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80 C h a p t e r T h r e e The Writing of Silence in the Post- Holocaust Poetry of E dmond Jabès a nd Paul Celan i Postmodern writers and artists of all sorts have developed radical new poetics based on the hidden resources of silence. Poets have focused on silences become audible in the tearing of language and the rending of sense. To a significant degree, this is a rediscovery of the oftentimes repressed resources in Western tradition of apophatic discourse, discourse on what cannot be said. “Apophasis” is the Greek word for “negation,” and it is used here, as it has been since ancient times, initially in Neoplatonic ambiences , specifically to designate the negation, and especially the self-­ negation, of discourse. Jewish writers have been particularly important in this revival, partly because the biblical interdiction on representations of the divine, denounced as idolatrous (“graven images”), gave Jewish tra­ dition a peculiar attunement to the limits of representation and an especially acute sensibility for the Unrepresentable. Most conspicuously, the Holocaust experience has become recognized as a cultural code for the unspeakable par excellence.1 The Writing of Silence in the Post-Holocaust Poetry of Jabès and Celan 81 Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan emerged almost contemporaneously out of widely divergent cultural backgrounds in Egypt and Romania, respectively ; nevertheless, they share these coordinates in common. Writing as post-Holocaust Jews, each in a different way lends language to silence in order to give voice to the unspeakable. Moreover, each makes the typically Jewish predicament of ineradicable separateness from other peoples, as well as from a transcendent, wholly other God, into something more universal: it becomes a predicament of life (or oftentimes death) in language as the state of being severed from an ultimate significance.2 Originating in regions of linguistic diaspora with regard to their respective French and German tongues, moreover, both authors are exceptionally qualified to express the experience of exile as the archetypal condition not only of the Jew but of the postmodern writer in general: this is the condition simply of the human being in language, to the extent that language per se is a signifier forever severed from its signified. Exemplary, in this regard, of a wide range of contemporary poets, Celan and Jabès fundamentally are writing about what cannot be said. Their respective poetic rhetorics are most comprehensible when placed within the tradition of apophatic discourse. This sort of discourse is best known in its theological expressions, namely, in the millenary discourse of negative theology that originates with Plotinus. It was, of course, anticipated by Plato, not to mention Pythagoreanism, Orphism, and mystery cults, all of which in various ways acknowledge the inexpressibility in language of some kind of divine transcendence. Initiates typically swore vows of silence at least partly in recognition of the futility of any attempt in language to adequately express the transcendent perfection and splendor of the supreme deity. In certain later developments of negative theology, the renunciation of all means of expression demonstrates an incipient skepticism with regard to official, orthodox discourses and a retreat to the inner, silent dimension of mystic experience. Mysticism, with its powerfully apophatic thrust, in many instances is best understood as a secularizing reinterpretation of supposedly objective categories of official religion in terms of individual experience and existence . This is manifestly the case for Gnostic and hermetic mysticisms that crop up in the crises for rational philosophy and its Logos in the Hellenistic age.3 In later ages, alongside and interpenetrating these mysticisms , are other, aesthetic sorts of apophatic responses to the foundering 82 P hilosoph y and literature of rational discourse. These include certain kinds of poetry and other art forms, as becomes especially evident in more modern times, for example, in the Baroque period, as well as in various versions of Romanticism that reach out by rhetorics of silence and excess toward what lies beyond the furthest limits of description. Our contemporary world again has been visited by a radical crisis of confidence in language and a concomitant resurgence of interest in apophatic modes of discourse. We have been ardently searching for alternatives to strictly rational speaking and logical expression, since the Logos in crucial ways has proved impotent to disclose our reality and to truly express things as we experience them. In postmodern apophasis, it is often not the divine that proves to be out of reach of language in its failure to attain reality...


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