Bitter Angels of History


Klee’s painting, Angelus novus, has a catchy title. It gives the painting an air of mystery. Angels, however, are so many, there are billions of them, on every pinhead, it is said. Every boson, every prion even, could have its own angel. In this immense crowd, how can we distinguish between « new » and « old » angels?

Are not angels, by nature, essentially timeless, pure spirits?

Klee’s angel is curiously static, even motionless. There is no sensation of movement, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing.

His « wings » are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forward. His « fingers », or « feathers », are pointing upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose is like another tiny face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several are missing.

This ailing, stunted angel has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher shop.

Walter Benjamin made this comment, expressly metaphorical: “There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. This is what the angel of History must necessarily look like. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm blows from heaven, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is pushing him incessantly towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins pile up as far as heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i

It seems to me that Benjamin has completely re-invented the Klee painting, for his own purposes. No storm, no accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seem – in my opinion – to accompany the young angel of Klee.

Why, moreover, should History have only one ‘Angel’? And, if it were so, why should this Angel of History be ‘new’, when History is not?

Angelology is a very imperfect science, like History, it seems.

Isaiah said: “The angels of peace shall weep bitterly.”ii

In the Book of Daniel, we read that an archangel appeared and said: “The Prince of the Persians resisted me for twenty-one days.”iii According to a classical interpretation, this archangel was Gabriel, and the « Prince of the Persians » was the angel in charge of guarding the Persian kingdom.

S. Jerome added that Daniel prayed for the liberation of his people. But the Angel-Prince of the Persian kingdom opposed his prayers, while the archangel Gabriel presented them to God.

S. Thomas Aquinas commented the commentary: “This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”iv

Isn’t this here a quite convincing indication, based on the Scriptures, that there are definitely several angels playing a role in History, and that, moreover, they are sometimes brought to fight each other, according to the interests of the moment?

According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels belong to various orders and classes, such as the Principalities (hence the name « Prince » that we have just met for the angel of Persia), the Powers, the Virtues, the Dominations. Even better known are the Cherubim and Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « crying out to one another ». Ezechiel speaks of Cherubim he had a vison of, and according to him, each of them had four faces and four wings.v

The Kabbalists propose ten classes of Angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.

Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, but he arranges them in a different order, and groups them into two large classes, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».

Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguished between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time.

Where, then, should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, that « new » angel whom Benjamin calls the « Angel of History »? Is he permanent or perishable? Eternal or momentary?

If Benjamin and Klee are right, we should believe that History is guarded just by one ‘new angel’, who therefore must be probably perishable and momentary.

But if they are wrong, History is guarded not by one, but by many angels, and they may be eternal, imperishable.

They then may also cry out to each other like seraphim with multiple wings, and in the confused battles of the angels furiously mixed up, over the centuries, progress might be hard to perceive.

There is one thing, however, that we can be assured of: the most beautiful, the most brilliant of these seraphim (though not the most powerful apparently), – these angels of « peace » keep crying out, bitterly.

iWalter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History. 1940

iiIs. 33, 7

iiiDan. 10,13

ivSumma Theologiae I, Q. 113 a.8

vEz. 10,14-22

One Day, Death Will Die


Mocking, John Donne provokes Deathi. He wants to humiliate, crush, annihilate her. He absolutely reverses the roles. He’s the one who’s holding the scythe now. In a few precise sentences, he reaps death and war, poison and disease. Death is nothing more than a slave subject to fate and chance, power and despair; she is chained, and there are far better sleepers than her, opiates or dreamers.

At the moment when death, the « poor death », believes it has conquered, only a short sleep separates us from eternity. Metaphysical pirouette. Great leap of the angel to the nose of nothingness.

The last line of the Sonnet reads « And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

This line reminds us of Paul’s formula: « O Death, where is thy victory? »ii.

Paul’s formula itself evokes that of the prophet Hosea when he pronounced curses against Ephraim and the idolaters of Judah: « And I will deliver them from the power of Sheol? And I will deliver them from death? O death, where is your pestilence? Sheol, where is your destruction? »iii

There is, however, an important nuance between Paul and Hosea. Hosea called Death and the power of Sheol over guilty men. Paul announces the annihilation of Death itself.

In this Paul does not innovate. He refers to Isaiah, when Isaiah said: « Yahweh has put an end to death forever. »iv

Isaiah, Hosea, Paul, Donne, through the centuries, share the same idea. One day, Death will die one day. No doubt, death will die.

Who better than a prophet, an apostle, a poet, can take a firm stand on this ultimate issue?

i

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadfull ; for, thou art not soe,

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doe go,

Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poyson, warre, and sickness dwell,

And poppie, or charmes can make us sleep as well,

And better then thy stroake ; why swell’st thou then ?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,

And death shall be no more ; death, thou shalt die.

John Donne, Holy Sonnets, X

ii 1 Cor. 15.55

iii Hos. 13,14

iv Is. 25,8

Why did YHVH Attack Moses, Seeking to Kill him?


“The LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’. So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision’.”i

This text is off-putting, disjointed, enigmatic and raises many questions.

For example, is Zipporah addressing her son or her husband when she pronounces these words: « You are for me a bridegroom of blood »? Both interpretations are possible, and both have been defended by learned commentators.

According to some, Zipporah has just circumcised her son and she calls him « blood husband » because he is bleeding.

According to others, Moses neglected to circumcise his child, which is why God « attacked him » and « sought to kill him”. When Moses was close to death, Zipporah called him « blood husband, » because she had saved him with her son’s blood.

The first interpretation is preferred by the majority of commentators. But it poses a problem. One could ask whether Zipporah is operating a kind of symbolic incest. The mother calls her son twice: « blood husband » and « blood husband because of circumcision ». There would undoubtedly be there, for psychoanalysis, a form of symmetry with the true husband, Moses, who made Zipporah bleed « because of » her defloration.

Moses tore Zipporah’s hymen, as a husband of flesh. Zipporah cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, as a « husband of blood ». A symbolic parallel, heavy with analytical consequences, but also a saving act. Just after Zipporah cut off the foreskin, YHVH released Moses, and it is then that Zipporah clarified: « A husband of blood because of circumcision. »

But why would Zipporah feel the need to « touch » the feet of her son Eliezer with her foreskin?

The second interpretation is perhaps deeper. Zipporah saves her husband’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer in a hurry, while YHVH (or his angel) is about to kill Moses. Then she touches « his feet » with her foreskin. Whose feet? In the second interpretation, they are the « feet » of Moses, and it is to him that she addresses herself. But why the “feet”? Why touch the feet of Moses with his son’s foreskin?

In biblical Hebrew, “feet” are a metaphor often used to signify sex, as in Isaiah 7:20: « He shall shave the head and the hair of the feet ». Zipporah touched the sex of Moses with his son’s foreskin and said to him: « You are a blood husband to me », because it was also his blood that flowed, with the blood of his son. Circumcision is the figure of a new marriage, not with the son (which would be incest), but with Moses, and this in a symbolic sense, the sense of the Covenant, which is physically concluded in the blood of both spouses, as they are united by the blood of Eliezer.

In other words, Zipporah saved the life of Moses (who was uncircumcised) by simulating his circumcision. She touches the sex of Moses with the foreskin of her son, who has just been circumcised, and thus appeases the divine wrath, which was twofold: because the father and the son had not yet been circumcised.

At that very moment, YHVH « let him [Moses] alone ». This translation does not render the richness of the original Hebrew word. The verb used, rafah, has as its first meaning « to heal »; in a second sense, it means « to decline, to weaken, to desist, to release ». Healing is a weakening of the disease. It is worth noting this double meaning. YHVH « releases » Moses, « desists » from him, and thus He « heals » him. He « heals » Moses of his capital fault, and he also « heals » the child who is bleeding, and who might have died as a result of the operation, carried out with a stone in the middle of the desert, without much hygiene, and in an emergency.

There is yet another angle to this story.

Rachi comments: « He deserved to die because of this negligence. A Baraïta teaches us: Rabbi Yosef said: God forbid, Moses was not guilty of negligence. But he thought, « Shall I circumcise the child and set off? Will the child be in danger for three days? Shall I circumcise the child and wait three days? Yet the Holy One Blessed be He, who commanded me: Go, return to Egypt. Why then should he deserve death? Because he had first taken care of his bed at the stage instead of circumcising him without delay. The Talmud in the Nedarim Treaty (32a) says that the angel took the form of a snake, and swallowed him starting from the head to the hips, then rejected him and swallowed him again starting from the feet to the place in question. That’s how Zipporah understood that it was because of the circumcision. »

Rashi presents Moses in the throes of procrastination. Which of God’s commandments should be obeyed first: that of returning to Egypt, or that of circumcising his son? He falls into the fault when he does not immediately take care of the circumcision. But the Nedarim Treaty goes further. It evokes Moses swallowed by a snake. The snake starts at the head and stops at the hips (at the sex), then spits him out and starts again by swallowing him, starting by the feet.

Let’s try our own interpretation.

One can speculate that this « snake » metaphorically represents disease. Moses, uncircumcised, may have been the victim of a genital infection, which resulted in high fevers, with pain extending to the sex. Then, after a remission, the infection would start again from the « feet » (the sex). The kind of fellatio performed by the « snake » is a rather crude metaphor, but « biblical » after all. In any case, the Talmudists thought about it allusively, and felt that this was how Zipporah understood what she had to do.

But if Moses had a genital infection, why did Zipporah operate on her son’s sex rather than on Moses’?

As an unrepentant rationalist, I shall attempt a medical explanation.

Zipporah touched her husband’s sex with her son’s bloody foreskin. The son’s blood contained antibodies, which cured Moses’ genital infection.

Quite a rational solution. Yet it was a (rather irrational) angel who suggested it to Zipporah…

iEx. 4, 24-26

A Very Lousy Bargain With God


The prophet Isaiah was sawed in half with a wood saw by order of Manasseh, king of Judah. It was Belkira, also a prophet in Jerusalem, who had accused him.

What was the accusation? Isaiah had called Jerusalem « Sodom, » and had foretold that it would be devastated along with the other cities of Judah.

He also prophesied that the sons of Judah and Benjamin would go into captivity, and that king Manasseh would be put in a cage with iron chains.

Belkira claimed that Isaiah hated Israel and Judah.

But the most serious accusation was that Isaiah had dared to say: « I see further than the prophet Moses ».

Moses had said: « No man shall see the LORD and live. »

Isaiah had contradicted him: « I have seen the LORD, and behold, I am alive. »

Isaiah had told his vision in detail to Hezekiah, king of Judah and father of Manasseh, and to several prophets, including Micah.

Let’s summarize it here. An angel took Isaiah up to the firmament and then to the first six heavens. Finally he reached the seventh heaven. There he saw « someone standing, whose glory was greater than all else, a great and marvelous glory ». The angel said to him: « This is the Lord of all the glory that you have seen ». Isaiah also saw another glorious being, similar to the first. He asked, « Who is this one? ». The angel answered, “Worship him, for this is the angel of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken in you and in the other righteous ones.”

That was just foreplay.

Isaiah continued.

“And my Lord, with the angel of the Spirit, came to me, and said: ‘Behold, thou hast been given to see the LORD; and for thy sake this power is given to the angel that is with thee.’ And I saw that my Lord worshipped, and the angel of the Spirit, and they both glorified the LORD together.”i

Isaiah also claimed to have seen the LORD, Yahweh-God, in the year of the death of King Uzziah (~740). « I saw the LORD sitting on a great and high throne (…) ». And he cried out in anguish: « Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.”ii

The price to pay for this vision was relatively small. A seraphim flew to Isaiah, and touched his mouth with an ember caught with pliers.

It was only later that he finally had to pay with his life for this vision of God: his body was sawed in half.

When Isaiah saw God, the Lord said to him, « Go and tell this people, ‘Listen, listen, and do not understand; look, look, and do not discern’. Make the heart of this people heavy, make their ears hard, swallow up their eyes. »iii

Two lessons can be drawn from these texts.

Firstly, Isaiah sees God face to face in all his glory, but does not die, contrary to what Moses said.

Secondly, though all this divine glory is clearly revealed to Isaiah, it only entrusted him with a rather disappointing and illogical message to deliver on his return to earth.

God sends Isaiah back to his people with a warning that is inaudible, incomprehensible, and above all paradoxical, contradictory. He must tell the people to ‘listen’ to him, but at the same time make them hard of hearing, and incapable to understand.

He must tell them to ‘look’ and  and make their eyes glaze over.

Isaiah did not call into question the rather lousy mission he had been given.

Why so much glory given to Isaiah, and at the same time so much severity for the people?

As a matter of strong contrast, let us recall what happened to Ezra.

Ezra also had a vision.

The angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel placed him on a « cloud of flames » and took him to the seventh heaven. But when he got there, unlike Isaiah, Ezra saw only « the back of the Lord, » noting, « I have not deserved to see anything else. »

In front of the Lord’s back, Ezra tried to intervene on behalf of men. He told him without delay and spontaneously: « Lord, spare sinners!”

Then began a rather long quarrel between God and Ezra.

Ezra said, « How righteous are you, how almighty are you, how merciful are you, and how worthy are you? « 

He also asked what will happen on Judgment day.

The Lord answered, « The Moon will become blood on the last day, and the sun will flow in its blood. »

This prompted Ezra to reply, « In what has heaven sinned? « 

The Lord replied, « This heaven looks down upon the wickedness of mankind. »

Ezra wanted to plead the cause of men once again.

He attacked on a sensitive point, the election.

Ezra: « By the life of the Lord! I am going to plead for good against you because of all the men who have no place among the chosen ones! »

The Lord: « But you will be chosen with my prophets! »

Ezra: « Sinners, who shaped them? »

The Lord: « It’s me. »

Ezra: “If I too, like sinners, was created by you, then it is better to lose myself than the whole world!»iv

Here is a great prophet, Isaiah, who had the great privilege, denied even to Moses, of seeing the glory of God without dying, and who returns to earth with the mission to weigh down the hearts of his people, to make them deaf and blind.

And here is another prophet, Ezra, who could only see the « back of the Lord », but who did not hesitate to plead the cause of men on several occasions, and who said he was ready to renounce his election and to lose himself in exchange for the salvation of the world.

How should this be interpreted?

The Lord agreed to do men a favor, and said to Ezra: « Let sinners rest from their labors from the ninth hour of the Sabbath eve until the second day of the week; but on the other days let them be punished in return for their sins. »

From Friday afternoon until Monday midnight, three and a half days of grace.

One half of the week filled with grace. Half of the time then.

A good result for a prophet admitted to see only the « back of God ».

Think what Isaiah might have gotten if he had only tried to bargain with God.

Maybe, being captivated by his vision of God’s glory did not prepare him to engage God into a serious bargaining….

i The Ascension of Isaiah, 9, 27-40

ii Is. 6, 1-5

iii Is. 6,9-10

ivVision of Esdras, 87-89a

Pe’or – a Very Modern Idol


According to the Talmud of Jerusalem, a Jew,  named Sabbathai of Ulama, one day entered the temple of Pe’or, then « fulfilled a need and wiped himself on Pe’or’s face. All who heard of it praised the man for this deed and said: « Never has anyone ever acted as well as he did.»i

What to think of this curious scene? The Talmud seems to regard it as a great deed, an act of courage showing the contempt of an Israelite for the idols of the Moabites. A Jew, defecates on the idol, wipes himself on the idol’s nose, and receives praise from his fellow believers.

In reality, no blasphemy, no transgression happened then: the cult of Pe’or consisted precisely in doing this sort of rite. Rashi explains it very well: « PE’OR. Named so because people undressed (פוערין ) in front of him and relieved themselves: that is what his cult consisted of. »

One may infer from that indication that the Talmud’s comment (« No one has ever acted as well as he did ») could not come in fact from other Jews, supposed to be gleefully approving of Sabbathaï desecrating the idol.

How could law-abiding Jews approve of a Jew who would have just strictly followed the rites of a pagan cult in the temple of Pe’or?

It is more likely that the praise for Sabbathai came rather from the Moabites themselves, being surprised (and maybe flattered) to see an Israelite following the rites of worship of Pe’or, and even adding a final touch of perfection, a remarkable pirouette.

The name Pe’or comes from the verbal root ָפָּעַר which in Hebrew means « to open one’s mouth wide ». The god Peor, a.k.a Ba’al Pe’or, (and better known in the West as Belphegor), was the « god of openness ». Whether this openness is that of the mouth or that of the anus is of secondary importance. It could just as well be a reference to the opening mouth of the Earth or of Hell.

In fact, Isaiah uses the word pe’or in an infernal, hellish, context: « Therefore the Sheol expands its throat and opens its mouth ( וּפָעֲרָה פִיהָ) inordinately.»ii

Another word, very close phonetically (פָּצַה), means « to split, to open wide », and in a metaphorical sense « to unchain, to deliver ». The Psalmist uses it in this way: « Deliver me, save me.»iii

Ba’al Pé’or, god of « openness », is a god over whom one could defecate “religiously”. That was a metaphor for deliverance…

One may say, rather counter-intuitively, that Ba’al Pé’or also prefigured, beyond what could be considered the apparent nothingness of idols, and their laughable inanity, a more disturbing idea:  that of a Godhead ultimately despised and humiliated, – by the defecation of human excrements.

A very modern idea.

iQuoted in Georges Sorel, in Le système historique de Renan, Paris, Ed. G. Jacques, 1906

ii Is. 5, 14

iii Ps. 144,7

Leaving aside Joy and Sorrow


All religions, all beliefs, play their part in this world.

They are all quite different in a sense, But they all play a role in the current global, political and moral crisis.

Whether Vedic, Egyptian, Zend, Chaldean, Jewish, Buddhist, Hinduist, Christian, Islamic, all religions have something essential in common: they all have some kind of responsibility for the misfortune of the world.

Whether they say they are « outside » the world, or « inside » the world, they are responsible for what they say or let say, for what they do or let do on their behalf.

They are part of the world, taking on the most eminent place, that of judge, master and sage.

How could they not be linked to the actions and speeches of their followers?

How can we not judge them as much on what they say as on what they don’t say?

How can we not bring their great witnesses to the public arena and ask their opinion on the state of the world, as we would on election night or on a day of disaster?

We don’t really know where the chain of prophets began or when it will end.

Is the seal of the word sealed for eternity? Who will tell?

Will the Messiah return? Who will see that day?

Will eschatology come to an end? Who will hear the final Word?

If ten thousand years is not enough to lower the pride of the presumptuous, let us give ourselves a hundred centuries or a million millennia, just to see what will remain of the dust of words once tables, once stones, once laws.

Lists of names can be listed, to stimulate memories. How far back do we go?

Agni, Osiris, Melchizedek, Zoroaster, Moses, Hermes, Buddha, Pythagoras, Isaiah, Jesus, Muhammad…

In a few million years, we will see that they all shared their differences, their aspirations, their visions, their breaths, their ends.

What does the « religion » of these prophets have to do with « entities » now called Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United States, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, India, Greece, China, France, Germany?

Will History teach us some day the essence of the difference between the « religion » of the Khârijites, the Zaydites, the Imâmites, the Ismaili Shi’ites and the Sunni ‘majority’ of Islam?

What was really the origin of the « religion » of the Nizarrians, and that of Hassan ibn al-Sabbah’s Assassiyoun?

What is the « religion » of the Taliban?

These questions are pointless, useless, apparently. There are better things to do, as it seems, such as fighting, killing people, bombing cities, beheading bodies, murdering children.

The religions of the past illuminate the wanderings of the present and those of the future with a special light, a premonitory aura.

Their slow epigenesis must be observed.

Their (implicit, slow) convergence must not be excluded, in the long run, beyond their differences.

Memory is necessary for understanding the present, as time takes its time.

But who still has time to remember?

Religions highlight, with words, curses and targeted blessings, much of the world’s misfortune.

They reveal the fragility, weakness, instability, irreducible fracture of Man.

They encourage us to take a long and global perspective, to observe the events of the day, to understand them, to anticipate their consequences, and to overcome pain, anxiety, fatigue and the desire for revenge, the drive for hatred.

For more than fifty-five centuries, several religions have been born and deployed in a limited geographical area, it is worth noting.

This privileged area, this node of beliefs and passions, extends from the Nile Valley to the Ganges basin, via the Tigris and Euphrates, the Oxus, and the Indus.

Geography changes more slowly than the hearts of mortals….

Between the Indus and the Oxus, which country best reflects today the past millennia, the erased glories?

Pakistan? Afghanistan?

How can we forget that Iran and Iraq (like Ireland) take their names from the ancient Aryas, attesting to the ancient Indo-European ties of Persia, Elam and Europe?

The Aryas, long before they even received their « Aryan » name, founded two major religions, the Veda in India, and the Zend Avesta in Iran.

Colossal forces! Immaculate memories!

Antoine Fabre d’Olivet reports that Diagoras de Melos (5th century BC), nicknamed « the atheist », a mocking and irreverent character, discredited the Mysteries by disclosing and ‘explaining’ them. He even went so far as to imitate them in public. He recited the Orphic Logos, he shamelessly revealed the Mysteries of Eleusis and those of the Cabires.

Who will dare to unveil today, like Diagoras, the actual mysteries of the world to the amazed crowds?

« Religion » is a prism, a magnifying glass, a telescope and a microscope at the same time.

« Religion » is above all an anthropological phenomenon.

Dogma bring nothing to this debate, or rather ignite it without benefit to the heart or the mind.

A global anthropology of « religion » could possibly reveal some constants of the human mind.

These constants do exist. Thus, the latent, impalpable or fleeting feeling of « mystery ».

This « mystery » is not defined. It escapes any categorization. But implicitly, indirectly, by multiplying approaches, by varying angles, by accumulating references, by evoking the memory of peoples, their sacredness, perhaps we sometimes manage to see the shadow of its trace, its attenuated effluvium.

There is also the idea of a unique, principal, creative divinity. It is found in various forms, in ancient times, long before Abraham’s time, before the Zend, even before the Veda.

Constant again is the question of origin and death, the question of knowledge of what we cannot know.

What breath then goes through the pages of the Book of the Dead, the manuscripts of Nag Hammadi, the hymns of Ṛg Véda or the Gāthās of Zend Avesta? What breath, even today, runs through the world, in a time so different from the origins?

This breath, it is still possible to perceive it, to breathe its smell.

A world of ideas and beliefs, distant, astonishing, serves as a foundation for today’s world, filled with violence and lies, populated by « saints » and murderers, wise men and prophets, fools and crooks, death cries and « divine winds » (kami-kaze).

Who, today, thinks the world’s destiny?

When reading the Upaniṣad, let us also think of the « masters of the world », the « gnomes » enslaved to the banks, the political « dwarves » governing the peoples, perched on the shoulders of centuries?

« Those who are agitated in ignorance consider themselves wise. They run wildly around like blind people, led by a blind man. »i

It is a fact that we often observe, at the highest level, hypocrisy, lies, baseness, cowardice, and much more rarely wisdom, courage, truth.

But it is also a fact that anything can happen, always., at any time.

Anything is possible, on principle. The worst. The best. The mediocre. The unspeakable. The unheard of.

The world is saturated with ideas from all ages. Sometimes, from nowhere, new forms are born, shimmering above the rubble and catacombs, relics and hypogoria, crypts and hidden treasures.

Who will see these incredible visions, yet to appear?

Those who will be able to « meditate on what is difficult to perceive, penetrate the secret that is deposited in the hidden place, that resides in the ancient abyss ».

Those who « leave aside the joy and sorrow. »ii

i KU. 2.5

iiKU. 2.12

Teresa’s Ecstasy


Grothendieck has revolutionized the notion of mathematical space, as Einstein did in physics. He invented a new geometry, in which « the arithmetic world and the world of continuous quantities are now one ».

To combine the discontinuous and the continuous, the numbers and the quantities, to make them unite intimately, Grothendieck conceived the metaphor of their « marriages ». This marriage of paper had to be followed by proper consumption, in order to ensure the generation of new mathematical beings.

« For the expected ‘brides’,’of numbers and greatness’, it was like a decidedly narrow bed, where only one of the future spouses (i.e., the bride) could at least find a place to nestle as best as they could, but never both at the same time! The « new principle » that remained to be found, to consume the marriage promised by favourable fairies, was also that this spacious « bed » that the future spouses were missing, without anyone having only noticed it until then. This « double bed » appeared (as if by a magic wand…) with the idea of topos. » i

Grothendieck, the greatest mathematical thinker of the 20th century, explained a revolutionary breakthrough using a matrimonial metaphor, and all that follows.

Indeed, the metaphor of « marriage » has always been used to translate difficult ideas into philosophical contexts.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used this same metaphor to present the « mystery of the divine generation ». To translate the idea of « divine generation » into Greek, Philo uses the word τελετή (‘telete’).

This mystery is composed of three elements. There are the two initial « causes » of the generation and their final product.

The two causes are God and Wisdom (who is « the bride of God », – remaining « virgin »)ii.

Wisdom is Virginity itself. Philo relies on the authority of the prophet Isaiah, who affirms that God unites himself with Virginity in itself.iii

Philo specifies elsewhere: « God and Wisdom are the father and mother of the world ».iv

In the Christian tradition, there are similar metaphors, derived from Jewish ideas, but transposed into the « union » of Christ and the Church.

A 16th century Christian cabalist, Guillaume Postel, uses the metaphor of the love of the male and female to describe this union:

« For as there is love of the male to the female, by which she is bound, so there is love and bond of the female to the male by which she is bound. This is the mystery of the most wonderful secret of the Church’s authority over God and Heaven, as well as over God and Heaven on Church by which Jesus meant it: Whatever you bind on earth will be bound to Heaven. »v

Teresa of Avila, a contemporary of Guillaume Postel, speaks through experience of « perfect union with God, called spiritual marriage »:

« God and the soul are one, like crystal and the ray of sunlight that penetrates it, like coal and fire, like the light of the stars and the light of the sun (…) To give an idea of what it receives from God in this divine cellar of union, the soul is content to say these words (and I do not see that it could better say to express something of them):

From my Beloved I drank.

For as the wine that we drink spreads and penetrates into all the limbs and veins of the body, so this communication of God spreads to the whole soul (…) The Bride speaks of it in these terms in the book of Songs: ‘My soul has become liquefied as soon as the Bridegroom has spoken’. »vi

Therese of Avila speaks of the Bride « burning with the desire to finally reach the kiss of union with the Bridegroom », quoting the Song of Songs: « There you shall teach me ».

The Song of Songs has incestuous resonances:

« Oh, what a brother to me, breastfed in my mother’s womb! Meeting you outside, I could kiss you, without people despising me. I’ll drive you, I’ll introduce you to my mother’s house, you’ll teach me! I’ll make you drink a fragrant wine, my pomegranate liqueur. »vii

This spicy passage was strangely interpreted by S. François de Sales:

« And these are the tastes that will come, these are the ecstasies, these are the summits of the powers; so that the sacred wife asks for pillows to sleep. »viii

Metaphors! Metaphors! Where do you lead us to?

iRécoltes et Semailles, §2.13 Les topos — ou le lit à deux places

iiPhilo of Alexandria. De Cherubim

iii Is. 66, 6-9

iv De Ebrietate, 30

v Guillaume Postel (1510-1581). Interprétation du Candélabre de Moïse (Venise 1548).« Car comme il y a amour du masle à la femelle, par laquelle elle est liée, aussi y a-t-il amour et lien de la femelle au masle par lequel il est lyé. Cecy est le mistère du très merveilleux secret de l’authorité de l’Eglise sur Dieu et sur le Ciel, comme de Dieu et du Ciel sur icelle par lequel Jésus l’a voulu dire : Ce que vous lierez sur la terre sera lyé au Ciel. »

viTeresa of Avila (1515-1582). The Interior Castle

viiCt 8,1-2

viiiFrançois de Sales. Œuvres complètes. p. 706

« You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. »


Everything contributes to deceive, delude, mislead, the seeker who ventures into the slippery terrain of mystery, – without guidance, compass or bearings. The shoehorns are multiplying underfoot, in words. There are a thousand opportunities to get lost. The material is too rich, too vast, too flexible, too subtle. It is covered with too many veils, protected by thick walls, buried in the depths of forgotten cenotaphs, vanished into a clear azure, lost in the inaudible murmur of the zephyr.

You need a singularly piercing eye, a fine ear, a gentle touch, to only feel the fleeting shadow of a clue.

The mystery seeker reminds us of this character from Ṛg Veda: « Sullen, without knowledge, I question with my mind what are the hidden traces of the gods. »i

The seeker contemplates with his thoughts Isaiah’s seraphim, with their three pairs of wings, two of which are to cover their face and feet, and the third to fly, and he cannot be satisfied with what he sees, since they hide from him what he cannot see.

He tries to understand the meaning of Greek words that are only outer envelopes, without content: mystery (μυστήριον), symbol (σύμϐολον), enigma (αἲνιγμα), sign (σημεῖον), shadow (σκία), shape (τύπος) or similarity (εἰκών).

Origen has shown as clearly as possible, without being discouraged, how the mystery is constantly being hidden, and how, without interruption, it is being overlooked. He stated with a sense of evidence: « We feel that everything is full of mysteries”ii and also: « Everything that happens, happens in mysteries.»iii

In terms of mysteries, a higher irony haunts some Kabbalah texts, such as this one: « You, Israel, are joyful, but my servants are grieving. For it is a mystery from the mysteries that leaves my treasure. All your schools prosper like fattened calves (Jeremiah 46:21), not by sorrow, not by labor, but by the name of this seal and by the mention of the terrifying crown. »iv

How would one interpret that sentence, nowadays?

Without waiting too long for an answer that will not easily be spit out, the researcher picks up other grains of knowledge that were collected thousands of years ago: « What is manifested and secret, what moves here in the secret heart of our being is the powerful foundation in which is established all that moves and breathes and sees. »v

He meditated on the details of Ezekiel’s experience, wondering about the differences between brightness, fire, and amber: « And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.» vi

The researcher measures the inanity of his efforts, the derisory nature of his strengths. He is aware that the idea of mystery could be nothing more than an illusion, a chimera, a pretext to collect in sheer waste scattered symbols, a propensity to tear diaphanous veils, to plunge into a verbal abyss, to overestimate the signs, to desire to see, instead of live.

Origen had warned: true knowledge is love. Plunged in sweet madness, the seeker seeks love in the true mystery.

iŖg Veda I,164,1

iiOrigen, Lev. Hom. 3,8

iiiOrigen, Gen. Hom. 9,1

iv Cf. Section Sar Ha-Torah (« Prince of Torah ») from Hekhalot Rabbati (« Great Palaces »)

vMundaka 2,2,1

viEz 1, 4

A God hidden in the mud


« You really are a hidden God.  » (Is 45:15)

אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר

Vere tu es Deus absconditus.

Isaiah calls out to God by a simple « you », in Hebrew « attah ».

This « you » mocks the cynic, the incredulous. It testifies to the immediate proximity of what is revealed, the certainty of the idea.

But this « you » hides more than it reveals itself.

The adjective « hidden » is said mistatar in Hebrew. Esther of the Book of Esther, bears this name, she is « the hidden one » (מִסְתַּתמִסֵר mistatèr). These words come from the verb סַתָר « to hide, protect, shelter ». This word is often found in the Bible, with a wide range of possible meanings: to cover, conceal, eclipse, bury, wrap, bury, blotch, mask, shut in, shut up, hold, drag, veil.

In the substantive form, three main meanings emerge: 1) What is hidden, secret 2) Envelope, cover, veil 3) Protection, retirement, asylum.

It is revealing, I think, that the meaning of a word that means « veil » can have hidden depths, and refer to other words, just as deep, just as veiled.

The verb tsamtsem, related to the concept of tsimtsum, also means « to veil ».

The God who hides and veils himself is also the God who contracts Himself, and makes Himself silent. It is also the God of kenosis, the God who humbles Himself ( the word humble comes from Latin humus, earth, which also gave homo, man).

What is God hiding in His humiliation? What is He hiding in the humus, in the mud-made man?