[(essay date fall-winter 2000-2001) In the following essay, Cohen considers the writings and shared Jewish heritage of Auster and Edmond Jabès, situating their work in the broader literary context comprising the Talmud, the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, and the existential texts of Samuel Beckett.]
In the first part of his monumental treatise, The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides--medieval philosopher, Biblical exegete, and codifier of Jewish law--guides his readers painstakingly through the chain of "homonyms" ("terms ... which denote different objects which have nothing in common" [Guttmann 205]) that pervade Biblical language. The first chapter, a pivotal philosophical and hermeneutic text of Jewish tradition, argues forcibly that both Hebrew terms denoting man's resemblance to God in Genesis I--tselem, image, and demuth, likeness--are "equivocal" or homonymous, insofar as their use in ordinary language might imply the corporeality of God, and hence His representability to human consciousness. By employing the traditional Jewish exegetical strategy of reading the terms in the context of their other usages throughout the Bible, Maimonides concludes that, on the contrary, the "image" and "likeness" to which Genesis I points are in respect of a notion rather than a form (21). This notion is "intellectual apprehension" or the rational soul and can be likened to the divine only insofar as it signifies that within the human which eludes sensual apprehension: the invisible within the visible.
Maimonides later offers this summation of the homonymy which the infinite introduces into language: "He is not like any thing of all those that are other than He, nor is He comprehended together with one of these things in any definition whatever" (81). All those terms we employ in reference to the divine--the image of God, the Throne of God, the Rock--are really markers of the unbridgeable gap between finitude and the infinite, of the necessary failure of language, medium of time-bound humanity, to make eternity available to consciousness.
Maimonides' account of homonymy articulates a conception of language and representation which can be seen at work wherever Jewish writing--from the Rabbinic period to the present day--puts in question the relation of the "Jewish" to the "written." The itinerary of this question has been traced in a remarkable recent work by French rabbi and philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin, entitled The Burnt Book. Ouaknin, by way of a series of readings in the Talmud and the kabbalistic teachings of the eighteenth century Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, draws out a Judaic textual dynamic wherein the word's impoverishment, its failure to make present its object, is also the very source of its plenitude, its availability to ceaseless interpretation and re-interpretation. The central texts of Judaism are sacred, he argues, precisely because they fail to grasp the infinite in language, because, that is, they resist the idolatry implied in any claim of a static correspondence between finite word and infinite object. The moment meaning freezes in interpretation, it must be burnt by counter-interpretation. Haunted by the absolute they must always fail to represent, the texts of...