29 August, 2006

The Divided Self: Part II

A key task of comparative linguistics has been to establish kinships between languages by reconstructing, within particular groups of words, vowels which once existed but have since become 'zero-grade'—vowels which therefore retain their significance as markers of original unities, a hidden presence.

Mediaeval rabbis sought to reconstruct the infinity of the divine from the infinity of the Torah: they pointed towards the eternal ambiguity of a text composed only of consonants, requiring vocalisation—inevitably a process of interpretation, of making choices. The various patterns of possible vowels seemed to exist as a spirit lingering behind the corpus of the words, a hidden presence.


Sometimes it is discovered that a material object or phenomenon is under the dominion of a hidden presence. Even as great an object as God, Elohim, was discovered by the Jews to conceal such a presence. The kabbalists of the 13th century saw Elohim as a late stage in the individuation (or 'emanation') of the divine self, a sort of knowable shell over the concealed unknowable. Isaac the Blind named this inner aspect Ein Sof—'without end'. The first phrase of Genesis, bereshit bara Elohim, usually translated as 'In the beginning God created', is interpreted differently by the kabbalists, according to Gershom Scholem:
through the medium (the prefix be) of Hokhmah (called reshit), the first Sefirah—the force hidden within the third person singular of the word bara—produced by an act of emanation the third Sefirah (Binah), which is also called Elohim. Elohim ("God") is thus not the subject but the object of the sentence.
It's an obscure jargon—but don't be too confused, kind reader! Scholem is saying that for the kabbalists, the verb bara, which means 'he created', has a hidden subject: much the same as in a Latin clause like amat librum, 'he likes the book', where there is no word in the Latin corresponding to 'he', as the grammatical subject is concealed. Elohim, instead of being the subject of bara ('Elohim created') is regarded as the object ('he created Elohim'). With this reading, the subject, 'he', is the concealed Ein Sof.

The Hebrew God proclaims himself as Yahweh, 'I am that I am' (Ex. 3.14), but perhaps he might better proclaim with Iago, and with Sartre, 'I am not what I am'.


The kabbalists 'discovered' that behind the Biblical Elohim lay a greater hidden presence—an aspect of the divine (perhaps even his true nature) suppressed on the first line of the Torah, but lingering nonetheless behind every instantiation of God in the text. Elohim, in fact, is a plural noun taking a singular verb. This was construed by the Christian Fathers as evidence for the Holy Trinity—but the division is more fundamental. We adduce Otto Rank's theory of the doppelgänger: the folk-belief that by becoming double, the self insures itself against destruction. The figure of the double, Rank writes, is an 'energetic denial of the power of death'.

Freud, the great kabbalist of the last century, 'discovered' another hidden presence—an aspect of a man's psyche (perhaps even his true nature) suppressed in waking life, but lingering nonetheless behind every movement of his will. The repressed unconscious, and in particular repressed trauma, asserts its presence at every opportunity—for a litany of examples, see the marvelous Psychopathology of Everyday Life, wherein is explained the Fehlleistung or Freudian lips. In these instances the self is divided against itself, resulting in the unexpected, the guerilla tactics of a dispossessed faction.

Freud used his discovery to analyse literary texts as if patients; he found that in this context, the repressed presence creates a particular atmosphere, which he referred to as the unheimlich or 'uncanny' (from the essay of that name, 1919):
This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.
The divine infinite in the Torah, by this logic, would be uncanny, as the reassertion of Ein Sof, once familiar, but removed from the very first line. A God put into words was a God made finite—and yet His infinity could not be completely suppressed. Its recurrent presence, therefore, arouses a feeling of awe and horror, as for instance when God tells Moses that He will only show His 'back parts' (Ex. 33.23), for 'there shall no man see me, and live' (33.20)—compare this to the trope, common to horror stories and films, where the shadowy villain hides his face, evoking the uncanny.

The Formalists took this uncanny as a guiding principle, describing poetry (and, by extension, all literature) as a defamiliarisation (ostranie) of conventional language. By making familiar words strange, it was thought, the poet makes them new and alive. Freud, the poet of ideas, made the mind strange, and before him the Jews made the Torah strange with their counter-intuitive speculations. At the very beginning, Elohim made himself strange, by which I mean double—and in doing so he insured himself against destruction, becoming new and alive, becoming in fact Yahweh, the totem of the ancient proletariat, and of the nascent divided Israel: I am / that I am.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that remembers me gnosis