On June 23, 1930, he wrote another poem, which shows the depth of his dereliction, – and also opens a path, pierces every fence, projects himself in the broad, in the vast, – in the world, and exile himself, in thought, again.
How to interpret this radical change in his state of mind?
Should we understand it as the terrible disappointment of an idealistic soul, unable to bear the violence of the reality, the one he had before his eyes, or to stomach the repetition of yet another violence, known to him, under other forms, and under other longitudes?
Or should we understand it as a terrible naivety, not suspecting what was inevitably to come, and which was already looming in 1930, on the slimy, red and black threatening stage of History?
Two years before leaving for Israel, Gershom Scholem had addressed a poem to Walter Benjamin, on July 15, 1921, – entitled « The Angel’s Salute ».
At his friend’s request, he had kept on his behalf Paul Klee’s famous drawing (belonging to Walter Benjamin) at home and had placed it on the wall in his Berlin apartment.
Klee’s « Angelus Novus » was to be later on called the « Angel of History », by Walter Benjamin himself, shortly before his suicide in France.
In his poem, « The Angel’s Salute », Scholem made the « Angel of History » say :
Gershom Scholem obviously sees himself as this « good man », who houses the Angel in his « room », – but Scholem, apparently, was struck that he did not interest the « angelic man ».
In fact, Klee’s Angel really does not « look at anyone ».
But it was Scholem’s idea that the Angel allegedly did not « need any face »…
Why this angelic indifference?
Maybe because Klee’s Angel only sees Elyon’s Face?
Or maybe because any angel’s face is already « all faces » (panim)?
Or perhaps because any face, as the Hebrew word panim teaches it, is in itself a plurality.
And then all the faces of History form an infinite plurality of pluralities.
Or maybe the Angel does not need plurality, nor the plurality of pluralities, but only needs the One?
There is something overwhelming to imagine that the « Angel of History » is not interested in the « good man » in the 1930’s, and that he does not need to look at his good face, or at any other human face for that matter.
What does this jaded Angel come to do, then, on this wall, in this room, in the center of Berlin, in the 1920’s?
Thinking of it, a century later, I had to turn to yet another voice.
Henri Meschonnici was a formidable polemicist, and even, in this respect, a « serial killer », according to Michel Deguy. Meschonnic proposed « that we leave the word ‘Shoah’ in the dustbin of history. »ii This word was, according to him, « intolerable », it would represent « a pollution of the mind » and would aggravate a « generalized misunderstanding ». For this Hebrew word, which appears thirteen times in the Bible, refers only to thunderstorm, « a natural phenomenon, simply ». « The scandal is first of all to use a word that designates a natural phenomenon to refer to a barbarity that is all human. » Another scandal would be that Claude Lanzmann appropriated the highly publicized use of the word ‘shoah’, while diverting its meaningiii: « The author of the Shoah is Hitler, Lanzmann is the author of Shoah. »iv
Henri Meschonnic also attacked the « idolatry » of the Kabbalah: « Language is no longer anywhere in the Kabbalah. It is only an illusion, a utopia. It is replaced by the letters of the script taken for hieroglyphics of the world. A cosmism. And a theism. Then, paradoxically, one must recognize the sacred, more than the divine. A form of idolatry. »v
In a similar way, he attacked Leon Askenazi (the famous Rabbi ‘Manitou’), for his word games in the Torah, – this « idolatry that passes for thought »vi.
Idolatry. Idolettrism. Quite a sharp point. But, on the other hand, he tempers a little, hinting that this « idolatry » is also a « utopia »: « Kabbalah is a utopia of language. A utopia of the Jew. Since its indefinite and self-referential allegorisation is supposed to have the following effect: ‘A particular link is thus established between the letter yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which represents the ten Sefirot, and the Jewish people, the Yehudim‘vii.» viii
What is this « utopia of the Jew »? A fuse formula summarizes it: Hebrew is the « holy language » par excellence (lechon ha-qodech).
We are here in heavy, very heavy stuff. Meschonnic quotes in support the famous medieval cabalist, Aboulafia, and one of his current thurifer, Elliot Wolfson:
« The cabal will be the exclusive property of the Jewish people, (…) the only nation to have real access to the sacred language of creation, revelation and redemption.»ix
For the comparatist, this type of formula (« the only nation to… », the « sacred language of »,…) seems to be an old cliché, to be found in all latitudes, at all times, in most cultures, so much so that exceptionalism seems really not that exceptional…
More than a thousand years before Abraham, and long before the Torah had even begun to be written down, the Vedic tradition already considered Sanskrit as a « perfect » language. Sanskrit holds its name from the word ‘samskṛta‘ , which means « perfect » in Sanskrit). Moreover, the Vedic tradition considered the entire Vedic corpus as pure, divine revelation.
More recently, for hundreds of millions of believers, the Quran, too, is considered « descended » directly from the Divinity into the Arabic language, which is considered by its locutors a « clear » and « perfect » language.
There is, therefore, obviously on this planet, a certain abundance of « perfect languages » and « divine revelations », seemingly indifferent to their putative concurrents.
What should we conclude from this rush? That these revelations, and these languages, contradict and exclude each other? That only one of them is the true one, the only one « chosen »? Or, should we adopt a more diplomatic formulation, that they all contain some truth? Or, to be more pessimistic, should we suppose that they all somehow lack their intended purpose, whose transcendence escapes them?
What strikes one, in these immense religious and intellectual adventures, which often display, in theory and in practice, ambitions of universal scope, is the paradoxically provincial, navel-gazing, somewhat narrow-minded side of their later commentators. There is no shortage of late voices, coming, a few millennia after the founders, to set themselves up as self-proclaimed defenders, arrogating to themselves the monopoly of exception and election.
In the Babel of languages, Hebrew certainly does not escape the shocking statements about its absolute specificity and its intrinsic superiority over all other languages.
« Divine consonants, human vowels, is the high revelation of Hebrew. »x
The « sanctity » of the Hebrew language is contagious. It extends to the people who speak it.
Hence a sharp alternative:
« The truth that Hebrew is the holy language of a holy people, and the untruth that it is the spoken language of a people like all peoples, seem irreconcilable. » xi
Franz Rosenzweig asked a binary question. There is no way out.
On one side a « holy language » and a « holy people », and on the other side « all peoples » and all other languages, immersed in the no-man’s-land of « untruth » (and un-holiness). Faced with this alternative, what is the answer?
The issue deserves attention.
Franz Rosenzweig seems very sure of his fact: he provides some elements of idiosyncratic argumentation, the scathing lesson of which could perhaps also be of interest to speakers of English, German or Latin – and why not, for good measure, Greek, Arabic or Sanskrit?
« To read Hebrew means: to be ready to gather the entire heritage of the language; to read German, English or Latin, one reaps only the harvest given by the furrows of the language of one season: of one generation. »xii
Franz Rosenzweig does not seem to suspect that the few ‘languages of a season’ he quotes are only the most recent, among a large and immemorial ‘harvest’ of other Indo-European languages, much more original, and some of them with sophisticated grammars, and incidentally with a vocabulary twenty times richer than the biblicalxiii lexicon. Among these languages, Avestic and Sanskrit go back to several millennia before our era, and have both served to compose « sacred » texts (respectively the Avesta and the Veda), which testify to very ancient « revelations », certainly older than the revelation « mosaic ».
It may be argued that Avestic and Sanskrit are nowadays only « dead languages », and that the Avesta or Veda no longer irrigate living times, but only celebrate forgotten Gods…
In contrast, it should also be noted, biblical Hebrew has « risen » again with modern Hebrew, while the Torah continues to live on through the people who bear it and the religions that draw inspiration from it.
These are indeed crucial points.
One could however answer that the Veda religion has not completely disappeared from the world consciousness… or from the depths of the collective unconscious. The history of the Spirit has only just begun. The Vedanta, the Upanishads, Baghavad Gîta, – forever under a bushel? The future, the distant future, will tell.
On the other hand, it can also be argued that the « spirit » of Sanskrit is not really dead, but that it is still very much alive today, and that it is constantly regenerating itself in the vast body of Indo-European languages that are spoken throughout the world, and through their own genius.
The « spirit » of Sanskrit. The « spirit » of Indo-European languages…
Is there a « spirit » of languages? And what does it mean?
Franz Rosenzweig asked this question in a lecture on « the spirit of the Hebrew language ».
« What is the spirit of the German language? Does a language have a ‘spirit’? The answer is: only the language has a spirit. As many languages we know, as many times we are a man. Can you ‘know’ more than one language? Our ‘knowledge’ is just as flat as French ‘savoir‘ (knowledge). We live in one language.» xiv
The word ‘knowledge’, – a ‘flat’ word?
To live is to react…
The French word ‘savoir’ comes from the Latin sapio, sapere, « to have flavor », and figuratively « to have taste, sense, reason ». This Latin word gave in French the words ‘sapience’, ‘saveur’, ‘sève’, ‘sapide’ (and its antonym ‘insipide’). Its etymological origin goes back to the Sanskrit सबर् sabar, « nectar, sap, milk », from which the words Saft in German, sap inEnglish, sapor in Latin also derive.
There is an irony here, a sort of ‘meta-linguistic’ irony, to note that the words ‘flavor’, ‘taste’, are translated ta’am inHebrew, in the plural te’amim.
Now it just so happens that Henri Meschonnic advocated a close attention to the presence in the biblical language of the signs of cantillation, the טְעָמִים, te’amim, supposed to enlighten the deep meaning of the verses by giving them their true rhythm, their melody. « The word, already used by Rabbi Akiva, of te’amim, (…) is the plural of ta’am, which means the taste, in the gustatory sense, the taste of what one has in the mouth.xv In medieval Hebrew, the word also referred to the ratio. It is of capital importance that this word, which designates the junctions-disjunctions, groupings and ungroupings of discourse, with for each ‘accent’ a melodic line, be a word of the body and the mouth. The mouth is what speaks. »xvi
The irony, then, is that the French word ‘savoir’ (which Rosenzweig found ‘flat’) and the Hebrew word te’amim share the same connotations, associating ‘taste’, ‘flavor’ and ‘ratio’...
We quickly return to provincialism and navel-gazing, as we see. One must resolve to understand, once and for all, that outside of Hebrew, there is no salvation. Literally. The Hebrew language holds the divine in it…
Rosenzweig puts it this way:
« The spirit of the Hebrew language is ‘the spirit of God’. (Es ist Geist Gottes). » xvii
Difficult to make more synthetic and more exclusive.
In search of this ‘spirit’ (of the Hebrew language), and interested in the interpretative power attributed to the te’amim, I looked for some possible examples of reference in Meschonnic’s writings.
He particularly emphasizes a verse from Isaiah, usually translated, for centuries, in the Gospels:
« A voice cries out in the desert: prepare a way for the Lord. « (Is. 40:3)
Meschonnic says of this translation: « It is the ‘Christian way’, as James Kugel says. The identification with John the Baptist in Matthew (3:3), Mark (1:3) and John (1:23) depended on it. »
It is true that there is a discrepancy of interpretation between the passages of the Gospels quoted and what we read in the Jerusalem Bible, which gives the following translation:
« A voice cries out, ‘In the desert, make way for the LORD’. »
So? What is the rigjht reading?
» A voice cries out in the desert »?
Or: « A voice cries out: ‘in the desert etc.' »?
Meschonnic notes that in the Hebrew original, there is a major disjunctive accent (zaqef qatan) after « a screaming voice » (qol qoré):
« So ‘in the desert’ is related to ‘make way’, not about the preceding verb. I translate: ‘A voice cries out in the desert make way for Adonaï’. This text is liked to the exile in Babylon, and calls for a return to Jerusalem. Its meaning is geographical and historical, according to its rhythm in Hebrew. But when cut after ‘desert’, it becomes the Christian and eschatological call. Quite another theology. It is the rhythm that makes, or undoes, the meaning.»xviii
Meschonnic concludes his development with a shock formula :
« Rhythm is not only the Jew of the sign, it is also the Jew of the Jew, and it shares the utopia of the poem by being the utopia of meaning. »xix
The rhythm, the ta’am, is the « Jew of the Jew ». Difficult to find a formulation less goy, and more irrefutable…
However, the rhythm is not enough.
If we place the same verse (Is 40:3) in the immediate context of the first ten verses of the « second » Isaiah (Is 40:1-10), we suddenly see a rich density of possible meanings, proliferating, allusive, elusive, carried by voices, words, utterances, cries, repetitions, variations, ellipses, obscurities and openings.
A textual criticism, aimed at semantics, syntax, allegories and anagogy, would encourage a multiplication of questions – far beyond what the ta’am ta’am is.
Why is God twice named « our God » (אלֹהֵינוּ Elohei-nou) xxin Is 40:3 and Is 40:8, and twice named « your God » (אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Elohei-khem)xxi in Is 40:1 and Is 40:9?
Is « ours » also « yours », or is it not?
Why is God named ‘YHVH’ five times in Isaiah 40:2, Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah 40:5 (twice), and Isaiah 40:7, but only once ‘YHVH Adonai’ in Isaiah 40:10xxii? In other words, why is God here named six times ‘YHVH’, and once ‘Adonai’?
In what way do the expression « all flesh » כָל-בָּשָׂר khol-bachar, in Is 40:5, and the expression « all flesh » כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר kol-ha-bachar, in Is 40:6, differ? xxiii
Why is the article defined in one case and not in the other?
Could it be that the expression « all flesh will see it » וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר vé-raou khol-bachar, implies a universality (total, inclusive) of the vision of the glory of YHVH, – « all flesh » then meaning « all creatures made of flesh »?
Whereas the expression « all flesh, – grass », כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר kol-ha-bachar ḥatsir, only implies that « everything » in the flesh is like « grass »?
Why do two voices, undefined, come from unnamed mouths (Is 40:3 and Is 40:6), – when the spoken word is from « the mouth of YHVH », כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר, ki pi YHVH dibber (Is 40:5), and « the word of our God »,וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ devar Elohenou, (Is 40:8), are they duly and by name attributed to God?
Why does the first of these two (undefined) voices shout :
« A voice cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the wilderness, make a straight road for our God’. »(Isaiah 40:3)
Why does the second, undefined voice first say: ‘Cry out’, – before saying what to cry out?
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « (Isaiah 40:6)
To whom does « your God » address himself when Isaiah says :
iv Claude Lanzmann writes: « I fought to impose ‘Shoah’ without knowing that I was thus proceeding to a radical act of nomination, since almost immediately the title of the film became, in many languages, the very name of the event in its absolute singularity. The film was immediately eponymous, people everywhere began to say « the Shoah ». The identification between the film and what it represents goes so far that daring people speak of me as « the author of the Shoah, » to which I can only reply: « No, I’m « Shoah », the Shoah is Hitler. » Le Monde, February 26, 2005
vHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.127
viHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.132
viiH. Meschonnic quotes here Elliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, theosophy and theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p.123.
viiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.128
ixElliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, Theosophy and Theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p. 57, quoted by H. Meschonnic, op. cit. p. 128.
xRaymond Abelio. In a soul and a body. Gallimard, 1973, p.259. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.137
xiFranz Rosenzweig. New Hebrew ? On the occasion of the translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Collected Writings III p. 725. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiFranz Rosenzweig. « Neo-Hebrew » in L’écriture, le verbe et autres essais. p.28. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiiTo get an idea of this, just compare the Sanskrit-English dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams and the Hebrew-English dictionary by Brown-Driver-Briggs, both considered as references in the study of Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew.
xivFranz Rosenzweig. « On the Spirit of the Hebrew Language. – es a language have a ‘spirit’ ? The answer is: only the language has spirit. As many languages as one can, so much one can be human. Can one ‘know’ more than one language ? Our ‘can’ is as shallow as the French ‘savoir’. One lives in a language. « Collected Writings III p. 719. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.139-140
xvMeschonnic notes that in Arabic, mat’am means « resaturant ».
xviHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.147-148
xviiFranz Rosenzweig. « Vom Geist der hebräische Sprache. « Gesammelte Schriften III p. 721. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 140
xviiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 165
xixHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 171
xx« A way cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the steppe, smooth a road for our God. « קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַבַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ (Is 40,3)
« The grass withers, the flower withers, but the word of our God endures forever. « יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם (Is 40,8)
xxi« Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,1)
« Lift up your voice, fear not, say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!' » הָרִימִי, אַל-תִּירָאִי, אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה, הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,9)
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה (Is 40,6)
xxiv« The grass withers, the flower withers, when the breath of YHVH passes over them; yes, the people are grass. »
One day, according to the Bhagavadgītā (भगवद्गीता), the Supreme Lord came down to reveal to a man named Arjuna, the « most secret wisdom », the « secret of secrets », the « purest knowledge », a « knowledge, queen among all sciences ».
In a few decisive words, human reason was then stripped of everything and reduced to begging. Human nature was compared to « dust », but, more inexplicably, it was also promised to a very high destiny, a putative glory, though still infinitely distant, embryonic, potential. Faced with these impassable mysteries, she was invited to scrutinize endlessly her own background, and her own end.
« This entire universe is penetrated by Me, in My unmanifested form. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. At the same time, nothing that is created is in Me. See My supernatural power! I sustain all beings, I am everywhere present, and yet, I remain the very source of all creation.»i
We also learn from Bhagavadgītā that the supreme God may descend in person into this world, taking on human form. « Fools denigrate Me when I come down to this world in human form. They know nothing of My spiritual and absolute nature, nor of My total supremacy.»ii
It is not without interest to recall here that the Hebrew Bible, for its part, repeatedly expressed a strangely similar idea. Thus, three « men », posing as « envoys » of the Lord, came to meet Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre. One of them, called YHVH in the Genesis text, spoke to Abraham face to face.
In the Veda, the supreme God is infinitely high, transcendent, absolute, but He is also tolerant. He recognizes that multiple modes of belief can coexist. There are men for whom God is the supreme, original Person. There are those who prostrate themselves before God with love and devotion. There are those who worship Him as the One, and others who worship Him in Immanence, in His presence among the infinite diversity of beings and things, and there are still others who see Him in the Universal. iii
In the Veda, the supreme God is at once unique, absolute, transcendent, immanent, universal; He is All in all.
« But I am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter, and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Ṛg, the Sāma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend, I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the place of rest and the eternal seed (…) I am immortality, and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna ». iv
In his third lecturev on Vedanta given in London in 1894, Max Müller recalled that the Supreme Spirit, the bráhman, ( ब्रह्मन्, a name of the neutral gender, with the tonic accent on the verbal root BRAH-, taken to the full degree – ‘guṇa’) said: « Even those who worship idols worship Me », as reported by Bhagavadgītā.
And Müller added that, within the framework of Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman, this supreme principle, must be distinguished from the brahmán (with the tonic accent on the second syllable), who represents amale agent name meaning « Creator ». According to the Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman could even state of himself: « Even those who worship a personal God in the image of an active creator, or a King of kings, worship Me or, at least, think of Me ».
In this view, the brahmán (the Creator) would be, in reality, only a manifestation of the bráhman (the Supreme Principle). The bráhman also seems to hint here, not without a certain irony, that one could perfectly well support the opposite position, and that would not bother Him…
Here again, with the famous opening of the first verse of Genesis: Bereshit bara Elohim (Gen 1:1), Judaism professed an intuition strangely comparable.
This verse could be read, according to some commentators of the Bereshit Rabbah: » ‘Be-rechit’ created the Elohim« (i.e. » ‘In the principle‘ created the Gods »).
Other commentators even proposed to understand: « With the Most Precious, *** created the Gods ».
I note here by means of the three asterisks the ineffability of the Name of the Supreme Principle (unnamed but implied).
Combining these interpretations, one could understand the first verse of Genesis (berechit bara elohim) in this way:
« The Principle, ‘with‘ the ‘Most Precious’, created the Elohim. »
The Principle is not named but implied.
The particle be- in the expression be-rechit can mean ‘with’.
One of the possible meanings of the word rechit can be ‘primal fruit’ or ‘most precious’.
For the comparatist, these possibilities (however slight) of convergence between traditions as different as Vedic and Hebrew, are sources of endless meditation and tonic inspiration…
One of the greatest commentator on Vedic heritage, Ādi Śaṅkara (आदि शङ्कर ) explained: « When bráhman is defined in the Upanishads only in negative terms, excluding all differences in name and form due to non-science, it is the superior [bráhman]. But when it is defined in terms such as: « the intelligence whose body is spirit and light, distinguished by a special name and form, solely for the purpose of worship » (Chand., III, 14, 2), it is the other, the lower brahmán. » vi
If this is so, Max Müller commented, the text that says that bráhman has no second (Chand., VI, 2, 1) seems to be contradicted.
But, « No, answers Śaṅkara, because all this is only the illusion of name and form caused by non-science. In reality the two brahman are one and the same brahman, oneconceivable, the other inconceivable, one phenomenal, the other absolutely real ». vii
The distinction made by Śaṅkara is clear. But in the Upanishads, the line of demarcation between the bráhman (supreme) and the brahmán (creator) is not always so clear.
When Śaṅkara interprets the many passages of the Upanishads that describe the return of the human soul after death to ‘brahman‘ (without the tonic accent being distinguished), Sankara always interprets it as the inferior brahmán.
Müller explained: « This soul, as Śaṅkara strongly says, ‘becomes Brahman by being Brahman’viii, that is, by knowing him, by knowing what he is and has always been. Put aside the non-science and light bursts forth, and in that light the human self and the divine self shine in their eternal unity. From this point of view of the highest reality, there is no difference between the Supreme Brahman and the individual self or Ātman (Ved. Sutras, I, 4, p. 339). The body, with all the conditions, or upadhis,towhich it is subordinated, may continue for some time, even after the light of knowledge has appeared, but death will come and bring immediate freedom and absolute bliss; while those who, through their good works, are admitted to the heavenly paradise, must wait there until they obtain supreme enlightenment, and are only then restored to their true nature, their true freedom, that is, their true unity with Brahman. » ix
Of the true Brahman, the Upanishads still say of Him: « Verily, friend, this imperishable Being is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long, neither red (like fire) nor fluid (like water). He is without shadow, without darkness, without air, without ether, without bonds, without eyes, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without spirit, without light, without breath, without mouth, without measure, He has neither inside nor outside ».
And this series of negations, or rather abstractions, continues until all the petals are stripped off, and only the chalice, the pollen, the inconceivable Brahman, the Self of the world, remains.
« He sees, but is not seen; He hears, but is not heard; He perceives, but is not perceived; moreover, there is in the world only Brahman who sees, hears, perceives, or knows. » x
Since He is the only one to ‘see’, the metaphysical term that would best suit this Being would be ‘light’.
But this does not mean that Brahman is, in itself, « light », but only that the whole light, in all its manifestations, is in Brahman.
This light is notably the Conscious Light, which is another name for knowledge, or consciousness. Müller evokes the Mundaka Upanishad: « ‘It is the light of lights; when it shines, the sun does not shine, nor the moon nor the stars, nor lightning, much less fire. When Brahman shines, everything shines with Him: His light illuminates the world. Conscious light represents, as best as possible, Brahman’s knowledge, and it is known that Thomas Aquinas also called God the intelligent sun (Sol intelligibilis). For, although all purely human attributes are taken away from Brahman, knowledge, though a knowledge without external objects, is left to Him.»xi
The ‘light’ of ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ seems to be the only anthropomorphic metaphor that almost all religions dare to apply to the Supreme Being as the least inadequate.
In doing so, these religions, such as Vedic, Hebrew, Buddhist or Christian, often forget what the narrow limits of human knowledge or wisdom are, even at their highest level of perfection, and how unworthy of Divinity these metaphors are in reality.
There is indeed in all knowledge as in all human wisdom an essentially passive element.
This ‘passivity’ is perfectly incompatible with the Divinity… At least, in principle.
One cannot help but notice in several religions the idea of a sort of (active) passivity of the supreme Divinity, who takes the initiative to withdraw from being and the world, for the sake of His creature.
Several examples are worth mentioning here, by order of their appearance on world stage.
-The Supreme Creator, Prajāpati, प्रजापति, literally « Father and Lord of creatures », felt « emptied » right after creating all worlds and beings.
-Similarly, the Son of the only God felt his « emptiness » (kenosis, from the Greek kenos, empty, opposing pleos, full) and his « abandonment » by God just before his death.
-In the Jewish Kabbalah, God also consented to His own « contraction » (tsimtsum) in order to leave a little bit of being to His creation.
In this implicit, hidden, subterranean analogy between the passivity of human wisdom and the divine recess, there may be room for a form of tragic, sublime and overwhelming irony.
The paradox is that this analogy and irony, then, would also allow the infinitesimal human ‘wisdom’ to approach in small steps one of the deepest aspects of the mystery.
viiF. Max Müller, op. cit. 3rd conference, p.39-40
viiiIt should probably be specified here, thanks to the tonic accents: « The soul becomes Brahman by being Brahman. « But one could also write, it seems to me, by analogy with the ‘procession’ of the divine persons that Christian theology has formalized: « The spirit becomes Brahman by beingBrahman. »
It is said that Being is. Apart from being a tautology, nothing is less certain. Rather, one should say that Being is also whatisbecoming, and therefore what it is not, yet. One could also say that it is, at least partly, what has been, and therefore what it is no longer. We should not, therefore, just say that Being is (strictly speaking).
Being is indeed all that it is in essence, and in potency, including all that it will be and all that it has been.
The essence of Being is not only to be, but to have been, in some ways that may be not fully understood, and also to contain some potentialities that may be revealed sometime in the future. Now, admittedly, ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are not, strictly speaking, ‘being’, but one can however think and say that ‘being in potency’ or ‘having been’ are a certain way of being.
From that I infer that a part of the essence of Being lies in what is ‘thought‘ and ‘said‘ about it. The essence of Being has something to do with thought and words.
One may then expand this idea and state that there is no unspeakable Being, just as there is no Being without essence and existence, and just as there is no abstract Being.
A ‘mere’ Being, a Being that would be absolutely unthinkable, and absolutely unspeakable, is just a play on words, a mental chimera.
A ‘mere’ Being would necessarily refer to some other prior entity that would be ‘before’ it, — an entity that would be also in essence unspeakable and would moreover not be called ‘Being’, because this would be a name, – and there could not be any speakable name, starting with the name ‘Being’, for an entity that would be in essence unspeakable.
Hence, I assume that Being can only be conceived by the word, and with the word. A ‘Being without word’, or ‘before all words’, would not be ‘Being’, but something more original than ‘Being’, an entity without the need for any words (even the word ‘Being’), an entity for which no word exists, for which no word is suitable.
No word can designate what is before or beyond Being. Words can only suit what is, what has been or what will be, — not what is beyond Being.
Being and Wording are therefore linked. Said otherwise, Being and the Word make a couple. They are of the same essence. A reciprocal essence links these two entities. One constitutes a part of the essence of the other. The Word is part of the essence of Being, and Being is part of the essence of the Word.
Is the Word first? No, because if the Word were first, if it were before Being, then it would be before Being is, which is a logical contradiction.
Is Being first? No, for how could it be called ‘Being’ before the Word was? If we can say that Being is, if we can say that the Being is Being, then it implies that the Word is also already present, — in the presence of Being. The presence of the Word would be necessary to say the existence of Being.
As I said, Being and Word are linked to each other, they are and they say together.
From the outset, Being is not just Being, but is to be this whole, this linked, compact couple of Being and Word.
Being is to be from the outset all that is implied in being Being and being Word.
Being is to be from the outset the whole of Being, ‘all’ the essence of Being, all that is Being, all that constitutes it.
Being implies being ‘con-sistent‘ (from the Latin cum-sistere).
Being implies to be ‘co-existent‘ with all that is proper to being.
Being is with itself, it is in the presence of itself, in the presence of everything that constitutes its essence, including the Word that tells this essence.
Being involves Being-With-Oneself and Being-Word. If Being is consistent, and it has to be, it coexists with all that is ‘being’ in itself and all that is « thoughtable » and »speakable » in it.
The coexistence of Being with the whole of Being and all its parts constitutes the immanent ‘self’ of Being. This immanent ‘self’ resonates with itself. It is this resonance that constitues the Word.
Hence the deepest origin of consciousness.
Hence also the origin of transcendence, which is constituted by the consciousness of immanence.
Being implies the immanence of Being, and immanence implies immanent consciousness, and the consciousness of immanence.
The immanent consciousness and the consciousness of immanence are already potential steps towards transcendent consciousness (in relation to Being).
The fact for Being to be-with-oneself carries in potency the appearance of the consciousness of being, of the awareness of the self by the self.
Being implies a fold of Being upon itself. This fold is an implication-explanation, which is also the beginning of a reflection, to move on to an optical metaphor.
At the beginning of Being, then, is this fold, this reflection, which can also be called ‘spirit’ (in Sanskrit manas), because the spirit is what ‘unfolds’, or what ‘reflects’.
And in this unfolding fold, the Vedic Word (वाच् vāc) was born.
Victor, thoughtful, once stood near the dolmen of Rozel. A dark and talkative ghost appeared to him. From his mouth of night flowed a powerful, agitated stream, mixing raw and chosen words, where dead trunks and black silt layed. The nyctalope poet was even more loquacious, and his verses sprang, in hurried theories, out of their grassy, wordy bushes.
The images added up, like glasses at the bar:
The immense can be heard. Everything speaks. Everything has consciousness. The tombs are dressed in grass and night. The abyss prays. All lives. The depth is imperfect. Evil is in the universe. Everything goes to the worst, always, without ceasing. The soul chooses. The tree is religious. The pebble is vile, blind, hideous. Matter is evil, – fatal fruit. The incontinent poet rhymes ‘ombre‘ (shadow) with ‘sombre‘ (dark) several times without any shame. And, to compensate, ‘vivant‘ (alive) with ‘en avant‘ (forward).
He had a sad forehead, this great man, this exile with sad sweats, funeral impulses. He bent, this poet, from the weight of the infinite, nothing less, and from the silly light of the gloomy suns.
God is here. Are we so sure? Of course we are! He is not out of anything, by the way. The azure, and the rays, hide His wingspan.
Interpelled in vain, the Spirit continues his way, without wanting to hear Man alone, despising his ‘vile flesh’. The word ‘vile’ returns like an antiphon. The enormous life always continues, it enters the invisible, it ascends to the heavens, it travels ‘millions of leagues’, it reaches even to the ‘radiant toe’ of the ‘archangel sun’ and vanishes in God. Yes ‘in God’! That is, in the depths! Jacob and Cato have already passed through these ladders, with their future of duty, mourning, and exile. They have passed through these precipices and abysses, where the larvae and the mysteries, the vapors and the hydrants, are hurried.
Following them, the seers and angels plunged, towards the winged souls.
But for the banished who remain stuck in the nadir, shipwreck is promised, and the ‘rimless abyss’, full of ‘rain’, opens up.
« Of all that lived rains unceasingly the ashes;
And one sees everything at the bottom, when the eye dares to go down there,
Beyond the life, and the breath and the noise, An ugly black sun from which the night radiates! »i
The Spirit thunders and threatens. As a prophet, he says: the top goes down, the ideal goes to matter, the spirit falls to the animal, the great crashes into the small, the fire announces the ashes, blindness is born of the seer, and darkness of the flamboyant.
But the rhymes save! ‘Azure’ goes with ‘pure’.
Above is joy, below is filth and evil.
It’s perfectly binary. Structurally binary.
In the infinite, one goes up, – or one falls.
Every being is in balance, and weighs its own weight. For elevation, or fall.
Let man contemplate, then, the cesspool or the temple!
Underneath even the worst of the rough ones, there are still the plants without eyelids, and under the stones, there is chaos.
But, always, the soul must continue to descend, towards the dungeon, the punishment and the scaffold.
Ah! Victor! How your hard and funny verses judge worlds and History!
With a light gesture, you cut down your cleaver, soaked with unbelievable alexandrines!
« Once, without understanding it and with a dazed eye
India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis. »ii
‘India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis’. Seriously ???
You Victor, you saw! You Clarified Poet, young Genius of Jersey! You, Seer, you knew, much better than her, this old India, that the bramble becomes a claw, and the cat’s tongue becomes a rose leaf, – to drink the blood of the mouse, in the shadows and the shouts !
Ah, Victor, seeing from your higher heaven, you contemplate the unheard-of spectacle of the lower regions, and you listen to the immense cry of misfortune, the sighs of the pebbles and the desperate.
You see ‘everywhere, everywhere, everywhere’, angels ‘with dead wings’, gloomy larvae, and ragged forests. Punishment seeks darkness, and Babel, when it is overthrown, always flees into the depths of the night. The man for you, O Victor, full of victories, glory and knowledge, is never but a brute drunk with nothingness, who empties the drunken glass of his sleeps, night after night.
But there is a but. When you think twice, man is in prison but his soul remains free. The magi thought that legions of unknown and enslaved souls were constantly trampled underfoot by men who denied them. The ashes in the hearth, or the sepulchre, also claim that a heap of evil sleeps in them.
Man says: No! He prostitutes his mouth to nothingness, while even his dog lying in the night (that sinister constellation) sees God. This is because man is nothing, even if the starry beast is little. He denies, he doubts, in the shadow, the dark and gloomy, the vile and hideous, and he rushes into this abyss, this universal sewer.
Ah! Victor! Why didn’t you crush, with a heavy foot, that immortal worm that was gnawing at your overripe soul?
Alas! Alas! Alas! All is alive! Everything thinks!
Triple complaint, quintuple exclamation. One must cry over all the hideous ugliness of the world.
The spider is filthy, the slug is wet, the aphid is vile, the crab is hideous, the bark beetle is awful (like the sun!), the toad is scary.
But there is still hope at the end!
The underworld will refer to itself as eden. It will be the real day. Beauty will flood the night. The pariah universe will stutter in praise. Mass graves will sing. The mud will palpitate.
The pains will end, – as this poem ends: with the ‘Beginning’!
To Victor, however, I would like to address a short message from beyond time, a brief word from beyond the age, a distant sign from India, who ‘glimpsed’ something that Hugo neither saw nor suspected:
Before the very Beginning, there was neither being nor non-being, and ‘all darkness was enveloped in darkness.’ iii
Wise men commented: the spirit (in Sanskrit: manas) is the one and only thing that can be both existing and non-existent. The spirit exists, they said, only in things, but things, if they have no spirit, then they are non-existentiv.
The seers have long sought wise views on these difficult questions.
They thought, for example, that there was a hidden, deep, obscure link between Being and Non-Being. And they asked themselves: What link? And who could really know anything about it?
They replied ironically: « He certainly knows it – or maybe He Himself doesn’t even know it ! »v
i Victor Hugo. Contemplations. XXVI , « What the Mouth of Shadow Says ».
The anthropology of the ‘beginning’ is quite rich. A brief review of three traditions, Vedic, Jewish and Christian, here cited in the order of their historical arrival on the world stage, may help to compare their respective myths of ‘beginning’ and understand their implications.
1. The Gospel of John introduced the Greek idea of logos, ‘in the beginning’.
« In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ». (Jn 1:1)
It is certainly worth digging a little deeper into the meaning of the two words ἀρχῇ (arkhè) and λόγος (logos), given their importance here.
Ἐν ἀρχῇ. En arkhè.
What is the real (deep) meaning of this expression?
Should one translate by « In the beginning »? Or « In the Principle »? Or something else?
The original meaning of the verb arkho, arkhein, commonly used since Homer, is ‘to take the initiative, to begin’. In the active sense, the word means ‘to command’.i With the preverb en-, the verb en-arkhomai means ‘to begin the sacrifice’, and later ‘to exercise magistracy’. The notion of sacrifice is very present in the cloud of meanings associated with this word. Kat-arkho : ‘to begin a sacrifice’. Pros-arkho, ‘to offer a gift’. Ex-arkho means ‘to begin, to sing (a song)’. Hup-arkho, ‘to begin, to be in the beginning’, hence ‘to be fundamental, to exist’, and finally ‘to be’.
Many compounds use as first term the word arkhè, meaning either ‘who starts’ or ‘who commands’. The oldest meaning is ‘who takes the initiative of’. There is the Homeric meaning of arkhé-kakos, ‘who is at the origin of evils’. The derived word arkhosgave rise to the formation of a very large number of compounds (more than 150 have been recordedii), of which Chantraine notes that they all refer to the notion of leading, of command, — and not to the notion of beginning.
The feminine noun arkhe, which is the word used in the Gospel of John, can mean ‘beginning’, but philosophers use it to designate ‘principles’, ‘first elements’ (Anaximander is the first to use it in this sense), or to mean ‘power, sovereignty’.
Chantraine concludes that the meanings of arkhè whicharerelated to the notions of ‘taking the initiative’, of ‘starting’, are the oldest, but that meanings that express the idea of ‘command’ also are very old, since they already appear in Homer. In all the derivations and subsequent compositions, it is the notion of ‘commanding’ that dominates, including in a religious sense: ‘to make the first gesture, to take the initiative (of sacrifice)’.
One may conjecture from all this, that the Johannine expression ‘en arkhè‘does not contain the deep idea of an ‘absolute beginning’. Rather, it may refer to the idea of a (divine) sacrificial initiative or inauguration (of the divine ‘sacrifice’), which presupposes not an absolute, temporal beginning, but rather an intemporal, divine decision, – and the pre-existence of a whole background necessary for the conception and execution of this divine, inaugural and atemporal ‘sacrifice’.
Now, what about λόγος, logos ? How to translate this word with the right nuance? Does logos mean here ‘verb’ ? ‘Word’ ? ‘Reason’ ? ‘Speech’ ?
The word logos comes from the Greek verb lego, legein, whose original meaning is ‘to gather, to choose’, at least in the ways Homer uses this word in the Iliad. This value is preserved with the verbal compounds using the preverbs dia– or ek– (dia-legeinor ek-legein,‘to sort, to choose’), epi-legein ‘to choose, to pay attention to’, sul-legein ‘togather’. Legeinsometimes means ‘to enumerate’ in the Odyssey, and ‘to utter insults’, or ‘to chat, to discourse’ in the Iliad. This is how the use of lego, legein in the sense of ‘to tell, to say’ appeared, a use that competes with other Greek verbs that also have the meaning of ‘to say’: agoreuo, phèmi.
The noun logos is very ancient and can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey with the meaning of ‘speech, word’, and in Ionic and Attic dialects with meanings such as ‘narrative, account, consideration, explanation, reasoning, reason’, – as opposed to ‘reality’ (ergon). Then, much later, logos has come to mean ‘immanent reason’, and in Christian theology, it started to mean the second person of the Trinity, or even God.iii
Usually Jn 1:1 is translated, as we know : ‘In the beginning was the Word’. But if one wants to remain faithful to the most original meaning of these words, en arkhè and logos, one may choose to translate this verse in quite a different way.
I propose (not as a provocation, but for a brain-storming purpose) to tranlate :
« At the principle there was a choice. »
Read: « At the principle » — [of the divine sacrifice] — « there was a [divine] choice ».
Explanation: The divine Entity which proceeded, ‘in the beginning’, did not Itself begin to be at the time of this ‘beginning’. It was necessarily already there,before any being andbefore any beginning, in order toinitiate and make the ‘beginning’ and the ‘being’ possible. The ‘beginning’ is thus only relative, since the divine Entity was and is always before and any beginning and any time, out of time and any beginning.
Also, let’s argue that the expression ‘en arkhe‘ in Jn 1:1 rather refers to the idea and initiative of a ‘primordial sacrifice‘ or a primal ‘initiation’, — of which the Greek language keeps a deep memory in the verb arkhein, whencompounded with the preverb en-: en-arkhomai, ‘to initiate the sacrifice’, a composition very close to the Johannine formula enarkhe.
As for the choice of the word ‘choice‘ to translate logos, it is justified by the long memory of the meanings of the word logos. The word logos only meant ‘word’ at a very late period, and when it finally meant that, this was in competition with other Greek words with the same meaning of ‘to say’, or ‘to speak’, such as phèmi, or agoreuo. as already said.
In reality, the original meaning of the verb lego, legein,is not ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’, but revolves around the ideas of ‘gathering’ and ‘choosing’, which are mental operations prior to any speech. The idea of ‘speaking’ is basically only second, it only comes after the ‘choice’ made by the mind to ‘gather’ [its ideas] and ‘distinguish’ or ‘elect’ them [in order to ‘express’ them].
2. About a thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Hebrew tradition tells yet another story of ‘beginning’, not that of the beginning of a ‘Word’ or a ‘Verb’, but that of a unity coupled with a multiplicity in order to initiate ‘creation’.
« In the beginning God created heaven and earth ».
The word אֱלֹהִים , elohim, is translated by ‘God’. However, elohim is grammatically a plural (and could be, — grammatically speaking –, translated as »the Gods »), as the other plural in this verse, ha-chamayim, should be translated by ‘the heavens’. The fact that the verb bara (created) is in the singular is not a difficulty from this point of view. In the grammar of ancient Semitic languages (to which the grammar of classical Arabic still bears witness today, for it has preserved, more than Hebrew, these ancient grammatical rules) the plurals of non-human animated beings that are subjects of verbs, put these in the 3rd person singular. Elohim is a plural of non-human animated beings, because they are divine.
Another grammatical rule states that when the verb is at the beginning of the sentence, and is followed by the subject, the verb should always be in the singular form, even when the subject is plural.
From these two different grammatical rules, therefore, the verb of which elohim is the subject must be put in the singular (bara).
In other words, the fact that the verb bara is a 3rd person singular does not imply that the subject elohim should grammatically be also a singular.
As for the initial particle, בְּ be, in the expression be-rechit, it has many meanings, including ‘with’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’.
In accordance with several midrachic interpretations found in the Bereshit Rabbah, I propose not to translate be-rechit by ‘in the beginning’, but to suggest quite another translation.
By giving the particle בְּ be- the meaning of ‘with‘ or ‘by‘, be-rechit may be translatedby: « with [the ‘rechit‘] ».
Again in accordance with several midrachic interpretations, I also suggest giving back to ‘rechit‘ its original meaning of ‘first-fruits‘ (of a harvest), and even giving it in this context not a temporal meaning but a qualitative and superlative one: ‘the most precious‘.
It should be noted, by the way, that these meanings meet well with the idea of ‘sacrifice’ that the Greek word arkhé in theJohannine Gospel contains, as we have just seen.
Hence the proposed translation of Gn 1.1 :
« By [or with] the Most Precious, the Gods [or God] created etc… »
Let us note finally that in this first verse of the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of ‘speaking’, or ‘saying’ any ‘Verb’ or ‘Word’.
It is only in the 3rd verse of Genesis that God (Elohim) ‘says’ (yomer) something…
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר
Va-yomer Elohim yéhi ‘or vé yéhi ‘or.
Literally: « Elohim says ‘let there be light’, and the light is [and will be]. »
Then in the 5th verse, God (Elohim) ‘calls’ (yqra), i.e. God ‘gives names’.
וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם
Va-yqra’ Elohim la-‘or yom
« And Elohim called the light ‘day’. »
The actual « word » of God will come only much later. The verb דָּבַר davar ‘to speak’ or the noun דָּבָר davar ‘word’ (as applied to YHVH) only appeared long after the ‘beginning’ had begun:
« All that YHVH has said » (Ex 24:7).
« YHVH has fulfilled his word » (1 Kings 8:20).
« For YHVH has spoken » (Is 1:2).
3. Let us now turn to the Vedic tradition, which dates (in its orally transmitted form) to one or two millennia before the Hebrew tradition.
In the Veda, in contrast to Genesis or the Gospel of John, there is not ‘one’ beginning, but several beginnings, operating at different levels, and featuring various actors …
Here are a few examples:
« O Lord of the Word (‘Bṛhaspati’)! This was the beginning of the Word. » (RV X, 71,1)
« In the beginning, this universe was neither Being nor Non-Being. In the beginning, indeed, this universe existed and did not exist: only the Spirit was there.
The Spirit was, so to speak, neither existing nor non-existent.
The Spirit, once created, desired to manifest itself.
This Spirit then created the Word. « (SB X 5, 3, 1-2)
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, because hunger is death. She became mental [she became ‘thinking’]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. »(BU 1,2,1).
Perhaps most strikingly, more than two or three millennia before the Gospel of John, the Veda already employed formulas or metaphors such as: the ‘Lord of the Word’ or ‘the beginning of the Word’.
In Sanskrit, the ‘word’ is वाच् Vāc. In the Veda it is metaphorically called ‘the Great’ (bṛhatī), but it also receives many other metaphors or divine names.
The Word of the Veda, Vāc, ‘was’ before any creation, it pre-existed before any being came to be.
The Word is begotten by and in the Absolute – it is not ‘created’.
The Absolute for its part has no name, because He is before the word. Or, because He is the Word. He is the Word itself, or ‘all the Word’.
How then could He be called by any name? A name is never but a single word: it cannot speak the‘whole Word’, – all that has been, is and will be Word.
The Absolute is not named. But one can name the Supreme Creator, the Lord of all creatures, which is one of its manifestations, – like the Word, moreover.
The Ṛg Veda gives it the name प्रजापति Prajāpati,: ‘Lord (pati) of Creation (prajā)‘. It also gives itthe name ब्र्हस्पति Bṛhaspati, which means ‘Lord of the Word‘iv,‘Lord (pati) of the Great (bṛhatī )’.
For Vāc is the ‘greatness’ of Prajāpati: « Then Agni turned to Him with open mouth; and He (Prajāpati) was afraid, and his own greatness separated from Him. Now His very greatness is His Word, and this greatness has separated from Him. »v
The Sanskrit word bṛhat, बृहत् means ‘great, high; vast, abundant; strong, powerful; principal’. Its root ब्र्ह bṛha means‘to increase, to grow; to become strong; to spread’.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad comments: « It is also Bṛhaspati: Bṛhatī [‘the great one’] is indeed the Word, and he is its Lord (pati). « vi
The Word is therefore also at the « beginning » in the Veda, but it precedes it, and makes it possible, because the Word is intimately linked to the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Ṛg Veda explains the link between the supreme Creator, the Word, the Spirit, and the Sacrifice, a link that is unraveled and loosened ‘in the beginning’:
« O Lord of the Word! This was the beginning of the Word,
– when the seers began to name everything.
Excellence, the purest, the profoundly hidden
in their hearts, they revealed it through their love.
The Seers shaped the Word by the Spirit,
passing it through a sieve, like wheat being sifted.
Friends recognized the friendship they had for each other,
and a sign of good omen sealed their word.
Through sacrifice, they followed the way of the Word,
and this Word which they found in them, among them,
– they proclaimed it and communicated it to the multitude.
In the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa which is a later scholarly commentary, the Word is presented as the divine entity that created the « Breath of Life »:
« The Word, when he was created, desired to manifest himself, and to become more explicit, more incarnated. He desired a Self. He concentrated fervently. He acquired substance. These were the 36,000 fires of his own Self, made of the Word, and emerging from the Word. (…) With the Word they sang and with the Word they recited. Whatever rite is practiced in the Sacrifice, the sacrificial rite exists by the Word alone, as the utterance of voices, as fires composed of the Word, generated by the Word (…) The Word created the Breath of Life. »viii
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad, one of the oldest upaniṣad, the Vedic Word is staged as born of death, or rather of the soul (ātman)of death.
This Word is the prayer or hymn (ṛc), or ritual recitation (arc, — of the same root as ṛc). Through the play of assonances, homophonies and metaphors, it is associated with arca, the‘fire’ and ka, the‘water’ (both essential elements of the sacrifice), and also with ka, the ‘joy’ it brings.
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, for hunger is deathix. She made herself mental [thinking]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. She engaged in a ritual recitation [bow, a prayer]. While she was in the ritual recitation the water was bornx. She thought] ‘Truly, while engaged in this ritual recitation (arc), the water [or joy] (ka) came’. This is the name and being (arkatva) of the ritual recitation [or fire] (arka). Water [or joy] (ka) really happens to the one who knows the name and being of the virtual recitation [or fire]. »xi
From these quotations, one sees clearly that, in the Vedic tradition, the Word is not « in the beginning », but he is « the beginning ». The beginning of what? — The beginning of Sacrifice.
The Word ‘begins’ to reveal, he ‘initiates’, but he also hides all that he does not reveal.
What is it that he does not reveal? – He does not reveal all the depth, the abyss of the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Word is a ‘place’ where is made possible an encounter between clarity, light, brilliance (joy) and Man. But the Word also makes heard, through his silence, all the immensity of the abyss, the depth of the darkness, the in-finite before any beginnings.
iCf. The Greek Etymological Dictionary of Chantraine
vi Cf. BU,1,3,30. This Upaniṣad further explains that the Word is embodied in the Vedas in the Vedic hymn (Ṛc), in theformula of sacrifice (yajus) and in the sacred melody (sāman). Bṛhatī is also the name given to the Vedic verse (ṛc) and the name of the Brahman (in the neutral) is given to the sacrificial formula (yajus). As for the melody (sāman) it is ‘Breath-Speech’: « That is why it is also Bṛhaspati (Ṛc). It is also Bhrahmaṇaspati. The Brahman is indeed the Word and he is the lord (pati) of the [Word]. That is why he is also Bhrahmaṇaspati (= Yajus). He is also the melody (sāman). The melody is truly the Word: ‘He is she, Sā (the Word) and he is Ama (the breath). This is for the name and nature of the melody (sāman). Or because he is equal (sama) to a gnat, equal to a mosquito, equal to an elephant, equal to the three worlds, equal to this all, for this reason he is sāman, melody. It obtains the union with the sāman , theresidence in the same world, the one that knows the sāman. »(BU 1,3,20-22)
ix A. Degrâces thus comments this sentence: « The question of cause is raised here. If nothing is perceived, nothing exists. Śaṅkara is based on the concepts of covering and being covered: ‘What is covered by the cause is the effect, and both exist before creation… But the cause, by destroying the preceding effect, does not destroy itself. And the fact that one effect occurs by destroying another is not in opposition to the fact that the cause exists before the effect that is produced….Manifestation means reaching the realm of perception… Not being perceived does not mean not existing… There are two forms of covering or occultation in relation to the effect… What is destroyed, produced, existing and non-existing depends on the relation to the manifestation or occultation… The effort consists in removing what covers… Death is the golden embryo in the condition of intelligence, hunger is the attribute of what intelligence is… ». (BAUB 1.2) Alyette Degrâces. The Upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222, note n° 974.
x Water plays an essential role in the Vedic sacrifice.
xiBU 1,2,1 (My adaptation in English from a French translation by Alyette Degrâces. The upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222)
More than two millennia before the times of Melchisedechi and Abraham, other wandering and pious men were already singing the hymns of Ṛg Veda. Passing them on faithfully, generation after generation, they celebrated through hymns and prayers, the mysteries of a Supreme God, a Lord creator of worlds, of all creatures, of all lives.
Intelligence of the divine did just not begin in Ur in Chaldea, nor sacred wisdom in Salem.
They probably already reigned, more than five thousand years ago, among chosen, attentive, dedicated spirits. These men left as a legacy the hymns they sang, in precise and chiselled phrases, evoking the salient mysteries that constantly assailed them:
Of the Creator of all things, what can be said? What is his name?
What is the primary source of « Being »? How to name the primordial « Sun », from which the entire Cosmos emerged?
‘Who’ is the Lord imposing his lordship on all beings, – and on the ‘Being’ itself ? But who is ‘Who’?
What is the role of Man, what is his true part in this Mystery play?
A Vedic hymn, famous among all, summarizes and condenses all these difficult questions into one single one, both limpid and obscure.
It is Hymn X, 121 of Ṛg Veda, often titled « To the Unknown God ».
In the English translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, this Hymn is entitled « Ka ».iiKa, in Sanskrit, means « who ? »
This Hymn is dedicated to the God whom the Veda literally calls « Who? »
Griffith translates the exclamation recurring nine times throughout this ten-verses Hymn as follows :
« What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
But from the point of view of Sanskrit grammar, it is perfectly possible to personify this interrogative pronoun, Ka, as the very name of the Unknown God.
Hence this possible translation :
To the God ‘Who?’
1. In the beginning appeared the Golden Germ.
As soon as he was born, he became the Lord of Being,
The support of Earth and this Heaven.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
2. He, who gives life force and endurance,
He, whose commandments are laws for the Gods,
He, whose shadow is Immortal Life, – and Death.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
3. ‘Who?‘ iii – in His greatness appeared, the only sovereign
Of everything that lives, breathes and sleeps,
He, the Lord of Man and all four-membered creatures.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
4. To Him belongs by right, by His own power,
The snow-covered mountains, the flows of the world and the sea.
His arms embrace the four quarters of the sky.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
5. ‘Who?’ holds the Mighty Heavens and the Earth in safety,
He formed the light, and above it the vast vault of Heaven.
‘Who?’ measured the ether of the intermediate worlds.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
6. Towards Him, trembling, forces crushed,
Subjected to his glory, raise their eyes.
Through Him, the sun of dawn projects its light.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
7. When came the mighty waters, carrying
The Universal Germ from which Fire springs,
The One Spirit of God was born to be.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
8. This Unit, which, in its power, watched over the Waters,
Pregnant with the life forces engendering the Sacrifice,
She is the God of Gods, and there is nothing on Her side.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
9. O Father of the Earth, ruling by immutable laws,
Give it to us, and may we become lords of oblation!
What is this divine Germ (Hiraṇyagarbha , or ‘Golden Germ’, in Sanskrit), mentioned in verses 1, 7 and 8?
One does not know, but one can sense it. The Divine is not the result of a creation, nor of an evolution, or of a becoming, as if it was not, – then was. The Veda here attempts a breakthrough in the very nature of the divinity, through the image of the ‘germ’, the image of pure life. The idea of a ‘God’ is only valid from the creature’s point of view. The idea of ‘God’ appears only through its relation to the idea of ‘creature’. For Himself, God is not ‘God’, – He must be, in His own eyes, something completely different, which has nothing to do with the pathos of creation and the creature.
One can make the same remark about « Being ». The « Being » appears only when the beings appear. God creates the beings and the Being at the same time. He Himself is beyond Being, since it is through Him that Being comes. And before the beings, before the Being itself, it seems that a divine, mysterious life ‘took place’. Not that it ‘was’, since the Being was not yet, but it ‘lived’, hidden, and then ‘was born’. But from what womb? From what prior, primordial uterus? We do not know. We only know that, in an abyssmal mystery (and not in time or space), an even deeper mystery, a sui generis mystery, grew, in this very depth, which was then to come to being, but without the Mystery itself being revealed by this growth and by this outcoming of being.
The place of origin of the mystery is not known, but the Veda calls it ‘Golden Germ’ (hiraṇyagarbha). This metaphor of a ‘Germ’ implies (logically?) some ovary, some womb, some desire, some life older than all life, and older than the Being itself.
Life came from this Living One, in Whom, by Whom and from Whom, it was given to the Being ; it was then given to be, and it was given thereby to beings, to all beings.
This mysterious process, which the word ‘Germ’ evokes, is also called ‘Sacrifice’, a word that appears in verse 8: Yajña (यज्ञ). The Seed dies to Himself, He sacrifices Himself, so that out of His own Life, life, all lives, may be born.
May God be born to Himself, through His sacrifice… What a strange thing!
By being born, God becomes ‘God’, He becomes the Lord of Being, for the Being, and the Lord of beings. Hymn 121 takes here its mystical flight, and celebrates a God who is the Father of creatures, and who is also always transcendent to the Being, to the world and to his own ‘divinity’ (inasmuch as this divinity allows itself to be seen in its Creation, and allows itself to be grasped in the Unity that it founds).
But who is this God who is so transcendent? Who is this God who hides, behind the appearance of the Origin, below or beyond the very Beginning?
There is no better noun, one might think, than this interrogative pronoun: ‘Who?’. Ka.
This ‘Who?’ , this Ka, does not call for an answer. Rather, it calls for another question, which Man addresses to himself: To whom? To whom must Man, seized by the unheard-of depth of the mystery, in turn offer his own sacrifice?
A haunting litany: « What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
It is not that the name of this God is strictly speaking unknown. Verse 10 uses the expression Prajāpati , ‘Lord of creatures’. It is found in other texts, for example in this passage from Taittirīya Saṁhitā :
« Indra, the latest addition to Prajāpati, was named ‘Lord of the Gods’ by his Father, but they did not accept him. Indra asked her Father to give her the splendor that is in the sun, so that she could be ‘Lord of the Gods’. Prajāpati answered her:
But these two names, Prajāpati , or Ka, refer only to something related to creatures, referring either to their Creator, or simply to their ignorance or perplexity.
These names say nothing about the essence of God. This essence is undoubtedly above all intelligibility, and above all essence.
This ka, ‘who?’, in the original Sanskrit text, is actually used in the singular dative form of the pronoun, kasmai (to whom?).
One cannot ask the question ‘who?’ with regard to God, but only ‘to whom? One cannot seek to question his essence, but only to distinguish him among all the other possible objects of worship.
God is mentally unknowable. Except perhaps in that we know that He is ‘sacrifice’. But we know nothing of the essence of His ‘sacrifice’. We can only ‘participate’ in the essence of this divine sacrifice (but not know it), more or less actively, — and this from a better understanding of the essence of our own sacrifice, of our ‘oblation’. Indeed, we are both subject and object of our oblation. In the same way, God is both subject and object of His sacrifice. We can then try to understand, by anagogy, the essence of His sacrifice through the essence of our oblation.
This is what Raimundo Panikkar describes as the ‘Vedic experience’. It is certainly not the personal experience of those Vedic priests and prophets who were chanting their hymns two thousand years before Abraham, but it could be at least a certain experience of the sacred, of which we ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ could still feel the breath and the burning.
iמַלְכֵּי-צֶדֶק , (malkî-ṣedeq) : ‘King of Salem’ and ‘Priest of the Most High (El-Elyôn)’.
iiRalph T.H. Griffith. The Hymns of the Rig Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publihers. Delhi, 2004, p.628
iiiIn the original Sanskit: क , Ka ? « To Whom ? »
iv Prajāpati : » Lord of creatures « . This expression, so often quoted in the later texts of the Atharva Veda and Brāhmaṇa, is never used in the Ṛg Veda, except in this one place (RV X,121,10). It may therefore have been interpolated later. Or, – more likely in my opinion, it represents here, effectively and spontaneously, the first historically recorded appearance (in the oldest religious tradition in the world that has formally come down to us), or the ‘birth’ of the concept of ‘Lord of Creation’, ‘Lord of creatures’, – Prajāpati .
vTB II, 2, 10, 1-2 quoted by Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience. Mantramañjarī. Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1977, p.69
An innate sense of ‘mystery’ has always been one of the defining features of the human condition. The appearance of this trait, a long time ago, – say a few thousand centuries ago –, coincided, one must assume, with an obscure and progressive emergence of the consciousness itself, – mixed with a certain consciousness of the presence of the unconscious, – or of what was still lying unknown, hidden behing the veil of consciousness.
These two phenomena, the intuition of the mystery and the intuition of the unconscious, also opened the way to the progressive bursting of the consciousness of the Ego itself, – and of the ‘Self’.
The appearance of consciousness itself has undoubtedly been particularly favored by the repetition (encouraged by rituals) of many individual, acute, unprecedented, ‘proto-mystical’ experiences, – some of them with literally unspeakable implications, and whose essence was to reveal unexpectedly some of the depths of the Self, to some ‘initiated’ minds.
The accumulation of these experiences, by countless successive generations, not only by individuals but also by tribal groups during collective trances, suggests that these ecstatic states of consciousness must have been described and shared according to socialized forms (proto-religions, cult rites, initiation ceremonies).
The progressive experience of self-awareness and the proto-mystical experience are in fact indissolubly linked and reinforce each other. Both must have been made possible and encouraged by clusters of favorable conditions (environment, surroundings, climate, fauna, flora).
Moreover, through the effect of epigenesis, they must have had an impact on the neuronal, synaptic, neurochemical evolution of the brain (in hominids, then in humans), producing an organic and psychic terrain more and more adapted to a continuous increase in ‘levels of consciousness’.
For innumerable generations, and during multiple trance experiences, whether deliberate or hazardous, prepared or undergone, provoked during religious rites, or melting like lightning following personal discoveries, the mental ground of Homo brains never stops sowing, then sprouting, as if under the action of a psychic yeast intimately mixed with the neuronal dough.
Powerful proto-mystical experiments accelerated the neurochemical and neuro-synaptic adaptation of the brains of Paleolithic man, and thus revealed the incalculable immensity and radical unspeakability of the underlying, immanent, deep-seated ‘mysteries’.
These mysteries manifestly dwelled not only in the brain itself, and in a human consciousness that seemed to be barely awake, but also all around, inNature, in the vast world of Cosmos, and beyond the Cosmos itself, deep in the Night of Origins.
Mysteries seemed to be hiding, not only in the ‘Self’, but also in the ‘Other’ , in the ‘Everywhere’ and in the ‘Elsewhere’.
The neuronal, synaptic and neurochemical evolution was, and still is, obviously, the essential condition for a mental, psychic and spiritual evolution.
This evolution was accelerated by increasingly powerful and complex feedback loops, intertwining the sudden physiological modifications available, and the ‘neuro-systemic’, cultural and psychic effects that they could cause in individuals, by genetic propagation within human groups, and by catalyzing the potential exploration of unfathomable, unresolved, abyssmal depths.
We can safely postulate the existence of an immanent and constantly evolving epigenetic link between the evolution of the brain’s structure, the network of its neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters, their inhibitory and agonizing factors, and its increasing capacity to support proto-mystical, spiritual and religious experiences.
What is a proto-mystical experience?
There are undoubtedly many of them… But to fix the ideas, we can evoke the experience reported by many shamans of an exit from the body (‘ecstasy’ or ESPs), followed by the perception of a great lightning bolt, then accompanied by surreal visions, coupled with an acute development of Self-consciousness, and the inner spectacle created by the simultaneous excitement of all parts of the brain.
Let us imagine a Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer in some region of Eurasia, who consumes, by chance or by tradition, such and such a mushroom, among the dozens of species possessing psychotropic properties, in his living environment. Suddenly, a ‘great flash of consciousness’ invades and stuns him, following the simultaneous stimulation of a massive quantity of neurotransmitters affecting the functioning of his neurons and his cerebral synapses. In a few moments, there is a radical difference between his usual state of ‘consciousness’ (or ‘subconsciousness’) and the suddenly occurring state of ‘over-consciousness’. The novelty and the incredible vigor of the experience will mark him for life.
He will now have the certainty of having lived a moment of double consciousness, a moment when his usual consciousness was as if transcended by an over–consciousness. In him, a true ‘dimorphism’ of consciousness has been powerfully revealed, which is not without comparison with the daily dimorphism of wakefulness and sleep, and the ontological dimorphism of life and death, two categories undoubtedly perfectly perceptible by Homo erectus’ brain.
Let us add that, since ancient times, probably dating back to the beginning of the Paleolithic, more than three million years ago, hunter-gatherers of the Homo genus must already have known the use of psycho-active plants, and consumed them regularly. Long before the appearance of Homo, many animal species (such as reindeer, monkeys, elephants, mouflons or felines…) also knew their effects themselvesi.
Their daily example was to intrigue and disturb humans living in close symbiosis with them, and, if only to increase their hunting performance, to incite them to imitate the so strange behavior of animals putting themselves in danger by indulging in the grip of psychoactive substances – otherwise (and this in itself is an additional mystery) widespread in the surrounding nature, and throughout the world …
There are still about a hundred species of psychoactive fungi in North America today, and the vast territories of Eurasia must have had at least as many in the Paleolithic, – although nowadays there are only about ten species of fungi with hallucinogenic properties.
Paleolithic Homo was thus daily confronted with the testimony of animals undergoing the effect of psychoactive substances, regularly renewing the experience of their ingestion, affecting their ‘normal’ behavior, and thus putting themselves in danger of being killed by hunters on the lookout, quick to seize their advantage.
There is no doubt that Homo has imitated these animals ‘delighted’, ‘drugged’, ‘stunned’ by powerful substances, and ‘wandering’ in their own dreams. Wanting to understand their indifference to danger, Homo ingested the same berries or mushrooms, if only to ‘feel’ in turn what these so familiar prey could ‘feel’, which, against all odds, then offered themselves easily to their flints and arrows…
Even today, in regions ranging from northern Europe to far-eastern Siberia, reindeer still consume a lot of fly-agarics during their migrations – just like the shamans who live on the same territories.
This is certainly not a coincidence.
In Siberia, the reindeer and the hunter-breeder both live, one could say, in close symbiosis with the Amanita muscaria fungus.
The same molecules of Amanita muscaria (muscimoleii, and ibotenoque acid) that affect man and beast so intensely, how can they be produced by such seemingly elementary life forms, by ‘simple’ fungi? And moreover, why do these fungi produce these molecules, for what purpose?
This is a mystery worthy of consideration, for it is a phenomenon that objectively – and mystically – links the fungus and the brain, lightning and light, animal and human, heaven and earth, by means of a few molecules, common and active, though belonging to different kingdoms?
It is a well-documented fact that in all continents of the world, in Eurasia, America, Africa, Oceania, and since time immemorial, shamans have been consuming psychoactive substances that facilitate the entry into trance, – a trance accompanied by deep psychological effects, such as the experience of ‘divine visions’.
How can we imagine that these incredible experiences can be so mysteriously ‘shared’, if only by analogy, with animals? How can it be explained that these powerful effects, so universal, are simply due to the consumption of humble mushrooms, and that the active ingredients are one or two types of molecules acting on neurotransmitters?
R. Gordon Wasson, in his book Divine Mushroom of Immortality iii, has skillfully documented the universality of these phenomena, and he did not hesitate to establish a link between these ‘original’, shamanic practices and the consumption of Vedic Soma (from the 3rd millennium BC), whose ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda accurately describe the rites, and celebrate the divine essence, – occupying the heart of the Vedic sacrifice.iv
During several thousand years, shamanism naturally continued to be part of the sacred rites and initiation ceremonies of the wandering peoples who migrated from the North of Eurasia to the « South »,
In the course of time, Amanita muscaria has probably had to be replaced by other plants, endemically available in the various geographical environments crossed, but with similar psychotropic effects.
These migrating peoples referred to themselves as āryas, a word meaning ‘nobles’ or ‘lords’. This very old Sanskrit term, used since the 3rd millennium BC, has nowadays become sulphurous, since its misuse by Nazi ideologues.
These peoples spoke Indo-European languages, and were slowly but surely moving from Northern Europe to India and Iran, but also to the Near and Middle East, via Southern Russia. Some of them passed through the Caspian and Aral Sea, through Bactria and Margiana (as the remains of the ‘Oxus civilization’ attest), through Afghanistan, and finally settled permanently in the Indus Valley or on the Iranian highlands.
Others went to the Black Sea, Thrace, Macedonia, present-day Greece and to Phrygia, Ionia (present-day Turkey) and the Near East.
Arriving in Greece, the Hellenic branch of these Indo-European peoples did not forget the ancient shamanic beliefs. The mysteries of Eleusis and the other mystery religions of ancient Greece can be interpreted as ancient Hellenized shamanic ceremonies, during which the ingestion of beverages with psychotropic propertiesv induced mystical visions.
At the time of the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, this beverage, kykeon, made from goat’s milk, mint and spices, probably also contained as active ingredient a parasitic fungus, the rye spur, or an endophytic fungus living in symbiosis with herbs such as Lolium temulentum, better known in English as ‘ryegrass’ or ‘tares’. Rye ergot naturally produces a psychoactive alkaloid, lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived.vi
Albert Hofmann, famous for synthesizing LSD, wrote in TheRoad to Eleusis that the priests of Eleusis had to treat the rye spur Claviceps purpurea by simply dissolving it in water, thus extracting the active alkaloids, ergonovine and methylergonovine. Hofmann suggested an alternative hypothesis, namely that kykeon could be prepared using another species of rye spur, Claviceps paspali, which grows on wild herbs such as Paspalum distichum, and whose ‘psychedelic’ effects are even more intense, and indeed similar to those of the Aztec ololiuhqui plant, endemic to the Western Hemisphere.
Our mind, in a state of awakening, is constantly torn between two very different (and complementary) forms of consciousness, one turned towards the external world, that of physical sensations and action, and the other turned towards the internal world, reflection and unconscious feelings.
There are, of course, varying degrees of intensity for these two types of ‘consciousness’, external and internal. Dreaming with your eyes open is not the same as ‘dreaming’ under the influence of fly agaric, peyote or any of the many hallucinogenic plants containing psilocybin.
Upon ingestion of these powerful psychoactive principles, these two forms of consciousness seem to be simultaneously excited to the last degree, and may even alternate very quickly. They ‘merge’ and enter into ‘resonance’ at the same time.
On the one hand, the sensations felt by the body are taken to extremes, because they are not relayed by the nervous system, but are produced directly in the very center of the brain.
On the other hand, mental, psychic, or intellectual effects are also extremely powerful, because countless neurons can be stimulated or inhibited simultaneously. Under the sudden effect of psychoactive molecules, the action of inhibitory neurotransmitters (such as GABA) is massively increased. The action potential of post-synaptic neurons or glial cells is just as suddenly, and sharply, diminished.
This massive inhibition of post-synaptic neurons translates, subjectively, into a kind of radical decoupling between the usual level of consciousness, that of the consciousness of the external reality, and an entirely different level of consciousness, ‘internal’, completely detached from the surrounding reality, but by this very fact, also more easily sucked into a psychic, independent universe, which C.G. Jung calls the ‘Self’, and to which innumerable traditions refer under various names.
The set of complex neurochemical processes that occur in the brain at these times can be summarized as follows.
Psychoactive molecules (such as psilocybin) are structurally very close to organic compounds (indolesvii) that occur naturally in the brain. They suddenly put the entire brain in a state of almost absolute isolation from the immediately nearby world of external sensations.
The usual consciousness is suddenly deprived of any access to its own world, and the brain is almost instantaneously plunged into a universe infinitely rich in forms, movements, and especially ‘levels of consciousness’ absolutely unequalled with those of daily consciousness.
But there is even more surprising…
According to research by Dr. Joel Elkes at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a person’s subjective awareness under the influence of psilocybin can ‘alternate’ between two states – an ‘external’ state of consciousness and an ‘internal’ state of consciousness.
The alternation of the two states of consciousness is commonly observed, and it can even be provoked simply when the subject opens and closes his or her eyes…
We can therefore hypothesize that the original emergence of consciousness, in hominids and developed even more in Paleolithic man, may have resulted from an analogous phenomenon of ‘resonance’ between these two types of consciousness, a resonance that was itself strongly accentuated when psychoactive substances were ingested.
The back and forth between an ‘external’ consciousness (based on the world of perception and action) and an ‘internal’ consciousness, ‘inhibited’ in relation to the external world, but consequently ‘uninhibited’ in relation to the ‘surreal’ or ‘meta-physical’ world, also reinforces the ‘brain-antenna’ hypothesis proposed by William James.
Psilocybin, in this case, would make the consciousness ‘blink’ between two fundamental, totally different states, and by the same token, it would make the very subject capable of these two kinds of consciousness appear as overhanging, a subject capable of navigating between several worlds, and several states of consciousness…
In the tares hides the spur of (divine) drunkenness…
« As the people slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and departed. When the grass had grown and yielded fruit, then the tares also appeared. « viii
Should it be uprooted? No. « Lest you pick up the tares and uproot the wheat with it. Let the two grow together until the harvest. And at harvest time, I will say to the reapers, ‘Gather the tares first and bind it into bundles to consume it; but the wheat will be gathered into my granary. « ix
The interpretation is rather clear, on the one hand. The tares must remain in the wheat until the ‘harvest’. It is also obscure, on the other hand, for the tares must be burned, and then it is as an image of the fire that consumes the spirit and opens a world of visions.
And there is the parable of the leaven, which is ‘hidden’ in the flour, but of which a tiny quantity ferments the whole doughx…
The leaven ferments and makes the dough ‘rise’. In the same way the rye spur, the tares, ferment the spirit, and raise it in the higher worlds…
Spirits can just burn in the way of tares.
Or they may become infinitely drunk with the divine.
They can then understand within themselves how consciousness came to be, through the humble and radiant power of plants, the potency of grass linked to the potency of cosmos, uniting the secret depths of roots and what may be beyond the heights of heavens…
iDavid Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Penguin Books, 2011
iiMuscimole is structurally close to a major neurotransmitter of the central nervous system: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), whose effects it mimics. Muscimole is a powerful agonist of GABA type A receptors. Muscimole is hallucinogenic at doses of 10 to 15 mg.
iiiRichard Gordon Wasson, Soma : Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc, 1968
ivThe article Amanite fly killers of Wikipediaquotesthat anthropologist Peter T. Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture, (1976) survey analyzed the elements that may or may not identify fly killers as Vedic Soma, and (cautiously) concluded in favor of this hypothesis.
vi In their book The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck estimate that hierophant priests used the rye ergot Claviceps purpurea, available in abundance around Eleusis.
Billions of suns shimmer in the Night, – and all the gods are silent and shine.
The Night, – the immense abyss sucks it up, breathes this dark shroud of blood, this veil of shadow.
A voice cries out in the dark: « O Abyss, you are the only God. »i
Another voice answers, in an ironic echo: « O unique God, you are Abyss! »
All the suns that I know overflow with shadows, are full of enigmas, pierce the night with irruptions, with intestinal fury, pulverize and volatilize the mysteries.
Their deliriums, their burns, their glimmers, their impulses, fill old divine voids, long already there, pierce black matter, streak with dark mists.
See the divine Athena, wise, simple, sure, solar too, – one comes from afar to pray under the radiance of her aegis, and to recollect (relegere) on the threshold of her altar, on her calm Acropolis.
But her very Soul is only shadow, even if her Intelligence is light.
It is said that the dreams of the wise, the hatreds of the people, the tears, the loves and the gods pass.
I prefer to believe that they slide eternally, into nameless oblivion, an endless drift, but no, they will not pass. On the contrary, they grow, and always multiply. Like God Himself.
This God whom, out of faith or fear, fierce monotheists say they want to « unify » (in words only). They vehemently assign to Him a single attribute, the « one », only the « one », – not the « two », or the « three », or the « π », the pleroma or the infinite.
Those who pronounce His plural, intangible name, Elohim, still read in this plural the « One », the unique, alone, singular « One ».
They also assign the defined article to His name: the Elohim. הָאֱלֹהִים. Ha-Elohimii.
« The » God. In Arabic, too : « Al » Lah. « The » Divinity.
Two grammatical temptations : to ‘unify’ God (as being ‘one’)… and to ‘define’ God (by the article)….
And death is promised, surely, to all others, to those who, they say, « multiply Him, » – in word or thought, by action or omission….
A crucified Muslim, a saint and martyr, at the beginning of the 10th century A.D., famously said:
He paid with his life for this deep and uncomfortable truth.
Is the God, immensely infinite, so much in need of this din around a ‘unity’ that is tired, but certainly threatened, atomized with clamor (of pride and conquest), crumbled with cries (of hatred and suffering), diluted with harangues (of excommunications and fatwas).
The « One », – image, or even idol, of pure abstraction, worshipping itself, in its solitude.
The. One. The One.
The definite and the indefinite, united in a common embrace, against grammar, logic and meaning, – for if He is « One », if He is only « One », how can one say « the » One, who supposes « an » Other, maybe a less or a more than « one » Other, lurking in His shadow?
Only, perhaps, is the path of negative theology worthwhile here.
Maybe, God is neither one, nor multiple, nor the One, nor the Other, nor defined, nor undefined, but all of that at once.
Only one thing seems to be sure: He is nothing of what they say He is. Nada.
How is it possible to attribute an attribute to Him, if He is unity as such? What blindness! What derision! What pride!
They don’t know what they are doing. They don’t know what they are saying. They don’t think what they think.
But if He is not the One, from a grammatical and ontological viewpoint, what sort of grammar and ontolgy can we use to say what He really is ?
The very idea of the One is not high enough, not wide enough, not deep enough, – for His Présence, His Powers, and His infinite armies (tsebaoth) of shadows, to remain included in it.
To move forward, let’s reflect on the concept of ‘reflection’.
The sun, this unique star (for us), by its infinite images, by its incessant rays, is ‘reflected’ in the slightest of the shadows. Some of these rays even dance within us, with in our souls.
The Veda tradition helps to understand the lesson, adding another perspective.
The God Surya, who is called ‘Sun’, says the Veda, has a face of extreme brilliance, – so extreme that his ‘wife’, the Goddess Saranyu, flees before him because she can no longer face his face.
To keep her escape secret, to hide her absence, she creates a shadow, – a faithful copy of herself – named Chāyā, which she leaves behind, in her place.iv
It should be noted that in Sanskrit Chāyā, छाया, indeed means ‘shadow’. The root of this word is chād, छाद्, ‘to cover, to wrap; to hide, to keep secret’.
The word chāyā is also given by Chantraine’s Dictionary of Greek Etymology as having « a definite kinship » with the Greek word σκιά skia, ‘shadow’, ‘darkness, hidden place’ and also ‘ghost’ (a qualifier designating man’s weakness). Avestic and Persian also have a very similar word, sāya, ‘shadow’. The word skia is found in the Gospel several times, for example:
« This people, sitting in darkness, saw a great light. And upon those who sat in the region and the shadow (skia) of death, the light has risen. »v
The God Surya is deceived by this faithful shadow, which seems to be (in appearance) His own shadow. He, then, unites Himself to her, to Chāyā, to this shadow that is not divine, only human. And He generates with her à son, Manu.vi
Manu, – the ancestor of mankind.
Manu, – the Adam of the Veda, therefore!
According to Genesis, a text that appeared at least a millennium after the hymns of Ṛg Veda were composed (and thus having, one can think, some distance from the most ancient Vedic intuitions), the God (named Elohim) famouslysaid:
נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ
Na’oçéh adam bi-tsalme-nou ki-dimoute-nou
« Let us make Adam in our image (bi-tsalmé-nou) and according to our likeness (ki-demouté-nou)« vii.
Then the text insists, and repeats the word ‘image’ twice more.
Vé-bara Elohim et-ha-adam bi-tsalmou, bi-tsélém Elohim bara otou.
Translated literally: « And Elohim created Adam in his image (bi-tsalmou), in the image (bi-tslem) Elohim created him. »viii
Let us note that the third time, this ‘image’ that Elohim uses to create is not the image of anyone, it is only an ‘image’ with which He creates Adam. Perhaps it is not even an image, then, but only a shadow?
This is worth thinking about.
The Hebrew word צֶלֶם tselem, ‘image’, has the primary meaning: ‘shadows, darkness’, as the verse « Yes, man walks in darkness (be-tselem) » (Ps. 39:7) testifies, and as the word צֵל tsel, meaning ‘shadow’, confirms.
The Vedic God generates « Manu », the Man, with the Shade, Chāyā.
The biblical God creates « Adam » as a « shadow ».
Was there an influence of the Vedic myth on the biblical myth of the creation of man? One cannot say. On the other hand, it is obvious that some fundamental archetypes remain, beyond time and cultures, which are properly human, undoubtedly coming from the dark depths, where many shadows indeed reign.
It is not so surprising, in fact, that one of the deepest archetypes attaches precisely the idea of shadow to the deepest nature of man.
Man, a frail shadow, – and image too, or veil, of an abyss within him, without bottom.
iErnest Renan. Memories of childhood and youth. Prayer on the Acropolis. Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 1883, p.72
iiSee Gen 6.2; Ex 1, 17: Ex 20.16; 1Kings 17.18; Job 1.6 and many other examples.
iiiHallâj. The Book of the Word. Translation by Chawki Abdelamir and Philippe Delarbre. Ed. du Rocher, 1996. p.58
ivDoniger, Wendy(1998). « Saranyu/Samjna ». In John Stratton Hawley, Donna Marie Wulff (ed.). Devī: goddesses of India. Motilal Banarsidas. pp. 158-60.
For at least a million years, man has been using the spoken word more or less skillfully. Since ancient times, its uses and modes of expression have been infinite, from the most futile to the most elevated. The stammering child, the fluent poet, the sure sage, the inspired prophet, all tried and continue trying their own ways and speaking their voices.
With the same breath of expelled air, they generate gutturals from the glottis, fricatives from the pharynx, hissing on the tongue, whistling labials through the lips.
From these incessant sounds, what sense does exhale?
Heraclitus, master in obscure matters, great lord of meaning, once made this sharp judgment:
« The man is held as a little boy by the divinity, like the child by the man. »i
This both pessimistic and optimistic fragment proposes a ratio of proportion: what the child is to man, man is to the divinity. The observation of man’s impotence in relation to the divine is not dissociated from the natural and expected perspective of a passage from childhood to adulthood.
In his translation of this fragment, Marcel Conche curiously emphasizes speech, although the word logos isclearly absent from the Heraclitus text:
« A ‘marmot’ (a toddler) who cannot speak! Man is thus called by the divine being (δαίμων), just as a child is called by man. « ii
The periphrase ‘A marmot who cannot speak’ is the choice (bold and talkative) made by Marcel Conche to render the meaning of the simple Greek word νήπιος, affixed by Heraclitus to the word ‘man’ (ἀνὴρ).
Homer also uses the word νήπιος in various senses: ‘who is in infancy’, ‘young child’, but also ‘naive’, ‘foolish’, ‘devoid of reason’.
Conche evokes these various meanings, and justifies his own translation, which is periphrastic and therefore not very faithful, in the following way:
« Translating as ‘child without reason’ sounds right, but not precise enough: if νήπιος applies to the ‘infant’ child, one must think of the very young child, who does not yet speak. Hence the translation [in French] by ‘marmot’, which probably comes from ‘marmotter’, which originates from an onomatopoeia expressing murmuring, the absence of distinct speech. « iii
This is followed by a comment on the supposed meaning of the fragment:
« It is about becoming another being, who judges by reason, and not as habit and tradition would have it. This transformation of the being is translated by the ability to speak a new language: no longer a particular language – the language of desire and tradition – but a discourse that develops reasons referring to other reasons (…) Now, from this logical or philosophical discourse, from this logos, men do not have the intelligence, and, in relation to the demonic being – the philosopher – who speaks it, they are like little brats without speech (…) To speak as they speak is to speak as if they were devoid of reason (of the power to speak the truth). »iv
Although this fragment of Heraclitus does not contain any allusion to logos, the main lesson that Conche learns from it is : « Man is incapable of logos for the demonic being ».
In a second departure from the commonly received meaning for this fragment, Marcel Conche considers that the divinity or demonic being (δαίμων) evoked by Heraclitus is in reality the ‘philosopher’. For Conche, it is the philosopher who is the demonic being par excellence, and it is precisely he who is able to determine for this reason that « man is incapable of logos ».
However Heraclitus certainly did not say: « Man is incapable of logos.»
Man may mumble. But he also talks. And he even has, in him, the logos.
Indeed, if the word logos is absent from fragment D.K. 79, it is found on the other hand in ten other fragments of Heraclitus, with various meanings : ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘discourse’, ‘measure’, ‘reason’…
Among these ten fragments, there are five that use the word logos in such an original, hardly translatable way that the common solution is just not to translate it at all, and to keep it in its original form : Logos…
Here are these five fragments:
« The Logos, which is, always men are incapable of understanding him, both before hearing him and after hearing him for the first time, for although all things are born and die according to this Logos, men are inexperienced when they try their hand at words or deeds. »v
« If it is not I, but the Logos, that you have listened to, it is wise to agree that it is the One-all. »vi
« In Prayer lived Bias, son of Teutames, who was more endowed with Logos than the others. « vii
In these three fragments, the Logos seems to be endowed with an autonomous essence, a power to grow, and an ability to say birth, life, death, Being, the One and the Whole.
In the next two fragments, the Logos is intimately associated with the substance of the soul itself.
« It belongs to the soul a Logos that increases itself. « viii
« You cannot find the limits of the soul by continuing on your way, no matter how long the road, so deep is the Logos it contains. « ix
As a reminder, here is the original text of this last fragment :
Strangely enough, Conche, who added the idea of speech in a fragment that did not include the word logos, avoids using the word logos here, in his translation, though the fragment does contain it explicitly: « You wouldn’t find the limits of the soul, even if you walked all the roads, because it has such a deep discourse.»x
Is it relevant to translate here the word logos by discourse?
If not, how to translate it?
None of the following meanings seems satisfactory: cause, reason, essence, basis, meaning, measure, report. The least bad of the possible meanings remains ‘speech, discourse’xiaccording to Conche, who opts for this last word, as we have seen.
But Heraclitus uses a strange expression here: ‘a deep logos‘, – a logos so ‘deep’ that it doesn’t reach its ‘limit’.
What is a logos thatnever reaches its own depth, what is a limitless logos?
For her part, Clémence Ramnoux decided not to translate in this fragment the word logos. She even suggested to put it in brackets, considering it as an interpolation, a late addition:
« You wouldn’t find a limit to the soul, even when you travel on all roads, (it has such a deep logos). « xii
She comments on her reluctance in this way:
« The phrase in parentheses may have been added over. If it was added, it was added by someone who knew the expression logos of the psyche. But it would not provide a testimony for its formation in the age of Heraclitus. « xiii
In a note, she presents the state of scholarly discussion on this topic:
» ‘So deep is her logos’. Is this added by the hand of Diogenes Laërtius (IX,7)?
Argument for: text of Hippolytus probably referring to this one (V,7): the soul is hard to find and difficult to understand. Difficult to find because it has no boundaries. In the mind of Hippolytus it is not spatial. Difficult to understand because its logos istoo deep.
Argument against: a text of Tertullian seems to translate this one: « terminos anime nequaquam invenies omnem vitam ingrediens » (De Anima 2). It does not include the sentence with the logos.
Among the moderns, Bywater deleted it – Kranz retained it – Fränkel retained it and interpreted it with fragment 3. »xiv
For his part, Marcel Conche, who, as we have seen, has opted for the translation of logos by ‘discourse’, justifies himself in this way: « We think, with Diano, that logos must be translated, here as elsewhere, by ‘discourse’. The soul is limited because it is mortal. The peirata are the ‘limits to which the soul goes,’ Zeller rightly says. But he adds: ‘the limits of her being’. « xv
The soul would thus be limited in her being? Rather than limited in her journey, or in her discourse? Or in her Logos?
Conche develops: « If there are no such limits, it is because the soul is ‘that infinite part of the human being’. »
And he adds: « Snell understands βαθὺς [bathus] as the Grenzenlosigkeit, the infinity of the soul. It will be objected that what is ‘deep’ is not the soul but the logos (βαθὺν λόγον). (…) In what sense is the soul ‘infinite’? Her power is limitless. It is the power of knowledge. The power of knowledge of the ψυχὴ [psyche] is limitless in so far as she is capable of logos, oftrue speech. Why this? The logos can only tell reality in a partial way, as if there was somewhere a reality that is outside the truth. Its object is necessarily reality as a whole, the Whole of reality. But the Whole is without limits, being all the real, and the real cannot be limited by the unreal. By knowledge, the soul is equal to the Whole, that is to say to the world. « xvi
According to this interpretation, reality is entirely offered to the power of reason, to the power of the soul. Reality has no ‘background’ that remains potentially obscure to the soul.
« The ‘depth’ of the logos is the vastness, the capacity, by which it equals the world and establishes in law the depth (immensity) of reality. Βαθὺς : the discourse extends so deeply upwards or downwards that it can accommodate everything within it, like an abyss in which all reality can find its place. No matter which way the soul goes on the path of knowledge, inward or outward, upward or downward, she encounters no limit to her capacity to make light. All is clear in law. Heraclitus’ rationalism is absolute rationalism. « xvii
Above all what is absolute, here, is the inability to understand the logos inits infinite depth, in its deepest infinity.
We’re starting to understand that for Heraclitus, the Logos cannot be just reason, measure or speech.
The soul (psyche) has no ‘limits’, because she has a ‘deep logos‘ (βαθὺν λόγον).
The soul is unlimited, she is infinite, because she is so vast, so deep, so wide and so high that the Logos himself can dwell in her always, without ever finding his own end in her, – no matter how many journeys or speeches he may make…
No wonder the (word) Logos is ‘untranslatable’. In theory, and in good logic, to ‘translate’ it, one would need an infinitely deep periphrase comprising an infinite number of words, made of infinite letters…
iFragment D.K. 79. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. Les Présocratiques. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 164
iiD.K. 79. Translation by Marcel Conche, in Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.77.
In a previous article, The Dreamers’ Paradise, we invited you to meditate on the double nature of the plant, which is rooted below, or in the stomach, for the materialists, or on the contrary above, in the philosophy of the Veda. In both cases, the plant and its roots sum up their respective visions of the world.
Hylozoismi, which is not very Vedic but intrinsically modern, sees life as « springing » from matter itself, which is still a metaphor. The « source » can be seen to be, in a way, analogous to the « root ». In everything, always and everywhere, life supposes the immanent presence of the same internal and autonomous principle of generation, source or root, which animates all things.
No less modern, and rather more so, materialism, is by definition eminently immanent. It denies a priori any idea of soul in life, and it kills (in the bud) any idea of spirit within matter. Its aim is to assimilate, to digest in the material stomach any idea of the spirit, or of its essence, which amounts to the same thing.
Kant, on the other hand, is not at all modern. He asserts that an immaterial world exists. This immensely vast world includes all created intelligences, reasonable beings, but also the sentient consciousnesses (of all animals), and finally all the principles of life, whatever they may be, and which are found everywhere in nature, for example in plants.
Among the « created intelligences » some are related to matter. We know this, because we experience it in ourselves, and it is they who, through this special alliance, form « persons ».
Other « created intelligences » are not bound to matter. They may remain isolated, or they may be linked to other spirits, or they may be more or less closely associated with other entities, having an intermediate status between matter and spirit.
All these immaterial natures (the intelligences, the consciousnesses, the principles) exert their (immaterial) influence in the corporeal world, according to ways and means which remain incomprehensible.
Among them, there are all the so-called « reasonable » beings, whether they are present on earth or lying, presumably, elsewhere in the universe. Because of the use of their reason, whose end it is, they are not destined to remain separate (from matter). Reason is another name for an immanent, ordering and regulating principle, which reasonable beings (i.e. beings in which reason is immanent) use to animate the (irrational) fabric of matter, and constitute it as a « living » entity.
We can suppose that the so-called reasonable beings maintain with the other created intelligences various exchanges or communications, in accordance with their respective natures.
These communications are then not limited by bodies, nor by the usual constraints of material life. They transcend them. Nor do they weaken with distance in space or time, nor do they disappear when death occurs.
According to these general views, the human soul, which is a particular case of these immaterial and reasonable natures, should therefore be regarded as already linked, in the present life, to both worlds, the immaterial and the corporeal.
The singular soul is bound to a particular body, which makes it an absolutely unique person. It clearly perceives the material influence of the corporeal world. As it is also part of the spirit world, it also feels the influences of the immaterial natures, and can perceive, in certain cases, their immaterial effluvia.
At death, as soon as the bodily connection has ceased, the soul continues to be in impalpable community with the spiritual natures.
Undoubtedly, it should then, being at last separated from the body, be better able to form a clearer intuition of its own nature, and to reveal it, in an appropriate manner, to its inner consciousness.ii
On the other hand, it is probable that the other spiritual natures, those which are not « incarnate », cannot be immediately conscious of any sensible impression of the bodily world, because they are not bound in any way to matter.
Not having a body of their own, they cannot be conscious of the material universe or perceive it, lacking the necessary organs. But they can exert a subtle influence on the souls of men, because they have a nature similar to their own.
The two can even maintain a reciprocal and real trade, capable of progress and enrichment.
However, the images and representations formed by spirits that still depend on the corporeal world cannot be communicated to beings that are purely spiritual.
Conversely, the conceptions and notions of the latter, which are intuitive representations corresponding to the immaterial universe, cannot pass as such into the clear consciousness of man.
Let us add that the ideas and representations of purely spiritual beings and of human spirits are undoubtedly not of the same kind, and are therefore very difficult to transmit and to share as such, without having been digested first.iii
Among the ideas or representations which can set the human mind radically in motion, stimulate in it an acute desire for metamorphosis, and begin its transformation into a « new man », the most powerful ones can appear to it quite unheard of, inexplicable, perfectly capable even of « submerging » or « drowning » it.
Where do they come from?
From an immaterial world, that of the Muses, these inspirers reputed to come to the rescue of creators and disarmed spirits?
As phenomena, they also seem to be able to emerge spontaneously from the deepest interior of man himself.
The most elevated of them have a priori no connection with the personal utility or with the immediate, practical, individual needs of the men who receive them.
But perhaps they have some use for distant, theoretical, universal needs, which concern the whole universe?
They are moreover capable of transporting themselves again, leaving the sphere of consciousness assigned to a particular person, by a kind of contagion, of contamination, extending outwards, far beyond what one can imagine.
They go far, touching in the passage of their noumenal and numinous power other reasonable beings that they affect in their turn.
There are thus two types of spiritual forces, some centripetal, where self-interest absolutely dominates, and others, centrifugal, which reveal themselves when the soul is somehow pushed out of itself and attracted to others.iv
The lines of force and influence that our minds are capable of receiving or conceiving do not, therefore, simply converge in each of us, to be confined to them.
There are also forces that can move powerfully outside of us, outside of our own intimate space, and sometimes in spite of us, – to reach other people, other minds.
And even caress the confines.
From this, we deduce that irresistible impulses can carry the strong man away from self-interest, even to the ultimate sacrifice.
The strong law of justice, and the somewhat less imperious law of generosity and benevolence, which do not fail to show themselves universally in human nature, can carry one or the other, according to the circumstances, and according to the specific tessitura of such or such spirits, conditioned by their deep aspirations, suddenly revealed.
It is thus that in the apparently most intimate motives, we find ourselves depending in fact on universal laws, of which we are not even a little conscious.
But the result is also, in the world of all thinking natures, the possibility of a general unity and communion obeying all spiritual laws, and by this effect, preparing new degrees of metamorphosis.
Newton called ‘gravitation’ the tendency of all material bodies to come together. He treated this gravitation as a real effect of a universal activity of matter, to which he gave the name of « attraction ».
In a similar way, one could imagine the phenomenon of thoughts and ideas getting into thinking natures, then revealing themselves to be sharable, communicable, as the consequence of a universal force, a form of « attraction » by which spiritual natures influence each other.
We could name this power, the « law of the universal attraction of the consciousnesses ».
Pushing the metaphor, the force of moral feeling could well be then only the dependence felt by the individual will towards the general will, and the consequence of the exchanges of universal actions and reactions, which the immaterial world uses to tend in its way to unity.v
The human soul, in this life, occupies its full place among the spiritual substances of the universe, just as, according to the laws of universal attraction, matter spread over the immensity of space never ceases to be bound by bonds of mutual attraction, and the elementary particles themselves, far from remaining confined to a narrow granularity, fill the whole universe with their quantum potentials of field.
When the links between the soul and the corporeal world are broken by death, it can be assumed that another life in another (spiritual) world would be the natural consequence of the countless links already maintained in this life.
The present and the future would thus be formed as of one piece, and would compose a continuous whole, both in the order of nature and in the order of the spirit.vi
If this is the case with the spiritual world and the role that our spirit plays in it, it is no longer surprising that the universal communion of spirits is an ordinary phenomenon, and far more widespread than is generally admitted.
The extraordinary, in fact, lies much more in the absolute singularity of psychic phenomena affecting such and such a singular, individual person, than in their very existence, which seems to be widespread throughout the universe.
i Philosophical doctrine which maintains that matter is endowed with life by itself.
iiCf. Kant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Translated by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.21
The kingdom of shadows is the paradise of dreamers. Here they find an unlimited land, where they can establish dwellings at will. Hypochondriac vapors, children’s stories, and monastic miracles provide them with abundant material.’i
The shadow is not modern. The brilliance of the Enlightenment cannot stand the competition of darkness. Luminosity is now required more and more, in all domains, arts and sciences, and those linked to peat, mire and night.
Should we decide, with disdain, to abandon the night dreamers to their idle dreams, to their vain researches, and devote our days to the light and the useful?
To this ancient question, Kant answered with a curious pamphlet, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics.ii
Is a text with such a title even readable today?
A « man who dreams », that is all right. But a « man who sees spirits »!
And « metaphysics »!
Moderns, as we know, do not believe in « spirits », nor in « vision », nor in « metaphysics ».
Most of them are pragmatic, and of an unmoderated materialism.
But some, even among the most realistic, still agree, in front of the factual evidence, to concede the existence of « immaterial » phenomena, and attributable, at the very least, to what can be called « spirit », by some cultural training, due to tradition.
The spirit being only an emanation of the matter, its « essence » is not at all « spiritual ». It presents only a specific phenomenology, that the psychology of the cognition takes care to enlighten, and whose cerebral imageries begin to map the elementary forms.
The modern mind has no essence, nor soul of course, and is only an epiphenomenon, a kind of neuro-synaptic exudation, a material vapor.
And what do we find in this epiphenomenon, this exudation, this vapor?
Memory, will, and reason.
« A mind, [say modern sages], is a being endowed with reason. It is not surprising, then, if one sees spirits; whoever sees a man sees a being endowed with reason. « iii
The modern sees in the spirit nothing less than the soul, certainly, – but nothing less than reason…
When the modern wise man « sees men », then he « sees minds », since he « sees reasonable beings », according to Kant’s acid remark, not without a certain metaphysical irony.
The modern wise man has a good sight, it must be admitted, and much better than that of Kant, who, for his part, makes a sincere admission of his real ignorance in the matter:
« I do not know whether there are spirits; much more, I do not even know what the word spirit means. However, as I have often used it myself, or as I have heard others use it, it is necessary that some meaning be attached to it, whether what is meant by it is a chimera or a reality.
Is the spirit a material phenomenon, an abstruse chimera or an immaterial reality? Or does this word have another meaning?
At least, the spirit has a material place, to organize its appearance, and its action, – the brain, where it sits, like a spider.
« The soul of man has its seat in the brain; it has its seat in an imperceptible place. It feels there like the spider in the center of its web. (…) I confess that I am very inclined to affirm the existence of immaterial natures in the world, and to place my own soul among these beings. But then what a mystery is the union of soul and body? »iv
The mystery is less in the immaterial soul as such than in what one must resign oneself to calling the « union » of the immaterial and the corporeal, a union of which no one, even today, conceives how it takes place, nor how it is even simply possible.
And yet it is possible, since it is enough to observe one’s own consciousness to have confirmation of the phenomenon.
Such a « union » seems to deny the respective essence of the « material » and the « immaterial » and to cancel the necessary distance in which they are confined, by definition, one with respect to the other. This poses a « difficult » problem, unresolved to this day.
And yet, even if we do not see the spirit, we see well that the spirit moves what lacks spirit, precisely. It moves it, but how? And at what precise point does the lever of the spirit start to lift the immense inertia of matter?
Kant proposes an explanation, by plunging the glance of his own spirit in the deepest of the intimate of the matter:
« It seems that a spiritual being is intimately present to the matter with which it is united, and that it acts not on the forces of the elements with which these elements are related to each other, but on the internal principle of their state; for every substance, and even a simple element of matter, must nevertheless have some internal activity as the principle of external action, though I cannot say in what this activity consists. « v
Kant’s idea is that the (immaterial) mind acts on a certain (also immaterial) « internal principle », which governs not matter itself or its elements, but its deepest state, where an « internal activity » is revealed, – and where its undetectable essence lies.
This « inner principle », in so far as it is a « principle », cannot be material.
If it were, it would no longer be a « principle ». And if matter were « without principle », it would be pure chaos, without order or reason.
Materialists will of course retort that matter does not need an « immaterial principle », since it is there, in evidence, in its immanent reality, and that it has done very well without any principle to « exist », simply as such, eternally, for a respectable number of billions of years.
One may retort that matter was not doing much, just before the Big Bang, not knowing then if it was going to be reduced to nothing as soon as it was born, because of the very restrictive conditions set for its real appearance, precisely by virtue of some considerations of « principle », the reason for which the most modern physics still struggles to explain, but of which it enumerates with astonishment the precision of the prerequisites, of which the « universal constants » give some idea.
But what makes these constants exist? What is their essence?
To advance, and to go beyond these quarrels between materialists and idealists, which are too caricatural, and which lead nowhere, it would be necessary to test some other way, more in overhang.
We could suppose the existence of other ways, which would lead, as for them, somewhere… even if it was necessary for that to face the « shadows », the « emptiness » and the « non-existence », – like Aeneas looking for Anchises in the Underworld, with the Sibyl.
(They went, obscure, in the solitary night, through the shadows,
the empty dwellings of the Richvii and the kingdoms without existence).
The ancients, who were not modern, cultivated this ‘secret philosophy’ which opens ways and paths.
The immaterial world of spirits and souls was considered a coherent realm, subsisting by itself, although not existing according to the criteria of the material world, including those of tangible or visible appearance.
All its parts were united by close, reciprocal connections and constant exchanges, without the need for bodies or materials to support them.
Plato explained that at conception, specific spirits descended into this world by adventure, and began to maintain a close commerce with particular bodies, allocated to them according to procedures, some chosen, others ignoredviii.
During the time of life, this time of the ad hoc linking of spirits and bodies, incarnated spirits may have, moreover, other direct, immaterial relations with other spirits (incarnated or not).
This is a conjecture, but it is compatible with the intrinsic logic of the immaterial.
That immaterial spirits have the desire and the possibility to maintain relations with other immaterial spirits – in a way and for reasons that naturally escape both bodily perception and human intelligence, can be explained precisely by their immaterial nature, freed from all the constraints of matter, and possessing its own ends.
In a kind of ideal dream, of which Kant was one of the promoters, one could imagine that all the beings belonging to the immaterial world, all the members of the infinite, unknowable series of the psychic natures, contribute more or less effectively to the great Whole of the Immaterial, this immense society of the spirits, closely united, constantly active, in the heat and the ardor of their bubbling communions, pursuing their own logics, towards ends of which one ignores all, except their putative reality.
Some sparing and much less burning flames, here and there escaped from this great Whole, could, twirling, fleeting, fly away and come down, as if on a commanded mission, in addition to their first destiny, to come and animate and vivify some precise bodies, chosen in the bosom of the matter (matter without that inert, infertile and inanimate).
It is conceivable that life, both material and immaterial, extending from kingdom to kingdom, flexibly changing worlds, inclining from the heights of the spirit to the depths of matter, or conversely, springing from the abyss to the heights, perpetuates and differentiates itself ceaselessly, by the dualism and the conjugation that the existence of two principles allows and favors, a principle of the ‘material’ and a principle of the ‘immaterial’.
It remains to be asked to what extremes this life, with its double principle, can descend or ascend, in order, in both cases, to continue its continuous work of metamorphosis.
To what ends of nature does life extend? When does the cold world of true non-life begin? And what burning, ultra-seraphic plasmas can spirits face?
These are points that may never be elucidated with certainty.
But some have thought they could identify this mythical frontier, at least the one that looms below.
Hermann Boerhaave famously said that « the animal is a plant that has its roots in the stomach »ix.
It is in this organ, certainly essential, that the lines of the great division would be drawn, between the plant and the animal on the one hand, – and the spiritual, on the other hand, which would be only the flower, or the aroma…
There is no clearer example of the contrast with the vision of the Bhagavad Gita. The latter also uses the plant metaphor, but changes its meaning completely.
« Roots above and branches below,
imperishable, the Azvattha [the Fig Tree] is said to be.
The meters [of the Veda] are its leaves,
and he who knows it knows Knowledge [the Veda]. « x
What is this Azvattha, this « fig tree »? What are these roots-up?
The Kaṭha-Upaniṣad takes up the image, unveiling its metaphysics:
« The roots are the supreme abode of Viṣṇu. The tree, roots-up, of the empirical world has the unmanifested as its beginning and the inanimate as its end. It is called ‘tree’ (vṛkṣa) because of the act of cutting (vraścana). He is made of many uninterrupted evils, like birth, old age, death and sorrow, at every moment he is different. As soon as its true nature is in sight, it is destroyed like magic, like water in a mirage, an imaginary city in the sky… Its true reality is determined by those who desire to discern reality: its essence is in the roots, it is the supreme brahman. « xii
Through its etymological ‘root’, the figure of the tree embodies the idea of severance. Moreover, the tree never ceases to branch out, both in its roots and in its branches, which represent so many cuts in the continuity of its growth, both above and below.
Likewise, the world never ceases to branch its possibilities, and to grow from above and below.
Śaṅkara’s commentary adds another idea. Truth cannot be approached without generating even more illusions. The more one tries to dispel the shadows that surround it, the illusions that veil it, the more the truth slips away.
However, there is a way for those who wish to go further, deeper, to try to determine this elusive truth. It consists in following the roots of the tree to their very origin. But by following the root bush, one is quickly overwhelmed by the multiplication of the rootlets, and their bifurcations. And all of them, at the end of their myriads of hyphae, point to the void and the shadow… where the supreme brahman stands in its place.
iKant. « A Preface which promises very little for discussion. » In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics. Ed. Swan Sonnenschein. London, 1900, p.37
iiKant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.6
viiPluto, god of the Underworld, also bears the Latin name of Dis, a contraction of ditis, « rich ». Pluto, god of the dead, is the richest of all the gods because the number of his subjects is constantly increasing. It is to evoke the same symbol that the Greeks called Pluto the god of the dead (Ploutos, wealth).
viiiCf. the myth of Er. Plato, The Republic, Book X (614 b – 621 d)
ixQuoted by Kant in Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Trad. J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863,
Socrates presents a figure difficult to surpass, that of an eternal hero of philosophical thought. But during his life, he nevertheless found his master, – or rather his mistress, by his own admission.
In the Symposium, Socrates reports that a « foreign », Dorian woman, Diotima, had made no secret of her doubts about Socrates’ limited abilities in truly higher matters.
Diotima had told him, without excessive oratory precaution, that he knew nothing about the ‘greatest mysteries’, and that he might not even be able to understand them…
Diotima had begun by inviting Socrates to « meditate on the strange state in which the love of fame puts one, as well as the desire to secure for the eternity of time an immortal glory.» i
Speaking of the « fruitful men according to the soul », such as poets or inventors, like Homer and Hesiod, who possess « the immortality of glory », or Lycurgus, « safeguard of Greece », she had emphasized their thirst for glory, and their desire for immortality. « It is so that their merit does not die, it is for such glorious fame, that all men do all that they do, and all the better they are. It is because immortality is the object of their love! » ii
Certainly, the love of immortality is something that Socrates is still able to understand. But there are much higher mysteries, and beyond that, the last, most sublime ‘revelation’…
« Now, the mysteries of love, Socrates, are those to which, no doubt, you could be initiated yourself. As for the last mysteries and the revelation, which, provided you follow the degrees of them correctly, are the goal of these last steps, I don’t know if you are capable of receiving them. I will nevertheless explain them to you, she said. As for me, I will spare nothing of my zeal; try, you, to follow me, if you are capable of it!» iii.
Diotima’s irony is obvious. No less ironic is the irony of Socrates about himself, since it is him who reports these demeaning words of Diotima.
Diotima keeps her word, and begins an explanation. For anyone who strives to reach ‘revelation’, one must begin by going beyond « the immense ocean of beauty » and even « the boundless love for wisdom ».
It is a question of going much higher still, to finally « perceive a certain unique knowledge, whose nature is to be the knowledge of this beauty of which I am now going to speak to you »iv.
And once again the irony becomes scathing.
« Try, she said, to give me your attention as much as you can. » v
So what is so hard to see, and what is this knowledge apparently beyond the reach of Socrates himself?
It is a question of discovering « the sudden vision of a beauty whose nature is marvelous », a « beauty whose existence is eternal, alien to generation as well as to corruption, to increase as well as to decrease; which, secondly, is not beautiful from this point of view and ugly to that other, not more so at this moment and not at that other, nor more beautiful in comparison with this, ugly in comparison with that (…) but rather she will show herself to him in herself and by herself, eternally united to herself in the uniqueness of her formal nature »vi.
With this « supernatural beauty » as a goal, one must « ascend continuously, as if by means of steps (…) to this sublime science, which is the science of nothing but this supernatural beauty alone, so that, in the end, we may know, in isolation, the very essence of Beauty. » vii
Diotima sums up this long quest as follows:
« It is at this point of existence, my dear Socrates, said the stranger from Mantinea, that, more than anywhere else, life for a man is worth living, when he contemplates Beauty in herself! May you one day see her! » viii
The ultimate goal then is: « succeeding in seeing Beauty in herself, in her integrity, in her purity, without mixture (…) and to see, in herself, the divine Beauty in the uniqueness of her formal nature »ix.
Moreover, it is not only a question of contemplating Beauty. It is still necessary to unite with her, in order to « give birth » and to become immortal oneself…
Diotima finally unveils her deepest idea:
« Do you really think that it would be a miserable life, that of the man whose gaze is turned towards this sublime goal; who, by means of what is necessaryx, contemplates this sublime object and unites with it? Don’t you think, she added, that by seeing Beauty by means of what she is visible by, it is only there that he will succeed in giving birth, not to simulacra of virtue, for it is not with a simulacrum that he is in contact, but with an authentic virtue, since this contact exists with the authentic real?
Now, to whom has given birth, to whom has nourished an authentic virtue, does it not belong to become dear to the Divinity? And does it not belong to him, more than to anyone else in the world, to make himself immortal? xi
To see Beauty herself, in herself, is the only sure way to make oneself immortal.
Is this what Socrates himself is « incapable of »?
Is then Socrates « incapable » of giving birth to virtue?
xIn order to do this, one must « use thought alone without resorting to sight or any other sensation, without dragging any of them along with reasoning » and « separate oneself from the totality of one’s body, since the body is what disturbs the soul and prevents it from acquiring truth and thought, and from touching reality. « Phédon 65 e-66a
« Within his soul each one possesses the power of knowledge (…) and is capable, directed towards reality, of supporting the contemplation of what is in the most luminous reality. And this is what we declare to be the Good » The Republic VII 518 c. » The talent of thinking is probably part of something that is much more divine than anything else. « Ibid. 518 e
« Wisdom is separate from everything »i said Heraclitus in his concise style.
For a start, I adopt here the translation of G.S. Kirkii. But the quote in the original Greekiii ,’Sophon esti pantôn kekhorismenon’, preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology, allows several very significant variations, depending on how one understands the word sophon, – which is, grammatically, an adjective, with the neutral meaning: ‘wise’.
Here are two representative examples of quite alternative translations:
« What is wise is separate from all things. »
« To be wise is to be separated from all things. »
Both these interpretations lose the abstract idea of ‘wisdom’, and personalize the word sophon, in a more concrete way, by attributing it to an entity (‘what is wise’), seen as ‘separated from everything’, and therefore outside this world. Another way to personalize is to attribute it to a (wise) ‘being’, which could possibly belong to this world, therefore not separated, – but whose ‘being wise’ would separate it, somehow virtually.
Clémence Ramnoux, for her part, proposes: « Wise things are separated from everything. »
The spectrum of the meanings of sophon is thus very broad:
Wisdom. That which is wise. The Wise Being. The Wise Thing.
The word sophon has no definite article in this fragment, but it has it in other Heraclite fragments. Then, if one adds the definite article to the adjective sophon, it acquires an abstract meaning, and leads to other interpretations, including the idea of ‘Transcendence’, and even the idea of the ‘One’:
« Let us put the article in front of something wise, by identifying it with the One-Thing-Wise, then the formula touches the goal of knowing… a Transcendence! Let it be heard only in the sense of human wisdom, then the formula says that: for men, the way to be wise consists in keeping oneself separate from all or everything. It would be wise to live away from the crowds and their madness. It would be wise to live apart from the vain science of many things. The two are surely not incompatible. Put together, they would reform the ideal meaning of a vita contemplativa: retreat and meditation of the One. « iv
To justify these interpretations, Clémence Ramnoux studies the other occurrences of the word sophon, in fragments 32, 50 and 41 of Heraclitus.
From these comparisons, she draws the assurance that with sophon, Heraclitus wanted to « designate the divine with the words of fragment 32 », and « if not the divine, even better, Something in dignity to refuse thisvery name. »v
Fragment 32 uses the expression to sophon (‘the Wise One’, or ‘the Wise Being’, which C. Ramnoux renders as ‘the Wise Thing’):
« The Wise Thing (to sophon) alone is one: it wants and does not want to be said with the name of Zeus. »vi
In Greek, one reads : ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.
Hen to sophon mounon legesthai ouk ethelei kai ethelei Zènos onoma.
By translating word for word: « One, the Wise One, alone, be said: He does not want, and He wants the name of Zeus ».
Ouk émou, alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.
Word for word: « Not me, but the Logos, listening, saying the same, wise is one, all, being. »
Five words follow each other here: sophon estin hen panta einai. Wise, is, one, all, being. There are many ways to link them.
The most direct way of translating would be, using capital letters for emphasis:
« Wise is One, All, Being ».
The German edition by W. Kranz and the English edition by G.S. Kirk translate :
« Listening, not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise (sophon estin) to agree (homologein)vii: everything is One (hen panta eïnaï). »
In another interpretation, that of H. Gomperz :
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is fair to agree that The One-The Wise One knows everything. »
Clémence Ramnoux suggests yet another interpretation:
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, agreeing to confess the same lesson (everything is one?) is the Wise Thing. « viii
However, she adds a question mark to the expression ‘everything is one’, which shows indeed that a certain doubt is at work here.
In spite of the significant differences of interpretation that we have just seen, what stands out is the idea that to sophon undeniably possesses a magnified status, and that it can be qualified as ‘unique’ and even, implicitly, ‘divine’.
Fragment 41 reinforces the hypothesis of associating the idea of unity with to sophon:
« The wise thing is one thing (hen to sophon): topossess the meaning (epistasthai gnômèn), by virtue of which everything is led through everything. »
By linking the semantic fields of the four fragments, 32, 41, 50, 108, Ramnoux draws two possible interpretations of the essential message that Heraclitus is supposed to transmit: « A simple meaning would be: Wise Thing is One, and she alone. Another meaning would be: Wise Thingisseparate from everything. « ix
These fragments, put together, carry a vision, aiming to grasp the ‘Wise Thing’, from different angles.
« That one gathers the fragments thus, and one will believe to reconstitute a recitative on the topic of the Wise Thing. Here is what should be recited all together while learning the same lesson! »x
The real difficulty is to avoid reading Heraclitus with much later, anachronistic representations of the world, starting with those of Plato and Aristotle.
In spite of the pitfalls, it is necessary to try to reconstruct the spirit of the philosophical community in the pre-Socratic era, the nature of its research :
« It is permissible to conjecturalize the way of being: it would consist in separating and reuniting. To separate from whom? Probably: the crowd and its bad masters. To reunite with whom? Probably: the best and the master of the best lesson. Separate from what? The vain science of many things. To find what again? The right way of saying things. It’s a two-way street! The Heracletian ethos does not alienate man from the present thing: on the contrary, it makes him better present, and as in conversation or cohabitation with the thing. (…) A master of discourse puts into words the meaning of things (…) But the authentically archaic way of thinking was probably still different. For a good master, (…) it is appropriate that discourse shows itself with an ambiguous face, hidden meanings, and two-way effects. »xi
According to Ramnoux, Heraclitus’ fundamental intention is to teach man « to stand far and near at the same time: close enough to men and things so as not to alienate himself in the present, far enough so as not to be rolled and tossed around in traffic. With the word as a weapon to defend oneself against the fascination of things, and things as a reference to better feel the full of words. Like a being between two, aiming through the crack at something untraceable, whose quest guarantees, without his knowledge, his freedom! « xii
Ambiguity? Darkness ? Double meaning ? Hidden sense ?
No doubt, but for my part I would like to put the spotlight on the only unambiguous word in fragment 108: kekhorismenon, ‘separate’, applying to a mysterious entity, named « Wise », whose attributes are unity, being and totality.
How can one be ‘separated’ if one has ‘unity’, and ‘totality’?
What does the idea of ‘separation’ really imply in a thought that claims to be thinking about the ‘origins’?
It is with these questions in mind that I set out to search for occurrences of the word ‘separate’ in a very different corpus, that of the biblical text.
The idea of ‘being separate’ is rendered in Biblical Hebrew by three verbs with very different connotations: בָּדַל badal, חָלַק ḥalaq, and פָּרַד pharad.
בָּדַל badal is used in two verbal forms, niphal and hiphil.
The niphal form is used with a passive or reflexive nuance:
1° ‘to separate, to move away’: « Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land » (Esdr 10,11).
2° ‘to be separated, distinguished, chosen’: « Aaron was chosen » (1 Chr. 23:13); ‘to be excluded’: « He shall be excluded from the congregation of those who returned from captivity » ( Esdr. 10:8 ).
The hiphil form has a causative, active nuance:
1° ‘To separate, tear off’: « The veil will separate you » (Ex 26:33); « Let it serve as a separation between the waters and the waters » (Gen 1:6).
2° ‘To know, to distinguish, to discern’: « To be able to distinguish between what is impure and what is pure » (Lev 11:47).
3° ‘To separate, choose; exclude’: « I have separated you from the other peoples » (Lev 20:26); « The Lord has chosen the tribe of Levi. « (Deut 10:8); « The Lord has excluded me from his people » (Is 56:3).
In this sense, ‘to separate’ means ‘to choose’, ‘to distinguish’, ‘to discern’, ‘to elect’ (or ‘to exclude’).
חָלַק ḥalaq brings another range of meanings, around the notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘division’:
1° ‘To share, to give, to give’: « They divided the land » (Jos 14:5); ‘To be divided’: « Their hearts are divided, or have separated from God » (Hosea 10:2).
2° ‘To divide and distribute’: « And at even he divided the prey » (Gen 49:27); « And he distributed to all the people » (2 Sam 6:19); ‘To scatter’: « I will divide them in Jacob » (Gen 49:7), « The face of YHVH has scattered them » (Lam 4:16).
As for the verb פָּרַד pharad, it is used in an intensive or reflexive sense.
1° (Niphal) ‘To separate’: « Separate yourself, I pray you, from me » (Gen 13:9), « He who separates himself (from God) seeks his desires » (Prov 18:1).
2° ‘To spread, to be scattered’: « These spread throughout the islands » (Gen 10:5).
3° ‘To separate’ with intensive or causative nuances (piel): « They separated from their wives » (Hosea 4:14), « A people that remains separated among the nations » (East 3:8); (hiphil) « Jacob separated the lambs » (Gen 30:40); and (hithpael): « all my bones were separated » (Ps 22:15).
To sum up, the biblical meanings attached to the verbs whose sense is ‘to separate’ include the following nuances: ‘to distance, choose, exclude’ but also ‘to know, distinguish, discern’, or ‘to share, distribute’, and ‘to be scattered’ or ‘to spread’.
One can quite easily apply all these nuances to an entity that would be (divine) Wisdom.
Wisdom, in fact, distinguishes, discerns, knows; she can be shared, spread, distributed;
she can distance herself, elect or exclude.
But yet, what is the truly original meaning that applies to Wisdom?
In an attempt to answer, I have consulted all the Bible verses that contain the word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokhma). There are several hundred of them.
I have selected those that are most ‘open’ – containing an implicit invitation to further research – and grouped them into four categories:
Wisdom as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’;
Wisdom as ‘companion of the Creator’;
Wisdom as ‘person to dialogue with’;
and Wisdom as ‘faculty of the mind’.
For example, here are some verses assimilating wisdom (or Wisdom, with a capital letter) to mystery or secrecy:
« If he would reveal to you the secrets of Wisdom » (Job 11:6).
« But Wisdom, where does she come from? « (Job 28,12)
Do not say, « We have found wisdom » (Job 32:13).
« Be silent and I will teach you wisdom » (Job 33:33).
« In secret you teach me wisdom » (Ps 51:8).
« Then I began to reflect on wisdom » (Qo 2:12).
There are also verses in which Wisdom seems to accompany the Creator in his task:
« He made the heavens with wisdom » (Ps 136:6).
« Spirit of wisdom and understanding » (Is 11:2)
« Establish the world by his wisdom » (Jer 10:12).
« It is that you abandoned the Source of Wisdom! « (Bar 3,12)
« YHVH by wisdom founded the earth » (Pr 3:19).
There are also verses where Wisdom is presented as a person, capable of interacting with men:
« Tell wisdom: you are my sister! « (Pr 7,4)
« Wisdom cries out through the streets » (Pr 1,20)
« Doesn’t Wisdom call? « (Pr 8,1)
Finally, there are the verses where wisdom is considered a faculty of the mind:
« Give me now wisdom and knowledge » (2 Chr 1:10).
« Who gives wisdom to the wise » (Dan 2:21).
« Intelligence and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods » (Dan 5:11).
For good measure I add here some verses from biblical texts, which are not recognized by the Masoretes as part of the Canon of the Scriptures of Judaism, but which belong to the texts recognized by Catholicism – in this case the Book of Wisdom and the text of Sirach (Ben Sirach):
« Wisdom is a spirit friendly to men » (Wis 1:6) [Person].
« What Wisdom is and how he was born, I will reveal it; I will not hide the mysteries from you, but I will follow his footsteps from the beginning of his origin, I will bring his knowledge to light, without departing from the truth. « (Wis 6:22) [Mystery, Secret].
« For more than any movement, wisdom is mobile » (Wis 7:24) [Mystery, Secret].
« With you is Wisdom who knows your works » (Wis 9:9) [Companion of the Creator].
« But first of all wisdom was created » (Sir 1:4) [Companion of the Creator].
« The root of wisdom to whom was it revealed? « (Sir 1:6) [Mystery, Secret].
« Wisdom brings up her children » (Sir 4:11) [Person].
And finally, here are some excerpts from the New Testament, – especially from Paul’s texts:
« And Wisdom was justified by all his children » (Luke 7:35) [Companion of the Creator].
« It is of a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden » (1 Cor 2:7) [Mystery, Secret].
« To give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation » (Eph 1:17) [Faculty of the Spirit].
« All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge » (Col 2:3) [Faculty of Spirit].
« Filled with the Spirit and with wisdom » (Act 6:3) [Faculty of the Spirit].
If we return to the intuition of « separate wisdom » as imagined by Heraclitus, we see that it is perfectly compatible with the representations of Wisdom as belonging to the Mystery, as a Companion of the Creator and as a Person]
But where Judaism plays with the idea of a kind of doubling of the divine between the function of the Creator and the role of Wisdom (which is, let us recall, one of the Sefiroth of theJewish Kabbalah), the metaphysical mysticism of Heraclitus sees only divine Unity and Totality.
It is not the least result of this research, to find in one of the most eminent Greek pre-Socratic thinkers, such an extreme intuition of the transcendence of Wisdom, and of its Unity with the Divine.
Wisdom is par excellence ‘separate’, and is also that which is most ‘one’.…
Multitudinous angels, created for this purpose, stubbornly remain with the times and beings that already are no more. From the brushing of their wings, sharp like judgments, they make them live, yet in another way. They separate them from what they were not, and from what they could not be. Thus they keep them in their essence, animated by the gentle breath of their wings. By their quiet effervescence, they watch over their infinite sleep, – like the eagle circling above the nest to inspire its eaglets, – like the winds once palpitated in the face of the origins. They are the guardians of the past in agony, warning, for as long as it takes, the fatal coma.
Other angels roam the dark alleys of the future. They spread immense wings like ecstasy, they glide silently over the empty plains of the non-existent. Their powerful flight awakens the black waters, and all that is not yet. Against all odds, from far and wide, crack the shells of unborn times.
With their burning lips they give the beak to the fledglings of the possible.
We must finally evoke the angels of the present. They link (like quantum loops, and subliminal bursts of precognition) the distant past and the improbable future, the countless déjà-vu and the unlimited forthcoming, the immanent causes (dormant like dead saints) and the transcendent potency (radiant like seraphim). They fly and come, as in Jacob’s dream, between the uncertain and the unimaginable…
From these vast landscapes of various angels, which are like myriads of divine synapses, a vesperial mist is exhaled.
It announces in advance the rain to come, penetrating, fertile, and in the rainbow of the sky finally bent, it draps the first rays of dawn, gorged with soul plasma and liquid light.
Miguel de Cervantes, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem are linked by a strong, subtle and flexible taste for quotation.
They are not the only ones. This list of five authors could of course be extended indefinitely, and include even more famous names.
Cervantes has been said to probably be a « crypto-Marrano », and Kafka, Kraus, Benjamin and Scholem may be labelled as ‘German Jews’, in particular because they have in common the use (and a masterly command) of the German language.
I say that Cervantes was ‘probably’ a « crypto-Marrano » because we know in fact very little about himi, and I use the expression ‘German Jew’ because it is how Gershom Scholem wanted to define Walter Benjamin – rather than ‘Judeo-Germanii‘ , meaning that he had kept the distance of a foreigner, of an alien, of an exiled, vis-à-vis Germany. This distance was probably also shared by Kafka, Kraus and Scholem himself…
What are the links of these five characters with quotation ?
They all considered it as a process of sanctification.
We shall begin with a quotation from Gershom Scholem, himself quoting a short judgment of Walter Benjamin, which the latter made concerning Karl Kraus : « Walter Benjamin finds in the ‘Jewish certainty’ that language is ‘the theater of the sanctification of the name’.» iii
Scholem’s quotation is in reality rather truncated, and also probably wrong on one very important point: the absence of an initial capital N in the word ‘name’. It should in my opinion be spelled ‘Name’, we will see why in a moment.
It is interesting to compare this particular Scholem’s quotation with Rainer Rochlitz’s more faithful and complete version of Benjamin’s original text:
« For the cosmic to-and-fro by which Stefan George ‘divinizes the body and incarnates God’, language is nothing but Jacob’s ladder made of ten thousand rungs of words. In Kraus, on the contrary, language has got rid of all hieratic elements. It is neither a means of prophecy nor of domination. As a place of sacralization of the name, it is opposed, by this Jewish certainty, to the theurgy of the ‘verbal body’.»iv
Given the context, it seems to me that the ‘name’ in question here is actually ‘the Name’, which is the term used by pious Jews to designate God (ha-Chem).
In the original German, by the way, the word ‘name’ (Name) has always an initial capital, as all German nouns have.
Moreover, the capital letter should have remained in the English translation to reflect the subject matter, namely the question of the relationship between language, the ‘theurgy of the Word’ and the incarnation of God (through His ‘Name’).
The ‘theurgy of the Word’ is presented here as an antagonist to what is the object of ‘Jewish certainty’, namely the ‘sacralization’ or ‘sanctification’ of the Name, as the only possible ‘incarnation’ of God.
We see that we are entering directly into the heart of an immensely complex subject, — that of the role of language as an instrument more or less suitable for ensuring the preservation of (Jewish) certainties and affirming the inexpressibility of God, including through His Name (or Names).
Walter Benjamin’s main interest in Karl Kraus is not about the way Judaism deals with the names of God, but about the more general, difficult relationship between (human) language and (divine) justice.
« It has been said of Kraus that he had to ‘defeat Judaism in himself’, that he had ‘passed from Judaism to freedom’, and that in him, too, justice and language condition each other; this is the best refutation of these theses. Worshipping the image of divine justice as language – at the very heart of the German language – is the authentically Judaic somersault by means of which he tries to escape the grip of the devil. »v
Let me underline in this text of Benjamin the expression « the authentically Judaic somersault » and the use of the word « devil ». In a moment, we will find them again in two (essential) texts by Kafkavi. This is certainly not by chance.
But before addressing these points, let us return to Kraus, as interpreted and quoted by Benjamin.
« It is the substance of the law, not its effects, that Kraus indicts. He accuses the law of high treason in relation to justice. More precisely, he denounces the high betrayal of the concept with regard to the verb to which it owes its existence: homicide with premeditation on the imagination, because the imagination dies as soon as a single letter is missing; it is in its honor that he sang his most poignant lament, his Elegy for the death of a phoneme. For above the jurisdiction [Rechtsprechung] there is the spelling [Rechtschreibung], and woe to the former if the latter is damaged. » vii
Yes, spelling is of paramount, theological, and even metaphysical importance…! One might perhaps get an idea of this from the following sequence of rabbinic quotations about a verse from Isaiah whose interpretation of its spelling reveals something essential.
(Indeed essential : nothing less than the creation of this very world as well as that of the world to come may be due to the difference between two Hebrew letters , ה (He) and י (Yod).)
Here is the rabbinic quotation :
« To these words Rabbi Youdan the Nassi cried out: ‘Woe, they have left us [those who knew how to answer], we can no longer find them! I once asked Rabbi Eleazar, and it was not your answer that he gave me, but this one: ‘With YH (be-yah) YHVH shaped the world. (Is. 26:4): The Holy One blessed be He created His world with two letters [Yod (י ) and He (ה)]. Now we cannot know whether this world was created with the ה, and the world to come with the י , or whether this world was created with the י , and the world to come with the ה. From what Rabbi Abahou said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan – be-hibaram is be-Hé baram – we learn that this world was created with ה (…) The world to come was created with י : like the י which is bent, the fallen ones in the times to come will have their waists bent and their faces darkened, according to the words: ‘Man’s pride shall be brought down’ (Is. (Is. 2:17) and ‘all false gods will disappear’ (Is. 2:18). « viii
This text explains quite well why « above the jurisdiction [Rechtsprechung] there isthe spelling [Rechtschreibung], and woe to the former if the latter is harmed »….
It is a matter of finding and recognizing the « origin » under the spelling, the letter or the phoneme.
Walter Benjamin comments further on Kraus’ text: « ‘You came from the origin, the origin which is the goal’, these are the words that God addresses, as a comfort and a promise, to ‘the dying man’. This is what Kraus is referring to here. »ix
And he then explains: « The theater of this philosophical scene of recognition in Kraus’s work is lyric poetry, and its language is rhyme: ‘The word that never denies the origin’ and which, like beatitude has its origin at the end of time, has its origin at the end of the verse. The rhyme: two loves carrying the devil to earth. »x
For rhyme is love, love of the word for the word, and love of the verb for the Verb.
« No one has more perfectly dissociated the language from the mind, no one has linked it more closely to Eros, than Kraus did in his maxim: ‘The closer you look at a word, the further it looks at you.’ This is an example of platonic love of language. The only closeness the word cannot escape is rhyme. The primitive, erotic relationship between proximity and distance is expressed in Kraus’ language as rhyme and name. Rhyme – the language goes back to the world of the creature; name – it raises any creature up to it. » xi
Here we are back to the ‘name’. Or, rather, to the ‘Name’.
This ‘Name’ that only angels may ‘quote’.
« In the quotation that saves and punishes, language appears as the matrix of justice. The quotation calls the word by its name, tears it out of its context by destroying it, but in so doing also recalls it to its origin. The word is thus sounded, coherent, within the framework of a new text; it cannot be said that it does not rhyme with anything. As a rhyme, it gathers in its aura what is similar; as a name it is solitary and inexpressive. In front of language, the two domains – origin and destruction – are justified by the quotation. And conversely, language is only completed where they interpenetrate: in the quotation. In it is reflected the language of the angels, in which all words, taken from the idyllic context of meaning, are transformed into epigraphs of the Book of Creation. » xii
Can these lines be considered « philosophical »?
According to Scholem, certainly not…
He clearly states that Walter Benjamin chose the « exodus from philosophy ».
This striking formula is not without evoking some subliminal but foundational reminiscences, including the very Exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt .
But what would be an exodus from philosophy? And to go where? Poetry? Theology?
Scholem had in fact borrowed this formula from Margareth Susman, who saw it as an appropriate way to describe the shift from (philosophical) idealism to theology or existentialism in the first decades of the last century.
In Benjamin’s case, would the « Promised Land » be that of Theology?
Scholem gives as an example of Benjamin’s ‘exodus’ his text, ‘Origin of German Baroque Drama’, in which he set out to show how (German) aesthetic ideas were linked ‘most intimately’ xiii with theological categories.
Incidentally, it is noteworthy that Carl Schmitt, at the same time, but from a radically different point of view, it goes without saying, did the same thing in the political and legal fields, as summarized in his famous thesis: « All of the concepts that permeate modern state theory are secularized theological concepts »xiv.
Why did Benjamin want to go on an exodus? Did he want to follow Kafka’s example? Gershom Scholem thinks so. He states that Benjamin « knew that we possess in Kafka the Theologia negativa of a Judaism (…) He saw in the exegeses so frequent in Kafka a precipitate of the tradition of the Torah reflecting itself. Of Don Quixote’s twelve-line exegesis, [Benjamin] said that it was the most accomplished text we have of Kafka’s.» xv
In fact, rather than an exegesis of Don Quixote, this text by Kafka, which is indeed very short, is rather an exegesis of Sancho Pança. Entitled « The Truth about Sancho Pança », which denotes, admittedly, a radical change of point of view, we learn that this apparently secondary character, but in reality essential, « thanks to a host of stories of brigands and novels of chivalry (…), managed so well to distract his demon in him – to whom he later gave the name of Don Quixote – that he committed the craziest acts without restraint, acts which, however, due to the lack of a predetermined object that should precisely have been Sancho Pança, caused no harm to anyone. Motivated perhaps by a sense of responsibility, Sancho Pança, who was a free man, stoically followed Don Quixote in his divagations, which provided him until the end with an entertainment full of usefulness and grandeur. » xvi
Are really these twelve lines, « the most accomplished text we have of Kafka »?
Is Don Quixote, Sancho Pança’s inner ‘demon’?
Is Sancho Pança, a free man, stoically preserving the craziest divagations of his own ‘demon’?
Why not? Anything is possible!
However, Kafka’s works do not lack other ‘accomplished’ passages. If one had to choose one, one would be more embarrassed than Benjamin, no doubt.
I would personally choose « In Our Synagogue« .xvii It is a text of about four pages, which begins like this: « In our synagogue lives an animal about the size of a marten. Sometimes you can see it very well, because up to a distance of about two meters, it tolerates the approach of men. » xviii
It is a text of superior irony, with a slightly sarcastic tone, undeniably Kafkaesque, – but for a good cause.
Kafka wants to describe the color of the « animal » which is « light blue green », but in reality, « its actual color is unknown ». At most, however, he can say that « its visible color comes from the dust and mortar that has become entangled in its hair » and « which is reminiscent of the whitewash inside the synagogue, only it is a little lighter. » xix
He also takes care to describe its behavior: « Apart from its fearful character, it is an extraordinarily calm and sedentary animal; if we did not frighten it so often, it is hardly likely that it would change place, its preferred home is the grid of the women’s compartment. « xx
It frightens the women, but « the reason why they fear it is obscure ». It is true that « at first glance it looks terrifying, » but it is not long before « we realize that all this terror is harmless. «
Above all, it stays away from people.
Then begins, if I may say so, the part that might be called exegesis.
« Its personal misfortune probably lies in the fact that this building is a synagogue, that is to say, a periodically very lively place. If we could get along with it, we could console it by telling it that the community of our small mountain town is diminishing year by year. xxi
Fortunately for it, « it is not impossible that in some time the synagogue will be transformed into a barn or something similar and that the animal will finally know the rest it so painfully misses. » xxii
Then the factual analysis of the « animal »’s behaviour becomes more precise, insistent, explicit.
« It is true that only women fear it, men have long been indifferent to it, one generation has shown it to the other, we have seen it continuously, and in the end we no longer look at it (…) Without women, we would hardly remember its existence. »xxiii
There is no doubt, in ly opinion, that this ‘animal’ is a metaphorical figure. It is not for me to reveal the exact being it probably represents, but it is enough to follow Kafka’s indications.
« It’s already a very old animal, it doesn’t hesitate to make the most daring leap, which, by the way, it never misses, it has turned in the void and here it is already continuing its way. » xxiv
What does this animal want? « No doubt it would rather live hidden, as it does at times when there are no services, probably in some wall hole that we have not yet discovered. » xxv
Kafka then gives more and more precise elements. « If it has a preference for heights, it is naturally because it feels safer there (…) but it is not always there, sometimes it goes a little lower towards the men; the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant is held by a shiny copper bar that seems to attract it, it is not uncommon for it to slip in there, but it always remains quiet. » xxvi
Criticism then is becoming more biting.
« Hasn’t it been living for many years completely on its own? Men don’t care about its presence (…) And of course, divine service with all its fuss can be very frightening for the animal, but it is always repeated. » xxvii
Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the fear that the animal seems to be permanently seized with.
« Is it the memory of long-gone times or the foreboding of times to come? »xxviii
Perhaps both at the same time, so much the animal seems to know its world.
Then comes the final stunt.
« Many years ago, they say, we would have really tried to evict the animal. »xxix
A very serious accusation, of course. It may be true, unfortunately, but it is even more likely to be a pure invention. What is known is that the case has been carefully studied by the rabbinic hierarchy.
« However, there is evidence that it was examined from the point of view of religious jurisdiction whether such an animal could be tolerated in the house of God. The opinion of various famous rabbis was sought, and opinions were divided, the majority being in favor of expulsion and re-consecration of the temple.»xxx
This opinion seems undoubtedly impeccable from a legal point of view, but materially inapplicable .
« In fact, it was impossible to seize the animal, therefore impossible to expel it. For only if one had been able to seize it and transport it away from there, could one have had the approximate certainty of being rid of it. » xxxi
What do we learn from this quotation ?
I will answer with yet another quote and a prophecy.
« The intellectual nature of man is a simple matrix of ideas, a receptivity limited by the life of his own activity, so that the spirit of man as well as the feminine nature is capable of giving birth to the truth, but needs to be fertilized in order to come to the act. Man, as a member of two regions, needs both to reach maturity. » xxxii
Just as the most important prophecies once were only quotations, I believe that a relevant quotation can be understood as a prophecy.
Every real prophecy is an attempt at fecundation. The deposit of a fecundating word, like a living germ coming to intrude into the matrix of the spirit, – or like a marten in a synagogue…
Be it in the matrix of a woman, in the spirit of a man or in a synagogue, what really matters is that there is somewhere, a place in the heights, where some intruding « animal » (in the literal sense, a « living » being) must be tamed, and whose fears must be calmed, in view of the times yet to come.
i Michel de Castillo writes about Cervantes: « He was suspected, he is still suspected, of having suspicious origins. He has even written specious books, full of cabalistic interpretations. Some of his words have been read in Hebrew, given biblical allusions, even though we are at least certain of one thing: if he is of Marrano origin, Cervantes did not know a word of Hebrew. « Dictionnaire amoureux de l‘Espagne, « Cervantes (Miguel de) », p. 163.
iiGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p.15
iiiGershom Scholem. Benjamin and his angel. Trad. Philippe Ivernel. Ed. Rivages, Paris, 1995, p. 69.
ivWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 262.
vWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, pp. 248-249.
viIn Kafka’s text ‘In Our Synagogue’, about an animal that serves as a metaphor for God, we find this very beautiful description of a divine somersault: « It is already a very old animal, it does not hesitate to make the most daring leap, which moreover it never misses, it has turned in the void and here it is already continuing its path. « Kafka. In our synagogue. Complete Works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.663.
As for the word ‘demon’, we find it in another text by Kafka: « Sancho Pança, thanks to a host of stories of brigands and novels of chivalry (…), managed so well to distract his demon – to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote – from him. « Kafka. The truth about Sancho Pança. Complete Works II. Ed. Gallimard. 1980, p.541.
viiWalter Benjamin. Karl Kraus. Works II, Translated from German by Rainer Rochlitz. Gallimard, 2000, p. 249.
God indeed is one, – but His forces and His powers (i.e. His elohim and His sefirot) are more than multiple, according to the Jewish Kabbalah.
This idea unites without contradiction monotheistic and polytheistic intuitions.
In contrast, one cannot say that man is really one, – nor the world or the cosmos for that matter. But neither can we say that their abundant multiplicities are a substitute for unity.
Men and worlds are certainly diverse, divided, mixed, undefined and indefinable.
But this diversity, this division, this mixing, this indefinition, are relative. They find their limits, if only in time and space. Men, like worlds, are indefinite, but certainly not infinite.
In the apparent profusion of innumerable beings and the even more abundant moments that compose them, forms of singularities emerge, for a time. Here and there appear strange quarks, galactic clusters, people and consciousnesses…
But are these singularities units? To put it another way, are these singularities as ‘one’ as God is said to be ‘one’?
Busy, unconscious and composite crowds swarm at all times in every and each one man. They are molecular, chromosomal, microbial, neuronal, synaptic, parasitic crowds, you name it.
What will remain of them at the end of time?
If man thinks he will ever be one, death always takes charge, in the end, of testing this dubious sense of unitive dream.
Conversely, if man is not one, if he is other than one, what is he in reality?
Several hypotheses are worth considering.
Man is a diachronic being.
The immanent multiplicity is revealed, over long periods of time, by the accumulation of the diversity. What we were fetus, will we lose it as we die ? Or will we not rather summarize it?
Does the flower of youth lose only its petals and its radiance in the shadows of maturity, or in the night of agony, or does it not rather reveal its subtle, invisible and irradiant perfumes?
Let’s change metaphors.
If man was a kind of vast library, which book would summarize him best? Or could we only pick out a few scattered ‘good excerpts’? Or, even, shouldn’t we be satisfied with a single chosen line, at the corner of a forgotten paragraph, or a hallucinated word, to finally express his supposed unity, his only essential meaning?
2. Man is a synchronic being.
Just as a (infinite) mathematical curve can be summarized at each of its points by the (itself infinite) set of its derivatives, so one could suppose that at any moment of his life, the being of man could contain the (apparently infinite) set of his virtualities in the making. Always still in epigenesis, man is neither his sex nor his brain, neither his spleen nor his pancreas, neither his heart nor his blood, neither his very soul nor his faulty memory, but all this simultaneously.
Reason is road, cunning and cog, and blood is place and sense. The soul animates, and elevates, she borders on drunkenness, but often sleeps in the darkness of memories. In the lymph bathes the light of hope. Saliva drowns the suns of taste, the breath tempers the twilights of consciousness.
3. Man is a distributed (or swarming) being.
A more fantastic hypothesis assumes a ‘self’ which doubts itself. It is equivalent to the idea that any ‘I’ could be defined by the sum of all the ‘you’ encountered throughout life, as well as by the sum of all the ‘us’ felt, and even the anonymous crowd of all the ‘them’ surrounding the ‘I’, be they effective or only conceived. The human ‘I’ is still alone, singular, but mainly made of indissoluble pluralities, external multitudes, and produced by entire societies, and immemorial histories.
Whether man is diachronic, synchronic, distributed, swarming, or all of them in turn, or all of them simultaneously, winds down to being the same. It is at the time of death that the ‘I’ gets to know what he really is: either ‘nothing’, just ‘nothing’, or some entity allowed to continue ‘being’ in an yet unknown, sublimated form.
There is no point in arguing about this sort of conjecture, nobody knows the end of the story, but we will all know that end, when the evening comes.
To conclude with an opening, I would like to quote a fragment from the pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias :
« There is nothing obvious about being because it doesn’t appear [dokein]. To appear is weak, since it does not succeed in being. »i
To put it another way, perhaps more clearly, and to fit this ancient and lively thought into a long perspective :
« The way in which God has been thought of for centuries no longer convinces anyone; if something is already dead, it can only be the traditional way of thinking about God. What is really dead is the fundamental distinction between the sensory domain and the supra-sensory domain. »ii
Really dead ?
Then we need to follow up with an essential intuition of Nietzsche, which Martin Heidegger (quoted by Hannah Arendt) re-ormulated as follows:
« The destruction of the supra-sensible also suppresses the purely sensible, and thus the difference between the two.»iii
If the supra-sensible and the sensible are, in the final analysis, no different, then there is also no essential difference between transcendence and immanence.
And, consequently, there is no essential difference between the Creator (either immanent or transcendant) and the Creation…
iDie Fragmente des Vorsokratiker. Vol. II, B 26. Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, 1959. Quoted by Hannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. Thought. The will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.45
iiHannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. The thought. The will. Translation by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.28
iiiMartin Heidegger. Paths that lead nowhere. Trad. W. Brokmeier. Paris 1962, p.173. Quoted by Hannah Arendt. The life of the spirit. Thought. The will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.29
Franz Rosenzweig is a prophet of the 20th century (there are not so many), whose name means ‘branch of roses’. Zebrased with inchoate intuitions, and seraphic brilliance, a short text of him astonishes me by its searing audacity:
« Redemption delivers God, the world and man from the forms and morphisms that Creation has imposed on them. Before and after, there is only the « beyond ». But the in-between, Revelation, is at the same time entirely beyond, for (thanks to it) I am myself, God is God, and the world is world, and absolutely beyond, for I am with God, God is with me, and where is the world? (« I do not desire the earth »). Revelation overcomes death, creates and institutes in its place the redeeming death. He who loves no longer believes in death and believes only in death.» i
The ambiguity of Revelation in relation to the Redemption, but also its invitations to openness, to invention, are staged here.
On the one hand, Revelation is addressed to the man of the earth, to the children of the clay, immersed in worldly immanence, immersed in the closed orbs of their minds.
On the other hand, it affirms the absolute transcendence of the Creator, opening worlds, flaring very backwards towards unheard-of beginnings, and accelerating very forwards towards an unthinkable afterlife.
Can we connect these two poles, seemingly opposite?
For Rosenzweig, Revelation is situated in time, that time which is the proper time of the world, between Creation and Redemption – the two figures, original and eschatological, the two ‘moments’ of the ‘beyond’ of time.
The unique role of Creation is inexplicable if we consider it only as a divine fiat. Why inexplicable? Because such a fiat displays neither its reason nor its why. It is more consistent with the anthropological structure of human experience (and probably with the very structure of the brain) to consider that even God does nothing for nothing.
An ancient answer to this riddle may be found in the Vedic idea of Creation.
In the Veda, Creation is thought as being a sacrifice of God.
Two thousand years later, this sacrifice will be called kenosis by Christians, and even later (in the Kabbalah of the Middle Age) Jews will call it tsimtsum.
The Vedic idea of God’s sacrifice – is incarnated in the sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds, at the price of His own substance.
It is certainly difficult to conceive of God’s holocaust by (and for) Himself, willingly sacrificing His own glory, His power and His transcendence, – in order to transcend Himself in this very sacrifice.
How can a human brain understand God transcending Himself!
It is difficult, of course, but less difficult than understanding a Creation without origin and without reason, which refers by construction to the absolute impotence of all reason, and to its own absurdity.
With or without reason, with or without sacrifice, Creation obviously represents a ‘beyond’ of our capacity to understand.
But reason wants to reason and tries to understand.
In the hypothesis of God’s sacrifice, what would be the role of Creation in this divine surpassing?
Would God make a covenant with His Creation, ‘giving’ it, by this means, His breath, His life, His freedom, His spirit?
Would God give the responsibility for the World and Mankind to multiply and make this Breath, this Life, this Freedom, this Spirit bear fruit throughout time?
At least there is in this view a kind of logic, though opaque and dense.
The other pole of the cosmic drama – Redemption – is even more ‘beyond’ human intelligence. But let us have a try to understand it.
Redemption « frees God, the world and man from the forms imposed on them by Creation, » Rosenzweig suggests.
Does Redemption deliver God from God Himself? Does it deliver Him from His infinity, if not from His limit? from His transcendence, if not from His immanence? from His righteousness, if not from His goodness?
It is more intuitive to understand that it also liberates the world (i.e. the total universe, the integral Cosmos) from its own limits – its height, width and depth. But does it free it from its immanence?
It frees man, at last.
Does that mean Redemption frees man from his dust and clay?
And from his breath (nechma), which binds him to himself?
And from his shadow (tsel) and his ‘image’ (tselem), which binds him to the light?
And from his blood (dam) and his ‘likeness’ (demout), which structure and bind him (in his DNA itself)?
What does Rosenzweig mean when he says: « Redemption delivers God (…) from the forms that Creation has imposed »?
It is the role of Revelation to teach us that Creation has necessarily imposed certain structures. For example, it imposes the idea that the ‘heavens’ (chammayim) are in essence made of ‘astonishment’, and perhaps even ‘destruction’ (chamam).
But the truth is that we don’t know what ‘to redeem’ means, – apart from showing the existence of a link between Death, the Exodus from the world, and man.
We must try to hear and understand the voice of this new prophet, Rosenzweig.
He says that to believe in Redemption is to believe only in love, that is, to believe « only in death ».
For it has been said that « strong as death is love » (ki-‘azzah kham-mavêt ahabah), as the Song saysii.
Revelation is unique in that it is ‘one’ between two ‘moments’, two ‘beyond’.
It is unique, being ‘below’ between two ‘beyond’.
Being ‘below’ it is not inexpressible, – and being ‘revealed’ it is not as inexpressible as the ‘beyond’ of Creation and Redemption, which can only be grasped through what Revelation wants to say about it.
The Revelation is told, but not by a single oracular jet.
She is not given just at once. She is continuous. She spreads out in time. She is far from being closed, no doubt. No seal has been placed on her moving lips. No prophet can reasonably claim to have sealed her endless source foreveriii.
Time, time itself, constitutes all the space of Revelation, which we know has once begun. But we don’t know when Revelation will end. For now, Revelation is only ‘below’, and will always remain so, – as a voice preparing the way for a ‘beyond’ yet to come.
And besides, what is really known about what has already been ‘revealed’?
Can we be sure at what rate the Revelation is being revealed?
Can we read her deep lines, hear her hidden melodies?
Does she appear in the world only in one go or sporadically, intermittently? With or without breathing pauses?
Won’t her cannon thunder again?
And even if she were « sealed », aren’t the interpretations, the glosses, part of her open breath?
And what about tomorrow?
What will Revelation have to say in six hundred thousand years from now?
Or in six hundred million years?
Will not then a cosmic Moses, a total Abraham, a universal Elijah, chosen from the stars, come in their turn to bring some needed Good News?
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Man and His Work. Collected writings 1. letters and diaries, 2 vol. 1918-1929. The Hague. M.Nijhoft, 1979, p.778, quoted by S. Mosès. Franz Rosenzweig. Sous l’étoile. Ed. Hermann. 2009, p. 91.
iiiThe Torah itself, who can claim to have really read it?
« Although Thorah was quite widespread, the absence of vowel points made it a sealed book. To understand it, one had to follow certain mystical rules. One had to read a lot of words differently than they were written in the text; to attach a particular meaning to certain letters and words, depending on whether one raised or lowered one’s voice; to pause from time to time or link words together precisely where the outward meaning seemed to demand the opposite (…) What was especially difficult in the solemn reading of the Thorah was the form of recitative to be given to the biblical text, according to the modulation proper to each verse. The recitative, with this series of tones that rise and fall in turn, is the expression of the primitive word, full of emphasis and enthusiasm; it is the music of poetry, of that poetry that the ancients called an attribute of the divinity, and which consists in the intuition of the idea under its hypostatic envelope. Such was the native or paradisiacal state, of which only a few dark and momentary glimmers remain today. « J.-F. Molitor. Philosophy of tradition. Trad Xavier Duris. Ed. Debécourt. Paris, 1837. p.10-11
After a short life-walk, standing on some high ground, I did not discover any ‘Land’, in truth never promised, I just took a glimpse at perspectives, and at the assured prospect of continued exile.
Not an infinite exile, only bordered by death. But at least a never finished exodus, no matter what happens, so vast are the surrounding deserts.
Literature, and philosophy itself, as they appear, are like dry lakes, under the sun, when one is really dying for living water, and poetry even is a mule loaded with empty gourds, or a thirsty camel.
As for the arts, they no longer light up the days. The theater of sanctification does not call for applause. Divine names offer little certainty. The angels disappear as soon as they move. True theologies are negative. Exegeses are never meant to be completed.
I remember, rather disenchanted, the past soothsayers of the future. Some wide open doors, leading to tightly closed ways, were tentatively described by these unaccountable prophets, but for sure, they did not no propose any real way out, any effective exits, they were at best just supplying asymptotes.
New angels kept falling down, wave after wave.
The Kabbalah says that at every moment of our lives, multitudes of angels are created, only to disappear. Their role is brief as much as their songs.
They praise with lilac hallelujahs the serene lordship, the gray sound of the skies. And they then dilute themselves in thin air with no return.
My patience was waning under the short luminosity of nocturnal stars.
A somber angel then unexpectedly attacked me.
Her sharp wings barely shuddered. The air was shivering. I stepped aside.
The dodge, always the dodge.
I kissed her with my eyes. She advanced surreptitiously, leapt forward on the path of escape.
Was running away an option? But where?
Towards the future from which she seemed to have come, I did not see any encouragement.
I saw her gaze turned towards what she was already no longer, or was it towards what she already thought she could no longer be?
So I took this opportunity to pluck out one of her feathers, which I dipped incontinently in a transparent ink mixed with black tears.
The theurgic, creative power of men has always manifested itself through the ages.
Religious anthropology bears witness to this.
« No doubt, without the Gods, men could not live. But on the other hand, the Gods would die if they were not worshipped (…) What the worshipper really gives to his God is not the food he puts on the altar, nor the blood that flows from his veins: that is his thought. Between the deity and his worshippers there is an exchange of good offices which condition each other. »i
The Vedic sacrifice is one of the most ancient human rite from which derives the essence of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds.
« There are rites without gods, and there are rites from which gods derive ».ii
Unexpectingly, Charles Mopsik, in his study of the Jewish kabbalah, subtitled TheRites that Make God, affirms the « flagrant similarity » of these ancient theurgical beliefs with the Jewish motif of the creative power of the rite.
Mopsik readily admits that « the existence of a theme in Judaism, according to which man must ‘make God’, may seem incredible.»iii
Examples of Jewish kabbalistic theurgy abound, involving, for example, man’s ‘shaping’ of God, or his participation in the ‘creation’ of the Name or the Shabbath. Mopsik evokes a midrash quoted by R. Bahya ben Acher, according to which « the man who keeps the Shabbath from below, ‘it is as if he were doing it from above’, in other words ‘gave existence’, ‘fashioned the Sabbath from above. »iv
The expression ‘to make God’, which Charles Mopsik uses in the subtitle of his book, can be compared to the expression ‘to make the Shabbath’ (in the sense of ‘to create the Shabbath’) as it is curiously expressed in the Torah (« The sons of Israel will keep the Shabbath to make the Shabbath » (Ex 31,16)), as well as in the Clementine Homilies, aJudeo-Christian text that presents God as the Shabbath par excellencev, which implies that ‘to make the Shabbath’ is ‘to make God’…
Since its very ancient ‘magical’ origins, theurgy implies a direct relationship between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ or ‘making’. The Kabbalah takes up this idea, and develops it:
« You must know that the commandment is a light, and he who does it below affirms (ma’amid) and does (‘osseh) that which isabove. Therefore, when man practices a commandment, that commandment is light.»vi
In this quotation, the word ‘light’ is to be understood as an allusive way of saying ‘God’, comments Mopsik, who adds: « Observances have a sui generis efficacy and shape the God of the man who puts them into practice.»
Many other rabbis, such as Moses de Leon (the author of the Zohar), Joseph Gikatila, Joseph of Hamadan, Méir ibn Gabbay, or Joseph Caro, affirm the power of « the theurgic instituting action » or « theo-poietic ».
The Zohar explains :
« ‘If you follow my ordinances, if you keep my commandments, when you do them, etc.' ». (Lev 26:3) What does ‘When you do them’ mean? Since the text already says, « If you follow and keep, » what is the meaning of « When you do them »? Verily, whoever does the commandments of the Torah and walks in its ways, so to speak, it is as if he makes Him on high (‘avyd leyh le’ila), the Holy One blessed be He who says, ‘It is as if he makes Me’ (‘assa-ny). In this connection Rabbi Simeon said, ‘David made the Name’. » vii
« David made the Name » ! This is yet another theurgical expression, and not the least, since the Name, the Holy Name, is in reality God Himself !
‘Making God’, ‘Making the Shabbath’, ‘Making the Name’, all these theurgic expressions are equivalent, and the authors of the Kabbalah adopt them alternately.
From a critical point of view, it remains to be seen whether the kabbalistic interpretations of these theurgies are in any case semantically and grammatically acceptable. It also remains to be ascertained whether they are not rather the result of deliberately tendentious readings, purposefully diverting the obvious meaning of the Texts. But even if this were precisely the case, there would still remain the stubborn, inescapable fact that the Jewish Kabbalists wanted to find the theurgic idea in the Torah .
Given the importance of what is at stake, it is worth delving deeper into the meaning of the expression « Making the Name », and the way in which the Kabbalists understood it, – and then commented on it again and again over the centuries …
The original occurrence of this particular expression is found in the second book of Samuel (II Sam 8,13). It is a particularly warlike verse, whose usual translation gives a factual, neutral interpretation, very far in truth from the theurgic interpretation:
« When he returned from defeating Syria, David again made a name for himself by defeating eighteen thousand men in the Valley of Salt. »
David « made a name for himself », i.e. a « reputation », a « glory », in the usual sense of the word שֵׁם, chem.
The massoretic text of this verse gives :
וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד, שֵׁם
Va ya’ass Daoud shem
« To make a name for oneself, a reputation » seems to be the correct translation, in the context of a warlord’s glorious victory. Biblical Hebrew dictionaries confirm that this meaning is widespread.
Yet this was not the interpretation chosen by the Kabbalists.
They prefer to read: « David made the Name« , i.e. « made God« , as Rabbi Simeon says, quoted by the Zohar.
In this context, Charles Mopsik proposes a perfectly extraordinary interpretation of the expression « making God ». This interpretation (taken from the Zohar) is that « to make God » is equivalent to the fact that God constitutes His divine fullness by conjugating (in the original sense of the word!) « His masculine and feminine dimensions ».
If we follow Mopsik, « making God » for the Zohar would be the equivalent of « making love » for both male and female parts of God?
More precisely, as we will see, it would be the idea of YHVH’s loving encounter with His alter ego, Adonaï?
A brilliant idea, – or an absolute scandal (from the point of view of Jewish ‘monotheism’)?
Here’s how Charles Mopsik puts it:
« The ‘Holy Name’ is defined as the close union of the two polar powers of the divine pleroma, masculine and feminine: the sefira Tiferet (Beauty) and the sefira Malkhut (Royalty), to which the words Law and Right refer (…) The theo-poietic action is accomplished through the unifying action of the practice of the commandments that cause the junction of the sefirot Tiferet and Malkhut, the Male and Female from Above. These are thus united ‘one to the other’, the ‘Holy Name’ which represents the integrity of the divine pleroma in its two great poles YHVH (the sefira Tiferet) and Adonay (the sefira Malkhut). For the Zohar, ‘To make God’ therefore means to constitute the divine fullness [or pleroma] by uniting its masculine and feminine dimensions. » viii
In another passage of the Zohar, it is the (loving) conjunction of God with the Shekhina, which is proposed as an equivalence or ‘explanation’ of the expressions « making God » or « making the Name »:
« Rabbi Judah reports a verse: ‘It is time to act for YHVH, they have violated the Torah’ (Ps.119,126). What does ‘the time to act for YHVH’ mean? (…) ‘Time’ refers to the Community of Israel (the Shekhinah), as it is said: ‘He does not enter the sanctuary at all times’ (Lev 16:2). Why [is it called] ‘time’? Because there is a ‘time’ and a moment for all things, to draw near, to be enlightened, to unite as it should be, as it is written: ‘And I pray to you, YHVH, the favourable time’ (Ps 69:14), ‘to act for YHVH’ [‘to make YHVH’] as it is written: ‘David made the Name’ (II Sam 8:13), for whoever devotes himself to the Torah, it is as if he were making and repairing the ‘Time’ [the Shekhinah], to join him to the Holy One blessed be He. » ix
After « making God », « making YHVH », « making the Name », here is another theurgical form: « making Time », that is to say « bringing together » the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhina…
A midrach quoted by R. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira teaches this word attributed to God Himself: « Whoever fulfills My commandments, I count him as if they had made Me. » x
Mopsik notes here that the meaning of the word ‘theurgy’ as ‘production of the divine’, as given for example in the Liturgy, may therefore mean ‘procreation’, as a model for all the works that are supposed to ‘make God’. xi
This idea is confirmed by the famous Rabbi Menahem Recanati: « The Name has commanded each one of us to write a book of the Torah for himself; the hidden secret is this: it is as if he is making the Name, blessed be He, and all the Torah is the names of the Saint, blessed be He. » xii
In another text, Rabbi Recanati brings together the two formulations ‘to make YHVH’ and ‘to make Me’: « Our masters have said, ‘Whoever does My commandments, I will count him worthy as if he were making Me,’ as it is written, ‘It is time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126)xiii.
One can see it, tirelessly, century after century, the rabbis report and repeat the same verse of the psalms, interpreted in a very specific way, relying blindly on its ‘authority’ to dare to formulate dizzying speculations… like the idea of the ‘procreation’ of the divinity, or of its ‘begetting’, in itself and by itself….
The kabbalistic image of ‘procreation’ is actually used by the Zohar to translate the relationship of the Shekhina with the divine pleroma:
« ‘Noah built an altar’ (Gen 8:20). What does ‘Noah built’ mean? In truth, Noah is the righteous man. He ‘built an altar’, that is the Shekhina. His edification (binyam) is a son (ben) who is the Central Column. » xiv
Mopsik specifies that the ‘righteous’ is « the equivalent of the sefira Yessod (the Foundation) represented by the male sexual organ. Acting as ‘righteous’, the man assumes a function in sympathy with that of this divine emanation, which connects the male and female dimensions of the sefirot, allowing him to ‘build’ the Shekhina identified at the altar. » xv
In this Genesis verse, we see that the Zohar reads the presence of the Shekhina, represented by the altar of sacrifice, and embodying the feminine part of the divine, and we see that the Zohar also reads the act of « edifying » her, symbolized by the Central Column, that is to say by the ‘Foundation’, or the Yessod, which in the Kabbalah has as its image the male sexual organ, and which thus incarnates the male part of the divine, and bears the name of ‘son’ [of God]…
How can we understand these allusive images? To say it without a veil, the kabbalah does not hesitate to represent here (in a cryptic way) a quasi-marital scene where God ‘gets closer’ to His Queen to love her…
And it is up to ‘Israel’ to ensure the smooth running of this loving encounter, as the following passage indicates:
» ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’ (Ex 25:8) (…) The Holy One blessed be He asked Israel to bring the Queen called ‘Sanctuary’ to Him (…) For it is written: ‘You shall bring a fire (ichêh, a fire = ichah, a woman) to YHVH’ (Lev 23:8). Therefore it is written, ‘They will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you’. » xvi
Let’s take an interested look at the verse: « You will approach a fire from YHVH » (Lev 33:8).
The Hebrew text gives :
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה
Ve-hiqravttêm ichêh la-YHVH
The word אִשֶּׁה , ichêh, means ‘fire’, but in a very slightly different vocalization, ichah, this same word means ‘woman’. As for the verb ‘to approach’, its root is קרב, qaraba, « to be near, to approach, to move towards » and in the hiphilform, « to present, to offer, to sacrifice ». Interestingly, and even disturbingly, the noun qorban, ‘sacrifice, oblation, gift’ that derives from it, is almost identical to the noun qerben which means ‘womb, entrails, breast’ (of the woman).
One could propose the following equations (or analogies), which the Hebrew language either shows or implies allusively:
Fire = Woman
Approaching = Sacrifice = Entrails (of the woman)
‘Approaching the altar’ = ‘Approaching a woman’ (Do we need to recall here that, in the Hebrew Bible, « to approach a woman » is a euphemism for « making love »?)
The imagination of the Kabbalists does not hesitate to evoke together (in an almost subliminal way) the ‘sacrifice’, the ‘entrails’, the ‘fire’ and the ‘woman’ and to bring them formally ‘closer’ to the Most Holy Name: YHVH.
It should be noted, however, that the Kabbalists’ audacity is only relative here, since the Song of Songs had, long before the Kabbalah, dared to take on even more burning images.
In the thinking of the Kabbalists, the expression « to make God » is understood as the result of a « union » of the masculine and feminine dimensions of the divine.
In this allegory, the sefira Yessod connects God and the Community of believers just as the male organ connects the male body to the female body. xvii
« ‘Time to make YHVH’ (Ps 119:126). Explanation: The Shekhinah called ‘Time’ is to be made by joining her to YHVH after she has been separated from Him because one has broken the rules and transgressed the Law. » xviii
For his part, Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) understood the same verse as follows: « To join the upper pleroma, masculine and divine, with the lower pleroma, feminine and archangelical, must be the aim of those who practice the commandments (…) The lower pleroma is the Shekhinah, also called the Community of Israel ». xix
It is a question of magnifying the role of the Community of Israel, or that of each individual believer, in the ‘divine work’, in its ‘reparation’, in its increase in ‘power’ or even in its ‘begetting’….
Rabbi Hayim Vital, a contemporary of Joseph Caro, comments on a verse from Isaiah and relates it to another verse from the Psalms in a way that has been judged « extravagant » by literalist exegetesxx.
Isaiah’s verse (Is 49:4) reads, according to R. Hayim Vital: « My work is my God », and he compares it with Psalm 68: « Give power to God » (Ps 68:35), of which he gives the following comment: « My work was my God Himself, God whom I worked, whom I made, whom I repaired ».
Note that this verse (Is 49:4) is usually translated as follows: « My reward is with my God » (ou-féoulati êt Adonaï).
Mopsik comments: « It is not ‘God’ who is the object of the believer’s work, or action, but ‘my God’, that God who is ‘mine’, with whom I have a personal relationship, and in whom I have faith, and who is ‘my’ work. »
And he concludes that this ‘God who is made’, who is ‘worked’, is in reality ‘the feminine aspect of the divinity’.
The Gaon Elijah of Vilna proposed yet another way of understanding and designating the two ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects of the Deity, calling them respectively ‘expansive aspect’ and ‘receiving aspect’:
« The expansive aspect is called havayah (being) [i.e. HVYH, anagram of YHVH…], the receiving aspect of the glorification coming from us is called ‘His Name’. In the measure of Israel’s attachment to God, praising and glorifying Him, the Shekhinah receives the Good of the expanding aspect. (…) The Totality of the offices, praise and glorification, that is called Shekhinah, which is His Name. Indeed, ‘name’ means ‘public renown’ and ‘celebration’ of His Glory, the perception of His Greatness. (…) This is the secret of ‘YHVH is one, and His Name is one’ (Zac 14:9). YHVH is one’ refers to the expansion of His will. ‘His Name is one’ designates the receiving aspect of His praise and attachment. This is the unification of the recitation of the Shema.» xxi
According to the Gaon of Vilna, the feminine dimension of God, the Shekhina, is the passive dimension of the manifested God, a dimension that is nourished by the Totality of the praises and glorifications of the believers. The masculine dimension of God is Havayah, the Being.
Charles Mopsik’s presentation on the theurgical interpretations of the Jewish Kabbalah (‘Making God’) does not neglect to recognize that these interpretations are in fact part of a universal history of the religious fact, particularly rich in comparable experiences, especially in the diverse world of ‘paganism’. It is thus necessary to recognize the existence of « homologies that are difficult to dispute between the theurgic conceptions of Hellenized Egyptian hermeticism, late Greco-Roman Neoplatonism, Sufi theology, Neoplatonism and Jewish mystagogy. » xxii
Said in direct terms, this amounts to noting that since the dawn of time, there has been among all ‘pagan’ people this idea that the existence of God depends on men, at least to a certain degree.
It is also striking that ideas seemingly quite foreign to the Jewish religion, such as the idea of a Trinitarian conception of God (notoriously associated with Christianity) has in fact been enunciated in a similar way by some high-flying cabbalists.
Thus the famous Rabbi Moses Hayim Luzzatto had this formula surprisingly comparable (or if one prefers: ‘isomorphic’) to the Trinitarian formula:
« The Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one. »
But it should also be recalled that this kind of « kabbalistic » conception has attracted virulent criticism within conservative Judaism, criticism which extends to the entire Jewish Kabbalah. Mopsik cites in this connection the outraged reactions of such personalities as Rabbi Elie del Medigo (c. 1460- 1493) or Rabbi Judah Arie of Modena (17th century), and those of equally critical contemporaries such as Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber…
We will not enter into this debate. We prefer here to try to perceive in the theurgic conceptions we have just outlined the clue of an anthropological constant, an archetype, a kind of universal intuition proper to the profound nature of the human spirit.
It is necessary to pay tribute to the revolutionary effort of the Kabbalists, who have shaken with all their might the narrow frames of old and fixed conceptions, in an attempt to answer ever-renewed questions about the essence of the relationship between divinity, the world and humanity, the theos, the cosmos and the anthropos.
This titanic intellectual effort of the Jewish Kabbalah is, moreover, comparable in intensity, it seems to me, to similar efforts made in other religions (such as those of a Thomas Aquinas within the framework of Christianity, around the same period, or those of the great Vedic thinkers, as witnessed by the profound Brahmanas, two millennia before our era).
From the powerful effort of the Kabbalah emerges a specifically Jewish idea of universal value:
« The revealed God is the result of the Law, rather than the origin of the Law. This God is not posed at the Beginning, but proceeds from an interaction between the superabundant flow emanating from the Infinite and the active presence of Man. » xxiii
In a very concise and perhaps more relevant way: « You can’t really know God without acting on Him, » also says Mopsik.
Unlike Gershom Scholem or Martin Buber, who have classified the Kabbalah as « magic » in order to disdain it at its core, Charles Mopsik clearly perceives that it is one of the signs of the infinite richness of human potential in its relationship with the divine. We must pay homage to him for his very broad anthropological vision of the phenomena linked to divine revelation, in all eras and throughout the world.
The spirit blows where it wants. Since the dawn of time, i.e. for tens of thousands of years (the caves of Lascaux or Chauvet bear witness to this), many human minds have tried to explore the unspeakable, without preconceived ideas, and against all a priori constraints.
Closer to us, in the 9th century AD, in Ireland, John Scot Erigenes wrote:
« Because in all that is, the divine nature appears, while by itself it is invisible, it is not incongruous to say that it is made. » xxiv
Two centuries later, the Sufi Ibn Arabi, born in Murcia, died in Damascus, cried out: « If He gave us life and existence through His being, I also give Him life, knowing Him in my heart.» xxv
Theurgy is a timeless idea, with unimaginable implications, and today, unfortunately, this profound idea seems almost incomprehensible in our almost completely de-divinized world.
iE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p.494-495
iiE. Durckheim. Elementary forms of religious life. PUF, 1990, p. 49
iiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.551
viiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.561-563.
ixZohar, I, 116b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.568
xR. Abraham ben Ḥananel de Esquira. Sefer Yessod ‘Olam. Ms Moscow-Günzburg 607 Fol 69b, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.589
xiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiR. Menahem Recanati. Perouch ‘al ha-Torah. Jerusalem, 1971, fol 23b-c, quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xiiiR. Menahem Recanati. Sefer Ta’amé ha-Mitsvot. London 1962 p.47, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xivZohar Hadach, Tiqounim Hadachim. Ed. Margaliot. Jerusalem, 1978, fol 117c quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.591
xvCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviR. Joseph de Hamadan. Sefer Tashak. Ed J. Zwelling U.M.I. 1975, p.454-455, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p.593
xviiSee Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xviiiR. Matthias Délacroute. Commentary on the Cha’aré Orah. Fol 19b note 3. Quoted in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xixCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 604
xxiGaon Elijah of Vilna. Liqouté ha-Gra. Tefilat Chaharit, Sidour ha-Gra, Jerusalem 1971 p.89, cited in Charles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites which make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 610
xxiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 630
xxiiiCharles Mopsik. The great texts of the cabal. The rites that make God. Ed. Verdier. Lagrasse, 1993, p. 639
xxivJean Scot Erigène. De Divisione Naturae. I,453-454B, quoted by Ch. Mopsik, Ibid. p.627
Words are devious. Language is treacherous, and grammars are vicious. Willingly ignorant of these deficiencies, men have been sailing for millennia in oceans of sentences, drifting above the depths of meanings, equipped with broken compasses, falsified sextants, under the fleeting stars.
How accurately, then, can men understand a « divine revelation » when it is made of « words », clothed in their unfathomable depths, their ambiguous abysses?
Error lurks for the wise. The study never ends. Who can pretend to grasp the ultimate meaning of any revelation?
Let us start with a single verse of the Psalms, which opened worlds of interpretation, during millenia.
« It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126).
« Making YHVH? » Really? Yes, this is the meaning that some Jewish Kabbalists, in Medieval Spain, decided was the true sense conveyed by Ps. 119:126.
Most versions of the Bible, today, give more ‘rational’ translations of Ps. 119:126, such as:
Why then, did some medieval rabbis, most of them Kabbalists, chose to deviate from the obvious, traditional meaning carried by the Massoretic text? Why did they dare to flirt with scandal? Were they not aware that they were shocking the Jewish faith, or even just simple common sense, by pretending to « make » YHVH?
Many centuries before the Jewish Kabbalists tried their wits on this particular verse, manuscripts (and interpretations) already differed greatly about its true meaning.
The obvious meaning was indeed: « It is time for God to act ».
Other interpretations prefered : « It is time to act for God », – i.e. men should finally do for God what they had to do.
Has the time come (for the LORD) to act, or has the time come (for men) to act for the LORD?
Forsaking these two possible (and indeed differing) readings, the Kabbalists in early medieval Spain chose yet another interpretation: « It is time [for men] to make God. » iii
Why this audacity, rubbing shoulders with blasphemy, shaving the abyss?
The Hebrew Bible, in the Massoretic version which was developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, and which therefore dates from the first centuries of our era, proposes the following text:
עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה
‘èt la’assot la-YHVH
This can be translated as: « It is time to act for God », if one understands לַיהוָה = for YHVH
But the Kabbalists refused this reading. They seem not to have used the Massoretic text, but other, much older manuscripts which omit the preposition for (לַ).
The word ‘God’ (or more precisely יהוָה, ‘YHVH’) thus becomes the direct object complement of the verb ‘to do, to act’. Hence the translation : ‘It is time to make God’.
The Bible of the French Rabbinate follows the Massoretic version and translates :
« The time has come to act for the Lord ».
The Jerusalem Bible (Ed. Cerf, 1973) translates: « It is time to act, Yahweh ».
In this interpretation, the Psalmist seems to somehow admonish YHVH and gives Him a pressing request to « act ». The translators of the Jerusalem Bible note that the Massoretic text indicates « for Yahweh », which would imply that it is up to man to act for Him. But they do not retain this lesson, and they mention another handwritten (unspecified) source, which seems to have been adopted by S. Jerome, a source which differs from the Massoretic text by the elision of the preposition ל. Hence the adopted translation: « It is time to act, Yahweh », without the word for.
But, again, the lessons vary, depending on how you understand the grammatical role of the word ‘Yahweh’…
S. Jerome’s version (the Vulgate) gives :
Tempus is ut facias Domine.
The word ‘Lord’ is in the vocative (‘Domine!’): the Psalmist calls upon the Lord to ask Him to act. « It is time for You to act, Lord! »
However, in the text of the Clementine Vulgate, finalized in the 16th century by Pope Clement VIII, and which is the basis of the ‘New Vulgate’ (Nova Vulgata) available online on the Vatican website, it reads:
Tempus faciendi Domino
The word ‘Lord’ is in the dative (‘Domino’), and thus plays the role of a complement of attribution. « It is time to act for the Lord ».
The Septuagint (that is, the version of the Bible translated into Greek by seventy-two Jewish scholars gathered in Alexandria around 270 B.C.E.) proposes, for its part
καιρὸς τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ-
Kairos tou poïêsai tô kyriô
Here too the word ‘Lord’ is in the dative, not in the vocative. « It is time to act for the Lord ».
This ancient lesson of the Septuagint (established well before the Massoretic text) does not, however, resolve a residual ambiguity.
One can indeed choose to emphasize the need to act, which is imparted to the Lord Himself:
« For the Lord, the time to act has come ».
But one can just as easily choose to emphasize the need for men to act for the Lord:
« The time has come to act for the Lord ».
In relation to these different nuances, what I’d like to emphasize here is the radically different understanding chosen by the Kabbalists in medieval Spain:
« It is time to make God ».
Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbay wrote:
« He who fulfills all the commandments, his image and likeness are perfect, and he is like the High Man sitting on the Throne (Ez. 1:26), he is in his image, and the Shekhinah is established with him because he has made all his organs perfect: his body becomes a throne and a dwelling for the figure that corresponds to him. From there you will understand the secret of the verse: « It is time to make YHVH » (Ps. 119:126). You will also understand that the Torah has a living soul (…) It has matter and form, body and soul (…) And know that the soul of the Torah is the Shekhinah, the secret of the last he [ה ], the Torah is its garment (…) The Torah is therefore a body for the Shekhinah, and the Shekhinah is like a soul for her. » iv
Charles Mopsik notes that « this expression [« making God »], roughly stated, can surprise and even scandalize ».
At least, this is an opportunity to question the practices and conceptions of the Jewish Kabbalah in matters of ‘theurgy’.
The word ‘theurgy’ comes from the Latin theurgia, « theurgy, magic operation, evocation of spirits », itself borrowed by Augustine from the Greek θεουργία , « act of divine power », « miracle », « magic operation ». E. des Places defines theurgy as « a kind of binding action on the gods ». In Neoplatonism, « theurgy » means « the act of making God act in oneself », according to the Littré.
E. R. Dodds devotes an appendix of his work The Greeks and the Irrationalvto the theurgy, which he introduces as follows: « The theologoi ‘spoke of the gods’, but [the theourgos] ‘acted upon them’, or perhaps even ‘created them' », this last formula being an allusion to the formula of the famous Byzantine scholar Michel Psellus (11th century): « He who possesses the theurgic virtue is called ‘father of the gods’, because he transforms men into gods (theous all anthropous ergazetai). » vi
In this context, E.R. Dodd cites Jamblichus’ treatise De mysteriis, which he considers ‘irrational’ and a testimony to a ‘culture in decline’: « De mysteriis is a manifesto of irrationalism, an affirmation that the way to salvation is not in human reason but in ritual. It is not thought that links theurgists to the gods: what else would prevent philosophical theorists from enjoying the theurgical union? But this is not the case. Theurgic union is achieved only by the efficacy of ineffable acts performed in the proper way, acts that are beyond understanding, and by the power of ineffable symbols that are understood only by gods… without intellectual effort on our part, signs (sunthêmata) by their own virtue perform their own work’ (De myst. 96.13 Parthey). To the discouraged spirit of the pagans of the fourth century such a message brought seductive comfort. « vii
But the result of these attitudes, privileging ‘rite’ over ‘intellectual effort,’ was « a declining culture, and the slow thrust of that Christian athéotês whoall too obviously undermined the very life of Hellenism. Just as vulgar magic is commonly the last resort of the desperate individual, of those who have been lacking in both man and God, so theurgy became the refuge of a desperate ‘intelligentsia’ that already felt the fascination of the abyss. » viii
The modes of operation of the theurgy vary notoriously, covering a vast domain, from magical rites or divination rites to shamanic trances or phenomena of demonic or spiritual ‘possession’.
E.R. Dodds proposes to group them into two main types: those that depend on the use of symbols (symbola) or signs (sunthêmata), and those that require the use of a ‘medium’, in ecstasy. The first type was known as telestikê, and was mainly used for the consecration and animation of magical statues in order to obtain oracles. The making of magical statuettes of gods was not a ‘monopoly of theurgists’. It was based on an ancient and widespread belief of a universal sympatheiaix, linking the images to their original model. The original center of these practices was Egypt.
Dodds cites Hermes Trismegistus’ dialogue with Asclepius (or Aesculapius), which evokes « animated statues, full of meaning and spirit » (statuas animatas sensu et spiritu plenas), which can predict the future, inflict or cure diseases, and imprison the souls of deer or angels, all the theurgic actions summarized by Hermes Trismegistus’ formula: sic deorum fictor est homo, (« this is how man makes gods »)x.
« To make gods »: this expression was there to prefigure, with more than a thousand years of anteriority, the formula put forward later by R. Meir ibn Gabbay and other Kabbalists: « to make YHVH », – although undoubtedly with a different intention. We shall return to this.
In his book The City of God, S. Augustinexi had quoted large excerpts from this famous dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and Asclepius, including these sentences:
« As the Lord and the Father, God in a word, is the author of the heavenly gods, so man is the author of those gods who reside in temples and delight in the neighborhood of mortals. Thus, humanity, faithful to the memory of its nature and origin, perseveres in this imitation of its divinity. The Father and the Lord made the eternal gods in his likeness, and humanity made its gods in the likeness of man. » xii
And Hermes added: « It is a marvel above all wonder and admiration that man could invent and create a divinity. The disbelief of our ancestors was lost in deep errors about the existence and condition of the gods, forsaking the worship and honors of the true God; thus they found the art of making gods. »
The anger of St. Augustine exploded at this very spot against Hermes. « I don’t know if the demons themselves would confess as much as this man! »
After a long deconstruction of the Hermetic discourse, Augustine concludes by quoting a definitive sentence of the prophet Jeremiah:
« Man makes himself gods (elohim)? No, of course, they are not gods (elohim)! » xiii
Attempting to combat the « sarcasm » of Christian criticism, Jamblichus strove to prove that « idols are divine and filled with the divine presence. « xiv
This art of making divine statues had to survive the end of the « dying pagan world » and find its way into « the repertoire of medieval magicians, » Dodds notesxv.
One could add, without seeing any malice in it, that the idea was also taken up by the Spanish Jewish cabal in the Middle Ages, and later still, by the rabbis who made Golem, such as the Maharal of Prague, nicknamed Yehudah-Leib, or Rabbi Loew…
This is at least the suggestion proposed by E.R. Dodds: « Did the theurgical telestikê suggest to medieval alchemists their attempts to create artificial human beings (« homunculi« )? (…) Curious clues to some historical relationship have recently been put forward by Paul Kraus. (…) He points out that the vast alchemical corpus attributed to Jâbir b. Hayyan (Gebir) not only alludes to Porphyry’s (apocryphal?) Book of the Generation, but also uses neo-Platonic speculations about images. » xvi
The other operational mode of theurgy is trance or mediumnic possession, of which Dodds notes « the obvious analogy with modern spiritism. xvii
I don’t know if the « modern spiritism » that Dodds spoke of in the 1950s is not a little outdated today, but it is certain that the rites of trance and possession, whether they are practiced in Morocco (the Gnaouas), Haiti (Voodoo), Nepal, Mongolia, Mexico, and everywhere else in the world, are still worth studying. One can consult in this respect the beautiful study of Bertrand Hell, Possession and Shamanismxviii, whose cover page quotes the superb answer of the Great Mughal Khan Güyük to Pope Innocent IV in 1246: « For if man is not himself the strength of God, what could he do in this world? »
Many are the skeptics, who doubt the very reality of the trance. The famous Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali, in his 12th century Book of the Proper Use of Hearing and Ecstasy, admits the possibility of « feigned » ecstasy, but he adds that deliberately provoking one’s « rapture » when participating in a cult of possession (dikhr) can nevertheless lead the initiate to a true encounter with the divine. xix
Bertrand Hell argues that simulations and deceptions about ecstasy can open up a fertile field of reflection, as evidenced by the concepts of « para-sincerity » (Jean Poirier), « lived theater » (Michel Leiris) or « true hallucination » (Jean Duvignaud). xx
In the definitions and examples of theurgies we have just gone through, it is a question of « making the divinity act » in itself, or « acting » on the divinity, and much more exceptionally of « creating » it. The only examples of a theurgy that « creates gods » are those evoked by Hermes Trismegistus, who speaks of man as the « maker of gods » (fictor deorum), and by Michel Psellus, with the somewhat allegorical sense of a theurgy that exercises itself on men to « transform them into gods ».
This is why Charles Mopsik’s project to study the notion of theurgy as it was developed in the Jewish cabal has a particularly original character. In this case, in fact, theurgy does not only mean « to make the god act upon man », or « to act upon the god » or « to make man divine », but it takes on the much more absolute, much more radical, and almost blasphemous meaning, particularly from a Jewish point of view, of « creating God », of « making God »xxi.
There is a definite semantic and symbolic leap here. Mopsik does not hesitate to propose this leap in the understanding of theurgy, because it was precisely the radical choice of the Spanish Jewish Kabbalah, for several centuries…
iAccording to the Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition.
Although they belong to very distant planets, Paul Valéry and Franz Kafka have at least one thing in common. Both had the honor of a celebration of their respective birthday and anniversary by Walter Benjamini .
Why did Benjamin want to give to such different writers such a symbolic tribute?
He was sensitive, I believe, to the fact that they both sought to formulate a kind of a « negative theology » in their work.
For Valéry, this negative theology is embodied in the figure of Monsieur Teste.
Benjamin explains: « Mr. Teste is a personification of the intellect that reminds us a lot of the God that Nicholas of Cusa’s negative theology deals with. All that one can suppose to know about Teste leads to negation. » ii
Kafka, for his part, « has not always escaped the temptations of mysticism »iii according to Benjamin, who quotes Soma Morgenstern on this subject: « There reigns in Kafka, as in all founders of religion, a village atmosphere»iv.
Strange and deliberately provocative sentence, which Benjamin immediately rejects after quoting it: « Kafka also wrote parables, but he was not a founder of religion.» v
Kafka indeed was not a Moses or a Jesus.
But was he at least a little bit of a prophet, or could he pass for the gyrovague apostle of an obscure religion, working modern souls in the depths?
Can we follow Willy Haas who decided to read Kafka’s entire work through a theological prism? « In his great novel TheCastle, Kafka represented the higher power, the reign of grace; in his no less great novel TheTrial, he represented the lower power, the reign of judgment and damnation. In a third novel, America, he tried to represent, according to a strict equalization, the earth between these two powers … earthly destiny and its difficult demands.»vi
Kafka, painter of the three worlds, the upper, the lower and the in-between?
W. Haas’ opinion also seems « untenable » in Benjamin’s eyes. He is irritated when Haas specifies: « Kafka proceeds […] from Kierkegaard as well as from Pascal, one can well call him the only legitimate descendant of these two thinkers. We find in all three of them the same basic religious theme, cruel and inflexible: man is always wrong before God.»vii
Kafka, – a Judeo-Jansenist thinker?
« No » said Benjamin, the wrathful guardian of the Kafkaesque Temple. But he does not specify how Haas’s interpretation would be at fault.
Could it be that man is always wrong, but not necessarily « before God »? Then in front of whom? In front of himself?
Or would it be that man is not always « wrong », and therefore sometimes right, in front of a Count Westwestviii?
Or could it be that man is really neither right nor wrong, and that God himself is neither wrong nor right about him, because He is already dead, or indifferent, or absent?
One cannot say. Walter Benjamin does not give the definitive answer, the official interpretation of what Kafka thought about these difficult questions. In order to shed light on what seems to be the Kafkaesque position, Benjamin is content to rely on a « fragment of conversation » reported by Max Brod :
« I remember an interview with Kafka where we started from the current Europe and the decline of humanity. We are, he said, nihilistic thoughts, ideas of suicide, which are born in the mind of God. This word immediately reminded me of the Gnostic worldview. But he protested: ‘No, our world is simply an act of bad humor on the part of God, on a bad day’. I replied: ‘So apart from this form in which the world appears to us, there would be hope…’ He smiled: ‘Oh, enough hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us’. »ix
Would God then have suicidal thoughts, for example like Stefan Zweig in Petropolis twenty years later, in 1942? But unlike Zweig, God doesn’t seem to have actually « committed suicide », or if He did, it was only by proxy, through men, in some way.
There is yet another interpretation to consider: God could have only « contracted » Himself, as the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria formulates it (with concept of tsimtsum), or « hollowed out » Himself, according to Paul’s expression (concept of kenosis).
Since we are reduced to the imaginary exegesis of a writer who was not a « founder of religion », can we assume the probability that every word that falls out of Franz Kafka’s mouth really counts as revealed speech, that all the tropes or metaphors he has chosen are innocent, and even that what he does not say may have more real weight than what he seems to say?
Kafka indeed did not say that ideas of suicide or nihilistic thoughts born « in the mind of God » actually apply to Himself. These ideas may be born in His mind, but then they live their own lives. And it is men who live and embody these lives, it is men who are (substantially) the nihilistic thoughts or suicidal ideas of God. When God « thinks », His ideas then begin to live without Him, and it is men who live from the life of these ideas of nothingness and death, which God once contemplated in their ‘beginnings’ (bereshit).
Ideas of death, annihilation, self-annihilation, when thought of by God, « live » as absolutely as ideas of eternal life, glory and salvation, – and this despite the contradiction or oxymoron that the abstract idea of a death that « lives » as an idea embodied in real men carries with it.
Thought by God, these ideas of death and nothingness live and take on human form to perpetuate and self-generate.
Is this interpretation of Kafka by himself, as reported by Max Brod, « tenable », or at least not as « untenable » as Willy Haas’ interpretation of his supposed « theology »?
Perhaps it is.
But, as in the long self-reflexive tirades of a K. converted to the immanent metaphysics of the Castle, one could go on and on with the questioning.
Even if it risks being heretical in Benjamin’s eyes!
Perhaps Max Brod did not report with all the desired precision the exact expressions used by Kafka?
Or perhaps Kafka himself did not measure the full significance of the words he uttered in the intimacy of a tête-à-tête with his friend, without suspecting that a century later many of us would be religiously commenting on and interpreting them, like the profound thoughts of a Kabbalist or an eminent jurist of Canon Law?
I don’t know if I myself am a kind of « idea », a « thought » by God, a « suicidal or nihilistic » idea, and if my very existence is due to some divine bad mood.
If I were, I can only note, in the manner of Descartes, that this « idea » does not seem to me particularly clear, vibrant, shining with a thousand fires in me, although it is supposed to have germinated in the spirit of God himself.
I can only observe that my mind, and the ideas it brings to life, still belong to the world of darkness, of twilight, and not to the world of dark night.
It is in this sense that I must clearly separate myself from Paul Valéry, who prophesied:
« Here comes the Twilight of the Vague and the reign of the Inhuman, which will be born of neatness, rigor and purity in human things. »x
Valéry associates (clearly) neatness, rigor and purity with the « Inhuman », – but also, through the logical magic of his metaphor, with the Night.
I may imagine that « the Inhuman » is for Valéry another name of God?
To convince us of this, we can refer to another passage from Tel Quel, in which Valéry admits:
« Our insufficiency of mind is precisely the domain of the powers of chance, gods and destiny. If we had an answer for everything – I mean an exact answer – these powers would not exist.»xi
On the side of the Insufficient Mind, on the side of the Vague and the Twilight, we therefore have « the powers of chance, of gods and of fate », that is to say almost everything that forms the original substance of the world, for most of us.
But on the side of « neatness », « rigor » and « purity », we have « the Inhuman », which will henceforth « reign in human things », for people like Valery.
Farewell to the gods then, they still belonged to the setting evening, which the Latin language properly calls « Occident » (and which the Arabic language calls « Maghreb »).
Now begins the Night, where the Inhuman will reign.
Thank you, Kafka, for the idea of nothingness being born in God and then living in Man.
Thank you, Valery, for the idea of the Inhuman waiting in the Night ahead of us.
In these circumstances, do we need any more prophets ?
iWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, pp. 322-329 , and « Franz Kafka. For the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. pp. 410-453
iiWalter Benjamin. « Paul Valéry. For his sixtieth birthday ». Œuvres complètes t. II, Gallimard, 2000, p. 325
iiiWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 430
ivWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432
vWalter Benjamin. « Franz Kafka. On the tenth anniversary of his death ». Ibid. p. 432-433
viW. Haas, op.cit., p.175, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op.cit. p.435
viiW. Haas, op. cit., p. 176, quoted by W. Benjamin, in op. cit. p. 436.
viiiI make here an allusion to Count Westwest who is the master of Kafka’s Castle.
ixMax Brod. Der Dichter Franz Kafka. Die Neue Rundschau, 1921, p. 213. Quoted by W. Benjamin in op. cit. p. 417
xPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 621
xiPaul Valéry. As is. « Rumbs ». Œuvres t. II. Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade. 1960, p. 647
The one « who was once great » and « ready for all battles » is Ouranos (the God of Heaven).
And the one who « found his conqueror and vanished » is Chronos, God of time, father of Zeus, and vanquished by him.
Of these two Gods, one could say at the time of the Trojan War, according to the testimony of Aeschylus, that the first (Ouranos) was already considered to have « never existed » and that the second (Chronos) had « disappeared » …
From those ancient times, there was therefore only ‘God alone’ (πλὴν Διός) who reigned in the hearts and minds of the Ancients…
The ‘victory’ of this one God, ‘Zeus’, this supreme God, God of all gods and men, was celebrated with songs of joy in Greece in the 5th century BC.
But one also wondered about its essence – as the formula ‘whatever He is’ reveals -, and one wondered if this very name, ‘Zeus’, could really suit him….
Above all, they were happy that Zeus had opened the path of ‘wisdom’ to mortals, and that he had brought them the consolation of knowing that ‘from suffering comes knowledge’.
Martin Buber offers a very concise interpretation of the last verses quoted above, which he aggregates into one statement:
« Zeus is the All, and that which surpasses it. » iii
How to understand this interpretation?
Is it faithful to the profound thought of Aeschylus?
Let us return to Agamemnon’s text. We read on the one hand:
« He who celebrates Zeus with all his soul will seize the Whole of the heart« .
and immediately afterwards :
« He [Zeus] has set mortals on the path of wisdom. »
Aeschylus uses three times in the same sentence, words with the same root: προφρόνως (prophronos), φρενῶν (phronōn) and φρονεῖν (phronein).
To render these three words, I deliberately used three very different English words: soul, heart, wisdom.
I rely on Onians in this regard: « In later Greek, phronein first had an intellectual sense, ‘to think, to have the understanding of’, but in Homer the sense is broader: it covers undifferentiated psychic activity, the action of phrenes, which includes ’emotion’ and also ‘desire’. » iv
In the translation that I offer, I mobilize the wide range of meanings that the word phren can take on: heart, soul, intelligence, will or seat of feelings.
Having said this, it is worth recalling, I believe, that the primary meaning of phrēn is to designate any membrane that ‘envelops’ an organ, be it the lungs, heart, liver or viscera.
According to the Ancient Greek dictionary of Bailly, the first root of all the words in this family is Φραγ, « to enclose », and according to the Liddell-Scott the first root is Φρεν, « separate ».
Chantraine believes for his part that « the old interpretation of φρήν as « dia-phragm », and phrassô « to enclose » has long since been abandoned (…) It remains to be seen that φρήν belongs to an ancient series of root-names where several names of body parts appear ». v
For us, it is even more interesting to observe that these eminent scholars thus dissonate on the primary meaning of phrēn…vi
Whether the truly original meaning of phrēnis « to enclose » or « to separate » is of secondary importance, since Aeschylus tells us that, thanks to Zeus, mortal man are called to « come out » of this closed enclosure, the phrēnes,and to « walk out » on the path of wisdom…
The word « heart » renders the basic (Homeric) meaning of φρενῶν (phrēn) ( φρενῶν is the genitive of the noun φρήν (phrēn), « heart, soul »).
The word « wisdom » » translates the verbal expression τὸν φρονεῖν (ton phronein), « the act of thinking, of reflecting ». Both words have the same root, but the substantive form has a more static nuance than the verb, which implies the dynamics of an action in progress, a nuance that is reinforced in the text of Aeschylus by the verb ὁδώσαντα (odôsanta), « he has set on the way ».
In other words, the man who celebrates Zeus « reaches the heart » (teuxetai phronein) « in its totality » (to pan), but it is precisely then that Zeus puts him « on the path » of « thinking » (ton phronein).
« Reaching the heart in its entirety » is therefore only the first step.
It remains to walk into the « thinking »…
Perhaps this is what Martin Buber wanted to report on when he translated :
« Zeus is the All, and that which surpasses him »?
But we must ask ourselves what « exceeds the Whole » in this perspective.
According to the development of Aeschylus’ sentence, what « surpasses » the Whole (or rather « opens a new path ») is precisely « the fact of thinking » (tonphronein).
The fact of taking the path of « thinking » and of venturing on this path (odôsanta), made us discover this divine law:
« From suffering is born knowledge », πάθει μάθος (pathei mathos)...
But what is this ‘knowledge’ (μάθος, mathos) of which Aeschylus speaks, and which the divine law seems to promise to the one who sets out on his journey?
Greek philosophy is very cautious on the subject of divine ‘knowledge’. The opinion that seems to prevail is that one can at most speak of a knowledge of one’s ‘non-knowledge’…
In Cratylus, Plato writes:
« By Zeus! Hermogenes, if only we had common sense, yes, there would be a method for us: to say that we know nothing of the Gods, neither of themselves, nor of the names they can personally designate themselves, because these, it is clear, the names they give themselves are the true ones! » vii
Léon Robin translates ‘εἴπερ γε νοῦν ἔχοιμεν’ as ‘if we had common sense’. But νοῦς (or νοός) actually means ‘mind, intelligence, ability to think’. The metaphysical weight of this word goes in fact much beyond ‘common sense’.
It would therefore be better to translate, in this context, I think :
« If we had Spirit [or Intelligence], we would say that we know nothing of the Gods, nor of them, nor of their names. »
As for the other Greek poets, they also seem very reserved as for the possibility of piercing the mystery of the Divine.
Euripides, in the Trojans, makes Hecuba say:
« O you who bear the earth and are supported by it,
whoever you are, impenetrable essence,
Zeus, inflexible law of things or intelligence of man,
The translation given here by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade does not satisfy me. Consulting other translations available in French and English, and using the Greek-French dictionary by Bailly and the Greek-English dictionary by Liddell and Scott, I finally came up with a result more in line with my expectations:
« You who bear the earth, and have taken it for your throne,
Whoever You are, inaccessible to knowledge,
Zeus, or Law of Nature, or Spirit of Mortals,
I offer You my prayers, for walking with a silent step,
You lead all human things to justice. »
Greek thought, whether it is conveyed by Socrates’ fine irony that nothing can be said of the Gods, especially if one has Spirit, or whether it is sublimated by Euripides, who sings of the inaccessible knowledge of the God named « Whoever You Are », leads to the mystery of the God who walks in silence, and without a sound.
On the other hand, before Plato, and before Euripides, it seems that Aeschylus did indeed glimpse an opening, the possibility of a path.
The one that opens « the fact of thinking » (ton phronein).
It is the same path that begins with ‘suffering’ (pathos) and ends with the act of ‘knowledge’ (mathos).
It is also the path of the God who walks « in silence ».
iΖεύς (‘Zeus’) is nominative, and Διός (‘God’) is genitive.
iiAeschylus. Agammemnon. Trad. by Émile Chambry (freely adapted and modified). Ed. GF. Flammarion. 1964, p.138
iiiMartin Buber. Eclipse of God. Ed. Nouvelle Cité, Paris, 1987, p.31.
ivRichard Broxton Onians. The origins of European thought. Seuil, 1999, pp. 28-29.
vPierre Chantraine. Etymological dictionary of the Greek language. Ed. Klincksieck, Paris, 1968.
Jacob Taubes wrote an article, The controversy between Judaism and Christianity, whose subtitle reads: « Considerations on their indissoluble difference« i, in which he densely summed up what he views as the essence of the « impossible dialogue between « the Synagogue » and « the Church » ».
This non-dialogue has been going on for two millennia, and will only end at the end of time, in all probability.
The popular expression « Judeo-Christian tradition » is often used. But it is meaningless. Above all, it impedes a full understanding of the « fundamental » differences in the « controversial questions concerning the Jewish and Christian religions » that « continue to influence every moment of our lives ». ii
From the outset, Jacob Taubes asserts that no concession on the part of Judaism towards Christianity is possible. The opposition is frontal, radical, absolute, irremediable.
In order for two parties to begin any kind of debate, at the very least, they must recognize each other’s legitimate right to participate in that debate.
However, these really basic conditions are not even fulfilled…
One party does not recognize the other. Christianity means nothing to Judaism. Christianity has absolutely no religious legitimacy for the latter:
« For the Jewish faith, the Christian religion in general and the body of the Christian Church in particular have no religious significance. For the Church, there is a Jewish « mystery, » but the Synagogue knows no « Christian » mystery of any kind. For Jewish belief, the Christian Church cannot have any religious significance; and the division of historical time into a « before Christ » and an « after Christ » cannot be recognized by the Synagogue. Moreover, it cannot even be recognized as something that, though meaningless to the Jewish people, represents a truth to the rest of the world. » iii
The denial of Christianity by Judaism is implacable, definitive. Christianity is not « recognized » by Judaism. It has intrinsically no « religious significance ». This absence of « religious significance » is not limited to the « Jewish people ». Nor does Judaism recognize any religious « significance » for religions from « the rest of the world ».
It is useless to expect from Jacob Taubes scholarly comparisons and fine analyses comparing Jewish and Christian theological elements in order to try to deepen the terms of a common questioning.
A major element of the Christian faith is only « blasphemy » from the Jewish point of view:
« But, from the Jewish point of view, the division into « Father » and « Son » operates a cleavage of the divine being; the Synagogue looked at it, and still looks at it, simply as blasphemy. » iv
In theory, and in good faith, for the sake of the « controversy », Jacob Taubes could have evoked, on this question of the « Father » and the « Son », the troubling passages of the Zohar which deal with the generation of Elohim following the « union » of the One with Wisdom (Hokhmah)v.
Is the « Father-Son-Holy Spirit » Trinity structurally analogous to the Trinity of « the One, Hokhmah and Elohim »?
Does it offer points of comparison with the revelation made to Moses under a formal Trinitarian formula: « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex. 3:14) or with the strange Trinitarian expression of Deuteronomy: « YHVH, Elohenou, YHVH » (Deut. 6:4)?
Maybe so. Maybe not. But this is not the bottom line for Taubes: he is not at all interested in a thorough confrontation of texts and ideas on such opaque and metaphysical subjects.
This lack of interest in comparative hermeneutics is all the more striking because Taubes immediately admits that Judaism, in its long history, has in fact fallen back a great deal on its supposed « rigid monotheism »:
« The recent insistence on rigid monotheism as the defining characteristic of Jewish religious life is contradicted by a fact that contemporary Jewish thinkers tend to dismiss: the centuries-long predominance of the Lurian Kabbalah in Judaism. The Kabbalah has developed theological speculations that can only be compared to Gnostic (and pagan) mythologies. The mythical unity of the divine King and the divine Queen, the speculation on Adam Kadmon, the mythology of the ten sephirot, which are not attributes but manifestations of the divine, of different essences, poses a challenge to any historian of religion who claims to judge what is Jewish and what is not according to the criterion of a « rigid monotheism ». The Jewish religion would not have been able to cope with the explosion of Kabbalistic mythologization if its fundamental and determining characteristic had been a rigid monotheism. » vi
Even more astonishing, Jacob Taubes, after having denied any kind of « religious significance » to Christianity, affirms however that « Christianity is a typically Jewish heresy »:
« Christian history, Jesus’ claim to the title of Messiah and Pauline theology of Christ as the end of the Law are not at all « singular » events for Judaism, but are things that regularly recur in the fundamental Jewish frame (Grundmuster)of religious existence. As I have already said, Christian history does not constitute a « mystery » for the Jewish religion. Christianity represents a « typical » crisis in Jewish history, which expresses a typically Jewish « heresy »: antinomistic messianism – the belief that with the coming of the Messiah, what is decisive for salvation is not the observance of the Law, but faith in the Messiah. » vii
But if Christianity is, for Judaism, a « typically Jewish heresy », does this not recognize it as a form of « significance » in the eyes of Judaism, if only because of its antinomic opposition? The fact that forms of heresy, at least formally analogous to Christianity, may have appeared in a recurring manner within Judaism itself, does not this imply the presence of a subterranean question, always at work, in the darkness of the foundations?
Judaism seems indeed to suffer from certain structural « weaknesses », at least according to the opinion of Jacob Taubes :
« The weakness of all modern Jewish theology – and not only modern – is that it fails to designate Halakhah, the Law, as its alpha and omega. Since the period of Emancipation, the Jewish religion has been in crisis because it lost its center when Halakhah lost its central position and binding force in Jewish thought and life. From the moment Halakhah ceases to be the determining force in Jewish life, the door is open to all the anti-halakhic (antinomistic) and disguised Christian assumptions that are prevalent in secularized modern Christian society. » viii
On the one hand, Christianity has no « religious significance », according to Jacob Taubes.
On the other hand, Christianity threatens Halakhah in its very foundation, which is of the order of the Law, and in its « ultimate » principle, justice:
« Halakhah is essentially based on the principle of representation: the intention of man’s heart and soul must be manifested and represented in his daily life. Therefore the Halakhah must become « external » and « legal », it must deal with the details of life because it is only in the details of life that the covenant between God and man can be presented. (…) Halakhah is the Law because justice is the ultimate principle: ecstatic or pseudo-ecstatic religiosity can see in the sobriety of justice only dead legalism and external ceremonialism, just as anarchy can conceive law and order only as tyranny and oppression. » ix
Here we are at the core. For Taubes, Judaism has as its essential foundations Law and Justice, which are radically opposed to the « principle of love »:
« The controversy between the Jewish religion and the Christian religion refers to the eternal conflict between the principle of the Law and the principle of love. The « yoke of the Law » is challenged by the enthusiasm of love. But in the end, only the « justice of the Law » could question the arbitrariness of love. » x
-Judaism does not give any religious significance to Christianity, nor does it recognize any meaning for the « rest of the world ».
-In reality Christianity is only a « Jewish heresy », as there have been so many others.
-Judaism is threatened by Christianity in that it deeply undermines Halakhah in a modern, secularized Christian society.
-The two essential principles of Judaism are the Law and justice.
-The essential principle of Christianity is love, but this principle is « arbitrary », -Judaism must question the « principle of love » through the « justice of the Law ».
Logically, the above points are inconsistent with each other when considered as a whole.
But logic has little to do with this debate, which is not, and probably cannot be « logical ».
Therefore, one has to use something other than logic.
But what? Vision? Intuition? Prophecy?
One reads, right at the very end of the Torah, its very last sentence:
« No prophet like Moses has ever risen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face. »xi
Let’s presume that the Torah tells the ultimate truth about this. How could it be otherwise?
Then, maybe, « He » could have risen out of Israel?
The Masters of Israel, from blessed memory, also testified, according to Moses de Leon:
« He has not risen in Israel, but He has risen among the nations of the world.» xii
The Masters cited the example of Balaam. He is a prophet, undeniably, since « God presented Himself (vayiqar) to Balaam » (Num. 23:4), but Balaam still is a « sulphurous » prophet.
However Balaam « stood up » before the end of the Torah. Which leaves open the question of other prophets « standing up » after the Torah was completed…
It is up to us, who belong to the nations of the world, to reflect and meditate on the prophets who may have risen – no longer in Israel, since none could possibly have « risen » in Israel since Moses – but among the « nations of the world ».
And this according to the testimony, not only of the Torah, but of the illustrious Jewish Masters who commented on it.
iJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009.
iiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference. « Time is running out. From worship to culture. Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p.101
iiiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 105
ivJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 104
viJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 111
viiJacob Taubes. »The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 113
viii« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 114-115
ix« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 115
xJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. Seuil. 2009. p. 117
The Book of Creation (« Sefer Yetsirah ») explains that the ten Sefirot Belimah (literally: the ten « numbers of non-being ») are « spheres of existence out of nothingness ». They have appeared as « an endless flash of light, » and « the Word of God circulates continuously within them, constantly coming and going, like a whirlwind. »i.
All of these details are valuable, but should not in fact be disclosed at all in public. The Book of Creation intimates this compelling order: « Ten Sefirot Belimah: Hold back your mouth from speaking about it and your heart from thinking about it, and if your heart is carried away, return to the place where it says, ‘And the Haioth go and return, for that is why the covenant was made’ (Ezekiel 6:14). »ii
I will not « hold my mouth » : I will quote the very texts of those who talk about it, think about it, go to it and come back to it over and over again.
For example, Henry Corbin, in a text written as an introduction to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations by Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzi, the most famous Iranian philosopher at the time of the brilliant Safavid court of Isfahan, and a contemporary of Descartes and Leibniz in Europe, wonders in his turn about the essence of sefirot, and raises the question of their ineffability.
« The quiddity or divine essence, what God or the One is in his being, is found outside the structure of the ten sefirot, which, although they derive from it, do not carry it within them at all. The ten sefirot are ‘without His quiddity’ (beli mahuto, בלי מהותו), such is the teaching of the sentence in the Book of Creation. (…) But a completely different exegesis of the same sentence from the Book ofCreation is advanced in the Sicle of the Sanctuary. For this new exegesis, the word belimah does not mean beli mahout (without essence) but refers to the inexpressible character of the sefirot whose mouth must ‘refrain itself (belom) from speaking' ». iii
So, the question is : are sefirot « without divine essence », as the Book of Creation seems to say?
Or are sefirot really divine, and therefore « unspeakable »?
Or are they only « that which cannot be spoken of », according to the restrictive opinion of Moses de Leon (1240-1305), who is the author of the Sicle of the Sanctuary?
It seems to me that Moses de Leo, also apocryphal author of the famous Zohar, occupies a position on this subject that is difficult to defend, given all the speculations and revelations that abound in his main work…
Moreover, if one « cannot speak » of the sefirot, nor « think » about them, how can one then attribute any value whatsoever to the venerable Sefer Yetsirah (whose origin is attributed to Abraham himself, – but whose writing is dated historically between the 3rd and 6th century A.D.)?
On the other hand, – an argument of authority it is true, but not without relevance -, it should be emphasized that the Sicle of the Sanctuary is nevertheless « a little young » compared to the Sefer Yestsirah, which is at least a millennium older.
In view of these objections, let us consider that we can continue to evoke here (albeit cautiously) the sefirot, and try to reflect on them.
The sefirot, what are they? Are they of divine essence or are they pure nothingness?
The Zohar clearly states :
« Ten Sefirot Belimah: It is the breath (Ruah) of the spirit of the Living God for eternity. The Word or creative power, the Spirit and the Word are what we call the Holy Spirit. » iv
Finding expressions such as the « Word » or the « Holy Spirit » in one of the oldest philosophical texts of Judaism (elaborated between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D.), may evoke strangely similar wordings, used in Christian Gospels.
There is, at least, a possibility of beginning a fruitful debate on the nature of the divine « emanations », to use the concept of atsilut – אצילות, used by Moses de Leon, and on the possible analogy of these « emanations » with the divine « processions » of the Father, Son and Spirit, as described by Christian theology?
What I would like to discuss here is how the Zohar links the « triple names » of God with what Moses de Leon calls the divine « emanations ».
The Zohar repeatedlyquotes several combinations of God’s « names », which form « triplets ».
In addition, it also deals with the divine « emanations » of which the sefirot seems an archetype, as well as expressions such as the « Breath » of God or his « Seed ».
Do the « divine emanations » and the « triple names » of God have some deep, structural, hidden relationship, and if so, what does this teach us?
The « triple names » of God.
In Scripture, there are several instances of what might be called the « triple names » of God, that is, formulas consisting of three words that form a unitary whole, an indissoluble verbal covenant to designate God:
-Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »)
To these « trinitarian » formulas, the Zohar adds for example:
–Berechit Bara Elohim (Gen 1:1) (« In the beginning created Elohim »)
Bringing these different « triplets » together, the Zohar establishes the idea that the names contained in each of these « triplets » are individually insufficient to account for the divine essence. Only the union of the three names in each of these formulations is supposed to be able to approach the mystery. But, taken individually, one by one, the names « YHVH », or « Ehyeh », or « Elohim », do not reach the ultimate level of comprehension. It is as if only the dynamic « procession » of the relationships between the names « within » each triplet could account for the mystery of God’s « Name ».
On the other hand, the Zohar suggests a kind of structural identity between the « triple names » just mentioned. Thus, by comparing term by term the verses Ex. 3:14 and Dt. 6:4, one can assume a kind of identity between YHVH and « Ehyeh ». And, based on the supposed analogy between Dt 6:4 and Gen 1:1, we can also identify the name « YHVH » with the names « Berechit » and « Elohim ».
Finally, if we pursue this structuralist logic, a word that could a priori be a « simple conjunction » with a grammatical vocation (the word « asher« ) acquires (according to the Zohar) the status of « divine noun », or divine hypostasis, as does the verb « bara« .
Let’s look at these points.
The Zohar formulates these structural analogies as follows:
« This is the meaning of the verse (Dt. 6:4): ‘Listen, Israel, YHVH, Elohenu, YHVH is one’. These three divine names designate the three scales of the divine essence expressed in the first verse of Genesis: ‘Berechit bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaim’, ‘Berechit’ designates the first mysterious hypostasis; ‘bara’ indicates the mystery of creation; ‘Elohim’ designates the mysterious hypostasis which is the basis of all creation; ‘eth-ha-shamaim’ designates the generating essence. The hypostasis ‘Elohim’ forms the link between the two others, the fecundating and the generating, which are never separated and form one whole. » v
We see that the Zohar thus distinguishes, from the first verse of the Torah, two « triplets » of divine names, somehow embedded in each other: ‘Berechit bara Elohim’ on the one hand, and ‘Bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaym’ on the other.
We also deduce that the second « triplet » is somehow « engendered » (in the sense of « generative grammars ») by the first « triplet », thanks to the special role played by the name ‘Elohim’.
The generative theory of the divine « triplets » also allows us to better understand the profound structure of the famous verse ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »), and moreover allows us to establish a link with the theory of the divine emanations of the Zohar.
Let’s look at this point.
The Seed of God: ‘Asher’ and ‘Elohim’.
The « Seed » of God is evoked metaphorically or directly in several texts of Scripture as well as in the Zohar. It has various names: Isaiah calls it ‘Zera’ (זֶרָע: ‘seed’, ‘seed’, ‘race’)vi. The Zohar calls it « Zohar » (זֹהַר: glow, brightness, light), but also « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who » – that is, as we have seen, the grammatical particle that can be used as a relative pronoun, conjunction or adverb), as the following two passages indicate:
« The word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the spark that the Mysterious One caused when he struck the void and which is the origin of the universe, which isa palace built for the glory of the Mysterious One. This spark constitutes in a waythe sacred seed of the world. This mystery is expressed in the words of Scripture(Is. 6:13): ‘And the seed to which it owes its existence is sacred.’ Thus the word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the seed He sowed for His glory, since the purpose of creation is the glorification of God. Like a mollusk from which purple is extracted andclothed in its shell, the divine seed is surrounded by the material that serves as its palace, built for the glory of God and the good of the world. This palace from which the divine seed has surrounded itself is called « Elohim » (Lord). This is the mysticalmeaning of the words: ‘With the Beginning He created Elohim’, that is, with the help of the ‘light’ (Zohar), the origin of all the Verbs (Maamaroth), God created ‘Elohim’ (Lord) ». vii
But a few lines later, the Zohar assigns to the word « Zohar » two more meanings, that of « Mysterious » and that of « Beginning ». Therefore, since the word « Zohar » is no longer available as a metaphor for the divine « Seed », the Zohar uses the word « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who ») to designate the latter, but also the word « Elohim », which derives from it by synonymous engendering and following a kind of « literal » pirouette, as shown in this passage:
« By the word ‘glow’ (Zohar), Scripture refers to the Mysterious called ‘Berechit’ (Beginning), because it is the beginning of all things. When Moses asked God what His name was, God replied (Ex. 3:14): « Ehyeh asher Ehyeh » (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה , I am He who is). The sacred name ‘Ehyeh’ appears on both sides, while the name ‘Elohim’ forms the crown, since it appears in the middle; for ‘Asher’ is synonymous with ‘Elohim’, whereas the name ‘Asher’ is formed from the sameletters that make up the word ‘Roch’ (head, crown). ‘Asher’, which is the same as ‘Elohim’, is derived from ‘Berechit’. As long as the divine spark was enclosed in the sublime palace, that is to say, before it manifested itself,it did not form any peculiarity that could be designated in the divine essenceby anyname; the Whole was One, under the name ‘Roch’. Butwhen God created, with the help of the sacred seed (‘Asher’), the palace of matter, ‘Asher’ took shape in the divine essence; only then did ‘Asher’ take, in the divine essence, the shape of a crown head (‘Roch’), being situated in the middle (‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’). Now, the word ‘Berechit’ contains the word ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’;it forms the words ‘Roch’ and ‘Baït’, i.e. ‘Roch’ enclosed in a palace (‘Baït’). viiiThe words: ‘Berechit Bara Elohim’ thus mean : When ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’,wasused as divine seed in the palace of matter, ‘Elohim’ was created; that is to say, Elohim took shape in the essence of God. ix
Let’s summarize what we just learned from the Zohar.
The divine « Seed » receives, according to its authors, the following names: Zera‘, Zohar, Asher, Roch (‘seed, glow, who, head’).
The « Seed » is deposited in the middle of the « palace ».
The Palace-Semen together are called ‘Beginning’ (Berechit).
And this ‘Beginning’ ‘created’ ‘Elohim’.
And all this is presented in the first verse of the Torah.
How can we fail to see in this thesis of the Zohar a structural analogy between « Elohim » and the Christian concept of « Son of God »?
Decidedly, even a purely ‘monotheistic’ theology needs « emanations » to live in the « world ».
Let’s begin with this verse from the Psalmist: « The foundation of your word is truth »i. In the original Hebrew: רֹאשׁ-דְּבָרְךָ אֱמֶת, roch devar-ka emét.
Another translation gives: « Truth, the principle of your word! » ii
In yet another translation, the word רֹאשׁ, roch, is translated as « essence »: « Truth is the essence of your word. »iii
The words used here, « foundation », « principle », « essence » are quite abstract. They belong to the philosophical language, and they seem somewhat removed from the spirit of ancient Hebrew, an eminently concrete, realistic language.
Originally, the word רֹאשׁ, rochmeans: 1) head, person, man. Then, by derivation, metonymy or metaphor: 2) head, top, point, main thing; 3) sum, number, troop; 4) beginning, the first; 5) a poisonous plant (the hemlock, or poppy), poison, venom, gall.
It is from the 4th meaning of roch thatthe word reshit, « beginning », derives, this word which one finds precisely at the very beginning of the Torah: Be-rechit, « in the beginning ».
If one wanted to render exactly all the connotations of the word רֹאשׁ, rosh in the verse of Psalm 119, one would have to resolve to translate it into a sum of formulations, – a swarm of meanings:
-At the head of your word, the truth.
-The tip of your word is truth.
-The sum of your word is truth.
-Truth is the beginning of your word.
-The truth is the venom of your word.
Each of these formulas is clearly unsatisfactory, but as a whole they open up new questions and new perspectives.
For example, if truth is « at the head » of the word, or in its « tip », or in its « beginning », does this mean that in all the « rest » of the word there is something other than truth?
If it is the « sum » of the word that is the « truth », does this imply that each of the parts of the « word » does not really contain it?
How can we understand that the word (of God) can contain a « venom »?
The more modern translations that have been cited (« foundation, principle, essence ») seem to escape these difficulties of interpretation. They immediately give the verse a veneer of depth and a kind of philosophical allure.
But this « abstract » veneer and this « philosophical » appearance are undoubtedly the indications of a real deviation from the original meaning, intended by the Psalmist, which was to be much more « concrete ».
If one wants to remain faithful to the genius of ancient Hebrew, the essence of the word roch must rather be sought in one of its main derivative, the word rechit (« beginning »).
This word is indeed part of the description of a key moment of Creation, the « Beginning », and it derives a special prestige from it.
This eminent moment is described by Zohar 1:15a in a surprisingly vivid way, in a passage full of dark light, particularly delicate to « translate », even for the best specialists and the most learned rabbis who have worked on it.
One may judge the difficulty from four very different translations of this strange text which will now be presented.
Gershom Scholem offers :
« In the beginning, when the King’s will began to act, he drew signs in the divine aura. A dark flame gushes forth from the most intimate depths of the mystery of the Infinite, the En-Sof; like a mist that gives form to what has no form, it is enclosed in the ring of this aura, it appears neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, without any color. But when it began to grow in height and spread, it produced radiant colors. For in the innermost center of this flame, a spring gushes forth, whose flames spill over everything below, hidden in the mysterious secrets of the En-Sof. The source gushes forth, and yet it does not gush forth completely, through the ethereal aura that surrounds it. It was absolutely unrecognizable until, under the shock of this spurt, a higher point then hidden would have shone. Beyond this point, nothing can be known or understood and that is why it is called Rechit, meaning « beginning », the first word of creation. » iv
What is this « point » called Rechit? Gershom Scholem indicates that for the Zohar (whose paternity he attributes to Moses de León) and for the majority of Kabbalist writers, this primordial « point », this « beginning » is identified with the divine « Wisdom », Hokhmah.
Before proposing his own translation-interpretation of this difficult passage of the Zohar, Charles Mopsikv cites two other translation-interpretations, that of R. Siméon Labi of Tripoli and that of R. Moses Cordovero, both dating from the 16th century:
R. Simeon Labi :
« In the head, the King’s word carved signs in the highest transparency. A spark of darkness came out of the middle of the enclosure, from the head of the Ein-Sof; attached to the Golem (or initial formless matter), planted in the ring (…) This source is enclosed in the middle of the enclosure until, thanks to the jostling force of its breakthrough, a point, the supreme enclosure, is illuminated. After this point one knows nothing more, that is why it is called Rechit (beginning), first word. » vi
R. Moses Cordovero :
« At the moment before the King said, in his supreme zenith, he engraved a sign. An obscure (or eminent) flame gushes out inside the most enclosed, which started from the confines of the Infinite, forms in the Golem planted in the center of the ring (…) In the center of the Flame a spring gushes out from which the colors took their hue when it reached the bottom. The enclosure of the Enigma of the Infinite tried to pierce, but did not pierce its surrounding air and remained unknown until, by the power of its breakthrough, a point was illuminated, the supreme enclosure. Above this point nothing is knowable, so it is called Rechit, beginning, first of all words. » vii
Having thus prepared the ground with three different versions, and benefiting from their respective contributions, Charles Mopsik proposes his own translation, which is also jargonous and amphigorous, but which is not without opening up new reflexive possibilities:
« From the outset, the King’s resolution left the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency. An obscure flame springs from the quivering of the Infinite in its confinement. Like a form in the formless, inscribed on the seal. Neither white, nor black, nor red, nor green, nor of any color. When he then set the commensurable, he brought out colors that illuminated the confinement. And from the flame a spring gushed forth, downstream from which the hues of these colors appeared. Enclosure in the Confinement, quivering of the Infinite, the source pierces and does not pierce the air that surrounds it and it remains unknowable. Until by the insistence of its piercing, it brings to light a tenuous point, supreme confinement. From there this point is the unknown, so it is called the ‘beginning’, the first of all. » viii
It should be noted at the outset that Mopsik clearly distinguishes himself from other translators, from the very first sentence, by proposing that the King « leave the trace of his withdrawal in supreme transparency », rather than « engrave or carve signs ».
He justifies this bold choice in this way:
« What led us to prefer the expression ‘to leave the trace of its withdrawal’ to ‘to inscribe signs’ comes from the fact that the verb galaf or galif is rarely found in the Midrach, and when it appears, it is associated with the idea of inscribing in hollow, of opening the matrix. Thus it is this term that is used when God visited Sarah and then Rikvah who were barren (see Gen 47.2 , Gen 53.5 and Gen 63.5).
It is therefore likely that Zohar uses these connotations of generation and fertilization. Moreover, the passage in question was later interpreted by the school of Louria as an evocation of the Tsimtsum, or withdrawal of the divine.»ix
In Mopsik’s interpretation, therefore, in the beginning, God « opens the matrix », then withdraws from it, but nevertheless « leaves a trace of his withdrawal ».
Which « matrix » is it?
According to the Zohar, this ‘matrix’ is Wisdom (Hokhmah).
Indeed, a little further on, the Zohar gives these relatively cryptic, yet enlightening explanations:
« Until now, this has been the secret of ‘YHVH Elohim YHVH’. These three names correspond to the divine secret contained in the verse ‘In the beginning created Elohim’ (Berechit bara Elohim). Thus, the expression ‘In the beginning’ is an ancient secret, namely: Wisdom (Hokhmah) is called ‘Beginning’. The word ‘created’ also alludes to a hidden secret, from which everything develops. » x
Let’s summarize what we just learned:
Wisdom (Hokmah) is also called ‘Beginning’ (Rechit).
The « matrix » that God « opens » at the « Beginning », before « withdrawing » from it, is that of Wisdom. According to Charles Mopsik, the metaphors that the Zohar uses to describe this moment evoke « generation » and « fecundation ».
The Zohar, decidedly well-informed, still delivers these precisions:
« With this Beginning, the Hidden and Unknown One created the Temple (or Palace), and this Temple is called by the name ‘Elohim’. This is the secret of the words: ‘In the beginning created Elohim. xi
The great secret, unspeakable, spreads out clearly in the Zohar:
The One unites himself with Wisdom (whose other name is ‘Beginning’), then withdraws from it, while leaving his trace. From this union of the One and the Beginning is born the Temple (also called ‘Elohim’).
According to the Zohar, the first verse of the Torah ‘Be-rechit bara Elohim’ should be understood as follows: « With the Beginning, [the One, the Hidden One] created the Elohim (Lords).
Jewish ‘monotheism’ is definitely full of surprises…
From the Beginning, the Trinity of the One, Wisdom and Elohim is revealed.
The Elohim are generated by Wisdom, impregnated by the One…
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
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.
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)
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.