Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?


It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

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 are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.


But because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are something denser. Let’s call them not -yet-words. Words 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 for it to burst forth.

All words in Hebrew without vowels are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable. If so, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. The eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature. His libel was meant to be huffy Brit prejudice, but he was right, though for the wrong reasons. He assumed that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind, its theocratic social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not conceive the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

On the contrary. The essence of the early Hebrew script generates complexity, the play of multiple meanings, divine punning. Hebrew is already a form of high literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that 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 interpretive tension 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.” I think he meant because anything written in Hebrew comes with this fictive suspense always already lambent in the very medium – a defective script missing vowels.

Perhaps we can extend this lesson of reading in Hebrew to an aspect of all reading. The truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive 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 take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.

The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 4

The arc of all media

The view from Mount Sinai
The view from Mount Sinai

Whether or not one believes that the Hebrew alphabet was a divine revelation to Moses on Sinai, we can understand why the cultural moment of its invention would be recorded as one of the most transformative revolutions in history.

We can see how the conception of an omnipotent, omnipresent and invisible God is coeval with it. We can understand why a powerful leader would want to expel or eradicate those who possess this potent new tech, especially of they were slaves: there’s lots of them and they have an ax to grind with Pharaoh’s rule. We can understand why slaves attribute to it mythologies of redemption, revelation, and revolution. That it coincides with the best evidence we have for the actual historic origins of this new technology of the alphabet lends force to the argument.

As such, the origin of the alphabet becomes a model for other moments in history that were wrought by sudden eruptions and deployment of disruptive technologies, especially technologies of communication, since they inevitably bring a new ethos, new cognitive tools, new arts, new epistemologies, and new gods. Telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the Internet – all were born amid prophesies for their transformation of civilization and even the invention or summoning of new gods.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 4”

The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3

We’ve seen (in Part 1 and Part 2) that the Bible tells the story of the origin of the alphabet as a gift from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  God instructs Moses to teach this new disruptive communication technology to the Children of Israel and use it to liberate them from slavery in Egypt.  He and his brother Aaron then stage a contest of scripts in the court of Pharaoh. Pharaoh summons his hieroglyphic scribes to show that the new writing system is not so special. The war of demos takes the form of magical-seeming transformations and “signs” (the Hebrew word for “thing” “plague” and “word” are the same). Water turn to blood.  Frogs crawl out of the slime. But on the third contest, when Moses strikes the “dust of the earth” and summons “lice” all over Egypt, the Egyptian scribes are defeated.  They throw up their hands and exclaim, “This is the finger of God!”

Third Plague Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston about to demo the third plague in front of Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

But why do the Egyptians give up now after having no trouble matching the transformation of water into blood or summoning frogs from the mud? A clue is in the nature of the transformation. Hieroglyphic signs for frogs and blood are well-known. What are hieroglyphs for dust and lice?

In Egyptian, the spoken word for lice is “tiny” or “diminutive” (the same word used for little girls). But they didn’t have a glyph for it in the older hieroglyphics in use at the time of Moses, nor are there glyphs for any adjective, because they are abstractions, a quality attached to a thing and enormously hard to represent by itself (you could color a tunic or show a small person, but how what is the picture for “smallness”?) Nor does there seem to be a hieroglyph for “dust.” Lice, like dust, are ubiquitous but nearly invisible little nothings. They are like the finger of a ubiquitous but invisible Deity stirring the pot of the universe and history. Kinim [כנם], the Hebrew word here translated as “lice,” is used in Israel to refer also to those tiny gnats that make a buzzing sound but which can’t be seen. In the American South, we call them “noseeums.”

Furthermore, the Hebrew letters for plague are D-B-R [דבר]. By supplying different vowels from those in traditional interpretations, these letters can also signify words or things or statements or even commandments, as in the Ten Commandments. As a word, DBR דבר is, like EHT את, a one-word demonstration of the power and facility of this new script to add abstraction and multiply layers of meanings. Hebrew without vowels, the Hebrew of the Bible, intrinsically adds complexity and even poetry to even simple texts.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 3”

The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 2

Re-reading the Hebrew Bible as the story of the phonetic alphabet

The Aleph Tav I am the…

The alphabet and the universal literacy it enabled was the ultimate disruptive new tech of its age, especially in its environment of hegemonic empires and nomadic oral (illiterate) cultures. Because it was simple and made literacy universal, anyone could broadcast their expressions to a much wider audience. It was like every citizen suddenly got a private printing press, just as anybody in the early years of radio and Internet could create their own channel or webpage and now everyone has a blog. It could represent any language well enough. It was more abstract and enabled new cognitive powers to blossom. It invited self-reflection and self-empowerment and self-affirmation. It enabled the writing of any concept, emotion or abstraction that could be said or thought in words, and therefore opened up the interior lives of people to each other. It created a new kind of intimacy.

Continue reading “The Origins of the Alphabet: Part 2”

The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1

We all swim in the alphabet like fish in water or birds in air, so it is hard to appreciate what an astounding communications technology it still is even after thousands of years of use. So imagine what this new flexible technology must have seemed like when humanity first discovered it around 1500 BCE.  The easy literacy the alphabet enabled must have been at least as powerful and transformative in its time as the printing press, the telephone, the atom bomb, or the computer. These inventions produced rapid, breathtaking transformations of culture, shifts in power and wealth, disruptions of society, and creation of new ways for humans to relate to the universe and to each other.

Continue reading “The Origin of the Alphabet: Part 1”

When the brain was simple

Mind to mind metaphysics in alphabet and cyberspace

The brain is a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. In my view, it is already “meta-physical.”

Nature was finished when it invented the human brain

What is the brain? At its very simplest it is an entity that takes impressions from out there in the form of energy striking different nerve endings in the organs of the body (eyes, skin, ears, nose, mouth/tongue), converts the energy into information, shuttles the information to a central processor, a black box homuncular body without organs sitting in an ecology of incomprehensibly frothing and turbulent hormones, and somehow translates them into wholly different things in here – sensations, thoughts, flocks of birds, schools of fish, swarming, buzzing. The brain is intrinsically a sur-rational machine for bringing worlds into collision, a metaphor device, a translation circuit for closing and opening the loop between incommensurate and mutually incomprehensible universes. It is already “meta-physical.”

Before we were homo sapiens and the brain was simple, there was a neat Kantian fit between animal and environment: The rules of the world out there, its physics, were not challenged by the rules of the world in here; there was a nice match. But then through some urgency that it is just as easy to talk about metaphysically or teleologically as in terms of some deterministic chaotic evolution, the brain exploded, human-like hominids started walking upright about 100,000 years ago, looking forward, using tools, colonizing the world, creating new social structures. The brain, like some imperial culture exploding off a remote island, started projecting itself onto the world, terraforming the Earth in its own image and leaving in its wake a trail of non-bio-degradable tools and waste. Nature was finished. It was finished in the sense that it reached a fulfillment and a culmination, but it had also committed suicide, finished itself off. Not only did humans begin to massively alter the environment, but the brain also started talking, depicting, enacting versions of its experience in cave paintings, ritual dances, gestures, and a grammar of grunts. It became self-conscious. It recognized a mismatch between the world out there and the world in here: Hey! The world persists; we die! Self-consciousness and the idea of death were born in one fatal stroke. Finally, the brain framed everything it looked at: nature became a pastoral scene in the cognitive museum. The cosmos seen through human eyes was an artifice, always already available for use.

The C3 Loop

On the flip side, the human brain is a prisoner of the loop of cognition, culture and communication, caught in its virtuous cycle. We call the cybernetic device that initiated and grew in this loop language or symbolizing. Frances Hellige in his book on cognition and the brain, Hemispheric Asymmetry, describes this loop initiated by the development of language, with feed-forward and feedback components, as a sort of “snowball effect,” a cycle of ever-widening gyres that eventually embraces and creates everything between the poles of culture and the biology of the brain itself, including physiological changes in structure and size of different regions.2

In cybernetic terms, we call this a positive feedback loop. The cybernetic system (in this case, human brain) sends information out into the world-culture-environment, which feed newly intensified signals back into the (brain) system to destabilize the system anew, which in turn re-amplifies its message, like an over-sensitive microphone, and again re-broadcasts this message back onto the world until the universe screeches with the noise of the human brain echoed back to it, in it, a cyborg rock concert. It also changes the brain itself. Another researcher, Charles Lumsden, calls this process “the selective stabilization of the synapses” as a result of continuous exposure to cultural effects or stimulation, a collaboration between cultural invention and inherited genetic characteristics,” or “Gene-Culture Coevolution.”3

Neurophysiologists and cognitive scientists who study the alphabet note that its effects on the brain can even be seen in the lifetime development of individual people. The use of language reshapes the brain from womb to tomb. A whole new discipline of neural plasticity has emerged in the last few decades, showing that the brain is not the static, genetically-determined machine we once thought it to be. In other words, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in culture-gene co-evolution as well. Studies of aphasics and dyslexics show that the brain changes physiologically and progressively after injury, suggesting that parts of the brain grow even in the lifetime of individual humans.

Fun with your new brain: the rise of the alphabet

Using different alphabets (or losing the capacity to read the alphabet), even within the lifetime of an individual, is a bit like growing a new brain. Trying a new alphabet must have been (and still is) tantamount to an ongoing progressive hallucination. It lets you think things that you couldn’t have thought before, makes connections that simply didn’t exist physiologically – for which your brain wasn’t wired – and forces your brain into different information processing patterns, which presumably involve different mental events or experiences (as physiological-cognitive research overwhelmingly shows). It’s like having a whole new brain, or at least, a brain with whole new faculties, new circuits, new wetware. Now imagine the mass hallucination of an entire culture learning how to use an alphabet for the first time. Whole tribes of people, or important segments of them, put on this new cybernetic headgear, or what I have been calling a new form of telepathy, virtually all at once. We can imagine this mass cybernetic experiment would be accompanied by social, epistemological, and metaphysical revolutions, apocalyptic prophesies, and re-definitions of the self in relation to body, mind, others, and the invisible. In short, it might provoke the emergence of a new religion.

With this perhaps absurd hypothesis in our minds, let’s take a look at the advent of writing itself. Take (in our imaginations) a time-lapse photograph of the Nile Valley before and just after the advent of hieroglyphics, or (even earlier), the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia before and just after the very first invention of writing, Sumerian pictographs around 3200 B.C. These time-lapsed films would show millions of years of desultory animal activity, including the hunting gathering and low-level agricultural activity of upright hominids after 35,000 BC. As we approach 10,000 BC, activity begins to pick up pace and organization. Clusters of hominids show tool use, primitive mound building, expressive cave painting, and cultivation of the earth, though in indifferent and almost-random-seeming patterns. Then, suddenly, around 3200 BCE, BANG! Something leaps across the chaotic bifurcation into a new order of frantic self-organization. Compressed into a few frames is an almost instantaneous transformation; blink and you’ll miss the instant. These fertile regions undergo massive terraforming along rectilinear plots. Rivers are diverted into rectangular irrigation systems. Cities emerge, themselves rectilinear. Zoom in with me now into the square-ish walls of the cities, and into the very square-ish rooms of the city, and we will find the intimate source of this sudden change. There, a row of hard stone benches, arranged regularly. It is a schoolroom for scribes! Hundreds of boys, mostly the sons of privileged nobility, sit for hours hunched over clay tablets, learning to scrawl in regular lines. Indeed, if we superimpose the scratching of these lines they look like the lines of irrigation written on the face of the earth itself, as seen from an orbiting satellite. The harsh discipline of the schoolchildren being tutored in script “canalizes” their thought processes, reinforcing certain pathways. It is hard not to imagine that what’s written on the brain gets projected onto the world, which is literally “canalized,” too.

Looking at a picture of the ancient Sumerian classroom for scribes found in Shuruppak (from ca. 3200 BC),

Sumerian schoolroom
Picture of Sumerian schoolroom for scribes from Edward Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (U Chicago: 1938)

we see familiar rows of benches and the headmasters desk up front. Then we are seized with a horrible and giddy vertigo, a terrible recognition: Five thousand years later, and we’re still canalizing the brains of our children in the same way, enforcing the discipline of writing in virtually the same methods and with not so dissimilar effects as did these ancient Sumerians, “that gifted and practical people” (as Edward Chiera calls them in his groundbreaking study, They Wrote on Clay). Sumerians invented cuneiform as a perfectly portable means to effect commerce, extend the authority of their kings, preserve metaphysical and transcendent information, and secure the stability of caste and rank.

The invention of pictographic writing by the Sumerians was “a secret treasure’ or mystery which the laymen could not be expected to understand and which was therefore the peculiar possession of a professional class of clerks or scribes,” Chiera writes. Furthermore, the metaphysics associated with this new telepathic technology becomes clear in the priestly functions these scribes served. Neo-Babylonian texts used the same ideogram for priest and scribe. Along with the script came a new mythology that, predictably, placed the power of language in the center of its metaphysics: “As for the creating technique attributed to these [new] deities, Sumerian philosophers developed a doctrine which became dogma throughout the Near East — the doctrine of the creative power of the divine word. All that the creating deity had to do, according to this doctrine, was to lay his plans, utter the word, and pronounce the name.

In fact, everywhere pictographic writing makes its advent, we find the sudden emergence of what we can think of as “tech writing empires”: civilizations geometrically akin in their compulsive rectilinearity to the hexagonal hive structures of bees. In China, among the Aztecs of Mexico or Incas in Peru, in Babylon, Sumeria, and Egypt, we see the same pattern of social, epistemological, and metaphysical organization. Along with these scripts come other inventions so predictably similar that they seem to derive directly from imperatives in the nervous system itself amplified or newly grown by use of the new cyborg device of writing: centralized authority in god/kings; monumental ziggurat-like or pyramidal architecture; hierarchies of priest-scribes; complex, self-perpetuating bureaucracies; fluid but clearly demarcated social/economic classes; trade or craft guilds; imperialism; slavery; “canalizing” educational systems; confederations of tribes into nations; standardized monetary systems and trade; taxes; and so on. Almost every conceivable aspect of empire, in its gross forms, was entailed in pictographic writing. Even the alphabet, with its greater efficiency and fidelity to speech, only seems to add abstraction and speed to what McLuhan described as the “exteriorization of the nerve net”

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