The Latin word virus, of the neutral gender, has no plural. This word initially meant « juice » but also « sperm », « venom », « poison », « pungency », and « bitterness ».
The Greek word for virus is ῑός, « venom », but also « rust ».
The etymologyi of these two words goes back to the Sanskrit word विष viṣa, which means, in the neutral gender: « poison, venom ». But the root of this Sanskrit word, viṣ-,basically means « to be active, to act, to do, to accomplish »ii. It thus had originally no negative connotation. It rather implied an idea of action, efficiency, accomplishment. The word विष viṣa, when in the masculine gender, means « servant » (implying the idea of being « active, zealous »).
One may learn from these etymological roots a useful lesson.
As one knows, when viruses infect living beings, they transmit to their genome some bits of their RNA, for example in the form of plasmids.
The COVID-19 pandemic is actually infecting a huge percentage of the entire human race, which will now share fragments of this widely distributed and constantly mutating ‘genetic heritage’.
The virus and its variants are then partly contributing to the overall, on-going mutation of human genome, and are also forcing humankind to be « active and zealous », in order to politically mutate and adapt its global ‘governance’ to reach a level of efficiency that should be higher, hopefully, than the genetic efficiency of the virus itself.
What is happening before our eyes can be undersood as a real-time ‘mutation’ affecting potentially the whole of humanity, genetically, but also politically, and even metaphysically, I would try to argue.
On a metaphorical level, this global pandemic could be compared to a form of incarnation (etymologically, a ‘penetration into the flesh’, an ’embodiment’).
The plasmids that we may inherit from the COVID-19 embody not just an ‘infection’ but also a metaphysical metaphor at work, — that of a continuous, immanent process of symbiotic incarnationof the « inanimate-unconscious » viral reign into the « animate-conscious » human species.
While using the word ‘incarnation’, a quote comes to my mind:
« The true history of the world seems to be that of the progressive incarnation of the divinity »iii.
It is certainly not my intention to compare the putative incarnation of the « divinity » in world ‘true history’ to a slow viral infection, but this metaphor offers some food for thought.
It links in a single knot the « inanimate-unconscious » viral reign, the « animate-conscious » human species, and the « animate-unconscious » divine reign.
The ‘progressive incarnation’ of the virus has its own way and timeline. Likewise the ‘progressive incarnation’ of the divinity. The word incarnation, in both cases, reveals an analogous process at work, in the respective natures of the divinity, the humankind and the allegedly ‘inanimate’, material world.
Undoubtedly, at a given moment, for some reasons of Her own, the Divinity has, in a way, resolved to come out of Herself, if only to allow Her own ‘Creation’ to exist, more or less independently from Her.
Was the eternal « confinement » of the Divinity no longer suitable, at one point? Did Her absolute, compact, total perfection appear to Her somewhat incomplete, notwithstanding Her apparent completeness?
One may conjecture that the Divinity got out of Herself, in order to break the tautology of her Being alone, the repetition of the Sublime, the circularity of the Supreme, the loneliness of the Holiness.
Before the world was even created, what did the Godhead do? She was, one may assume, bathed in an holy, infinite Unconscious. For what is called ‘consciousness’, and of which Man is so proud, is really a term that is not worthy of the supreme Divinity.
The Divinity is so infinite that She cannot know Herself like a mere ‘consciousness’ would. If the Divinity fully knew Herself in such a conscious way, then She would in some subtle manner be limited by this very ‘knowledge’ of Herself, by this projected ‘consciousness’ of Herself that would infringe on Her absolute freedom. This limitation is not conceivable in a divine context.
The Divinity must be beyond any form of consciousness. In other words, She is ‘unconscious’ of Her own, absolute infinity.
To put it another way, before the world or time was created, the Divinity did not yet know the scope of Her own Wisdom, let alone the sound of Her own Word, which had never been uttered (since there was really no ear up there and then to hear).
This is expressed in the Kabbalah’s image of the Divine Wisdom as standing ‘near’, besides the Divinity. There is not identity, but a separation.
In the unconsciousness (of the infinity of Her own Wisdom), the Divinity stood in a state of absolute timelessness.
She stood as a living Entity.
This ‘ignorance’ hid the mystery of Her unconsciousness from the Light of Her otherwise absolute knowledge.
iSee Alfred Ernout and Antoine Meillet. Etymological dictionary of the Latin language. Klincksieck, Paris, 2001, p.740, and cf. Pierre Chantraine. Etymological Dictionary of the Greek Language. Klincksieck, Paris, 1977, p.466.
iiGérard Huet. Sanskrit-French dictionary. 2013. p. 559
iiiC.G. Jung. The Divine in man. Albin Michel. 1999, p.134
One day, according to the Bhagavadgītā (भगवद्गीता), the Supreme Lord came down to reveal to a man named Arjuna, the « most secret wisdom », the « secret of secrets », the « purest knowledge », a « knowledge, queen among all sciences ».
In a few decisive words, human reason was then stripped of everything and reduced to begging. Human nature was compared to « dust », but, more inexplicably, it was also promised to a very high destiny, a putative glory, though still infinitely distant, embryonic, potential. Faced with these impassable mysteries, she was invited to scrutinize endlessly her own background, and her own end.
« This entire universe is penetrated by Me, in My unmanifested form. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. At the same time, nothing that is created is in Me. See My supernatural power! I sustain all beings, I am everywhere present, and yet, I remain the very source of all creation.»i
We also learn from Bhagavadgītā that the supreme God may descend in person into this world, taking on human form. « Fools denigrate Me when I come down to this world in human form. They know nothing of My spiritual and absolute nature, nor of My total supremacy.»ii
It is not without interest to recall here that the Hebrew Bible, for its part, repeatedly expressed a strangely similar idea. Thus, three « men », posing as « envoys » of the Lord, came to meet Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre. One of them, called YHVH in the Genesis text, spoke to Abraham face to face.
In the Veda, the supreme God is infinitely high, transcendent, absolute, but He is also tolerant. He recognizes that multiple modes of belief can coexist. There are men for whom God is the supreme, original Person. There are those who prostrate themselves before God with love and devotion. There are those who worship Him as the One, and others who worship Him in Immanence, in His presence among the infinite diversity of beings and things, and there are still others who see Him in the Universal. iii
In the Veda, the supreme God is at once unique, absolute, transcendent, immanent, universal; He is All in all.
« But I am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter, and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Ṛg, the Sāma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend, I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the place of rest and the eternal seed (…) I am immortality, and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna ». iv
In his third lecturev on Vedanta given in London in 1894, Max Müller recalled that the Supreme Spirit, the bráhman, ( ब्रह्मन्, a name of the neutral gender, with the tonic accent on the verbal root BRAH-, taken to the full degree – ‘guṇa’) said: « Even those who worship idols worship Me », as reported by Bhagavadgītā.
And Müller added that, within the framework of Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman, this supreme principle, must be distinguished from the brahmán (with the tonic accent on the second syllable), who represents amale agent name meaning « Creator ». According to the Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman could even state of himself: « Even those who worship a personal God in the image of an active creator, or a King of kings, worship Me or, at least, think of Me ».
In this view, the brahmán (the Creator) would be, in reality, only a manifestation of the bráhman (the Supreme Principle). The bráhman also seems to hint here, not without a certain irony, that one could perfectly well support the opposite position, and that would not bother Him…
Here again, with the famous opening of the first verse of Genesis: Bereshit bara Elohim (Gen 1:1), Judaism professed an intuition strangely comparable.
This verse could be read, according to some commentators of the Bereshit Rabbah: » ‘Be-rechit’ created the Elohim« (i.e. » ‘In the principle‘ created the Gods »).
Other commentators even proposed to understand: « With the Most Precious, *** created the Gods ».
I note here by means of the three asterisks the ineffability of the Name of the Supreme Principle (unnamed but implied).
Combining these interpretations, one could understand the first verse of Genesis (berechit bara elohim) in this way:
« The Principle, ‘with‘ the ‘Most Precious’, created the Elohim. »
The Principle is not named but implied.
The particle be- in the expression be-rechit can mean ‘with’.
One of the possible meanings of the word rechit can be ‘primal fruit’ or ‘most precious’.
For the comparatist, these possibilities (however slight) of convergence between traditions as different as Vedic and Hebrew, are sources of endless meditation and tonic inspiration…
One of the greatest commentator on Vedic heritage, Ādi Śaṅkara (आदि शङ्कर ) explained: « When bráhman is defined in the Upanishads only in negative terms, excluding all differences in name and form due to non-science, it is the superior [bráhman]. But when it is defined in terms such as: « the intelligence whose body is spirit and light, distinguished by a special name and form, solely for the purpose of worship » (Chand., III, 14, 2), it is the other, the lower brahmán. » vi
If this is so, Max Müller commented, the text that says that bráhman has no second (Chand., VI, 2, 1) seems to be contradicted.
But, « No, answers Śaṅkara, because all this is only the illusion of name and form caused by non-science. In reality the two brahman are one and the same brahman, oneconceivable, the other inconceivable, one phenomenal, the other absolutely real ». vii
The distinction made by Śaṅkara is clear. But in the Upanishads, the line of demarcation between the bráhman (supreme) and the brahmán (creator) is not always so clear.
When Śaṅkara interprets the many passages of the Upanishads that describe the return of the human soul after death to ‘brahman‘ (without the tonic accent being distinguished), Sankara always interprets it as the inferior brahmán.
Müller explained: « This soul, as Śaṅkara strongly says, ‘becomes Brahman by being Brahman’viii, that is, by knowing him, by knowing what he is and has always been. Put aside the non-science and light bursts forth, and in that light the human self and the divine self shine in their eternal unity. From this point of view of the highest reality, there is no difference between the Supreme Brahman and the individual self or Ātman (Ved. Sutras, I, 4, p. 339). The body, with all the conditions, or upadhis,towhich it is subordinated, may continue for some time, even after the light of knowledge has appeared, but death will come and bring immediate freedom and absolute bliss; while those who, through their good works, are admitted to the heavenly paradise, must wait there until they obtain supreme enlightenment, and are only then restored to their true nature, their true freedom, that is, their true unity with Brahman. » ix
Of the true Brahman, the Upanishads still say of Him: « Verily, friend, this imperishable Being is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long, neither red (like fire) nor fluid (like water). He is without shadow, without darkness, without air, without ether, without bonds, without eyes, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without spirit, without light, without breath, without mouth, without measure, He has neither inside nor outside ».
And this series of negations, or rather abstractions, continues until all the petals are stripped off, and only the chalice, the pollen, the inconceivable Brahman, the Self of the world, remains.
« He sees, but is not seen; He hears, but is not heard; He perceives, but is not perceived; moreover, there is in the world only Brahman who sees, hears, perceives, or knows. » x
Since He is the only one to ‘see’, the metaphysical term that would best suit this Being would be ‘light’.
But this does not mean that Brahman is, in itself, « light », but only that the whole light, in all its manifestations, is in Brahman.
This light is notably the Conscious Light, which is another name for knowledge, or consciousness. Müller evokes the Mundaka Upanishad: « ‘It is the light of lights; when it shines, the sun does not shine, nor the moon nor the stars, nor lightning, much less fire. When Brahman shines, everything shines with Him: His light illuminates the world. Conscious light represents, as best as possible, Brahman’s knowledge, and it is known that Thomas Aquinas also called God the intelligent sun (Sol intelligibilis). For, although all purely human attributes are taken away from Brahman, knowledge, though a knowledge without external objects, is left to Him.»xi
The ‘light’ of ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ seems to be the only anthropomorphic metaphor that almost all religions dare to apply to the Supreme Being as the least inadequate.
In doing so, these religions, such as Vedic, Hebrew, Buddhist or Christian, often forget what the narrow limits of human knowledge or wisdom are, even at their highest level of perfection, and how unworthy of Divinity these metaphors are in reality.
There is indeed in all knowledge as in all human wisdom an essentially passive element.
This ‘passivity’ is perfectly incompatible with the Divinity… At least, in principle.
One cannot help but notice in several religions the idea of a sort of (active) passivity of the supreme Divinity, who takes the initiative to withdraw from being and the world, for the sake of His creature.
Several examples are worth mentioning here, by order of their appearance on world stage.
-The Supreme Creator, Prajāpati, प्रजापति, literally « Father and Lord of creatures », felt « emptied » right after creating all worlds and beings.
-Similarly, the Son of the only God felt his « emptiness » (kenosis, from the Greek kenos, empty, opposing pleos, full) and his « abandonment » by God just before his death.
-In the Jewish Kabbalah, God also consented to His own « contraction » (tsimtsum) in order to leave a little bit of being to His creation.
In this implicit, hidden, subterranean analogy between the passivity of human wisdom and the divine recess, there may be room for a form of tragic, sublime and overwhelming irony.
The paradox is that this analogy and irony, then, would also allow the infinitesimal human ‘wisdom’ to approach in small steps one of the deepest aspects of the mystery.
viiF. Max Müller, op. cit. 3rd conference, p.39-40
viiiIt should probably be specified here, thanks to the tonic accents: « The soul becomes Brahman by being Brahman. « But one could also write, it seems to me, by analogy with the ‘procession’ of the divine persons that Christian theology has formalized: « The spirit becomes Brahman by beingBrahman. »
It is said that Being is. Apart from being a tautology, nothing is less certain. Rather, one should say that Being is also whatisbecoming, and therefore what it is not, yet. One could also say that it is, at least partly, what has been, and therefore what it is no longer. We should not, therefore, just say that Being is (strictly speaking).
Being is indeed all that it is in essence, and in potency, including all that it will be and all that it has been.
The essence of Being is not only to be, but to have been, in some ways that may be not fully understood, and also to contain some potentialities that may be revealed sometime in the future. Now, admittedly, ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are not, strictly speaking, ‘being’, but one can however think and say that ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are a certain way of being.
From that I infer that a part of the essence of Being lies in what is ‘thought‘ and ‘said‘ about it. The essence of Being has something to do with thought and words.
One may then expand this idea and state that there is no unspeakable Being, just as there is no Being without essence and existence, and just as there is no abstract Being.
A ‘mere’ Being, a Being that would be absolutely unthinkable, and absolutely unspeakable, is just a play on words, a mental chimera.
A ‘mere’ Being would necessarily refer to some other prior entity that would be ‘before’ it, — an entity that would be also in essence unspeakable and would moreover not be called ‘Being’, because this would be a name, – and there could not be any speakable name, starting with the name ‘Being’, for an entity that would be in essence unspeakable.
Hence, I assume that Being can only be conceived by the word, and with the word. A ‘Being without word’, or ‘before all words’, would not be ‘Being’, but something more original than ‘Being’, an entity without the need for any words (even the word ‘Being’), an entity for which no word exists, for which no word is suitable.
No word can designate what is before or beyond Being. Words can only suit what is, what has been or what will be, — not what is beyond Being.
Being and Wording are therefore linked. Said otherwise, Being and the Word make a couple. They are of the same essence. A reciprocal essence links these two entities. One constitutes a part of the essence of the other. The Word is part of the essence of Being, and Being is part of the essence of the Word.
Is the Word first? No, because if the Word were first, if it were before Being, then it would be before Being is, which is a logical contradiction.
Is Being first? No, for how could it be called ‘Being’ before the Word was? If we can say that Being is, if we can say that the Being is Being, then it implies that the Word is also already present, — in the presence of Being. The presence of the Word would be necessary to say the existence of Being.
As I said, Being and Word are linked to each other, they are and they say together.
From the outset, Being is not just Being, but is to be this whole, this linked, compact couple of Being and Word.
Being is to be from the outset all that is implied in being Being and being Word.
Being is to be from the outset the whole of Being, ‘all’ the essence of Being, all that is Being, all that constitutes it.
Being implies being ‘con-sistent‘ (from the Latin cum-sistere).
Being implies to be ‘co-existent‘ with all that is proper to being.
Being is with itself, it is in the presence of itself, in the presence of everything that constitutes its essence, including the Word that tells this essence.
Being involves Being-With-Oneself and Being-Word. If Being is consistent, and it has to be, it coexists with all that is ‘being’ in itself and all that is « thoughtable » and »speakable » in it.
The coexistence of Being with the whole of Being and all its parts constitutes the immanent ‘self’ of Being. This immanent ‘self’ resonates with itself. It is this resonance that constitues the Word.
Hence the deepest origin of consciousness.
Hence also the origin of transcendence, which is constituted by the consciousness of immanence.
Being implies the immanence of Being, and immanence implies immanent consciousness, and the consciousness of immanence.
The immanent consciousness and the consciousness of immanence are already potential steps towards transcendent consciousness (in relation to Being).
The fact for Being to be-with-oneself carries in potency the appearance of the consciousness of being, of the awareness of the self by the self.
Being implies a fold of Being upon itself. This fold is an implication-explanation, which is also the beginning of a reflection, to move on to an optical metaphor.
At the beginning of Being, then, is this fold, this reflection, which can also be called ‘spirit’ (in Sanskrit manas), because the spirit is what ‘unfolds’, or what ‘reflects’.
And in this unfolding fold, the Vedic Word (वाच् vāc) was born.
Victor, thoughtful, once stood near the dolmen of Rozel. A dark and talkative ghost appeared to him. From his mouth of night flowed a powerful, agitated stream, mixing raw and chosen words, where dead trunks and black silt layed. The nyctalope poet was even more loquacious, and his verses sprang, in hurried theories, out of their grassy, wordy bushes.
The images added up, like glasses at the bar:
The immense can be heard. Everything speaks. Everything has consciousness. The tombs are dressed in grass and night. The abyss prays. All lives. The depth is imperfect. Evil is in the universe. Everything goes to the worst, always, without ceasing. The soul chooses. The tree is religious. The pebble is vile, blind, hideous. Matter is evil, – fatal fruit. The incontinent poet rhymes ‘ombre‘ (shadow) with ‘sombre‘ (dark) several times without any shame. And, to compensate, ‘vivant‘ (alive) with ‘en avant‘ (forward).
He had a sad forehead, this great man, this exile with sad sweats, funeral impulses. He bent, this poet, from the weight of the infinite, nothing less, and from the silly light of the gloomy suns.
God is here. Are we so sure? Of course we are! He is not out of anything, by the way. The azure, and the rays, hide His wingspan.
Interpelled in vain, the Spirit continues his way, without wanting to hear Man alone, despising his ‘vile flesh’. The word ‘vile’ returns like an antiphon. The enormous life always continues, it enters the invisible, it ascends to the heavens, it travels ‘millions of leagues’, it reaches even to the ‘radiant toe’ of the ‘archangel sun’ and vanishes in God. Yes ‘in God’! That is, in the depths! Jacob and Cato have already passed through these ladders, with their future of duty, mourning, and exile. They have passed through these precipices and abysses, where the larvae and the mysteries, the vapors and the hydrants, are hurried.
Following them, the seers and angels plunged, towards the winged souls.
But for the banished who remain stuck in the nadir, shipwreck is promised, and the ‘rimless abyss’, full of ‘rain’, opens up.
« Of all that lived rains unceasingly the ashes;
And one sees everything at the bottom, when the eye dares to go down there,
Beyond the life, and the breath and the noise, An ugly black sun from which the night radiates! »i
The Spirit thunders and threatens. As a prophet, he says: the top goes down, the ideal goes to matter, the spirit falls to the animal, the great crashes into the small, the fire announces the ashes, blindness is born of the seer, and darkness of the flamboyant.
But the rhymes save! ‘Azure’ goes with ‘pure’.
Above is joy, below is filth and evil.
It’s perfectly binary. Structurally binary.
In the infinite, one goes up, – or one falls.
Every being is in balance, and weighs its own weight. For elevation, or fall.
Let man contemplate, then, the cesspool or the temple!
Underneath even the worst of the rough ones, there are still the plants without eyelids, and under the stones, there is chaos.
But, always, the soul must continue to descend, towards the dungeon, the punishment and the scaffold.
Ah! Victor! How your hard and funny verses judge worlds and History!
With a light gesture, you cut down your cleaver, soaked with unbelievable alexandrines!
« Once, without understanding it and with a dazed eye
India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis. »ii
‘India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis’. Seriously ???
You Victor, you saw! You Clarified Poet, young Genius of Jersey! You, Seer, you knew, much better than her, this old India, that the bramble becomes a claw, and the cat’s tongue becomes a rose leaf, – to drink the blood of the mouse, in the shadows and the shouts !
Ah, Victor, seeing from your higher heaven, you contemplate the unheard-of spectacle of the lower regions, and you listen to the immense cry of misfortune, the sighs of the pebbles and the desperate.
You see ‘everywhere, everywhere, everywhere’, angels ‘with dead wings’, gloomy larvae, and ragged forests. Punishment seeks darkness, and Babel, when it is overthrown, always flees into the depths of the night. The man for you, O Victor, full of victories, glory and knowledge, is never but a brute drunk with nothingness, who empties the drunken glass of his sleeps, night after night.
But there is a but. When you think twice, man is in prison but his soul remains free. The magi thought that legions of unknown and enslaved souls were constantly trampled underfoot by men who denied them. The ashes in the hearth, or the sepulchre, also claim that a heap of evil sleeps in them.
Man says: No! He prostitutes his mouth to nothingness, while even his dog lying in the night (that sinister constellation) sees God. This is because man is nothing, even if the starry beast is little. He denies, he doubts, in the shadow, the dark and gloomy, the vile and hideous, and he rushes into this abyss, this universal sewer.
Ah! Victor! Why didn’t you crush, with a heavy foot, that immortal worm that was gnawing at your overripe soul?
Alas! Alas! Alas! All is alive! Everything thinks!
Triple complaint, quintuple exclamation. One must cry over all the hideous ugliness of the world.
The spider is filthy, the slug is wet, the aphid is vile, the crab is hideous, the bark beetle is awful (like the sun!), the toad is scary.
But there is still hope at the end!
The underworld will refer to itself as eden. It will be the real day. Beauty will flood the night. The pariah universe will stutter in praise. Mass graves will sing. The mud will palpitate.
The pains will end, – as this poem ends: with the ‘Beginning’!
To Victor, however, I would like to address a short message from beyond time, a brief word from beyond the age, a distant sign from India, who ‘glimpsed’ something that Hugo neither saw nor suspected:
Before the very Beginning, there was neither being nor non-being, and ‘all darkness was enveloped in darkness.’ iii
Wise men commented: the spirit (in Sanskrit: manas) is the one and only thing that can be both existing and non-existent. The spirit exists, they said, only in things, but things, if they have no spirit, then they are non-existentiv.
The seers have long sought wise views on these difficult questions.
They thought, for example, that there was a hidden, deep, obscure link between Being and Non-Being. And they asked themselves: What link? And who could really know anything about it?
They replied ironically: « He certainly knows it – or maybe He Himself doesn’t even know it ! »v
i Victor Hugo. Contemplations. XXVI , « What the Mouth of Shadow Says ».
The anthropology of the ‘beginning’ is quite rich. A brief review of three traditions, Vedic, Jewish and Christian, here cited in the order of their historical arrival on the world stage, may help to compare their respective myths of ‘beginning’ and understand their implications.
1. The Gospel of John introduced the Greek idea of logos, ‘in the beginning’.
« In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ». (Jn 1:1)
It is certainly worth digging a little deeper into the meaning of the two words ἀρχῇ (arkhè) and λόγος (logos), given their importance here.
Ἐν ἀρχῇ. En arkhè.
What is the real (deep) meaning of this expression?
Should one translate by « In the beginning »? Or « In the Principle »? Or something else?
The original meaning of the verb arkho, arkhein, commonly used since Homer, is ‘to take the initiative, to begin’. In the active sense, the word means ‘to command’.i With the preverb en-, the verb en-arkhomai means ‘to begin the sacrifice’, and later ‘to exercise magistracy’. The notion of sacrifice is very present in the cloud of meanings associated with this word. Kat-arkho : ‘to begin a sacrifice’. Pros-arkho, ‘to offer a gift’. Ex-arkho means ‘to begin, to sing (a song)’. Hup-arkho, ‘to begin, to be in the beginning’, hence ‘to be fundamental, to exist’, and finally ‘to be’.
Many compounds use as first term the word arkhè, meaning either ‘who starts’ or ‘who commands’. The oldest meaning is ‘who takes the initiative of’. There is the Homeric meaning of arkhé-kakos, ‘who is at the origin of evils’. The derived word arkhosgave rise to the formation of a very large number of compounds (more than 150 have been recordedii), of which Chantraine notes that they all refer to the notion of leading, of command, — and not to the notion of beginning.
The feminine noun arkhe, which is the word used in the Gospel of John, can mean ‘beginning’, but philosophers use it to designate ‘principles’, ‘first elements’ (Anaximander is the first to use it in this sense), or to mean ‘power, sovereignty’.
Chantraine concludes that the meanings of arkhè whicharerelated to the notions of ‘taking the initiative’, of ‘starting’, are the oldest, but that meanings that express the idea of ‘command’ also are very old, since they already appear in Homer. In all the derivations and subsequent compositions, it is the notion of ‘commanding’ that dominates, including in a religious sense: ‘to make the first gesture, to take the initiative (of sacrifice)’.
One may conjecture from all this, that the Johannine expression ‘en arkhè‘does not contain the deep idea of an ‘absolute beginning’. Rather, it may refer to the idea of a (divine) sacrificial initiative or inauguration (of the divine ‘sacrifice’), which presupposes not an absolute, temporal beginning, but rather an intemporal, divine decision, – and the pre-existence of a whole background necessary for the conception and execution of this divine, inaugural and atemporal ‘sacrifice’.
Now, what about λόγος, logos ? How to translate this word with the right nuance? Does logos mean here ‘verb’ ? ‘Word’ ? ‘Reason’ ? ‘Speech’ ?
The word logos comes from the Greek verb lego, legein, whose original meaning is ‘to gather, to choose’, at least in the ways Homer uses this word in the Iliad. This value is preserved with the verbal compounds using the preverbs dia– or ek– (dia-legeinor ek-legein,‘to sort, to choose’), epi-legein ‘to choose, to pay attention to’, sul-legein ‘togather’. Legeinsometimes means ‘to enumerate’ in the Odyssey, and ‘to utter insults’, or ‘to chat, to discourse’ in the Iliad. This is how the use of lego, legein in the sense of ‘to tell, to say’ appeared, a use that competes with other Greek verbs that also have the meaning of ‘to say’: agoreuo, phèmi.
The noun logos is very ancient and can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey with the meaning of ‘speech, word’, and in Ionic and Attic dialects with meanings such as ‘narrative, account, consideration, explanation, reasoning, reason’, – as opposed to ‘reality’ (ergon). Then, much later, logos has come to mean ‘immanent reason’, and in Christian theology, it started to mean the second person of the Trinity, or even God.iii
Usually Jn 1:1 is translated, as we know : ‘In the beginning was the Word’. But if one wants to remain faithful to the most original meaning of these words, en arkhè and logos, one may choose to translate this verse in quite a different way.
I propose (not as a provocation, but for a brain-storming purpose) to tranlate :
« At the principle there was a choice. »
Read: « At the principle » — [of the divine sacrifice] — « there was a [divine] choice ».
Explanation: The divine Entity which proceeded, ‘in the beginning’, did not Itself begin to be at the time of this ‘beginning’. It was necessarily already there,before any being andbefore any beginning, in order toinitiate and make the ‘beginning’ and the ‘being’ possible. The ‘beginning’ is thus only relative, since the divine Entity was and is always before and any beginning and any time, out of time and any beginning.
Also, let’s argue that the expression ‘en arkhe‘ in Jn 1:1 rather refers to the idea and initiative of a ‘primordial sacrifice‘ or a primal ‘initiation’, — of which the Greek language keeps a deep memory in the verb arkhein, whencompounded with the preverb en-: en-arkhomai, ‘to initiate the sacrifice’, a composition very close to the Johannine formula enarkhe.
As for the choice of the word ‘choice‘ to translate logos, it is justified by the long memory of the meanings of the word logos. The word logos only meant ‘word’ at a very late period, and when it finally meant that, this was in competition with other Greek words with the same meaning of ‘to say’, or ‘to speak’, such as phèmi, or agoreuo. as already said.
In reality, the original meaning of the verb lego, legein,is not ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’, but revolves around the ideas of ‘gathering’ and ‘choosing’, which are mental operations prior to any speech. The idea of ‘speaking’ is basically only second, it only comes after the ‘choice’ made by the mind to ‘gather’ [its ideas] and ‘distinguish’ or ‘elect’ them [in order to ‘express’ them].
2. About a thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Hebrew tradition tells yet another story of ‘beginning’, not that of the beginning of a ‘Word’ or a ‘Verb’, but that of a unity coupled with a multiplicity in order to initiate ‘creation’.
« In the beginning God created heaven and earth ».
The word אֱלֹהִים , elohim, is translated by ‘God’. However, elohim is grammatically a plural (and could be, — grammatically speaking –, translated as »the Gods »), as the other plural in this verse, ha-chamayim, should be translated by ‘the heavens’. The fact that the verb bara (created) is in the singular is not a difficulty from this point of view. In the grammar of ancient Semitic languages (to which the grammar of classical Arabic still bears witness today, for it has preserved, more than Hebrew, these ancient grammatical rules) the plurals of non-human animated beings that are subjects of verbs, put these in the 3rd person singular. Elohim is a plural of non-human animated beings, because they are divine.
Another grammatical rule states that when the verb is at the beginning of the sentence, and is followed by the subject, the verb should always be in the singular form, even when the subject is plural.
From these two different grammatical rules, therefore, the verb of which elohim is the subject must be put in the singular (bara).
In other words, the fact that the verb bara is a 3rd person singular does not imply that the subject elohim should grammatically be also a singular.
As for the initial particle, בְּ be, in the expression be-rechit, it has many meanings, including ‘with’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’.
In accordance with several midrachic interpretations found in the Bereshit Rabbah, I propose not to translate be-rechit by ‘in the beginning’, but to suggest quite another translation.
By giving the particle בְּ be- the meaning of ‘with‘ or ‘by‘, be-rechit may be translatedby: « with [the ‘rechit‘] ».
Again in accordance with several midrachic interpretations, I also suggest giving back to ‘rechit‘ its original meaning of ‘first-fruits‘ (of a harvest), and even giving it in this context not a temporal meaning but a qualitative and superlative one: ‘the most precious‘.
It should be noted, by the way, that these meanings meet well with the idea of ‘sacrifice’ that the Greek word arkhé in theJohannine Gospel contains, as we have just seen.
Hence the proposed translation of Gn 1.1 :
« By [or with] the Most Precious, the Gods [or God] created etc… »
Let us note finally that in this first verse of the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of ‘speaking’, or ‘saying’ any ‘Verb’ or ‘Word’.
It is only in the 3rd verse of Genesis that God (Elohim) ‘says’ (yomer) something…
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר
Va-yomer Elohim yéhi ‘or vé yéhi ‘or.
Literally: « Elohim says ‘let there be light’, and the light is [and will be]. »
Then in the 5th verse, God (Elohim) ‘calls’ (yqra), i.e. God ‘gives names’.
וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם
Va-yqra’ Elohim la-‘or yom
« And Elohim called the light ‘day’. »
The actual « word » of God will come only much later. The verb דָּבַר davar ‘to speak’ or the noun דָּבָר davar ‘word’ (as applied to YHVH) only appeared long after the ‘beginning’ had begun:
« All that YHVH has said » (Ex 24:7).
« YHVH has fulfilled his word » (1 Kings 8:20).
« For YHVH has spoken » (Is 1:2).
3. Let us now turn to the Vedic tradition, which dates (in its orally transmitted form) to one or two millennia before the Hebrew tradition.
In the Veda, in contrast to Genesis or the Gospel of John, there is not ‘one’ beginning, but several beginnings, operating at different levels, and featuring various actors …
Here are a few examples:
« O Lord of the Word (‘Bṛhaspati’)! This was the beginning of the Word. » (RV X, 71,1)
« In the beginning, this universe was neither Being nor Non-Being. In the beginning, indeed, this universe existed and did not exist: only the Spirit was there.
The Spirit was, so to speak, neither existing nor non-existent.
The Spirit, once created, desired to manifest itself.
This Spirit then created the Word. « (SB X 5, 3, 1-2)
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, because hunger is death. She became mental [she became ‘thinking’]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. »(BU 1,2,1).
Perhaps most strikingly, more than two or three millennia before the Gospel of John, the Veda already employed formulas or metaphors such as: the ‘Lord of the Word’ or ‘the beginning of the Word’.
In Sanskrit, the ‘word’ is वाच् Vāc. In the Veda it is metaphorically called ‘the Great’ (bṛhatī), but it also receives many other metaphors or divine names.
The Word of the Veda, Vāc, ‘was’ before any creation, it pre-existed before any being came to be.
The Word is begotten by and in the Absolute – it is not ‘created’.
The Absolute for its part has no name, because He is before the word. Or, because He is the Word. He is the Word itself, or ‘all the Word’.
How then could He be called by any name? A name is never but a single word: it cannot speak the‘whole Word’, – all that has been, is and will be Word.
The Absolute is not named. But one can name the Supreme Creator, the Lord of all creatures, which is one of its manifestations, – like the Word, moreover.
The Ṛg Veda gives it the name प्रजापति Prajāpati,: ‘Lord (pati) of Creation (prajā)‘. It also gives itthe name ब्र्हस्पति Bṛhaspati, which means ‘Lord of the Word‘iv,‘Lord (pati) of the Great (bṛhatī )’.
For Vāc is the ‘greatness’ of Prajāpati: « Then Agni turned to Him with open mouth; and He (Prajāpati) was afraid, and his own greatness separated from Him. Now His very greatness is His Word, and this greatness has separated from Him. »v
The Sanskrit word bṛhat, बृहत् means ‘great, high; vast, abundant; strong, powerful; principal’. Its root ब्र्ह bṛha means‘to increase, to grow; to become strong; to spread’.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad comments: « It is also Bṛhaspati: Bṛhatī [‘the great one’] is indeed the Word, and he is its Lord (pati). « vi
The Word is therefore also at the « beginning » in the Veda, but it precedes it, and makes it possible, because the Word is intimately linked to the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Ṛg Veda explains the link between the supreme Creator, the Word, the Spirit, and the Sacrifice, a link that is unraveled and loosened ‘in the beginning’:
« O Lord of the Word! This was the beginning of the Word,
– when the seers began to name everything.
Excellence, the purest, the profoundly hidden
in their hearts, they revealed it through their love.
The Seers shaped the Word by the Spirit,
passing it through a sieve, like wheat being sifted.
Friends recognized the friendship they had for each other,
and a sign of good omen sealed their word.
Through sacrifice, they followed the way of the Word,
and this Word which they found in them, among them,
– they proclaimed it and communicated it to the multitude.
In the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa which is a later scholarly commentary, the Word is presented as the divine entity that created the « Breath of Life »:
« The Word, when he was created, desired to manifest himself, and to become more explicit, more incarnated. He desired a Self. He concentrated fervently. He acquired substance. These were the 36,000 fires of his own Self, made of the Word, and emerging from the Word. (…) With the Word they sang and with the Word they recited. Whatever rite is practiced in the Sacrifice, the sacrificial rite exists by the Word alone, as the utterance of voices, as fires composed of the Word, generated by the Word (…) The Word created the Breath of Life. »viii
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad, one of the oldest upaniṣad, the Vedic Word is staged as born of death, or rather of the soul (ātman)of death.
This Word is the prayer or hymn (ṛc), or ritual recitation (arc, — of the same root as ṛc). Through the play of assonances, homophonies and metaphors, it is associated with arca, the‘fire’ and ka, the‘water’ (both essential elements of the sacrifice), and also with ka, the ‘joy’ it brings.
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, for hunger is deathix. She made herself mental [thinking]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. She engaged in a ritual recitation [bow, a prayer]. While she was in the ritual recitation the water was bornx. She thought] ‘Truly, while engaged in this ritual recitation (arc), the water [or joy] (ka) came’. This is the name and being (arkatva) of the ritual recitation [or fire] (arka). Water [or joy] (ka) really happens to the one who knows the name and being of the virtual recitation [or fire]. »xi
From these quotations, one sees clearly that, in the Vedic tradition, the Word is not « in the beginning », but he is « the beginning ». The beginning of what? — The beginning of Sacrifice.
The Word ‘begins’ to reveal, he ‘initiates’, but he also hides all that he does not reveal.
What is it that he does not reveal? – He does not reveal all the depth, the abyss of the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Word is a ‘place’ where is made possible an encounter between clarity, light, brilliance (joy) and Man. But the Word also makes heard, through his silence, all the immensity of the abyss, the depth of the darkness, the in-finite before any beginnings.
iCf. The Greek Etymological Dictionary of Chantraine
vi Cf. BU,1,3,30. This Upaniṣad further explains that the Word is embodied in the Vedas in the Vedic hymn (Ṛc), in theformula of sacrifice (yajus) and in the sacred melody (sāman). Bṛhatī is also the name given to the Vedic verse (ṛc) and the name of the Brahman (in the neutral) is given to the sacrificial formula (yajus). As for the melody (sāman) it is ‘Breath-Speech’: « That is why it is also Bṛhaspati (Ṛc). It is also Bhrahmaṇaspati. The Brahman is indeed the Word and he is the lord (pati) of the [Word]. That is why he is also Bhrahmaṇaspati (= Yajus). He is also the melody (sāman). The melody is truly the Word: ‘He is she, Sā (the Word) and he is Ama (the breath). This is for the name and nature of the melody (sāman). Or because he is equal (sama) to a gnat, equal to a mosquito, equal to an elephant, equal to the three worlds, equal to this all, for this reason he is sāman, melody. It obtains the union with the sāman , theresidence in the same world, the one that knows the sāman. »(BU 1,3,20-22)
ix A. Degrâces thus comments this sentence: « The question of cause is raised here. If nothing is perceived, nothing exists. Śaṅkara is based on the concepts of covering and being covered: ‘What is covered by the cause is the effect, and both exist before creation… But the cause, by destroying the preceding effect, does not destroy itself. And the fact that one effect occurs by destroying another is not in opposition to the fact that the cause exists before the effect that is produced….Manifestation means reaching the realm of perception… Not being perceived does not mean not existing… There are two forms of covering or occultation in relation to the effect… What is destroyed, produced, existing and non-existing depends on the relation to the manifestation or occultation… The effort consists in removing what covers… Death is the golden embryo in the condition of intelligence, hunger is the attribute of what intelligence is… ». (BAUB 1.2) Alyette Degrâces. The Upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222, note n° 974.
x Water plays an essential role in the Vedic sacrifice.
xiBU 1,2,1 (My adaptation in English from a French translation by Alyette Degrâces. The upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222)
More than two millennia before the times of Melchisedechi and Abraham, other wandering and pious men were already singing the hymns of Ṛg Veda. Passing them on faithfully, generation after generation, they celebrated through hymns and prayers, the mysteries of a Supreme God, a Lord creator of worlds, of all creatures, of all lives.
Intelligence of the divine did just not begin in Ur in Chaldea, nor sacred wisdom in Salem.
They probably already reigned, more than five thousand years ago, among chosen, attentive, dedicated spirits. These men left as a legacy the hymns they sang, in precise and chiselled phrases, evoking the salient mysteries that constantly assailed them:
Of the Creator of all things, what can be said? What is his name?
What is the primary source of « Being »? How to name the primordial « Sun », from which the entire Cosmos emerged?
‘Who’ is the Lord imposing his lordship on all beings, – and on the ‘Being’ itself ? But who is ‘Who’?
What is the role of Man, what is his true part in this Mystery play?
A Vedic hymn, famous among all, summarizes and condenses all these difficult questions into one single one, both limpid and obscure.
It is Hymn X, 121 of Ṛg Veda, often titled « To the Unknown God ».
In the English translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, this Hymn is entitled « Ka ».iiKa, in Sanskrit, means « who ? »
This Hymn is dedicated to the God whom the Veda literally calls « Who? »
Griffith translates the exclamation recurring nine times throughout this ten-verses Hymn as follows :
« What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
But from the point of view of Sanskrit grammar, it is perfectly possible to personify this interrogative pronoun, Ka, as the very name of the Unknown God.
Hence this possible translation :
To the God ‘Who?’
1. In the beginning appeared the Golden Germ.
As soon as he was born, he became the Lord of Being,
The support of Earth and this Heaven.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
2. He, who gives life force and endurance,
He, whose commandments are laws for the Gods,
He, whose shadow is Immortal Life, – and Death.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
3. ‘Who?‘ iii – in His greatness appeared, the only sovereign
Of everything that lives, breathes and sleeps,
He, the Lord of Man and all four-membered creatures.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
4. To Him belongs by right, by His own power,
The snow-covered mountains, the flows of the world and the sea.
His arms embrace the four quarters of the sky.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
5. ‘Who?’ holds the Mighty Heavens and the Earth in safety,
He formed the light, and above it the vast vault of Heaven.
‘Who?’ measured the ether of the intermediate worlds.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
6. Towards Him, trembling, forces crushed,
Subjected to his glory, raise their eyes.
Through Him, the sun of dawn projects its light.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
7. When came the mighty waters, carrying
The Universal Germ from which Fire springs,
The One Spirit of God was born to be.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
8. This Unit, which, in its power, watched over the Waters,
Pregnant with the life forces engendering the Sacrifice,
She is the God of Gods, and there is nothing on Her side.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
9. O Father of the Earth, ruling by immutable laws,
Give it to us, and may we become lords of oblation!
What is this divine Germ (Hiraṇyagarbha , or ‘Golden Germ’, in Sanskrit), mentioned in verses 1, 7 and 8?
One does not know, but one can sense it. The Divine is not the result of a creation, nor of an evolution, or of a becoming, as if it was not, – then was. The Veda here attempts a breakthrough in the very nature of the divinity, through the image of the ‘germ’, the image of pure life. The idea of a ‘God’ is only valid from the creature’s point of view. The idea of ‘God’ appears only through its relation to the idea of ‘creature’. For Himself, God is not ‘God’, – He must be, in His own eyes, something completely different, which has nothing to do with the pathos of creation and the creature.
One can make the same remark about « Being ». The « Being » appears only when the beings appear. God creates the beings and the Being at the same time. He Himself is beyond Being, since it is through Him that Being comes. And before the beings, before the Being itself, it seems that a divine, mysterious life ‘took place’. Not that it ‘was’, since the Being was not yet, but it ‘lived’, hidden, and then ‘was born’. But from what womb? From what prior, primordial uterus? We do not know. We only know that, in an abyssmal mystery (and not in time or space), an even deeper mystery, a sui generis mystery, grew, in this very depth, which was then to come to being, but without the Mystery itself being revealed by this growth and by this outcoming of being.
The place of origin of the mystery is not known, but the Veda calls it ‘Golden Germ’ (hiraṇyagarbha). This metaphor of a ‘Germ’ implies (logically?) some ovary, some womb, some desire, some life older than all life, and older than the Being itself.
Life came from this Living One, in Whom, by Whom and from Whom, it was given to the Being ; it was then given to be, and it was given thereby to beings, to all beings.
This mysterious process, which the word ‘Germ’ evokes, is also called ‘Sacrifice’, a word that appears in verse 8: Yajña (यज्ञ). The Seed dies to Himself, He sacrifices Himself, so that out of His own Life, life, all lives, may be born.
May God be born to Himself, through His sacrifice… What a strange thing!
By being born, God becomes ‘God’, He becomes the Lord of Being, for the Being, and the Lord of beings. Hymn 121 takes here its mystical flight, and celebrates a God who is the Father of creatures, and who is also always transcendent to the Being, to the world and to his own ‘divinity’ (inasmuch as this divinity allows itself to be seen in its Creation, and allows itself to be grasped in the Unity that it founds).
But who is this God who is so transcendent? Who is this God who hides, behind the appearance of the Origin, below or beyond the very Beginning?
There is no better noun, one might think, than this interrogative pronoun: ‘Who?’. Ka.
This ‘Who?’ , this Ka, does not call for an answer. Rather, it calls for another question, which Man addresses to himself: To whom? To whom must Man, seized by the unheard-of depth of the mystery, in turn offer his own sacrifice?
A haunting litany: « What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
It is not that the name of this God is strictly speaking unknown. Verse 10 uses the expression Prajāpati , ‘Lord of creatures’. It is found in other texts, for example in this passage from Taittirīya Saṁhitā :
« Indra, the latest addition to Prajāpati, was named ‘Lord of the Gods’ by his Father, but they did not accept him. Indra asked her Father to give her the splendor that is in the sun, so that she could be ‘Lord of the Gods’. Prajāpati answered her:
But these two names, Prajāpati , or Ka, refer only to something related to creatures, referring either to their Creator, or simply to their ignorance or perplexity.
These names say nothing about the essence of God. This essence is undoubtedly above all intelligibility, and above all essence.
This ka, ‘who?’, in the original Sanskrit text, is actually used in the singular dative form of the pronoun, kasmai (to whom?).
One cannot ask the question ‘who?’ with regard to God, but only ‘to whom? One cannot seek to question his essence, but only to distinguish him among all the other possible objects of worship.
God is mentally unknowable. Except perhaps in that we know that He is ‘sacrifice’. But we know nothing of the essence of His ‘sacrifice’. We can only ‘participate’ in the essence of this divine sacrifice (but not know it), more or less actively, — and this from a better understanding of the essence of our own sacrifice, of our ‘oblation’. Indeed, we are both subject and object of our oblation. In the same way, God is both subject and object of His sacrifice. We can then try to understand, by anagogy, the essence of His sacrifice through the essence of our oblation.
This is what Raimundo Panikkar describes as the ‘Vedic experience’. It is certainly not the personal experience of those Vedic priests and prophets who were chanting their hymns two thousand years before Abraham, but it could be at least a certain experience of the sacred, of which we ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ could still feel the breath and the burning.
iמַלְכֵּי-צֶדֶק , (malkî-ṣedeq) : ‘King of Salem’ and ‘Priest of the Most High (El-Elyôn)’.
iiRalph T.H. Griffith. The Hymns of the Rig Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publihers. Delhi, 2004, p.628
iiiIn the original Sanskit: क , Ka ? « To Whom ? »
iv Prajāpati : » Lord of creatures « . This expression, so often quoted in the later texts of the Atharva Veda and Brāhmaṇa, is never used in the Ṛg Veda, except in this one place (RV X,121,10). It may therefore have been interpolated later. Or, – more likely in my opinion, it represents here, effectively and spontaneously, the first historically recorded appearance (in the oldest religious tradition in the world that has formally come down to us), or the ‘birth’ of the concept of ‘Lord of Creation’, ‘Lord of creatures’, – Prajāpati .
vTB II, 2, 10, 1-2 quoted by Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience. Mantramañjarī. Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1977, p.69
An innate sense of ‘mystery’ has always been one of the defining features of the human condition. The appearance of this trait, a long time ago, – say a few thousand centuries ago –, coincided, one must assume, with an obscure and progressive emergence of the consciousness itself, – mixed with a certain consciousness of the presence of the unconscious, – or of what was still lying unknown, hidden behing the veil of consciousness.
These two phenomena, the intuition of the mystery and the intuition of the unconscious, also opened the way to the progressive bursting of the consciousness of the Ego itself, – and of the ‘Self’.
The appearance of consciousness itself has undoubtedly been particularly favored by the repetition (encouraged by rituals) of many individual, acute, unprecedented, ‘proto-mystical’ experiences, – some of them with literally unspeakable implications, and whose essence was to reveal unexpectedly some of the depths of the Self, to some ‘initiated’ minds.
The accumulation of these experiences, by countless successive generations, not only by individuals but also by tribal groups during collective trances, suggests that these ecstatic states of consciousness must have been described and shared according to socialized forms (proto-religions, cult rites, initiation ceremonies).
The progressive experience of self-awareness and the proto-mystical experience are in fact indissolubly linked and reinforce each other. Both must have been made possible and encouraged by clusters of favorable conditions (environment, surroundings, climate, fauna, flora).
Moreover, through the effect of epigenesis, they must have had an impact on the neuronal, synaptic, neurochemical evolution of the brain (in hominids, then in humans), producing an organic and psychic terrain more and more adapted to a continuous increase in ‘levels of consciousness’.
For innumerable generations, and during multiple trance experiences, whether deliberate or hazardous, prepared or undergone, provoked during religious rites, or melting like lightning following personal discoveries, the mental ground of Homo brains never stops sowing, then sprouting, as if under the action of a psychic yeast intimately mixed with the neuronal dough.
Powerful proto-mystical experiments accelerated the neurochemical and neuro-synaptic adaptation of the brains of Paleolithic man, and thus revealed the incalculable immensity and radical unspeakability of the underlying, immanent, deep-seated ‘mysteries’.
These mysteries manifestly dwelled not only in the brain itself, and in a human consciousness that seemed to be barely awake, but also all around, inNature, in the vast world of Cosmos, and beyond the Cosmos itself, deep in the Night of Origins.
Mysteries seemed to be hiding, not only in the ‘Self’, but also in the ‘Other’ , in the ‘Everywhere’ and in the ‘Elsewhere’.
The neuronal, synaptic and neurochemical evolution was, and still is, obviously, the essential condition for a mental, psychic and spiritual evolution.
This evolution was accelerated by increasingly powerful and complex feedback loops, intertwining the sudden physiological modifications available, and the ‘neuro-systemic’, cultural and psychic effects that they could cause in individuals, by genetic propagation within human groups, and by catalyzing the potential exploration of unfathomable, unresolved, abyssmal depths.
We can safely postulate the existence of an immanent and constantly evolving epigenetic link between the evolution of the brain’s structure, the network of its neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters, their inhibitory and agonizing factors, and its increasing capacity to support proto-mystical, spiritual and religious experiences.
What is a proto-mystical experience?
There are undoubtedly many of them… But to fix the ideas, we can evoke the experience reported by many shamans of an exit from the body (‘ecstasy’ or ESPs), followed by the perception of a great lightning bolt, then accompanied by surreal visions, coupled with an acute development of Self-consciousness, and the inner spectacle created by the simultaneous excitement of all parts of the brain.
Let us imagine a Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer in some region of Eurasia, who consumes, by chance or by tradition, such and such a mushroom, among the dozens of species possessing psychotropic properties, in his living environment. Suddenly, a ‘great flash of consciousness’ invades and stuns him, following the simultaneous stimulation of a massive quantity of neurotransmitters affecting the functioning of his neurons and his cerebral synapses. In a few moments, there is a radical difference between his usual state of ‘consciousness’ (or ‘subconsciousness’) and the suddenly occurring state of ‘over-consciousness’. The novelty and the incredible vigor of the experience will mark him for life.
He will now have the certainty of having lived a moment of double consciousness, a moment when his usual consciousness was as if transcended by an over–consciousness. In him, a true ‘dimorphism’ of consciousness has been powerfully revealed, which is not without comparison with the daily dimorphism of wakefulness and sleep, and the ontological dimorphism of life and death, two categories undoubtedly perfectly perceptible by Homo erectus’ brain.
Let us add that, since ancient times, probably dating back to the beginning of the Paleolithic, more than three million years ago, hunter-gatherers of the Homo genus must already have known the use of psycho-active plants, and consumed them regularly. Long before the appearance of Homo, many animal species (such as reindeer, monkeys, elephants, mouflons or felines…) also knew their effects themselvesi.
Their daily example was to intrigue and disturb humans living in close symbiosis with them, and, if only to increase their hunting performance, to incite them to imitate the so strange behavior of animals putting themselves in danger by indulging in the grip of psychoactive substances – otherwise (and this in itself is an additional mystery) widespread in the surrounding nature, and throughout the world …
There are still about a hundred species of psychoactive fungi in North America today, and the vast territories of Eurasia must have had at least as many in the Paleolithic, – although nowadays there are only about ten species of fungi with hallucinogenic properties.
Paleolithic Homo was thus daily confronted with the testimony of animals undergoing the effect of psychoactive substances, regularly renewing the experience of their ingestion, affecting their ‘normal’ behavior, and thus putting themselves in danger of being killed by hunters on the lookout, quick to seize their advantage.
There is no doubt that Homo has imitated these animals ‘delighted’, ‘drugged’, ‘stunned’ by powerful substances, and ‘wandering’ in their own dreams. Wanting to understand their indifference to danger, Homo ingested the same berries or mushrooms, if only to ‘feel’ in turn what these so familiar prey could ‘feel’, which, against all odds, then offered themselves easily to their flints and arrows…
Even today, in regions ranging from northern Europe to far-eastern Siberia, reindeer still consume a lot of fly-agarics during their migrations – just like the shamans who live on the same territories.
This is certainly not a coincidence.
In Siberia, the reindeer and the hunter-breeder both live, one could say, in close symbiosis with the Amanita muscaria fungus.
The same molecules of Amanita muscaria (muscimoleii, and ibotenoque acid) that affect man and beast so intensely, how can they be produced by such seemingly elementary life forms, by ‘simple’ fungi? And moreover, why do these fungi produce these molecules, for what purpose?
This is a mystery worthy of consideration, for it is a phenomenon that objectively – and mystically – links the fungus and the brain, lightning and light, animal and human, heaven and earth, by means of a few molecules, common and active, though belonging to different kingdoms?
It is a well-documented fact that in all continents of the world, in Eurasia, America, Africa, Oceania, and since time immemorial, shamans have been consuming psychoactive substances that facilitate the entry into trance, – a trance accompanied by deep psychological effects, such as the experience of ‘divine visions’.
How can we imagine that these incredible experiences can be so mysteriously ‘shared’, if only by analogy, with animals? How can it be explained that these powerful effects, so universal, are simply due to the consumption of humble mushrooms, and that the active ingredients are one or two types of molecules acting on neurotransmitters?
R. Gordon Wasson, in his book Divine Mushroom of Immortality iii, has skillfully documented the universality of these phenomena, and he did not hesitate to establish a link between these ‘original’, shamanic practices and the consumption of Vedic Soma (from the 3rd millennium BC), whose ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda accurately describe the rites, and celebrate the divine essence, – occupying the heart of the Vedic sacrifice.iv
During several thousand years, shamanism naturally continued to be part of the sacred rites and initiation ceremonies of the wandering peoples who migrated from the North of Eurasia to the « South »,
In the course of time, Amanita muscaria has probably had to be replaced by other plants, endemically available in the various geographical environments crossed, but with similar psychotropic effects.
These migrating peoples referred to themselves as āryas, a word meaning ‘nobles’ or ‘lords’. This very old Sanskrit term, used since the 3rd millennium BC, has nowadays become sulphurous, since its misuse by Nazi ideologues.
These peoples spoke Indo-European languages, and were slowly but surely moving from Northern Europe to India and Iran, but also to the Near and Middle East, via Southern Russia. Some of them passed through the Caspian and Aral Sea, through Bactria and Margiana (as the remains of the ‘Oxus civilization’ attest), through Afghanistan, and finally settled permanently in the Indus Valley or on the Iranian highlands.
Others went to the Black Sea, Thrace, Macedonia, present-day Greece and to Phrygia, Ionia (present-day Turkey) and the Near East.
Arriving in Greece, the Hellenic branch of these Indo-European peoples did not forget the ancient shamanic beliefs. The mysteries of Eleusis and the other mystery religions of ancient Greece can be interpreted as ancient Hellenized shamanic ceremonies, during which the ingestion of beverages with psychotropic propertiesv induced mystical visions.
At the time of the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, this beverage, kykeon, made from goat’s milk, mint and spices, probably also contained as active ingredient a parasitic fungus, the rye spur, or an endophytic fungus living in symbiosis with herbs such as Lolium temulentum, better known in English as ‘ryegrass’ or ‘tares’. Rye ergot naturally produces a psychoactive alkaloid, lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived.vi
Albert Hofmann, famous for synthesizing LSD, wrote in TheRoad to Eleusis that the priests of Eleusis had to treat the rye spur Claviceps purpurea by simply dissolving it in water, thus extracting the active alkaloids, ergonovine and methylergonovine. Hofmann suggested an alternative hypothesis, namely that kykeon could be prepared using another species of rye spur, Claviceps paspali, which grows on wild herbs such as Paspalum distichum, and whose ‘psychedelic’ effects are even more intense, and indeed similar to those of the Aztec ololiuhqui plant, endemic to the Western Hemisphere.
Our mind, in a state of awakening, is constantly torn between two very different (and complementary) forms of consciousness, one turned towards the external world, that of physical sensations and action, and the other turned towards the internal world, reflection and unconscious feelings.
There are, of course, varying degrees of intensity for these two types of ‘consciousness’, external and internal. Dreaming with your eyes open is not the same as ‘dreaming’ under the influence of fly agaric, peyote or any of the many hallucinogenic plants containing psilocybin.
Upon ingestion of these powerful psychoactive principles, these two forms of consciousness seem to be simultaneously excited to the last degree, and may even alternate very quickly. They ‘merge’ and enter into ‘resonance’ at the same time.
On the one hand, the sensations felt by the body are taken to extremes, because they are not relayed by the nervous system, but are produced directly in the very center of the brain.
On the other hand, mental, psychic, or intellectual effects are also extremely powerful, because countless neurons can be stimulated or inhibited simultaneously. Under the sudden effect of psychoactive molecules, the action of inhibitory neurotransmitters (such as GABA) is massively increased. The action potential of post-synaptic neurons or glial cells is just as suddenly, and sharply, diminished.
This massive inhibition of post-synaptic neurons translates, subjectively, into a kind of radical decoupling between the usual level of consciousness, that of the consciousness of the external reality, and an entirely different level of consciousness, ‘internal’, completely detached from the surrounding reality, but by this very fact, also more easily sucked into a psychic, independent universe, which C.G. Jung calls the ‘Self’, and to which innumerable traditions refer under various names.
The set of complex neurochemical processes that occur in the brain at these times can be summarized as follows.
Psychoactive molecules (such as psilocybin) are structurally very close to organic compounds (indolesvii) that occur naturally in the brain. They suddenly put the entire brain in a state of almost absolute isolation from the immediately nearby world of external sensations.
The usual consciousness is suddenly deprived of any access to its own world, and the brain is almost instantaneously plunged into a universe infinitely rich in forms, movements, and especially ‘levels of consciousness’ absolutely unequalled with those of daily consciousness.
But there is even more surprising…
According to research by Dr. Joel Elkes at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a person’s subjective awareness under the influence of psilocybin can ‘alternate’ between two states – an ‘external’ state of consciousness and an ‘internal’ state of consciousness.
The alternation of the two states of consciousness is commonly observed, and it can even be provoked simply when the subject opens and closes his or her eyes…
We can therefore hypothesize that the original emergence of consciousness, in hominids and developed even more in Paleolithic man, may have resulted from an analogous phenomenon of ‘resonance’ between these two types of consciousness, a resonance that was itself strongly accentuated when psychoactive substances were ingested.
The back and forth between an ‘external’ consciousness (based on the world of perception and action) and an ‘internal’ consciousness, ‘inhibited’ in relation to the external world, but consequently ‘uninhibited’ in relation to the ‘surreal’ or ‘meta-physical’ world, also reinforces the ‘brain-antenna’ hypothesis proposed by William James.
Psilocybin, in this case, would make the consciousness ‘blink’ between two fundamental, totally different states, and by the same token, it would make the very subject capable of these two kinds of consciousness appear as overhanging, a subject capable of navigating between several worlds, and several states of consciousness…
In the tares hides the spur of (divine) drunkenness…
« As the people slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and departed. When the grass had grown and yielded fruit, then the tares also appeared. « viii
Should it be uprooted? No. « Lest you pick up the tares and uproot the wheat with it. Let the two grow together until the harvest. And at harvest time, I will say to the reapers, ‘Gather the tares first and bind it into bundles to consume it; but the wheat will be gathered into my granary. « ix
The interpretation is rather clear, on the one hand. The tares must remain in the wheat until the ‘harvest’. It is also obscure, on the other hand, for the tares must be burned, and then it is as an image of the fire that consumes the spirit and opens a world of visions.
And there is the parable of the leaven, which is ‘hidden’ in the flour, but of which a tiny quantity ferments the whole doughx…
The leaven ferments and makes the dough ‘rise’. In the same way the rye spur, the tares, ferment the spirit, and raise it in the higher worlds…
Spirits can just burn in the way of tares.
Or they may become infinitely drunk with the divine.
They can then understand within themselves how consciousness came to be, through the humble and radiant power of plants, the potency of grass linked to the potency of cosmos, uniting the secret depths of roots and what may be beyond the heights of heavens…
iDavid Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Penguin Books, 2011
iiMuscimole is structurally close to a major neurotransmitter of the central nervous system: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), whose effects it mimics. Muscimole is a powerful agonist of GABA type A receptors. Muscimole is hallucinogenic at doses of 10 to 15 mg.
iiiRichard Gordon Wasson, Soma : Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc, 1968
ivThe article Amanite fly killers of Wikipediaquotesthat anthropologist Peter T. Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture, (1976) survey analyzed the elements that may or may not identify fly killers as Vedic Soma, and (cautiously) concluded in favor of this hypothesis.
vi In their book The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck estimate that hierophant priests used the rye ergot Claviceps purpurea, available in abundance around Eleusis.
Billions of suns shimmer in the Night, – and all the gods are silent and shine.
The Night, – the immense abyss sucks it up, breathes this dark shroud of blood, this veil of shadow.
A voice cries out in the dark: « O Abyss, you are the only God. »i
Another voice answers, in an ironic echo: « O unique God, you are Abyss! »
All the suns that I know overflow with shadows, are full of enigmas, pierce the night with irruptions, with intestinal fury, pulverize and volatilize the mysteries.
Their deliriums, their burns, their glimmers, their impulses, fill old divine voids, long already there, pierce black matter, streak with dark mists.
See the divine Athena, wise, simple, sure, solar too, – one comes from afar to pray under the radiance of her aegis, and to recollect (relegere) on the threshold of her altar, on her calm Acropolis.
But her very Soul is only shadow, even if her Intelligence is light.
It is said that the dreams of the wise, the hatreds of the people, the tears, the loves and the gods pass.
I prefer to believe that they slide eternally, into nameless oblivion, an endless drift, but no, they will not pass. On the contrary, they grow, and always multiply. Like God Himself.
This God whom, out of faith or fear, fierce monotheists say they want to « unify » (in words only). They vehemently assign to Him a single attribute, the « one », only the « one », – not the « two », or the « three », or the « π », the pleroma or the infinite.
Those who pronounce His plural, intangible name, Elohim, still read in this plural the « One », the unique, alone, singular « One ».
They also assign the defined article to His name: the Elohim. הָאֱלֹהִים. Ha-Elohimii.
« The » God. In Arabic, too : « Al » Lah. « The » Divinity.
Two grammatical temptations : to ‘unify’ God (as being ‘one’)… and to ‘define’ God (by the article)….
And death is promised, surely, to all others, to those who, they say, « multiply Him, » – in word or thought, by action or omission….
A crucified Muslim, a saint and martyr, at the beginning of the 10th century A.D., famously said:
He paid with his life for this deep and uncomfortable truth.
Is the God, immensely infinite, so much in need of this din around a ‘unity’ that is tired, but certainly threatened, atomized with clamor (of pride and conquest), crumbled with cries (of hatred and suffering), diluted with harangues (of excommunications and fatwas).
The « One », – image, or even idol, of pure abstraction, worshipping itself, in its solitude.
The. One. The One.
The definite and the indefinite, united in a common embrace, against grammar, logic and meaning, – for if He is « One », if He is only « One », how can one say « the » One, who supposes « an » Other, maybe a less or a more than « one » Other, lurking in His shadow?
Only, perhaps, is the path of negative theology worthwhile here.
Maybe, God is neither one, nor multiple, nor the One, nor the Other, nor defined, nor undefined, but all of that at once.
Only one thing seems to be sure: He is nothing of what they say He is. Nada.
How is it possible to attribute an attribute to Him, if He is unity as such? What blindness! What derision! What pride!
They don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know what they are saying. They don’t think what they think.
But if He is not the One, from a grammatical and ontological viewpoint, what sort of grammar and ontolgy can we use to say what He really is ?
The very idea of the One is not high enough, not wide enough, not deep enough, – for His Présence, His Powers, and His infinite armies (tsebaoth) of shadows, to remain included in it.
To move forward, let’s reflect on the concept of ‘reflection’.
The sun, this unique star (for us), by its infinite images, by its incessant rays, is ‘reflected’ in the slightest of the shadows. Some of these rays even dance within us, with in our souls.
The Veda tradition helps to understand the lesson, adding another perspective.
The God Surya, who is called ‘Sun’, says the Veda, has a face of extreme brilliance, – so extreme that his ‘wife’, the Goddess Saranyu, flees before him because she can no longer face his face.
To keep her escape secret, to hide her absence, she creates a shadow, – a faithful copy of herself – named Chāyā, which she leaves behind, in her place.iv
It should be noted that in Sanskrit Chāyā, छाया, indeed means ‘shadow’. The root of this word is chād, छाद्, ‘to cover, to wrap; to hide, to keep secret’.
The word chāyā is also given by Chantraine’s Dictionary of Greek Etymology as having « a definite kinship » with the Greek word σκιά skia, ‘shadow’, ‘darkness, hidden place’ and also ‘ghost’ (a qualifier designating man’s weakness). Avestic and Persian also have a very similar word, sāya, ‘shadow’. The word skia is found in the Gospel several times, for example:
« This people, sitting in darkness, saw a great light. And upon those who sat in the region and the shadow (skia) of death, the light has risen. »v
The God Surya is deceived by this faithful shadow, which seems to be (in appearance) His own shadow. He, then, unites Himself to her, to Chāyā, to this shadow that is not divine, only human. And He generates with her à son, Manu.vi
Manu, – the ancestor of mankind.
Manu, – the Adam of the Veda, therefore!
According to Genesis, a text that appeared at least a millennium after the hymns of Ṛg Veda were composed (and thus having, one can think, some distance from the most ancient Vedic intuitions), the God (named Elohim) famouslysaid:
נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ
Na’oçéh adam bi-tsalme-nou ki-dimoute-nou
« Let us make Adam in our image (bi-tsalmé-nou) and according to our likeness (ki-demouté-nou)« vii.
Then the text insists, and repeats the word ‘image’ twice more.
Vé-bara Elohim et-ha-adam bi-tsalmou, bi-tsélém Elohim bara otou.
Translated literally: « And Elohim created Adam in his image (bi-tsalmou), in the image (bi-tslem) Elohim created him. »viii
Let us note that the third time, this ‘image’ that Elohim uses to create is not the image of anyone, it is only an ‘image’ with which He creates Adam. Perhaps it is not even an image, then, but only a shadow?
This is worth thinking about.
The Hebrew word צֶלֶם tselem, ‘image’, has the primary meaning: ‘shadows, darkness’, as the verse « Yes, man walks in darkness (be-tselem) » (Ps. 39:7) testifies, and as the word צֵל tsel, meaning ‘shadow’, confirms.
The Vedic God generates « Manu », the Man, with the Shade, Chāyā.
The biblical God creates « Adam » as a « shadow ».
Was there an influence of the Vedic myth on the biblical myth of the creation of man? One cannot say. On the other hand, it is obvious that some fundamental archetypes remain, beyond time and cultures, which are properly human, undoubtedly coming from the dark depths, where many shadows indeed reign.
It is not so surprising, in fact, that one of the deepest archetypes attaches precisely the idea of shadow to the deepest nature of man.
Man, a frail shadow, – and image too, or veil, of an abyss within him, without bottom.
iErnest Renan. Memories of childhood and youth. Prayer on the Acropolis. Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1883, p.72
iiSee Gen 6.2; Ex 1, 17: Ex 20.16; 1Kings 17.18; Job 1.6 and many other examples.
iiiHallâj. The Book of the Word. Translation by Chawki Abdelamir and Philippe Delarbre. Ed. du Rocher, 1996. p.58
ivDoniger, Wendy(1998). « Saranyu/Samjna ». In John Stratton Hawley, Donna Marie Wulff (ed.). Devī: goddesses of India. Motilal Banarsidas. pp. 158-60.
For at least a million years, man has been using the spoken word more or less skillfully. Since ancient times, its uses and modes of expression have been infinite, from the most futile to the most elevated. The stammering child, the fluent poet, the sure sage, the inspired prophet, all tried and continue trying their own ways and speaking their voices.
With the same breath of expelled air, they generate gutturals from the glottis, fricatives from the pharynx, hissing on the tongue, whistling labials through the lips.
From these incessant sounds, what sense does exhale?
Heraclitus, master in obscure matters, great lord of meaning, once made this sharp judgment:
« The man is held as a little boy by the divinity, like the child by the man. »i
This both pessimistic and optimistic fragment proposes a ratio of proportion: what the child is to man, man is to the divinity. The observation of man’s impotence in relation to the divine is not dissociated from the natural and expected perspective of a passage from childhood to adulthood.
In his translation of this fragment, Marcel Conche curiously emphasizes speech, although the word logos isclearly absent from the Heraclitus text:
« A ‘marmot’ (a toddler) who cannot speak! Man is thus called by the divine being (δαίμων), just as a child is called by man. « ii
The periphrase ‘A marmot who cannot speak’ is the choice (bold and talkative) made by Marcel Conche to render the meaning of the simple Greek word νήπιος, affixed by Heraclitus to the word ‘man’ (ἀνὴρ).
Homer also uses the word νήπιος in various senses: ‘who is in infancy’, ‘young child’, but also ‘naive’, ‘foolish’, ‘devoid of reason’.
Conche evokes these various meanings, and justifies his own translation, which is periphrastic and therefore not very faithful, in the following way:
« Translating as ‘child without reason’ sounds right, but not precise enough: if νήπιος applies to the ‘infant’ child, one must think of the very young child, who does not yet speak. Hence the translation [in French] by ‘marmot’, which probably comes from ‘marmotter’, which originates from an onomatopoeia expressing murmuring, the absence of distinct speech. « iii
This is followed by a comment on the supposed meaning of the fragment:
« It is about becoming another being, who judges by reason, and not as habit and tradition would have it. This transformation of the being is translated by the ability to speak a new language: no longer a particular language – the language of desire and tradition – but a discourse that develops reasons referring to other reasons (…) Now, from this logical or philosophical discourse, from this logos, men do not have the intelligence, and, in relation to the demonic being – the philosopher – who speaks it, they are like little brats without speech (…) To speak as they speak is to speak as if they were devoid of reason (of the power to speak the truth). »iv
Although this fragment of Heraclitus does not contain any allusion to logos, the main lesson that Conche learns from it is : « Man is incapable of logos for the demonic being ».
In a second departure from the commonly received meaning for this fragment, Marcel Conche considers that the divinity or demonic being (δαίμων) evoked by Heraclitus is in reality the ‘philosopher’. For Conche, it is the philosopher who is the demonic being par excellence, and it is precisely he who is able to determine for this reason that « man is incapable of logos ».
However Heraclitus certainly did not say: « Man is incapable of logos.»
Man may mumble. But he also talks. And he even has, in him, the logos.
Indeed, if the word logos is absent from fragment D.K. 79, it is found on the other hand in ten other fragments of Heraclitus, with various meanings : ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘discourse’, ‘measure’, ‘reason’…
Among these ten fragments, there are five that use the word logos in such an original, hardly translatable way that the common solution is just not to translate it at all, and to keep it in its original form : Logos…
Here are these five fragments:
« The Logos, which is, always men are incapable of understanding him, both before hearing him and after hearing him for the first time, for although all things are born and die according to this Logos, men are inexperienced when they try their hand at words or deeds. »v
« If it is not I, but the Logos, that you have listened to, it is wise to agree that it is the One-all. »vi
« In Prayer lived Bias, son of Teutames, who was more endowed with Logos than the others. « vii
In these three fragments, the Logos seems to be endowed with an autonomous essence, a power to grow, and an ability to say birth, life, death, Being, the One and the Whole.
In the next two fragments, the Logos is intimately associated with the substance of the soul itself.
« It belongs to the soul a Logos that increases itself. « viii
« You cannot find the limits of the soul by continuing on your way, no matter how long the road, so deep is the Logos it contains. « ix
As a reminder, here is the original text of this last fragment :
Strangely enough, Conche, who added the idea of speech in a fragment that did not include the word logos, avoids using the word logos here, in his translation, though the fragment does contain it explicitly: « You wouldn’t find the limits of the soul, even if you walked all the roads, because it has such a deep discourse.»x
Is it relevant to translate here the word logos by discourse?
If not, how to translate it?
None of the following meanings seems satisfactory: cause, reason, essence, basis, meaning, measure, report. The least bad of the possible meanings remains ‘speech, discourse’xiaccording to Conche, who opts for this last word, as we have seen.
But Heraclitus uses a strange expression here: ‘a deep logos‘, – a logos so ‘deep’ that it doesn’t reach its ‘limit’.
What is a logos thatnever reaches its own depth, what is a limitless logos?
For her part, Clémence Ramnoux decided not to translate in this fragment the word logos. She even suggested to put it in brackets, considering it as an interpolation, a late addition:
« You wouldn’t find a limit to the soul, even when you travel on all roads, (it has such a deep logos). « xii
She comments on her reluctance in this way:
« The phrase in parentheses may have been added over. If it was added, it was added by someone who knew the expression logos of the psyche. But it would not provide a testimony for its formation in the age of Heraclitus. « xiii
In a note, she presents the state of scholarly discussion on this topic:
» ‘So deep is her logos’. Is this added by the hand of Diogenes Laërtius (IX,7)?
Argument for: text of Hippolytus probably referring to this one (V,7): the soul is hard to find and difficult to understand. Difficult to find because it has no boundaries. In the mind of Hippolytus it is not spatial. Difficult to understand because its logos istoo deep.
Argument against: a text of Tertullian seems to translate this one: « terminos anime nequaquam invenies omnem vitam ingrediens » (De Anima 2). It does not include the sentence with the logos.
Among the moderns, Bywater deleted it – Kranz retained it – Fränkel retained it and interpreted it with fragment 3. »xiv
For his part, Marcel Conche, who, as we have seen, has opted for the translation of logos by ‘discourse’, justifies himself in this way: « We think, with Diano, that logos must be translated, here as elsewhere, by ‘discourse’. The soul is limited because it is mortal. The peirata are the ‘limits to which the soul goes,’ Zeller rightly says. But he adds: ‘the limits of her being’. « xv
The soul would thus be limited in her being? Rather than limited in her journey, or in her discourse? Or in her Logos?
Conche develops: « If there are no such limits, it is because the soul is ‘that infinite part of the human being’. »
And he adds: « Snell understands βαθὺς [bathus] as the Grenzenlosigkeit, the infinity of the soul. It will be objected that what is ‘deep’ is not the soul but the logos (βαθὺν λόγον). (…) In what sense is the soul ‘infinite’? Her power is limitless. It is the power of knowledge. The power of knowledge of the ψυχὴ [psyche] is limitless in so far as she is capable of logos, oftrue speech. Why this? The logos can only tell reality in a partial way, as if there was somewhere a reality that is outside the truth. Its object is necessarily reality as a whole, the Whole of reality. But the Whole is without limits, being all the real, and the real cannot be limited by the unreal. By knowledge, the soul is equal to the Whole, that is to say to the world. « xvi
According to this interpretation, reality is entirely offered to the power of reason, to the power of the soul. Reality has no ‘background’ that remains potentially obscure to the soul.
« The ‘depth’ of the logos is the vastness, the capacity, by which it equals the world and establishes in law the depth (immensity) of reality. Βαθὺς : the discourse extends so deeply upwards or downwards that it can accommodate everything within it, like an abyss in which all reality can find its place. No matter which way the soul goes on the path of knowledge, inward or outward, upward or downward, she encounters no limit to her capacity to make light. All is clear in law. Heraclitus’ rationalism is absolute rationalism. « xvii
Above all what is absolute, here, is the inability to understand the logos inits infinite depth, in its deepest infinity.
We’re starting to understand that for Heraclitus, the Logos cannot be just reason, measure or speech.
The soul (psyche) has no ‘limits’, because she has a ‘deep logos‘ (βαθὺν λόγον).
The soul is unlimited, she is infinite, because she is so vast, so deep, so wide and so high that the Logos himself can dwell in her always, without ever finding his own end in her, – no matter how many journeys or speeches he may make…
No wonder the (word) Logos is ‘untranslatable’. In theory, and in good logic, to ‘translate’ it, one would need an infinitely deep periphrase comprising an infinite number of words, made of infinite letters…
iFragment D.K. 79. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. Les Présocratiques. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 164
iiD.K. 79. Translation by Marcel Conche, in Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.77.
In a previous article, The Dreamers’ Paradise, we invited you to meditate on the double nature of the plant, which is rooted below, or in the stomach, for the materialists, or on the contrary above, in the philosophy of the Veda. In both cases, the plant and its roots sum up their respective visions of the world.
Hylozoismi, which is not very Vedic but intrinsically modern, sees life as « springing » from matter itself, which is still a metaphor. The « source » can be seen to be, in a way, analogous to the « root ». In everything, always and everywhere, life supposes the immanent presence of the same internal and autonomous principle of generation, source or root, which animates all things.
No less modern, and rather more so, materialism, is by definition eminently immanent. It denies a priori any idea of soul in life, and it kills (in the bud) any idea of spirit within matter. Its aim is to assimilate, to digest in the material stomach any idea of the spirit, or of its essence, which amounts to the same thing.
Kant, on the other hand, is not at all modern. He asserts that an immaterial world exists. This immensely vast world includes all created intelligences, reasonable beings, but also the sentient consciousnesses (of all animals), and finally all the principles of life, whatever they may be, and which are found everywhere in nature, for example in plants.
Among the « created intelligences » some are related to matter. We know this, because we experience it in ourselves, and it is they who, through this special alliance, form « persons ».
Other « created intelligences » are not bound to matter. They may remain isolated, or they may be linked to other spirits, or they may be more or less closely associated with other entities, having an intermediate status between matter and spirit.
All these immaterial natures (the intelligences, the consciousnesses, the principles) exert their (immaterial) influence in the corporeal world, according to ways and means which remain incomprehensible.
Among them, there are all the so-called « reasonable » beings, whether they are present on earth or lying, presumably, elsewhere in the universe. Because of the use of their reason, whose end it is, they are not destined to remain separate (from matter). Reason is another name for an immanent, ordering and regulating principle, which reasonable beings (i.e. beings in which reason is immanent) use to animate the (irrational) fabric of matter, and constitute it as a « living » entity.
We can suppose that the so-called reasonable beings maintain with the other created intelligences various exchanges or communications, in accordance with their respective natures.
These communications are then not limited by bodies, nor by the usual constraints of material life. They transcend them. Nor do they weaken with distance in space or time, nor do they disappear when death occurs.
According to these general views, the human soul, which is a particular case of these immaterial and reasonable natures, should therefore be regarded as already linked, in the present life, to both worlds, the immaterial and the corporeal.
The singular soul is bound to a particular body, which makes it an absolutely unique person. It clearly perceives the material influence of the corporeal world. As it is also part of the spirit world, it also feels the influences of the immaterial natures, and can perceive, in certain cases, their immaterial effluvia.
At death, as soon as the bodily connection has ceased, the soul continues to be in impalpable community with the spiritual natures.
Undoubtedly, it should then, being at last separated from the body, be better able to form a clearer intuition of its own nature, and to reveal it, in an appropriate manner, to its inner consciousness.ii
On the other hand, it is probable that the other spiritual natures, those which are not « incarnate », cannot be immediately conscious of any sensible impression of the bodily world, because they are not bound in any way to matter.
Not having a body of their own, they cannot be conscious of the material universe or perceive it, lacking the necessary organs. But they can exert a subtle influence on the souls of men, because they have a nature similar to their own.
The two can even maintain a reciprocal and real trade, capable of progress and enrichment.
However, the images and representations formed by spirits that still depend on the corporeal world cannot be communicated to beings that are purely spiritual.
Conversely, the conceptions and notions of the latter, which are intuitive representations corresponding to the immaterial universe, cannot pass as such into the clear consciousness of man.
Let us add that the ideas and representations of purely spiritual beings and of human spirits are undoubtedly not of the same kind, and are therefore very difficult to transmit and to share as such, without having been digested first.iii
Among the ideas or representations which can set the human mind radically in motion, stimulate in it an acute desire for metamorphosis, and begin its transformation into a « new man », the most powerful ones can appear to it quite unheard of, inexplicable, perfectly capable even of « submerging » or « drowning » it.
Where do they come from?
From an immaterial world, that of the Muses, these inspirers reputed to come to the rescue of creators and disarmed spirits?
As phenomena, they also seem to be able to emerge spontaneously from the deepest interior of man himself.
The most elevated of them have a priori no connection with the personal utility or with the immediate, practical, individual needs of the men who receive them.
But perhaps they have some use for distant, theoretical, universal needs, which concern the whole universe?
They are moreover capable of transporting themselves again, leaving the sphere of consciousness assigned to a particular person, by a kind of contagion, of contamination, extending outwards, far beyond what one can imagine.
They go far, touching in the passage of their noumenal and numinous power other reasonable beings that they affect in their turn.
There are thus two types of spiritual forces, some centripetal, where self-interest absolutely dominates, and others, centrifugal, which reveal themselves when the soul is somehow pushed out of itself and attracted to others.iv
The lines of force and influence that our minds are capable of receiving or conceiving do not, therefore, simply converge in each of us, to be confined to them.
There are also forces that can move powerfully outside of us, outside of our own intimate space, and sometimes in spite of us, – to reach other people, other minds.
And even caress the confines.
From this, we deduce that irresistible impulses can carry the strong man away from self-interest, even to the ultimate sacrifice.
The strong law of justice, and the somewhat less imperious law of generosity and benevolence, which do not fail to show themselves universally in human nature, can carry one or the other, according to the circumstances, and according to the specific tessitura of such or such spirits, conditioned by their deep aspirations, suddenly revealed.
It is thus that in the apparently most intimate motives, we find ourselves depending in fact on universal laws, of which we are not even a little conscious.
But the result is also, in the world of all thinking natures, the possibility of a general unity and communion obeying all spiritual laws, and by this effect, preparing new degrees of metamorphosis.
Newton called ‘gravitation’ the tendency of all material bodies to come together. He treated this gravitation as a real effect of a universal activity of matter, to which he gave the name of « attraction ».
In a similar way, one could imagine the phenomenon of thoughts and ideas getting into thinking natures, then revealing themselves to be sharable, communicable, as the consequence of a universal force, a form of « attraction » by which spiritual natures influence each other.
We could name this power, the « law of the universal attraction of the consciousnesses ».
Pushing the metaphor, the force of moral feeling could well be then only the dependence felt by the individual will towards the general will, and the consequence of the exchanges of universal actions and reactions, which the immaterial world uses to tend in its way to unity.v
The human soul, in this life, occupies its full place among the spiritual substances of the universe, just as, according to the laws of universal attraction, matter spread over the immensity of space never ceases to be bound by bonds of mutual attraction, and the elementary particles themselves, far from remaining confined to a narrow granularity, fill the whole universe with their quantum potentials of field.
When the links between the soul and the corporeal world are broken by death, it can be assumed that another life in another (spiritual) world would be the natural consequence of the countless links already maintained in this life.
The present and the future would thus be formed as of one piece, and would compose a continuous whole, both in the order of nature and in the order of the spirit.vi
If this is the case with the spiritual world and the role that our spirit plays in it, it is no longer surprising that the universal communion of spirits is an ordinary phenomenon, and far more widespread than is generally admitted.
The extraordinary, in fact, lies much more in the absolute singularity of psychic phenomena affecting such and such a singular, individual person, than in their very existence, which seems to be widespread throughout the universe.
i Philosophical doctrine which maintains that matter is endowed with life by itself.
iiCf. Kant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Translated by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.21
The kingdom of shadows is the paradise of dreamers. Here they find an unlimited land, where they can establish dwellings at will. Hypochondriac vapors, children’s stories, and monastic miracles provide them with abundant material.’i
The shadow is not modern. The brilliance of the Enlightenment cannot stand the competition of darkness. Luminosity is now required more and more, in all domains, arts and sciences, and those linked to peat, mire and night.
Should we decide, with disdain, to abandon the night dreamers to their idle dreams, to their vain researches, and devote our days to the light and the useful?
To this ancient question, Kant answered with a curious pamphlet, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics.ii
Is a text with such a title even readable today?
A « man who dreams », that is all right. But a « man who sees spirits »!
And « metaphysics »!
Moderns, as we know, do not believe in « spirits », nor in « vision », nor in « metaphysics ».
Most of them are pragmatic, and of an unmoderated materialism.
But some, even among the most realistic, still agree, in front of the factual evidence, to concede the existence of « immaterial » phenomena, and attributable, at the very least, to what can be called « spirit », by some cultural training, due to tradition.
The spirit being only an emanation of the matter, its « essence » is not at all « spiritual ». It presents only a specific phenomenology, that the psychology of the cognition takes care to enlighten, and whose cerebral imageries begin to map the elementary forms.
The modern mind has no essence, nor soul of course, and is only an epiphenomenon, a kind of neuro-synaptic exudation, a material vapor.
And what do we find in this epiphenomenon, this exudation, this vapor?
Memory, will, and reason.
« A mind, [say modern sages], is a being endowed with reason. It is not surprising, then, if one sees spirits; whoever sees a man sees a being endowed with reason. « iii
The modern sees in the spirit nothing less than the soul, certainly, – but nothing less than reason…
When the modern wise man « sees men », then he « sees minds », since he « sees reasonable beings », according to Kant’s acid remark, not without a certain metaphysical irony.
The modern wise man has a good sight, it must be admitted, and much better than that of Kant, who, for his part, makes a sincere admission of his real ignorance in the matter:
« I do not know whether there are spirits; much more, I do not even know what the word spirit means. However, as I have often used it myself, or as I have heard others use it, it is necessary that some meaning be attached to it, whether what is meant by it is a chimera or a reality.
Is the spirit a material phenomenon, an abstruse chimera or an immaterial reality? Or does this word have another meaning?
At least, the spirit has a material place, to organize its appearance, and its action, – the brain, where it sits, like a spider.
« The soul of man has its seat in the brain; it has its seat in an imperceptible place. It feels there like the spider in the center of its web. (…) I confess that I am very inclined to affirm the existence of immaterial natures in the world, and to place my own soul among these beings. But then what a mystery is the union of soul and body? »iv
The mystery is less in the immaterial soul as such than in what one must resign oneself to calling the « union » of the immaterial and the corporeal, a union of which no one, even today, conceives how it takes place, nor how it is even simply possible.
And yet it is possible, since it is enough to observe one’s own consciousness to have confirmation of the phenomenon.
Such a « union » seems to deny the respective essence of the « material » and the « immaterial » and to cancel the necessary distance in which they are confined, by definition, one with respect to the other. This poses a « difficult » problem, unresolved to this day.
And yet, even if we do not see the spirit, we see well that the spirit moves what lacks spirit, precisely. It moves it, but how? And at what precise point does the lever of the spirit start to lift the immense inertia of matter?
Kant proposes an explanation, by plunging the glance of his own spirit in the deepest of the intimate of the matter:
« It seems that a spiritual being is intimately present to the matter with which it is united, and that it acts not on the forces of the elements with which these elements are related to each other, but on the internal principle of their state; for every substance, and even a simple element of matter, must nevertheless have some internal activity as the principle of external action, though I cannot say in what this activity consists. « v
Kant’s idea is that the (immaterial) mind acts on a certain (also immaterial) « internal principle », which governs not matter itself or its elements, but its deepest state, where an « internal activity » is revealed, – and where its undetectable essence lies.
This « inner principle », in so far as it is a « principle », cannot be material.
If it were, it would no longer be a « principle ». And if matter were « without principle », it would be pure chaos, without order or reason.
Materialists will of course retort that matter does not need an « immaterial principle », since it is there, in evidence, in its immanent reality, and that it has done very well without any principle to « exist », simply as such, eternally, for a respectable number of billions of years.
One may retort that matter was not doing much, just before the Big Bang, not knowing then if it was going to be reduced to nothing as soon as it was born, because of the very restrictive conditions set for its real appearance, precisely by virtue of some considerations of « principle », the reason for which the most modern physics still struggles to explain, but of which it enumerates with astonishment the precision of the prerequisites, of which the « universal constants » give some idea.
But what makes these constants exist? What is their essence?
To advance, and to go beyond these quarrels between materialists and idealists, which are too caricatural, and which lead nowhere, it would be necessary to test some other way, more in overhang.
We could suppose the existence of other ways, which would lead, as for them, somewhere… even if it was necessary for that to face the « shadows », the « emptiness » and the « non-existence », – like Aeneas looking for Anchises in the Underworld, with the Sibyl.
(They went, obscure, in the solitary night, through the shadows,
the empty dwellings of the Richvii and the kingdoms without existence).
The ancients, who were not modern, cultivated this ‘secret philosophy’ which opens ways and paths.
The immaterial world of spirits and souls was considered a coherent realm, subsisting by itself, although not existing according to the criteria of the material world, including those of tangible or visible appearance.
All its parts were united by close, reciprocal connections and constant exchanges, without the need for bodies or materials to support them.
Plato explained that at conception, specific spirits descended into this world by adventure, and began to maintain a close commerce with particular bodies, allocated to them according to procedures, some chosen, others ignoredviii.
During the time of life, this time of the ad hoc linking of spirits and bodies, incarnated spirits may have, moreover, other direct, immaterial relations with other spirits (incarnated or not).
This is a conjecture, but it is compatible with the intrinsic logic of the immaterial.
That immaterial spirits have the desire and the possibility to maintain relations with other immaterial spirits – in a way and for reasons that naturally escape both bodily perception and human intelligence, can be explained precisely by their immaterial nature, freed from all the constraints of matter, and possessing its own ends.
In a kind of ideal dream, of which Kant was one of the promoters, one could imagine that all the beings belonging to the immaterial world, all the members of the infinite, unknowable series of the psychic natures, contribute more or less effectively to the great Whole of the Immaterial, this immense society of the spirits, closely united, constantly active, in the heat and the ardor of their bubbling communions, pursuing their own logics, towards ends of which one ignores all, except their putative reality.
Some sparing and much less burning flames, here and there escaped from this great Whole, could, twirling, fleeting, fly away and come down, as if on a commanded mission, in addition to their first destiny, to come and animate and vivify some precise bodies, chosen in the bosom of the matter (matter without that inert, infertile and inanimate).
It is conceivable that life, both material and immaterial, extending from kingdom to kingdom, flexibly changing worlds, inclining from the heights of the spirit to the depths of matter, or conversely, springing from the abyss to the heights, perpetuates and differentiates itself ceaselessly, by the dualism and the conjugation that the existence of two principles allows and favors, a principle of the ‘material’ and a principle of the ‘immaterial’.
It remains to be asked to what extremes this life, with its double principle, can descend or ascend, in order, in both cases, to continue its continuous work of metamorphosis.
To what ends of nature does life extend? When does the cold world of true non-life begin? And what burning, ultra-seraphic plasmas can spirits face?
These are points that may never be elucidated with certainty.
But some have thought they could identify this mythical frontier, at least the one that looms below.
Hermann Boerhaave famously said that « the animal is a plant that has its roots in the stomach »ix.
It is in this organ, certainly essential, that the lines of the great division would be drawn, between the plant and the animal on the one hand, – and the spiritual, on the other hand, which would be only the flower, or the aroma…
There is no clearer example of the contrast with the vision of the Bhagavad Gita. The latter also uses the plant metaphor, but changes its meaning completely.
« Roots above and branches below,
imperishable, the Azvattha [the Fig Tree] is said to be.
The meters [of the Veda] are its leaves,
and he who knows it knows Knowledge [the Veda]. « x
What is this Azvattha, this « fig tree »? What are these roots-up?
The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad takes up the image, unveiling its metaphysics:
« The roots are the supreme abode of Viṣṇu. The tree, roots-up, of the empirical world has the unmanifested as its beginning and the inanimate as its end. It is called ‘tree’ (vṛkṣa) because of the act of cutting (vraścana). He is made of many uninterrupted evils, like birth, old age, death and sorrow, at every moment he is different. As soon as its true nature is in sight, it is destroyed like magic, like water in a mirage, an imaginary city in the sky… Its true reality is determined by those who desire to discern reality: its essence is in the roots, it is the supreme brahman. « xii
Through its etymological ‘root’, the figure of the tree embodies the idea of severance. Moreover, the tree never ceases to branch out, both in its roots and in its branches, which represent so many cuts in the continuity of its growth, both above and below.
Likewise, the world never ceases to branch its possibilities, and to grow from above and below.
Śaṅkara’s commentary adds another idea. Truth cannot be approached without generating even more illusions. The more one tries to dispel the shadows that surround it, the illusions that veil it, the more the truth slips away.
However, there is a way for those who wish to go further, deeper, to try to determine this elusive truth. It consists in following the roots of the tree to their very origin. But by following the root bush, one is quickly overwhelmed by the multiplication of the rootlets, and their bifurcations. And all of them, at the end of their myriads of hyphae, point to the void and the shadow… where the supreme brahman stands in its place.
iKant. « A Preface which promises very little for discussion. » In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics. Ed. Swan Sonnenschein. London, 1900, p.37
iiKant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.6
viiPluto, god of the Underworld, also bears the Latin name of Dis, a contraction of ditis, « rich ». Pluto, god of the dead, is the richest of all the gods because the number of his subjects is constantly increasing. It is to evoke the same symbol that the Greeks called Pluto the god of the dead (Ploutos, wealth).
viiiCf. the myth of Er. Plato, The Republic, Book X (614 b – 621 d)
ixQuoted by Kant in Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863,
Socrates presents a figure difficult to surpass, that of an eternal hero of philosophical thought. But during his life, he nevertheless found his master, – or rather his mistress, by his own admission.
In the Symposium, Socrates reports that a « foreign », Dorian woman, Diotima, had made no secret of her doubts about Socrates’ limited abilities in truly higher matters.
Diotima had told him, without excessive oratory precaution, that he knew nothing about the ‘greatest mysteries’, and that he might not even be able to understand them…
Diotima had begun by inviting Socrates to « meditate on the strange state in which the love of fame puts one, as well as the desire to secure for the eternity of time an immortal glory.» i
Speaking of the « fruitful men according to the soul », such as poets or inventors, like Homer and Hesiod, who possess « the immortality of glory », or Lycurgus, « safeguard of Greece », she had emphasized their thirst for glory, and their desire for immortality. « It is so that their merit does not die, it is for such glorious fame, that all men do all that they do, and all the better they are. It is because immortality is the object of their love! » ii
Certainly, the love of immortality is something that Socrates is still able to understand. But there are much higher mysteries, and beyond that, the last, most sublime ‘revelation’…
« Now, the mysteries of love, Socrates, are those to which, no doubt, you could be initiated yourself. As for the last mysteries and the revelation, which, provided you follow the degrees of them correctly, are the goal of these last steps, I don’t know if you are capable of receiving them. I will nevertheless explain them to you, she said. As for me, I will spare nothing of my zeal; try, you, to follow me, if you are capable of it!» iii.
Diotima’s irony is obvious. No less ironic is the irony of Socrates about himself, since it is him who reports these demeaning words of Diotima.
Diotima keeps her word, and begins an explanation. For anyone who strives to reach ‘revelation’, one must begin by going beyond « the immense ocean of beauty » and even « the boundless love for wisdom ».
It is a question of going much higher still, to finally « perceive a certain unique knowledge, whose nature is to be the knowledge of this beauty of which I am now going to speak to you »iv.
And once again the irony becomes scathing.
« Try, she said, to give me your attention as much as you can. » v
So what is so hard to see, and what is this knowledge apparently beyond the reach of Socrates himself?
It is a question of discovering « the sudden vision of a beauty whose nature is marvelous », a « beauty whose existence is eternal, alien to generation as well as to corruption, to increase as well as to decrease; which, secondly, is not beautiful from this point of view and ugly to that other, not more so at this moment and not at that other, nor more beautiful in comparison with this, ugly in comparison with that (…) but rather she will show herself to him in herself and by herself, eternally united to herself in the uniqueness of her formal nature »vi.
With this « supernatural beauty » as a goal, one must « ascend continuously, as if by means of steps (…) to this sublime science, which is the science of nothing but this supernatural beauty alone, so that, in the end, we may know, in isolation, the very essence of Beauty. » vii
Diotima sums up this long quest as follows:
« It is at this point of existence, my dear Socrates, said the stranger from Mantinea, that, more than anywhere else, life for a man is worth living, when he contemplates Beauty in herself! May you one day see her! » viii
The ultimate goal then is: « succeeding in seeing Beauty in herself, in her integrity, in her purity, without mixture (…) and to see, in herself, the divine Beauty in the uniqueness of her formal nature »ix.
Moreover, it is not only a question of contemplating Beauty. It is still necessary to unite with her, in order to « give birth » and to become immortal oneself…
Diotima finally unveils her deepest idea:
« Do you really think that it would be a miserable life, that of the man whose gaze is turned towards this sublime goal; who, by means of what is necessaryx, contemplates this sublime object and unites with it? Don’t you think, she added, that by seeing Beauty by means of what she is visible by, it is only there that he will succeed in giving birth, not to simulacra of virtue, for it is not with a simulacrum that he is in contact, but with an authentic virtue, since this contact exists with the authentic real?
Now, to whom has given birth, to whom has nourished an authentic virtue, does it not belong to become dear to the Divinity? And does it not belong to him, more than to anyone else in the world, to make himself immortal? xi
To see Beauty herself, in herself, is the only sure way to make oneself immortal.
Is this what Socrates himself is « incapable of »?
Is then Socrates « incapable » of giving birth to virtue?
xIn order to do this, one must « use thought alone without resorting to sight or any other sensation, without dragging any of them along with reasoning » and « separate oneself from the totality of one’s body, since the body is what disturbs the soul and prevents it from acquiring truth and thought, and from touching reality. « Phédon 65 e-66a
« Within his soul each one possesses the power of knowledge (…) and is capable, directed towards reality, of supporting the contemplation of what is in the most luminous reality. And this is what we declare to be the Good » The Republic VII 518 c. » The talent of thinking is probably part of something that is much more divine than anything else. « Ibid. 518 e
« Wisdom is separate from everything »i said Heraclitus in his concise style.
For a start, I adopt here the translation of G.S. Kirkii. But the quote in the original Greekiii ,’Sophon esti pantôn kekhorismenon’, preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology, allows several very significant variations, depending on how one understands the word sophon, – which is, grammatically, an adjective, with the neutral meaning: ‘wise’.
Here are two representative examples of quite alternative translations:
« What is wise is separate from all things. »
« To be wise is to be separated from all things. »
Both these interpretations lose the abstract idea of ‘wisdom’, and personalize the word sophon, in a more concrete way, by attributing it to an entity (‘what is wise’), seen as ‘separated from everything’, and therefore outside this world. Another way to personalize is to attribute it to a (wise) ‘being’, which could possibly belong to this world, therefore not separated, – but whose ‘being wise’ would separate it, somehow virtually.
Clémence Ramnoux, for her part, proposes: « Wise things are separated from everything. »
The spectrum of the meanings of sophon is thus very broad:
Wisdom. That which is wise. The Wise Being. The Wise Thing.
The word sophon has no definite article in this fragment, but it has it in other Heraclite fragments. Then, if one adds the definite article to the adjective sophon, it acquires an abstract meaning, and leads to other interpretations, including the idea of ‘Transcendence’, and even the idea of the ‘One’:
« Let us put the article in front of something wise, by identifying it with the One-Thing-Wise, then the formula touches the goal of knowing… a Transcendence! Let it be heard only in the sense of human wisdom, then the formula says that: for men, the way to be wise consists in keeping oneself separate from all or everything. It would be wise to live away from the crowds and their madness. It would be wise to live apart from the vain science of many things. The two are surely not incompatible. Put together, they would reform the ideal meaning of a vita contemplativa: retreat and meditation of the One. « iv
To justify these interpretations, Clémence Ramnoux studies the other occurrences of the word sophon, in fragments 32, 50 and 41 of Heraclitus.
From these comparisons, she draws the assurance that with sophon, Heraclitus wanted to « designate the divine with the words of fragment 32 », and « if not the divine, even better, Something in dignity to refuse thisvery name. »v
Fragment 32 uses the expression to sophon (‘the Wise One’, or ‘the Wise Being’, which C. Ramnoux renders as ‘the Wise Thing’):
« The Wise Thing (to sophon) alone is one: it wants and does not want to be said with the name of Zeus. »vi
In Greek, one reads : ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.
Hen to sophon mounon legesthai ouk ethelei kai ethelei Zènos onoma.
By translating word for word: « One, the Wise One, alone, be said: He does not want, and He wants the name of Zeus ».
Ouk émou, alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.
Word for word: « Not me, but the Logos, listening, saying the same, wise is one, all, being. »
Five words follow each other here: sophon estin hen panta einai. Wise, is, one, all, being. There are many ways to link them.
The most direct way of translating would be, using capital letters for emphasis:
« Wise is One, All, Being ».
The German edition by W. Kranz and the English edition by G.S. Kirk translate :
« Listening, not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise (sophon estin) to agree (homologein)vii: everything is One (hen panta eïnaï). »
In another interpretation, that of H. Gomperz :
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is fair to agree that The One-The Wise One knows everything. »
Clémence Ramnoux suggests yet another interpretation:
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, agreeing to confess the same lesson (everything is one?) is the Wise Thing. « viii
However, she adds a question mark to the expression ‘everything is one’, which shows indeed that a certain doubt is at work here.
In spite of the significant differences of interpretation that we have just seen, what stands out is the idea that to sophon undeniably possesses a magnified status, and that it can be qualified as ‘unique’ and even, implicitly, ‘divine’.
Fragment 41 reinforces the hypothesis of associating the idea of unity with to sophon:
« The wise thing is one thing (hen to sophon): topossess the meaning (epistasthai gnômèn), by virtue of which everything is led through everything. »
By linking the semantic fields of the four fragments, 32, 41, 50, 108, Ramnoux draws two possible interpretations of the essential message that Heraclitus is supposed to transmit: « A simple meaning would be: Wise Thing is One, and she alone. Another meaning would be: Wise Thingisseparate from everything. « ix
These fragments, put together, carry a vision, aiming to grasp the ‘Wise Thing’, from different angles.
« That one gathers the fragments thus, and one will believe to reconstitute a recitative on the topic of the Wise Thing. Here is what should be recited all together while learning the same lesson! »x
The real difficulty is to avoid reading Heraclitus with much later, anachronistic representations of the world, starting with those of Plato and Aristotle.
In spite of the pitfalls, it is necessary to try to reconstruct the spirit of the philosophical community in the pre-Socratic era, the nature of its research :
« It is permissible to conjecturalize the way of being: it would consist in separating and reuniting. To separate from whom? Probably: the crowd and its bad masters. To reunite with whom? Probably: the best and the master of the best lesson. Separate from what? The vain science of many things. To find what again? The right way of saying things. It’s a two-way street! The Heracletian ethos does not alienate man from the present thing: on the contrary, it makes him better present, and as in conversation or cohabitation with the thing. (…) A master of discourse puts into words the meaning of things (…) But the authentically archaic way of thinking was probably still different. For a good master, (…) it is appropriate that discourse shows itself with an ambiguous face, hidden meanings, and two-way effects. »xi
According to Ramnoux, Heraclitus’ fundamental intention is to teach man « to stand far and near at the same time: close enough to men and things so as not to alienate himself in the present, far enough so as not to be rolled and tossed around in traffic. With the word as a weapon to defend oneself against the fascination of things, and things as a reference to better feel the full of words. Like a being between two, aiming through the crack at something untraceable, whose quest guarantees, without his knowledge, his freedom! « xii
Ambiguity? Darkness ? Double meaning ? Hidden sense ?
No doubt, but for my part I would like to put the spotlight on the only unambiguous word in fragment 108: kekhorismenon, ‘separate’, applying to a mysterious entity, named « Wise », whose attributes are unity, being and totality.
How can one be ‘separated’ if one has ‘unity’, and ‘totality’?
What does the idea of ‘separation’ really imply in a thought that claims to be thinking about the ‘origins’?
It is with these questions in mind that I set out to search for occurrences of the word ‘separate’ in a very different corpus, that of the biblical text.
The idea of ‘being separate’ is rendered in Biblical Hebrew by three verbs with very different connotations: בָּדַל badal, חָלַק ḥalaq, and פָּרַד pharad.
בָּדַל badal is used in two verbal forms, niphal and hiphil.
The niphal form is used with a passive or reflexive nuance:
1° ‘to separate, to move away’: « Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land » (Esdr 10,11).
2° ‘to be separated, distinguished, chosen’: « Aaron was chosen » (1 Chr. 23:13); ‘to be excluded’: « He shall be excluded from the congregation of those who returned from captivity » ( Esdr. 10:8 ).
The hiphil form has a causative, active nuance:
1° ‘To separate, tear off’: « The veil will separate you » (Ex 26:33); « Let it serve as a separation between the waters and the waters » (Gen 1:6).
2° ‘To know, to distinguish, to discern’: « To be able to distinguish between what is impure and what is pure » (Lev 11:47).
3° ‘To separate, choose; exclude’: « I have separated you from the other peoples » (Lev 20:26); « The Lord has chosen the tribe of Levi. « (Deut 10:8); « The Lord has excluded me from his people » (Is 56:3).
In this sense, ‘to separate’ means ‘to choose’, ‘to distinguish’, ‘to discern’, ‘to elect’ (or ‘to exclude’).
חָלַק ḥalaq brings another range of meanings, around the notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘division’:
1° ‘To share, to give, to give’: « They divided the land » (Jos 14:5); ‘To be divided’: « Their hearts are divided, or have separated from God » (Hosea 10:2).
2° ‘To divide and distribute’: « And at even he divided the prey » (Gen 49:27); « And he distributed to all the people » (2 Sam 6:19); ‘To scatter’: « I will divide them in Jacob » (Gen 49:7), « The face of YHVH has scattered them » (Lam 4:16).
As for the verb פָּרַד pharad, it is used in an intensive or reflexive sense.
1° (Niphal) ‘To separate’: « Separate yourself, I pray you, from me » (Gen 13:9), « He who separates himself (from God) seeks his desires » (Prov 18:1).
2° ‘To spread, to be scattered’: « These spread throughout the islands » (Gen 10:5).
3° ‘To separate’ with intensive or causative nuances (piel): « They separated from their wives » (Hosea 4:14), « A people that remains separated among the nations » (East 3:8); (hiphil) « Jacob separated the lambs » (Gen 30:40); and (hithpael): « all my bones were separated » (Ps 22:15).
To sum up, the biblical meanings attached to the verbs whose sense is ‘to separate’ include the following nuances: ‘to distance, choose, exclude’ but also ‘to know, distinguish, discern’, or ‘to share, distribute’, and ‘to be scattered’ or ‘to spread’.
One can quite easily apply all these nuances to an entity that would be (divine) Wisdom.
Wisdom, in fact, distinguishes, discerns, knows; she can be shared, spread, distributed;
she can distance herself, elect or exclude.
But yet, what is the truly original meaning that applies to Wisdom?
In an attempt to answer, I have consulted all the Bible verses that contain the word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokhma). There are several hundred of them.
I have selected those that are most ‘open’ – containing an implicit invitation to further research – and grouped them into four categories:
Wisdom as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’;
Wisdom as ‘companion of the Creator’;
Wisdom as ‘person to dialogue with’;
and Wisdom as ‘faculty of the mind’.
For example, here are some verses assimilating wisdom (or Wisdom, with a capital letter) to mystery or secrecy:
« If he would reveal to you the secrets of Wisdom » (Job 11:6).
« But Wisdom, where does she come from? « (Job 28,12)
Do not say, « We have found wisdom » (Job 32:13).
« Be silent and I will teach you wisdom » (Job 33:33).
« In secret you teach me wisdom » (Ps 51:8).
« Then I began to reflect on wisdom » (Qo 2:12).
There are also verses in which Wisdom seems to accompany the Creator in his task:
« He made the heavens with wisdom » (Ps 136:6).
« Spirit of wisdom and understanding » (Is 11:2)
« Establish the world by his wisdom » (Jer 10:12).
« It is that you abandoned the Source of Wisdom! « (Bar 3,12)
« YHVH by wisdom founded the earth » (Pr 3:19).
There are also verses where Wisdom is presented as a person, capable of interacting with men:
« Tell wisdom: you are my sister! « (Pr 7,4)
« Wisdom cries out through the streets » (Pr 1,20)
« Doesn’t Wisdom call? « (Pr 8,1)
Finally, there are the verses where wisdom is considered a faculty of the mind:
« Give me now wisdom and knowledge » (2 Chr 1:10).
« Who gives wisdom to the wise » (Dan 2:21).
« Intelligence and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods » (Dan 5:11).
For good measure I add here some verses from biblical texts, which are not recognized by the Masoretes as part of the Canon of the Scriptures of Judaism, but which belong to the texts recognized by Catholicism – in this case the Book of Wisdom and the text of Sirach (Ben Sirach):
« Wisdom is a spirit friendly to men » (Wis 1:6) [Person].
« What Wisdom is and how he was born, I will reveal it; I will not hide the mysteries from you, but I will follow his footsteps from the beginning of his origin, I will bring his knowledge to light, without departing from the truth. « (Wis 6:22) [Mystery, Secret].
« For more than any movement, wisdom is mobile » (Wis 7:24) [Mystery, Secret].
« With you is Wisdom who knows your works » (Wis 9:9) [Companion of the Creator].
« But first of all wisdom was created » (Sir 1:4) [Companion of the Creator].
« The root of wisdom to whom was it revealed? « (Sir 1:6) [Mystery, Secret].
« Wisdom brings up her children » (Sir 4:11) [Person].
And finally, here are some excerpts from the New Testament, – especially from Paul’s texts:
« And Wisdom was justified by all his children » (Luke 7:35) [Companion of the Creator].
« It is of a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden » (1 Cor 2:7) [Mystery, Secret].
« To give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation » (Eph 1:17) [Faculty of the Spirit].
« All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge » (Col 2:3) [Faculty of Spirit].
« Filled with the Spirit and with wisdom » (Act 6:3) [Faculty of the Spirit].
If we return to the intuition of « separate wisdom » as imagined by Heraclitus, we see that it is perfectly compatible with the representations of Wisdom as belonging to the Mystery, as a Companion of the Creator and as a Person]
But where Judaism plays with the idea of a kind of doubling of the divine between the function of the Creator and the role of Wisdom (which is, let us recall, one of the Sefiroth of theJewish Kabbalah), the metaphysical mysticism of Heraclitus sees only divine Unity and Totality.
It is not the least result of this research, to find in one of the most eminent Greek pre-Socratic thinkers, such an extreme intuition of the transcendence of Wisdom, and of its Unity with the Divine.
Wisdom is par excellence ‘separate’, and is also that which is most ‘one’.…
Multitudinous angels, created for this purpose, stubbornly remain with the times and beings that already are no more. From the brushing of their wings, sharp like judgments, they make them live, yet in another way. They separate them from what they were not, and from what they could not be. Thus they keep them in their essence, animated by the gentle breath of their wings. By their quiet effervescence, they watch over their infinite sleep, – like the eagle circling above the nest to inspire its eaglets, – like the winds once palpitated in the face of the origins. They are the guardians of the past in agony, warning, for as long as it takes, the fatal coma.
Other angels roam the dark alleys of the future. They spread immense wings like ecstasy, they glide silently over the empty plains of the non-existent. Their powerful flight awakens the black waters, and all that is not yet. Against all odds, from far and wide, crack the shells of unborn times.
With their burning lips they give the beak to the fledglings of the possible.
We must finally evoke the angels of the present. They link (like quantum loops, and subliminal bursts of precognition) the distant past and the improbable future, the countless déjà-vu and the unlimited forthcoming, the immanent causes (dormant like dead saints) and the transcendent potency (radiant like seraphim). They fly and come, as in Jacob’s dream, between the uncertain and the unimaginable…
From these vast landscapes of various angels, which are like myriads of divine synapses, a vesperial mist is exhaled.
It announces in advance the rain to come, penetrating, fertile, and in the rainbow of the sky finally bent, it draps the first rays of dawn, gorged with soul plasma and liquid light.
Consciousness is capable of grasping immaterial ideas (e.g. the principle of non-contradiction or the idea of universal attraction). Is this enough to infer that she is herself immaterial?
If consciousness is not immaterial, is she only a material emanation of a body that is material?
But then how to explain that material entities are capable of conceiving supreme abstractions, pure essences, without any link with the material world?
And how do consciousness relate or interact with the various beings that make up the world, and that surround her?
What is the nature of her connections with these various beings?
In particular, how do consciousness interact with other consciousnesses, other spirits? Is it conceivable that consciousness can link with yet other kinds of ‘intelligible’ beings existing in act or in potency throughout the world ?
These delicate issues were addressed by Kant in a short, wittybook, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits.ii
Kant affirmed that consciousness (he called her ‘the soul’) is immaterial, – just as what he called the ‘intelligible world’ (mundus intelligibilis), the world of ideas and thoughts, immaterial.
This ‘intelligible world’ is the proper ‘place’ of the thinking self, because consciousness can go there at will, detaching herself from the material, sensitive world.
Kant also affirmed that consciousness, although immaterial, is necessary linked to a body, the body of the self, a body from which she receives impressions and material sensations from the organs that compose it.
Consciousness thus participates in two worlds, the material and sensitive world and the immaterial and intelligible world, – the world of the visible, and the world of the invisible.
The representation that consciousness has of herself, by an immaterial intuition, when she considers herself in her relations with other consciousnesses, or beings of the same nature as herself, is quite different from that which takes place when she represents herself as being attached to a body.
In both cases, it is undoubtedly the same subject who belongs at the same time to the sensitive world and the intelligible world; but it is not the same person, because the representations of the sensible world have nothing in common with the representations of the intelligible world.
What I think of myself, as a living human, has nothing to do with the representation of myself as a (pure) consciousness.
Moreover, the representations that I may have of the intelligible world, however clear and intuitive they may be for me, are not at all indicative of the representation I have of myself as a consciousness.
On the other hand, the representation of myself as a consciousness may be somewhat acquired through reasoning or induction, but it is not a naturally intuitive notioniii.
Consciousness belongs indeed to a « subject », and as such is both participating to the « sensitive world » and to the « intelligible world », but she is not the same when she represents herself as a pure consciousness or when she represents herself as attached to a human body.
Not being the same implies an inherent and profound duality of consciousness.
It is Kant who first introduced the expression « duality of the person » (or « duality of the soul in relation to the body »), in a small note supplementing Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits.iv
This duality was induced from the following observation.
Many philosophers often refer to the state of deep sleep when they want to prove the reality of obscure representations, although nothing can be affirmed in this respect, except that on waking we do not clearly remember any of those ‘obscure representations’ we may have had in the deepest sleep.
We can only observe that they are not clearly represented on waking, but not that they were really ‘obscure’ when we were asleep.
For instance, one could readily assume that these representations were much clearer and more extensive than even the clearest ones in the waking state, – because ‘clarity’ is what can be expected from consciousness, in the perfect rest of the outer senses.
Hannah Arendt abruptly qualified these remarks from Kant as « bizarre »v without making her judgment explicit.
Why « bizarre »?
Several conjectures are possible.
Perhaps she thought that it was « bizarre » to present the soul as thinking more clearly and extensively in deep sleep, and as revealing more of herself in this state than in the waking state?
Or did it seem « bizarre » to Arendt that Kant presented the soul not as ‘one’ but as ‘dual’, this duality implying a contradiction with Arendt’s own idea of her nature?
On the one hand, the soul may feel the intrinsic unity she possesses as a ‘subject’, and on the other hand, she may feel herself as a ‘person’, endowed with a double perspective. It might then seem « bizarre » that the soul thinks of herself as both one and dual, – ‘one’ (as a subject) and ‘dual’ (as a person).
This intrinsic duality introduces a distance of the soul to herself, an inner gap in the consciousness herself, – a gap between the state of ‘waking’ (where her duality is somehow revealed) and the state of ‘deep sleep’ (where the feeling of duality evaporates, revealing then (perhaps) the true nature of the soul (or the consciousness)?
Hannah Arendt made only a brief paraphrase of Kant’s note:
« Kant compares the state of the thinking self to a deep sleep where the senses are at complete rest. It seems to him that during sleep the ideas ‘may have been clearer and more extensive than in the waking state’, precisely because ‘the sensation of the human body has not been included’. And when we wake up, we have none of these ideas left. » vi
What seems « bizarre » then, one may conjecture, is that after being exposed to « clear and extended » ideas, none of this remains, and the awakening erases all traces of the activity of the soul in the deep sleep of the body.
But if there is nothing left, at least there remains the memory of an immaterial activity, which, unlike activities in the material world, does not encounter any resistance, any inertia. There also remains the obscure memory of what were then clear and intense ideas… There remains the memory of having experienced a feeling of total freedom of thought, freed from all contingencies.
All this cannot be forgotten, even if the ideas themselves seem to escape us.
It is also possible that the accumulation of these kinds of memories, these kinds of experiences, may end up reinforcing the very idea of the existence of an independent soul (a consciousness independent from the body). By extension, and by analogy, all this constitutes an experience of ‘pure consciousness’ as such, and reinforces the idea of a world of spirits, an ‘intelligible’ world, separate from the material world.
The soul (the consciousness) that becomes aware of her power to think ‘clearly’ (during the deep sleep of the body) begins to think at a distance fromthe world around her, and from the matter that constitutes it.
This power to think ‘clearly’ at a distance does not however allow her to go out of this world, nor to transcend it (since always the awakening occurs, – and with it the forgetting of what were then ‘clear’ thoughts).
What then does this distance from the world bring to the consciousness ?
The consciousness sees that reality is woven of appearances (woven of ‘illusions’). However, in spite of the profusion of these ‘illusions’, reality remains stable, it is unceasingly prolonged, it lasts in any case long enough for us to be led to recognize it not just as an illusion, but as an object, the object par excellence, offered to our gaze, and consideration, as long as we are conscious subjects.
If one does not feel able to consider reality as an object, one can at least be inclined to consider it as a state, lasting, imposing its obviousness, unlike the other world, the ‘intelligible world’, – whose existence always raises doubts, and suspicions of improbability (since its kingdom is only reached in the night of deep sleep).
And, as subjects, we demand real objects in front of us, not chimeras, or conjectures, – hence the great advantage given to the sensitive world.
Phenomenology, in fact, also teaches that the existence of a subject necessarily implies that of an object. The two are linked. The object is what embodies the subject’s intention, will and consciousness.
The object (of the intention) nourishes the consciousness, more than the consciousness alone can nourish herself, – the object constitutes in the end the very subjectivity of the consciousness, presenting itself to her attention, and instituting itself as her intention.
If there is no consciousness, then there can be no project and no object. If there is no object, then there can be no consciousness.
All subjects (i.e. all beings with a consciousness) carry intentions that are fixed on objects; similarly, objects (or ‘phenomena’) that appear in the world reveal the existence of subjects with intentions, by and for which the objects make sense.
From this we may draw a profound consequence.
We are subjects, and we ‘appear’, from the beginning of our lives, in a world of phenomena. Some of these phenomena also happen to be subjects. We learn to distinguish between phenomena that are only phenomena (i.e. requiring subjects to appear), and phenomena that end up revealing themselves to us as being not only phenomena, of which we would be the spectators, but as other subjects, other consciousnesses.
The reality of the world of phenomena is thus linked to the subjectivity of multiple subjects, and countless forms of consciousness, which are both at once phenomena and subjects.
The total world is itself a ‘phenomenon’, whose existence requires at least one Subject, which is not a phenomenon, but a pure Consciousness.
To put it another way, – if, as a thought experience, one could suppose the absolute absence of any consciousness, the inexistence of any subject, for instance during originary states of the world, should one then necessarily conclude, in such circumstances, to the inexistence of the ‘phenomenal’ world in those early times?
The ‘phenomenal’ world would not then exist as a phenomenon, since no subject would be able to observe it, no consciousness would be conscious of it.
But another hypothesis would still be possible.
Perhaps might there exist subjects who are part of another world, a world that is not phenomenal, but ‘noumenal’, a.k.a. the « intelligible world » evoked by Kant?
Since there can be no doubt that the world and reality began to exist long before any human subject appeared on earth, one must conclude that other kinds of consciousness, other kinds of ‘subjects’ really existed then, for whom the world in the state of an inchoate phenomenon already already constituted an ‘object’ and an ‘intention’.
Then, we may infer that the world, at all time, has always been an object of ‘subjectivity’, of ‘intentionality’, of ‘desire’, for some sorts of consciousness.
It cannot be otherwise. We just have to try to figure out for which subjects, for which consciousnesses, this then nascent world could have been revealed as an object, as a phenomenon.
One can hypothesize that a primal subjectivity, intentionality, desire, pre-existed the appearance of the world of phenomena, in the form of a potential ‘aptitude to want, to desire, to think’.
« For the philosopher, who expresses himself on the experience of the thinking self, man is, quite naturally, not only the verb, but the thought made flesh; the always mysterious, never fully elucidated incarnation of the ability to think.»vii
Why ‘always mysterious’?
Because no one knows where thought comes from, and even less may guess the extent of all the forms that thought has taken in this universe, – from the ancient days of its beginning, to date, — and may still take. in the future.
Since we have no other guide in all this research than our own consciousness, we must get back to her again.
Every thought is singular, because with each she recreates (in her own symbolic way) the conditions of the original freedom of the spirit, even before ‘thought was made flesh’.
« While a man lets himself go to simply think, to think about anything, he lives totally in the singular, that is to say in complete solitude, as if the Earth was populated by one Man and not by men. »viii
The lone thinker recreates the absolute solitude of the first Thinker.
Who was this first Thinker? The mythical Adam? A Spirit who originally thought, and by this very fact, created the object of His thought?
Among the ‘first thinkers’ of whom we still have a trace, Parmenides and Plato evoked and pinned to the pinnacle the small number of those who live ‘the life of intelligence and wisdom’.
« The life of intelligence and wisdom » is the life of the spirit (noos), the life of thought herself, in her highest freedom, in her infinite potency. Like Intelligence, she was from the outset the « queen of heaven and earth »ix.
i Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes
and Chaos and Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,
Sit mihi fas audita loqui, sit numine vestro,
pandere res alta terra and caligine mersas.
Aeneid VI, 264-7
iiKant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863
iiiCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
ivCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
v H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translation by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vi H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vii H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.72
In matters of religion, one of the common errors is to want to choose with whom one can talk, and to exclude from one’s field of vision extreme ideologues, stubborn minds, closed mentalities. This is human.
It is incomparably easier to begin detailed debates or circumstantial glosses if there is already an a priori agreement on the substance. This avoids infinite misunderstandings and deadlocked dead ends. Who thinks it possible, indeed, to ever agree, on any point whatsoever, with such and such an ultra tendency of such and such a monotheistic religion?
It’s human, and it’s easier, but, on the other hand, the ultras of all acabits, irreconcilably ‘other’, absolutely ‘foreign’ to any dialectic, remain in the landscape. They continue, and for a long time, to be part of the problem to be solved, even if they don’t seem to be part of the solution. Precisely because they have nothing in common with the proponents of the very idea of ‘dialogue’, they can be interesting to observe, and must be, in every respect, if one considers the long-term destiny of a small Humankind, standing on its dewclaws, on the surface of a drop of mud, lost in the cosmic night.
Nevertheless, it is infinitely easier to speak to ‘open’ minds when trying to cross cultural, traditional or religious barriers.
« The conditions of the Christian-Islamic dialogue change completely if the interlocutor is not legal Islam but spiritual Islam, whether it is Sufism or Shî’ite Gnosis. » i
Henry Corbin was an exceptional personality. But he admitted that he did not want to waste his time with the ‘legitarians’. This is understandable. And yet, they are basically the key lock. If world peace and universal understanding are to be achieved, ‘spiritualists’ and ‘legitarians’ must find, whatever the difficulties to be overcome, a common ground…
Dialogue with the ‘other’ begins with mastering the other’s language.
In theory, we should be able to understand all of them, or at least decipher them, particularly these chosen languages, chosen for conveying this or that sacred message.
Sanskrit, for example, should be part of the minimal baggage of any researcher interested in a comparative anthropology of the religious fact through time. It is the oldest and most complex language, which still testifies to the wonders of the human spirit, trying to approach mysteries that are seemingly beyond its reach.
I hasten to add (biblical) Hebrew, which is much simpler, grammatically speaking, but full of a subtle delicacy that can be seen in the play on words, the etymological shifts, the radical drifts, the subliminal evocations, and the breadth of the semantic fields, allowing for the most daring and creative interpretations.
Koranic Arabic is also a necessary acquisition. The Koran is a book with a very ‘literary’ and sophisticated writing that no translation can really render, as it requires immersion in the musicality of classical Arabic, now a dead language. Puns and alliterations abound, as in Hebrew, another Semitic language.
The famous Louis Massignon sought in good faith « how to bring back to a common base the textual study of the two cultures, Arabic and Greco-Latin »ii.
For our part, we would also like to be able to bring the study of Vedic, Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Zoroastrian and Avestic cultures, at least in theory if not in practice, to a « common base ».
And, still in theory, one should particularly have solid notions of Ancient Egyptian (very useful if one wants to understand the distant foundations of the ancient ‘mosaic’ religion), and Avesta (indispensable to get an idea of the progressive, ‘harmonic’, transitioniii in ancient Iran from Zoroastrianism and Mazdeism to Muslim Shî’ism).
In the absence of these indispensable add-ons, one can minimally rely on a few genius smugglers. Henry Corbin is an incomparable pedagogue of Shî’ite Islam. Who else but him could have allowed the discovery of a concept like the one of Ḥûrqalyâ?
Ḥûrqalyâ is the land of visions, the place where mind and body become one, explains Henry Corbin. « Each one of us, volens nolens, is the author of events in ‘Ḥûrqalyâ‘, whether they abort or bear fruit in its paradise or its hell. We believe we are contemplating the past and the unchanging, as we consume our own future. » iv
His explanation of Ḥûrqalyâ is rather short and somewhat obscure. We would like to know more.
Looking in the famous Kazimirsky dictionaryv, I discovered the meaning of the verbal root حرق (ḥaraqa): « To be burned, to burn. To set on fire, to ignite; to burn with great fire. To burn each other (or to sleep with a woman). To reduce to ashes. »
It is also the word used to designate migrants who ‘burn’ their identity papers.
With different vocalizations of the same verbal root, the semantic spectrum of the resulting nouns widens considerably:
ḥirq « the tallest branch of the male palm tree, which fertilizes the flowers of a female palm tree »;
ḥourq « avarice »;
ḥaraq « fire, flame, burn »;
ḥariq « which loses its hair; which produces violent lightning (cloud); « fire;
ḥourqa « burning heat in the intestines »;
al- ḥâriq « the tooth (of a ferocious beast) »;
ḥâriqa « burning (said to be a very sensual woman in the carnal trade) »;
ḥâroûqa « very sensual woman », or in the plural: »who cuts (swords) »;
ḥirâq « whodestroys, who consumes »; « who burns the path, who runs very fast (horse) »;
ḥourrâq « burning firebrand »;
ḥârraqa « vessel to be set on fire ».
You get the idea…
But in the context that interests us here, it is the noun حَرْقً (ḥarq), used by mystics, that we must highlight. It means « the state of burning », that is, an intermediate state between برق (barq), which is only the « lightning of the manifestations of God », and الطمس فى الذات, al-tams fi-l-dhat, « annihilation in the ‘that’, in the divine essence »vi.
The etymology of the word ḥûrqalyâ, shows that it means a state that lies between the lightning flash and the ash or annihilation .
Let us return to the glossary proposed by Corbin.
« A whole region of Hûrqalyâ is populated, post mortem, byour imperatives and our vows, that is to say, by what makes the very meaning of our acts of understanding as well as our behaviors. As well as all the underlying metaphysics is that of an incessant recurrence of Creation (tajaddod), it is not a metaphysics of the Ens or the Esse, but of the Estovii, of ‘be !’ in the imperative. But the event is put to the imperative only because it is itself the iterative form of the being for which it is promoted to the reality of event. » viii
We learn here that Creation is a continuous act, a continuous iteration, an imperative to be, a ‘be!’ infinitely repeated, implying a ‘become!’ no less perpetual.
Esto! Or the unceasing burning of the moment, that is to say of the presence (to oneself, or in oneself ?).
Perhaps we can read in these ever-changing, ever-challenging moments « the mystery of the primordial Theophany, of the revelation of the divine Being, who can only reveal himself to himself in another self, but can only recognize himself as other, and recognize this other as himself only because he is God in himself. » ix
Another image, often used in the Psalms, is that of clothing. It is necessary to reach this state where the body is no more than a ‘garment’ that one can freely undress or put on, because it is really the other in oneself that is the true garment of oneself.
iHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.12
ii Louis Massignon. Lettres d’humanité tome II, 1943, p.137
iiiAccording to the expression of H. Corbin. op.cit. p. 111
ivHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.13
vA. de Biberstein Kazimirski. Arab-French dictionary. Volume I. Ed Al Bouraq. Beirut. 2004, pp. 411-412.
vi The mystical meaning of the word tams is precisely the annihilation of the individuality of man’s attributes in the attributes of God. The word dhat means « that » and, in context, the very essence of God.
viiIn Latin: ens = « being », esse = « to be », esto = « Be! »
viiiHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.16
ixHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.111
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.
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.
God indeed is one, – but His forces and His powers (i.e. His elohim and His sefirot) are more than multiple, according to the Jewish Kabbalah.
This idea unites without contradiction monotheistic and polytheistic intuitions.
In contrast, one cannot say that man is really one, – nor the world or the cosmos for that matter. But neither can we say that their abundant multiplicities are a substitute for unity.
Men and worlds are certainly diverse, divided, mixed, undefined and indefinable.
But this diversity, this division, this mixing, this indefinition, are relative. They find their limits, if only in time and space. Men, like worlds, are indefinite, but certainly not infinite.
In the apparent profusion of innumerable beings and the even more abundant moments that compose them, forms of singularities emerge, for a time. Here and there appear strange quarks, galactic clusters, people and consciousnesses…
But are these singularities units? To put it another way, are these singularities as ‘one’ as God is said to be ‘one’?
Busy, unconscious and composite crowds swarm at all times in every and each one man. They are molecular, chromosomal, microbial, neuronal, synaptic, parasitic crowds, you name it.
What will remain of them at the end of time?
If man thinks he will ever be one, death always takes charge, in the end, of testing this dubious sense of unitive dream.
Conversely, if man is not one, if he is other than one, what is he in reality?
Several hypotheses are worth considering.
Man is a diachronic being.
The immanent multiplicity is revealed, over long periods of time, by the accumulation of the diversity. What we were fetus, will we lose it as we die ? Or will we not rather summarize it?
Does the flower of youth lose only its petals and its radiance in the shadows of maturity, or in the night of agony, or does it not rather reveal its subtle, invisible and irradiant perfumes?
Let’s change metaphors.
If man was a kind of vast library, which book would summarize him best? Or could we only pick out a few scattered ‘good excerpts’? Or, even, shouldn’t we be satisfied with a single chosen line, at the corner of a forgotten paragraph, or a hallucinated word, to finally express his supposed unity, his only essential meaning?
2. Man is a synchronic being.
Just as a (infinite) mathematical curve can be summarized at each of its points by the (itself infinite) set of its derivatives, so one could suppose that at any moment of his life, the being of man could contain the (apparently infinite) set of his virtualities in the making. Always still in epigenesis, man is neither his sex nor his brain, neither his spleen nor his pancreas, neither his heart nor his blood, neither his very soul nor his faulty memory, but all this simultaneously.
Reason is road, cunning and cog, and blood is place and sense. The soul animates, and elevates, she borders on drunkenness, but often sleeps in the darkness of memories. In the lymph bathes the light of hope. Saliva drowns the suns of taste, the breath tempers the twilights of consciousness.
3. Man is a distributed (or swarming) being.
A more fantastic hypothesis assumes a ‘self’ which doubts itself. It is equivalent to the idea that any ‘I’ could be defined by the sum of all the ‘you’ encountered throughout life, as well as by the sum of all the ‘us’ felt, and even the anonymous crowd of all the ‘them’ surrounding the ‘I’, be they effective or only conceived. The human ‘I’ is still alone, singular, but mainly made of indissoluble pluralities, external multitudes, and produced by entire societies, and immemorial histories.
Whether man is diachronic, synchronic, distributed, swarming, or all of them in turn, or all of them simultaneously, winds down to being the same. It is at the time of death that the ‘I’ gets to know what he really is: either ‘nothing’, just ‘nothing’, or some entity allowed to continue ‘being’ in an yet unknown, sublimated form.
There is no point in arguing about this sort of conjecture, nobody knows the end of the story, but we will all know that end, when the evening comes.
To conclude with an opening, I would like to quote a fragment from the pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias :
« There is nothing obvious about being because it doesn’t appear [dokein]. To appear is weak, since it does not succeed in being. »i
To put it another way, perhaps more clearly, and to fit this ancient and lively thought into a long perspective :
« The way in which God has been thought of for centuries no longer convinces anyone; if something is already dead, it can only be the traditional way of thinking about God. What is really dead is the fundamental distinction between the sensory domain and the supra-sensory domain. »ii
Really dead ?
Then we need to follow up with an essential intuition of Nietzsche, which Martin Heidegger (quoted by Hannah Arendt) re-ormulated as follows:
« The destruction of the supra-sensible also suppresses the purely sensible, and thus the difference between the two.»iii
If the supra-sensible and the sensible are, in the final analysis, no different, then there is also no essential difference between transcendence and immanence.
And, consequently, there is no essential difference between the Creator (either immanent or transcendant) and the Creation…
iDie Fragmente des Vorsokratiker. Vol. II, B 26. Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, 1959. Quoted by Hannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. Thought. The will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.45
iiHannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. The thought. The will. Translation by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.28
iiiMartin Heidegger. Paths that lead nowhere. Trad. W. Brokmeier. Paris 1962, p.173. Quoted by Hannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. Thought. The will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.29
Franz Rosenzweig is a prophet of the 20th century (there are not so many), whose name means ‘branch of roses’. Zebrased with inchoate intuitions, and seraphic brilliance, a short text of him astonishes me by its searing audacity:
« Redemption delivers God, the world and man from the forms and morphisms that Creation has imposed on them. Before and after, there is only the « beyond ». But the in-between, Revelation, is at the same time entirely beyond, for (thanks to it) I am myself, God is God, and the world is world, and absolutely beyond, for I am with God, God is with me, and where is the world? (« I do not desire the earth »). Revelation overcomes death, creates and institutes in its place the redeeming death. He who loves no longer believes in death and believes only in death.» i
The ambiguity of Revelation in relation to the Redemption, but also its invitations to openness, to invention, are staged here.
On the one hand, Revelation is addressed to the man of the earth, to the children of the clay, immersed in worldly immanence, immersed in the closed orbs of their minds.
On the other hand, it affirms the absolute transcendence of the Creator, opening worlds, flaring very backwards towards unheard-of beginnings, and accelerating very forwards towards an unthinkable afterlife.
Can we connect these two poles, seemingly opposite?
For Rosenzweig, Revelation is situated in time, that time which is the proper time of the world, between Creation and Redemption – the two figures, original and eschatological, the two ‘moments’ of the ‘beyond’ of time.
The unique role of Creation is inexplicable if we consider it only as a divine fiat. Why inexplicable? Because such a fiat displays neither its reason nor its why. It is more consistent with the anthropological structure of human experience (and probably with the very structure of the brain) to consider that even God does nothing for nothing.
An ancient answer to this riddle may be found in the Vedic idea of Creation.
In the Veda, Creation is thought as being a sacrifice of God.
Two thousand years later, this sacrifice will be called kenosis by Christians, and even later (in the Kabbalah of the Middle Age) Jews will call it tsimtsum.
The Vedic idea of God’s sacrifice – is incarnated in the sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds, at the price of His own substance.
It is certainly difficult to conceive of God’s holocaust by (and for) Himself, willingly sacrificing His own glory, His power and His transcendence, – in order to transcend Himself in this very sacrifice.
How can a human brain understand God transcending Himself!
It is difficult, of course, but less difficult than understanding a Creation without origin and without reason, which refers by construction to the absolute impotence of all reason, and to its own absurdity.
With or without reason, with or without sacrifice, Creation obviously represents a ‘beyond’ of our capacity to understand.
But reason wants to reason and tries to understand.
In the hypothesis of God’s sacrifice, what would be the role of Creation in this divine surpassing?
Would God make a covenant with His Creation, ‘giving’ it, by this means, His breath, His life, His freedom, His spirit?
Would God give the responsibility for the World and Mankind to multiply and make this Breath, this Life, this Freedom, this Spirit bear fruit throughout time?
At least there is in this view a kind of logic, though opaque and dense.
The other pole of the cosmic drama – Redemption – is even more ‘beyond’ human intelligence. But let us have a try to understand it.
Redemption « frees God, the world and man from the forms imposed on them by Creation, » Rosenzweig suggests.
Does Redemption deliver God from God Himself? Does it deliver Him from His infinity, if not from His limit? from His transcendence, if not from His immanence? from His righteousness, if not from His goodness?
It is more intuitive to understand that it also liberates the world (i.e. the total universe, the integral Cosmos) from its own limits – its height, width and depth. But does it free it from its immanence?
It frees man, at last.
Does that mean Redemption frees man from his dust and clay?
And from his breath (nechma), which binds him to himself?
And from his shadow (tsel) and his ‘image’ (tselem), which binds him to the light?
And from his blood (dam) and his ‘likeness’ (demout), which structure and bind him (in his DNA itself)?
What does Rosenzweig mean when he says: « Redemption delivers God (…) from the forms that Creation has imposed »?
It is the role of Revelation to teach us that Creation has necessarily imposed certain structures. For example, it imposes the idea that the ‘heavens’ (chammayim) are in essence made of ‘astonishment’, and perhaps even ‘destruction’ (chamam).
But the truth is that we don’t know what ‘to redeem’ means, – apart from showing the existence of a link between Death, the Exodus from the world, and man.
We must try to hear and understand the voice of this new prophet, Rosenzweig.
He says that to believe in Redemption is to believe only in love, that is, to believe « only in death ».
For it has been said that « strong as death is love » (ki-‘azzah kham-mavêt ahabah), as the Song saysii.
Revelation is unique in that it is ‘one’ between two ‘moments’, two ‘beyond’.
It is unique, being ‘below’ between two ‘beyond’.
Being ‘below’ it is not inexpressible, – and being ‘revealed’ it is not as inexpressible as the ‘beyond’ of Creation and Redemption, which can only be grasped through what Revelation wants to say about it.
The Revelation is told, but not by a single oracular jet.
She is not given just at once. She is continuous. She spreads out in time. She is far from being closed, no doubt. No seal has been placed on her moving lips. No prophet can reasonably claim to have sealed her endless source foreveriii.
Time, time itself, constitutes all the space of Revelation, which we know has once begun. But we don’t know when Revelation will end. For now, Revelation is only ‘below’, and will always remain so, – as a voice preparing the way for a ‘beyond’ yet to come.
And besides, what is really known about what has already been ‘revealed’?
Can we be sure at what rate the Revelation is being revealed?
Can we read her deep lines, hear her hidden melodies?
Does she appear in the world only in one go or sporadically, intermittently? With or without breathing pauses?
Won’t her cannon thunder again?
And even if she were « sealed », aren’t the interpretations, the glosses, part of her open breath?
And what about tomorrow?
What will Revelation have to say in six hundred thousand years from now?
Or in six hundred million years?
Will not then a cosmic Moses, a total Abraham, a universal Elijah, chosen from the stars, come in their turn to bring some needed Good News?
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Man and His Work. Collected writings 1. letters and diaries, 2 vol. 1918-1929. The Hague. M.Nijhoft, 1979, p.778, quoted by S. Mosès. Franz Rosenzweig. Sous l’étoile. Ed. Hermann. 2009, p. 91.
iiiThe Torah itself, who can claim to have really read it?
« Although Thorah was quite widespread, the absence of vowel points made it a sealed book. To understand it, one had to follow certain mystical rules. One had to read a lot of words differently than they were written in the text; to attach a particular meaning to certain letters and words, depending on whether one raised or lowered one’s voice; to pause from time to time or link words together precisely where the outward meaning seemed to demand the opposite (…) What was especially difficult in the solemn reading of the Thorah was the form of recitative to be given to the biblical text, according to the modulation proper to each verse. The recitative, with this series of tones that rise and fall in turn, is the expression of the primitive word, full of emphasis and enthusiasm; it is the music of poetry, of that poetry that the ancients called an attribute of the divinity, and which consists in the intuition of the idea under its hypostatic envelope. Such was the native or paradisiacal state, of which only a few dark and momentary glimmers remain today. « J.-F. Molitor. Philosophy of tradition. Trad Xavier Duris. Ed. Debécourt. Paris, 1837. p.10-11
After a short life-walk, standing on some high ground, I did not discover any ‘Land’, in truth never promised, I just took a glimpse at perspectives, and at the assured prospect of continued exile.
Not an infinite exile, only bordered by death. But at least a never finished exodus, no matter what happens, so vast are the surrounding deserts.
Literature, and philosophy itself, as they appear, are like dry lakes, under the sun, when one is really dying for living water, and poetry even is a mule loaded with empty gourds, or a thirsty camel.
As for the arts, they no longer light up the days. The theater of sanctification does not call for applause. Divine names offer little certainty. The angels disappear as soon as they move. True theologies are negative. Exegeses are never meant to be completed.
I remember, rather disenchanted, the past soothsayers of the future. Some wide open doors, leading to tightly closed ways, were tentatively described by these unaccountable prophets, but for sure, they did not no propose any real way out, any effective exits, they were at best just supplying asymptotes.
New angels kept falling down, wave after wave.
The Kabbalah says that at every moment of our lives, multitudes of angels are created, only to disappear. Their role is brief as much as their songs.
They praise with lilac hallelujahs the serene lordship, the gray sound of the skies. And they then dilute themselves in thin air with no return.
My patience was waning under the short luminosity of nocturnal stars.
A somber angel then unexpectedly attacked me.
Her sharp wings barely shuddered. The air was shivering. I stepped aside.
The dodge, always the dodge.
I kissed her with my eyes. She advanced surreptitiously, leapt forward on the path of escape.
Was running away an option? But where?
Towards the future from which she seemed to have come, I did not see any encouragement.
I saw her gaze turned towards what she was already no longer, or was it towards what she already thought she could no longer be?
So I took this opportunity to pluck out one of her feathers, which I dipped incontinently in a transparent ink mixed with black tears.
Born in 1886 into an assimilated Jewish family, Franz Rosenzweig decided to convert to Christianity in the 1910s, after numerous discussions with his cousins, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg, who had already converted, and with his friend Eugen Rosenstock, also a converted Jew. But he renounced the conversion after attending the Yom Kippur service in a Berlin synagogue in 1913.
Shortly afterwards, he wrote in the trenches of the First World War his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, which offers a kind of parallelism between Judaism and Christianity.
Parallels that do not meet, except perhaps at the end of Time.
I find Rosenzweig’s essay truly significant for a double distance, for a constitutive split, the outcome of which is difficult to see, unless there is a total change of paradigm – which would perhaps be the real issue, in some future.
Rosenzweig asserts that Christianity faces three « dangers » that it « will never overcome ». These « dangers » are essentially of a conceptual nature: « the spiritualization of the concept of God, the apotheosis granted to the concept of man, the panthetization of the concept of the world ». i
The Christian concept of God, the Christian concept of man, the Christian concept of the world, are wrong and dangerous, according to Rosenzweig, because they imply an attack on the absolute transcendence of God, to which, by contrast, Judaism is supposed to be fundamentally attached.
« Let the Spirit be the guide in all things, and not God; let the Son of Man, and not God, be the Truth; let God one day be in all things, and not above all; these are the dangers. »ii
Rosenzweig cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism can be represented by His « Spirit », even though this Spirit is « holy ».
Why not? Is God not His own Spirit?
No. God’s transcendence is probably so absolute that the use of the word « spirit » is still too anthropomorphic in this context. From the point of view of Judaism, as interpreted by Rosenzweig, to use the word « spirit » as an hypostasis of God is an attack on its absolute transcendence.
But, is not God called in the Torah the « God of spirits » (Num 16:22), because He is the Creator? Could the spirit, as created by God, then be a « substance » which God and man would then have in common? No. This is not acceptable. The very principle of the absolute transcendence of God excludes any idea of a community of substance between the divine and the human, even that of the « spirit ».
Nor can Rosenzweig accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism could be represented here below by a « Son », or horresco referens, could lower Himself to humiliation by consenting to a human « incarnation », to whom He would further delegate, ipso facto, the care and privilege of revealing His Truth to men.
Finally, and a fortiori, Rosenzweig obviously cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God can condescend to any immanence whatsoever, and in particular by coming into the « world » to dwell « in all ».
Judaism will not compromise.
The absolute transcendence of God, of His revelation, and of Redemption, are infinitely beyond the spirit, infinitely beyond the human, infinitely beyond the world.
Rosenzweig’s attack on Christianity focuses on its supposed « concepts ».
Concepts are positive attempts by the human mind to capture the essence of something.
The dogma of the absolute transcendence of God excludes from the outset any attempt whatsoever to « conceptualize » it, whether through names, attributes or manifestations.
The only acceptable conceptualization is the concept of the impossibility of any conceptualization. The only possible theology is an absolutely negative theology, rigorously and infinitely apophatic.
But then what about the revelation of His Name, made to Moses by God Himself?
What about the theophanies found in the Torah?
What about God’s dialogues with the Prophets?
Or in another vein, what about the granting of a Covenant between God and his People?
What about thewandering of the Shekhina in this world, and her « suffering »?
Or, on yet another level, how to understand the idea that heaven and earth are a « creation » of God, with all that this entails in terms of responsibility for the content of their future and the implications of their inherent potentialities?
Are these not notable exceptions, through word or spirit, to thevery idea of God’s absolute, radicaltranscendence? Are they not in fact so many links, so many consensual interactions between God Himself and all that is so infinitely below Him, – all that is so infinitely nothing?
These questions are not dealt with by Rosenzweig. What is important to him is to reproach Christianity for « exteriorizing itself in the Whole, » for « dispersing its rays » in the march through time, with the spiritualization [of the concept of God], the divinization [of the concept of man] and the mondanization [of transcendence].
But Rosenzweig’s reproaches do not stop there. For good measure, he also criticizes the « dangers » peculiar to Judaism.
Where Christianity sins by « dispersing », by « externalizing » the idea of God, Judaism sins on the contrary by « shrinking », by confinement in « the narrow », by refuge in « a narrow home »iii. To sum up: « The Creator has shrunk to the creator of the Jewish world, Revelation has only taken place in the Jewish heart.» iv
Franz Rosenzweig analyzes the « Jewish dangers » in this manner :
« Thus, in the depths of this Jewish feeling, any split, anything that encompasses Jewish life, has become very narrow and simple. Too simple and too narrow, that is what should be said, and in this narrowness, as many dangers should be fanned as in Christian dilatation. Here it is the concept of God that was in danger: in our midst, it is His World and His Man who seem to be in danger (…) Judaism, which is consumed within, runs the risk of gathering its heat in its own bosom, far from the pagan reality of the world. In Christianity, the dangers were named: spiritualization of God, humanization of God, mondanization of God; here [in Judaism] they are called denial of the world, contempt for the world, suffocation of the world.
Denial of the world, when the Jew, in the proximity of his God, anticipated the Redemption for his own benefit, forgetting that God was Creator and Redeemer, that, as Creator, He conserved the whole world and that in the Revelation He ultimately turned His face to mankind at large.
Contempt for the world, when the Jew felt himself to be a remnant, and thus to be the true man, originally created in the image of God and living in the expectation of the end within this original purity, thus withdrawing from man: yet it was precisely with his hardness, forgetting God, that the Revelation of God’s love had come about, and it was this man who now had to exercise this love in the unlimited work of Redemption.
Choking of the world, finally, when the Jew, in possession of the Law revealed to him and becoming flesh and blood in his spirit, now had the nerve to regulate the being there at every renewed moment and the silent growth of things, even to pretend to judge them.
These three dangers are all necessary consequences of the interiority that turned away from the world, just as the dangers of Christianity were due to the exteriorization of the self turned towards the world. » v
Not being able to resolve to elect a single champion, Rosenzweig concludes that Jews and Christians are in fact working at the same task, and that God cannot deprive Himself of either of them: « He has bound them together in the closest reciprocity. To us [Jews] He has given eternal life by lighting in our hearts the fire of the Star of His truth. He has placed Christians on the eternal path by making them follow the rays of the Star of His truth throughout the centuries to the eternal end.»vi
The life, the truth, the way. The Anointed One from Nazareth, the Christian Messiah, had already designated himself by these three words, identifying them with his own Person.
Shrinkage, narrowness, suffocation.
Dispersion, expansion, paganization.
Let the millennia flow, let the eons bloom.
What will the world be like in three hundred billion years? Will it be Jewish? Christian? Buddhist? Nihilist? Gnostic? Or will the world be All Other?
Will we one day see the birth of a non-Galilean Messiah or a non-Anointed Anointed One, far away in galaxies at the unimagined borders of the known universes, revealing in clear language a meta-Law as luminous as a thousand billion nebulae assembled in one single point?
Or is it the very message of the Scriptures that, by some miracle, will be repeated, word for word, letter for letter, breath for breath, in all the multiverse, crossing without damage the attraction and translation of multiple black holes and vertiginous wormholes?
The path before us is infinitely, obviously, open.
We only know that at the very end there will be life – not death.
What kind of life? We don’t know.
We know that with life, there will also be truth.
Truth and life are indissolubly linked, as are transcendence and immanence.
« What is truth? » asked Pilatus once, famously.
One could also ask : « What is life? »
Since transcendence is so infinitely above the human mind, how can one dare to ask even these kinds of questions?
That’s exactly the point.
Daring to ask these questions is already, in a way, beginning to answer them.
I have no doubt that in six hundred million years, or thirty-three billion years, some truth will still be there to be grasp, – if there are still, of course, eyes to see, or ears to hear.
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.478.
ivFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.476.
vFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.479-480.
viFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil, 1882, p. 490.
There are two words in Hebrew for the idea of filiation : ben בן and bar בר.
These two words mean « son », but with very different shades of nuances, due to their respective roots. Their etymologies open surprising perspectives…
The word ben comes from the verb banah בָּנָה, « to build, to construct, to found, to form », which connotes the idea of a progressive emergence, an edification, a construction, necessarily taking a certain amount of time.
The word bar comes from the verb bara‘ בָּרַא, « to create, to draw from nothing, to give birth » and in a second sense « to choose ». The idea of filiation is here associated with a timeless or instantaneous creation, that may be congruent with a divine origin. Thus the verb bara’ is used in the first verse of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim . « In the beginning created God… ».
In a figurative sense, bar alsomeans « chosen, preferred », connotating choice, election or dilection.
What does the difference between ben and bar teach us?
There is a first level of reading: with bar, the idea of filiation begins with a ‘creation’, appearing from nothingness (bara’), but with ben, it rather implies a long work of ‘construction’, and ‘foundation’ (banah).
On the one hand, bar evokes the atemporality (or timelessness) of a transcendence (coming from nothingness), and by opposition, ben implies the necessary temporality of immanence.
In the biblical text, these words, (banah and bara’, ben and bar) so common, so familiar, are like two opposite doors, opening on very different paths.
Doors, or rather trapdoors, under which profound abysses are revealed.
Let’s start with creation. Berechit bara’.
The word bar has its own depth, its subtle ambiguities. Its primary meaning is ‘son‘, but it may mean son of man, son of Elohim, or son of the Gods.
« What! My son! What! Son of my guts! « (Prov. 31:2)
The Book of Daniel uses the expression בַר-אֱלָהִין , bar-elohim, literally« son of the Gods » (Dan 3:25). In this case, bar-elohim refers to an « angel ».
But bar seems to be able to also mean « Son of God ».The psalmist exclaims, « Worship the Lord with fear » (Ps 2:11), and immediately afterwards David cries out, « Nachku bar », « Kiss the Son » (Ps 2:12).
Who is this ‘Son’ (bar) to be kissed or embraced ? He indeed has a special status, since he is refered to by David, just after the name YHVH, and in the same elan of praise.
According to some, this ‘Son’ is to be understood as ‘the king’, and according to others, it refers to ‘purity’.
Why the ‘king’? Why ‘purity’?
Because bar comes from the verb bara’, one of whose original meanings is « to choose ». Bar also means ‘chosen, elected, preferred’.
In Psalm 2, the word bar may well mean the ‘Chosen One’, the ‘Anointed’ (mashiah, or ‘messiah’) of the Lord.
By derivation, bar also means ‘pure, serene, spotless’, as in bar-levav, ‘pure in heart’ (Ps. 24:4) or ‘the commandments of YHVH are pure (bara)’ (Ps. 19:9).
So, what does ‘nachqou bar’ really mean ? « Kiss the Son », « kiss the king », « kiss the Chosen One », « kiss the Anointed One », « kiss the Messiah », or even « embrace purity »?
Who will tell?
Let us note here that Christians could interpret this particular bar (in Ps 2:12)asa prefiguration of Christ (the name ‘Christ’ comes from the Greek christos which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashiah, ‘anointed’).
As for ben, like I said, this noun derives from the verb banah, thatwe find used in various ways (to build, to form, to found):
« I built this house for you to live in. « (1 Kings 8:13)
« The Lord God formed a woman from the rib. « (Gen 2:22)
« By building your high places » (Ez 16:31).
« He founded Nineveh » (Gn 10:11).
Solomon played with the word and its ambivalence (to build/ a son), as he made his speech for the inauguration of the Temple. He recalled that it was indeed David’s idea to build (banah) a temple in honor of God, but that the Lord had said to him, « Yet it is not you who will build (tibneh) this temple, it is your son (bin or ben), he who is to be born of you, who will build (ibneh) this temple inmy honor. « (1 Kings 8:19)
Solomon was to be the son (ben) who would build (ibneh) the Temple.
Noah also built an altar (Gen 8:20). Here too, one can detect a play on words with even deeper implications than those associated with the construction of the Temple.
« What does ‘Noah built’ mean? In truth Noah is the righteous man. He ‘built an altar’, that’s the Shekhina. His edification (binyam) is a son (ben), who is the Central Column. » i
The interpretation is not obvious, but if one believes a good specialist, one can understand this:
« The Righteous One ‘builds’ the Shekhina because He connects it to the Central Column of the divine pleroma, the Sefira Tiferet, called ‘son’. This masculine sefira is the way by which the Shekhina receives the ontic influx that constitutes her being. »ii
The Kabbalah uses the image of the union of the masculine (the Central Column) and feminine (the Abode) to signify the role of the Just in the ‘construction’ of the Divine Presence (the Shekhina).
« The Righteous One is the equivalent of the sefira Yessod (the Foundation) represented by the male sexual organ. Acting as the ‘righteous’, the man assumes a function in sympathy with this divine emanation, which connects the male and female dimensions of the Sefirot, allowing him to ‘build’ the Shekhina identified at the altar. » iii
Ben. Son. Construction. Column. Male organ.
And from there, the possible theurgic action of the righteous man, ‘edifying’ the Shekhina.
We see that bar and ben offer two paths linking the divine and the human. One path (bar) is a descending one, that of choice, of election, of the Anointed One, of the Messiah.
The other path (ben) rises like a column in the temple, like a work of righteousness, erected upright, toward the Shekhina.
iZohar Hadach, Tiqounim Hadachim. Ed. Margaliot, Jerusalem, 1978, fol. 117C cited by Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. Verdier. Lagrasse 1993, p. 591
iiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. Verdier. Lagrasse 1993, p. 591
iiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. Verdier. Lagrasse 1993, p. 593
The theurgic, creative power of men has always manifested itself through the ages.
Religious anthropology bears witness to this.
« No doubt, without the Gods, men could not live. But on the other hand, the Gods would die if they were not worshipped (…) What the worshipper really gives to his God is not the food he puts on the altar, nor the blood that flows from his veins: that is his thought. Between the deity and his worshippers there is an exchange of good offices which condition each other. »i
The Vedic sacrifice is one of the most ancient human rite from which derives the essence of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds.
« There are rites without gods, and there are rites from which gods derive ».ii
Unexpectingly, Charles Mopsik, in his study of the Jewish kabbalah, subtitled TheRites that Make God, affirms the « flagrant similarity » of these ancient theurgical beliefs with the Jewish motif of the creative power of the rite.
Mopsik readily admits that « the existence of a theme in Judaism, according to which man must ‘make God’, may seem incredible.»iii
Examples of Jewish kabbalistic theurgy abound, involving, for example, man’s ‘shaping’ of God, or his participation in the ‘creation’ of the Name or the Shabbath. Mopsik evokes a midrash quoted by R. Bahya ben Acher, according to which « the man who keeps the Shabbath from below, ‘it is as if he were doing it from above’, in other words ‘gave existence’, ‘fashioned the Sabbath from above. »iv
The expression ‘to make God’, which Charles Mopsik uses in the subtitle of his book, can be compared to the expression ‘to make the Shabbath’ (in the sense of ‘to create the Shabbath’) as it is curiously expressed in the Torah (« The sons of Israel will keep the Shabbath to make the Shabbath » (Ex 31,16)), as well as in the Clementine Homilies, aJudeo-Christian text that presents God as the Shabbath par excellencev, which implies that ‘to make the Shabbath’ is ‘to make God’…
Since its very ancient ‘magical’ origins, theurgy implies a direct relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ or ‘making’. The Kabbalah takes up this idea, and develops it:
« You must know that the commandment is a light, and he who does it below affirms (ma’amid) and does (‘osseh) that which isabove. Therefore, when man practices a commandment, that commandment is light.»vi
In this quotation, the word ‘light’ is to be understood as an allusive way of saying ‘God’, comments Mopsik, who adds: « Observances have a sui generis efficacy and shape the God of the man who puts them into practice.»
Many other rabbis, such as Moses de Leon (the author of the Zohar), Joseph Gikatila, Joseph of Hamadan, Méir ibn Gabbay, or Joseph Caro, affirm the power of « the theurgic instituting action » or « theo-poietic ».
The Zohar explains :
« ‘If you follow my ordinances, if you keep my commandments, when you do them, etc.' ». (Lev 26:3) What does ‘When you do them’ mean? Since the text already says, « If you follow and keep, » what is the meaning of « When you do them »? Verily, whoever does the commandments of the Torah and walks in its ways, so to speak, it is as if he makes Him on high (‘avyd leyh le’ila), the Holy One blessed be He who says, ‘It is as if he makes Me’ (‘assa-ny). In this connection Rabbi Simeon said, ‘David made the Name’. » vii
« David made the Name » ! This is yet another theurgical expression, and not the least, since the Name, the Holy Name, is in reality God Himself !
‘Making God’, ‘Making the Shabbath’, ‘Making the Name’, all these theurgic expressions are equivalent, and the authors of the Kabbalah adopt them alternately.
From a critical point of view, it remains to be seen whether the kabbalistic interpretations of these theurgies are in any case semantically and grammatically acceptable. It also remains to be ascertained whether they are not rather the result of deliberately tendentious readings, purposefully diverting the obvious meaning of the Texts. But even if this were precisely the case, there would still remain the stubborn, inescapable fact that the Jewish Kabbalists wanted to find the theurgic idea in the Torah .
Given the importance of what is at stake, it is worth delving deeper into the meaning of the expression « Making the Name », and the way in which the Kabbalists understood it, – and then commented on it again and again over the centuries …
The original occurrence of this particular expression is found in the second book of Samuel (II Sam 8,13). It is a particularly warlike verse, whose usual translation gives a factual, neutral interpretation, very far in truth from the theurgic interpretation:
« When he returned from defeating Syria, David again made a name for himself by defeating eighteen thousand men in the Valley of Salt. »
David « made a name for himself », i.e. a « reputation », a « glory », in the usual sense of the word שֵׁם, chem.
The massoretic text of this verse gives :
וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד, שֵׁם
Va ya’ass Daoud shem
« To make a name for oneself, a reputation » seems to be the correct translation, in the context of a warlord’s glorious victory. Biblical Hebrew dictionaries confirm that this meaning is widespread.
Yet this was not the interpretation chosen by the Kabbalists.
They prefer to read: « David made the Name« , i.e. « made God« , as Rabbi Simeon says, quoted by the Zohar.
In this context, Charles Mopsik proposes a perfectly extraordinary interpretation of the expression « making God ». This interpretation (taken from the Zohar) is that « to make God » is equivalent to the fact that God constitutes His divine fullness by conjugating (in the original sense of the word!) « His masculine and feminine dimensions ».
If we follow Mopsik, « making God » for the Zohar would be the equivalent of « making love » for both male and female parts of God?
More precisely, as we will see, it would be the idea of YHVH’s loving encounter with His alter ego, Adonaï?
A brilliant idea, – or an absolute scandal (from the point of view of Jewish ‘monotheism’)?
Here’s how Charles Mopsik puts it:
« The ‘Holy Name’ is defined as the close union of the two polar powers of the divine pleroma, masculine and feminine: the sefira Tiferet (Beauty) and the sefira Malkhut (Royalty), to which the words Law and Right refer (…) The theo-poietic action is accomplished through the unifying action of the practice of the commandments that cause the junction of the sefirot Tiferet and Malkhut, the Male and Female from Above. These are thus united ‘one to the other’, the ‘Holy Name’ which represents the integrity of the divine pleroma in its two great poles YHVH (the sefira Tiferet) and Adonay (the sefira Malkhut). For the Zohar, ‘To make God’ therefore means to constitute the divine fullness [or pleroma] by uniting its masculine and feminine dimensions. » viii
In another passage of the Zohar, it is the (loving) conjunction of God with the Shekhina, which is proposed as an equivalence or ‘explanation’ of the expressions « making God » or « making the Name »:
« Rabbi Judah reports a verse: ‘It is time to act for YHVH, they have violated the Torah’ (Ps.119,126). What does ‘the time to act for YHVH’ mean? (…) ‘Time’ refers to the Community of Israel (the Shekhinah), as it is said: ‘He does not enter the sanctuary at all times’ (Lev 16:2). Why [is it called] ‘time’? Because there is a ‘time’ and a moment for all things, to draw near, to be enlightened, to unite as it should be, as it is written: ‘And I pray to you, YHVH, the favourable time’ (Ps 69:14), ‘to act for YHVH’ [‘to make YHVH’] as it is written: ‘David made the Name’ (II Sam 8:13), for whoever devotes himself to the Torah, it is as if he were making and repairing the ‘Time’ [the Shekhinah], to join him to the Holy One blessed be He. » ix
After « making God », « making YHVH », « making the Name », here is another theurgical form: « making Time », that is to say « bringing together » the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhina…
A midrach quoted by R. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira teaches this word attributed to God Himself: « Whoever fulfills My commandments, I count him as if they had made Me. » x
Mopsik notes here that the meaning of the word ‘theurgy’ as ‘production of the divine’, as given for example in the Liturgy, may therefore mean ‘procreation’, as a model for all the works that are supposed to ‘make God’. xi
This idea is confirmed by the famous Rabbi Menahem Recanati: « The Name has commanded each one of us to write a book of the Torah for himself; the hidden secret is this: it is as if he is making the Name, blessed be He, and all the Torah is the names of the Saint, blessed be He. » xii
In another text, Rabbi Recanati brings together the two formulations ‘to make YHVH’ and ‘to make Me’: « Our masters have said, ‘Whoever does My commandments, I will count him worthy as if he were making Me,’ as it is written, ‘It is time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126)xiii.
One can see it, tirelessly, century after century, the rabbis report and repeat the same verse of the psalms, interpreted in a very specific way, relying blindly on its ‘authority’ to dare to formulate dizzying speculations… like the idea of the ‘procreation’ of the divinity, or of its ‘begetting’, in itself and by itself….
The kabbalistic image of ‘procreation’ is actually used by the Zohar to translate the relationship of the Shekhina with the divine pleroma:
« ‘Noah built an altar’ (Gen 8:20). What does ‘Noah built’ mean? In truth, Noah is the righteous man. He ‘built an altar’, that is the Shekhina. His edification (binyam) is a son (ben) who is the Central Column. » xiv
Mopsik specifies that the ‘righteous’ is « the equivalent of the sefira Yessod (the Foundation) represented by the male sexual organ. Acting as ‘righteous’, the man assumes a function in sympathy with that of this divine emanation, which connects the male and female dimensions of the sefirot, allowing him to ‘build’ the Shekhina identified at the altar. » xv
In this Genesis verse, we see that the Zohar reads the presence of the Shekhina, represented by the altar of sacrifice, and embodying the feminine part of the divine, and we see that the Zohar also reads the act of « edifying » her, symbolized by the Central Column, that is to say by the ‘Foundation’, or the Yessod, which in the Kabbalah has as its image the male sexual organ, and which thus incarnates the male part of the divine, and bears the name of ‘son’ [of God]…
How can we understand these allusive images? To say it without a veil, the kabbalah does not hesitate to represent here (in a cryptic way) a quasi-marital scene where God ‘gets closer’ to His Queen to love her…
And it is up to ‘Israel’ to ensure the smooth running of this loving encounter, as the following passage indicates:
» ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’ (Ex 25:8) (…) The Holy One blessed be He asked Israel to bring the Queen called ‘Sanctuary’ to Him (…) For it is written: ‘You shall bring a fire (ichêh, a fire = ichah, a woman) to YHVH’ (Lev 23:8). Therefore it is written, ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’. » xvi
Let’s take an interested look at the verse: « You will approach a fire from YHVH » (Lev 33:8).
The Hebrew text gives :
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה
Ve-hiqravttêm ichêh la-YHVH
The word אִשֶּׁה , ichêh, means ‘fire’, but in a very slightly different vocalization, ichah, this same word means ‘woman’. As for the verb ‘to approach’, its root is קרב, qaraba, « to be near, to approach, to move towards » and in the hiphilform, « to present, to offer, to sacrifice ». Interestingly, and even disturbingly, the noun qorban, ‘sacrifice, oblation, gift’ that derives from it, is almost identical to the noun qerben which means ‘womb, entrails, breast’ (of the woman).
One could propose the following equations (or analogies), which the Hebrew language either shows or implies allusively:
Fire = Woman
Approaching = Sacrifice = Entrails (of the woman)
‘Approaching the altar’ = ‘Approaching a woman’ (Do we need to recall here that, in the Hebrew Bible, « to approach a woman » is a euphemism for « making love »?)
The imagination of the Kabbalists does not hesitate to evoke together (in an almost subliminal way) the ‘sacrifice’, the ‘entrails’, the ‘fire’ and the ‘woman’ and to bring them formally ‘closer’ to the Most Holy Name: YHVH.
It should be noted, however, that the Kabbalists’ audacity is only relative here, since the Song of Songs had, long before the Kabbalah, dared to take on even more burning images.
In the thinking of the Kabbalists, the expression « to make God » is understood as the result of a « union » of the masculine and feminine dimensions of the divine.
In this allegory, the sefira Yessod connects God and the Community of believers just as the male organ connects the male body to the female body. xvii
« ‘Time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126). Explanation: The Shekhinah called ‘Time’ is to be made by joining her to YHVH after she has been separated from Him because one has broken the rules and transgressed the Law. » xviii
For his part, Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) understood the same verse as follows: « To join the upper pleroma, masculine and divine, with the lower pleroma, feminine and archangelical, must be the aim of those who practice the commandments (…) The lower pleroma is the Shekhinah, also called the Community of Israel ». xix
It is a question of magnifying the role of the Community of Israel, or that of each individual believer, in the ‘divine work’, in its ‘reparation’, in its increase in ‘power’ or even in its ‘begetting’….
Rabbi Hayim Vital, a contemporary of Joseph Caro, comments on a verse from Isaiah and relates it to another verse from the Psalms in a way that has been judged « extravagant » by literalist exegetesxx.
Isaiah’s verse (Is 49:4) reads, according to R. Hayim Vital: « My work is my God », and he compares it with Psalm 68: « Give power to God » (Ps 68:35), of which he gives the following comment: « My work was my God Himself, God whom I worked, whom I made, whom I repaired ».
Note that this verse (Is 49:4) is usually translated as follows: « My reward is with my God » (ou-féoulati êt Adonaï).
Mopsik comments: « It is not ‘God’ who is the object of the believer’s work, or action, but ‘my God’, that God who is ‘mine’, with whom I have a personal relationship, and in whom I have faith, and who is ‘my’ work. »
And he concludes that this ‘God who is made’, who is ‘worked’, is in reality ‘the feminine aspect of the divinity’.
The Gaon Elijah of Vilna proposed yet another way of understanding and designating the two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects of the Deity, calling them respectively ‘expansive aspect’ and ‘receiving aspect’:
« The expansive aspect is called havayah (being) [i.e. HVYH, anagram of YHVH…], the receiving aspect of the glorification coming from us is called ‘His Name’. In the measure of Israel’s attachment to God, praising and glorifying Him, the Shekhinah receives the Good of the expanding aspect. (…) The Totality of the offices, praise and glorification, that is called Shekhinah, which is His Name. Indeed, ‘name’ means ‘public renown’ and ‘celebration’ of His Glory, the perception of His Greatness. (…) This is the secret of ‘YHVH is one, and His Name is one’ (Zac 14:9). YHVH is one’ refers to the expansion of His will. ‘His Name is one’ designates the receiving aspect of His praise and attachment. This is the unification of the recitation of the Shema.» xxi
According to the Gaon of Vilna, the feminine dimension of God, the Shekhina, is the passive dimension of the manifested God, a dimension that is nourished by the Totality of the praises and glorifications of the believers. The masculine dimension of God is Havayah, the Being.
Charles Mopsik’s presentation on the theurgical interpretations of the Jewish Kabbalah (‘Making God’) does not neglect to recognize that these interpretations are in fact part of a universal history of the religious fact, particularly rich in comparable experiences, especially in the diverse world of ‘paganism’. It is thus necessary to recognize the existence of « homologies that are difficult to dispute between the theurgic conceptions of Hellenized Egyptian hermeticism, late Greco-Roman Neoplatonism, Sufi theology, Neoplatonism and Jewish mystagogy. » xxii
Said in direct terms, this amounts to noting that since the dawn of time, there has been among all ‘pagan’ people this idea that the existence of God depends on men, at least to a certain degree.
It is also striking that ideas seemingly quite foreign to the Jewish religion, such as the idea of a Trinitarian conception of God (notoriously associated with Christianity) has in fact been enunciated in a similar way by some high-flying cabbalists.
Thus the famous Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto had this formula surprisingly comparable (or if one prefers: ‘isomorphic’) to the Trinitarian formula:
« The Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one. »
But it should also be recalled that this kind of « kabbalistic » conception has attracted virulent criticism within conservative Judaism, criticism which extends to the entire Jewish Kabbalah. Mopsik cites in this connection the outraged reactions of such personalities as Rabbi Elie del Medigo (c. 1460- 1493) or Rabbi Judah Arie of Modena (17th century), and those of equally critical contemporaries such as Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber…
We will not enter into this debate. We prefer here to try to perceive in the theurgic conceptions we have just outlined the clue of an anthropological constant, an archetype, a kind of universal intuition proper to the profound nature of the human spirit.
It is necessary to pay tribute to the revolutionary effort of the Kabbalists, who have shaken with all their might the narrow frames of old and fixed conceptions, in an attempt to answer ever-renewed questions about the essence of the relationship between divinity, the world and humanity, the theos, the cosmos and the anthropos.
This titanic intellectual effort of the Jewish Kabbalah is, moreover, comparable in intensity, it seems to me, to similar efforts made in other religions (such as those of a Thomas Aquinas within the framework of Christianity, around the same period, or those of the great Vedic thinkers, as witnessed by the profound Brahmanas, two millennia before our era).
From the powerful effort of the Kabbalah emerges a specifically Jewish idea of universal value:
« The revealed God is the result of the Law, rather than the origin of the Law. This God is not posed at the Beginning, but proceeds from an interaction between the superabundant flow emanating from the Infinite and the active presence of Man. » xxiii
In a very concise and perhaps more relevant way: « You can’t really know God without acting on Him, » also says Mopsik.
Unlike Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber, who have classified the Kabbalah as « magic » in order to disdain it at its core, Charles Mopsik clearly perceives that it is one of the signs of the infinite richness of human potential in its relationship with the divine. We must pay homage to him for his very broad anthropological vision of the phenomena linked to divine revelation, in all eras and throughout the world.
The spirit blows where it wants. Since the dawn of time, i.e. for tens of thousands of years (the caves of Lascaux or Chauvet bear witness to this), many human minds have tried to explore the unspeakable, without preconceived ideas, and against all a priori constraints.
Closer to us, in the 9th century AD, in Ireland, John Scot Erigenes wrote:
« Because in all that is, the divine nature appears, while by itself it is invisible, it is not incongruous to say that it is made. » xxiv
Two centuries later, the Sufi Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia, died in Damascus, cried out: « If He gave us life and existence through His being, I also give Him life, knowing Him in my heart.» xxv
Theurgy is a timeless idea, with unimaginable implications, and today, unfortunately, this profound idea seems almost incomprehensible in our almost completely de-divinized world.
iE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p.494-495
iiE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p. 49
iiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.551
viiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.561-563.
ixZohar, I, 116b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.568
xR. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira. Sefer Yessod ‘Olam. Ms Moscow-Günzburg 607 Fol 69b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.589
xiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiR. Menahem Recanati. Perouch ‘al ha-Torah. Jerusalem, 1971, fol 23b-c, quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiiR. Menahem Recanati. Sefer Ta’amé ha-Mitsvot. London 1962 p.47, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xivZohar Hadach, Tiqounim Hadachim. Ed. Margaliot. Jerusalem, 1978, fol 117c quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xvCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviR. Joseph de Hamadan. Sefer Tashak. Ed J. Zwelling U.M.I. 1975, p.454-455, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xviiiR. Matthias Délacroute. Commentary on the Cha’aré Orah. Fol 19b note 3. Quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xixCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xxiGaon Elijah of Vilna. Liqouté ha-Gra. Tefilat Chaharit, Sidour ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1971 p.89, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 610
xxiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 630
xxiiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 639
xxivJean Scot Erigène. De Divisione Naturae. I,453-454B, quoted by Ch. Mopsik, Ibid. p.627
Words are devious. Language is treacherous, and grammars are vicious. Willingly ignorant of these deficiencies, men have been sailing for millennia in oceans of sentences, drifting above the depths of meanings, equipped with broken compasses, falsified sextants, under the fleeting stars.
How accurately, then, can men understand a « divine revelation » when it is made of « words », clothed in their unfathomable depths, their ambiguous abysses?
Error lurks for the wise. The study never ends. Who can pretend to grasp the ultimate meaning of any revelation?
Let us start with a single verse of the Psalms, which opened worlds of interpretation, during millenia.
« It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126).
« Making YHVH? » Really? Yes, this is the meaning that some Jewish Kabbalists, in Medieval Spain, decided was the true sense conveyed by Ps. 119:126.
Most versions of the Bible, today, give more ‘rational’ translations of Ps. 119:126, such as:
Why then, did some medieval rabbis, most of them Kabbalists, chose to deviate from the obvious, traditional meaning carried by the Massoretic text? Why did they dare to flirt with scandal? Were they not aware that they were shocking the Jewish faith, or even just simple common sense, by pretending to « make » YHVH?
Many centuries before the Jewish Kabbalists tried their wits on this particular verse, manuscripts (and interpretations) already differed greatly about its true meaning.
The obvious meaning was indeed: « It is time for God to act ».
Other interpretations prefered : « It is time to act for God », – i.e. men should finally do for God what they had to do.
Has the time come (for the LORD) to act, or has the time come (for men) to act for the LORD?
Forsaking these two possible (and indeed differing) readings, the Kabbalists in early medieval Spain chose yet another interpretation: « It is time [for men] to make God. » iii
Why this audacity, rubbing shoulders with blasphemy, shaving the abyss?
The Hebrew Bible, in the Massoretic version which was developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, and which therefore dates from the first centuries of our era, proposes the following text:
עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה
‘èt la’assot la-YHVH
This can be translated as: « It is time to act for God », if one understands לַיהוָה = for YHVH
But the Kabbalists refused this reading. They seem not to have used the Massoretic text, but other, much older manuscripts which omit the preposition for (לַ).
The word ‘God’ (or more precisely יהוָה, ‘YHVH’) thus becomes the direct object complement of the verb ‘to do, to act’. Hence the translation : ‘It is time to make God’.
The Bible of the French Rabbinate follows the Massoretic version and translates :
« The time has come to act for the Lord ».
The Jerusalem Bible (Ed. Cerf, 1973) translates: « It is time to act, Yahweh ».
In this interpretation, the Psalmist seems to somehow admonish YHVH and gives Him a pressing request to « act ». The translators of the Jerusalem Bible note that the Massoretic text indicates « for Yahweh », which would imply that it is up to man to act for Him. But they do not retain this lesson, and they mention another handwritten (unspecified) source, which seems to have been adopted by S. Jerome, a source which differs from the Massoretic text by the elision of the preposition ל. Hence the adopted translation: « It is time to act, Yahweh », without the word for.
But, again, the lessons vary, depending on how you understand the grammatical role of the word ‘Yahweh’…
S. Jerome’s version (the Vulgate) gives :
Tempus is ut facias Domine.
The word ‘Lord’ is in the vocative (‘Domine!’): the Psalmist calls upon the Lord to ask Him to act. « It is time for You to act, Lord! »
However, in the text of the Clementine Vulgate, finalized in the 16th century by Pope Clement VIII, and which is the basis of the ‘New Vulgate’ (Nova Vulgata) available online on the Vatican website, it reads:
Tempus faciendi Domino
The word ‘Lord’ is in the dative (‘Domino’), and thus plays the role of a complement of attribution. « It is time to act for the Lord ».
The Septuagint (that is, the version of the Bible translated into Greek by seventy-two Jewish scholars gathered in Alexandria around 270 B.C.E.) proposes, for its part
καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ-
Kairos tou poïêsai tô kyriô
Here too the word ‘Lord’ is in the dative, not in the vocative. « It is time to act for the Lord ».
This ancient lesson of the Septuagint (established well before the Massoretic text) does not, however, resolve a residual ambiguity.
One can indeed choose to emphasize the need to act, which is imparted to the Lord Himself:
« For the Lord, the time to act has come ».
But one can just as easily choose to emphasize the need for men to act for the Lord:
« The time has come to act for the Lord ».
In relation to these different nuances, what I’d like to emphasize here is the radically different understanding chosen by the Kabbalists in medieval Spain:
« It is time to make God ».
Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbay wrote:
« He who fulfills all the commandments, his image and likeness are perfect, and he is like the High Man sitting on the Throne (Ez. 1:26), he is in his image, and the Shekhinah is established with him because he has made all his organs perfect: his body becomes a throne and a dwelling for the figure that corresponds to him. From there you will understand the secret of the verse: « It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126). You will also understand that the Torah has a living soul (…) It has matter and form, body and soul (…) And know that the soul of the Torah is the Shekhinah, the secret of the last he [ה ], the Torah is its garment (…) The Torah is therefore a body for the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah is like a soul for her. » iv
Charles Mopsik notes that « this expression [« making God »], roughly stated, can surprise and even scandalize ».
At least, this is an opportunity to question the practices and conceptions of the Jewish Kabbalah in matters of ‘theurgy’.
The word ‘theurgy’ comes from the Latin theurgia, « theurgy, magic operation, evocation of spirits », itself borrowed by Augustine from the Greek θεουργία , « act of divine power », « miracle », « magic operation ». E. des Places defines theurgy as « a kind of binding action on the gods ». In Neoplatonism, « theurgy » means « the act of making God act in oneself », according to the Littré.
E. R. Dodds devotes an appendix of his work The Greeks and the Irrationalvto the theurgy, which he introduces as follows: « The theologoi ‘spoke of the gods’, but [the theourgos] ‘acted upon them’, or perhaps even ‘created them' », this last formula being an allusion to the formula of the famous Byzantine scholar Michel Psellus (11th century): « He who possesses the theurgic virtue is called ‘father of the gods’, because he transforms men into gods (theous all anthropous ergazetai). » vi
In this context, E.R. Dodd cites Jamblichus’ treatise De mysteriis, which he considers ‘irrational’ and a testimony to a ‘culture in decline’: « De mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an affirmation that the way to salvation is not in human reason but in ritual. It is not thought that links theurgists to the gods: what else would prevent philosophical theorists from enjoying the theurgical union? But this is not the case. Theurgic union is achieved only by the efficacy of ineffable acts performed in the proper way, acts that are beyond understanding, and by the power of ineffable symbols that are understood only by gods… without intellectual effort on our part, signs (sunthêmata) by their own virtue perform their own work’ (De myst. 96.13 Parthey). To the discouraged spirit of the pagans of the fourth century such a message brought seductive comfort. « vii
But the result of these attitudes, privileging ‘rite’ over ‘intellectual effort,’ was « a declining culture, and the slow thrust of that Christian athéotês whoall too obviously undermined the very life of Hellenism. Just as vulgar magic is commonly the last resort of the desperate individual, of those who have been lacking in both man and God, so theurgy became the refuge of a desperate ‘intelligentsia’ that already felt the fascination of the abyss. » viii
The modes of operation of the theurgy vary notoriously, covering a vast domain, from magical rites or divination rites to shamanic trances or phenomena of demonic or spiritual ‘possession’.
E.R. Dodds proposes to group them into two main types: those that depend on the use of symbols (symbola) or signs (sunthêmata), and those that require the use of a ‘medium’, in ecstasy. The first type was known as telestikê, and was mainly used for the consecration and animation of magical statues in order to obtain oracles. The making of magical statuettes of gods was not a ‘monopoly of theurgists’. It was based on an ancient and widespread belief of a universal sympatheiaix, linking the images to their original model. The original center of these practices was Egypt.
Dodds cites Hermes Trismegistus’ dialogue with Asclepius (or Aesculapius), which evokes « animated statues, full of meaning and spirit » (statuas animatas sensu et spiritu plenas), which can predict the future, inflict or cure diseases, and imprison the souls of deer or angels, all the theurgic actions summarized by Hermes Trismegistus’ formula: sic deorum fictor est homo, (« this is how man makes gods »)x.
« To make gods »: this expression was there to prefigure, with more than a thousand years of anteriority, the formula put forward later by R. Meir ibn Gabbay and other Kabbalists: « to make YHVH », – although undoubtedly with a different intention. We shall return to this.
In his book The City of God, S. Augustinexi had quoted large excerpts from this famous dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius, including these sentences:
« As the Lord and the Father, God in a word, is the author of the heavenly gods, so man is the author of those gods who reside in temples and delight in the neighborhood of mortals. Thus, humanity, faithful to the memory of its nature and origin, perseveres in this imitation of its divinity. The Father and the Lord made the eternal gods in his likeness, and humanity made its gods in the likeness of man. » xii
And Hermes added: « It is a marvel above all wonder and admiration that man could invent and create a divinity. The disbelief of our ancestors was lost in deep errors about the existence and condition of the gods, forsaking the worship and honors of the true God; thus they found the art of making gods. »
The anger of St. Augustine exploded at this very spot against Hermes. « I don’t know if the demons themselves would confess as much as this man! »
After a long deconstruction of the Hermetic discourse, Augustine concludes by quoting a definitive sentence of the prophet Jeremiah:
« Man makes himself gods (elohim)? No, of course, they are not gods (elohim)! » xiii
Attempting to combat the « sarcasm » of Christian criticism, Jamblichus strove to prove that « idols are divine and filled with the divine presence. « xiv
This art of making divine statues had to survive the end of the « dying pagan world » and find its way into « the repertoire of medieval magicians, » Dodds notesxv.
One could add, without seeing any malice in it, that the idea was also taken up by the Spanish Jewish cabal in the Middle Ages, and later still, by the rabbis who made Golem, such as the Maharal of Prague, nicknamed Yehudah-Leib, or Rabbi Loew…
This is at least the suggestion proposed by E.R. Dodds: « Did the theurgical telestikê suggest to medieval alchemists their attempts to create artificial human beings (« homunculi« )? (…) Curious clues to some historical relationship have recently been put forward by Paul Kraus. (…) He points out that the vast alchemical corpus attributed to Jâbir b. Hayyan (Gebir) not only alludes to Porphyry’s (apocryphal?) Book of the Generation, but also uses neo-Platonic speculations about images. » xvi
The other operational mode of theurgy is trance or mediumnic possession, of which Dodds notes « the obvious analogy with modern spiritism. xvii
I don’t know if the « modern spiritism » that Dodds spoke of in the 1950s is not a little outdated today, but it is certain that the rites of trance and possession, whether they are practiced in Morocco (the Gnaouas), Haiti (Voodoo), Nepal, Mongolia, Mexico, and everywhere else in the world, are still worth studying. One can consult in this respect the beautiful study of Bertrand Hell, Possession and Shamanismxviii, whose cover page quotes the superb answer of the Great Mughal Khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV in 1246: « For if man is not himself the strength of God, what could he do in this world? »
Many are the skeptics, who doubt the very reality of the trance. The famous Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali, in his 12th century Book of the Proper Use of Hearing and Ecstasy, admits the possibility of « feigned » ecstasy, but he adds that deliberately provoking one’s « rapture » when participating in a cult of possession (dikhr) can nevertheless lead the initiate to a true encounter with the divine. xix
Bertrand Hell argues that simulations and deceptions about ecstasy can open up a fertile field of reflection, as evidenced by the concepts of « para-sincerity » (Jean Poirier), « lived theater » (Michel Leiris) or « true hallucination » (Jean Duvignaud). xx
In the definitions and examples of theurgies we have just gone through, it is a question of « making the divinity act » in itself, or « acting » on the divinity, and much more exceptionally of « creating » it. The only examples of a theurgy that « creates gods » are those evoked by Hermes Trismegistus, who speaks of man as the « maker of gods » (fictor deorum), and by Michel Psellus, with the somewhat allegorical sense of a theurgy that exercises itself on men to « transform them into gods ».
This is why Charles Mopsik’s project to study the notion of theurgy as it was developed in the Jewish cabal has a particularly original character. In this case, in fact, theurgy does not only mean « to make the god act upon man », or « to act upon the god » or « to make man divine », but it takes on the much more absolute, much more radical, and almost blasphemous meaning, particularly from a Jewish point of view, of « creating God », of « making God »xxi.
There is a definite semantic and symbolic leap here. Mopsik does not hesitate to propose this leap in the understanding of theurgy, because it was precisely the radical choice of the Spanish Jewish Kabbalah, for several centuries…
iAccording to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition.
The Jews, fierce defenders of the monotheistic idea, are also the faithful guardians of texts in which appear, on several occasions, what could be called ‘verbal trinities’, or ‘triple names’ of God, such as: « YHVH Elohenou YHVH » (Deut 6:4), « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), or « Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh « , expressed as a triple attribute of YHVH (Is 6:3).
The Zohar commented upon the first of these three-part names, « YHVH Elohenou YHVH », making a link with the « divine secret » embedded in the first sentence of the Torah: « Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’. Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » (Zohar 1:15b).
One could conclude that the One God does not therefore exclude a ‘Trinitarian’ phenomenology of His essential nature, which may be expressed in the words that designate Him, or in the names by which He calls Himself….
Among the strangest ‘triplets’ of divine names that the One God uses to name Himself is the expression, « I, I, Him », first mentioned by Moses (Deut 32:39), then repeated several times by Isaiah (Is 43:10; Is 43:25; Is 51:12; Is 52:6).
In Hebrew: אֲנִי אֲנִי הוּא ani ani hu’, « I, I, Him ».
These three pronouns are preceded by an invitation from God to ‘see’ who He is:
רְאוּ עַתָּה, כִּי אֲנִי הוּא
reou ‘attah, ki ani ani hu’.
Literally: « See now that: I, I, Him ».
This sentence is immediately followed by a reaffirmation of God’s singularity:
וְאֵין אֱלֹהִים, עִמָּדִי
v’éin elohim ‘imadi
« And there is no god (elohim) with Me ».
Throughout history, translators have endeavored to interpret this succession of three personal pronouns with various solutions.
The Septuagint chose to translate (in Greek) this triplet as a simple affirmation by God of his existence (ego eimi, « I am »), and transformed the original doubling of the personal pronoun in the first person singular (ani ani, « I I ») into a repetition of the initial imperative of the verb ‘to see’, which is used only once in the original text:
ἴδετε ἴδετε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι
idete, idete, oti ego eimi
« See, see, that I am ».
On the other hand, the third person singular pronoun disappears from the Greek translation.
The second part of the verse gives :
καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν θεὸς πλὴν ἐμοῦ-
kai ouk estin theos plén emou.
« and there is no God but Me. »
In the translation of the French Rabbinate adapted to Rashi’s commentary, one reads:
« See now, it is Me, I, I am Him, no god beside Me! »
We see that « ani ani hu’ » is translated as « It is Me, I, I am Him ».
Rashi comments on this verse as follows:
« SEE NOW. Understand by the chastisement with which I have struck you and no one could save you, and by the salvation I will grant you and no one can stop Me. – IT IS ME, I, I AM HIM. I to lower and I to raise. – NO GOD, BESIDE ME. Rises up against Me to oppose Me. עִמָּדִי: My equal, My fellow man. » i
Let’s try to comment on Rashi’s comment.
Rashi sees two « I’s » in God, an « I » that lowers and an « I » that raises.
The ‘I’ that lowers seems to be found in the statement ‘It is Me’.
The ‘I’ that raises is the ‘I’ as understood in the formula ‘I am Him’.
Rashi distinguishes between a first ani, who is the ‘I’ who lowers and punishes, and a second ani who is an ‘I’ who ‘raises’ and who is also a hu’, a ‘Him’, that is to say an ‘Other’ than ‘I’.
We infer that Rashi clearly supports the idea that there are two « I’s » in God, one of which is also a « Him », or that there are two « I’s » and one « Him » in Him…
As for the formula v’éin elohim ‘imadi (‘no god beside Me’, or ‘no god with Me’), Rashi understands it as meaning : ‘no god [who is my equal] is against me’.
Let us note that Rashi’s interpretation does not exclude a priori that God has an equal or similar God ‘with him’ or ‘beside him’, but that it only means that God does not have a God [similar or equal] ‘against him’.
In the translation of the so-called « Rabbinate Bible » (1899), the three pronouns are rendered in such a way as to affirm the emphasis on God’s solitary existence:
« Recognize now that I am God, I alone, and there is no God (Elohim) beside me! » ii
In this translation, note that the personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular (hu’) has completely disappeared. There is, however, a repeated affirmation of God’s ‘loneliness’ (‘I alone’, and ‘no God beside me’).
This translation by the French Rabbinate raises several questions.
Why has the expression ani hu’, « I Him », been translated by a periphrase (« it is I who am God, I alone »), introducing the words « God », « am » and « alone », not present in the original, while obliterating the pronoun hu’, « He »?
On the other hand, there is the question of the meaning of the 2nd part of the verse: if there is « no Elohim » beside God, then how to interpret the numerous biblical verses which precisely associate, side by side, YHVH and Elohim?
How can we understand, for example, the fact that in the second chapter of Genesis we find the expression יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים , YHVH Elohim, onnumerous occasions, if, as Deuteronomy states, that there is no Elohim « beside » YHVH?
Some elements of clarity may be gained from Isaiah’s use of the same curious expression.
Is 43,10 : כִּי-אֲנִי הוּא ki ani hu’, ‘that I Him’
Is 43, 11: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי, יְהוָה anokhi anokhi YHVH, ‘I, I, YHVH’
Is 43, 25: אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu’, ‘I, I, Him’
Is 51,12 : אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא anokhi anokhi hu‘, ‘I, I, Him’
Is 52,6 : כִּי-אֲנִי-הוּא הַמְדַבֵּר הִנֵּנִי ki ani hu’ hamdaber hinnéni, ‘that I, He, I speak, there’, sometimes translated as ‘that I who speak, I am there’.
In the light of these various verses, the personal pronoun hu’, ‘He’ can be interpreted as playing the role of a relative pronoun, ‘Him’.
But why should this personal pronoun in the 3rd person singular, hu’, « He », this pronoun which God calls Himself, somehow descend from a grammatical level, and become a relative pronoun, simply to comply with the requirement of grammatical clarity ?
In this context, it is necessary to preserve the difficulty and face it head on.
God, through the voice of Moses and Isaiah, calls Himself « I I He ».
What lesson can we get out of it?
First we can see the idea that God carries within His intrinsic unity a kind of hidden Trinity, here translated grammatically by a double « I » followed by a « He ».
Another interpretation, could be to read ‘I I He’ as the equivalent of the Trinity ‘Father Son Spirit’.
One could also understand, considering that the verb tobe is implicitly contained in the personal pronouns ani and hu’, inaccordance with Hebrew grammar: « I, [I am] an ‘I’ [who is] a ‘Him’ « .
In this reading, God defines Himself as an I whose essence is to be an Other I, or an Him.
As confirmed by His name revealed to Moses « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex 3:14), God is an I that is always in the process of becoming, according to the grammatical use of the imperfect in Ehyeh, ‘I will be’.
One learns from that that God is always in potentia. He always is the One who will be Other than who He is.
Never static. Always alive and becoming. The One who is the Other.
I know : that sounds pretty unacceptable for the general theological opinion.
But grammatically, this interpretation stands up.
More importantly, it is faithful to the letter of the Torah.
iThe Pentateuch, accompanied by Rachi’s commentary. Volume V. Deuteronomy. Translated by Joseph Bloch, Israël Salzer, Elie Munk, Ernest Gugenheim. Ed. S. and O. Foundation. Lévy. Paris, 1991, p. 227
Two years before his own death, C.G. Jung evoked as a strong possibility the prospect of the « definitive destruction » of the « Christian myth ».
However, psychology could still help « saving » this myth. Through a better understanding of mythology and its role in intrapsychic processes, « it would be possible to arrive at a new understanding of the Christian myth, and especially of its apparently shocking and unreasonable statements. If the Christian myth is not finally to become obsolete, which would mean a liquidation of unpredictable scope, the idea of a more psychologically oriented interpretation is necessary to save the meaning and content of the myth. The danger of definitive destruction is considerable. » i
Christianity, from the beginning, had already been considered « scandal for the Jews and folly for the Greeks »ii. Now, it had even become « shocking » and « unreasonable » for the Swiss and « obsolete » for psychologists.
The fall in religious vocations, the desertion of the faithful and the decline of the denarius were already beginning to be felt at the end of the 1950s of the last century. All this seemed to give some consistency to these Jungian prophecies of the « destruction » and « liquidation » of the « Christian myth » as a logical consequence of its supposed « obsolescence ».
The movement of disaffection with Christianity has not stopped growing over the last six decades, one might add, at least if we look at the indicators already mentioned.
Is the « Christian myth », to use Jung’s expression, now dying, or even « dead »?
And if so, can it still be « resurrected »?
And if it could indeed be resurrected, in what form, and for what purpose?
Like a Saint George slaying the dragon of obsolescence, an obsolescence less flamboyant than sneaky, silent, but swallowing credence, Jung brandishes in his time the victorious spear of psychology, the only one capable, according to him, of reviving the Christian myth.
To understand Jung’s idea of the assimilation of Christianity to a « myth » – and to a myth in the process of becoming obsolete, one must return to what underlies his entire understanding of the world, the existence of the unconscious, and the « creative » character of the psyche.
For Jung, any « representation » is necessarily « psychic ». « When we declare that something exists, it is because we necessarily have a representation of it (…) and ‘representation’ is a psychic act. Nowadays, however, ‘only psychic’ simply means ‘nothing’. Apart from psychology, only contemporary physics has had to recognize that no science can be practiced without the psyche. » iii
This last assertion seems to allude to the opinion of the Copenhagen Schooliv, hard fought by Einstein et al., but an opinion to which the latest conceptual and experimental developments seem to be giving reason today.
Despite such assurances, at the highest theoretical and experimental level of contemporary science, and despite the flattering successes of analytical psychology, C.G. Jung, while at the peak of his brilliant career, seemed bitter about having to fight again and again against the outdated cliché (typical of modern times) that « only psychic » means « nothing ».
No doubt cruelly wounded in the depths of his soul, C.G. Jung may have wanted to take a terrible revenge, by showing that this « nothing » can still, and in a short time, put down one of the most important foundations of European, and even world civilization…
The unconscious exists, it is a certainty for Jung, and for many people. But few have understood the immense power, almost divine, or even divine at all, of this entity.
« No one has noticed, » explains Jung, « that without a reflexive psyche, there is virtually no world, that therefore consciousness represents a second creator, and that cosmogonic myths do not describe the absolute beginning of the world, but rather the birth of consciousness as a second creator ». v
Before Jung: In the beginning God created the earth, etc.
After Jung: The Unconscious Mind created the idea that « God created the earth etc. ».
Myths correspond to psychic developments. They can grow and die, just like the latter. « The archetypes all have a life of their own that unfolds according to a biological model. » vi
This metaphor of the « biological model » must be taken literally, including birth, maturity and death.
« A myth is still a myth, even if some consider it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth; but it is doomed to death if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of faith. It is necessary, therefore, to renew one’s life from time to time through reinterpretation. Today Christianity is weakened by the distance that separates it from the spirit of the times, which is changing (…). It needs to re-establish the union or relationship with the atomic age, which represents an unprecedented novelty in history. The myth needs to be told anew in a new spiritual language ». vii
All the nuances of the biological model can be subsumed under a much broader concept of life, a much more global power of meaning, including in particular the idea of resurrection (– an idea, it will be recalled, « scandalous », « crazy » and « shocking »).
If we apply the idea of resurrection in particular to the Christian myth itself, it is possible that the latter in fact escapes its natural, « biological » destiny and its inevitable death, provided that it is subjected to a total « renovation », to an unprecedented reinterpretation, a sine qua non condition for its « resurrection« .
The idea of the « resurrection » of a myth incarnated by a dead Savior, and whose apostles based their faith on the certainty of his own resurrection (as Paul reminds us), is not lacking in salt.
But in order to taste this salt, it would be necessary to be able to reinterpret the resurrection of Christ under the species of a new « resurrection », which is more in accordance with the spirit of the (atomic) time.
The idea of an ‘atomic’ zeitgeist was probably obvious to a psychologist living in the 1950s, after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the rise of nuclear winter threats made tangible by Cold War arsenals.
Nowadays, the ‘spirit of the time’ of our time is a little less ‘atomic’, it seems, and more ‘climatic’ or ‘planetary’. It is inclined to let itself be influenced by new global threats, those towards which global warming and the foreseeable extinction of entire sections of the biosphere are pointing.
In this new context, what does it mean to « renovate » or « resurrect » the Christian myth of the « resurrection » (as distinct, for example, from the myths of the resurrection of Osiris or Dionysus)?
A first response would be to apply it (quite literally) to the putative resurrection of the millions of animal and plant species now extinct.
But would the idea of an « ecological » Christianity, relying for its own rebirth on the effective resurrection of billions of insects or amphibians, be enough to bring the faithful back to the parishes and to resurrect vocations?
This is doubtful.
It is not that we should not strive to bring back to life the dead species, if this is still humanly (or divinely?) possible. The modern myth that is being constituted before our eyes lets us imagine that one day a few traces of DNA will be enough to recreate disappeared worlds.
Such a re-creation by a few future learned priests, packed into their white coats and their spiritual laboratories, would then in itself be a kind of miracle, capable of melting the hardest, most closed hearts.
But one can also assume that this would still be insufficient to extricate the « Christian myth » from its spiral of obsolescence, in which accumulated millennia seem to lock it up.
But what? Will the resurrection of an immense quantity of fauna and flora, abolished from the surface of the globe, not be like a sort of living symbol of the resurrection of a Savior who died two thousand years ago?
Wouldn’t that be enough to announce to the world, urbi et orbi, that the very idea of resurrection is not dead, but alive again?
No, that would not be enough, one must argue with regret.
How can the resurrection of only half of the Earth’s biodiversity be weighed against the resurrection of the one universal Messiah?
The bids are going up, we can see it.
If Jung is right, the majority of humanity can no longer believe in the very myth of salvation and resurrection (as embodied by Christ in history two thousand years ago).
Why is that? Because this Messiah seems too dated, too local, too Galilean, too Nazarene even.
The story of that Messiah no longer lives on as before.
Why is that? The spirit of the times « has changed ».
And it is not the tales of the agony of the world’s fauna and flora, however moving they may be, that will be able to « convert » minds deprived of any cosmic perspective, and even more so of eschatological vision, to the call of a « renewed » Christian myth.
In the best of cases, the rescue and (momentary?) resurrection of half or even nine-tenths of the Anthropocene could never be more than a short beep on the radar of the long times.
We no longer live in Roman Judea. To be audible today, it would take a little more than the multiplication of a few loaves of bread, the walking on still waters or the resurrection of two or three comatose people; it would even take much more than the resurrection (adapted to the spirit of the time) of a Son of Man, a Son of God, both descended into Hell and ascended into Heaven.
After Season 1, which apparently ended with a sharply declining audience, Christianity’s Season 2, if it is to attract a resolutely planetary audience, must start again on a basis that is surprising for the imagination and fascinating for the intellect.
Reason and faith must be truly overwhelmed, seized, petrified with stupor, and then transported with « enthusiasm » by the new perspectives that want to open up, that must open up.
So one has to change words, worlds, times and perspectives.
The little Galilea must now compete with nebulous Galaxies.
The resurrected Carpenter must square black holes, plane universal constants and sweep away dark energy, like a simple cosmic sawdust.
The once dead Messiah must now truly live again before us, and at once tear all the veils, – the veils of all Temples, of all Ages, of all spirits, in all times, whether in the depths of galactic superclusters, or in the heart of quarks.
Quite an extensive program. But not unfeasable.
iLetter from C.G. Jung to Pastor Tanner Kronbühl (February 12, 1959). In C.G. Jung. The Divine in Man. 1999. p.136
« The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel. » (Isaiah 9:7)
Death, really? Upon Jacob? And upon Israel? Sent by the Lord Himself ?
The word « death » is in fact used in this verse in the famous translation of the Septuagint, made around 270 B.C. by seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria at the request of Ptolemy II. The Septuagint (noted LXX) uses the Greek word θάνατον, thanaton, which means « death ».
But in other translations, disregarding this catastrophic lesson of the LXX, Isaiah’s verse is translated much more neutrally as « word ».i
The Jerusalem Bible gives thus: « The Lord hath cast a word into Jacob, it is fallen upon Israel. »
In the original version, Hebrew uses the word דָּבָר , davar, whose primary meaning is « word ».
The dictionary also tells that this same word, דָּבָר , davar, can mean « plague » or « death », as in Exodus 9:3: « A very strong plague » or « a very deadly plague ». Here, the LXX gives θάνατος μέγας, « a great death ». In Hosea 13:14 the word davar means « plagues ».
If the noun דָּבָר , davar, carries this astonishing duality of meaning, the verb דָּבַר , davara, confirms it by adding a nuance of excess. Davara means « to speak, to say; to speak evil, to speak against », but also « to destroy, to exterminate ».
It seems that in Hebrew the sphere of meanings attached to davar and davara is not only potentially full of threats or (verbal) aggression, as in Numbers 12:1 (« Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses ») or in Ps 78:19 (« They spoke against God »), but also full of potential, fatal and deadly action, as in II Chr 22:10 (« She wiped out the whole royal race ») or in Ps 2:5 (« In his wrath he will destroy their mighty ones »).
Davar. Word. Plague. Death.
Davara. To speak. To exterminate.
Such ambivalence, so radical, implies that one can really decide on the meaning, – « word » or « extermination » ? – only by analyzing the broader context in which the word is used.
For example, in the case of Isaiah’s verse: « The Lord sent death upon Jacob and it came upon Israel », it is important to emphasize that the prophet continues to make terrible predictions, even darker:
« The Lord will raise up against them the enemies of Rezin. And he will arm their enemies. Aram on the east, the Philistines on the west, and they will devour Israel with full mouths » (Isaiah 9:10-11).
« So YHVH cut off from Israel head and tail, palm and rush, in one day » (Isaiah 9:13).
« By the wrath of YHVH Sabaoth the earth has been burned and the people are like the prey of fire » (Isaiah 9:18).
The context here clearly gives weight to an interpretation of davar as « death » and « extermination » and not simply as « word ».
The lesson in LXX appears to be correct and faithful to the intended meaning.
Another question then arises.
Is this use of the word davar in Isaiah unique in its kind?
Another prophet, Ezekiel, also reported terrible threats from God against Israel.
« I will make you a desolation, a derision among the nations that are round about you, in the sight of all who pass by » (Ez 5:14).
« I will act in you as I have never acted before and as I will never act again, because of all your abominations » (Ez 5:9).
« You shall be a mockery and a reproach, an example and a stupefaction to the nations around you, when I shall do justice from you in anger and wrath, with furious punishments. I, YHVH, have said » (Ez 5:15).
« And I will put the dead bodies of the Israelites before their filthiness, and I will scatter their bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be destroyed and the high places laid waste » (Ez 6:5).
We find in Ezekiel the word davar used in the sense of « plague » or « pestilence »:
« Thus says the Lord YHVH: Clap your hands, clap your feet and say, ‘Alas,’ over all the abominations of the house of Israel, which will fall by the sword, by famine and by pestilence (davar). He who is far away will die by the pestilence (davar). He who is near shall fall by the sword. That which has been preserved and spared will starve, for I will quench my fury against them » (Ez 6:11-12).
God is not joking. Davar is not « only » a plague. It is the prospect of an extermination, an annihilation, the final end.
« Thus says the Lord YHVH to the land of Israel: Finished! The end is coming on the four corners of the land. It is now the end for you. I will let go of my anger against you to judge you according to your conduct. (…) Thus says the Lord YHVH: Behold, evil is coming, one evil. The end is coming, the end is coming, it is awakening towards you, and behold, it is coming » (Ez 7:2-5).
Faced with this accumulation of threats of exterminating the people of Israel uttered by the Lord YHVH, an even deeper question arises.
Why does a God who created the worlds, and who has « chosen » Israel, decide to send « death », threatening to ensure the « end » of His Chosen People?
There is a question of simple logic that arises.
Why does an omnipotent and all-knowing God create a world and people that seem, in retrospect, so evil, so perverse, so corrupt, that He decides to send a word of extermination?
If God is omniscient, He should always have known that His creation would eventually provoke His unquenchable fury, shouldn’t he?
If He is omnipotent, why did He not immediately make Israel a people sufficiently satisfying in His eyes to at least avoid the pain of having to send death and extermination a few centuries later?
This is in fact a question that goes beyond the question of the relationship between God and Israel, but touches on the larger problem of the relationship between God and His Creation.
Why is a « Creator »-God also led to become, afterwards, an « Exterminator »-God ?
Why can the « Word » of God mean « Creation », then also mean « Extermination »?
There are only two possible answers.
Either God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, and then He is necessarily also cruel and perverse, as revealed by His intention to exterminate a people He has (knowingly) created « evil » and « corrupt » so that He can then « exterminate » them.
Either God is not omniscient and He is not omnipotent. But how come ? A possible interpretation is that He renounced, in creating the world, a part of His omniscience and omnipotence. He made a kind of « sacrifice », the sacrifice of His omnipotence and omniscience.
He made this sacrifice in order to raise His creatures to His own level, giving them real freedom, a freedom that in some strange way escapes divine « science » and « knowledge ».
Let us note that this sort of sacrifice was already a deep intuition of the Veda, as represented by the initial, primal, sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Lord of Creatures.
But why does a supreme God, the Creator of the Worlds, decide to sacrifice His omnipotence and omniscience for creatures who, as we can see, end up behaving in such a way that this supreme God, having somehow fallen back to earth, must resolve to send them « death » and promise them the « end »?
There is only one explanation, in my humble opinion.
It is that the Whole [i.e. God + Cosmos + Humanity] is in a mysterious way, more profound, more abysmal, and in a sense infinitely more « divine » than the divinity of a God alone, a God without Cosmos and without Anthropos.
Only the sacrifice of God, the sacrifice of God as not being anymore the sole « Being », in spite of all the risks abundantly described by Isaiah or Ezekiel, makes possible an « increase » of His own divinity, which He will then share with His Creation, and Humankind.
This is a fascinating line of research. It implies that Humanity has a shared but also « divine » responsibility about the future of the world, and to begin with, about the future of this small planet.
iThis debate over the meaning to be given to davar in this particular verse has been the subject of many commentaries. Théodoret de Cyr notes: « It should be noted that the other interpreters have said that it is a « word » and not « death » that has been sent. Nevertheless, their interpretation does not offer any disagreement: they gave the name of « word » to the decision to punish. « Basil adopts λόγον (« word »), and proposes another interpretation than Theodoret: it would be the Divine Word sent to the poorest, symbolized by Jacob. Cyril also gives λόγον, but ends up with the same conculsion as Theodoret: the « word » as the announcement of punishment. See Theodoret of Cyr, Commentaries on Isaiah. Translated by Jean-Noël Guinot. Ed. Cerf. 1982, p.13
Although they belong to very distant planets, Paul Valéry and Franz Kafka have at least one thing in common. Both had the honor of a celebration of their respective birthday and anniversary by Walter Benjamini .
Why did Benjamin want to give to such different writers such a symbolic tribute?
He was sensitive, I believe, to the fact that they both sought to formulate a kind of a « negative theology » in their work.
For Valéry, this negative theology is embodied in the figure of Monsieur Teste.
Benjamin explains: « Mr. Teste is a personification of the intellect that reminds us a lot of the God that Nicholas of Cusa’s negative theology deals with. All that one can suppose to know about Teste leads to negation. » ii
Kafka, for his part, « has not always escaped the temptations of mysticism »iii according to Benjamin, who quotes Soma Morgenstern on this subject: « There reigns in Kafka, as in all founders of religion, a village atmosphere»iv.
Strange and deliberately provocative sentence, which Benjamin immediately rejects after quoting it: « Kafka also wrote parables, but he was not a founder of religion.» v
Kafka indeed was not a Moses or a Jesus.
But was he at least a little bit of a prophet, or could he pass for the gyrovague apostle of an obscure religion, working modern souls in the depths?
Can we follow Willy Haas who decided to read Kafka’s entire work through a theological prism? « In his great novel TheCastle, Kafka represented the higher power, the reign of grace; in his no less great novel TheTrial, he represented the lower power, the reign of judgment and damnation. In a third novel, America, he tried to represent, according to a strict equalization, the earth between these two powers … earthly destiny and its difficult demands.»vi
Kafka, painter of the three worlds, the upper, the lower and the in-between?
W. Haas’ opinion also seems « untenable » in Benjamin’s eyes. He is irritated when Haas specifies: « Kafka proceeds […] from Kierkegaard as well as from Pascal, one can well call him the only legitimate descendant of these two thinkers. We find in all three of them the same basic religious theme, cruel and inflexible: man is always wrong before God.»vii
Kafka, – a Judeo-Jansenist thinker?
« No » said Benjamin, the wrathful guardian of the Kafkaesque Temple. But he does not specify how Haas’s interpretation would be at fault.
Could it be that man is always wrong, but not necessarily « before God »? Then in front of whom? In front of himself?
Or would it be that man is not always « wrong », and therefore sometimes right, in front of a Count Westwestviii?
Or could it be that man is really neither right nor wrong, and that God himself is neither wrong nor right about him, because He is already dead, or indifferent, or absent?
One cannot say. Walter Benjamin does not give the definitive answer, the official interpretation of what Kafka thought about these difficult questions. In order to shed light on what seems to be the Kafkaesque position, Benjamin is content to rely on a « fragment of conversation » reported by Max Brod :
« I remember an interview with Kafka where we started from the current Europe and the decline of humanity. We are, he said, nihilistic thoughts, ideas of suicide, which are born in the mind of God. This word immediately reminded me of the Gnostic worldview. But he protested: ‘No, our world is simply an act of bad humor on the part of God, on a bad day’. I replied: ‘So apart from this form in which the world appears to us, there would be hope…’ He smiled: ‘Oh, enough hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us’. »ix
Would God then have suicidal thoughts, for example like Stefan Zweig in Petropolis twenty years later, in 1942? But unlike Zweig, God doesn’t seem to have actually « committed suicide », or if He did, it was only by proxy, through men, in some way.
There is yet another interpretation to consider: God could have only « contracted » Himself, as the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria formulates it (with concept of tsimtsum), or « hollowed out » Himself, according to Paul’s expression (concept of kenosis).
Since we are reduced to the imaginary exegesis of a writer who was not a « founder of religion », can we assume the probability that every word that falls out of Franz Kafka’s mouth really counts as revealed speech, that all the tropes or metaphors he has chosen are innocent, and even that what he does not say may have more real weight than what he seems to say?
Kafka indeed did not say that ideas of suicide or nihilistic thoughts born « in the mind of God » actually apply to Himself. These ideas may be born in His mind, but then they live their own lives. And it is men who live and embody these lives, it is men who are (substantially) the nihilistic thoughts or suicidal ideas of God. When God « thinks », His ideas then begin to live without Him, and it is men who live from the life of these ideas of nothingness and death, which God once contemplated in their ‘beginnings’ (bereshit).
Ideas of death, annihilation, self-annihilation, when thought of by God, « live » as absolutely as ideas of eternal life, glory and salvation, – and this despite the contradiction or oxymoron that the abstract idea of a death that « lives » as an idea embodied in real men carries with it.
Thought by God, these ideas of death and nothingness live and take on human form to perpetuate and self-generate.
Is this interpretation of Kafka by himself, as reported by Max Brod, « tenable », or at least not as « untenable » as Willy Haas’ interpretation of his supposed « theology »?
Perhaps it is.
But, as in the long self-reflexive tirades of a K. converted to the immanent metaphysics of the Castle, one could go on and on with the questioning.
Even if it risks being heretical in Benjamin’s eyes!
Perhaps Max Brod did not report with all the desired precision the exact expressions used by Kafka?
Or perhaps Kafka himself did not measure the full significance of the words he uttered in the intimacy of a tête-à-tête with his friend, without suspecting that a century later many of us would be religiously commenting on and interpreting them, like the profound thoughts of a Kabbalist or an eminent jurist of Canon Law?
I don’t know if I myself am a kind of « idea », a « thought » by God, a « suicidal or nihilistic » idea, and if my very existence is due to some divine bad mood.
If I were, I can only note, in the manner of Descartes, that this « idea » does not seem to me particularly clear, vibrant, shining with a thousand fires in me, although it is supposed to have germinated in the spirit of God himself.
I can only observe that my mind, and the ideas it brings to life, still belong to the world of darkness, of twilight, and not to the world of dark night.
It is in this sense that I must clearly separate myself from Paul Valéry, who prophesied:
« Here comes the Twilight of the Vague and the reign of the Inhuman, which will be born of neatness, rigor and purity in human things. »x
Valéry associates (clearly) neatness, rigor and purity with the « Inhuman », – but also, through the logical magic of his metaphor, with the Night.
I may imagine that « the Inhuman » is for Valéry another name of God?
To convince us of this, we can refer to another passage from Tel Quel, in which Valéry admits:
« Our insufficiency of mind is precisely the domain of the powers of chance, gods and destiny. If we had an answer for everything – I mean an exact answer – these powers would not exist.»xi
On the side of the Insufficient Mind, on the side of the Vague and the Twilight, we therefore have « the powers of chance, of gods and of fate », that is to say almost everything that forms the original substance of the world, for most of us.
But on the side of « neatness », « rigor » and « purity », we have « the Inhuman », which will henceforth « reign in human things », for people like Valery.
Farewell to the gods then, they still belonged to the setting evening, which the Latin language properly calls « Occident » (and which the Arabic language calls « Maghreb »).
Now begins the Night, where the Inhuman will reign.
Thank you, Kafka, for the idea of nothingness being born in God and then living in Man.
Thank you, Valery, for the idea of the Inhuman waiting in the Night ahead of us.
In these circumstances, do we need any more prophets ?
iWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, pp. 322-329 , and « Franz Kafka. For the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. pp. 410-453
iiWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, p. 325
iiiWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 430
ivWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432
vWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432-433
viW. Haas, op.cit., p.175, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op.cit. p.435
viiW. Haas, op. cit., p. 176, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op. cit. p. 436.
viiiI make here an allusion to Count Westwest who is the master of Kafka’s Castle.
ixMax Brod. Der Dichter Franz Kafka. Die Neue Rundschau, 1921, p. 213. Quoted by W. Benjamin in op. cit. p. 417
xPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 621
xiPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 647
I’d like to compare here the use of various « grammatical » names of God, in the Veda and in the Zohar.
The idea of a « One » God is extremely old. More than four thousand years ago, long before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, the One God was already celebrated by nomadic peoples transhumant in Transoxiana to settle in the Indus basin, as attested by the Veda, and then, a few centuries later, by the peoples of ancient Iran, as reported by the sacred texts of the Avesta.
But the strangest thing is that these very diverse peoples, belonging to cultures thousands of years and thousands of miles apart, have called God by the interrogative pronoun. They named God by the name « Who ?» and other grammatical variations.
Even more surprisingly, some three thousand five hundred years after this innovation appeared, the Jewish Kabbalah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, took up this same idea of using the interrogative pronoun as a Name of God, developed it and commented on it in detail in the Zohar.
It seems that there is rich material for a comparative anthropological approach to various religions celebrating the God named « Who? »
The Vedic priests prayed to the one and supreme God, creator of the worlds, Prajāpati, – the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) ». In the Rig Veda, Prajāpati is referred to as क (Ka, « who »), in hymn 121 of the 10th Mandala.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
Only He was the born sovereign of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He who gives life and strength,
He whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only His shadow!
– To ‘Who? »-God will we offer the sacrifice?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
Max Müller asserts the pre-eminence of the Veda in the invention of the pronoun « Who » as a name of God: « The Brâhmans did indeed invent the name Ka ofGod. The authors of Brahmaṇas have broken so completely with the past that, forgetting the poetic character of the hymns and the poets’ desire for the unknown God, they have promoted an interrogative pronoun to the rank of deityii.
In the Taittirîya-samhitâiii, the Kaushîtaki-brâhmaṇaiv, the Tâṇdya-brâhmaṇavand the Satapatha-brâhmaṇavi , whenever a verse is presented in interrogative form, the authors say that the pronoun Ka which carries the interrogation designates Prajāpati. All hymns in which the interrogative pronoun Ka was found were called Kadvat, i.e., ‘possessing the kad‘, – or ‘possessing the who?
The Brahmans even formed a new adjective for everything associated with the word Ka. Not only the hymns but also the sacrifices offered to the God Ka were referred to as « Kâya »’vii.
The use of the interrogative pronoun Ka to designate God, far from being a kind of limited rhetorical artifice, had become the equivalent of a theological tradition.
Another question arises. If we know that Ka actually refers to Prajāpati, why use (with its burden of uncertainty) an interrogative pronoun, which seems to indicate that one cannot be satisfied with the expected and known answer?
Further west to the highlands of Iran, and half a millennium before the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, the Yashts, among the oldest hymns of the Avesta, also proclaim this affirmation of the One God about himself: « Ahmi yat ahmi » (« I am who I am »)viii.
God is named this way in Avestic language through the relative pronoun yat, « who », which is another way of grammatically dealing with the uncertainty of God’s real name.
A millennium before Moses, Zarathushtra asked the one God: « Reveal to me Your Name, O Ahura Mazda, Your highest, best, most just, most powerful Name ».
Then Ahura Mazda answered: « My Name is the One, – and it is in ‘question’, O holy Zarathushtra! « »ix .
The Avestic text literally says: « Frakhshtya nâma ahmi« , which can be translated word for word: « He who is in question (Frakhshtya), as for the name (nâma), I am (ahmi)« . x
Curiously enough, long after the Veda and the Avesta, the Hebrew Bible also gives the One God these same « grammatical » names, « Who » or « He Who ».
We find this use of the interrogative pronoun who (מִי , mi ) in the verse from Isaiahxi: מִי-בָרָא אֵלֶּה (mi bara éleh), « Who created that? ».
As for the relative pronoun « who, whom » (אֲשֶׁר , asher), it is staged in a famous passage from Exodusxii: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), « I am who I am », or more acurately, « I will be who I will be », taking into account the imperfect tense of ‘ehyeh’.
The latter option leaves open the possibility of a future revelation, of another Name yet, or of a divine essence whose essence would have no grammatically formulable essence, but could be rendered only approximately, for example by means of a relative pronoun and a verbal form in the future .
Two millennia after Isaiah, in the midst of the European Middle Ages, the famous book of the Jewish Kabbalah, the Zohar, attributed to Moses de Leon, focused on a detailed study of the name Mi (« Who? ») of God.
One of the tracks that emerges from this interrogation is the intrinsically divine relationship of Mi (Who) to Mâ(What) and to Eleh (That).
« It is written: « In the beginning ». Rabbi Eleazar opened one of his lectures with the following exordium: « Lift up your eyes (Is 40:28) and consider who created this ». « Lift up your eyes up, » to what place? To the place where all eyes are turned. And what is that place? It is the « opening of the eyes ». There you will learn that the mysterious Elder, the eternal object of research, created this. And who is He? – Mi » (= Who). He is the one who is called the « Extremity of Heaven », above, for everything is in his power. And it is because he is the eternal object of research, because he is in a mysterious way and because he does not reveal himself that he is called « Mi » (= Who); and beyond that we must not go deeper. This upper end of the Heaven is called « Mi » (= Who). But there is another end at the bottom, called « Mâ » (= What). What is the difference between the two? The first, mysterious one, called « Mi », is the eternal object of search; and, after man has searched, after he has tried to meditate and to go up from step to step until he reaches the last one, he finally arrives at « Mâ » (= What). What did you learn? What did you understand? What did you look for? Because everything is as mysterious as before. This mystery is alluded to in the words of Scripture: ‘Mâ (= What), I will take you as a witness, Mâ (= What), I will be like you' ». xiii
What are we learning, indeed? What have we understood?
Mi is a Name of God. It is an eternal object of research.
Can it be reached? No.
One can only reach this other noun, which is still only a pronoun, Mâ (= What).
You look for « Who » and you reach « What ».
This Mâis not the sought-after Mi, but of Mâ we can say, as Scripture testifies: « Mâ, I will take you as a witness, Mâ, I will be like you. » xiv
The Zohar indicates indeed:
« When the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, a heavenly voice came and said, « Mâ (= What) will give you a testimony, » for I have testified every day from the first days of creation, as it is written, « I take heaven and earth as my witness this day. « And I said, « Mâ will be like you, » that is, He will give you sacred crowns, very much like His own, and make you ruler over the world. » xv
The God whose Name is Mi is not the God whose Name is Mâ, and yet they are one.
And above all, under the Name of Mâ, He will one day be the ‘equal’ of anyone who seeks Him in all things, at least according to the Zohar:
« Just as the sacred people no longer enter the holy walls today, so I promise you that I will not enter my dwelling place above until all the troops have entered your walls below. May this be your consolation, for in this form of « What » (Mâ) I will be your equal in all things. » xvi
The man who ‘seeks’ God is placed between Mi and Mâ, in an intermediate position, just as Jacob was once.
« For Mi, the one who is the upper echelon of the mystery and on whom all depends, will heal you and restore you; Mi, the end of heaven from above, and Mâ, the end of heaven from below. And this is Jacob’s inheritance that forms the link between the upper end Mi and the lower end Mâ, for he stands in the midst of them. This is the meaning of the verse: « Mi (= Who) created that » (Is 40:26). » xvii
But that’s not all. Isaiah’s verse has not yet delivered its full weight of meaning. What does « that » mean?
« Rabbi Simeon says, « Eleazar, what does the word ‘Eleh‘ (= That) mean? It cannot refer to the stars and other heavenly bodies, since they are always seen and since the heavenly bodies are created by « Mâ« , as it is written (Ps 33:6): « By the Word of God the heavens were created. » Neither can it refer to secret objects, since the word « Eleh » can only refer to visible things. This mystery had not yet been revealed to me until the day when, as I stood by the sea, the prophet Elijah appeared to me. He said to me, « Rabbi, do you know the meaning of the words, ‘Who (Mi) created that (Eleh)? «
I answered him, « The word ‘Eleh‘ means the Heavens and the heavenly bodies, and Scripture commands man to contemplate the works of the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is written (Ps 8:4): « When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, etc ». and a little further on (Ibid., 10): « God, our master, how wonderful is your name on all the earth. «
Elijah replied: Rabbi, this word containing a secret was spoken before the Holy One, blessed be He, and its meaning was revealed in the Heavenly School, here it is: When the Mystery of all Mysteries wished to manifest itself, He first created a point, which became the Divine Thought; then He drew all kinds of images on it, engraved all kinds of figures on it, and finally engraved on it the sacred and mysterious lamp, an image representing the most sacred mystery, a profound work coming out of the Divine Thought. But this was only the beginning of the edifice, existing but not yet existing, hidden in the Name, and at that time called itself only « Mi« . Then, wanting to manifest Himself and be called by His Name, God put on a precious and shining garment and created « Eleh » (That), which was added to His Name.
« Eleh« , added to inverted « mi » [i.e. ‘im’], formed « Elohim« . Thus the word « Elohim » did not exist before « Eleh » was created. It is to this mystery that the culprits who worshipped the golden calf alluded when they cried out (Ex 32:4): « Eleh » is your God, O Israel. » xviii
We learn in this passage from the Zohar that the true essence of the golden calf was neither to be a calf nor to be made of gold. The golden calf was only a pretext to designate « that ».
It was only there to designate the essence of « Eleh » (That), the third instanciation of the divine essence, after that of « Mi » and that of « Mâ » …
As the Zohar indicates, this can be deduced by associating the Name « Mi » (Who?) with the Name « Eleh » (That), which allows us to obtain the Name « Elohim » (God), after inverting mi into im, ...
The Name Mi, the Name Mâ and the Name Eleh were not primarily divine nouns, but only pronouns (interrogative, relative, demonstrative).
These divine pronouns, in which lies a powerful part of mystery because of their grammatical nature, also interact between themselves. They refer to each other a part of their deeper meaning. The « Who » calls the « What », and they both also refer to a grammatically immanent « That ».
The grammatical plane of interpretation is rich. But can a more theological reading be attempted? I think so.
These three Divine Names, « Who », « What » and « That », form a kind of proto-trinity, I’d like to suggest.
This proto-trinity evokes three attributes of God:
He is a personal God, since we can ask the question « Who? » about Him.
He is a God who may enter in relation, since relative pronouns (« Whom », « What ») can designate Him.
Finally He is an immanent God, since a demonstrative pronoun (« That ») can evoke Him.
Even if Judaism claims an absolute « unity » of the divine, it cannot help but hatch within itself Trinitarian formulations – here, in grammatical form.
This Trinitarian phenomenology of the divine in Judaism, in the grammatical form it borrows, does not make it any less profound or any less eternally perennial. For if there is indeed an ever-present symbol, always at work, of the original wiring of the human mind, it is grammar…
In a million years, or even in seven hundred million years from now, and whatever idea of the divine will reign then, I guess that there will still be a transhuman or posthuman grammar to evoke the categories of the Who, the What, and the That, and to make them look as aspects or ‘faces’ of the Divine.
The Jewish Kabbalah pits the Prophet against the Wise man, and puts the Wise man above the Prophet. Why this hierarchical order? Is it justified? What does it teach us? What can we expect from this vision of things?
Let’s start with some elements of argumentation, against prophetism.
« The Wise man always prevails over the Prophet, for the Prophet is sometimes inspired and sometimes not, while the Holy Spirit never leaves the Wise men; they have knowledge of what has happened Up-There and Down-Here, and they are under no obligation to reveal it. » i
The Wise men « know ». Their wisdom is such that they even dispense with the risk of speaking about it publicly. There would only be blows to be taken, trouble guaranteed. And for what benefit? In their great wisdom, the Wise men are careful not to « reveal » what they « know ». It is precisely because they are « wise » that they do not reveal what is the basis of their « wisdom ».
What do they do then, if they do not reveal their knowledge to the world? Well, they continue to deepen it, they study to climb the ladder of knowledge constantly.
« Those who study the Torah are always preferable to the prophets. They are indeed of a higher level, for they hold themselves Above, in a place called Torah, which is the foundation of all faith. Prophets stand at a lower level, called Netsah and Hod. Therefore, those who study the Torah are more important than the prophets, they are superior to them. » ii
This frontal antagonism between sages and prophets has a long history. It can be summed up in the age-old rivalry between prophetic Judaism and rabbinic Judaism.
Gershom Scholem, who has studied the great currents of Jewish mysticism, notes « an essential point on which Sabbatianism and Hasidism converge, while moving away from the rabbinic scale of values, namely: their conception of the ideal type of man to whom they attribute the function of leader. For rabbinic Jews, especially at that time, the ideal type recognized as the spiritual leader of the community was the scholar, the Torah student, the educated Rabbi. From him, no inner rebirth is required. (…) In place of these masters of the Law, the new movements gave birth to a new type of leader, the seer, the man whose heart was touched and changed by God, in a word, the prophet. » iii
The rivalry between the scholar and the seer can be graduated according to a supposed scale, which would symbolically link the Below and the Above. For rabbinic Judaism, the talmudic scholar, the student of the Torah, is « superior » to the seer, the prophet, or the one whose heart has been changed by God.
Once a sort of scale of comparison is established, other hierarchies proliferate within the caste of the « masters of the Law ». They are based on the more or less proper way of studying the Law, on the more or less proper way of approaching the Torah.
The texts testify to this.
« Why is it written on the one hand, ‘For thy grace is exalted to the heavens’? (Ps 57:11) and on the other hand: ‘Your grace is greater than the heavens’ (Ps 108:5)? There is no contradiction between these two verses. The first refers to those who do not care about the Torah in a selfless way, while the second applies to those who study in a selfless way. » iv
One might conclude (probably too hastily) that it is therefore in one’s interest to be disinterested (as to the purpose of the study), and to be disinterested in any interest (for the purpose of the Torah), if one wants to know the grace that « transcends the heavens ».
But another avenue of research opens up immediately.
Rather than only concerning those who ‘study the Torah’, the grace that ‘ascends to heaven’ and the grace that ‘transcends heaven’ could apply respectively to the masters of the Law and the prophets, – unless it is the other way around? How do we know?
We have just seen that the Zohar resolutely takes sides with the superiority of the masters of the Law over the seers and the prophets. But the ambivalence of the texts of the Hebrew Bible undoubtedly allows for many other interpretations.
Perhaps we can draw on the sayings of the Prophets themselves to form an opinion about them, and try to see if what they have to say can « reach beyond the heavens »?
Isaiah states about his own prophetic mission:
« Yes, so spoke YHVH to me when his hand grasped me and taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying :
‘You will not call a conspiracy all that this people calls a conspiracy, you will not share their fears and you will not be terrified of them. It is YHVH Tsebaot whom you will proclaim holy; it is He who will be the object of your fear and terror.
He will be a sanctuary, a rock that brings down, a stumbling block for the two houses of Israel, a net and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble, fall and break, and they will be trapped and captured.
Enclose a testimony, seal an instruction in the heart of my disciples’.
I hope in YHVH that hides His face from Jacob’s house. » v
According to Isaiah’s testimony, YHVH declares that He himself is a ‘rock that makes fall’, a ‘stumbling block’, a ‘net and snare’. But a little further on Isaiah radically reverses this metaphor of the ‘stone’ and gives it the opposite meaning :
« Thus says the Lord YHVH:
Behold, I am going to lay in Zion a stone, a granite stone, a cornerstone, a precious stone, a well-established foundation stone: he who trusts in it shall not be shaken. » vi
To paraphrase what was said above about self-serving and selfless study of the Torah, let us argue that the ‘well-grounded foundation stone’ applies to true prophets.
On the other hand, the ‘stumbling block’ refers to the ‘insolent’, those who have ‘made a covenant with death’, who have made ‘lies’ their ‘refuge’ and who have ‘hidden in falsehood’vii, as well as false prophets, priests and all those who claim to ‘teach lessons’ and ‘explain doctrines’….
Isaiah eructs and thunderstruck. His fury bursts out against the pseudo-Masters of the Law.
« They, too, were troubled by the wine, they wandered about under the effect of the drink. Priest and prophet, they were troubled by drink, they were taken with wine, they wandered with drink, they were troubled in their visions, they wandered in their sentences. Yes, all the tables are covered with abject vomit, not a clean place! » viii
The false prophets and priests are drunk and roll around in their abject vomit… Their visions are troubled… Their sentences are rambling… They stutter, they donkey absurd sentences, but YHVH will give them their derisory lessons and knock them off their pedestals :
« Who does He teach the lesson to? To whom does He explain the doctrine? To children barely weaned, barely out of the teat, when He says: ‘çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘ ix. Yes, it is with stuttering lips and in a foreign language that He will speak to this people (…) Thus YHVH will speak to them thus: çav laçav, çav laçav; qav laqav, qav laqav; ze ‘êr sham, ze ‘êr sham‘, so that as they walk they may fall backwards, be broken, be trapped, be imprisoned. » x
As we can see, Isaiah had, more than a millennium beforehand, already warned of the subtle contempt and the self-satisfaction of the Kabbalistic scholars, and of the pseudo-sapiential sentences of rabbinic masters.
Today, what has become of the ancient bipolarity of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism?
It seems that rabbinic Judaism now occupies almost all the ideological terrain. The time of the (true) prophets has indeed been over for more than two millennia. The (false) prophets have been particularly discredited since the recurrent proliferation of multiple « Messiahs » (ranging from Jesus Christ to Isaac Luria, Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza…).
There is little hope that the Messiah will risk to come again on the world stage any time soon. We know now what it cost the daring ones who ventured to take the role.
What future, then, for the Eternal People? What future for Judaism in a shrinking, suffering planet, threatened from all sides, especially by war, injustice, biological death?
I don’t know, not being wise enough.
I only know that, in truth, probably only a prophet would be able to answer these questions…
iZohar II 6b (Shemot). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
iiZohar III 35a (Tsav). Quoted by Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Verdier 1986, p.215.
iiiGershom Scholem. The great currents of Jewish mysticism. Trad. M.-M. Davy. Ed. Payot et Rivages, Paris, 2014, pp.483-484
ivRabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn. The soul of life. Fourth portico: Between God and man: the Torah. Ed. Verdier 1986, p.210.