Corporeal Anxiety in Dictionary of the Khazars: What Books Talk about in the Late Age of Print When They Talk about Losing Their Bodies
All but a handful of the books produced this year will be digitized during some phase of their existence. In former days, book production took words through forms of inscription that were physically evident and visibly apparent—from manuscript to typescript, typescript to galleys, galleys to book. But now a new phase intervenes in which the words are rendered through binary digits encoded in electromagnetic polarities that, eluding the unaided human eye, seem frighteningly vulnerable to the vagaries of computer maladies, from viruses to system crashes. What difference does it make to books (and it is books I speak of, not texts) that they go from durable inscription surfaces to inaccessible and physically precarious polarities? That, in a manner of speaking, they lose their bodies?
Behind this question looms larger ones: Will the print book, as [End Page 800] Bruce Willis recently proclaimed, go the way of the dinosaur? 1 Will books continue to be displaced by electronic texts, only some of which will be granted bodies when a user decides to download them into print form? Do books care that they are in danger of losing their bodies? This question could be asked of their human owners as well, for some researchers have speculated that it is only a matter of time before human consciousness can be downloaded into computers, whereupon flesh and bone will become as atavistic as paper and ink. 2 The long tradition of representing bodies of print and human bodies in terms of each other now appears to be entering a new phase, when both are understood less as incorporations in physically durable substrates than as flows of information, weightless as sunshine and ethereal as data streams flashing through fiber-optic cables. 3
These developments have catalyzed within some print books what I call corporeal anxiety, a fear that their bodies are in jeopardy from a multitude of threats, especially the dematerialization that comes from being translated into digital code. A case in point is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which operates as if it knows it has a physical body imperiled by multifarious threats, from defective printing technologies to editorial brain fade. Most of all, the book fears losing its body to information. It relies on “you,” the reader, to generate books through your passion to read a good story. But this very drive to consume the book turns against it when you are foiled by the frailty of its physical corpus. You run to the bookstore to get a copy of Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, only to find that it has been defectively bound, preventing you from completing the story. Disgruntled, you hurl the book through a closed window, reducing its body to “photons, undulatory vibrations, polarized spectra” (26). Not content with this pulverization, you throw it through the wall so that the text breaks up into “electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, elementary particles more and more minute” (26). Still disgusted, in an act of ultimate dispersion you send it through a computer line, causing the textual body to be “reduced to electronic impulses, into the flow of information” (26). With the book “shaken by redundancies and noises,” you “let it be degraded into a swirling entropy” (26).
The disruptive power of information technologies reappears when you find yourself entangled with Lotaria, a reader who believes books are best read by scanning them into computers and letting the machine [End Page 801] analyze word frequency patterns. Seduced by Lotaria against your better judgment, you and she get tangled up with rolls of printout covering the floor. The printouts contain the story you desperately want to finish, which Lotaria has entered into the computer. Distracted by her multiple entanglements, Lotaria presses the wrong key and the story is “erased in an instant demagnetization of the circuits. The multicolored wires now grind out the dust of dissolved words: the the, of of of of, from from from from, that that that that, in columns according to their respective frequency. The book has been crumbled, dissolved, can no longer be recomposed, like a sand dune blown away by the wind” (220). Now you can never achieve satiation, never reach the point of satisfied completion that comes with finishing a book. Your anxiety about reading interruptus is intensified by what might be called print interruptus, a print book’s fear that once it has been digitized the computer will garble its body, breaking it apart and reassembling it into the non-story of a data matrix rather than an entangled and entangling narrative.
This anxiety is transmitted to readers within the text who keep pursuing parts of textual bodies only to lose them, as well as to readers outside the text who must try to make sense of the radically discontinuous narrative. Only when the chapter titles are perceived to form a sentence is the literary corpus reconstituted as a unity. Significantly, the recuperation is syntactical rather than physical. It does not arise from or imply an intact physical body. Rather, it emerges from the patterns—metaphorical, grammatical, narrative, thematic, and textual—that the parts together make. As the climactic scene in the library suggests, the reconstituted corpus is a body of information, emerging from the discourse community among which information circulates. The textual body may be dismembered or ground into digital word dust, the narrative implies, but as long as there are readers who care passionately about stories and want to pursue them, narrative itself can be recuperated. Through such textual strategies, If on a winter’s night testifies vividly to the impact of information technologies on bodies of books.
Dictionary of the Khazars follows a different tactic. 4 Finding itself a book in the late age of print, it is obsessed with the idea that surfaces of inscription may not be durable, may in fact be shockingly vulnerable to all manner of accidents and fatal inevitabilities. Among the objects it catalogues is a pitcher made of salt and inscribed with elaborate texts, [End Page 802] an oxymoronic artifact whose first use will dissolve inscription and object alike. Other inscription surfaces emphasize the common fragility that books and human bodies share. Consider the case of the envoy who has the history of the Khazar empire tattooed upon his skin. When he is punished for an offense by having a body part amputated, the history inscribed on that part is lost. Conversely, he loses part of his body to history when a wealthy patron pays in gold for his left hand, on which is inscribed the history relating to the patron’s family. In one version of the story, the envoy finally commits suicide, whereupon the caliph in whose court he resided has his skin “tanned and bound like a big atlas” (76), so that the body of the text and his body remain forever joined. Another version hints at the opposite outcome, saying that the envoy developed an unbearable itch and felt great relief when he died, “glad to be finally cleansed of history” (78). Amidst these dizzying details is one even more enigmatic. The envoy has tattooed onto his thumb the Khazar attack on Kiev in 860 A.D. The text, however, cannot be read because “this thumb carried a festering wound received in the very same siege,” so that “the picture was smeared and remained an eternal mystery” (76). Thus the tattoo records the event that will obliterate the tattoo. The puncture creating this reflexive loop functions like the device Jane Gallop has called the punctum, the reflexive point within a text at which the apparatus that produces the text makes an appearance within the text it produces. So in the puncture on the envoy’s thumb, the body that produces the text mysteriously becomes involved in the text it produces, like the surface of a Möbius strip that, as we trace it around, becomes the inside becomes the outside becomes the inside.
It is not a coincidence that these vertiginous convolutions emphasize the fragility and mortality of inscription. The central problem this book addresses is how to assure the power of the book in the late age of print—in an age, that is, when the body of the book, like the bodies in this book, is constantly threatened with dissolving into word dust or having its parts ripped violently asunder. The problem goes deeper than a concern with surfaces, for even when surface inscriptions remain stable, the contexts in which they are read may not. As its name implies, the Dictionary depends on alphabetic ordering for the arrangement of its parts. Every time the language changes—when, for example, the original Greek on one of its putative texts is translated [End Page 803] into Serbo-Croatian or English—the parts will appear in a new order. For such a book, translation recaptures its root sense of movement through language or, more precisely, of language that moves, a phenomenon not unlike what would happen to stories inscribed on a pitcher of salt when the pitcher is filled with water. The material substrate is still the same—sodium and chloride ions—but the matrix that bound the story and container together has dissolved. Under such conditions, how can any order at all be assured?
But I am getting ahead of my story. To understand the complex order that emerges from this most bookish of books, we first need an account of the occasion that ostensibly produced the book. Dictionary of the Khazars is organized about an event that, like a black hole, affects the space around it but itself cannot be seen. Our putative editor tells us the dictionary has its origins in a dream that the kaghan, king of the Khazars, wanted interpreted. He called to his court representatives from the three major Western religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—promising to convert to the religion whose representative gave the most satisfactory reading. The representatives came as summoned; they participated in the so-called Khazar polemic; the kaghan converted to one of the religions. Soon after the conversion the Khazar kingdom was destroyed and its people scattered. In the absence of a definitive history, not to mention the kingdom, each religion claimed victory in the polemic. 5 Our editor, abstaining from judgment about whose claims are correct, presents us with a compilation of everything extant about the incident in the three traditions, organized into a Red Book for the Christian accounts, a Green Book for the Muslim, and a Yellow Book for the Jewish, with the entries in each book organized alphabetically. He recommends to us several different ways of reading: we can proceed straight through the Dictionary, reading from A to Z in each of the three books; we can read horizontally, following the same topic (for example the entries on Ateh, a Khazar princess) through all three books; or we can skip around at random. Clearly, the number of possible sequences is very large. Since reading in a different order implies reading a different story, the number of possible narratives is huge. Even this staggering number does not exhaust the possibilities, however, for also undetermined is the reading protocol. Should we read left to right and top to bottom, as we would for texts written in the Greek that the Christian writers used, or from right to [End Page 804] left and back to front, as is the practice for Arabic and Jewish texts? Added to the already overwhelming number of possible narratives, these uncertainties make the narrative combinations essentially infinite.
As if this radical indeterminacy were not enough, the editor provides us with an account of how our present book came into being that obscures more than it clarifies. Piecing together fragments found in different parts of the Dictionary yields the following account. Present at the polemic argued by Cyril (for the Christians), Ibn Kora (for the Muslims), and Isaac Sangari (for the Jews) were three scribes who took down the proceedings: Methodius (brother of Cyril), Ali-Bakri (friend of Ibn Kora), and Judah Halevi. These manuscripts were scattered, but fragments survived in different places in different ways. Late in the seventeenth century, three men who styled themselves students of the Khazars began collecting what they could find, each working with the fragments from a different tradition: Avram Brankovich for the Christian, Yusef Masudi for the Muslim, and Samuel Cohen for the Jewish. Through accident or design (about which we will hear more later), each of these three collections were destroyed. Not, however, before they had been read by a Christian priest with a photographic memory, Theoctist Nikolsky, who dictated them to the printer Joseph Daubmannus. Daubmannus printed five hundred copies of Dictionary of the Khazars, including one bound in gold and printed with poisoned ink, along with a companion silver volume. The poison was so calibrated that a reader would drop dead when he came to the line, “The Word is Flesh.” During the Inquisition, all copies of the Dictionary were destroyed, except for the gold and silver copies, which were also fated to be destroyed, but not before they passed to the Dorfmer family. As might be expected, the Dorfmer family experienced an unusually high mortality rate. At the death of each patriarch, the Dictionary was torn apart and divided among the heirs, with the land apportioned in the same percentage as the text. The golden copy met an ignominious end when one of the Dorfmers, an old man who disliked the greasy soup his cook served him, surreptitiously tore out a page each day and used it to skim away the fat. Amidst this welter of detail, the reader may not notice that the editor has left us with no explanation for how the present edition came into existence, for all existing copies of the Dictionary were destroyed. The oxymoron of an edition with no existing pre-texts is playfully underscored by the reproduction, complete with [End Page 805] floral border and Latin script, of the opening page of Daubmannus’s Lexicon Corsi, to which is appended the following note: “Title page from the original (destroyed) 1691 Daubmannus edition of The Khazar Dictionary (Reconstruction).”
If the Word is Flesh, as the fatal line claims, then the Word may be as much an actor as those who have Flesh. The thought is captured in a vivid image that the editor presents—not as part of the “Preliminary Notes” he writes but as a fragment from the introduction to the destroyed Daubmannus edition—of the text as a puma captured by a rope, the ends of which are held by two men pulling in opposite directions. As soon as the men try to approach each other, the rope slackens and the puma will pounce. The two men represent author and reader, and that is “why it is so hard for him who reads and him who writes to reach each other; between them lies a mutual thought captured on ropes that they pull in opposite directions” (14). The image suggests that a book’s agency is not to be taken lightly. If the reader thinks she will digest this volume (or perhaps use it to skim the fat from her soup), she should be aware that the book may also eat her. For if “we were now to ask the puma—in other words, that thought—how it perceived these two men, it might answer that at the ends of the rope those to be eaten are holding someone they cannot eat . . .” (14).
The puma’s fierce appetite aptly expresses the wild energy of the book’s metaphors, which (like the passage above) rarely slide smoothly from vehicle to tenor. Rather, the metaphors yoke heterogeneous elements with such violence together that they are like tightly coiled springs; as soon as the reader touches them, they are apt to spring madly apart, threatening to take a finger or arm off in the process. Far from being a passive activity sedately carried out in an armchair or bed, reading here is a dangerous activity. In this book filled with scenes of violent eating that rend and tear the Flesh, it is always an open question who will eat whom. Whereas the reader’s appetite in If on a winter’s night a traveler was the driving force that finally assured the coherence of the narrative, here the appetite to read is as likely to masticate the Flesh as the Word. So we are told in one of the books that a certain caliph, when he wished to determine the truth or falsity of a claimant appearing before him, ignored the man’s words but instead seized his arm and tore out a piece of flesh, chewing it thoughtfully to arrive at his decision. [End Page 806]
If appetite cannot recuperate narrative coherence, what can? Gradually, as one chews on the bits of information served up by the Dictionary like a cow bringing up cuds from its second or third stomach, something like a metanarrative emerges that gives new meaning to the axiom, “The Word is Flesh.” Central to understanding its full scope is the Khazar myth about the supernatural being called variously (by the different books) Adam Ruhani or Adam Cadmon. The Khazars believed that Adam, third oldest soul in heaven, resided on the second rung of the ladder leading to God. Created before humans, he is named Adam-the-precursor. The Khazars recount the story of how, like the Biblical Lucifer, he revolted and consequently lost his place on the ladder. Unlike Lucifer, he repented and returned to heaven, but he arrived late, in a manner of speaking, for he found that other angels had been promoted to the position he used to hold. So now the belated precursor drifts between the second and tenth rungs, his tremendously huge body fragmented by this oscillation. The narrator of the Green Book tells us “that is how time was born: time is the part of eternity that runs late” (166). The dream hunters, a religious cult headed by the Princess Ateh, have taken on the quixotic task of reassembling Adam’s body. They believe that parts of his divine corpus have been dispersed into special dreams, where they manifest themselves as characters who can leap from one person’s dreams to another’s. The dream hunters enter other people’s dreams to pursue these characters, chronicling their stories in writing. Their ultimate project is to reassemble Adam’s body, or a small part of it (they have been working for several hundred years on the left thumb) by putting together the manuscripts recording these dreams. In this way, they believe, the Word will become Flesh, and the Flesh will become the Word. The books that we read in the Dictionary are this Body, and the Body is the Book. 6 Additional light is thrown on the myth by the entry that informs us that “[t]he Khazars imagine the future in terms of space, never time” (145). The spatial enormity of Adam’s body thus represents the immense expanse of time that, assembled and seen as a unity from a God’s-eye perspective, would constitute eternity. The Dictionary thus aspires to be a fragment of a mythical total Book (which is also a mythical total Body) that will span millennia and represent all combinations of all possible narratives. [End Page 807]
But the metanarrative does not end here. All good stories have conflicts, antagonists as well as protagonists. Opposing the dream hunters are the demons, supernatural beings who, unlike Adam-the-precursor, remain exiled from God in one or another of the three hells (one for each of the three religious traditions), except when they are incarnated in mortal bodies, where they can be recognized by certain tell-tale signs. They move through time by leaping from one mortal incarnation to another. Their project is to defeat the dream hunters and prevent the reassembly of Adam’s body, presumably because they fear that once humans have access to even a portion of eternity, the demons will lose the edge their immortality gives them over mortal women and men.
The signs distinguishing the demons hint suggestively at the complex encoding that the text uses to represent the interplay between time and space. Humans experience time asymmetrically. We know the past but not the future; time flows forward and not backward; shattered mirrors break into pieces but the pieces never magically leap together again to form a whole mirror. Space, by contrast, has no such asymmetry built into it. It is as easy to go west as east, north as south. Whereas time continues to unfold and can therefore be known only in part, space can be grasped as a totality, as when one represents a country by a map or the earth by a spinning globe. Since the Khazars represent time as space, it makes sense that they would register the distinction between past and future as a spatial difference. Thus Khazar representations are pervaded by the kind of mirror symmetry that makes a left hand different from a right. Rivers in Khazar, for example, flow in two contrary directions as if they were divided lengthwise, the right half going upstream and the left half downstream. Adam’s body exhibits a similar cycle, following either an ascending path (which brings him closer to the truth of God) or a descending path. The demons, by contrast, are marked with symmetry that allows superimposition, appropriate to their ability to live immensely longer than humans, to remember what they have lived, and therefore to assemble time as a totality. One demon (Ephrosinia Lukarevich) has two thumbs on each hand, so that the right hand can be superimposed on the left. Another’s nostrils have no dividing line (Nikon Sevast), and still another’s face has a left half exactly like the right half (Akshany). [End Page 808]
The mirror symmetries that map time into space also operate in the reader’s experience of this fragmented text, with its nearly infinite possibilities for narrative. Like time, syntax and language are asymmetric; one reads across a line and down (or up) the page. Even palindromes are marked by the right- and left-handedness of mirror symmetry rather than superimposition. This temporal dimension registers itself in reading as a slow acquisition of knowledge that accumulates page after page. For the majority of fictions, the temporal framework of reading works in tandem with the temporal framework encoded within the text, which is to say, we read with (or against) the plot. But in fictions such as Dictionary of the Khazars, the reader’s ability to grasp the plot does not correspond with the temporal experience of reading. Rather, the text works more like a random-dot painting that you can look at for a long time without seeing any overall pattern. Then, just when you have given up and are ready to leave, you shift your focal point and suddenly a mermaid or a mountainscape jumps out at you. So it is with Dictionary of the Khazars. Only on a third or thirteenth reading, when the text has become so familiar that its hundreds of mininarratives can easily be called to mind, does the metanarrative loom into view. Thus the temporal dimension of reading is suppressed, for understanding comes only when multiple readings merge into one another. This belated comprehension means that the book is experienced more like a landscape than a linear progress of reading. Although time is always recuperated in the path the reader’s gaze makes over the landscape, it is the implicit totality of the landscape’s spatiality that imparts to the gaze its full weight, not the specific line traced at that particular time of looking. In this way the book maneuvers us into the perspective of the Khazars, who imagine Adam’s body “in terms of space, never of time” (145). Paradoxically, the experience of totality depends upon the book’s extreme fragmentation. We are driven to assemble Adam’s impossibly huge body because it has been cut into pieces.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine this spatial totality as a static or passive entity. The Body is imbued with violent energy through the dynamics of assembly, which happens within the stories the Dictionary tells as well as in the reader’s interaction with the books. Assemblage is most likely to occur at moments of maximum risk; the [End Page 809] demons have a vested interest in disassembly and will use their superior powers to defeat attempts to make the pieces into a Book. The dangers as well as the complexities of the enterprise can be illustrated through the Brankovich/Masudi/Cohen triad. Avram Brankovich and Samuel Cohen are tied together through multiple mirror symmetries, the mark of those who live in the asymmetry of time but yearn for the totality of space. Each is driven to try to assemble the Book, Brankovich from his part of the world and religious tradition, Cohen from his. Each mysteriously senses the presence of the other, for each dreams the other’s life and is dreamt by him in turn. Brankovich sleeps during the day, when Cohen is awake; Cohen sleeps during the night, when Brankovich leads the life that Cohen sees in his dream. In his sleep Brankovich mumbles a language he does not know when he is awake. In his sleep Cohen can move faster than when he is awake and master sword strokes that elude him during the day. The man Brankovich sees in his dream has red eyes, a mustache half gray, and glass fingernails. The details eerily echo Brankovich’s family history, for he comes from a lineage where the men always marry redheaded wives. Only males born with black hair inherit, because their coloring is taken as proof that the male line runs through them. This practice leaves aside the males with red hair, who must therefore be considered a species of hermaphrodites. Not from the entry on Brankovich in the Red Book, but from a much later one on Masudi in the Yellow Book (187), do we learn that Cohen’s hair and presumably the other half of his mustache is red, thus confirming the mirror symmetry and hermaphroditism that run through him and link him to Brankovich.
Masudi is the third who hopes to interject himself between these two dreaming of each other. Beginning his life as a lute player, he acquires his second calling when he meets a dream hunter who recognizes in him the potential to be a great collector of dreams. The dream hunter tells him about Adam’s body and urges him to look for a pair who dream each other, for “two such people always constitute small parts of Adam’s body from different phases and are at different levels on the ladder of reason” (167). The dream hunter entrusts the Dictionary he has compiled to Masudi’s care and charges him with the responsibility of adding to it by writing down the dreams of this mirroring pair, for they are needed as part of the Book. But before Masudi can locate either Cohen or Brankovich, he encounters Akshany, a fabulous [End Page 810] lute player who has invented a new fingering for a notoriously difficult song that Masudi, as he listens in another room, realizes requires eleven fingers rather than ten. Akshany reveals himself as a demon when he acknowledges that he has been using his tail as the eleventh finger. Then comes the seduction: Akshany convinces Masudi that a nobler cause than dream hunting is to find out what it is like to die. Masudi can acquire such knowledge, Akshany tells him, by being present when one of the mirroring pair dies. At that instant the other cannot wake because there is no one to dream his life. He will continue to dream the other’s death, trapped in his mirror partner’s last experience. If Masudi then enters this dream, he can discover what no living person knows—what it is like to die. It is Masudi’s fate always to throw away his best opportunity. When he meets Princess Ateh, for example, he fails to recognize her and so misses the chance to complete his knowledge about dream hunting. Here too he misses his best chance, turning from the pursuit of the Body and the Book to an arguably futile knowledge of death. That is why, the narrator tells us, he ends up in hell with the demons rather than on Adam’s ladder.
The full import of Masudi’s seduction becomes apparent when Cohen and Brankovich finally meet on the battlefield. At the instant the pasha’s soldier spears Brankovich, Cohen falls down as well. Masudi, also about to be skewered, preserves his life for a day by telling the pasha that Cohen is not dead, only caught in a dream. For one day longer Masudi enters Cohen’s dream and experiences along with him the many deaths that Brankovich went through (for according to the Khazars, when a man dies he experiences not his own death but those of his children). Yet at the end of this day he is also killed, making his quest a fool’s errand, for he finds out soon enough on his own accord what it is like to die. The fatal closure of Brankovich and Cohen hints that the Borgesian self-reflexivity of two mirror images reflecting each other to infinity is useless if no third eye is present to see their mutual reflection. Masudi could have been this third eye. Yet his interjection itself becomes a closed self-referential loop when he gives up his appointed quest of contributing to the Book and settles instead for an advance preview of death. The quest for knowledge, the Dictionary implies, is futile unless it is contributes to a greater whole, the Body that we are driven to complete and that will nevertheless always remain incomplete. [End Page 811]
The intertwined stories of Brankovich, Masudi, and Cohen illustrate the violent dynamics of assembly and disassembly animating the Body we read. Masudi sells the Dictionary with which he was entrusted by the dream hunter to Brankovich’s agent, as a way to flush Brankovich out. A demon in disguise as Brankovich’s scribe, Nikon Sevast, destroys this manuscript and Brankovich’s own notes by throwing them into the fire—but not before the priest with the photographic memory, Theoctist Nikolsky, has a chance to read them. When Cohen plunges into a coma he drops the notes he has collected (carried, appropriately for this Book which we yearn to consume, in a green feedbag) and they scatter on the battlefield—but not before Theoctist reads them. Theoctist tells his story in an appendix, writing in the margins of the Book that his dictation helps to bring into being. But the introduction by our editor at once constitutes and dissolves this frame, for it both establishes Theoctist’s dictation as the source of the Dictionary and undermines its relation to the text we read. Thus, the Book comes together and dissipates, coalesces and dissolves, in a cycle reminiscent of Adam’s moving up and down the ladder to God.
Given this cycle, how can the Book achieve closure? The theoretical issues raised by texts whose order is arbitrary and whose possible narratives are very large has been most fully discussed in the context of electronic hypertexts—a context where Dictionary of the Khazars is often mentioned but rarely analyzed. Some theorists, including writer-critic Michael Joyce, have suggested that an electronic text is finished when the reader gets tired of reading (a formulation less tautological than it may appear). 7 Others, notably Jane Yellowlee Douglas in her detailed reading of Michael Joyce’s fiction afternoon, argue that many hypertexts are structured around a central mystery, and that the reader feels a sense of closure when this mystery has been, if not completely explained, at least understood sufficiently so the reader believes he knows its central contours and possibilities. Random access notwithstanding, Dictionary of the Khazars is unlike most electronic hypertexts in having an order dictated by the sequence of bound pages and an end defined by the last page of the narrative. It is clear (as it often is not with electronic hypertexts) when the text ends—it ends when there are no more pages to turn. This leads to a slightly different question than most theorists want to ask of electronic hypertexts. How can the Book provide readers with an experience appropriate both to [End Page 812] this physical sense of an ending and to its radically fragmented, incomplete, and partial Body?
The strategy it follows is to intensify the dynamics of assembly and disassembly by bringing them into violent confrontation with one another. As the Dictionary draws toward its end, assembly centers around the work of three scholars in the late twentieth century who again become interested in the Dictionary of the Khazars. Significantly, by this time the three traditions have begun to lose their distinctness and blur into one another, much as the dispersed Khazars have blurred into other ethnicities. Dr. Dorothea Schultz is the child of two Jewish parents, a brother who obtained false papers for his sister and then married her, so that she could pretend to be a Polish non-Jew wedding a Jew who had converted to Christianity. When the brother was taken away by the Nazis, his sister/wife promptly divorced him and married a non-Jewish Pole, thereby saving her skin and earning the hatred of her daughter. Although this heritage might seem to indicate that Dorothea should be regarded as operating in the Jewish tradition, she is a Slavist by profession and wrote her undergraduate thesis on Cyril, the Christian participant in the Khazar polemic. Dr. Abu Kabir Muawia is an Arab interested in Hebrew history; he is deeply read in the chronicles of Halevi, the Jewish scribe for the polemic. Dr. Isailo Suk is a medieval archaeologist, fluent in Arabic, who has studied Islamic sources on the Khazars. He belongs to none of the three religions, which he describes as international cartels, but rather takes pride in being an atheist.
This mixing of traditions is further complicated by the weird convergences that surface between the three scholars and the equally weird fragmentations they experience. Dorothea leaves her native Kraków to move to Israel with her husband Isaac, but she continues to send letters addressed to herself at her old Kraków apartment, as if she had split into two. Dotty, in Kraków, continues her scientific pursuit of history and does not love Isaac; Dorothea, in Israel, grows obsessed with her increasingly strange relationship with her husband and uses Dotty as her confidant. After Isaac is wounded in an Israeli-Arab war and returns with scars, Dorothea is tormented with the thought that the scars are mouths belonging to the enemy who inscribed them on her husband’s body. Believing that this enemy now coinhabits the body she caresses, she discovers with dismay that she cannot make love to her husband without her breast or belly falling [End Page 813] into an alien mouth. Finally she asks her husband for the name of the man who inflicted these wounds; it is Dr. Muawia. When Dorothea discovers that Muawia will be attending a conference in Istanbul where she is presenting a paper on Cyril, she determines (although now divorced from Isaac) to kill Muawia for contaminating with his alien writing and voracious appetite the body she loved.
This mysterious connection between Dorothea and Dr. Muawia is clarified when it becomes apparent that the Istanbul conference constitutes a replay of the seventeenth-century drama between Brankovich, Masudi, and Cohen. The disaster of the battlefield at Constantinople is about to be repeated, for also staying at the conference hotel are the twentieth-century incarnations of the demonic antagonists. Akshany, the lute player who deflected Masudi, has come back as the cultured Mr. van der Spaaks, who plays a white tortoiseshell lute; Nicost Sevast, Brankovich’s scribe who destroyed the Khazar manuscripts and was also a fabulous painter, reappears as Mrs. van der Spaaks, who paints gorgeously; and Ephrosinia Lukarevich, marked by two thumbs on each hand, a fondness for red, blue, and yellow, and a passionate love for Samuel Cohen, returns as the Spaaks’s four-year-old son Manuil. When Manuil comes earnestly up to Dorothea and asks if she doesn’t recognize him, we realize that Dorothea is the twentieth-century incarnation of Samuel Cohen. (Unlike the demons, humans cannot remember their former lives, so the question makes no sense to Dorothea.) When Dorothea reports that Muawia limps, the characteristic ties him to Brankovich, who also limped. Dorothea’s obsession with the wound/mouth of Muawia is thus revealed as the twentieth-century version of the dreaming relationship that tied Brankovich and Cohen together. Since all the other players are accounted for, symmetry requires that Suk be Masudi. Like Masudi, Suk has the misfortune always to miss his best chance, as when he breaks open a magical egg that can save his life on the very day its powers expire.
As in the seventeenth century, the twentieth-century plots have at their center the struggle over the Book. Muawia has discovered that fragments of Cyril’s polemic, which Dorothea believes were destroyed, have in fact been preserved by the Jewish scribe Halevi in his account of the polemic. Dr. Suk, for his part, has whimsically started ordering items from a turn-of-the-century catalogue long out of date. To his amazement the objects actually start arriving, and the reader recognizes [End Page 814] them as artifacts described in Dictionary of the Khazars, including a copy of the Daubmannus Dictionary. When Muawia offers to give Dorothea Halevi’s description of Cyril’s polemic, she has to choose whether to shoot him or to reach for the pages. She decides to take the Book over the body. Even as the dynamics of assembly reach their height, however, the forces of disassembly are already at work. At that very moment van der Spaaks/Sevast is smothering Dr. Suk in his room. When Dorothea, hearing from Muawia that Suk has a copy of the Dictionary, runs to Suk’s room, she meets van der Spaaks coming out—and the fabled Daubmannus Dictionary is nowhere to be found. In her absence, Manuil takes the gun she has hidden under her papers and shoots Dr. Muawia, defeating his collaboration with Dorothea. Thus, as the Dictionary draws to an end, completing the patterns and predictions of the original Khazar polemic and its seventeenth-century reconstruction, the collected fragments are destroyed and the reassembly of the fabled total Body is once more forestalled. Through such repetitive symmetries the Dictionary achieves a satisfying closure, but this very repetition also means that the Book has been lost and the Body it incorporates has been once more dispersed.
In this self-deconstructing ending, the mirror symmetry that marks those who live in the asymmetry of time but yearn for the totality of space is expanded to include the Dictionary’s readers as well as its characters. When you buy Dictionary of the Khazars, you must choose between two different textual bodies, one marked male, the other female. The two editions are identical except for an italicized paragraph near the end relating Dorothea’s reaction when Muawia hands her the missing pages. In the female edition, their thumbs touch, and through that touch, Dorothea senses that “our past and our future were in our fingers” (293). This reassembly echoes the mythical moment when Adam’s left thumb touches his right, sparking his reassembled body into consciousness and giving time its meaning. Lost in her feelings, Dorothea’s eyes scan the lines. Instead of absorbing them, however, she embarks on a journey that, although it happens in seconds, gives her the perspective of centuries and, like a long sea voyage, changes her into a different person. “I gained and learned more by not reading than by reading those pages,” she says (293). In the male version, she fails to touch Muawia’s thumb. Instead of embarking on a sea voyage, she likens herself to a fabulous tree, mentioned in the Dictionary, [End Page 815] that grows so fast it rends the bodies of those who swallow its seeds. She realizes that growth upward comes at a price, for “the taller we grow through the sky, toward the wind and rain toward God, the deeper we must sink our roots through the mud and the subterranean waters toward Hell” (293). Whereas the emphasis in the female version is on connection, emotion, temporality, and a horizontal journey that bestows deep insight, the emphasis in the male version is on missed connection, rational thought, spatiality, and a vertical stretching that separates even as it joins. The female and male versions can thus be understood as encoding respectively the ascending and descending cycles of Adam’s body, the symmetrical assembly and disassembly through which the Book comes together and fragments, dissolves and coalesces. Condemned to read in sequence, we must choose between the male and female editions in deciding which lines to scan. But once we have read both, we can see how they fit together, like the fabled key and lock of Princess Ateh’s bedroom.
It is this very key that Dr. Suk mysteriously discovers in his mouth one day when he wakens. As he examines it, he sees that it has a hole in the center of its shaft, evidently designed to slide into a lock hole with a shaft in its center. The gender ambiguities of these images—a masculine key with a hole in its center, a feminine lock with a shaft—indicate that the mirror symmetries of the Book work to confuse categories as well as constitute them. I like to think of this biform key as a warning against fitting the Book into any scheme that claims to have everything wrapped up tight, neat and tidy. For no matter what paths we follow into the Dictionary, its narrative multiplicity will reveal other characters following trajectories that point in different directions.
For example, also present at the battlefield in Constantinople along with Brankovich, Masudi, and Cohen is Averkie Skila, the master swordsman who serves as Brankovich’s fencing partner. Like the two men pulling the puma in opposite directions, Skila and Brankovich practice their deadly craft in the dark, tied to each other by a long leather belt. While Brankovich works on assembling fragments of the Dictionary, Skila has his own project, a book entitled The Finest Signatures of the Saber. In the illustrations for this book, he draws the strokes in the form of constellations. Each star in the constellation stands for a death, for he will draw no stroke without first testing it on flesh. His masterpiece, the stroke pictured in the constellation of Aries, is “a [End Page 816] snake-like incision that left behind a terrible sinuous, gaping slash; like a mouth it released voices from the wound sounding like the cry of liberated blood” (99). For Skila, flesh and paper are media of inscription that mutually constitute each other. Without writing on flesh, there would be no writing in the book; without writing in the book, there would be no interpretation of what the mouth-wound is saying.
Within the Dictionary, Skila plays a complex role defined by his attempt to escape from the book he writes. Information about Skila’s role comes from Masudi, who in some ways mirrors Skila’s quest. Masudi tells us that “when two persons dream each other and the one’s dream builds the other’s reality, a small part of the dream is always left over” (100). The “‘surplus of material’ . . . cannot completely fit into the reality of the person being dreamed, but, rather, spills into and attaches onto the reality of a third person” (100). This excess restricts the third person’s freedom, for he finds that many of his actions are dictated by his oscillation between one or another of the dreaming pair, leaving only the bare-bones outline of his life under his own control. Masudi believes that Skila is such a third person, caught between the dreams of Cohen and Brankovich as he leans now toward one, now toward the other. Masudi speculates that Skila writes The Finest Signatures because he is desperately searching “for the one stroke that would rescue him from the vicious circle within which he moved, waiting for his tormentors to come within reach of his saber” (101). In this interpretation, Skila plays the role of the puma, pinioned between Brankovich, with whom he fences but does not recognize as one of the dreaming pair, and Cohen, whom he does not know.
In Skila’s book, the drawings show him executing saber strokes. The strokes are illustrated by lines that make him appear to be imprisoned within a cage “so full of sweeping turns, floating domes, bridges, arches and slender towers at each corner, that Averkie Skila looked as though he were enclosed in the flight of a bumblebee whose endless signature in the air had suddenly become legible” (99). The beautiful and convoluted nature of these lines does not conceal the fact that they nevertheless make a cage within which he is trapped. So, although his face is serene in these drawings, his mouth “had double lips and always looked as though someone else inside him wanted to speak in his stead” (99). As he grows older, he becomes convinced that the sinuous stroke of Aries, the last stroke to be illustrated in his book, will finally [End Page 817] release him from the cage. But he cannot draw the stroke until he has first inscribed it on living flesh. Finally he achieves his goal and pens the final lines. Then, just as he hoped, the lines cut through the cage, making an opening through which he can escape from his own virtuosity. The final illustration shows him walking through this cut, “as if through a gate, to freedom. He came out through this slit as through a wound, being born from his astral prison into the world and a new life. And inside his mute outer lips the other, inner lips laughed joyously” (101).
On whose body did Skila write the stroke that would liberate him? On none other than Masudi, who, like Skila, found himself trapped between the mirror images of Cohen and Brankovich. Whereas Masudi wants to find out what it is like to die, however, Skila wants to find out what it is like to live. So while Masudi sleeps in the pasha’s camp, voyeuristically participating in Cohen’s dream of Brankovich’s death, he is killed by a saber cut that “left a sinuous cut” (189). The “terrible winding gash gaped open like a mouth uttering an incomprehensible word” (189), a grisly failure to communicate that recalls Masudi’s failure to add to the Dictionary. Those who saw the wound never forgot it, later recognizing it “in a book called The Finest Signatures of the Saber” (189).
What are we to make of Masudi’s futile quest and Skila’s escape from his own mastery? Given Skila’s characterization as a writer, it is tempting to see in his story the writer’s fear that if he succeeds in writing a total Book, he must himself be inscribed within its boundaries. So he imagines a character who, writing a book within the Book, tears a hole in flesh and paper that, like a Caesarian section, creates a wound through which he can escape. The cut that allows Skila to birth himself out of the mirroring dreams is achieved by exploiting the very metaphoric connections that tie the Body to the Book and the wound to the mouth, used now not to incorporate everything into the Book’s articulations but to escape from their reflexive symmetries. If Masudi’s tale illustrates the danger of throwing one’s life away, Skila’s story shows that mastery too can be a burden from which one longs to escape. It also implies there are holes in the Book (not to mention in this reading of the Book). From which I draw the following moral for the Book’s critics: Do not think that reading a total Book means one can arrive at a total Interpretation, as the editor perhaps warns us when he ends his “Preliminary Notes” with the whimsical comment, [End Page 818] “As for essayists and critics, they are like cuckolded husbands, always the last to find out . . .” (15).
Let me conclude by noticing once again the violence that pervades the Dictionary, which I prefer to see not as a sign of bloodthirsty taste but as an indication of how much is at stake in the Body = Book equation. For this book, published in an era when all media are situated within a “docuverse” of information, when print is losing market share to electronic media, and when books are losing their bodies to digital displays, it matters to the Dictionary, and matters terribly, that it has a physical body of markings inscribed on a durable substrate. For all the vulnerabilities of books, for all of the traps they set and they themselves can become, this is a book which cannot imagine itself without a body, even if that body is animated by the dynamics of disassembly as well as assembly. The best way to celebrate the Book that does not merely have a body but is a Body, the Dictionary seems to say, is to tear it into pieces so that readers can have the fun of putting it back together.
N. Katherine Hayles teaches English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Cosmic Web and Chaos Bound, and she is the editor of Chaos and Order. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.
1. When reporters asked Willis how he would defend “The Fifth Element” against charges of narrative incoherence, he snarled back, “The written word is going the way of the dinosaur” (qtd. in Smith). The fact that a film star is making pronouncements on the written word itself indicates that print now exists within a different medial ecology than it did even a few years ago.
3. For further explication of the new medial ecologies, see Tabbi and Wurtz.
4. Very little has been written on this book in English; Petar Ramadanovic takes a sociological approach in “Language and Crime in Yugoslavia.” I assume that the paucity of criticism is due to several factors, including the limited number of scholars fluent in both Serb-Croatian and English and the inherent difficulties presented by the text itself. To help rescue the Dictionary from its current fate among American readers of being often admired but rarely discussed, I have ventured an interpretation, even though I cannot read Serb-Croatian and so am cut off from the text in its original language and the criticism on it in Serb-Croatian. I hope this essay will help to stimulate interest in this work and perhaps draw to it critics fluent in some, if not all, of its languages of inscription.
5. For historical information on the Khazars, see Koestler, Golden, and Dunlop. Although Pavic makes considerable use of this history, he takes liberties with the historical record when he suggests it is completely uncertain to which religion the Khazars converted. The historical record indicates they converted to Judaism; Koestler has an interesting argument about possible motives for this otherwise puzzling event.
6. A note on orthography: capitals are used for the Book and Body when I intend the terms to refer to the mythical total Book and the Body it incorporates.