The photo of a black hole 50 million light-years away, located at the center of the M87 galaxy, has been released to great media fanfare, justifiably so. However the photo is blurry and unassuming. But the most disappointing thing is the absolute emptiness of the journalistic comments accompanying the publication: not a shadow of an evocation of possible philosophical opening, not the slightest beginning of a broader reflection, for example on the possible cosmological links between black holes and the nature of the universe, on the question of the mystery of its origin or its metaphysical « end », which is even more opaque.
It is true that metaphysical questions are nowadays past fashionable occupations, and even highly suspect in the eyes of the scientists and materialists who abound around the world.
The dominant ideology ‘dominates’, and the ‘world civilization’ has clearly lost interest in the Mystery.
The ‘world civilization’ no longer has the desire to contemplate what is entirely beyond her views, and makes her infinitely smaller, deep down.
She prefers to focus on (material) images and (positivist) ideas.
The trend is not new. It has been described many times since the 19th century.
Oswald Spengler, for example, at the beginning of the last century, in the midst of industrial and technical expansion, wrote these critical lines:
« One thing is to know that there are mysteries, that the world is nothing but a unique and impenetrable mystery. An era that loses this faith no longer has a soul. Then begin the arrogant questions, based on the belief that the mystery is nothing more than a temporary unknown, that the spirit of interrogation can decipher. » i
Spengler, it will be said, is now only a sulphurous, discredited author. To quote him is undoubtedly tantamount to taking some risks.
But in his own way, Spengler testifies to a vanished universe and a vision of the world that is not very « modern », where heroes and saints were still venerated (horresco referens):
« The hero despises death, and the saint despises life. » ii
Oswald Spengler, and it was undoubtedly there, among other things, a fatal error, especially committed the indelicacy of pointing out with sharpness the « decline » of the West, while giving the impression of regretting this programmed shipwreck.
Rather than attacking the West alone, it would probably have been better to condemn the decline of the « humankind », and to castigate the progressive decline of humanity as a whole.
That would have been politically more correct, but the proponents of progressivism would have been more enraged than ever with him.
From a strictly philosophical point of view, it is probable that Spengler would in fact have been unable to give flesh and substance to the concept of « humanity » and to expressions such as « the human » or « man per se » – all formulations whose relevance he denied, and whose origin he attributed to the « chatter of philosophers »:
« There is no such thing as « man per se », as the gossip of the philosophers claims, but only men of a certain time, in a certain place, of a certain race, endowed with a personal nature that imposes itself or succumbs in its struggle against a given world, while the universe, in its divine carelessness, remains immutable around it. This struggle is life. » iii
In this « struggle for life », then, does the « man per se » still have a future?
Or is the future only reserved for men of a certain place, a certain race, a certain religion, for fighters imposing themselves on the world?
The question is worth restating in the form of an alternative:
On the one hand, the World Civil War, – men becoming wolves to other men, tribes seeking to ruthlessly impose themselves on other tribes.
On the other side, World Civil Peace, and all men united in the search for mystery.
I opt for future, universal peace, trusting in the words of Joel:
« I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your elders will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on slaves, men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit.»iv
But what relationship, one will ask, between the decline of the West, black holes and the outpouring of the Spirit?
The West is declining because it has admittedly made itself incapable of getting a feel for the presence of the Mystery as such, — the Mystery that is incarnated in many ways, such as black holes or any outpouring of Spirit.
The title of the Bardo Thödol, a.k.a. The Tibetan Book of the Dead i, literally means: « Liberation by understanding » (Thödol), « in the state after death » (Bardo).
This book sets out to describe what will happen to the « consciousness » just after death and during the next few days. It narrates with astonishing precision what happens during the agony, and then the passage of the « consciousness » of the dead person through the intermediate stage of the Bardo, during which he or she will have to strive to make the crucial choices still to be made: to attain ultimate enlightenment and become Buddha, or, failing that, to be reborn into the phenomenal world.
TheBardo Thödol belongs to the Buddhist tradition known as the « Great Path » (or « Great Vehicle »), Mahāyāna. It is remarkable that none of the other (Eastern or Western) great world religions can provide a text that is in any way comparable to it.
The Bardo Thödol is divided into three parts. The first, called Tchikhai-Bardo, describes the psychic processes that take place at the very moment of death. The second part, called Tchönyid-Bardo, deals with the state that follows actual death, a state during which the « consciousness » of the dead person must realize the definitive end of the illusions linked to his karma and the possibility that he is then given the opportunity to reach the state of Buddha. The third part, called Sidpa-Bardo, deals with the consequences of failure, which is always possible, and the impossibility of « consciousness » to enter the immutable Light of Amitābha Buddha, which implies the need to « come down » into the world of phenomena and « be born again ».
While the Tibetan Book of the Dead is unique in world literature, it does have some troubling analogies with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
These analogies concern the way in which the « consciousness » of the dead person is confronted with her new « state » and the means at her disposal to try to come out of it, that is to say, to « divinize » herself.
The mere fact that we can speak of analogies between such apparently distant texts can be interpreted in two ways.
This may be evidence of a deep but hidden link between one of the essential foundations of the ancient Egyptian religion and the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which is still alive today. One might even surmise the existence of influences, direct or otherwise, of one of these traditions on the other in earlier times.
If we exclude the hypothesis of such influence or sharing of ideas between Egypt and Tibet, this would indicate that a similar, parallel but independent development of these two traditions (Egyptian and Tibetan) has been possible in very different circumstances and in very distant contexts. From this, we should deduce the existence of « anthropological constants », working tirelessly within humanity, and revealing themselves in a brilliant way here and there, in two particularly shining spiritual centers (one now disappeared and museumized, but the other still active, through the influence of Buddhism Mahāyāna).
The formula « anthropological constant » can easily be replaced, if one prefers, by that of « archetypes » emanating from the « collective unconscious », to use C.-G. Jung’s terminology.
C.-G. Jung read the Tibetan Book of the Dead very carefully and made a scholarly commentary on it, from an angle qualified as « psychological »ii.
What strikes him immediately is that the supreme intelligence and enlightenment, which opens up the possibility of penetrating the « Clear Light » and of identifying with the « Buddha », are offered to the consciousness during the agony of the dying person, even before actual death, and again immediately after death.
« The highest vision available to us does not occur at the end of the Bardo, but quite at the beginning of the Bardo, at the moment of death, and what happens afterwards is a gradual slide into illusion and confusion, until the decline into a new physical birth. The spiritual climax is reached at the end of life. Human life is therefore the vehicle of highest completion; in it alone is created the karma that allows the deceased to remain in the emptiness of luminous fullness and thus to ascend to the hub of the wheel of rebirth, delivered from all illusion concerning birth and death. » iii
But if, for one reason or another, this opportunity to attain this « highest vision » does not materialize at the moment of death, all is not yet lost.
There remains the entire subsequent period of the Bardo, which lasts seven weeks, or forty-nine days, and which is supposed to offer the « consciousness » of the dead multiple other opportunities to penetrate and, above all, to remain in the « luminous plenitude ». To do so, it must discover that « the soul is itself the light of the divinity, and the divinity is the souliv.
During these seven weeks, prayers and exhortations are pronounced by the living who surround the dead and assist him in his (last?) journey. It is a question of helping him to finally obtain his liberation and enlightenment, by removing « illusions » and false leads. Many opportunities are offered, perfectly described in the Tchönyid-Bardo.
Any missed opportunity leads the « consciousness » gradually (but not inexorably) to a much less pleasant prospect, that of an imposed rebirth, a necessary reincarnation, involving a new cycle, a new karma.
Death puts us before a binary choice: either we become Buddha or we are condemned to be reborn.
In the latter case, one finds oneself in a womb, and one then understands, no doubt too late, that one is destined to be reborn…C.-G. Jung sums up: « Initiation takes place in the Bardo-Thödol as a climax a maiori ad minus andends with rebirth in utero. » v
He notes that the Bardo-Thödol process is the exact opposite of the analytical, Freudian process:
« In the analytical process, – awareness of unconscious psychic contents, the European crosses this specifically Freudian domain in the opposite direction. He returns in a way to the infantile world of sexual fantasies usque ad uterum. Psychoanalysis has even defended the point of view that birth itself is the traumatism par excellence; it has even claimed to have recovered memories of intra-uterine origin. » vi
But there is an absolutely essential difference between Jung’s analysis and that of Bardo...
For the Bardo-Thödol, the fact of being in utero is a sign of the failure of consciousness, which has not been able (or able) to leave the cycle of rebirths.
For psychoanalysis, the usque ad uterum is, on the contrary, the symptom of a successful analysis!
In any case, one cannot but be astonished by the powerful parallelisms that are possible through the comparative study of religions and myths as well as the psychology of dreams and psychoses, described by Jung as « veritable mines ».
The lesson to be drawn from the comparison between Bardo Thödol and Western theories of the unconscious is indeed of immense significance. Jung infers « the existence of a remarkable identity of the human soul at all times and in all places. In fact, the archetypal forms of the imagination are everywhere and always spontaneously reproduced, without the slightest direct transmission being imaginable. This is because these primitive structural relationships of the psyche present the same surprising uniformity as those of the visible body. The archetypes are, as it were, organs of the pre-rational psyche. » vii
Jung also points out in this regard that there is, in his opinion, no inheritance of individual prenatal memories. There are only fundamental, archetypical structures that can be transmitted by heredity. These structures are devoid of any subjective content, of any individual experience. But in certain circumstances, for example during existential traumas, such as birth or death, these structures can deploy all their hidden potential, and generate images, facilitate perceptions, provoke acts, and reinforce consciousness.
Thus, the state of Sidpa-Bardo, during which consciousness is confronted with the imminence of a « rebirth » and a « reincarnation, » can be interpreted psychologically, according to Jung, as the development of a « will to live and be born, » – a will to live that Jung absolutely values .
We are here, to say it emphatically, at the heart of the East-West difference.
We are here at one of these global crossroads, where flows of fundamental misunderstanding between « cultures », « worldviews » cross paths.
It is also here that we see how Western masters of psychological analysis (Freud, Jung) demonstrate their absolute inability to understand and even more so to accept the Buddhist point of view, as formulated by Bardo Thödol.
Freud and Jung both find Bardo Thödol, rather strangely enough, in « the womb ». But they arrive there coming from different directions, – and they both want to get out, through different exits…
Bardo Thödol expresses the idea that it is necessary to come out of this uterine state at all costs, but above all not through the natural way. It is necessary to « close the womb » and try to « go back » to the previous states…
Freud and Jung, for slightly different but similar reasons, are pleased to have discovered through analysis « the origin of the world », and this discovery having been made, they hasten to want to come out of it too, but naturally, – i.e. through the vagina -, and they exalt in this respect the glory of « wanting to live » and « being born ».
For the comparatist, this primal, mythical place, in utero, thus appears as the absolute summit of the reciprocal incomprehension of the two cultures.
For Bardo Thödol, the fact that the « consciousness » has reached this special locus is the result of a form of descent. It is a sign that the soul has repeatedly missed its chance to become « Buddha » after death. Being in utero is a state of relative fall, especially in relation to the moments associated with agony and physical death. The only possibility of escaping the fatal fate (of rebirth) would then be for the individual soul to « categorically refuse to be reborn to the conscious world », as Jung puts it (here we feel the hint of disapproval that this perspective inspires in him…).
Jung radically reverses the process of death and the final choice (to be reborn or not), as described by Bardo Thödol.
It also absolutely reverses the valuation which it is advisable, according to him, to give to the choice to be reborn or not.
When I say that it « radically reverses » the process described by Bardo Thödol, we must take it literally.
Indeed, Jung takes the text of Bardo Thödol from the end, and decides to read it backwards…
To justify this, Jung claims that it was the Bardo Thödol who in fact « reversed » the initiatory path, taking the « eschatological expectations of Christianity » completely in the wrong direction.
« The book [the Bardo Thödol] describes an inverted initiatory path [sic] that prepares the descent into physiological becoming, thus in a way opposing the eschatological expectations of Christianity. The European, intellectualist and rationalist, being a total prisoner of the world, it is preferable to first invert the Thödol and to consider it as the description of oriental initiatory experiences, since the deities of the Bardo Tchönyid can be freely replaced by Christian symbols. » viii
Jung is perfectly aware of the handling he recommends.
« The inversion of the succession of chapters, which I propose in order to make it easier to understand, certainly does not correspond to the intention of the Bardo-Thödol. » ix
Nevertheless, he pushes this « inversion » even further, once again placing himself in exactly the opposite perspective to that described by the Bardo-Thödol.
Regardless of the Buddhist significance of the passage from the Tchönyid-Bardo state (the torment of karmic illusions) to the Sidpa-Bardo state (i.e., the in utero confrontation with rebirth), Jung considers what the passage from Sidpa-Bardo to Tchönyid-Bardo would imply « psychologically », to condemn it, by decreeing its « danger » and « insecurity ».
« The transition from the Sidpa state to the Chönyid state is thus a dangerous inversion of the aspirations and intentions of the conscious state, a sacrifice of the security offered by conscious egoism and an abandonment to the extreme insecurity of an apparently chaotic game of fantasy figures. When Freud coined the expression that the self is « the true locus of anguish, » he expressed a true and profound intuition. » x
Translated into Western vocabulary, if the disinherited soul decided to face the « danger » of returning to the Chönyid state, she would have to offer desperate resistance to the prejudices of reason, to renounce the supremacy of the ego, and to consent, as it were, to the end of conscious, rational and morally responsible conduct in life: « In practice, this is a surrender, fraught with consequences, before the objective forces of the soul, a kind of metaphorical death which corresponds to the passage of Sidpa Bardo devoted to the Last Judgment. » xi
What must be understood is that there is only one « rational » way, the one that leads from Sidpa Bardo to birth. Any other path would be nothing more than a psychic illusion propagated by the collective unconscious, as Jung asserts.
« Even Buddha’s five dhyani are psychic data, and this is what the deceased must understand, if he has not yet understood in the course of his life that his soul and the giver of all data are one and the same thing. The world of gods and spirits » is nothing but « the collective unconscious within me. But to invert this sentence so that it says: the unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside of me, it does not take any intellectual acrobatics, but a whole human life, perhaps even a plurality of increasingly complete lives.»xii
Again, the inversion!
On the one hand, « the world of gods and spirits » is nothing more than « the collective unconscious in me. »
On the other hand, « the unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside of me ».
What to choose? What is the ultimate reality? The self? The collective unconscious? The world of gods and spirits?
Who’s right? Jung or the Bardo?
After having denigrated it and copiously « reversed » it, Jung concludes lapidary that the Bardo is in reality a « useless » book…
« The Bardo-Thödol was an occult book and has remained so, no matter what we say about it, because to understand it requires an intellectual faculty that no one possesses naturally and that is only acquired through a particular conduct and experience of life. It is good that there are such « useless » books from the point of view of their content and purpose. They are intended for those people who have come to regard the usefulness, purpose and meaning of our present « cultural universe » as no longer important.»xiii
The fact remains – and we can testify to this – that this « useless » book can still be extremely « useful » to any person who has reached the point of no longer attaching much importance to the ends and meaning of our present ‘cultural universe’.
iiSee C.-G. Jung Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead: Das tibetanische Totenbuch, ed. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1935, reprinted 1957. French translation: Éd. Albin Michel S.A., 1985. En annexe de Bardo Thödol, le Livre des Morts tibétain, Suivant la version anglaise du Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, French translation by Marguerite La Fuente. http://misraim3.free.fr/religions_diverses/livre_mort_tibetain.pdf
For more than two centuries, the West has produced a small but highly committed phalanx of Indianists, Sanskritists and Veda specialists. Their translations, commentaries, reviews, and scholarly theses are generally of good quality and show a high level of scholarship. The specialized departments of some Western universities have been able to promote, year after year, excellent contributions to the knowledge of the enormous mass of documents and texts, Vedic and post-Vedic, belonging to a tradition whose origins go back more than four thousand years.
One is quickly struck, however, by the dazzling diversity of the points of view expressed by these specialists on the deep meaning and the very nature of the Veda. One is surprised by the remarkable differences in the interpretations provided, and in the end, in spite of a smooth harmony of facade, by their incompatibility and their irreconcilable cacophony.
To give a quick idea of the spectrum of opinions, I would like to briefly quote some of the best experts on Vedic India.
Of course, if one wanted to be complete, one would have to make a systematic review of all the research in indology since the beginning of the 19th century, to determine the structural biases, the interpretative flaws, the blindness and the cultural deafness…
I will limit myself to just touching on the issue by evoking a few significant works by well-known specialists: Émile Burnouf, Sylvain Lévi, Henri Hubert, Marcel Mauss, Louis Renou, Frits Staal, Charles Malamoud, Raimon Panikkar.
The following ideas will be found there in a jumble, – surprisingly eclectic and contradictory:
– Vāk is the Logos. Or: The Vedic Word (Vāk) is equivalent to the Greek Logos and the Johannine Word.
-The Veda (a.k.a. the « Aryan Bible ») is « coarse » and comes from « semi-savage » people.
-God’s sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
-The Veda got lost in India quite early on.
-The rites (and especially Vedic rites) have no meaning.
-The sacrifice represents the union of the Male and Female.
Active in the second half of the 19th century, Émile Burnouf asserted that the Vedic Aryâs had a very clear awareness of the value of their cult, and of their role in this respect. « Vedic poets state that they themselves created the gods: ‘The ancestors shaped the forms of the gods, as the worker shapes iron’ (Vāmadéva II,108), and that without the Hymn, the deities of heaven and earth would not be. » ii
The Vedic Hymn « increases the power of the gods, enlarges their domain and makes them reign. » iii
But the Hymn is also, par excellence, the Word (Vāk).
In the Ṛg-Veda, a famous hymniv is called « Word ».
Here are some excerpts, translated by Burnouf :
« I am wise; I am the first of those honoured by the Sacrifice.
The one I love, I make him terrible, pious, wise, enlightened.
I give birth to the Father. My dwelling is on his very head, in the midst of the waves (…)
I exist in all the worlds and I extend to the heaven.
Like the wind, I breathe in all worlds. My greatness rises above this earth, above the very heaven. »
Emile Burnouf comments and concludes:
« This is not yet the theory of the Logos, but this hymn and those that resemble it can be considered as the starting point of the theory of the Logos. » v
From Vāk to Logos! From the Veda to the Word of theGospel of John!
Remember that Vāk appeared at least one thousand years before the Platonic Logos and at least one thousand five hundred years before John the Evangelist used the Logos as a metaphor for the Divine Word.
Does Burnouf force the line beyond all measure?
Is this not an anachronism, or worse, a fundamental bias of an ideological nature, unduly bringing religious traditions closer together without any connection between them?
Or is it not rather a great intuition on his part?
Curious figure that that of Sylvain Lévi, famous indologist, pupil of the Indianist Abel Bergaigne. On the one hand, he seems cheerfully to despise the Brāhmaṇas, which were nevertheless the object of his long, learned and thorough studies. On the other hand, he acknowledges a certain relative value with his lips.
« Morality has found no place in this system [of Brāhmaṇas]: the sacrifice that regulates man’s relationship with the deities is a mechanical operation that acts through its intimate energy; hidden within nature, it is only released from it through the magical action of the priest. The worried and malevolent gods are forced to surrender, defeated and subdued by the very force that gave them greatness. In spite of them, the sacrificer rises to the heavenly world and ensures himself a definitive place in it for the future: man becomes superhuman. » vii
We could ask ourselves why eminent specialists like Sylvain Lévi spend so much time and energy on a subject they denigrate, deep down inside?
Sylvain Lévi’s analysis is indeed surprising by the vigor of the attack, the vitriol of certain epithets (« coarse religion », « people of half savages »), mixed, it is true, with some more positive views:
« Sacrifice is a magical operation; the regenerating initiation is a faithful reproduction of conception, gestation and childbirth; faith is only confidence in the virtue of the rites; the passage to heaven is a step-by-step ascent; the good is ritual accuracy. Such a coarse religion supposes a people of half-wild people; but the sorcerers, the wizards or the shamans of these tribes knew how to analyze their system, to dismantle its parts, to fix its laws; they are the true fathers of the Hindu philosophy. » viii
The contempt for the « half-wild ones » is coupled with a kind of more targeted disdain for what Levi calls, with some sharp irony, the « Aryan Bible » of the Vedic religion (reminder: Levi’s text dates from 1898):
« The defenders of the Aryan Bible, who have the happy privilege of tasting the freshness and naivety of the hymns, are free to imagine a long and profound decadence of religious feeling among the poets and doctors of the Vedic religion; others will refuse to admit such a surprising evolution of beliefs and doctrines, which makes a stage of gross barbarity follow a period of exquisite delicacy. In fact it is difficult to conceive of anything more brutal and material than the theology of Brāhmaṇas; the notions that usage has slowly refined and taken on a moral aspect, surprise by their wild realism. » ix
Sylvain Levi condescends, however, to give a more positive assessment when he points out that Vedic priests also seem to recognize the existence of a « unique » divinity:
« Speculations about sacrifice not only led the Hindu genius to recognize as a fundamental dogma the existence of a unique being; they may have initiated him into the idea of transmigrations ». x
Curious word that that of transmigration, clearly anachronistic in a Vedic context… Everything happens as if the Veda (which never uses this very Buddhist word of transmigration…) had in the eyes of Levi for only true interest, for lack of intrinsic value, the fact of carrying in him the scattered germs of a Buddhism which still remained to come, more than one millennium later….
« The Brāhmaṇas ignore the multiplicity of man’s successive existences; the idea of repeated death only appears there to form a contrast with the infinite life of the inhabitants of the heaven. But the eternity of the Sacrifice is divided into infinitely numerous periods; whoever offers it kills him and each death resurrects him. The supreme Male, the Man par excellence (a.k.a. Puruṣa) dies and is reborn again and again (…) The destiny of the Male was to easily end up being the ideal type of human existence. The sacrifice made man in his own image. The « seer » who discovers by the sole force of his intelligence, without the help of the gods and often against their will, the rite or formula that ensures success, is the immediate precursor of the Buddhas and Jinas who discover, by direct intuition and spontaneous illumination, the way to salvation. » xi
The Veda, one sees it, would be hardly that one way towards the Buddha, according to Levi.
Henri Hubert and Marcel Maussxii: The divine sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
In their famous Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice (1899), Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss undertook the ambitious and perilous task of comparing various forms of sacrifice, as revealed by historical, religious, anthropological and sociological studies, affecting the whole of humanity.
Convinced that they had succeeded in formulating a « general explanation, » they thought they could affirm the « unity of the sacrificial system » across all cultures and all eras.
« It is that, in the end, under the diversity of the forms that it takes, [the sacrifice] is always made by the same process that can be used for the most different purposes. This process consists in establishing communication between the sacred and profane worlds through a victim, that is, something destroyed in the course of the ceremony. » xiii
The unity of the « sacrificial system » is revealed mainly as a « social fact », through the « sacralization of the victim » which becomes a « social thing »: « Religious notions, because they are believed, are; they exist objectively, as social facts. Sacred things, in relation to which the sacrifice functions, are social things, and that is enough to explain the sacrifice. » xiv
The study by Hubert and Mauss is based in particular on the comparative analysis of Vedic sacrifices and sacrifices among the ancient Hebrews.
These authors attempt to determine a common principle, unifying extremely diverse types of sacrifice. « In the course of religious evolution, the notion of sacrifice has joined the notions concerning the immortality of the soul. We have nothing to add on this point to the theories of Rohde, Jevons and Nutt on the Greek mysteries, whose facts quoted by M. S. Levi, borrowed from the doctrines of the Brahmanasxv and those that Bergaigne and Darmesteter had already extracted from vedicxvi and avesticxvii texts, must be compared. Let us also mention the relationship that unites Christian communion to eternal salvationxviii. (…) The characteristic feature of objective sacrifices is that the main effect of the rite is, by definition, on an object other than the sacrificer. Indeed, the sacrifice does not return to its point of departure; the things it is intended to modify are outside the sacrificer. The effect produced on the latter is thus secondary. It is the central phase, the sacrifice, which tends to take up the most space. It is above all a question of creating spirit. » xix
This principle of unity takes all its resonance with the sacrifice of the god.
« The types of sacrifice of the god that we have just reviewed are realized in concreto and gathered together in one and the same Hindu rite: the sacrifice of soma. We can see first of all what a true sacrifice of the god is in the ritual. We cannot expose here how Soma god is confused with the soma plant, how he is really present there, nor can we describe the ceremonies in the middle of which he is brought and received at the place of the sacrifice. One carries him on a bulwark, worships him, then presses him and kills him. » xx
The « sacrifice of the god », whatever its possible metaphysical scope, which is absolutely out of the question here, is never really a « social fact » …
Louis Renouxxi: The Veda was lost in India early on.
Louis Renou emphasizes in his Vedic Studies what he considers to be a « striking paradox » about the Veda.
« On the one hand, we revere him, we recognize in him an omniscient, infallible, eternal principle – something like God in the form of « Knowledge », a God made Book (Bible), an Indian Logos – one refers to him as the very source of Dharma, theauthority from which all Brahmanic disciplines are derived. And on the other hand, the traditions, let us say philological traditions, relating to the Veda, the very substance of the texts that compose it, all this has been weakened early on, if not altered or lost. » xxii
In fact, Renou shows that the sharpest enemies of the Veda proliferated very early on in India itself. For example, he lists the « anti-Vedic attitudes » of the Jainas, the Ājīvika and the Buddhists, the « semi-Vedic tendencies » of the Viṣṇuïtes and the Śivaïtes, or the « a-Vedic » positions of the Śākta and the Tāntrika. Renou reminds us that Rāmakrisna has taught: « Truth is not in the Vedas; one must act according to the Tantras, not according to the Vedas; the latter are impure by the very fact that they are pronounced, etc…. « xxiiiand that Tukārām said: « Pride is born from the repetition of the syllables of the Vedaxxiv.
It was with the appearance of the Tantras that the Vedic period came to an end, » explains Renou. It accelerated with a general reaction of Indian society against the ancient Vedic culture, and with the development of popular religiosity that had been bullied by the Vedic cults, as well as with the appearance of Viṣṇuïsme and Śivaïsme and the development of anti-ritualistic and ascetic practices.
The end of the Veda seems to be explained by root causes. From time immemorial it was entrusted to the oral memory of Brahmins, apparently more expert at memorizing its pronunciation and rhythm of cantillation as faithfully as possible than at knowing its meaning or perfecting its interpretations.
Hence this final judgment, in the form of a condemnation: « The Vedic representations ceased early on to be a ferment of Indian religiosity, it no longer recognized itself there where it remained faithful to them. » xxv
From then on, the Vedic world is nothing more than a « distant object, delivered to the vagaries of an adoration deprived of its textual substance. »
And Renou concludes with a touch of fatalism:
« This is a fairly common fate for the great sacred texts that are the foundations of religions. » xxvi
Frits Staal has a simple and devastating theory: the rite makes no sense. It is meaningless.
What is important in the ritual is what one does, – not what one thinks, believes or says. Ritual has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or finality. It is its own purpose. « In ritual activity, the rules count, but not the result. In ordinary activity, it is the opposite. » xxviii
Staal gives the example of the Jewish ritual of the « red cow »xxix, which surprised Solomon himself, and which was considered the classic example of a divine commandment for which no rational explanation could be given.
Animals also have ‘rituals’, such as ‘aspersion’, and yet they don’t have a language, » explains Staal.
The rites, however, are charged with a language of their own, but it is a language that does not strictly speaking convey any meaning, it is only a « structure » allowing the ritual actions to be memorized and linked together.
The existence of rituals goes back to the dawn of time, long before the creation of structured languages, syntax and grammar. Hence the idea that the very existence of syntax could come from ritual.
The absence of meaning of the rite sees its corollary in the absence of meaning (or the radical contingency) of the syntax.
Frits Staal applies this general intuition to the rites of the Veda. He notes the extreme ritualization of Yajurveda and Samaveda. In the chants of Samaveda, there is a great variety of seemingly meaningless sounds, extended series of O’s, sometimes ending in M’s, which evoke the mantra OM.
Staal then opens up another avenue for reflection. He notes that the effect of certain psychoactive powers, such as those associated with the ritual consumption of soma, is somewhat analogous to the effects of singing, recitation and psalmody, which involve rigorous breath control. This type of effect that can rightly be called psychosomatic even extends to silent meditation, as recommended by Upaniṣad and Buddhism.
For example, controlled inhalation and exhalation practices in highly ritualized breathing exercises can help explain how the ingestion of a psychoactive substance can also become a ritual.
In a previous article I mentioned the fact that many animals enjoy consuming psychoactive plants. Similarly, it can be noted that in many animal species we find some kind of ritualized practices.
There would thus be a possible link to underline between these animal practices, which apparently have no « meaning », and highly ritualized human practices such as those observed in the great sacrificial rites of the Veda.
Hence this hypothesis, which I will try to explore in a future article : the ingestion of certain plants, the obsessive observation of rites and the penetration of religious beliefs have a common point, that of being able to generate psychoactive effects.
However, animals are also capable of experiencing some similar effects.
There is here an avenue for a more fundamental reflection on the very structure of the universe, its intimate harmony and its capacity to produce resonances, especially with the living world. The existence of these resonances is particularly salient in the animal world.
Without doubt, it is also these resonances that are at theorigin of the phenomenon (certainly not reserved to Man) of « consciousness ».
Apparently « meaningless » rites have at least this immense advantage that they are able to generate more « consciousness » .
I would like to add that this line of research opens up unimaginable perspectives, by the amplitude and universality of its implications, at various levels of « life », and from cosmology to anthropology…
Charles Malamoudxxx : Sacrifice is the union of Male and Female.
By a marked and even radical contrast with the already exposed positions of Sylvain Lévi, Charles Malamoud places the Veda at the pinnacle. The Veda is no longer a « grossly barbaric » or « half-wild » paganism, it is in his eyes a « monotheism », not only « authentic », but the « most authentic » monotheism that is, far above Judaism or Christianity !
« The Veda is not polytheism, or even ‘henotheism’, as Max Müller thought. It is the most authentic of monotheisms. And it is infinitely older than the monotheisms taught by the religions of the Book. » xxxi
Once this overall compliment has been made, Charles Malamoud in turn tackles the crux of the matter, the question of Vedic sacrifice, its meaning and nature.
On the one hand, « the rite is routine, and repetition, and it is perhaps a prison for the mind »xxxii. On the other hand, « the rite is to itself its own transcendence »xxxiii. This is tantamount to saying that it is the rite alone that really matters, despite appearances, and not the belief or mythology it is supposed to embody….
« The rites become gods, the mythological god is threatened to be erased and only remains if he manages to be recreated by the rite. Rites can do without gods, gods are nothing without rites. » xxxiv
This position corresponds indeed to the fundamental (and founding) thesis of the Veda, according to which the Sacrifice is the supreme God himself (Prajāpati), and conversely, God is the Sacrifice.
But Charles Malamoud is not primarily interested in the profound metaphysical implications of this double identification of Prajāpati with the Sacrifice.
The question that interests him, more prosaically, is of a completely different nature: « What is the sex of the Sacrifice? » xxxv, he asks …
And the answer comes, perfectly clear:
« The Vedic sacrifice, when assimilated to a body, is unquestionably and superlatively a male. » xxxvi
This is evidenced by the fact, according to Malamoud, that the sequences of the « accompanying offerings », which are in a way « appendages » of the main offering, called anuyajā, are compared to penises (śiśna). The texts even glorify the fact that the Sacrifice has three penises, while the man has only one. xxxvii
Of the « male » body of the sacrifice, the « female » partner is the Word.
Malamoud cites a significant passage from Brāhmaṇas.
« The Sacrifice was taken from desire for the Word. He thought, ‘Ah, how I would like to make love with her! and he joined with her. Indra thought, ‘Surely a prodigious being will be born from this union between the Sacrifice and the Word, and that being will be stronger than I am! Indra became an embryo and slipped into the embrace of the Sacrifice and the Word (…) He grasped the womb of the Word, squeezed it tightly, tore it up and placed it on the head of the Sacrifice. » xxxviii
Malamoud qualifies this very strange scene as « anticipated incest » on the part of Indra, apparently wishing to make the Sacrifice and the Word her surrogate parents…
For us » westerners « , we seem to be confronted here with a real « primitive scene », in the manner of Freud… All that is missing is the murder…
And yet, murder is not far away.
Crushing soma stems with stones is explicitly considered in Vedic texts as « murder, » Malamoud insists.
« Killing » soma stems may seem like an elaborate metaphor.
It is however the Vedic metaphor par excellence, that of the « sacrifice of God », in this case the sacrifice of the God Soma. The divinized Soma is seen as a victim who is immolated, who is put to death by crushing with stones, which implies a « fragmentation » of his « body », and the flow of his substance, then collected to form the essential basis of the oblation?
This idea of sacrificial « murder » is not limited to soma. It also applies to the sacrifice itself, taken as a whole.
Sacrifice is seen as a « body », subject to fragmentation, dilaceration, dismemberment?
« The Vedic texts say that one kills the sacrifice itself as soon as one deploys it. That is to say, when we move from the sacrificial project, which as a project forms a whole, to its enactment, we fragment it into distinct temporal sequences and kill it. The pebbles praised in this hymn Ṛg-Veda X 94 are the instruments of this murder. » xxxix
If the Word makes a couple with the Sacrifice, it can also make a couple with the Silence, as Malamoud explains: « there is an affinity between silence and sperm: the emission of sperm (netasaḥ siktiḥ) is done silently. » xl
A lesson is drawn from this observation for the manner of performing the rite, – with a mixture of words, murmurs and silences :
« Such a soma extraction must be performed with inaudible recitation of the formula, because it symbolizes the sperm that spreads in a womb »xli.
The metaphor is explicit: it is a question of « pouring the Breath-Sperm into the Word-Matrix ». Malamoud specifies: « In practice, to fecundate the Word by the Breath-Sperm-Silence, this means dividing the same rite into two successive phases: one involving recitation of texts aloud, the other inaudible recitation. » xlii
All this is generalizable. The metaphor of the male/female distinction applies to the gods themselves.
« Agni himself is feminine, he is properly a womb when, at the time of the sacrifice, one pours into the oblatory fire, this sperm to which the soma liquor is assimilated. » xliii
Permanence and universality of the metaphor of copulation, in the Veda… according to Malamoud.
Raimon Panikkarxliv : Sacrifice is the navel of the universe
Panikkar says that only one word expresses the quintessence of Vedic revelation: yajña, sacrifice.
Sacrifice is the primordial act, the Act which makes beings be, and which is therefore responsible for their becoming, without the need to invoke the hypothesis of a previous Being from which they would come. In the beginning, « was » the Sacrifice. The beginning, therefore, was neither the Being nor the Non-Being, neither the Full nor the Empty.
The Sacrifice not only gives its Being to the world, but also sustains it. The Sacrifice is what sustains the universe in its Being, what gives life and hope to life. « Sacrifice is the internal dynamism of the Universe.» xlv
From this idea another, even more fundamental, follows: that the Creator God depends in reality on his own Creation.
« The supreme being is not God by himself, but by creatures. In reality he is never alone. He is a relation and belongs to reality. »xlvi
« The Gods do not exist autonomously; they exist in, with, above, and also through men. Their supreme sacrifice is man, the primordial man. (…) Man is the priest but also the sacrificed; the Gods, in their role as primary agents of sacrifice, offer their oblation with man. Man is not only the cosmic priest; he is also the cosmic victim. »xlvii
The Veda describes Creation as resulting from the Sacrifice of God (devayajña), and the self-immolation of the Creator. It is only because Prajāpati totally sacrifices itself that it can give Creation its own Self.
In doing so, the Divine Sacrifice becomes the central paradigm (or « navel ») of the universe:
« This sacred enclosure is the beginning of the earth; this sacrifice is the center of the world. This soma isthe seed of the fertile horse. This priest is the first patron of the word. » xlviii
The commentator writes:
« Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the sacrifice. » xlix
« Truly, both Gods and men and Fathers drink together, and this is their banquet. Once they drank openly, but now they drink hidden.»
The competence of the Indian and Sanskritist scholars cited here is not in question.
The display of their divergences, far from diminishing them, increases in my eyes especially the high idea I have of their analytical and interpretative capacities.
But no doubt the reader will not have escaped the kind of dull irony I have tried to instil through the choice of accumulated quotations.
It seemed to me that the West still has a long way to go to begin to « understand » the East (– here the Vedic Orient).
It so happens that sometimes, in reading some Vedic texts (for example the hymns of the 10th Mandala of Ṛg Veda, and some Upaniṣad), I feel some sort of deep resonances with thinkers and poets who lived several thousands of years ago.
iEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863.
iiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.113
iiiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.112
vEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.115
viSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.
viiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
viiiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 10
ixSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
xSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.10-11
xiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.11
xiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Mixed history of religions. From some results of religious sociology; Sacrifice; The origin of magical powers; The representation of time. Collection: Works of the Sociological Year. Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1929, 2nd edition, 236 pages.
xiiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.76
xivHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.78
xvDoctr, pp. 93-95. We absolutely agree with the rapprochement proposed by M. L., between the Brahmanic theory of escape from death by sacrifice and the Buddhist theory of moksà, of deliverance. Cf. Oldenberg, The Buddha, p. 40.
xviVoir Bergaigne, Rel. Véd., sur l’amrtam « essence immortelle » que confère le scma (I, p. 254 suiv., etc.). Mais là, comme dans le livre de M. Hillebr. Ved. Myth., I, p. 289 et sqq. passim, les interprétations de mythologie pure ont un peu envahi les explications des textes. V. Kuhn, Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks. Cf. Roscher, Nektar und Ambrosia.
xviiCf. Darmesteter, Haurvetât et Amretât, p. 16, p. 41.
xviiiBoth in dogma (e.g. Irenaeus Ad Haer. IV, 4, 8, 5) and in the most well-known rites; thus the consecration of the host is done by a formula in which the effect of the sacrifice on salvation is mentioned, V. Magani l’Antica Liturgia Romana II, p. 268, etc., etc. – One could also relate to these facts the Talmudic Aggada according to which the tribes who have disappeared in the desert and who have not sacrificed will not have a share in eternal life (Gem. to Sanhedrin, X, 4, 5 and 6 in. Talm. J.), nor the people of a city which has become forbidden for having indulged in idolatry, nor Cora the ungodly. This talmudic passage is based on the verse Ps. L, 5: « Bring me together my righteous who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. »
xixHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.55-56.
xxHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.72-73
xxiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960
xxiiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.1
xxiiiThe teaching of Ramakrisna. p. 467, cited in Louis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Tome 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p4.
xxivTrad. of the Pilgrim’s Psalms by G.-A. Deleury p.17
xxvLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.77
The Sloth (a.k.a. Bradypus) has three toes and eighteen teeth (all molars). His neck has nine vertebrae, which allows him to turn his head through an angle of 270°.
He is covered with greenish hairs and green algae, teeming with symbiotic vermin and cyanobacteria. He defecates at the foot of the trees once a week and then sheds a little less than half his weight in one go. He moves extremely slowly and mates only once every two years. But most of the time he sleeps. Then he dreams, a lot. About what?
In fact, this singular monkey is perpetually « addicted » to the alkaloids that the surrounding forest provides in abundance, and of which he consumes without measure.
He is far from being the only animal under such addiction…
There is nothing exceptional about the Slothinthis respect. Many other kinds of animals are actively looking for chemically active substances that are suitable for them. In Gabon, elephants, gorillas, and many varieties of birds eat iboga, which is a hallucinogen. In Canada, reindeers love mushrooms such as fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which are also hallucinogenic.
In fact, the whole Noah’s Ark seems to be « addicted » to this or that specific substance…
The skull-headed sphinx butterfly cannot live without Datura and Atropa belladona, the puma shoots up on Grey Quinquina, mouflons seek their daily doses of psychotropic lichens, elephants in sub-Sahelian Africa demand their marula nuts, chimpanzees their nicotine, and cats seek ecstasy in their catnip (Nepeta cataria). Finally, the spectacular impact of LSD on snails and goldfish was tested. It was induced that they also need to dream, and have a certain capacity to get out of their « natural » condition…
Where does it all come from? From certain effects of the chemistry of alkaloids plants on various neurotransmitters (universally deployed in the animal kingdom) .
Alkaloids are nitrogen-based molecules, derived from amino acids, found in many plants and fungi.
These molecules can have various effects, tonic, emetic, stimulating, doping, calming, sleeping, on all kinds of animals.
And for millennia, men have been able to observe on themselves that some of these molecules could have powerful psychotropic and psychoactive properties.
Morphine was the first alkaloid to be chemically isolated (in 1805) from the opium poppy, but the list of alkaloids is long and varied: curare, mescaline, caffeine, nicotine, atropine, aconitine, strychnine, lysergic acid …
Given the Sloth‘s apparent addiction to alkaloids, a question comes to mind: is he really dreaming? And if so, to what? What is it about his brain that the alkaloids can make him spend his entire life perched in trees, carefree of jaguars, deeply asleep, and probably endlessly dreaming monkey dreams?
This question can be generalized. Why does the animal world seem so diversely and actively addicted to alkaloids?
A beginning of an answer can be suggested from the human experience itself. Since the most ancient times, men have understood the power of some of these psychotropic substances, and have explored their effects, notably during initiation ceremonies, or shamanic rites.
Ayahuasca (« liana of the spirits », or « wine of the dead », or « wine of the soul » according to different translations of this name from Quechua), is traditionally used by the shamans of the Amerindian tribes of Amazonia as a hallucinogenic drink, during healing, divination and witchcraft rituals.
Its active principle is DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), which has been said to allow one to emerge in an « other reality », which is a kind of euphemism.
In this new reality, one is radically separated from any experience usually known in the world of the living, on this earth. And one may access a world that is unspeakable of, at least according to those who can speak about it knowingly.
In the most extreme cases that have been identified, this « other reality » can only be discovered through the famous « Near Death Experiences » (NDEs).
In an upcoming article, I will discuss the results of several recent studies on the links between DMT and NDEs, conducted at the Centre for Psychiatry at Imperial College London and the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège.
In particular, I will focus on the link between DMT and the pineal gland, which the ancient Egyptians called the « eye of Horus », and which Descartes designated as the seat of the soul…
But before addressing these questions, I would like to return for a moment to the experience of the Slothand other animals, who, through the magic of alkaloids, have been transported for millions of years into a world whose breadth, depth and power they have absolutely no way of understanding, but which they continue to explore day after day, with their own means.
If man is today able to explore shamanic visions or to undergo NDE, it is perhaps because the entire animal kingdom has prepared the ground in some way, by accumulating, since extremely remote ages, an immense reservoir of experiences, and that a part of this animal, biological heritage has been transmitted to man through mutations and evolutions.
And this evolution is far from over…
But it is already possible, it seems to me, to draw some interesting lessons from it today.
Marcel Conche writes somewhere, with a kind of cheerful irony: « I like medlar very much. There is nothing to eat. It is the most metaphysical fruit. For metaphysics comes down to the fact that, in any case, we know nothing about anything. » i
For my part I prefer peach, as a fruit. It is very juicy, with tender and tasty flesh. Some have smooth skin, others are fluffy, but all of them have an inviting slit, and a hard core, mobile or adherent. It is, in my humble opinion, a much more metaphysical fruit than the medlar: at the end of the endings, we know that we are going to take some more without getting tired of it, so much the flavor is not forgotten, and so much the mystery of this closed slit and this hard core can only mystify the spirits less able to grasp the immanent transcendence of the peach tree, from its flower to its fruit…
It really is a great mystery that human brains, at least some of them, can open up to metaphysics, that of medlar, or that that flies over the worlds, and reflects on what was before nothing was …
One of the oldest myths in the world dates back at least six thousand years, four thousand years before our era, and three thousand years before Moses. It is the Vedic myth of Prajāpati, a name that means « Father, or Lord of creatures ». Prajāpati was then thought as the supreme God, the One who created the world. But, unlike the biblical God, the creation of the Universe and all creatures, according to the Veda, could only be done through the sacrifice of Prajāpati.
In the beginning, having nothing from which to create the world, since everything was nothingness, Prajāpati had to resort to Himself, dismembering, offering Himself as a sacrifice, and dividing Himself so that from Him could flow the Universe and Life.
The Veda explains the creation of the universe as the Creator’s self-immolation, and designates this sacrifice as « the navel of the Universeii.
« Now the Lord of creatures, after having begotten the living creatures, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance. « iii
The supreme God gives Himself completely, and He suffers the torments of death: « After He begat all that exists, He felt emptied and was afraid of death. » iv
Why this Sacrifice of the Supreme God?
Perhaps because a « greater good » can be expected from it?
Does God (Theos) sacrifice Himself to make possible not only the existence of the Cosmos and Anthropos but also their future « divinization »?
TheTheos sacrifices Himself to extend modes of divinization to other beings than Himself. Thus one sees that the essence of the Sacrifice is entirely in the general becoming. The God sacrifices Himself so that the future can come to be. The God sacrifices Himself entirely, He takes this supreme risk, so that the « Future » and the « Other » can also be?
But then, does that mean that God is not eternal?
He sacrifices His solitary eternity so that He can become a shared, common « becoming ». To eternity, of which He was the sole custodian, He adds Time, the Future, the Process… and therefore Freedom.
He transforms His stable, immobile essence from a being a « First Engine » into a risky, unstable, uncertain process. He voluntarily gives a freedom proper to the Cosmos, as well as to the Anthropos.
God creates the universe with great precision (cf. the incredible finesse with which the « constants » of the Universe have been shaped). However, the universe is not a deterministic mechanics. There is « chance » in it. Let us simply say that there is « freedom ». God threw, whether Einstein likes it or not, an anthropo-cosmic die…
Hence this special mystery, unique to the human brain: how can we presume to know what Prajāpati has concocted before the dawn of time? How do we know that He sacrificed Himself, that He felt emptied, that He was afraid of death? How could the brains of the Veda visionaries conceive of this divine sacrifice and appreciate all its consequences?
There are two possible answers.
Either the Theos allowed this mystery to be « revealed » directly to the souls of certain representatives of Anthropos (such as biblical prophets).
Either there is, more immanently, and more anthropologically, a congruence, a sympathy, an obviousness, which seems to imbue the human brain.
The brains of the Vedic prophets felt internally, intuitively, through a kind of analogy and anagogy, the divine drama at stake. This intuition was undoubtedly based on the observation of phenomena that appeared in the human environment, and which are among the noblest, most striking, most counter-intuitive that can be conceived: sacrifice for love, the gift of one’s life for the survival of those one loves…
In any case, let us conclude that the human brain, through its antennas, its pistils, its « oospheres », is capable of navigating freely in the eternal « noosphere », and that it is given, sometimes, to penetrate its essence…
Is the sea conscious of her shores? Does she feel that, stung with sunlight, clouds are born from her womb?
Does she now that her waves travel a long way, but always break and end up as light foam ?
Seas, waves, clouds, foam form a whole, of which the spirit of man sometimes becomes aware. But is man also aware that his own consciousness is at the same time like foam and like a cloud? Consciousness depends entirely on the evaporation and distillation of the ocean’s amplitude, before spreading out in beneficial or destructive rains, and its foam is the proof of the final fold of its inner waves.
Clouds, waves, foam are good metaphors of consciousness confronted with what is infinitely larger than itself, the ocean, the earth and the sky.
Consciousness only feels « consciousness » at the borders, at the interfaces.
The roll of the wave feels the sand under the blade, and at the end it comes to lick the heat of the sun, offered by the slow sand, which it penetrates by the bubbling foam.
The immemorial meeting of sea, land and sky is done on the beach or the rock. It is a three-phase place, where water, sand and bubble briefly unite. Mythical place! From here emerged long ago forms of marine life that had decided to try the land adventure! Metaphor still of our soul, charged with sleepy consciousness, and waking up abruptly in contact with the hard (the rock, or the shore) so that the impalpable (the air and the bubbles) emerges…
Man too is a sea shore. Man too is multi-phase. He represents the meeting point of several worlds, that of life (bios), that of the word (logos) and that of the spirit (noos). The metaphor of these three phases can be explained as follows. The immense sea, the deep sea, is Life. The tumultuous wave that faces the rock, or flows languidly on the shore, is the Logos, the word striking the world, splashing it with foam. As for the cloud bathing in its vapors, it proves that molecules previously buried in the darkness of the sea chasms were allowed to ‘ascend to heaven’, sucked up by heat of which they had no idea, before realizing that they were indeed ascending to inconceivable altitudes and crossing infinite horizons for a long, seemingly endless journey. These molecules chosen for the great journey most of them will go to irrigate the mountains and the plains, and some of them will moisten thirsty gullets and will inhabit for a time bodies made of water first, and of some other molecules too, and will come to feed human brains… Metaphors! Where are you taking us?
To a new metaphor, that of panspermia.
The brain, I wrote in a previous post, is a kind of antenna. But we could also use a more floral image, that of the pistil, for example.
The pistil, from the Latin pistillum, pestle, is the female organ of flower reproduction. It stands up like a small antenna waiting for flying pollen.
The brain-pistil is in multiple communication with the world, and it receives clouds of pollen at all times, invisible or visible, unconscious or, on the contrary, destined to impose itself on the consciousness. The brain is bathed in this ocean of pollen waves, which can be described as panspermic. There are sperm of life and sperm of consciousness. There are sperm of knowledge and sperm of revelation. All pistils are not equal. Some prefer to be content with transmitting life, others do better and fertilize new oospheres. i
Let us move here, through the miracle of metaphor, from the oosphere to the noosphere.
The panspermia whose « world » is saturated continually reaches our numb brains, and titillates our pistils. Many things result from this global titillation. Not all flowers are given the joy of true, pure, limitless enjoyment.
For those among the human flowers that lend themselves and open themselves entirely to these « visitations », the panspermic waves come to fertilize in their interior the birth of new noospheric embryos..
iThe oosphere is the name given to the female gamete in plants and algae. It is the homologue of the ovum in animals.
At what point in evolution did consciousness emerge? Does the special form of consciousness that humans enjoy represent a singular, unique leap, or is it only one step in a long evolutionary series? Must we admit that other animals, plants, and, why not, minerals themselves have specific forms of consciousness that could, if we were able to observe them effectively, allow us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness, its particular advantages, and its as yet unrevealed potentialities?
One thing is sure : today, the neurosciences are still unable to explain consciousness itself, its nature and its essence.
There is also the question of reason (which unfolds quite differently in everyday life, and in other fields, such as philosophy, or mathematics). Human reason seems capable of constructing specifically « human » worlds, based on its own imagined rules. But,very surprisingly, reason seems capable of formulating fundamental laws of nature based on completely abstract reasoning. There lies a mystery, in this strange adequacy of formal reason with the very structures of nature, as testified from its successes ranging from microphysics to cosmology.
We must also consider that there is the mystery of revelation, and of visions apparently reserved for prophets, mystics or poets, but whose very universal potentiality cannot be put easily under a bushel.
The multitude ignores it or does not care, especially in the present period, but it is an undeniable fact that the prophecies of Moses, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad have proved capable of penetrating the consciousness of countless generations. They continue to animate, long after the disappearance of the living men who originally bore them, the consciousness of immense masses and singular personalities. The mystics have left burning traces of their visions in their testimonies, which are not without analogy with those of the shamans, who have practiced the art of ecstasy and communion with higher powers for tens of thousands of years, and in all regions of the globe.
Consciousness, reason, revelation represent three very specific modes of interaction of the human brain with the world : a neurobiological mode, a mental mode and a spiritual mode. In these three cases, the mystery is that there are effective correspondences, to varying degrees, between the human brain and, respectively, the entire cosmos, the hidden laws that seem to govern it, and the yonderworld, or some other meta-worlds, that hide even further away from what one can experience in everyday life.
The very existence of reason, and above all its effectiveness in relation to the understanding nature, raises innumerable questions, which the greatest philosophers have failed to resolve (e.g. Kant’s admission of failure of understanding the ultimate essence of pure reason).
Why is it that perfectly « abstract » mathematics, developed for its formal beauty alone or for the rigorous exploration of the internal logic of certain systems of axioms, is also capable, in a completely unexpected way, of elegantly and powerfully solving complex problems of quantum physics or cosmology?
The modern worldvision seems to be universally materialistic, agnostic, atheist. But in reality, the penetrating power of the great world religions is constantly asserting itself. How could we understand the state of the world without taking into account the influence of monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Buddhism or Hinduism?
Perhaps more surprisingly, within the camp of the most rigorous rationality, many scientists of the highest rank (Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, Eddington,…) have resorted to various forms of mysticism to try to answer the ultimate questions that the (ultimately insufficient) results of their very scientific approach always ended up confronting them.
From the parallels between consciousness, reason and revelation, we can draw by induction that the human brain is somehow capable of correlating with the universe, in various modalities.
The subtle intertwining of DNA and protein molecules apparently explains the development of life on earth, but it is very difficult to imagine why this intertwining, pushed to a certain level of complexity, leads to a phenomenon that transcends biological life alone, namely the irruption of consciousness at the heart of neurobiology. Consciousness represents, in relation to life, a leap at least as great as that of life in relation to organic chemistry alone.
But this mystery only prepares the way for an even deeper question, the one that the human brain embodies when it is able, by its own forces alone, to invent (or « discover »?) mental models that prove to be able to « explain » some of the most complex structures in the universe.
Finally, the phenomenon of «vision» is certainly not the least mysterious in truth, if we accept, for the sake of our reasoning, to consider what so many witnesses have been telling us for so many millennia: namely the « revelation » of a possible communication between men and a « spiritual » yonderworld.
It is possible to deduce from these observations some hypotheses on the deep structure of the human brain. Consciousness, reason and vision cannot be explained by a mechanistic/materialist neurobiology alone.
The human brain is obviously capable of correlating (effectively) with the « world »i, and this through multiple modalities, including neurological, mental, spiritual ones … There are undoubtedly other modes of brain-world correlation of which we are not necessarily aware, – starting precisely with the powers of the unconscious (whether individual or collective), or those of dreaming or premonition.
In any case, the important thing is that these multiple forms of correlation imply a set of more or less integrated links between the brain and the « world ». We can deduce from this that the brain cannot be reduced to a solipsistic organ, splendidly isolated, reigning as absolute master in the midst of Cartesian certainties, such as « I think therefore I am ».
The brain is naturally in flux, in tension, in permanent interaction with multiple aspects of an eminently complex, rich, and ultimately elusive reality.
In our modern world where quasi-instantaneous electronic communication has become ubiquitous, it may be easier to propose here the metaphor of the « antenna ». The brain can indeed be seen as a kind of multi-band, multi-frequency antenna, able to receive and process sensory information (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), but also to « discover » (as opposed to « invent ») other abstract mental spaces (such as those that mathematics abstractly gives us to « see »).
These other spaces of meaning seem at first to belong only to the human sphere, but they also reveal themselves, unexpectedly, surprisingly and mysteriously, capable of helping us to « grasp » in a specific way structural aspects of the « world » and the « cosmos ». These aspects would have remained « hidden », if the mathematical structures that the brain is capable of generating had not come at the right time to allow it to « understand » them in some way, that is, to allow it to determine forms of effective adequacy between the brain’s intellection capacities and the intelligible potentialities of the « world ».
The newborn child slowly but surely develops a multi-sensory map of the world, through touch, taste and smell, sounds and lights, but he is first immersed in a small amniotic world, from which he emerges with some difficulty to be immediately plunged into another « world », the emotional, loving, warm world that his parents offer him at birth. This first (and double) experience, of immersion « in » a limited, inexplicable, constraining world (due to the narrowness of the uterus and the impossibility of deploying apparently cumbersome, useless, superfluous limbs), and of emergence, of passage « towards » another world, where millions of completely different stimuli suddenly reveal themselves, is a founding experience, which must remain forever engraved in the newly born brain.
It is a founding experience, but also a formative one. It secretly prepares us to face other mysteries to come, because the world reserves for us throughout life many other (metaphorical) experiences of « births » and « passages » of a symbolic or cognitive nature. This experience is so well engraved and « engrammed » into the brain that the prospect of death, in many spiritual traditions, seems to be itself only a new « birth », a new « passage ».
The metaphor of the brain-antenna was already proposed at the end of the 19th century by William James in a famous textii . It is a stricking image because it suggests the possibility of a complex continuum between the brain and the world (taken in its broadest possible sense). But it also lends itself to a powerful generalization, along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, if one understands that each « antenna » can be put in communication with the billions of other brains currently living on this planet, and, why not, with the billions of billions of « brains » probably sailing in other galaxies, and other nebulae.
Until now, we have used the word « brain », without really trying to define what we mean by this word. The neurosciences have recently made significant progress in the analysis of this essential organ, but have undoubtedly failed to explain its very essence, i.e. the nature of « consciousness ». In today’s materialistic and scientific world, research trends aim at demonstrating (without notable success so far) that consciousness is merely a property emerging « naturally » from the « complexity » of neuronal entanglement, and resulting from some neuro-biological « auto-poiesis ». This explanation undoubtedly proposes elements necessary for understanding, but these are far from being sufficient.
They don’t really help to give an account of the most extraordinary things mankind has been able to generate (symbolized, to be short, by names such as Mozart and Vinci, Newton and Einstein, Plato and Pascal…).
The brain-antenna metaphor, on the other hand, far from focusing on the neurochemical soup and neuro-synaptic entanglement, aims to establish the existence of reproductive, organic and subtle links between brains of all kinds and of all conditions and the rest of the « world ».
The perspectives of reflection then change radically.
The « normal » brain of a human being should therefore be considered simply as a minimal platform from which extraordinary potentialities can develop, under certain conditions (epigenetic, social, circumstantial, …).
The immense world of mathematics, with its incredible insights and perspectives, can be described not just as the result of brilliant « inventions » by particularly gifted personalities, but rather as the subject of true « discoveries ».
So, too, can the even greater world of « visions », « revelations » and spiritual, mystical, poetic « intuitions » be described not as a world « invented » by unique personalities like Moses, Buddha or Jesus, but as a world « discovered », of which we only glimpse the infinite virtualities.
The brain can therefore be understood as an organ that constantly emerges beyond its initial limits (those posed by its neuro-biological materiality). It does not stop growing outside its own confines. It generates itself by opening itself to the world, and to all worlds. It is in constant interaction with the world as the senses give us to see it, but also with entire universes, woven of thoughts, intuitions, visions, revelations, of which only the « best among us » are capable of perceiving the emanations, the efflorescences, the correspondences…
Consciousness emerges in the newborn brain, not only because the neuro-synaptic equipment allows it, but also and especially because consciousness pre-exists in the world in myriad forms.
Consciousness pre-exists in the universe because the universe itself is endowed with a kind of consciousness. It is futile to try to explain the appearance of consciousness in the human brain only by a specially efficient molecular or synaptic arrangement.
It is easier to conceive that individual consciousness emerges because it draws its youthful power from the fountain of universal consciousness, which communicates with each of us through our « antennas ».
What has just been said about consciousness could be repeated about the emergence of reason in each one of us, but also about the gift of vision (apparently reserved to some « chosen few »).
i The « world » is all that the brain can effectively correlate with. It goes without saying that the limits of this definition of « world » also point to all those aspects of the « world » that remain decidedly impenetrable to the human brain, until further informed…
ii William James. Human Immortality. 1898. Ed. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge.
The souls of peoples are revealed by what they collectively « forget », much more than by what they remember, what they dwell on and what they seemingly proclaim to the world.
Proof of this is the word oblivion itself, which in several languages seems to indicate in one stroke a vibrant part of the collective unconscious, emerging as if by accident, an indication of obscure depths…
The Latins use the word oblivio for ‘oblivion‘. It is a metaphor borrowed from writing over what has been erased: in the ‘palimpsests’ (from the Greek: « what one scratches to write again »), the copyists erased (or ‘obliterated’) theold text to write a new one.
The Greeks use the word λαθέσθαι, lathesthai, ‘to forget’, and λήθη, lethe, ‘forgetting’ , hence the famous Lethe, the river of the Underworld, which is known to make souls forgetful. These words derive from λανθάνω, lanthanô, whose first meaning is ‘to be hidden’. Greek ‘oblivion’ is therefore not a fatal erasure, but only a kind of withdrawal, of putting under the bushel, under a veil. Words with a priori positive connotations: ἀληθής, alethes, « true » or ἀλήθεια, aletheia, « truth, reality », are constructed with the privative alpha ἀ-, thus as negations. Truth or reality are not understood in ancient Greek as a dazzling evidence, but as a « not-hidden » or a « not-forgotten », then requiring a kind of work of extraction.
Arabic has the word نَسِيَ nassiya, whose first meaning is « to abandon, to neglect » and by derivation « to forget ». Nomadism cannot be encumbered, and on the long road of travel, many things are left behind, become negligible, and without regret, ‘forgotten’.
Sanskrit expresses the verb ‘to forget’ in many ways. One of them uses the pre-verb vi-: विस्मरति , vismarati, literally meaning « to come out of memory ». Another verb मृष्यते , mrisyate is built using the root मृष mṛṣ , whose primary meaning is ‘to forgive’. Forgetting is a grace given to the other, and even to the enemy…
The English and German languages use very similar words, to forget and vergessen, which are also built with preverbs (for and ver) connoting omission or failure, and comparable in this respect to Vi- Sanskrit. The English to get derives from the old Nordic geta and the Gothic bigitan, (‘to find’). German ver-gessen derives from the same root: *ghed-, ‘to take, to seize’. In both languages, ‘to forget’ therefore originally means ‘to divest oneself of’, ‘to throw away’, in an active sense, rather than just ‘lose’ or ‘misplace’. There is a kind of violence here.
In Hebrew, ‘to forget’ is שָׁכַח shakhah, as in « He will not forget the covenant of your fathers » (Deut. 4:31) or « And you forget me, declares the Lord God » (Ez. 22:12). But it is quite surprising that, with a slightly different vocalization, the verb שְׁכַח shekhah, has an almost exactly opposite meaning. Indeed, if שָׁכַח means « to forget », שְׁכַח means « to find » as in « I found a man » (Dan. 2,25) or « They were no longer found » (Dan. 2,35).
The fact of forgetting seems to carry in germ the possibility of ‘finding’, or conversely, the fact of ‘finding’ implies, in the word itself, the imminence of forgetting…
« To forget »…
What does this word really mean?
To erase (Latin) ? To hide (Greek) ? To abandon (Arabic) ? To forgive (Sanskrit) ? To throw away (Anglo-German)? To find (Hebrew) ?
Peoples are like diamonds, reflecting clean and changing shards… Their languages express much less what they think they feel, than what they are in fact blind to, what they remain astonishingly mute about, and forgetful deep down inside…
The origin of the name « Israel » is based on some passages of Genesis dedicated to Jacob, which ‘explain’ why he was first named « Jacob », and then how he was renamed « Israel ».
This famous story, commented on throughout the centuries, is briefly recalled by the prophet Hosea, in the following way.
« The LORD will therefore charge against Judah, and will execute judgment on Jacob according to his ways, and will reward him according to his works. From his mother’s womb he supplanted his brother and in his manhood he triumphed over a God. He wrestled with an angel and was victorious, and the angel wept and asked for mercy.»i
The LORD will do justice for Jacob, says Hosea. What has he done? He « supplanted his brother, » he « fought against God, » and he was « victorious, » reducing him to « weeping » and asking for mercy. Let’s look at these points.
Even before he was born, in his mother’s womb, it is written that « Jacob supplanted » his brother.
He was given the name Jacob because he had come out of his mother’s womb holding his brother’s heel. « The first one came out completely red like a coat of hair, and they called him Esau. Then his brother came out, and his hand held Esau’s heel, and he was called Jacob. » ii
In Hebrew the word « Jacob » is taken from the verb עָקַב ‘aqab, « he supplanted », « he deceived », « he defrauded ». « Jacob » seems to be a difficult name to bear, even if its proper meaning can be euphemised by giving it a derived meaning from the Genesis passage: « he who caught (his brother) by the heels », at the moment of his birth.
But Jacob again earned his name by supplanting Esau a second time, by « buying » his birthrightiii, and a third time, by substituting for him to obtain the blessing of his father Isaac on his deathbed.
Jacob is aware of the negative meaning attached to his name, and he is also aware of the significance of his actions. « Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be like a deceiver in his eyes, and I will bring on me the curse and not the blessing, »iv he worries to Rebekah.
Jacob fears being seen as a « deceiver ». Therefore, he does not really consider himself as such, despite appearances and facts. He no doubt thinks he has settled the legal aspect of frauding by acquiring the birthright in exchange for a « red soup ». He also relies on his mother Rebecca who says to him: « I take your curse upon me, my son. Obey me. » v
But these are minor concerns. Jacob ends up taking the fraud personally when his father, blind and dying, asks him, « Who are you, my son? » and he answers, « It is I, Esau, your firstborn. » vi
Isaac blessed him then, but seized by doubt, asked a second time: « Is that you, there, my son Esau? « Jacob answers: « It is I. » vii Then Isaac blessed him a second time, confirming him in his inheritance: « Be the head of your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down before you! Cursed be he who curses you, and blessed be he who blesses you! » viii.
Esau comes up in the meantime and asks, « Is it because they named him Jacob that he has already twice supplanted me? He has taken away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing! » ix
We can see by this that Jacob’s name carried his whole destiny in a nutshell, at least for the first part of his life.
Now let’s see how Jacob changed his name during the night combat scene.
« Jacob was left alone, and a man struggled with him until dawn. » x
Jacob is alone, but a man is with him. How to reconcile this apparent contradiction? Is this « man » just an apparition, a mirage? Or is he an angel? A divine spirit?
I opt for a third track. It could be an inner presence.
But then how can we explain this mad fight against himself?
Night-time delirium? Mystical crisis ? You have to hold on to minute details.
« Seeing that he could not defeat him, he touched his hip and Jacob’s hip dislocated as he struggled with him. » xi
The Hebrew text says that Jacob was struck in the hollow of the « hip »: כַּף-יֶרֶךְ , kaf yérek. But this word can have several meanings. If one adopts the idea that it is a physical, virile struggle, it might be a euphemism for « genitals ». A good punch in these parts can give an advantage.
But if one adopts the interpretation of an inner, mystical struggle, one must find something else. Now, this composed expression can also mean, taken word for word: « the hollow (kaf) of the bottom (yarkah)« , i.e. the « bottom of the bottom », or the « depth ».
If Jacob has engaged in an inner struggle, he has reached the extreme depths of his soul.
At that moment the man, or the angel, (or the depths of the soul?) begs Jacob: « Let me go, for the dawn has come. » Jacob answered, « I will not let you go unless you bless me. » Then he said to him, « What is your name? » He answered, « Jacob ». He said, « Jacob will no longer be your name, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men and have triumphed. » xii
(Israel: ki-sarita ‘im elohim ve ‘im enoshim va toukhal)
According to this interpretation, « Israel » would therefore mean: « He fought against God », taking as a basis for the word Israel the verb שָׂרָה, sarah, to struggle.
But the « very learned » Philo of Alexandria, commenting on the same passage, is, for his part, of the opinion that the name « Israel » means « seeing God », relying on the verb רָאָה, raah, « to see, to have visions ».
Which interpretation seems the best?
If it was a mystical battle, Philo’s interpretation seems much better.
But for the way forward, we can also refer to Rashi, who does not deal directly with this question here, but addresses it in another way.
Rashi comments on the verse « Jacob shall henceforth no longer be your name, but Israel » as follows: « It will no longer be said that you have obtained these blessings by trickery and supplanting (עקבה, same root as יעקב), but in all dignity and openly. The Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal Himself to you in Bethel, change your name there and bless you. I will be there and confirm them to you. This is what the Prophet Hosea will say: He wrestled with an angel and got the upper hand, he wept and begged him (Hosea 12:5). It was the angel who wept and begged. What did he ask him? In Bethel He will find us and there He will speak to us (ibid.). Give me a delay until He speaks to us there. But Jacob did not want to and the angel had to, in spite of himself, give him confirmation of the blessings. This is what is meant here in verse 30, ‘He blesses him on the spot’. He had begged him to wait, but Jacob refused. »
Rachi relies for this comment on the authority of Hosea. Hosea himself simply quotes Genesis. God appeared again to Jacob when he returned from the land of Aram, to the place that was later to be called Bethel, and blessed him there, saying to him, « Your name is Jacob; but your name henceforth shall not be Jacob any more, but Israel.» xiii
In this new account of Jacob’s change of name in Israel, Rashi gives himself his own interpretation of the meaning of the name Israel : « ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob’. This name refers to a man who is on the lookout to catch someone by surprise ( עקבה ), but you will bear a name that means prince (שׂר) and noble. »
As can be seen, Rashi proposes here a third interpretation of the meaning of the name « Israel ». After the ‘struggle’ (against God), the ‘vision’ (of God), here is the ‘kingship’ (in God?).
Immediately after these events, the story resumes with a new, mysterious episode. « The Lord disappeared from the place where he had spoken to him. Jacob erected a monument in the place where he had spoken to him, a monument of stone.» xiv
Why do I say « a mysterious episode »? Because the great Rashi himself admits about this verse: « I don’t know what this text wants to teach us. »
Let’s take a chance. We read here yet another circumstantial expression of place: « in the place where he had spoken to him ».
In Bethel, God stands « near » Jacob, during his « battle » at the place called Peniel, on the bank of the Jaboc, and that the same time Jacob holds his opponent tightly in a close combat.
This is the first difference of « placement ».
But what is surprising is that God then disappears away « from him » (i.e. moves away from the place « near » Jacob) to go « to the place where he had spoken to him » (bi maqom asher diber itou).
It seems that God disappears, not just « from » but rather « into » the place where He had just spoken.
Let’s elaborate. We must distinguish here between the place where God stood « near » Jacob, – and the « place where God had spoken », which is not a geographical place, but more likely the very soul of Jacob.
What the text teaches us, therefore, is that God disappeared « in » Jacob’s soul, melting into it, blending into it intimately.
After this anticipatory detour by Bethel, let us return to the scene of Penïêl, close to the ford of Jaboc. Jacob has just been named there for the first time « Israel ».
He then wants to know the name of the one who just called him that: « He answered, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ And he blessed him on the spot. » xv
The man, or the angel, blesses Jacob, but does not reveal his name to him. On the other hand, one can infer from the text that he showed his face to him.
Indeed, we read: « Jacob called this place Peniel: ‘Because I saw an angel of God face to face, and my life was saved’. » xvi
Peniel means, word for word, « face of God, » which seems to support the fact that Jacob-Israel did « see » God in his nightly battle.
This is an opportunity to note a kind of inverted symmetry between Jacob’s experience and that of Moses. Jacob « saw » God, but was not given to hear his name. For Moses it was the opposite, God revealed to him one of his names, Eyeh asher Eyeh, « I will be who I will be, » but He did not show him His « face, » only His « back.
What is the most manifest sign of election and grace: seeing the face of God or hearing His name?
Interpretations of this difficult question are legion. I will not discuss them here.
There is another mystery, before which Rashi himself had to admit ignorance: why did God disappear where He had spoken?
Why is the place of His presence now the place of His absence?
One lesson of the text might be that only His ‘word’ may reconcile both His (past) presence and His (present) absence.
They spend a lifetime sailing between the ends of the world, aiming for the very high or the very low, the bright or the dark, without ever finding a way out. Everywhere dead ends, clogged skies, impenetrable mountains, high walls, closed seas, and bottomless abysses.
Tired of detours, perplexed by fences, impatient for open roads, some people try to seek direct help: « Where have you been hiding ? » they ask, as the poet once did, thrown into the bottom of a low pit in Toledo: ¿ Adónde te escondiste? i
But who will answer? In the game of worlds, silence can be heard, speech is rare. We call, we implore, we groan, in vain. The hidden remains consistent and keeps hiding. Why would He betray himself by a mad « here! » ?
All means are good, to whoever wants to find. With an acute eye, one can scrutinize the signs, detect traces, read between the lines. One can juggle endlessly, with the obvious (pshath), the allusion (remez), the allegory (drash), to continue trying to grasp the hidden (sod).
But is that enough? Sod is « mystery ». Barely touched, it suddenly discovers its nature, it is the abyss. It deepens unceasingly, as one throws in it furtive glances. Suddenly, a sinkhole collapses, bitter avens and swallowing ouvalas multiply. The more one brushes against the sod, the more it slips away, and sinks endlessly into its night.
Pedagogically, Amos has accumulated some clues in an ample sentence: « It is He who forms the mountains and creates the wind, who reveals to man his thoughts, who turns dawn into darkness, and who walks on the heights of the earth.»ii
Is the mystery hidden in the shape of the mountains, or is it at the origin of the wind?
Does it hide itself in the dawn drowned at night? Above all it is hidden in the man himself. Man, says Amos, doesn’t know what he thinks, he doesn’t know who he is, he doesn’t know what’s going on inside him. It is necessary to reveal it to him.
Man also is sod, therefore, and that even he does not see it, nor does he know it. So ill-prepared for himself, how could he face the « great mystery » (raza raba)?
Amos’ successive metaphors give an overview. Man can be compared to « mountains », in the moments when they « form » (orogeny, in technical style), or to a « wind » (ruah), shapeless but « created », or to a power that in an instant changes the dawn into darkness, or to the march of the spirit, above the heights of the world.
These metaphors are also understatements, which say, by antiphrase, that man ignores himself royally.
Mountain, wind, dawn, darkness, walking, world, height, all this man is in a way, and yet these prodigious images explain nothing yet.
Hidden, far below these figures, is waiting, patient and lurking, an ultimate image.
A unique topos. Buried within man is a secret place, which he does not know he possesses and which encloses « treasures », – as Isaiah tells us. « And I will give you secret treasures, hidden riches »iii.
Man possesses them in essence, these secrets and treasures, but he also ignores them. It has already been said: he doesn’t really know who he is, what he says, what he thinks. Nor does he know whether he really believes what he says he is or what he believes.
A fortiori, how little does he know his own abyssal depths, and their sealed secrets! For him to start guessing their presence, perhaps someone greater than himself must resolve to reveal them to him.
Climbing to the heights, flying in the winds, going to the ends of the world, is useless to discover what is already there, deep inside man.
As for the wind, really its flight is vain, in the dark.
And, on the highest mountain, the summit too is vain, if one must hide in the crevice (niqrat), like Moses, to take cover, – under a shadow thick enough to erase the fire of consciousnessiv .
In the crevices, in the depths of the night, perhaps the truth is there,baking in its own light, since it is nowhere else? One can hope in this shadow to catch a glimpse of the elusive silhouette, which is already slipping away.
The darkness, the obscurity, the night are somber and propitious premises, for the man who seeks.
They indicate to the researcher that one should hide « in the shadow of the wings »v.
What shadow? Which wings?
The word « wing » (in Hebrew kanap) has a double meaning. It also means « to hide ».
The wing « hides », « covers », « protects ».
Triple pleonasm: « to hide », « in the shade » of « the wing ».
Why all these hiding places, these blankets, these shadows, when we are in search of clarity and discovery? Isn’t it counter-intuitive?
Could it be a reaction to the fear of danger? There are indeed those who « hide » when enemies come running and attack the depths of the soulvi. But is death assured, if other enemies lie in wait, lurking in the hiding place itselfvii?
We must hide, not to flee, but because it is the only way to enter into the heart of the dark.
The inaccessible, the hidden, how to reach it other than by plunging into the dark shadows?
The mystery, the intelligence does not grasp it. It also evades the senses and is tasteless. Nothing emanates from it, it leaves cold. Hermetic, its depth, its opacity, its absence, put it out of reach, out of reach.
Unless, against all reason, one is obviously drowning in its shadow.
The more the mystery is opaque, the more it is revealed, by this very opacity. The more it resists openly, the more it opens in secret. It is the very opposite of ordinary logic.
The less you sense what is hidden, the closer you get to it. The less we grasp its meaning, the more we learn about our intuition.
The less one waits for its presence, the more it emerges.
One approaches, and the darkness deepens; one might think that one has taken the wrong road, that one is beating the countryside, that one is going astray. Paradox!
So close, so sublime is the knowledge of the mystery, it is still immensely far from its essence. But so far away are we lost in the depths of the unfathomable cave, we are already closer than in any light.
You can’t see anything. But it is blindness that we must see. It is blindness that reveals.
« If he comes I will not see him, if he withdraws, I will not notice. »viii
We see nothing, and it is that « we don’t see » that we must see…
Wisdom once said of herself: « From eternity I was established, from the beginning, before the origin of the earth.» x
From eternity, mé–‘olam. Fromtheprinciple, mé-rosh.
The Bahir reports a commentary on these expressions by Rabbi Bun:
« What is mé-‘olam? The word designates that which must remain hidden from everyone, for it is written : ‘He has also put the ‘olam in their hearts’xi. Do not read ha-‘olam (eternity) but ha-‘elem (the hidden) »xii.
The Hebrew word עָלַם lends itself to this play on words, since it is used as a noun (« eternity ») and as a verb (« hide »).
In the heart of man, « eternity » is hidden, and the « hidden » itself, under the shadow of its « wings ».
Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.
An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.
Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.
How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?
For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.
The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:
« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline! O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance! Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove With memories sleeping in this hair, I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii
From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:
« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii
There is also the metaphor of the waves:
« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!
You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream
Of sails, rowers, flames and masts : A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.
Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.
Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.
Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.
Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.
Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.
« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme Occident of desires to deploy it, Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem) Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…
The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii
The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.
In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix
However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.
In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x
In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi
The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».
In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.
For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii
The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.
« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii
Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.
« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv
John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :
« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi
But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?
« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii
And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?
« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii
God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix
The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.
But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?
« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi
But the case is more complicated than it seems.
The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:
« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »
The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».
In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.
The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».
This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »
If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.
The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.
So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?
The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »
The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.
Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?
In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.
Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».
In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:
viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».
ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9
x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4
xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)
All languages have their own words for ‘secret’, which unconsciously reveal a part of it.
The Greek word for secret is ἀπόῤῥηθον, aporrhêton, which literally means « far, or away, from speech ». The secret is properly what is « unspeakable », either that which cannot be said, since the resources of language are insufficient, or that which must be kept silent, since words must be kept away. The emphasis is on speech and language, their limits or their impotence. This is why the idea of secrecy among the Greeks is well expressed in hermeticism and in the religions of the mysteries, where the initiate must swear to keep secret the things taught.
In Latin, the word secretum (from the verb seco, secare, sectum, « to cut ») etymologically evokes the idea of separation, of physical cut. The emphasis is not on language, but on place or space. The secret is what is separated from the rest of the world, what is cut off from it. The secret participates in a partition of the world into highly differentiated zones, exclusive of each other.
In Hebrew, the word for secret is רָז (raz). It is a word of Persian origin. In the Bible it is only found in the book of Daniel, then at a rather late date, where it takes on the meaning of « mystery ».
Sanskrit offers, among other words: गुप्त, gupta and गुह्यguhya. The word gupta comes from the root gup- , « to keep, protect, defend ». It first means « protected, hidden ». It also means « secret » by derivation. In Sanskrit, secrecy seems to be less an end in itself, to be kept for what it is worth, than a means to protect the person who benefits from it. As for guhya, it comes from the root guh-, « tocover, to conceal, to hide ». Guhya is what must be hidden, like a magic formula, or the sexual organs, of which this word is also the name. Here too, the emphasis is on the veil and the act of veiling, more than on what is veiled.
In contrast, the German word for secret, Geheimnis, precisely brings out the link between the secret and the interiority, the inner self. The secret is what is deep in the heart, or in the intimacy of the soul.
We could go on for a long time with this anthology of the word « secret » in different languages. But we already sense that each culture has a conception of the secret that corresponds as well as possible to what it agrees to reveal to itself and to what it agrees to show to the world, as for its (collective) unconscious .
This is also true of individuals, and of the secrets that inhabit them, or that found them.
In A Taste for Secrecy, Jacques Derrida declares that the secret is « the very non-phenomenality of experience », and « something that is beyond the opposition of phenomenon and non-phenomenon, and which is the very element of existence »i.
Even if everything could be said, there is something that will always resist, that will always remain secret, singular, unique, irreplaceable, « even without having to hide anything »ii.
This singular, specific secret is not even opposed to what is not secret. Nor is it ineffable. This secret is the secret of all that is said. The secret undoes what is brought forward by the word.
The secret « undoes the word », which is also the characteristic of deconstruction.
By undoing the word, the secret takes on an absolute significance. This secret that can never be shared, even at the moment of sharing, occupies a position of overhang: it is the very condition of sharing.
This is the absolute secret. The secret is an « absolute » that reigns above or within the existing, or is completely detached from it. Derrida says: « It is the ab-solute even in the etymological sense of the term, that is to say what is cut off from the bond, detached, and cannot bind; it is the condition of the bond but it cannot bind: that is the absolute; if there is an absolute, it is secret. It is in this direction that I try to read Kierkegaard, Isaac’s sacrifice, the absolute as secret and as the ‘other’. Not transcendent, not even beyond myself: a resistance to the light of phenomenality that is radical, irreversible, to which one can give all sorts of forms, death, for example, but it is not even death. » iii
« The absolute as a secret and as the ‘other’ ». But « not transcendent ».
A rather enigmatic formula, admittedly…. But how is Isaac’s sacrifice linked to the question of the secret, if the absolute is the « other » and is not « transcendent »?
We need a tighter analysis.
« Abraham took the wood of the sacrifice, put it on Isaac his son, took the fire and the knife in his hand, and they both went together.» iv
Rashi comments: « They both went together: Abraham who knew he was going to sacrifice his son, walked with the same goodwill and joy as Isaac who suspected nothing. «
Abraham kept the secret of what awaited Isaac. He told him nothing. The secret was absolute. Abraham did not let anything show on his face. He even walked cheerfully, according to Rashi, so as not to arouse any fear in Isaac. But some suspicion nevertheless arose and Isaac finally questioned his father: « ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb of the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered: ‘God himself will choose the lamb of the burnt offering, my son,’ and they both went together. » v
The repetition of this phrase, « they both went together », suggests two different meanings. Rashi comments: « And though Isaac understood that he was going to be immolated, ‘they both went together’, with one heart. »
The first time, it is Abraham who took the emotional burden on him. The second time, it was Isaac. He did not show anything about what he had guessed to be his fate. He kept his emotion secret.
In both cases, for Abraham and for Isaac, – absolute secrecy of the heart, but a secrecy that was not transcendent, indeed.
It was only the secret of a silent father, in one case, and the secret of a son who was silent, in the other. It was a doubly absolute secret, one can imagine.
Or, perhaps, was the absolute also present, secretly, in these moments, in two different ways?
This absolute, so secret, so doubly secret, can also, in fact, be called the « other ».
One could even suggest that this absolute wasthe « All Other ».
But then why does Derrida insist on the idea that the Absolute which is the « other » is precisely not « transcendent »?
In the text of Genesis, however, transcendence does appear at this crucial moment in all splendor: « But a messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven, and he said, ‘Abraham… Abraham!’ He answered, ‘Here I am,’ and said, ‘Do not lay a hand on this young man, do nothing to him! For now I know that you fear God, you who did not deny me your son, your only son ». vi
One knows that the absolute is secret, that it is the « other ». As for being « transcendent », it is a question of interpretation.
Shortly after finding a ram embarrassed by its horns in a bush and sacrificing it as a burnt offering in place of his son, Abraham named the place where this whole scene had taken place: « YHVH will see. »vii In Hebrew: יְהוָה יִרְאֶה (‘Adonai-Yiré’)
The Targum interprets this verse as follows, according to Rashi: God will choose for Himself this place to make His Divine Presence reside there and to make offerings there. And it will be said about this place: It is on this mountain that God makes Himself seen by His people.
But if « YHVH will see » is to be understood as « God will be seen », the Targum should also explain why the active way (God will see) has been changed into a passive way (God will be seen).
The Midrach gives yet another interpretation, according to Rachi. « YHVH will see » means: « The LORD will see this offering to forgive Israel every year and to spare it the punishment it deserves. So it will be said in the generations to come: Today God shows Himself on the mountain. Isaac’s ashes are still there to make atonement for our sins. »
A Cartesian spirit will point out that the ashes of the ram offered as a holocaust are still on the mountain called « YHVH will see », but certainly not the ashes of Isaac, since the latter left, alive and well, with his father to Beer-sheba.
From all of this, it emerges that the initial secret, so opaque, unravels endlessly, in twisted insinuations, in down-to-earth or messianic interpretations, depending on different « points of view ».
For us, who respect grammatical values more than lyrical flights of fancy, we will remember above all that « He will see » may also mean « He will be seen ».
Ultimately, it is the grammar itself, the foundation of the language, that must be deconstructed if we want to unlock the secret, not of the language, but of the one who speaks.
iJacques Derrida, Maurizio Ferraris. Le goût du secret. Hermann. 2018, p.69-70
With exquisite, urban manners, using forceful, honeyed compliments, but not without double-edged meanings, Emmanuel Levinas once fiercely criticized Jacques Derrida’s philosophical system. With the tip of his lips, he recognized, fiendishly, his « poetry », which offers, he says, a « new shiver ». Was Levinas’ devastating, acid irony against Derrida nothing but the effect of the Parisian literary swamp?
The very excess of Levinas’ final metaphor, which evoked, in a totally unexpected way, the memory of the invasion of the German army during the Second World War, prevents us from thinking it…
Here is an excerpt of Levinas’ text about Derrida:
« In The Voice and the Phenomenon, which overturns the logo-centric discourse, not a single sentence is contingent. A marvelous rigor learned certainly in the phenomenological school, in the extreme attention paid to the discreet gestures of Husserl, to the wide movements of Heidegger, but practiced with a spirit of continuity and a consummate art: reversal of the ‘limit notion’ as a precondition, of the defect as a source, of the abyss as a condition, of the discourse as a place, reversal of these very reversals as destiny: the concepts purified of their ontic resonance, freed from the alternative of true and false. At the beginning, everything is in place, after a few pages or a few paragraphs, under the effect of a formidable questioning, nothing is more habitable for thought. There, outside the philosophical scope of the proposals, there is a purely literary effect, the new thrill, the poetry of Derrida. When I read it, I always remember the exodus of 1940.»ii
The passage just quoted was read by Maurizio Ferraris to Derrida himself in January 1994, during a series of interviewsiii. Derrida immediately stroke back. « It is a text that a friend, Samuel Weber, drew my attention to, a few weeks ago. He told me: ‘Doesn’t it bother you, this text ? What is it accusing you of at the moment? You are like the enemy army.’ So I re-read Levinas’ text, which is a generous text; but when you see what he says, that in short, when I came, it’s like when the German army came: then there’s nothing left… It’s weird, I hadn’t paid any attention to it from that point of view; what is the unconscious of this image? And then the Nazi invader… » iv
Understandably, Derrida, a Sephardic Jew, found it rather « weird » that Levinas, an Ashkenazi Jew, had compared his work to a « Nazi » invasion.
The question remains unanswered. What is the unconscious of this image? Why does Levinas feel the need to take this polemic to the Godwin point from the outset? What made him so uncomfortable about Derrida’s « deconstruction »? Or about the person of Derrida himself?
Or was it an occasion for Levinas, through Derrida, to paradoxically settle some score with German philosophy and its cultural-historical context?
Or could it be the effect of the unconscious resurgence of a deeper hatred that is both memorial and immemorial, and obviously ruthless?
After all, wasn’t Derrida’s attack of the logos, wasn’t his ‘de-construction’, in a way equivalent to attacking the Law ?
Moreover, if we add that Derrida said of himself: « I am the end of Judaism », had he not already, unforgivably, crossed all the limits – like the German army once had done, in a Blitzkrieg?
Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.
Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?
According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.
Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii
Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).
Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x
Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.
Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.
But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.
Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.
We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.
This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii
The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.
But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?
What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.
« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii
The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.
But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?
That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.
Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv
Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.
« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv
Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi
If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:
« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii
Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii
The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »
This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.
To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.
i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.
iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.
iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12
ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.
vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».
viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2
Prophets can be grouped into three categories, admittedly. There are those who see with their eyes, such as Abraham who saw three men under the oak tree of Mamre. There are those who see by the spirit, like Isaiah. And there are those who see neither with the eyes nor with images or figures, but with pure intuition of the spirit (intuitio). Thus Daniel intuitively contemplated, by the sole force of his intellect, what Baltassar had seen in his dream, and was able to interpret it. ii
Maimonides reduces these three groups to one, and draws a general lesson from it. « Know that the three verbs raâ, hibbît and ‘hazà apply to the sight of the eye; but all three are used metaphorically for the perception of intelligence. (…) It is in this metaphorical sense that the verb raa must be taken whenever it is applied to God, as for example in the following passages: ‘I saw the LORD’ (1 Kings 22:19); ‘and the LORD showed himself to him’ (Gen. (Gen. 18:1); ‘And God saw that it was good’ (Gen. 1, passim); ‘Let me see your glory’ (Ex. 33:18); ‘And they saw the God of Israel’ (Ex. 24:10). This is everywhere an intellectual perception, not the sight of the eye.» iii
According to Maimonides, all « visions » must be understood as operations of intelligence.
But this rationalist approach does not account for all cases of observed « prophecies ».
Other commentators offer a more detailed analysis, such as Isidore of Sevilleiv, who distinguish seven kinds of prophecies.
The first is ecstasy (ekstasis). It is a temporary passage of the mind into an afterlife. Thus the ecstasy of Peter. « He saw the sky open, and an object like a great tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending and lowering itself to the earth, where all the quadrupeds and the reptiles of the earth and the birds of the sky were.» v
This ecstasy consists of three moments: an exit out of the body, the sight of an (extraordinary) phenomenon in the heights, followed by a descent, a lowering and a return to earth.
The second is vision (visio). Isaiah tells: « In the year of the death of King Uzziah I saw the Lord sitting on a great and high throne. His train filled the sanctuary. Seraphim stood above him, each with six wings, two to cover his feet, two to cover his face, and two to fly. They shouted to one another, « Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, his glory fills the whole earth.» vi
Unlike ecstasy, which is an elevation followed by a descent, the vision stands entirely in the heights. Another difference: ecstasy is precise, detailed. Peter perceives all the animals of the earth and the sky (but not those of the sea). In contrast, Isaiah’s vision is partial, more veiled. He sees the « sanctuary », filled by God’s « train ». The Hebrew text uses the word Hekal, הֵיכָל. The Hekal is the part of the temple that stands before the « Holy of Holies », the Debir, דְּבִיר, – which is the most sacred, most inaccessible place. So Isaiah sees the sanctuary, but not the Holy of Holies, which remains veiled by the « train » (שׁוּלׇ), the bottom of God’s garment. He also sees seraphim, but only partially, since two pairs of their wings cover their faces and feet. Isaiah’s vision is partly incomplete.
Vision is superior to ecstasy in that it « sees » in the heights certain aspects of the divinity, but it also encounters various obstacles, veils that cover other layers of mystery.
The third kind of prophecy mobilizes the dream (somnium). Jacob saw in the dream: « Behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and angels of God ascended and descended on it! Behold, Yahweh stood before him and said, ‘I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham, your ancestor and the God of Isaac.» vii
Jacob’s dream combines the ascent and descent, as in ecstasy, and adds a divine vision, in which the Lord calls himself and speaks. He makes a solemn promise and a covenant: « I am with you, I will keep you wherever you go. » viii
All this could impress anyone. But Jacob is a cautious man. He saw Yahweh in a dream, and the LORD spoke to him, and made him mirthful promises. But it was only a dream after all. The next day, when Jacob woke up, he made a vow: « If God is with me and keeps me on the road where I am going, if he gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. » ix
The dream after all is only a dream. Nothing can replace true reality. Jacob waits to see, in order to believe in his dream, the fulfillment of promises: bread, clothes, a safe journey. The vision of the dream is veiled too, from the veil of doubt, the doubt of the dreamer.
The fourth kind of prophecy is not direct either, it is perceived through still other veils: fire, a cloud or a storm.
One reads: « And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. Moses looked, and the bush was ablaze but not consumed. » x
One also reads: « I will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak with you and believe in you forever. » xi
Or: « And the LORD answered Job out of the midst of the storm, and said… » xii
Here again, the vision is somehow mixed, confused. The vision is made against the background of a phenomenon of nature with which it hybridizes.
The fifth kind of prophecy is not a vision but a voice, – coming from heaven. « The angel of Yahweh called it from heaven and said, ‘Abraham! He answered, ‘Here I am. xiii
Abraham hears the voice of God distinctly, at a particularly dramatic moment: « Do not stretch out your hand against the child! Do no harm to him! I know now that you fear God: you did not deny me your son, your only one. » xiv
If the ear undoubtedly hears, the vision remains earthly. At the sound of God’s voice, Abraham raises his eyes and sees a ram whose horns have been caught in a bush.
A similar phenomenon took place on the road to Damascus, with different effects. « Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? xv
There is the voice but not the image. « His companions on the road had stopped, mute in amazement: they heard the voice, but saw no one. » xvi
Deeper, this voice that we do not see, – this (non-)vision, blind. « Saul rose from the ground, but although his eyes were open, he saw nothing. He was led by the hand back to Damascus. For three days he was blind, eating and drinking nothing. » xvii
The sixth kind of prophecy is purely intellectual. It is the one that happened to Solomon composing his Proverbs.
The seventh kind of prophecy sums them all up. It consists in being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit (repletio). It is common to all prophets, for it is the very condition of their prophecy.
These various kinds of prophecies all have another thing in common, which is that they are always in some way, for one reason or another, veiled.
Maimonides made a comment on this subject, which may help to become aware of the inevitability of the veil. « It is frequently found in the Midrashoth and Haggadoth of the Talmud [this assertion] that among the prophets there are some who saw God behind many veils, others through a few, depending on how close they were to the divinity and on the rank of the prophets, so that [the Doctors of the Law] have said that Moses, our Master, saw God behind a single veil that was shining, that is, transparent, according to this word (Yebamot 49b): « He (Moses) contemplated God [as] through a mirror illuminating the eyes », ispaklaria (=speculare) being [in Latin] the name of the mirror, made of a transparent body, like glass and crystal. » xviii
Maimonides adds that the prophet Isaiahxix said that the sins and vices of man are « veils » that come between man and God. This is why, according to the doctors of the law, « prophetic inspiration is given only to a wise, strong and rich man » (Shabbat 92a).
But, Maimonides also tempers, « the prophet need not necessarily possess all the moral qualities, so that no vice can befall him, since Solomon was a prophet in the witness of Scripture. ‘At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon’ (Kings 3:5), but we know of a moral defect, a passion for a certain thing: the great number of women. » xx
He also points to the negative examples of David, « who shed much blood » (Chron. 28:3), and Elijah, who was prone to anger and fanaticism.
What can be said is that the more the prophet is afflicted with nonconforming moral dispositions, the more the number of veils between him and God increases. But there are also structural limits, inherent in man’s intelligence.
Even to Moses, there remained « a single transparent veil that prevented him from attaining the real knowledge of the divine essence: human intelligence ». xxi
Even Moses still had a veil…
But could any man still live, if stripped of all veils, in the cruellest nudity?
A document was read at the Nuremberg trial, the deposition of the German engineer Graede, an eyewitness to the massacre of several thousand Jews near Dubno in October 1942. « Men, women and children of all ages were undressed before the eyes of the SS, who walked among them with a whip or whip in their hands. They would then place their clothes in the place that was indicated to them, pieces of clothing on one side, shoes on the other. Without shouting or crying, all these naked people grouped themselves into families. After kissing each other and saying goodbye, they waited for the sign of the S.S. who was standing at the edge of the pit, also with a whip in his hand. I stayed about fifteen minutes with one of them, and I did not hear anyone complaining or asking for mercy… I saw a whole family: a man and a woman of about fifty years old, with their children of eight and nine years old, and two tall girls in their twenties. A white-haired woman was holding a one-year-old child in her arms, singing a song to him and tickling him…: the child laughed, the father and mother looked at their child with tears in their eyes. The father of a ten year old child held his hand and spoke softly to him; the child tried not to cry; the father pointed to the sky, stroked his hair; he seemed to be explaining something to him. » xxii
The father pointed to the sky, stroking his child’s hair. He really was explaining something to him.
According to Gershom Scholem: « Hebrew is the original language »i. For the sake of a sound debate, one could perhaps argue that Sanskrit, the « perfect » language (according to the Veda), was formed several millennia before Hebrew began to incarnate the word of God. However, such historical and linguistic arguments may have no bearing on the zealots of the « sacred language », the language that God Himself is supposed to have spoken, with His own words, even before the creation of the world.
Where does this supposedly unique status of the Hebrew language come from?
A first explanation can be found in the relationship between the Torah and the name of God. The Torah is, literally, the name of God. Scholem explains: « The Torah is not only made up of the names of God, but forms in its entirety the one great name of God. » In support of this thesis, the opinion of the Kabbalistic cenacle of Gerona is quoted: « The five books of the Torah are the name of the Holy One, blessed be He.» ii
How can this be? Here and there in the Torah, we find various names of God, such as the name Yahveh (YHVH) or the name Ehyeh (« I shall be »). But there are also many other (non divine) names, and many other words, that are perfectly profane in the Torah. The four letters aleph, he, waw and yod (אהוי), which are present in Yahveh (יהוה) and Ehyeh ( אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) are also the letters that serve in Hebrew as matres lectionis (the « mothers of reading »), and as such, they are spread throughout the text, they structure it, and make it intelligible.
From that consideration, some Kabbalists, such as Abraham Aboulafia, draw the conclusion that the true name of God is neither Yahveh nor Ehyeh. Aboulafia goes so far as to say that the true original name of God is EHWY (אהוי), that is, a name composed of the four fundamental letters, without repetition. « The tetragrammaton of the Torah is thus only an expedient, behind which the true original name is hidden. In each of two four-letter names there are only three of the consonants that make up the original name, the fourth being only a repetition of one of them, namely, he (ה). » iii
It was, without a doubt, a thesis of « unheard-of radicality » to affirm that the name of God does not even appear in the Torah, but only some of his pseudonyms… Moses Cordovero of Safed rose with indignation against this maximalist thesis. Yet a similar idea resurfaces elsewhere, in the Kabbalistic work entitled Temunah. It evokes « the conception of a divine name containing, in a different order these four letters, yod, he, waw, aleph, and which would constitute the true name of God before the creation of the world, for which the usual tetragram was substituted only for the creation of this world.» iv
Not surprisingly, there are many more other ideas on the matter. There is, for example, the idea of the existence of seventy-two divine names formed from the seventy-two consonants contained in each of the three verses of Exodus 14:19-21. « Know that the seventy-two sacred names serve the Merkavah and are united with the essence of the Merkavah. They are like columns of shining light, called in the Bible bne elohim, and all the heavenly host pays homage to them. (…) The divine names are the essence itself, they are the powers of the divinity, and their substance is the substance of the light of life.» v
There are also technical methods « to expand the tetragram, writing the name of each of the consonants that make up the tetragram in full letters so as to obtain four names with numerical values of 45, 52, 63 and 72, respectively ».vi Far from being a simple set of letters and numbers, this is a mechanism that is at the foundation of the worlds. « The Torah is formed in the supreme world, as in this original garment, only from a series of combinations, each of which unites two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet. It is only in the second world that the Torah manifests itself as a series of mystical divine names formed from new combinations of the first elements. It has the same letters, but in a different order than the Torah we know. In the third world the letters appear as angelic beings whose names, or at least their initials, are suggested. It is only in the ultimate world that the Torah becomes visible in the form in which it is transmitted to us.» vii
From all of this, one may be tempted to draw the fundamental idea that Hebrew is indeed the original language, the divine language. « Hence the conventional character of secular languages as opposed to the sacred character of Hebrew. »viii
However, there was the catastrophic episode of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages, which spared none of them – including Hebrew! « But to the sacred language itself have since then mingled profane elements, just as profane languages still contain here and there elements or remnants of the sacred language.» ix
One is always happy to learn, when one has a somewhat universalist sensibility, that « remnants » of the sacred still exist, « here and there », in other languages. To lovers of languages and dictionaries then comes the thankless but promising task of discovering these sacred snags, which are perhaps still hidden in Greek or Arabic, Avestic or Sanskrit, or even Fulani, Wolof and Chinese, who knows?
From a perhaps more polemical point of view, one may wonder whether this is not a kind of idolatry of the letter, — an « idolettry » , then, or a « grapho-latry »…
We may need to go up to a higher level of understanding, to see things from a higher perspective. « Wisdom is contained and gathered in letters, in sefirot and in names, all of which are mutually composed from each other.» x
We need to broaden the vision. These tiny sacred traces present in the languages of the world are like living germs. « All languages derive their origin by corruption from the original sacred language, in which the world of names immediately unfolds, and they all relate to it in a mediated way. As every language has its home in the divine name, it can be brought back to this center.» xi
All languages then have a vocation to return to the divine « center ». Every word and every letter contain, perhaps, by extension, a tiny bit of sacredness…
« Each singular letter of the Kabbalah constitutes a world in itself » xii, Gershom Scholem adds in a note that in the Zohar (1:4b) it is said that every new and authentic word that man utters in the Torah stands before God, who embraces it and sets it with seventy mystical crowns. And this word then expands in its own motion to form a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.
Let’s be a little more generous, and give the goyim a chance. When the poet says, for example, « O million golden birds, O future vigor! » , is there any chance that these inspired words, though not present in the Torah, will one day appear trembling before God, and that God will deign to grant them one or two mystical crowns? I do not know. But maybe so. In the eyes of Aboulafia himself, « the knowledge that can be attained by following the path of the mysticism of language prevails over that which follows the path of the ten sefirot. xiii
So let’s make a wager that all languages have their own « mystical » way, certainly well hidden.
Scholem concludes: « What will be the dignity of a language from which God has withdrawn? This is the question that must be asked by those who still believe that they perceive, in the immanence of the world, the echo of the creative word that has now disappeared. It is a question that, in our time, can only be answered by poets, who do not share the despair of most mystics with regard to language. One thing connects them to the masters of Kabbalah, even though they reject its theological formulation, which is still too explicit: the belief in language thought as an absolute, however dialectically torn, – the belief in the secret that has become audible in language. » xiv
For my part, I believe that no human language is totally deserted of all creative speech, of all sacred flavor. I believe that poets all over the world may hear the disturbing echoes, may perceive infinitesimal vibrations, guess the celestial chords present in their languages.
Whether they are whispered, spoken, dreamed, revealed, words from all origins only approach the mystery. It is already a lot, but it is still very little.
There is much more to be said about silence than about words.
« It is indeed quite striking in view of the sacramental meaning that speech had in a decisive manner in contemporary paganism, that it does not play any role in the Israelite religion, nor especially in its rite. This silence is so complete that it can only be interpreted as intentional silence. The Israelite priest fulfills all his offices entirely without any words, with the exception of the blessing which he must pronounce aloud [Numbers 6:24]. In none of his ceremonial acts is he prescribed a word that he must pronounce. He makes all sacrifices and performs his duties without uttering a single word »xv.
The opposition thus made by Benno Jacob between « Israelite worship » and « paganism » may be be easily contradicted, for that matter. During the Vedic sacrifice of the soma, the high priest also remains absolutely silent throughout the ceremony, while his acolytes chant, sing, or recite the hymns.
It is true, however, that the Veda is certainly not a « pagan » religion, since more than a millennium before Abraham left Ur in Chaldea, Veda was already celebrating the unspeakable unity of the Divine.
iGershom Scholem. The name of God and the Kabbalistic theory of language. Ed. Alia. 2018, p. 100.
In the Rig-Veda, the name Bhārata ( भारत ) designates the God Agni, and the sacred fire. It is a Sanskrit word of Vedic origin. Its root is bhar, « to carry ». Bhārata etymologically means the « carrier ».
Why is this? Because the fire of the sacrifice « carries » the offerings.
Bhārata is also the name of India in Sanskrit, the name of an emperor and that of the mythical author of famous treatises of the Theater, the Nâtya-shâstra and the Gītālamkāra .
René Daumal, who learned Sanskrit, made a remarkable effort to translate into French the texts of Bhārata, the playwright, using a beautiful and poetic language.
Bhārata tells the story of the birth of Knowledge and the origin of Flavor.
Kings, peoples, prophets, and even the Gods themselves, generally ignore what this Knowledge is all about, and they ignore this Flavor.
They all climb one after the other on the great stage of the world theater to utter some lines of relative brillance. But they speak without this Knowledge, without this Flavor.
The innate art of language is not natural to them. They certainly do not excel at it. They know nothing of the only true poetry.
Where is the essence of true poetry? In the Flavor of Life. In the Sapience of Taste.
Shortly before his death, Daumal gave the Cahiers du Sud a few poems with a Vedic touch:
Neither breath, nor sight, nor hearing, nor thought are here of any help. We must get rid of them. We need to reach back to the ancient, to the original. To rise higher, to dive deep to the sources, to look for the Breath of the breath, the Sight of the sight, the Hearing of the hearing, the Thought of the thought.
The wise man will recognize what is meant here. Words are no longer in use. They make speech look weak.
Daumal, however, tried to reach out to us, beyond the lines, with words.
« We say that Knowledge is power and foresight. For the Hindu, it is ‘to become’, and to ‘be transformed’. » ii
Words, he taught, have a literal meaning, derived meanings, and more importantly, suggested meanings. It is the immense, loose and delicate universe of verbal « resonances » (dhvani), « suggestions » (vyanjanâ) and « tastes » (rasanâ).
The Flavor is a « conscious joy », even in pain, it is a knowledge that shines forth from its obviousness, it is the sister of the sacred.
Daumal asserts that « he who is capable of perceiving it, ‘tastes’ it, not as a separate thing, but as his own essence. » iii
Thus the poem becomes analogous to oneself. Its flavor is its own « self », its « essence », its « soul ».
Flavor has three functions: sweetness, which « liquefies the spirit »; ardor, which « sets it ablaze » and exalts it; and evidence, which « illuminates » it.
Daumal even asserts: « All the poems recited and all the songs, without exception, are portions of Vishnu, the Great Being, clothed in sound form »iv.
The poem is nothing but wind, if it does not set the whole world and the soul in motion, by sounds, senses, resonances, gait and loves.
Nothing Greek in this. No quiet light. No sea in the sun, no complicit nature. India is already far away, beyond all nature. In freedom, one might say, at last.
« I have settled in the heart of each being.
By Me, come and go memories and knowledge.
The purpose of all knowledge is I alone who am to know.
Some words are like solitary gems, waiting to be re-discovered, in order to reveal some strange resonances. They sometimes indicate constants of the human nature, which travel through passed millennia, vanished empires, linguistic basins, linking together distant cultures and old civilizations.
For example, in English, the words: « medecine, meditate, mediation, moderate, modest, mode », all actually originate from the same Indo-European root MED-, in Sanskrit : मद्. It is a very rich root, which is also reflected in Latin (medicus, meditor, modus) and Greek ( μἠδομαι, medomai: ‘to meditate, think, imagine’ ; μῆδος, mêdos: ‘thought, design’).
What is more surprising is that in its plural form, this latter word reveals a latent, but significant ambiguity. The plural of μῆδος is μἡδεα, médéa, which means « thoughts » but may also mean « human genitals », establishing thereby an unexpected link between two different aspects of human experience.
There is something even more surprising! The ambivalence between « thought » and « genitals » embedded in this Greek word is found almost identically in Arabic and Hebrew, even though these two semitic languages do not belong to the same linguistic and cultural Indo-European sphere as Greek. How can this happen ? Pure coincidence ? Or symptom of a deeper constant of the human mind ?
The primary meaning of the Arabic verb ذَكَرَ , dzakara, is : « to touch, hit or hurt someone in the virile member », and its secondary meanings are : « to remember, to tell », and « to pray, to say one’s prayers ». We also find a similar ambivalence in the nouns that derive from it. For example, ذِكْرً , dzikr, means « reminiscence, remembrance, recollection » and also « invocation, prayer, reading the Koran ». The same root with different vowels,ذَكَرً , dzakar, means « male », and its plural ذُكُورً, dzoukour, is the « male organ ».
In Hebrew, the verb זָכַר, zakhar, means « to think, to remember, to mention », but also, in a derived sense, « to be born male ». The name of the prophet Zechariah takes his name from this verbal root, and means : « The one God remembers ». The noun זַכֶר , zakher, means « remembrance, name » and זָכָר, zakhar, « that which is male, masculine ».
The word zakhar is, for example, used very crudely by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed(Part I, Chapter 6), which deals with « man and woman » (ish and ishâ)i: « The term zakhar v-nekebah was afterwards applied to anything designed and prepared for union with another object » ii Note that the Hebrew word nekebah literally means « hole », and that zakhar v-nekebah thus literally means « the member and the hole ».
I find it extremely astonishing that languages as different as Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic should share such analogies, by creating direct verbal links between the male organ, mind, memory, and even the sacred.
Even more surprisingly, similar analogies and links can be found in Sanskrit !…
The Sanskrit root MED-, मद् is associated with the idea of strength, vigor, energy. It gave words like medas, « fat, marrow, lymph », medin, « vigor, energy », medini, « fertility, earth, soil », medah, « fat-tailed sheep », or medaka « spirituous liquor ».
As for the root MEDH-, मेध् , it gave words such as: medha: « juice, sauce, marrow, sap; essence; sacrificial victim; sacrifice, oblation »; medhā: « intellectual vigor, intelligence; prudence, wisdom »; medhas: « sacrifice »; medhya: « full of sap, vigorous; strong, powerful; fit for sacrifice; pure; intelligent, wise ».
We see in all these meanings the same kind of metonymic thinking at work. Marrow and sacrifice, sap and power, physical strength and mental energy, intelligence and wisdom draw semantic orbs where the vital energy (sap, fat, seed) is, by its abundance, conducive to sacrifice, and rises to signify man’s higher functions.
If we dig deeper the relationship between fat, sex and mind, we find some amazing leads. In fact, the sanskrit root MED- is a strong form of MID-, « getting fat » or MITH- « understanding » and « killing ».
How can « understanding » and « killing » have the same root, the same etymology? MITH- has as first meaning « to unite, to couple » and as derived meanings « to meet, to alternate », and also « to provoke an altercation ».
It seems that the idea of « meeting » is fundamentally twofold: one can meet as a friend or as an enemy, as a couple or as an antagonist, hence the two meanings derived from this very deep, very primeval intuition: that of « understanding » and that of « killing ».
One can go back even further to more originary sources with the root MI- , « to fix in the ground, to found, to build, to plant pillars ». Hence the derived meanings: « to measure, judge, observe » and « to perceive, know, understand ». Thus the word mit means: « pillar, column », and more generally « any erected object ». It is close to mita, « measured, metered; known ».
Let’s summarize. Every « erection » is a « foundation », and a preparation for future « knowledge »; to « erect » is to prepare oneself to « know ». Memory is rooted in the very foundation of one’s being.
For these ancient languages, « to be manly » is to be pegged to one’s own body, and thus rooted in the entire memory of the species, but it also means projecting oneself entirely into the future.
iCuriously enough, the French edition of the Guide des égarés published by Editions Verdier (1979) left entirely over the sentenceAs can be seen on page 39 of the 1979 edition, but it is indeed present in the English translation dating from 1919.
iiMoses Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed. Translated by M. Friedländer. Ed. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1919, p.19
« Let us make man in our image, after our likeness » (Gen. 1:26).
What exactly do these words refer to? What is this divine « image »? What is this Godhead’s « likeness »?
Hebrew has a dozen different terms that express or connote the idea of image. But in this verse, it is the word tselem (צֶלֶם) that is used. Its primary meaning is « shadow, darkness ». It is only in a figurative sense that tselem means « image, figure, idol ».
As for the idea of « likeness » or « resemblance », it is expressed in this verse by the word demouth (דְמוּת). The root of this word comes from the verb damah (דָּמָה), « to resemble, to be similar ».
From this same verbal root derives the word dam (דָּם), « blood »; and figuratively « murder, crime ». Another derived meaning is « resemblance », probably because people of the same blood can have similar traits.
There are several other words, quite close etymologically to damah, that are worth mentioning here, for their potential resonances: דֻּמָּה , dummah, « destruction »; דְּמִי, demi, « destruction, annihilation »; דֳּמִּי, dami, « silence, rest » ; דָּמַע, dama, « to shed tears ».
There is also the word dimyon, whichmeans « demon », and which seems very close to the Greek daimon (δαίμων). Is this a coincidence? Perhaps the Hebrew term was borrowed from the Greek daimon, and transformed into dimyon? Or was it the other way around? I would tend for the former option. It is a fact that the word daimonwas used by Homer to mean « divine power ». Moreover, the Greek word daimon etymologically comes from the verb daiomai, « to share, to divide ». Its initial meaning, taken from this verb, is « the power to attribute », hence « divinity, destiny ».
One can usefully compare the same shift in meaning with the old Persian baga and the Sanskrit bogu, « god », which give in Avestic baga-, « part, destiny » and in Sanskrit, bhaga, « part, destiny, master ».
Taking into account all these resonances, I’d like to propose alternatives translations of Genesis 1:26:
« Let us make man out of our shadow (tselem), and out of our tears (dama). »
Or , more philosophically:
« Let us make man out of our darkness (tselem), and out of our annihilation (dummah). »
New questions would then arise:
What does that (divine) darkness refer to? What does this (divine) annihilation really mean ?
A short answer: darkness (´tselem´) is a metaphor of the (divine) unconscious, and annihilation (´dummah´) is a metaphor of the (divine) sacrifice.
In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:
« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i
Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.
According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.
In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».
Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:
« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii
The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?
« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii
The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.
These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.
We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.
But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?
Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv
In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.
« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.
If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v
The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.
For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.
Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».
Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?
In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:
The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:
« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »
The Jerusalem Bible gives :
« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »
Rachi comments on this verse as follows:
« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).
DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».
AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.
For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.
A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »
We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.
It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.
And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.
In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.
If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.
But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.
If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.
Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii
He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».
Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii
Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix
Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.
From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.
This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.
Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .
Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?
This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.
The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?
The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.
The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.
« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.
The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi
Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».
The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».
iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »
iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451
One can consult the latest research in Neurosciences on consciousness: many interesting hypothesis are tested, but there is never a word about the soul. Total absence of the idea, even. Is soul a blind spot of techno-sciences? One may suppose that the soul, by her very nature, escapes all scientific investigation, she is out of reach, absolutely. She can’t be looked at, with a simply « objective », « materialistic » gaze.
By contrast, the Talmud is more prolific on the subject, and teaches several things about the human soul: she has been called « Light »; she « fills » and « nourishes » the whole body; she « sees » but cannot be seen; she is « pure »; she resides in a « very secret place »; she is « weak ».
It’s a good start. But let’s review these Talmudic determinations of the soul.
The soul is named « Light ».
« The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘The soul I have given you is called Light, and I have warned you concerning the lights. If you heed these warnings, so much the better; if not, beware! I will take your souls’. » i
Light is only the third of God’s « creations », right after heaven and earth. But there is an important nuance. Heaven and earth were definitely « created ». « In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. » ii
But « light » was not « created », literally speaking. Rather, it came right out of the word of God: « God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. » iv
Moreover, it seems that from the start, light worked better, as a creation: « God saw that the light was good. » v God did not say that the heaven or the earth were « good ».
Light, therefore, was the first of the divine creations to be called « good ».
Hence, maybe, its extraordinary success as a metaphor. Light became the prototype of life (of men): « Life was the light of men »vi. And, by extension, it also became the prototype of their soul, as the Talmud indicates. If life is the light of men, the soul is the light of life.
This explains why, later on, we will see a deep connection between light and truth: « He who does the truth comes to the light »vii.
The Hebrew word for « light » is אור, « or ». The word אור means « light, radiance, sun, fire, flame », but also, by extension, « happiness ».
« Or », אור, is maybe the true name, the true nature of the soul.
The soul fills and nourishes the body, sees, is pure, and resides in a very secret place.
We learn all this in the Berakhot treaty:
« R. Chimi b. Okba asked: ‘How can I understand? Bless the LORD, my soul: let all my womb bless his name. (Ps 103:1)? (…) What was David thinking when he said five timesviii Bless the LORD, my soul?
– [He was thinking ] of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to the soul. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world, so the soul fills the whole body; the Holy One, blessed be He, sees and is not visible, and likewise the soul sees but cannot be seen; the soul nourishes the whole body, just as the Holy One, blessed be He, nourishes the whole world; the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, the soul also; like the Holy One, blessed be He, the soul resides in a very secret place. It is good that the one who possesses these five attributes should come to glorify the One who possesses these five attributes. » ix
This text teaches us that the soul has five attributes. These five attributes are based on the hypothesis of a « likeness » or « resemblance » between the soul and the « Holy One ».
The soul fills the whole body and nourishes it. But then what happens when a part of the body becomes detached from it? Does a piece of the soul leave as a result? No, the soul is indivisible. What is called « body » takes its name only from the presence of the soul that envelops and fills it. If the body dies and decomposes, it just means that the soul has gone. Not the other way around.
The soul sees. It is not, of course, through the eyes of the body. It is all about seeing what cannot be seen, which is beyond all vision. The soul sees but she does not see herself. This comes from the fact that she is of the same essence as the divine word that said « Let there be light ». One cannot see such a word, nor can one hear it, one can only read it.
The soul is pure. But then evil does not reach her? No. Evil does not attain her essence. It can only veil or darken her light. Evil can be compared to thick, uncomfortable clothes, heavy armor, or rubbish thrown on the skin, or a hard gangue hiding the brilliance of an even harder diamond.
The soul resides in a very secret place. This statement should be made known to the specialists of neurosciences. The first Russian cosmonauts famously reported, after their return to earth, that they had not found God in space. Nor is there much chance that the soul can be detected by positron emission tomography or other techniques of imagery. This makes it necessary to imagine a structure of the universe that is much more complex (by many orders of magnitude) than the one that « modern », positivist science is trying to defend.
The soul is weak.
The soul is « weak », as evidenced by the fact that she « falters » when she hears even a single word from her Creator. « R. Joshua b. Levi said: Every word spoken by the Holy One, blessed be he, made the souls of Israel faint, for it is said, My soul fainted when he spoke to me (Cant. 5:6). But when a first word had been spoken and the soul had gone out, how could she listen to a second word? He made the dew fall that was destined to raise the dead in the future, and it raised them up. » x
There are even more serious arguments. The soul is weak in its very essence, because she « floats ».
« [In Heaven] are also the breaths and souls of those who are to be created, for it is said before me the breaths float, and the souls which I have made (Is. 57:16); and the dew that will serve the Holy One, blessed be he, to raise the dead. » xi
The quotation from Isaiah in this excerpt from the Talmud, however, lends itself to other interpretations, and translations…
The word « float » here translates the Hebrew יַעֲטוֹף: « to cover oneself; to be weak ».
With this more faithful sense, one reads: « Thus says He who is high and exalted, whose dwelling is eternal and whose name is holy: ‘I am high and holy in my dwelling place, but I am with the contrite and humiliated man, to revive the humiliated spirits, to revive the contrite hearts. For I do not want to accuse constantly or always be angry, for before me would weaken the spirit and those souls I created. » (Is. 57:15-16)
Another translation (by the Jerusalem Bible) chooses to translate יַעֲטוֹף as « to die out »:
« Sublime and holy is my throne! But it is also in the contrite and humble hearts, to vivify the spirit of the humble, to revive the hearts of the afflicted. No; I don’t want to argue without respite, to be angry all the time, because the spirit would eventually die out in front of me, with these souls that I myself have created. »
So, is the soul « floating », « weak » or threatened to « die out »?
All this together, for sure. Fortunately, Isaiah brings us good news.
The souls of the humble and the afflicted will be enlivened, revived.
It is the souls of the proud who risk to die out.
I would like to conclude here, with yet another metaphor, due to the Psalmist:
« My soul is in me like a child, like a little child against its mother. » xii
iAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 31b. §51. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.168.
viiiIn Psalm 103, David says three times, Bless the LORD my soul (Ps 103:1, 2 and 22), once bless the LORD, you his angels (103:20), once bless the LORD, you his hosts (Ps 103:21), once bless the LORD, you all his creatures (Ps 103:22). However, David says twice more Bless the LORD, my soul in Psalm 104:1, « My soul, bless the LORD! O LORD my God, you are infinitely great! « and « Bless, my soul, YHVH, hallelujah! « Ps 104:35.
ixAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Berakhot 10a. §85. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1982, p. 69-70.
xAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Shabbat 88b. §136. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.207.
xiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Haguiga 12b, § 31. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.580.
Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?
Kant thought about this interesting question.
« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i
For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.
Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.
But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?
Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?
« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii
These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.
A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.
The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.
But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.
« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi
The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.
A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.
Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?
In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.
Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.
R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii
His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii
And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.
« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.
– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.
– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.
– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix
At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…
« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x
From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.
The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi
In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :
« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii
That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.
Or was it just a parable?
Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?
Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?
iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.
The 7th verse of the 3rd Sura of the Qur’an offers one hell of an enigma, opening up a flood of comments.
« It is He who has sent down the Book to you, there are unequivocal verses in it. (ءَايَتُ مُّحْكَمَتُ ), which are the mother of the Book, and other equivocal ones (مُتَشَبِهَتُ ). People who have an inclination to straying in their hearts, put the emphasis on the equivocal verses, seeking dissension by trying to find an interpretation for them, when no one knows the interpretation, except God and men of a deep science. They say, ‘We believe: all things come from our Lord’, but only men of understanding remember them.» i
The word « unequivocal » translates the adjective مُّحْكَمَتُ, coming from the verbal root حَكَمَ « to judge, to decide ». The word « equivocal » translates the adjective مُتَشَبِهَتُ . But this adjective may have other meanings : « doubtful, ambiguous, uncertain, suspicious ».
It is really not common, for a revealed text such as the Quran, to challenge itself directly, by claiming that Quranic verses can be « equivocal » or even « dubious, suspicious » – as the word مُتَشَبِهَتُ implies.
There is another question, perhaps an even deeper one, which has fascinated such eminent philosophers as Averroes or Ghazzali: is this verse 3:7 itself equivocal or not?
Indeed, there are two very different ways of reading its second sentence, thus producing a real equivocation as to its true meaning.
The first reading, which has just been given, suggests that philosophers and men of profound science can decipher the obscure allusions and secret knowledge that the text conceals, and come closer to its true interpretation, the one that God knows.
But if the end of the sentence is marked just after « except God », – as the lack of punctuation marks in Arabic allows –, the text then reads:
« No one knows the interpretation, except God. But men of deep science say: ‘We believe in it’…etc. ».
This second reading brings the « men of deep science » back to a radical modesty. They are granted only the possibility of conceiving the existence of these allusions and their potential secrets from a distance, but without being able to grasp them, to explain them, to understand them. Philosophers and men of science are reduced to measuring their ignorance and the absolute transcendence of God.
In this second interpretation, philosophers and scientists would therefore be held silent on all equivocal verses, including verse 3:7, – which deals with the existence of equivocal verses in the Qur’an in an equivocal manner.
They must renounce the apparent superiority of their science of interpretation, not so much out of humility, but because they have to admit their radical limits with regard to the transcendence of the revealed text.
Averroes addressed this delicate issue in his Decisive Treatise.
He takes a clear stand for the first reading: « We opt, for our part, for the reading that consists of pausing after the words: »and men of deep science ».»ii
In so doing, it supports the cause of philosophers, recognizing the freedom of scholarly analysis, and the benefit of seeking to reconcile science and belief, reason and faith.
He makes a thorough analysis of the various levels of meaning to be found in the Qur’an, and the precautions to be taken in this regard. Only philosophers and men of science can be brought to discuss this subject, far from the unlearned ears of common people and crowds. « True interpretations [of revealed statements] should not be written down in books for the masses, let alone those that are flawed.» iii
Revelation, perhaps a little paradoxically, is not always clear; it does not reveal everything and there are many things that continues to keep hidden.
« We know from the tradition of their words that many figures of the first age of Islam believed that the Revelation includes the apparent and the hidden (ظاهِرأوَباطِنأ , zāhiranwa bātinan), and that the hidden should not be known by those who are not men who possess the science of it and who would be incapable of understanding it. Proof of this, the sayning of ‘Ali ben Abi Tālib – reported by al-Boukhāri – God be pleased with him: ‘Speak to men about what they know. Do you want to tax Allah and His Prophet with a lie?’, and similar words that are reported from many other pious elders. » iv
There is a radical difference between « clear » verses, which often deal with practical religious issues, around which it has been easy since the earliest ages of Islam to form a consensus and then to conform to it, and « equivocal » verses, which raise theoretical questions, which in themselves offer no possibility of consensus.
Consequently, Averroes judged, like many others before him, that the interpretation of these verses should not be made public. « No era has been short of scholars who felt that the Revelation contains certain things whose true meaning should not be known by everyone.»v
If consensus is not conceivable in these theoretical matters, the consequence is that one cannot call it ‘infidelity’ either if one breaks the consensus on this or that interpretation.
But not everyone is as broad-minded as Averroes:
« What about Muslim philosophers, such as Abū Nașr (al-Fārābī) and Ibn Sinā (Avicenna)? Abū Hamid [Ghazali], in his book known as Incoherence of Philosophers, however, categorically concluded that they were unfaithful to three questions.» vi
(These three famous and unresolved questions were the issue of the eternity of the world, the assertion according to which God does not know the particulars, and the theses of the ressurection of the flesh and future life.)
Averroes concludes that it is better to keep secrecy about philosophical research and interpretations of the Qur’anic text. And this for a very good reason :
« It is because of the interpretations, and because of the opinion that these should, from the point of view of the revealed Law, be exposed to everyone, that the sects of Islam appeared, which came to the point of accusing each other of infidelity or blameworthy innovation, especially those of them that were perverse. The Mu’tazilites interpreted many of the prophetic verses and traditions, and exposed these interpretations to the crowd, and so did the Ash’arites, although the latter interpreted less. As a result, they precipitated people into hatred, mutual abhorrence and wars, tore the Revelation to pieces and completely divided people. » vii
One may say ‘Yes’ to science, therefore, ‘Yes’ to philosophy, ‘Yes’ to making an effort to interpret the Qur’an, in its most ambiguous, opaque, uncertain verses. But it’s an absolute ‘No’, as for communicating the results to the people, to the crowd.
This would only lead to hatred, division and wars…
Is truth equivocal? Should it be kept secret?
Averroes, unequivocally, answered « yes » to these questions.
Etymology goes back further to the dawn of thought, much further than archaeology or paleography.
The root of the oldest words is all that remains of time that no memory can imagine. These roots are the minute, ineffaceable traces of what was once pure intuition, radiant knowledge, sudden revelation, for singular men and moving crowds.
The ancient roots, still alive, like verbal souls, speak to us of a vanished world.
Among the most powerful roots are those that inform the names of the Gods.
In the Veda, Agni is said to be « Fire ».
But the truly original, etymological meaning of the word « agni » is not « fire », it is « alive », and « agile ».
The idea of « fire » is only a derivation from this primeval sense. The oldest intuitions associated with the word « agni » then are « life » and « movement », as opposed to « rest » and « death ».
The divine Agni, had indeed many other names, to tell of his other qualities: Atithi, Anala, Dahana, Vasu, Bharata, Mātariśvā, Vaiśvānara, Śoṣaṇa, Havyavah, Hutabhuk…
Agni’s names all have a distinct, specific meaning. Atithi is « Host », Anala is « Longevity », Dahana is « Burning », Tanūnapāt : « Self-Generated », Apāṃnapāt : « from the waters ».
So many attributes for such a hidden God!
« Two mothers of a different color and walking quickly, each giving birth to an infant. From the breast of one is born Hari [yet another name of Agni], honored by libations; from the breast of the other is born Soucra (the Sun), with a bright flame ». i
Agni is indeed « visible », He was born as a child, – but very clever, very wise is whoever can really « see » Him !
« Which of you has seen Him, when He is hiding? As an infant just now, there He is who, by the virtue of sacrifice, now gives birth to His own mothers. Thus Agni, great and wise, honored by our libations, generates the rain of the cloud, and is reborn in the bosom of deeds.» ii
Agni is everywhere. Agni is not only « alive », « agile », He is not only « Fire », not only « God ».
He is also the flickering glow, the sparkling lightning, the blazing forest, the fatal lightning, the evening sun, the pink dawn, the inflexible flint, the warmth of the body, the embers of love…
To understand the Veda, it helps to be a poet, to expand one´s mind to the universe, and even farther away.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
To the sound of cymbals and flutes, to the light of torches, disheveled women dance. They are the bacchae. Dressed in fox skins, wearing horns on their heads, holding snakes in their hands, seized by a « sacred madness, » they rush on animals chosen for sacrifice, tear them to pieces, tear them to pieces, and devour the bloody flesh raw.
These bacchanals — or Dionysian feasts, have fascinated the ancients for centuries.
« The bacchanals celebrate the mystery of angry Dionysus, leading the sacred madness to the ingestion of raw flesh, and they perform the absorption of the flesh of the massacres, crowned with snakes, and crying out ‘Evoha !’»i.
What did it mean? The myth reports that Dionysus Zagreus, son of Zeus and Persephone, had taken the form of a young bull to try to escape his pursuers. But he was caught, torn and devoured by the Titans, enemies of Zeus.
In Thrace, this god is called Sabos or Sabazios, and in Phrygia it is called Cybele.
It is in Thrace that initially, between the 8th and 7th centuries BC, these cults of divine madness and ecstatic dancing, culminating in the dismemberment of living flesh, and its bloody devotion, arose.
Historians of religion are inclined to detect in them, not a local phenomenon, but the symptom of a more universal movement originating in human nature, in its desire to establish a relationship with the divine.
« This Thracian orgiastic cult was merely the manifestation of a religious impulse which is emerging at all times and in all places throughout the earth, at all levels of civilization, and which, therefore, must derive from a deep need of man’s physical and psychic nature (…) And in every part of the earth, There are peoples who consider these exaltations as the true religious process, as the only way to establish a relationship between man and the spirit world, and who, for this reason, base their worship above all on the uses that experience has shown them to be most suitable for producing ecstasies and visions.”ii
Many peoples, on all continents, have had similar practices aimed at achieving ecstasy. The Ostiaks, the Dakotas, the Winnebagos, in North America, the Angeloks in Greenland, the Butios in the West Indies, the Piajes in the Caribbean, and many other peoples followed shamanic rites.
In Islam, the Sufis and the Whirling Dervishes know the power of ecstatic dance. Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî testified: « He who knows the power of dance dwells in God, for he knows how Love kills. Allahu !”iii
The cult of « divine madness » and frenetic exaltation has also been recorded in « Christian bacchanals » in Russia, in the sect of « Christi », founded by a « holy man », named Philippoff, « in whose body God came one day to dwell and who from then on spoke and gave his laws as the living God.”iv
The Dionysian cult of drunkenness and divine ecstasy is closely related to the belief in the immortality of the soul, for many peoples, in all periods of short human history.
This belief is based not on dogmas or prophecies, but on an intimate experience, really and personally felt, by all those who actively participated in those nights of madness and ecstasy.
The link between the belief in the immortality of the soul and the devouring of pieces of the torn body probably appeared in the most ancient times.
As early as a remote era, going back more than eight hundred thousand years (if we take into account the dating of the remains found in the Chou-Kou-Tien caves), the cutting up of corpses was probably a way of definitively ensuring the death of the dead, a way of making them harmless forever, unable to return to earth to threaten the living.
But it was also, ipso facto, an indication of an ancient and diffuse belief in the survival of the soul, despite the evidence of the death of the body.
We will probably never know what Homo Sinanthropus thought of the spirit world. On the other hand, we do have myths of dismemberment attested throughout antiquity and throughout the world.
Orpheus, a divine hero, died torn apart and dismembered alive by mad Thracian women.
Agamemnon, murdered by his wife Clytemnestra, complains in the other world of the atrocious outrages she inflicted on him after killing him: « After my shameful death, she subjected me, out of malice, to maschalism.”v
Maschalism consists in symbolically mimicking the treatment of animal victims during sacrifices. The priests would cut off or tear off the animal’s limbs and offer them as first-fruits to the gods in the form of raw flesh.
The astonishing thing is that the murderers used this method for their own purification, to inflect the anger of the victims, and especially to make the dead person powerless to punish the murderer.
Consequently, they cut up the corpse of the victims, amputating or tearing off the arms and legs at their joints, and then forming a chain that they hung around the shoulders and armpits of the corpse.
There is a certain logic at work here. The dead man’s arms and legs are amputated so that his soul cannot grasp the weapons placed in front of his grave and come back to fight.
In Egypt, Osiris is killed and then cut into fourteen pieces by his brother Set. The body parts are thrown into the Nile and scattered throughout the country.
Let us note that the Osirian myth is replayed for all the deceased, at the time of embalming.
It is in Egypt that the cutting up of corpses took the most ritualized and elaborate form, using a battery of surgical, chemical, and magical methods, including dismemberment, maceration, mummification, cremation, and exposure of various body parts. The embalming ritual lasts seventy days.
« The brain is extracted through the nose, the viscera are removed through an incision made in the side; only the heart, swaddled, is put back in its place, while the organs are placed in « canopies », vases with lids in the shape of human or animal heads. The remaining soft parts and body fluids are dissolved by a solution of natron and resin and evacuated from the body rectally. This first phase takes place under the sign of purification. Everything that is « bad » is removed from the body, in other words everything that is perishable and can compromise the form of eternity that is the goal.”vi
In the ancient Egyptian religion, all these violent interventions around the dead and dislocated body were intended to make the dead person die, as it were, permanently. But they also facilitate the passage from death to eternal life after the embalming of the body and mummification, which is an essentially « magical » operation.
« Then begins the drying phase (dehydration and salting), which lasts about forty days. Reduced to skin and bones, the corpse will then be put back in shape during the mummification ritual; It is then that the skin is anointed with balsamic oils to restore its suppleness, stuffed with resins, gum arabic, fabrics, sawdust, straw and other materials, inlaid with fake eyes, cosmetics and wigs, and finally swaddled with strips of fine linen, partly inscribed with magical formulas and between which amulets are slipped. The result of all these operations is the mummy. The mummy is much more than a corpse: it is the figure of the god Osiris and a hieroglyphic representation of the whole human being, « full of magic, » as the Egyptians say.”vii
Then comes the time for words, prayers and invocations. « In Egyptian, this mortuary therapy by speech is expressed by a word that is fundamentally untranslatable, but which it is customary in Egyptology to render by « glorification » or « transfiguration ». The dead person is invoked by an uninterrupted stream of words (…) The dead person thus becomes a spirit endowed with power capable of surviving in many forms (…) Through the recitation of glorifications, the scattered limbs of the body are somehow brought together in a text that describes them as a new unity. »
The « glorification » and the « transfiguration » of the dead are reminiscent of those of Osiris. « It is the rites, images and texts that awaken Osiris and bring him back to life; it is with the help of symbolic forms that the dislocated dead is recomposed and that the border separating life and death, here below and beyond, is crossed. The mystery of this connectivity capable of triumphing over death, however, lies not in the symbolic forms, but in the love that puts them to work. Who performs the rites, pronounces the words and appears in images is anything but indifferent. It is first and foremost the affair of the goddess Isis, wife and twin sister of Osiris. On this point, the myth of Osiris and Isis corresponds moreover to that of Orpheus and Eurydice (…) For Isis, it is love which confers on her magical rites and recitations a force of cohesion able to supplement the inertia of the heart of Osiris and to bring the god back to life. The combination of love and speech is the strongest cohesive force known to Egyptians and at the same time the most powerful elixir of life.”viii
« Death of the god ». « Glorification ». « Transfiguration ». « Resurrection ». « Power of love. » It is difficult not to find in these themes possible parallels with the death and resurrection of Christ, even in certain details.
Christ’s last moments are described as follows: « As it was the Preparation, the Jews, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross during the Sabbath – for that Sabbath was a great day – asked Pilate to break their legs and take them away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then of the other who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and immediately blood and water came out of him. He who has seen bears witness, – his witness is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth – so that you too may believe. For this happened so that the Scripture might be fulfilled:
This word of Scripture is indeed found in the text of Exodus :
« YHVH said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the Passover ritual: no stranger shall eat of it. But any slave who has been bought for money, when you have circumcised him, may eat it. The resident and the hired servant shall not eat it. It will be eaten in one house, and you will not take any piece of meat out of that house. You shall not break any bones.”x
It must be hypothesized that the precept given to Moses by YHVH « not to break any bones » is a radical reversal of the « idolatrous » practices that were to be entirely abandoned. If the « pagan » priests were tearing off the limbs of animals, breaking bones and joints, one can think that Moses considered it useful to advocate a practice strictly contrary to this, in order to differentiate himself from it.
In contrast to the Egyptian cutting up of bodies, Dionysian dismemberment, or Greek maschalism, the members of Jesus’ body were left intact, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
On the eve of his death, however, Jesus symbolically shared his body and blood with his disciples at the Last Supper.
« As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat, this is my body. Then taking a cup, he gave thanks and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the remission of sins.”xi
Pagan practices consist in breaking the limbs of the victims who have been sacrificed and drinking their blood. Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine. This sacrifice is symbolic. But it is also a prefiguration of the real sacrifice that will take place, the very next day, on the cross.
The ancient shamanic sacrifices, the dismemberment of Osiris, the dilaceration of the body of Dionysus, the broken bread and the shared wine by Christ belong to very different cultures and spanning over several millennia.
But there is one thing in common: in all these cases, a God dies in sacrifice, and his remains are ‘shared’, ‘distributed’. Then the God is resurrected by the power of love and the word.
Given the striking analogy in these narrative patterns, we are led to make a hypothesis.
The hunting meal of the first hominids has been the beginning of religion since the dawn of time. It was during the chewing and eating of animal flesh that the idea of the permanence and transmission of the spirit attached to the bloody flesh insidiously came to haunt human consciences.
But then a conceptual leap, an incredible leap took place. It was imagined that the sacrificial victims were themselves only a distant image of the Supreme Sacrifice, that of God, the Lord of all creatures.
More than 6,000 years ago, in the great tradition of Veda, it was affirmed: « The Lord of creatures gives Himself to the gods as a sacrifice.”xii
They all claim to bring « revelation », but no religion has ever presented total transparency, assumed full disclosure. Much of their foundation is shrouded in secrecy, and « the further back we go in religious history, the greater the role of secrecy”i .
But this secrecy should not be confused with mystery.
The mystery is deep, immense, alive.
The secret is useful and human. It is maintained on purpose, by the pythies, the shamans, the magi, the priests, the haruspices. It is used for control, it facilitates the construction of dogma, reinforces rites and the rigor of laws.
The mystery belongs to no one. It is not given to everyone to sense it, and even less to grasp its essence and nature.
The secret is put forward, proclaimed publicly, not in its content, but as a principle. It is therefore imposed on all and benefits a few.
To a certain extent, the secret is based (a little bit) on the existence of the mystery. One is the appearance of the reality of the other.
This is why the secret, through its signs, can sometimes nourish the sense of mystery, give it a presence.
The secret can remain such for a long time, but one day it is discovered for what it is, and we see that it was not much, in view of the mystery. Or, quite simply, it is lost forever, in indifference, without much damage to anyone.
The mystery, on the other hand, always stands back, or very much in the front, really elsewhere, absolutely other. It’s never finished with it.
Of the mystery what can we know?
A divine truth comes to be « revealed », but it also comes « veiled ».
« Truth did not come naked into the world, but it came dressed in symbols and images. The world will not receive it in any other way.”ii
Truth never comes « naked » into the world.
At least, that is what sarcastic, wily common sense guarantees.
God cannot be « seen », and even less « naked »…
« How could I believe in a supreme god who would enter a woman’s womb through her sexual organs […] without necessity? How could I believe in a living God who was born of a woman, without knowledge or intelligence, without distinguishing His right from His left, who defecates and urinates, sucks His mother’s breasts with hunger and thirst, and who, if His mother did not feed Him, would die of hunger like the rest of men?”iii
Rigorous reasoning. Realism of the details.
Yehoshua, the Messiah? « It is impossible for me to believe in his being the Messiah, for the prophecy says of the Messiah, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8). But Jesus had no reign at all; on the contrary, he was persecuted by his enemies and had to hide from them: in the end he fell into their hands and could not even preserve his own life. How could he have saved Israel? Even after his death he had no kingdom… At present, the servants of Muhammad, your enemies, have a power greater than yours. Moreover, prophecy foretells that in the time of the Messiah … ‘the knowledge of YHVH will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). From the time of Jesus until today, there have been many wars and the world has been full of oppression and ruin. As for Christians, they have shed more blood than the rest of the nations.”iv
In this affair, it seems, common sense, reason, truth, are on the side of the doubters. Two millennia of Christianity have not changed their minds, quite the contrary…
What is striking in this whole affair is its paradoxical, incredible, implausible side.
Philosophically, one could tentatively argue that there are « naked » truths that are, by that very fact, even more veiled. They are hidden in the plain sight.
But history teaches us over and over again that there are no « naked » truths, in fact, but only veiled ones.
« The ancient theory of Egypt’s secret religion, as found in Plutarch and Diodorus, Philo, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, and in Porphyry and Iamblichus, is based on the premise that truth is a secret in itself, and that it can only be grasped in this world through images, myths, allegories, and riddles.”v
This ancient conception probably dates back to the pre-dynastic period, and one can think that it goes back well before pre-history itself .
Since these immensely remote times, it has not ceased to influence the « first » religions, then the « historical » religions. Nor has it ceased to proliferate in Pythagorism, Platonism, Hermeticism or Gnosis.
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts still retain the memory of it. One of them, found in 1945, the Gospel of Philip, affirms that the world cannot receive truth otherwise than veiled by words, myths and images.
Words and images do not have the function of hiding the truth from the eyes of the unbelievers, the hardened, the blasphemers.
Words and images are themselves the very expression of the secret, the symbols of mystery.
Goethe summed up the ambivalence of the secret, both as concealment and as the manifestation of truth, in three words:
Secrets always end up being revealed, but then they only reveal the ’emptiness’ of their time, their era.
The mystery, for its part, never ceases to stay hidden.
Jan Assmann concluding his beautiful study on « Moses the Egyptian » with a provocative thought:
« At its apogee, the pagan religion did not hide a void in the mysteries, but the truth of the One God.”vii
A good example of that is Abraham himself coming all the way to pay tribute to Melchisedech, a non-Hebrew « priest of the Most High ».
Augustine connected all the ages of belief in one stroke:
« What today is called the Christian religion existed in antiquity, and from the origin of the human race until Christ became incarnate, and it was from him that the true religion that already existed began to be called Christian.”viii
Basically the idea is very simple. And very stimulating, in a way.
Truth always has been ‘true’, and always will be. Truth was ‘true’ from the beginning of the world, and even before the beginning of the world. Truth will still be »true in a hundred million or a hundred billion years, and even after the end of this (fleeting) universe.
The various words that tell the Truth, and the men who believe in it, such as Akhnaton, Melchisedech, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Plato, Yehoshua, are only themselves quite fleeting, but they serve It, according to their rank, and wisdom.
Truth is as ancient as the Ancient of Days; Truth is also very young, and just beginning to live again, everyday, in hidden, mysterious cradles.
At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.
A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.
Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.
« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i
There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.
Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.
The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.
« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:
1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.
2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».
3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.
4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».
5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii
Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.
There is a general lesson here.
There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.
For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.
Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?
If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?
Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.
But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.
The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).
But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.
This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.
Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.
I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.
iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)
iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat, 1853 .
Rav Shmuel ben Ali, Gaon of Baghdad, rightly pointed out that in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed , there is not a single word on the question of the immortality of souls or that of the resurrection of the dead.
It is not that Maimonides was not interested in these delicate problems. In his great work, the Mishneh Torah, he asserted that the rational soul is immortal, and that she is conscious of her personal individuality, even in the world to comei.
Maimonides also said that the individual soul, which he also called the « intellect in act », joins after death the « agent intellect » that governs the sublunar sphere. At birth, the soul emanates from this sphere, and she comes to melt into it again at death.
The immortality of the soul does not take a personal form. Immersed in the bosom of the “agent intellect”, the soul possesses a kind of identity, without however having a separate existence.ii
Clearly, we are entering here into a highly speculative territory where the reference points are incomplete, even absent, and the indications of the rare daring ones who think they have some revelation to make on these subjects are scattered and contradictory.
The opportunities for getting lost are multiplying. No ‘guide’ seems to be able to lead us to a good port.
Perhaps that is why Maimonides did not see fit to include these ideas in his own Guide, despite the few insights he had into these matters.
Speculation about the afterlife, however fraught with pitfalls, offers an opportunity to dream of strange states of consciousness, to dream of unimaginable possibilities of being. There are more futile activities.
From the few elements provided by Maimonides, it is worth trying to freely imagine what the soul experiences after death, at the moment when she discovers herself, in a kind of subliminal awakening, plunged into another « world ». Arguably, she is fully conscious of herself, while feeling a kind of fusion with other sister souls, also immersed in the infinity of the « agent intellect ».
In this new « world », several levels of consciousness are superimposed and cross-fertilized, of which she hardly perceives the ultimate extensions or future implications.
The soul accessing the « sublunar sphere » is conscious of being (again) newly « born », but she is not completely devoid of reference points.
She has already experienced two previous « births », one at conception, the other at childbirth. She now knows confusedly that she has just experienced a kind of 3rd birth after death, opening a new phase of a life decidedly full of surprises, leaps, jumps.
Not long ago, on earth, she was a principle of life and consciousness, and now she swims in an ocean of life and intelligence, which absorbs her completely, without drowning her, nor blinding her, quite the contrary.
She was, a while ago, a “principle” (of life and consciousness, as I said) , and now she has become pure spiritual substance !
In this new state, she is probably waiting for an opportunity to manifest herself as a singular being, perhaps having taken a liking for it in her previous lives. Or, nourished by the thousand wounds of experience, she volunteers for yet other states of consciousness, or for yet other worlds, of a hopefully less cruel nature, and of which there is perhaps a profusion, beyond the sublunar sphere.
This kind of idea, I am well aware, seems perfectly inadmissible to an overwhelming majority of « modern » thinkers. Nihilists and other materialists give full meaning to « matter » and give nothing to the strength of the spirit, to its autonomy, to its capacity for survival, in an unsuspected way, after the vicissitudes of a life dominated by « matter ».
By contrast, Maimonides, in twelfth-century Spain, then a crossroads of thought, has attempted to unravel the mystery of what happens after death.
Maimonides was neither reactionary, nor an “illuminati”, nor a bigot, nor complacent. He flew high above innumerable dogmatic quarrels. There was in him an aspiration to pure reason, a nostalgia for the beyond of religious forms.
There was no question of renouncing the Law, however, or of abandoning memory of ancient cults. In his strange, aloof, ironic style, he says: « To ask for such a thing would have been as if a prophet in those times, exhorting the worship of God, came to us and said: ‘God forbids you to pray to Him, to fast, and to call on His help in times of trouble, but your worship will be a simple meditation, without any practice.”iii
This phrase that Maimonides put into the mouth of an imaginary prophet as if by play, can be taken today, a thousand years later, at face value. What seemed at the time a frank denial can now be interpreted as a rhetorical ruse, a posthumous warning from the man Maimonides, a master of double meaning.
The irony of the time fades away. The meaning is reversed, the intention is revealed.
His idea was radical. It is necessary to put an end to all cults, to idolatry, to hypocrisy, based on « prayers », « sacrifices », « fasts » and « invocations ».
Here comes the time for « simple » meditation!
I think that Maimonides was, very early on, one of the necessary prophets of new times, of those times which are always announced with delay, just as today these future times are late in coming, when ancient cults will no longer be respected for what they claim to embody, in their motionless repetitions.
In our times in parturition, naked meditation will surpass the practices of surface and appearance.
Is this idea subversive, scandalous?
Or is it a real vision, for the ultimate benefit of humankind?
Men have practiced, millennia after millennia, multiple sorts of religion. They have followed ordinances and laws, detailed or symbolic, or even freed themselves from them.
History is far from having said its last word.
There is no end to prophecy. There is no seal of the prophets.
Always, the search for a truer truth will animate the minds of men.
And in our wildest imagination, we are still very far from having tasted a small drop from this oceanic truth.
iCf. Gérard Bensussan. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie juive ? 2003
The « realist » philosophers analyze the world as it is, or at least how it looks, or what they believe it to be. But they have nothing to say about how being came to be, or about the genesis of reality. They are also very short about the ultimate ends, whether there are any or none.
They are in no way capable of conceptualizing the world in its full potency. They have no idea how the universe emerged from nothingness in indistinct times, when nothing and no one had yet attained being, when nothing was yet « in act ».
Nor do they have any representation of this world (the planet Earth) a few hundred million years from now, which is not a large space of time, from a cosmological point of view.
My point is: if one takes the full measure of the impotence and pusillanimity of the “realist” philosophy, then our mind is suddenly freed, – freed from all the past web of philosophical tatters studded with limited thoughts, turning short, local truths, fleeting views, closed syllogisms.
Our mind is freed from all inherited constraints. Everything is yet to be thought, and discovered.
We should then exercise the highest faculty, that of imagination, that of dreaming and vision.
It is an incentive to get out of reason itself, not to abandon it, but to observe it from an external, detached, non-rational point of view. “Pure reason” is ill-equipped to judge itself, no matter what Kant thinks.
What can we see, then?
Firstly, reason is truly unable to admit that it is closed on itself, let alone willing to admit that it necessarily has an outside, that there is something out there that is inconceivable to reason.
The purest, most penetrating reason is still quite blind to anything that is not reasonable.
Reason sees nothing of the oceanic immensity of non-reason which surrounds it, exceeds it infinitely, and in which however reason bathes, as an ignorant, fragile, ephemeral bubble.
Reason has always been in a strong relationship with language. But we know quite well that the language is a rudimentary tool, a kind of badly cut, flimsy flint, producing from time to time some rare sparks…
Let’s try to show this flimsiness with an example, based on a simple but foundational sentence, like « God is one ».
Grammatically, this sentence is a flimsy oxymoron. It oozes inconsistency. It links a subject (« God ») and a predicate (« one ») with the help of the copula (« is »). But in the same time it separates (grammatically) the subject and the predicate. In the same time, it separates them (semantically) and then reunites them (grammatically) by the sole virtue of a copulative verb (« is »), which, by the way, exists only in some human languages, but remains unknown to the majority of them…
If truly, I mean grammatically, ‘God is one’, then it should be impossible to really separate the words ‘God’, ‘is’, or ‘one’. They would be just the same reality.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, there would only be a need for the word ‘God’, or if one prefers only for the word ‘one’, or only for the word ‘is’. Those words or ‘names’ imply just the same, unique reality. Moreover, after having stated this ‘unique reality’, one would remain (logically) short. What else could be added, without immediately contravening the ‘unitary’ dogma? If anything else could be added, it should be immediately engulfed into the “oneness” of the “being”. Or, if not, that would imply that something could “be” outside the “One and Unique Being”. Which is (grammatically) illogical.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then one must already count three verbal instances of His nature: the ‘name’ (God), the ‘essence’ (Being), the ‘nature’ (Oneness).
Three instances are already a crowd, in the context of the Unique One…
And no reason to stop there. This is why there are at least ten names of God in the Torah, and 99 names of Allah in Islam….
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then how can language itself could dare to stand as overhanging, outside of the ‘oneness’ of God, outside of His essential ‘unity’?
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then shouldn’t the language itself necessarily be one with Him, and made of His pure substance?
Some theologians have seen this difficulty perfectly well. So they have proposed a slightly modified formula: « God is one, but not according to unity.”
This clever attempt doesn’t actually solve anything.
They are just words added to words. This proliferation, this multiplicity (of words) is not really a good omen of their supposed ability to capture the essence of the One… Language, definitely, has untimely bursts, uncontrolled (but revealing) inner contradictions… Language is a mystery that only really take flight, like the bird of Minerva (the Hegelian owl), at dusk, when all the weak, flashy and illusory lights of reason are put under the bushel.
Here is another example of reason overcome by the proper power of language.
The great and famous Maimonides, a specialist in halakha, and very little suspect of effrontery in regard to the Law, surprised more than one commentator by admitting that the reason for the use of wine in the liturgy, or the function of the breads on display in the Temple, were completely beyond his comprehension.
He underlined that he had tried for a long time to search for some « virtual reasons »i to use wine and bread for religious purpose, to no avail. This strange expression (« virtual reasons ») seems to vindicate that, for Maimonides, there are in the commandments of the Law « provisions of detail whose reason cannot be indicated », and « that he who thinks that these details can be motivated is as far from the truth as he who believes that the general precept is of no real use »ii.
Which leaves us with yet another bunch of mysteries to tackle with.
Maimonides, a renowned expert of halakha in the 11th century A.D., candidly admitted that he did not understand the reason for the presence of bread and wine in Jewish liturgy, and particularly their presence in the premises of the Temple of Jerusalem.
It is then perhaps up to the poet, or the dreamer, or the anthropologist, to try to guess by analogy, or by anagogy, some possible « virtual reasons » for this religious use of bread and wine?
Maybe the bread and wine do belong to the depths of the collective inconscious, and for that reason are loaded with numinous potency?
Or, maybe Maimonides just would not want to see the obvious link with what had happened, more that a millennium before his time, in Jerusalem, during the Last Supper?
Whatever the answer, the question remains: why bread and wine, if “God is One”?
iMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. The translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609, gives here : « raisons virtuelles ».
iiMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. Translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609 sq.