Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

The poetry we learn to read in school is famous for its difficulty. The difficulty comes from layers of possible interpretation. For many, the encounter with poetry is thankfully brief, but whether a joyous or horrid experience it introduces us to reading as the opposite of what good communication is supposed to be: clear, unambiguous, efficient.

Now imagine a genre of ultra-poetry, written in an alphabet on beyond zebra, where every word, every letter multiplies possible meanings. Such a literature would invite the reader into a mad tango of interpretation. The promise of unfathomable depths would beckon our imaginations into an embrace with the lure of transcendence, a sacred psychotropic drug. Call it letterature.

The Torah is written in primitive Hebrew.  It lacks vowels, which means the same consonants can represent multiple words.  As originally written, the Hebrew Bible also lacked spaces between words, so it was in essence one long word.  It wasn’t until groups of Jewish scribes, the Masoretes, who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, added definitive breaks, punctuation and vowel marks that the Torah was frozen and reduced into a canonical version.  The Masoretes created what was in effect a translation, and all translations are partly treasonous –traduttore tradittore, as the Italians say. Choices of meaning were negotiated based on intense and sacred scholarship from the Talmud, the centuries-long interpretive Jewish tradition. But as negotiations in committee, they cut off alternatives that remained alive in the original text as multiple coexisting potentials and mutually-illuminating layers. That’s why I call the Masoretic project, with all due respect, a “catastrophe.

So many of the most radioactive words in the original Hebrew -(dbr דבר or et את) are not-yet-words or something-more-than-simple words. They are lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, autopoetic. In short, almost all Hebrew texts are always already a form of literary, one might even say poetic, expression: difficult, 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) both show how perfecting the alphabet as a tool for transcribing and preserving speech brought about massive cultural and congnitive innovation. 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, dismissing Hebrew as primitive and incapable of either inspiration or literature, which is of course laughable in the face of the Bible.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential alephtavian style of an ambiguity-generating script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of hyper-poetry, generating difficulties and inviting interpretation in almost every word and letter.

Indeed, 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 a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in an interpretive frenzy attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the threat and promise of the infinite sign, ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical plane.

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, the joy of possibility and the enticement of revelation to come.

A good poem – or a dense novel striving to become a hypertext – exiles us, for a time. We read and we are lost somewhere in the wildness of the possible and the wilderness of mutually-enriching meanings, in bemidbar. 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 pray. This letterature is liturgy.

Now, in our age of  virtual reality, the fate of this constant assault of multiple mutually self-altering meanings becomes relevant again. Hypertext in its ideal form makes every part of the text central, a hub with spokes to many possible links, and therefore marginal. The principle of hypertext is the intelligence of the reader wandering in a wilderness of texts, each become like a letter in an alphabet that goes on beyond tav, omega, zebra.

The premature 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 has metaphysical roots. And it has obvious ramifications. In what sort of voice does God address Moses? Will He again address humanity?

To most readers and others fascinated by VR, nothing could be more remote or uninteresting than the quasi-religious subjects of this blog. As one e-mail correspondent put it, “I wish sleep on the good rabbis and the Church fathers.” In other words, the eyes of most readers are on the future, on a gleaming technological horizon that is seductive and brings with it promises of utopian reorganizations of capital, labor, play, communication, sex, and intimacy, or at very least, interesting new cultural terrain to explore and colonize, interesting new configurations of old relationships.

This blog is exploring a continuity from the time we scrawled on cave walls to the day coming soon when we have a form of art that relies on 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, as autonomous forces like The Terminator, are extensions of all our qualities. Our media technologies can even be a form of prayer.

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