“Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”—Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator” in Illuminations (78)
I fondly recall discovering Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars in an airport bookshop in Atlanta, probably not long before or after I was accused by a classmate of being a “closet Jewish mystic” for the way I read Benjamin’s work. The text was a marvel of weaving together the discontinuous threads of Eastern European religious experience, juxtaposing Christian, Islamic, and Jewish conceptions of the sacred through an ablative rather than conjunctive methodology.
Was there a possibility for such a world to be healed? It’s hard to imagine so, because while they might share common roots, they don’t share a destiny. Add to that the implied paganism of the Khazars that occasion the dictionaries and you have a powerful image of world history, not just that of the of Serbia as Pavić has suggested.
Still, even as they are in the process of going their own way, they continue to resonate with each other. That resonance takes all manner from forms, from the subtle (e.g., how habits of disposing themselves toward each other impacts their posture and gestures generally) to the gross (e.g., vigorous theological dialogues, debates, and screeds directed across the distance between them). It isn’t just the pagans, Jews, Muslims, and Christians caught up in all of this. There are other ways of life that gather along the margins and interstices of these world historical movements, faiths of the trading zone.
I take a good bit of the work I am doing to be an effort to acknowledge these specific realities in their historical and spiritual sense, difficult though it can be. I don’t have a well-defined hermeneutic for this, so rather than tracing out the fine edges of where pieces fit together like Benjamin’s translator cum pot fixer, I am trying to find points of harmony between jagged edges that will never come together again, translating in an expanding universe.
This question of translation becomes acute n the Kabbalistic work with its ties to the Hebrew language. The mysticism of the abjads is shared by other languages as well, some of which have developed in ways that can’t be neatly paralleled with Hebrew. I am thinking here, of course, of Arabic and the relationship between Arabic and the Qur’an which grounds another mystical practice of the alphabet comparable to the Jewish practices.
What is shared? What diverges? What is shared even in their diverging and what is shared through the diverging?
These quotes capture some of the matter that I am contemplating at present:
“Know—may God give us help—that letters are a community whose members receive the word of God and are bound by the Law. They have messengers just as we have….All these letters are worlds. Each of the worlds receives a messenger of its own kind, and a divine law by which its beings are bound to worship.”—Ibn al’Arabi, The Meccan Revelations, Volume II, edited by Michel Chodkiewicz and translated by Cyrille Chodkiewicz and Denis Gril
Which is to say that the letters are compacted gates to spiritual worlds that have all made certain sorts of spiritual commitments, such that we talk about the agency of a letter, we are actually talking about the agency of a microcosms, blocks of time that manifest within our own world in a singular and pointed fashion owing more to the relationship between our microcosm with theirs than because of any special property of the microcosms themselves. Relationships, in point of fact, that may undo the very notion of a microcosm and replace it with a more surreal world in which a -cosm can be both micro- and macrocosm for each other.
Humans aren’t central because they are central so much as because we are human and in an open and expanding cosmos we always discover the center wherever we are. The world doesn’t collapse into an ocean of the dead or the arc of on religion’s life, but bubbles, stretches, bursts, engulfs, and shrinks.
Or, put in the way it was put to me, what is it like to be Enoch living in the station of the sun, with the heavens above and below?