I’m telling you this ’cause you’re one of my friends. My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!” – Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra
Imagine a new alphabet on beyond zebra where every letter allows different ways of pronouncing it.
Now imagine reading a poem written in this crazy alphabet. Such a text would invite the reader into a mad tango of endless interpretation. Unfathomable depths would beckon us into an embrace. Every line would lure us to transcendence. It would be like taking a sacred psychotropic drug. Call this supreme hyperpoem, one that provides no certainty and leaves everything to the imagination, not literature but letterature.
The Bible was originally written in the newly-invented Hebrew phonetic alphabet. Whether you believe that God wrote it in fire on stone tablets atop Mount Sinai in 1313 BCE and Moses brought it down to the Israelites, or that it was fabricated by multiple authors incrementally over time, the medium must have been this early script.
Archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the phonetic alphabet in the South Sinai about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai in the 14th century BCE, at the same time as Jewish tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Hebrew was a monumental communications breakthrough, as powerfully transformative in its era as the Internet is in ours, or maybe more so. Instead of pictures of things like hieroglyphics, it represented atoms of sound, enabling you to write down anything you could say. It spawned universal literacy. Hieroglyphics required you learn 900 glyphs to be literate, so it was reserved for a priestly caste indentured to the pharaoh and his deification. Hebrew could be learned in a day or two. It was democratic and leveled the playing field. Imagine if every slave in the Old South suddenly got an iPhone while their masters were stuck on the Confederate Postal System. No wonder pharaoh let the Hebrews go even though they were building a monumental city for him and Egypt’s economy depended on them.
Yet at the same time, Hebrew was a new and primitive technology, made up only of twenty-two consonants. It had no vowels nor spaces between words nor punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field: left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on back and forth. In short, the Torah of the Israelites was one long, breathless, string of letters, a long word. It awaited centuries of oral tradition and scholarship to insert vowels, place the cuts between words, and fix (as in “stabilize”) their meaning to give us the Five Books of Moses as we read it today.
To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?
It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as the first words of the Bible:
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
But lacking complete authority – nothing short of hearing from the author about her intention or perfect telepathy with her – any line or word invites several competing interpretations. Some may seem at first nonsensical but if you stare at them too long seem to hide furtive messages:
In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.
Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels. They have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or by their context, or by memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR. Once you supply different vowels, the consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing or event or reference), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), diber (florid leader or Commandment) and others besides. Just that list of homonyms creates a poem. It sounds like a mini-history of the Hebrews or contraction of the whole Bible narrative.
In short, individual words in Hebrew invite, even demand, that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game literature students encounter when they have to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works, say) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.
Because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are something denser. Let’s call them not -yet-words. Letters are instructions for speech like musical notes, cues for sound. Consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel to give it breath and burst forth. But without vowels as instructions, which do you say? Ta, teh, tee, toe, too, tih, tie, tuh…? You see the problem, both deficiency and opportunity, generating difficulties and inviting interpretation in almost every word and letter. As a result, Hebrew texts are always already implicitly literary, one might even say poetic: difficult, partly opaque, demanding interpretation.
By the standard of the Greek ideal of clarity, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy (1988) and Eric Havelock in The Origins of Western Literacy (1982) show that when the Greeks deploy an improved alphabet with vowels (they got it from the seafaring trader Phoenicians), it brought about another massive cultural and cognitive revolution. Indeed, Havelock places this innovation at the root of the origin of Western Civilization. But both scholars have pernicious biases about the origins of literacy among the Hebrews and dismiss it as primitive. Havelock explicitly says Hebrew is incapable of either inspiration or literature. Of course, that’s laughable in the face of the Bible and its three thousand year inspiration of culture and interpretation.
In short, the whole literary/non-literary dichotomy makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to Hebrew textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never quite words with fixed meaning as the Greek ideal demands.
In reading Hebrew, we are perpetually reading letterature. Sense is suspended as we try to decide which of its possible alternatives any word means. We shuttle back and forth in an interpretive frenzy attempting, often vainly, to be sure of what the author intended. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity, lexia, but dys-lexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” I think he meant it both literally and as a provocation: reading Hebrew is different from reading English. It requires a completely different approach and set of expectations. In English we expect clarity. Unless you’re writing poetry, one meaning per word, thank you. In Hebrew, the truth of any text is suspended between the threat and promise of words that intrinsically have many meanings, waiting for us to choose between vowels to clarify and in the meantime forever promulgating interpretations. Reading defeats what we want from a text: the illusion of telepathy, the sense that we can know for sure what was in the author’s mind.
On the other hand, this suspense does something wonderful. It demands we become aware of the uncertainty of ever knowing for sure what was in the author’s mind no matter what we’re reading, even a technical manual or for that matter, what we’re hearing. Every communication act comes with a remnant, a whiff of ambiguity. Ask any lawyer or teacher.
This completely inverted view of communication as essentially uncertain opens hailing frequencies to a noisy/silent space of possibility between reader and writer, an animated and dynamic metaphysical plane beyond the mundane material sense of things. Every word is a lady-or-tiger door to the place where meaning is really made.
I don’t know about how you take your literature – or should I say, how your literature takes you – but this sure feels how I am seized by mine, in all its transports of pleasure. A good read brings the joy of possibility, the itchy desirous suspense, and the enticement of revelation to come. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us. We read and we are lost somewhere in the wildness of the possible like the Hebrews leaving slavery, we await redemption, the promised land. Ironically, the Hebrew word for this space of maundering wilderness is bamidbar. Among many other ways, we could read it “in from speaking.” The opacity of the text tells us that if we wander there long enough, and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come. Reading the Torah then becomes devotional, a form of prayer.
In our postmodern age of virtual reality we are constantly assaulted by counterclaims to what we think we know. If lucky, we can get to truthiness. The Web, hypertext, makes every part of the text a possible link, a hypertextual central hub with spokes to many possible links – and also the target of a link from elsewhere. Every word is central and marginal at the same time. Each becomes a letter in an alphabet that goes on beyond tav, omega, zee, zebra. The reader wanders in a wilderness. Swimming in a sea of truthiness this kind of Hebrew reading, this letterature, teaches us how to breathe underwater, how to swim in a sea of multiple mutually self-altering meanings. It becomes relevant again, maybe the most relevant skill we can teach our children and ourselves.
Reading Hebrew becomes the supernal type of all reading. Communication is hopeful, aspirational but not assured, a devotional, a form of prayer. Its letterature is a form of liturgy.
The insistence on presence and intimacy in our culture has led to the urge for a technology of telepresence or virtual presence or cyberpresence. This urge for ultimate intimacy is metaphysical. Its endpoint is total telepathy with others, especially with the One supreme other who lives on another unattainable plane, the obscured object of ultimate desire. If He didn’t exist, we’d have to invent Him as the consummation of yearning for meaning. And it has obvious ramifications for how we deal with others on a daily basis. Cyberspace has led us to beautiful intersubjective transactions across real space and time – I love Zooming with my granddaughters – and to murderous tribalism.
Nothing could be more remote or uninteresting to most Twitter generation readers and secularists than the quasi-religious subjects of this blog. As one e-mail correspondent put it to me trying to be nice but getting to perhaps unintentional irony, “I wish sleep on the good rabbis and the Church fathers.” Peace on ya, mate. Or perhaps, Drop dead.
This Telepathy blog explores the continuity from the time we scrawled on cave walls to the day coming soon when we have a form of art made through brain-to-brain communication. This continuity shows that it has always been brain-to-brain communication, or at least mind-to-mind. And the technologies which we so often view as doing something to us are extensions of us, all our qualities.
Every one of our communications can be a form of literature, letterature, liturgy … prayer.
3 thoughts on “Literature, Letterature, Liturgy”
[…] Insofar as the phonetic alphabet made this possible, the medium of the Torah is, along with all its others meanings, also its message. Every word and letter in this new script announces the implication, and sometimes collision, of the metaphysical in our physical world. Every sentence, every word, is a prayer. […]
[…] When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we […]
[…] – as a goal of all texts. The Torah reminds us that every letter is literary. Such letterature is a form of […]
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