears it out of its context by destroying it, but in so doing also recalls it to its origin. The word is thus sounded, coherent, within the framework of a new text; it cannot be said that it does not rhyme with anything. As a rhyme, it gathers in its aura what is similar; as a name it is solitary and inexpressive. In front of language, the two domains – origin and destruction – are justified by the quotation. And conversely, language is only completed where they interpenetrate: in the quotation. In it is reflected the language of the angels, in which all words, taken from the idyllic context of meaning, are transformed into epigraphs of the Book of Creation. » xii

Can these lines be considered « philosophical »?

According to Scholem, certainly not…

He clearly states that Walter Benjamin chose the « exodus from philosophy ».

This striking formula is not without evoking some subliminal but foundational reminiscences, including the very Exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt .

But what would be an exodus from philosophy? And to go where? Poetry? Theology?

Scholem had in fact borrowed this formula from Margareth Susman, who saw it as an appropriate way to describe the shift from (philosophical) idealism to theology or existentialism in the first decades of the last century.

In Benjamin’s case, would the « Promised Land » be that of Theology?

Scholem gives as an example of Benjamin’s ‘exodus’ his text, ‘Origin of German Baroque Drama’, in which he set out to show how (German) aesthetic ideas were linked ‘most intimately’ xiii with theological categories.

Incidentally, it is noteworthy that Carl Schmitt, at the same time, but from a radically different point of view, it goes without saying, did the same thing in the political and legal fields, as summarized in his famous thesis: « All of the concepts that permeate modern state theory are secularized theological concepts »xiv.

Why did Benjamin want to go on an exodus? Did he want to follow Kafka’s example? Gershom Scholem thinks so. He states that Benjamin « knew that we possess in Kafka the Theologia negativa of a Judaism (…) He saw in the exegeses so frequent in Kafka a precipitate of the tradition of the Torah reflecting itself. Of Don Quixote’s twelve-line exegesis, [Benjamin] said that it was the most accomplished text we have of Kafka’s.» xv

In fact, rather than an exegesis of Don Quixote, this text by Kafka, which is indeed very short, is rather an exegesis of Sancho Pança. Entitled « The Truth about Sancho Pança », which denotes, admittedly, a radical change of point of view, we learn that this apparently secondary character, but in reality essential, « thanks to a host of stories of brigands and novels of chivalry (…), managed so well to distract his demon in him – to whom he later gave the name of Don Quixote – that he committed the craziest acts without restraint, acts which, however, due to the lack of a predetermined object that should precisely have been Sancho Pança, caused no harm to anyone. Motivated perhaps by a sense of responsibility, Sancho Pança, who was a free man, stoically followed Don Quixote in his divagations, which provided him until the end with an entertainment full of usefulness and grandeur. » xvi

Are really these twelve lines, « the most accomplished text we have of Kafka »?

Is Don Quixote, Sancho Pança’s inner ‘demon’?

Is Sancho Pança, a free man, stoically preserving the craziest divagations of his own ‘demon’?

Why not? Anything is possible!

However, Kafka’s works do not lack other ‘accomplished’ passages. If one had to choose one, one would be more embarrassed than Benjamin, no doubt.

I would personally choose « In Our Synagogue« .xvii It is a text of about four pages, which begins like this: « In our synagogue lives an animal about the size of a marten. Sometimes you can see it very well, because up to a distance of about two meters, it tolerates the approach of men. » xviii

It is a text of superior irony, with a slightly sarcastic tone, undeniably Kafkaesque, – but for a good cause.

Kafka wants to describe the color of the « animal » which is « light blue green », but in reality, « its actual color is unknown ». At most, however, he can say that « its visible color comes from the dust and mortar that has become entangled in its hair » and « which is reminiscent of the whitewash inside the synagogue, only it is a little lighter. » xix

He also takes care to describe its behavior: « Apart from its fearful character, it is an extraordinarily calm and sedentary animal; if we did not frighten it so often, it is hardly likely that it would change place, its preferred home is the grid of the women’s compartment. « xx

It frightens the women, but « the reason why they fear it is obscure ». It is true that « at first glance it looks terrifying, » but it is not long before « we realize that all this terror is harmless. « 

Above all, it stays away from people.

Then begins, if I may say so, the part that might be called exegesis.

« Its personal misfortune probably lies in the fact that this building is a synagogue, that is to say, a periodically very lively place. If we could get along with it, we could console it by telling it that the community of our small mountain town is diminishing year by year. xxi

Fortunately for it, « it is not impossible that in some time the synagogue will be transformed into a barn or something similar and that the animal will finally know the rest it so painfully misses. » xxii

Then the factual analysis of the « animal »’s behaviour becomes more precise, insistent, explicit.

« It is true that only women fear it, men have long been indifferent to it, one generation has shown it to the other, we have seen it continuously, and in the end we no longer look at it (…) Without women, we would hardly remember its existence. »xxiii

There is no doubt, in ly opinion, that this ‘animal’ is a metaphorical figure. It is not for me to reveal the exact being it probably represents, but it is enough to follow Kafka’s indications.

« It’s already a very old animal, it doesn’t hesitate to make the most daring leap, which, by the way, it never misses, it has turned in the void and here it is already continuing its way. » xxiv

What does this animal want? « No doubt it would rather live hidden, as it does at times when there are no services, probably in some wall hole that we have not yet discovered. » xxv

Kafka then gives more and more precise elements. « If it has a preference for heights, it is naturally because it feels safer there (…) but it is not always there, sometimes it goes a little lower towards the men; the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant is held by a shiny copper bar that seems to attract it, it is not uncommon for it to slip in there, but it always remains quiet. » xxvi

Criticism then is becoming more biting.

« Hasn’t it been living for many years completely on its own? Men don’t care about its presence (…) And of course, divine service with all its fuss can be very frightening for the animal, but it is always repeated. » xxvii

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the fear that the animal seems to be permanently seized with.

« Is it the memory of long-gone times or the foreboding of times to come? »xxviii

Perhaps both at the same time, so much the animal seems to know its world.

Then comes the final stunt.

« Many years ago, they say, we would have really tried to evict the animal. »xxix

A very serious accusation, of course. It may be true, unfortunately, but it is even more likely to be a pure invention. What is known is that the case has been carefully studied by the rabbinic hierarchy.

« However, there is evidence that it was examined from the point of view of religious jurisdiction whether such an animal could be tolerated in the house of God. The opinion of various famous rabbis was sought, and opinions were divided, the majority being in favor of expulsion and re-consecration of the temple.»xxx

This opinion seems undoubtedly impeccable from a legal point of view, but materially inapplicable .

« In fact, it was impossible to seize the animal, therefore impossible to expel it. For only if one had been able to seize it and transport it away from there, could one have had the approximate certainty of being rid of it. » xxxi

What do we learn from this quotation ?

I will answer with yet another quote and a prophecy.

« The intellectual nature of man is a simple matrix of ideas, a receptivity limited by the life of his own activity, so that the spirit of man as well as the feminine nature is capable of giving birth to the truth, but needs to be fertilized in order to come to the act. Man, as a member of two regions, needs both to reach maturity. » xxxii

Just as the most important prophecies once were only quotations, I believe that a relevant quotation can be understood as a prophecy.

Every real prophecy is an attempt at fecundation. The deposit of a fecundating word, like a living germ coming to intrude into the matrix of the spirit, – or like a marten in a synagogue…

Be it in the matrix of a woman, in the spirit of a man or in a synagogue, what really matters is that there is somewhere, a place in the heights, where some intruding « animal » (in the literal sense, a « living » being) must be tamed, and whose fears must be calmed, in view of the times yet to come.

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i Michel de Castillo writes about Cervantes: « He was suspected, he is still suspected, of having suspicious origins. He has even written specious books, full of cabalistic interpretations. Some of his words have been read in Hebrew, given biblical allusions, even though we are at least certain of one thing: if he is of Marrano origin, Cervantes did not know a word of Hebrew. « Dictionnaire amoureux de l‘Espagne, « Cervantes (Miguel de) », p. 163.

iiGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p.15

iiiGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p. 69.

ivWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 262.

vWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, pp. 248-249.

viIn Kafka’s text ‘In Our Synagogue’, about an animal that serves as a metaphor for God, we find this very beautiful description of a divine somersault: « It is already a very old animal, it does not hesitate to make the most daring leap, which moreover it never misses, it has turned in the void and here it is already continuing its path. « Kafka. In our synagogue. Complete Works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.

As for the word ‘demon’, we find it in another text by Kafka: « Sancho Pança, thanks to a host of stories of brigands and novels of chivalry (…), managed so well to distract his demon – to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote – from him. « Kafka. The truth about Sancho Pança. Complete Works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.541.

viiWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 249.

viiiMidrach Rabba, Volume I, Genesis Rabba. Ch. XII § 10, translated from Hebrew by Bernard Maruani and Albert Cohen-Arazi. Ed. Verdier, 1987, p. 155. See also On Some Secrets of the Tetragrammaton YHVH).

ixWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 263.

xWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 263.

xiWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, pp. 265-266.

xiiWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, pp. 267-268.

xiiiGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p. 49.

xivCarl Schmitt, Politische Theologie, ch. 3

xvGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p. 72.

xviKafka. The truth about Sancho Pança. Complete Works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.541.

xviiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.662-665.

xviiiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.662.

xixKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.662.

xxKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.662.

xxiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.

xxiiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.

xxiiiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.

xxivKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.

xxvKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.664.

xxviKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.664.

xxviiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.664.

xxviiiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.665.

xxixKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.665.

xxxKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.665.

xxxiKafka. In our synagogue. Complete works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.665.

xxxiiFranz Joseph Molitor. Philosophy of tradition. Trad . Xavier Duris. Ed. Debécourt, Paris, 1837, p. vi-vij