- Demeure, Jabès
J’impose ma présence à chaque créatureEt je pousse partout ma nouvelle demeure—Fouad Gabriel Naffah1
… la langue arabe en qui, de toute éternité,le vers se dit “bayt,” “maison” ou “demeure” …—Salah Stétié2
Je suis de la race des mots avec lesquels onbâtit les demeures.—Edmond Jabès3
“On relira mieux désormais Je bâtis ma demeure.”4 The first sentence of Derrida’s reading of Edmond Jabès (Cairo, 1912-Paris, 1991), referring to the poetry of his Egyptian period from 1943 to 1957,5 was occasioned by the publication of Le livre des questions,6 Jabès’s first book written after his exile from his native Egypt and his move to Paris in 1957. Nearly sixty years later, this ‘better rereading’ of Jabès’s Egyptian poetry remains slow to emerge, with Je bâtis ma demeure instead having been eclipsed in the critical imaginary by the texts of the poet’s Parisian period.7 In fact, Derrida’s premonition that “un certain lierre risquait d’en cacher le sens”8 has been aggravated by a perception of Je bâtis ma demeure as Jabès’s “seul livre de poésie,”9 and by continued reference to the texts of this collection as “a poetry based on a lyric ‘Je.’”10 The “lierre” of lyricism constitutes more than a mere inaccuracy in terms of Jabès’s poetics, his literary work, and the entirety of his publishing history. For one, the terms ‘lyric’ and ‘poetry’ appear to be taken for confused generic synonyms of one another. They remain opaque in the ascriptions of some of Jabès’s most prominent readers, as ‘lyric’ seems to be used in the conventional and unproblematized sense of a “tendance poétique [End Page 129] … privilégiant l’expression plus ou moins vive de la subjectivité.”11 Commentators of Jabès either suggest that it is lyrical, or altogether curtail the questions of Je bâtis ma demeure in order to engage Jabès’s later work. Furthermore, there has yet to be a thorough, rigorous study of any of the poetics of the collection, glossed over as ‘lyric’ and relegated to references in support of readings of the more celebrated books of middle and late Jabès.
In this essay, I propose an alternative reading to Jabès’s Je bâtis ma demeure than the one usually presented by critics. Through a textual meditation circling around the term demeure in the writings first collected in Je bâtis ma demeure (1959, revised 1975), and then later in Le seuil le sable (1988, revised 1990), I trace the intertextual literary loci and discern the poetic place of Jabès’s Cairene work in relation to his œuvre, as well as to the aesthetic tastes of the Egyptian francophone literary sphere in which he composed the poems. With Jabès scholarship in mind, I further pursue this specific idea of “place” through an etymological and bilingual critical close reading of demeure, briefly considering its common English equivalent “dwell,” in order to reveal meanings of the terms that have been left undiscussed; as Heidegger writes, “with the essential words of language, their true meaning easily falls into oblivion in favor of foreground meanings,”12 such that an investigation into the “true meaning[s]” of demeure explains how Jabès dwelt poetically while in Egypt, and during his years of exile and transition in France. In the second half of the essay, I place Je bâtis ma demeure alongside Derrida’s Demeure: Maurice Blanchot13 to underscore the complexities of temporal simultaneity at stake in Jabès’s construction of the collection and its title. This allows me to conclude by characterizing Jabès’s Cairene texts as fundamentally placeless and untimely: subject to continuous revising, torn between the poet’s problematized senses of belonging, and anxious of its own author’s name in the annals of literary history.
Demeure thus emerges in my reading as having more to do with intertextuality, editorial tactics, and Jabès’s attempts to secure a poetic place for himself...