- Edmond Jabès, Jacques Hassoun, and Melancholy: The Second Exodus in the Shadow of the Holocaust
Thou shalt never again dwell permanently in the Land of Egypt.Deut. 17:16
But it would be impossible for me to say that France is my country . . .Edmond Jabès
Melancholy is both an emotional state of profound dejection and an organizing principle, a structure of consciousness and a mode of thinking. Slavoj Žižek calls melancholy an ideology and the origin of philosophy (659). Jacques Hassoun calls melancholy “le moment fondateur du sujet” (CM 11)1 and psychoanalysis “un mode de connaissance mélancolique” (CM 19). My aim in what follows is to propose melancholy as a framework for understanding a source of suffering in Jabès’ work and to suggest a reading of the Holocaust from the [End Page 797] perspective of his personal history of persecution in Egypt. Jabès wrote about exile and suffering when, to be a Jew, to suffer as one, meant to be a European Jew.
There have been many exceptional studies on Jabès. The works of Warren F. Motte, Jr., Steven Jaron, Richard Stamelman, Paul Auster, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Derrida, are examples of the quality of consideration his work has received. The consensus in these discussions is that absence and loss are the organizing concepts of his work. Most readers agree with Stamelman that in Jabès, “nothingness appears as the only possession, difference as the only identity, writing as the only trace, wandering as the only activity, and suffering as the only inheritance” (231). Yet, importantly, as Warren F. Motte reminds us, although a key element of the Jabesian text is that “there is a strong impulse toward coherent telling,” (92) there is a “resisting voice,” which “in spite of its determination, must cede to constraint, announcing as it does so the final question of the book: Have you seen how a kingdom is made and unmade? / Have you seen how a book is made and unmade” (92–93; italics in text). Jabès’ texts are as much about what they say as they are about what remains unsaid and unassimilable. There is a repression at the heart of telling that generates pain and ambivalence. The repeated motion of putting together and disassembling that his reading entails, as Motte suggests, is emblematic of the inability of the melancholic subject to finish once and for all with grieving. If the Jabesian text will not put an end to grieving, it is because he has failed to put his finger on what precisely he is grieving about, what exactly he has lost, what is repressed. Freud has written that for the melancholic, it is not clear what has been lost because the identification has involved unconscious components. (166)
It is a commonplace assertion of critics that Jabès has contributed invaluable insights to the understanding of what it means to write in Europe after Auschwitz. Paul Auster argues that the “central question” of his work is the question of the Jewish Holocaust “but it is also the question of literature itself. By a startling leap of the imagination, Jabès treats them as one and the same” (3). He adds that “to Jabès, nothing can be written about the Holocaust unless writing itself is first put into question” (8). Another commonplace is that the Jew in Jabès’ work is a metaphor of modern man. As such, interpretations of his work reflect the way intellectuals in the West in the twentieth century thought and talked about modern man’s existential condition. Without dismissing the appropriateness of such a focus on the work, and without undermining these discussions’ contributions to [End Page 798] thinking and writing about the Holocaust, as I suggested, to read Jabès through the lens of his Egyptian experience is particularly useful to just such discussions.
In most recent work on Jabès, with the notable exceptions of Daniel Lançon’s Jabès l’Egyptien and of Steven Jaron’s indispensable study, Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile, Jabès’ experience as a Jew from Egypt tends to take a back seat to...