- Jabès’s Poetic Theogony and Levinas’s Receptivity
Emmanuel Levinas (1905–1995)1 is among the most renowned French philosophers to admire and comment on the work of Edmond Jabès (1912–1991),2 contributing to the poet’s reputation in France. Levinas’s reading of Jabès is the focus of my study. Levinas published only a short text about Jabès in Proper Names,3 in which he discussed the poetic fragments on the “lidless eye” of God from the beginning of Aely4 and Adam’s “two faces.” His philosophical foundation of the ethical relationship with the Other (intrinsically linked to his talmudic exegeses) is reflected and enacted in Jabès’s poetics. Levinas discerns the most striking spiritual aspects of Jabès’s books in this fragment on the “lidless” eye of God, which addresses the opening of the ethical experience. But how did Levinas, who was initiated and immersed in the teaching of the Talmud5 with his “master” Chouchani,6 and who had at a certain period of his life harbored suspicion regarding literature and art, evolve in his view of the impossibility of art to encompass an ethical dimension?7 More specifically, how was he seduced by Jabès’s poetics, a poetics that is close to, and in some ways influenced by the zoharic tradition (Jewish Kabbalah),8 that Levinas distrusted?9
Jabès’s striking conception of a personalized God stems from Jewish mysticism, in which God is disclosed anthropomorphically, while in the talmudic tradition God is understood as absolute absence or distance. Since the fourteenth century, the word “Kabbalah” has generally referred to Jewish mysticism from the talmudic period to the contemporary period (1 BCE–19 CE). Originally the Kabbalah did not contain any mystical signification. It came to designate the esoteric tradition at the beginning of the thirteenth century (in southern France and Spain), when it broke off from other mystical groups, becoming grounded in esoterism and theosophy.10 A new way of reading the Bible and the midrashic interpretations emerged. Nevertheless, before becoming integrated into the canon of Jewish sacred texts, the Kabbalah was considered heretical by talmudists. As for the Zohar, one of the major mystical books belonging to the Jewish Kabbalah, it poeticizes the epiphany of a personalized God in its immediate experience with the divine. In order to describe the diverse components of divine consciousness, the theosophy of the Zohar [End Page 119] distinguishes between the En-Sof, the infinite being of God hidden in itself whose mystery remains imperceptible, and the sefirot,11 the God revealed to the mystics who unfolds itself in ten divine dimensions and emanates from the hidden source of the En-Sof.
The presence of a “lidless eye” dominates Jabès’s poetic conception of the universe in the last four Book of Questions12 and especially in Aely. This troubling gaze, the eye of the law or the “lidless eye” of God, occupies the literary space invested by the divine. The fragmentary books of the poet reveal a genesis of the world. Jabès invents the birth of a God,13 located beneath creation itself, followed by the Garden of Eden under the watch of the “lidless eye” of God and he revisits the creation of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, until their fall and the invasion of darkness blanketing the earth. We are then inclined to retrace the emergence of God through the omnipresence of His14 eye. But to trace the origin of the world envisaged by Jabès requires a reevaluation of the biblical Genesis as it relates to the creation of the cosmos and of the primordial human, made in the image of God. Jabès’s singular invention (use of God’s eye) leads to a questioning of the very immanence of this God who, after completing the work of creation, withdraws from it. With the vigilant “lidless eye” paradoxically closing on its creation, the abandoned universe is racked by evil, bringing about the fall of Adam. This is the vision of the world that Jabès felt called upon to express and that I attempt to...