Cheryl Schoonmaker

Jabes and the Landscape of Desire

Lovers prefer the night. They recognize each
other by the shadow they bathe in like
swimmers whose every muscle is caressed into
hymns. At the bottom of the water,
the heart is heard more clearly. (Jabes, 135)

In the beginning, it was already too late. This is the closest thing to an answer that lurks beneath Edmond Jabes's questions in The Book of Questions, a book that is connected to all writing in that it is part of a larger, always unattainable, unwritable book - a book that is a testament to a foundational wound, scream, silence, and a never-ending seeking/desire for something unnamable.
Polarities collide and intermingle. Boundaries are blurred. Images shift and change places throughout the weaving narrative that is sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, sometimes dialogue. "How can I know if I write verse or prose?" questions Reb Elati, "I am rhythm" (Jabes, 44). Nearly all genres of literature come together in The Book of Questions, and it is often difficult to say where one ends and another begins. They flow together and wander. In some places, there is dialogue between named characters. In other places, words are exchanged by faceless voices in the text. Richard Stamelman refers to the "discontinuous, fragmented, nomadic, interrogative discourse that forms and unforms, constructs and deconstructs the book" (ix) - a voice meandering out of an unnamable void, wound, absence. The story of the book, then, is that of the impossibility of telling the story, and at the same time, an attempt to do so.
The Book of Questions, and writing in general, becomes the manifestation of a wound, or a gap. It wanders towards healing, strives for connection and life, only to find itself repeatedly on the threshold of death and separation - separation between God and man, between self and other, between words and life. It is in this gap that writing exists. In writing, the wound is perpetuated, just as something/nothing, sound/silence, and presence/absence thrive in symbiotic relationships.
Stamelman compares Jabes's writing with the speech of a dying person, in that it is "already touched by a distance and an otherness that the language of the living cannot express?in its serenity and distance, its tone of fatalistic resignation and its awareness of impending separation" (xxii). "What I await is always farther" (40), proclaims a voice from out of the void of Jabes's text. His characters can never reach what they are striving towards, who and what they are looking for. While we are alive, death fits the definition of this something that is 'always farther.'
Yukel, who seems to be the narrator through the majority of The Book of Questions, is said to be night and at the same time going towards night - a possible analogy for death. Characters are descending, melting, falling. There is a weight "that has found its weight for dying" (43), and someone asks Yukel, "how many pages to live, to die, are between you and yourself, between the book and leaving the book" (43)? By the question, it is hardly clear whether leaving/abandoning the book would mean death, or if death is actually the goal of the book, or if there is really any difference at all between living, dying, and writing. Jabes erases these boundaries.
Two roses growing in a graveyard have an unresolved dialogue concerning whether they embody life or death, and the answer is, of course: both. They are alive and are symbols of love, exchanged by lovers, and at the same time they are growing out of decomposed lovers, out of death. Writing, as well, feeds on death.
Everyone in The Book of Questions is searching, looking, following, waiting, with a faith that "one day, you will be there." It's unclear who, exactly, "you" pertains to, although it is most likely the ever present, always absent other, which both defines and estranges/isolates the self. The point, however, is this: death is the ultimate there.
Helene Cixous explores the connection between writing and death in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. She explains the writing process as one in which the writer must lose control, as if in a dream -- which is an 'other' to the conscious life and as such, has much in common with death (39). "Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written?" (38), she ventures. In the same way, dying is something you cannot know until you are dead - or, to some degree, until you have written. By extension, then, the writer desires death. This is not, Cixous asserts, the same as the desire to kill oneself. She defines this desire to die as a desire to know, to enjoy, even. It is different than wanting to kill oneself in that it is not specific. The desire to die is aimless and beyond/below words (33). Kafka writes about the presence and impact of this desire on himself, as a reader, in a 1904 letter to his friend, Pollak: "We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief" (qtd. In Cixous, 17). The Book of Questions is such a book.
The death that lurks beneath Jabes is, in part, an echo of the wound of Auschwitz, which is an echo of a scream which originated somewhere, farther back, and may have always been. In The Book of Questions, Reb Jacob speaks of this wound in terms of a stone skipping across a lake. It tears the surface of the water, which quickly closes up again over the place where the stone sinks. The rings, however - the shock waves - multiply and radiate out from the spot of the wound, bearing witness, yet never doing it justice. The waves on the surface never exactly articulate the nature of the injury, or the intensity and pain of the event. Words behave in a similar manner, stirring on the surface, shadowing what is going on, unseen under the surface of the water.
The shadow of Auschwitz is "the shadow of unutterable distress" (Jabes, 122), "ink mixed with blood" (127), "the sleeping quarters of screams stretch[ing] beyond echo's reach" (83). It is "the scream lost where I lose my way" (44), "the scream of the sacrificed petals" (42). The literal screams of the Holocaust echo throughout Jabes along with the scream of a people then separated from God by His own absence, silence, and/or distance. Or, was God absent from much earlier on?
The I AM of the Hebrew scriptures sets Himself apart from His people by defining Himself in the most exclusive of terms. Since there can't be an "I" without a "you" or "other" - without a disconnection - God punctuates his absence with the self-pronounced title. Further back, there is the exile from the garden of Eden. And, according to the book of Revelation, there is an injury that occurs still earlier: "the Lamb that was slain [in sacrifice] from the foundation of the world" (13:8b, Amplified). The Lamb referred to is a messiah, an atonement for the fall, a closing of the gap between man and God. So, even before the gap occurred, it needed healing. In the beginning was simultaneous death and life. Before that was a void, and before anything, apparently, there was God. As soon as the world was founded, when God spoke it into being, according to Revelation, there was also death. The first words brought death - a pattern we are forever repeating and trying to alter. Maybe we are trying to uncreate the wound with all our words, trying to find our way back to the initial word - to God. We wander through the tear in the fabric of creation - language.
"Judaism is exemplary of the human condition:" writes Rosmarie Waldrop, "it offers both a collective experience of singularity and a culture explicitly defined by a book: The Bible" (xxv). Jabes equates the difficulty of being Jewish with the difficulty of writing in The Book of Questions. The two are virtually interchangeable. He refers to them as the same waiting, hope, wearing down, wandering. The Jewish and writing lives both strive towards what Stamelman refers to as something every book strives towards but cannot attain: a mute, invisible, unseizable work - a deferred book of shadows; the hope of a Messiah text of an absent God, forever unrevealed. It is what Jabes calls the "lost book" - the immense space behind everything that is written. This book was lost, perhaps, at the speaking of the very first word. It's a book that can only be uttered, paradoxically, in silence. Writing is the desire for this book - desire which, by definition, can never be met. This desire is the nature of questions.
The endless questions that only lead to more questions in Jabes's text speak "the very language of lack" (Stamelman, xiii). Questions are incomplete. They long for something that is missing. They long for meaning: "Only the questioning word can operate within this state of division and lack. The question circumscribes a void in which the writer, if he or she is truly a writer, must lead his or her life, accepting the sovereignty of the question and therefore the continual absence and postponement of an answer" (Stamelman, xiv). The answer is always absent. The questions lead down different paths, only to leave the reader, abandoned, time and again. They bear witness to the unutterable abandonment that is always just below the surface of the words.
At the same time, questioning is a means of connecting. Reb Mendel, one of Jabes's characters, points out that questions lead to the promise of new questions. They are a reaching out, an attempt to bridge the gap between consciousnesses. They are the means by which the book stays in motion. Questions are an attempt to touch the reality of another person, even if they can never fully arrive at that goal. Questioning is a journey between people and shores and worlds. They open doors and reveal the paths to follow. Jabes's writing circles like Israel in the desert, exiled, wandering towards a promise, always circling back on itself.
Jabes's Yukel is constantly wandering, searching, questioning. He is said to be always elsewhere, ahead of himself, behind himself. Sarah and Yukel look for each other, always looking where the other is not. And yet, the questioning, the wandering, in its tentativeness, leaves open a space for possibility and hope. Maybe this is what is meant by the voice in the text that cries out: "the road which leads me to you is safe even when it runs into oceans" (44). There is still the hope of connection. Hope, of course, only perpetuates desire, which can never be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be death. Or, as John Cage puts it: "When desire is silenced and the will comes to rest, the world as I-dea becomes manifest. In this aspect the world is beautiful and re-moved from the struggle for existence. This is the world of ART" (130), or a resignation to fate/death. Is it, then, only through death that we can get to life/writing? Is writing the dream of life?
Helene Cixous calls writing a strange science. It's a science of farewells and reunitings. It's all about distance. A sage in Jabes says, "we calculated the distance between us. We stopped dying," to which another responds: "Are we the last gasp of oblivion" (97)? Writing is where opposites come together and negate one another, like two waves of equal force that come together, from different directions, in the middle of the sea. The result, and the cause, is silence. It's only through the silence between/below words, maybe, that we can finally connect with each other. Cage illustrates this connection through silence when he speaks of friends confident enough in each other that they need no words. They are able to sit in silence and experience a wordless at-one-ness. He then admits, however, that such silences cannot exist without words to define and fuel them. We need words.
Writing is a conflicted coming together in The Book of Questions, where "Night does away with colors. It lets blaze the color of the soul." There is a strange, almost gentle, violence in writing, where things collide. One sometimes gets the feeling throughout Jabes's writing that the words are like blood splattered on the wall - the evidence of a murder committed just out of sight, around the corner. By the time the reader gets to the scene of the crime, the perpetrator has vanished. There is an unmistakable destruction. Consider the following excerpt from a dialogue (assuming, for a minute, that dialogue is at all possible):
A sage: We will destroy ourselves in the
A sage: Do we have to?
A sage: We will destroy ourselves in men.
A sage: Do we have to?
A sage: We will destroy ourselves in things.
A sage: Do we have to?
A sage: We will destroy ourselves in death. (99)
The very insistence of the question seems to imply the answer: yes, we have to. We have to destroy ourselves to reach ourselves.
This landscape where things collide is the landscape of the writer - a landscape he creates, in an attempt to be at home in a world. Writers are not at home in reality; this is why they write. They belong to the world of writing, and attempt to create a landscape that fits their loneliness: a textual space like the desert or sea in which it is easy to lose one's way. Like Yukel, the writer always remains uncomfortable in her skin. Helene Cixous's estimation of Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star is akin to the experience of The Book of Questions: "Throughout the writing of the book everyone is terrified, the writer is terrified, the book is terrified; the text starts telling us something, then it gives up?. We go with misgivings from page to page" (Cixous, 18). This is the experience of reading and writing a landscape of desire.
Cixous also equates writing and playing with fire. It's a serious type of play, like the play of words in Jabes - a play that sometimes goes as far as catching fire. It's an experience connected to fire and ashes, where polarities come up against each other, almost bursting into flames (Cixous, 39). Jabes describes it as the space in which one no longer knows if the earth consists of water, or air, or oblivion - "oblivion with ashes of mirror" (44). The Book of Questions, as well as the larger, always deferred, unwritable book, begins where these things collide: "After the road, and before the road, there are stones and ashes on scattered stones. The book rises out of the fire" (41). Writing is a place where meaning is fragile and shifting. Writing, in many ways, defies meaning. Extremes and opposites merge and trade places. Jabes's Reb Zam describes it as entering the night, as a thread enters a needle, through a bloody opening (a wound), during which the writer is both thread and needle, entering the night, and entering himself (42).
The connections in The Book of Questions, which writing strives to make, are both volatile and fragile. "You lean on water," says Reb Hamel, "and are surprised that you sink" (110). This is the inadequacy, and danger, even, of language. Jabes's text speaks of the hardly visible traces from letter to letter, from shadow to shadow. "Madness, like pain, waits at every stage" (90), he writes, pertaining to the words hidden in words, and worlds opening up to other worlds. It is as if the bottom of a word can give way at any moment, sending the writer and reader plummeting to the depths hidden there, which somehow hold the words together.
Reb Isel laments the fact that even the words, which appear, on the page, to be linked, do not join one another. Another voice in the text notes that "we are joined together by all the words, whose desire we are" (63), throwing into question the relationship between writer and writing. Are we the ones who write or the ones who are written? Or both? If we are the desire, then we cannot even reach or connect with ourselves. The distance between word and self widens. Words take on an "alien voice" (Jabes, 40), like the old trick of repeating your name over and over until it sounds strange and foreign to you, until it feel like it has nothing to do with you, which indeed, it may not. Ties weaken: "Our ties to beings and things are so fragile they often break without us noticing?a breath, a glance, a sigh, and sometimes just confiding a shadow: such is, roughly, the original nature of our ties" (Jabes, 36, 37). The connections writing works so hard to forge disappear into one another as shadow disappears into night, which is, itself, shadow.
It's as if, in trying to reach back to God and the original wound, language is scattered and fragmented - a reenactment of the Tower of Babel catastrophe. As a result, "Two men are never at the same distance from language. For we develop differently in those regions of heart and mind which words embrace" (Jabes, 88). If language itself is a point of division, then does it only widen the gap between self and other? "We are distance," concludes Reb Mirshak (26, emphasis mine).
The very act of reading implies distance, as the reader doesn't actually see the words on the page, but the light bouncing off of them, bringing the image to the eyes, inverted, flipped right-side-up again by the brain. The light carries the image of the words across the void between the page and the reader. "What is light?" (Jabes, 25) asks a disciple in The Book of Questions. In response, Reb Abbani speaks of large blank spaces and pages as doors. Light is defined by the space through which it travels, and by dark, without which it wouldn't exist. We need light to see these words, these images. According to The Bible, we ourselves are images: "Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our likeness;'?. And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 2:26a, 27, NAS). From the very beginning, we were only the shadow of a thing. God was the Word (John 1:1, NAS). And, yet, in the act of writing, we imitate God's divine creation, bringing us closer, in nature, to Him. We try to close the gap by repeating it.
Reb Mendel, another of Jabes's wandering characters explains that God, Himself, is a question. He "leads us to Him who is Light through and for us, who are nothing" (117). As we are wandering towards God, He wanders towards us, as we are His image - severed from Himself. We are the shadow of God. As long as we exist, it can be argued that God is not self-present. He's not ONE as long as He has a shadow. We are God's other. He, too, is what Reb Armel names "the kernel of a severance" (126). Maybe it is only in God's silence that he can reach us, who also move in silence. Then, why all these words?
Sarah, in The Book of Questions, journals: "I wrote you. I write you. I wrote you. I write you. I take refuge in my words, the words my pen weeps. As long as I am speaking, as long as I am writing, my pain is less keen. I join with each syllable to the point of being but a body of consonants, a soul of vowels" (136). Maybe words (and more specifically, questions), which are movement, keep us from sinking in a sea, which is at once language and silence, which both stem from an invisible wound, only the scream of which still resonates. An inaudible scream. Jabes often refers to the Jewish/writing/human experience, throughout his text, in terms of swimming. The key is to keep moving. We hardly have a choice in the matter.
Our very existence depends on an unwritable book. Jabes insists that if God exists, it is only because He is in this book. The same goes for men, poets, and even insects (Jabes, 31). If they exist, it is because they are named in this book, possibly an echo of what is referred to in Revelation as The Book of Life, in which one's name must be found in order to attain eternal life. Is this the book of which Jabes speaks? Again, the status of the writer and the written shift and merge. One is continually naming the other.
We name things, maybe, to give a face to the void, to "hollow out a dwelling in desire" (Jabes, 136). It is Yukel's desire to recognize the generation he belongs to - a generation "without face" (161). Our words line up, one after another - the face of each being hidden from the one behind it. These are the "fingerprints of absence" (159). Our words are a testament to the shifting faces of God, who at the same time has no face, and whose face is reflected/fragmented in our many faces. Reb Zaccai describes the concept of face (of the individual, God, and words) as "the frozen moment of the rising oars or their dip into the sea" (70). We can only catch brief glimpses of the reflection of ourselves and God in our words.
All the while, there is the silence, illustrated by Jabes as a ferryman between two shores. These two shores are constantly shifting in the text. It's hard to say where we started and where we are headed. The void in between is the voyage, and the voyage is the void. Words are the trail which leads back to a forgotten destination. They are the bread crumb trail which is constantly being eaten by birds, or sand tracks which are covered over by the wind or obscured by high tide. Only silence remains: "Silence envelops the city, with its buildings leaning on one another: gigantic boxes, from some of which light gleams through a haphazard opening, maybe from a blow: (Jabes, 160).
The blow of silence brings the writer back to the "threshold of the open page" (26) where the air and the wing often trade places. It's a place where waking and sleeping are the same thing, where the story is not yet written, and at the same time is in the memory.
The blank page is a space of simultaneous nothingness and infinite possibility. A blank sheet is full of paths, explains Jabes, and it is only when guided by "inspiration" (54) that a writer can choose the right path. But what is the right path? To Jabes, it is the one followed when the writer is receptive, in a state of grace: "And those who are (in the state of grace) do not know it. I mean, at the time" (54). Being in the state of grace means losing "your usual way, in order to follow another: more secret, more mysterious" (54). Words are the windows open to an infinite unwritten text. The space between words, in Jabes, is the thirst of the ground in between trees. One character looks for another in The Book of Questions, wandering through a land without trees. That leaves only thirst.
One voice out of Jabes announces: "Words are windows, doors half open on to space. I divine their presence by their pressure against our palms, by the imprint they leave there" (135). The imprint is something like all the footprints/paths buried deep in a blank page, deep in the desert sand. The words are carried by wind and at the same time the wind blows sand over their tracks, erasing them. The Book of Questions is a book that functions much like a dream state - the most we can know of death, while we are still living. According to Jabes, sleep is a state in which we become invulnerable, yet the dream is poison. It has much in common with writing, and with childhood: "Childhood is a piece of ground bathed in water, with little paper boats floating on it. Sometimes, the boats turn into scorpions. Then life dies, poisoned, from one moment to the next" (53). As in a dream, and as in writing, Yukel is "a shape moving in the fog" (32). Nothing is what it seems in the text. One image gives way to another, and the story is absent.
"You travel to find the word of God," says Reb Benlassin, "And until then you stifle your words" (Jabes, 125). This is exactly what Richard Stamelman says writing should be, and what Jabes creates in The Book of Questions: a place of stifled screams, silent tears, wounds that never heal, in a world torn with departures (Stamelman, x).
Writing, in many ways, agitates the invisible wound. It punctuates silence, exploits nothingness, emphasizes otherness. The insufficiency, incompleteness, and absence embodied in The Book of Questions (and language in general) echoes a larger, all-pervasive absence. The landscape of desire that Jabes creates is, by its very nature, unable to be satisfied. The questions, however, keep the text in motion. Desire is wide open, in a state of becoming, even if it never becomes. Answers and attainment are paralysis. Writing puts us in a wide open space - a space which, if nothing else, we have in common.

Works Cited
The Amplified Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1987.

Cage, John. "Lecture on Nothing." Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. 109-127.

Cage, John. "Lecture on Something." Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. 128-145.

Cixous, Helene. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers. The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Invine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Jabes, Edmond. The Book of Questions: The Book of Questions. Volume 1. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1976.

New American Standard Bible: The Open Bible Edition. La Habra: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1978.

Stamelman, Richard. "The Graven Silence of Writing." From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabes Reader. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop, Pierre Joris, Anthony Rudolf and Keith Waldrop. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991. ix-xxiii.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. "When Silence Speaks." From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabes Reader. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop, Pierre Joris, Anthony Rudolf and Keith Waldrop. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991. xxv-xxvi.

e-mail the writer at
info on the writer
to go back to the home page