- IntroductionReading Darkness: The key, The Letter, and The Beginning
"Among other possibilities, these paintings are dramatic bulwarks against amnesia," writes longtime commentator on literature and the Holocaust, Lawrence Langer. "They contain fragments of a giant jigsaw puzzle called Creation that burden viewers with the task of retrieving its missing pieces" (81). Langer is writing about the paintings of Samuel Bak, and the painting "Interpretation," which adorns the cover of this issue of Modern Fiction Studies on "Levinas and Narrative," is no exception. The key stands upright on its side, and the end of the key, the portion that is most important for opening the lock (the keyhole of which resides to the beholder's right), doubles as the letter bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but the first letter of Torah, and in fact of the word bereshiyt.
Why is this important? The bereshiyt is both the beginning of the Hebrew bible and not the beginning. "In the beginning," which is how we traditionally translate this word into English (the Hebrew going to the Greek, the Greek to the Latin, and the Latin to the English), of course misses Rashi's famous dictum about this opening word, which is that it must be read constructively rather than absolutely, the phrase "Bereshiyt bara Elohiym, et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz" to be rendered as something like "At the beginning of God's [End Page 1] creating of the heavens and the earth" or "When God set about to create the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).1 "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth"—as the King James Version renders it—mystifies the creation in a way that the above translations do not. The second (the new translations, following Rashi) lodges us before creation, among its conditions—darkness, the waters, God, the Garden of Eden, Torah itself—so that our partnership with God in the ongoing creation of the universe (within normative Rabbinic Judaism) continues.
The key to interpretation, the key to creation as interpretation, the key to "the key" as it were, is available to us, standing there before us, in Torah as in Bak's painting, would we but read its letter in the things in which those letters are embedded. The book to come appears to the right of the key and of the structure next to it (against which it is leaning). Is it a book in which the outline of the keyhole has been inserted into its pages? Does the text to its right come after it? Or perhaps we should reorient ourselves and regard the smoke-filled sky descending behind it to indicate its future, in which case we are lodged already before creation, holding in front of us the key to its interpretation, which has something to do with texts and letters embedded within their very structure.
The importance of Emmanuel Levinas's ideas to narrative, we would like to suggest, is less our capacity to find in his work a justification for a positive assessment of the literary (a project that has been often undertaken and with great success) than his articulation of the conditions of creation in a manner similar to the way Bak highlights those conditions, creation understood here as both consciousness in the Western philosophic tradition and as literary creation, conditions shared, it appears, by the literary and the biblical.2 Is the il y a (the "there is" in Levinas's locution), and is night (as Blanchot appears to translate Levinas's ideas) not the darkness (hoshech) before creation, a darkness that in Levinas's work is at the foundation of responsibility itself?3 Is Levinas's ethical not consonant, the writers in this issue all ask in one manner or another, with the insights gleaned from the literature they read? Here, it might be useful to consider Wayne Wang's film, Smoke. In the film, which is written by Paul Auster and based loosely on his stories, a writer is about to cross a busy street in Brooklyn when a young black teenager steps out of the shadows, grabs him, and pulls him aside...