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.

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”

The phantom limb of language

What is a pun?

At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.

Continue reading “The phantom limb of language”