‘There is no word in Hebrew for fiction’

‘There is no word in Hebrew for fiction’  – Amos Oz

There was a moment in history, a parenthesis, which interrupted the cybernetic feedback loop between literacy and the growth of empires.

It occurs at the moment that the hieroglyphic/pictographic system is supplanted by the new invention of the alphabet. This event is so momentous that it only happens once in all of human history, so powerful that it eventually spreads, and is indeed still spreading, across all human cultures. The moment is brief, for it is quickly supplanted by improvements on its own fundamental innovation. Yet its legacy is captured and evolves along its own co-evolutionary path, in dialectic with the “totalizing” line of empire that is taken up again when the alphabet evolves enough to be harnessed to the work of the tech-writing pictographic scripts. I call this moment “Hebrew” or, better, for reasons that will emerge, “The Alep-Tav [] Event.”5 We can locate this moment, this interruption, eruption, parentheses, this invention on the margins in time and space, quasi-fictionally. Its legacy is an evolving cultural complex that has some stable morphological features we call “Judaism” or, for reasons I will explain later, an epistemology and metaphysics I call (with considerable irony to offset its narcissism) “porushia.”

The Phoenician, Ugaritic, Greek, Arabic, Amharic, Korean, Russian, Latin, and all Indo-European alphabets derived from this ancient proto-Sinaitic Hebrew script. Every other writing system is either pictographic (Chinese, Egyptian hieroglyphic, Aztec runes, etc.) or syllabic (e.g. Cuneiform A, North American Cree and Eskimo, Vai [Liberia, Africa], Katakana and Hiragana [the two Japanese Kana scripts invented between 700-900 AD]). Some hybrids – pictographic syllabaries – (Tamil and Sanskrit and Cuneiform Linear B or Akkadian) also arise in parallel. Syllabaries are an important step on the road to an alphabet because they shift the representation of language from images of things or events (pictograms, sometimes mistakenly called ideograms or logograms) to the much more plastic representation of the sounds of the language itself. But syllabaries are a clumsy compromise, replacing thousands of characters with hundreds: one for ba, another for beh, a third for bee, a fourth for bo, a fifth for boo, etc.

The fundamental revelation in a proper alphabet, and its break from syllabaries, is the recognition that signs didn’t need to represent speech, but could represent atoms of sound that are pre-verbal. An alphabet, in other words, recognizes consonants as separate and constant elements permuted around another constant set of explosives- vowels – which make the utterance possible. Try uttering the consonant “p” without expelling the air that comes with the vowel, and you will see that all you get is the stutterer’s intention to say “peh” or “pah” or “pay,” a moment of hesitation before an explosion that cannot come without a vowel. So one can immediately distinguish an alphabet from a syllabary because the former reduces the number of characters to 36 or fewer, on average, 25 or 26.

Hebrew as the prototypical and aboriginal alphabet, struggled, perhaps by going too radically and naively, if in the right direction. It represented only the 22 alphabetic characters for the aboriginal abstraction of the consonants but did not conceive of how – or even whether – to represent vowels. This is peculiar, since the “idea” of a vowel is entailed once one makes the phonetic distinction of a “consonant.” Perhaps it can be explained by the need for the Hebrews of the time for secrecy, for a code set apart from the reigning script paradigm. Or perhaps, more simply, Hebrew was simply an incomplete and primitive experiment that nonetheless produced a powerful, if defective, technology. Or as some epigraphers have explained, the Hebrew borrowed the first sound from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, in a principle called acrophony (the highest or first sound) to form their alphabets. In any case, the Phoenicians, or some Western Semites with whom the Phoenicians came in contact between the 12th and 9th centuries BC, probably between Tyre (now in Lebanon) and Akko or Atlit (now on the northern coast of Israel) realized the inefficiency or primitiveness of this system and added the missing vowels. The Phoenicians obviously found this new communications technology useful for their commerce and imperialization of the seas. In turn, they pollinate the Mediterranean with it, exporting a new improved alphabet, now a much more efficient device for representing all the sounds of speech, eventually importing it to Greece between the 9th or 8th centuries. At the same time, the alphabet in different forms spread eastward through Persia into India, and westward back into Africa. It also invades Middle Eastern and African regions. Alphabets take hold better where a strong empire doesn’t already exist, among mixed agrarian and tribal civilizations. Empires like Egypt have too strong a cultural matrix to give up their older form of writing. As a result, hieroglyphics with its thousands of pictographic elements, survived into the Roman era.

Porushian Consciousness enables a peculiar cognition, culture, and metaphysics

Given all the above, it is hard to resist making very suggestive connections between the cybernetic practices induced by this inefficient alphabet and the sociological, cultural, and even metaphysical practices of Hebrew culture. For instance, it is hard not to suggest that because the Hebrew language makes the transmission of authority without questioning or interpretation difficult (if not impossible) and because any written message, especially complex or new ones are likley to provoke numerous interpretations, it is easy to imagine that the peculiarities of the alphabet may have helped Jewish culture develop a hearty resistance to authority and consensus in general.

Now put this cognitive practice or habit in the context of the diaspora. There, one of the only constants binding 2000 years of Jewish history and dozens of disparate Jewish communities around the world at any given time, each speaking a different host language, is reading unvowelled Hebrew texts. We can see how the Jews evolve culturally as a peculiarly resistant “virus-like” or “parasite-like” race, perceived by their hosts as ineradicable pests who carry with them a set of insular cognitive and cultural practices dooming them to play on, feed off of, the margins of the host culture. Yet, paradoxically, these same cognitive practices allow them to succeed with remarkable acuity. Jews historically succeeded by penetration into controlling positions in the host culture, acquiring with incredible swiftness professional roles that require skills of literacy, interpretation, learning, and powers of abstraction. Thus these perpetual newcomers threaten within a few generations to mutate the central culturgenic heritage of the hosts.

If we look closely even at the little game we played with the aleph and the tav to produce three or four possible words — the feminine you, letter, the (untranslatable) sign of the accusative case, and 401 — it is tempting to see the rudiments of an entire alternative epistemological practice emerge. In this practice, the letters themselves open a space into which interpretation must be placed in the form of choosing the vowels. The reader takes an active role, looking not only to multiply possible alternatives, but to seek hidden unities beneath them. Indeed, we can understand the intense and peculiarly multivalent hermeneutic practice of Jewish Talmud and mysticism. Furthermore, with the ability to represent “EHT” the accusative case (which is so abstruse that it is not even represented in English) and all other grammatical cases because the alphabet is now a transcription (though in Hebrew only ambiguously so) of the spoken language, civilization now has at its disposal a new sophisticated means to represent and preserve across space and time the act of languaging itself. That is, the text has the newfound capacity for self-reflexive statement, to represent with greater plasticity and fidelity the consciousness or intentions of an author in words. One can “do” texts independent of actions in the world with extreme plasticity. At the same time, the instrument is not completely efficient, so the reader is teased with this gesture at telepathic fidelity, and yet forced to disambiguate the messages sent this way.

So it is also no wonder that the central metaphysical tenet — and indeed one of the only constants of Jewish metaphysical dogma (the phrase is almost oxymoronic because of the absence of a coherent dogma in Judaism) — in 3500 years history of the Jews from the time of Moses is the unpronounceability, the unwriteability, and the unthinkability of the name of God. Jews are taught traditionally never to write or speak The Name, even in another language. In English, for instance, one writes G-d. The arbitrary transliteration of the Tetragrammaton – the four letters of God’s name in Hebrew – YHVH – into Yahweh, is a purely Christian imposition on a Hebrew that it is indeterminate and unpronounceable as written. Even in devout prayers, Jews abbreviate the Tetragrammaton to ‘YY’. amd utter “Adonay” (meaning Lord). For non-liturgical practice, the letters are read “Adoshem” a nonsensical combination of “Lord” and “Name” – or else one says “The Name.”

What at first seems like only a religious fetish is also a reiteration and reinforcement of a central cognitive tool (or at least distinction) of Hebrew literacy. You get a metaphysics of multivalence, interpretation, perpetual and transcendental ambiguity, deferral of meaning to some locus that is never here, a disconnection between the spoken and the written authority, and a denial of presence. God speaks a name and shows a Face, an actual Face, only to Moses, only once. Even then Moses turns away, only to watch the non-physical presence of God recede from him. So rather than a cosmological model of knowability, tangibility – essentially the kind of idolatry we find in tech writing empires– the inefficiency of the script system promotes a metaphysics of absence, of unknowability and of the unrepresentability of central truths.