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Edmond Jabès: Desert and a Writing of the Outside

Biographical information:
Born in 1913 in Egypt. Died in 1991 in Paris. Jabès was exiled from his country of birth in 1956 (during the Suez Crisis) because he was a Jew. He moved to France and began writing about what it means to be a Jew, and what it means to write. He receieved France's Grand Prize for poetry in 1987. I found out about Edmond Jabès by reading an essay about him in a book by Jacques Derrida.
Some of his works:

But, enough with the 'factual' presence of Jabès; I'm more interested in what he writes, and how he writes than in the numerical details of his life...,

Most of this entrenchment on Jabès' work will be quotes:

I believe in the writer's mission. He receives it from the word, which carries its suffering and its hope within it. He questions the words, which question him. He accompanies the words, which accompany him. the iniative is shared, as if spontaneous. Being useful to them (in using them) he gives a deep sense to his life and to theirs, from which his own has sprung (Jabès 58).

"Eloquence is created by the absence of a divine word" (Jabès 85).


"I am the narrator, the hour of the word alone."

-Reb Sigoura

For now I want to focus on this last quote, and the sort of function it 'performs' in the text of Edmond Jabès. Jabès' works are littered with 'quotes' taken from imaginary rabbis:

  • Reb Sigoura
  • Reb Elfer
  • Reb Nahmias
  • Reb Sottar
  • Reb Libra
  • Reb Sieris
  • Reb Taor
  • Reb Galim
  • Reb Timbah
  • Reb Alev
  • Reb Eal
  • Reb Vel
  • Reb Halfan
  • Reb Golim
  • Reb Faic
  • and more
  • and more

What does it mean for someone to put their words into someone else's mouth? What does it mean for Jabès to speak through his rabbis?
I suggest that it is part of his prolonged meditation on what it means to write, and what writing is. To write through another, even in imagination, is to accept that one's words are alienated even at their very moment of inscription. That is: to accept that meaning is always just out of our grasp. What does it mean to be a Jew? To accept that the name of God, indeed God him/her/itself is always already just out of one's grasp.
For Jabès to be a Jew is to be of the Book (of writing, of God's law...), but is it ever possible to be of the book?


"Faced with the impossibility of writing which paralyzes every writer and the impossibility of being Jewish which for two thousand years has rent the people of this name, the writer chooses to write and the Jew to survive."

"The scholar inherited the night, the Jew the desert"
-Reb Sebdé

The desert figures strongly in most of Jabès' work. I see the desert as a trope of desolation: the representation of both Jabès' own exile, the exile of the Jews from Israel, and the exile of the Jews from their God (the separation of the Jew and God), and the exile of all meaning from its original source(s). Jabès often seems to approach the equation of exile with the process of writing itself.
Is writing inherently the expulsion of meaning? Or does it go beyond this negativity? Can writing be more than its own destruction? These are the questions that I find most interestingly sustained and approached in The Book of Questions. If you are interested in problems of writing, and (importantly) good writing I would suggest an encounter with Jabès, it might make you feel like writing is pointless, but it will also make you feel like writing is important.

Just because something is pointless doesn't make it unimportant. I feel like life is pointless, but I'm in no hurry to die

Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Volume 1, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, (Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, 1991).

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