When I was younger, I got onto a Central European literature kick. A friend of mine had developed an interest in things Russian and I traced my own path in sympathy through the Russian world. What began with some Russian literature (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Sologub’s The Petty Demon) widened into matters philosophical (a mixture of Mikhail Bakhtin, Nikolai Berdyaev, G. I. Gurdjieff, Roman Jakobson, P. D. Ouspensky), and religious (there was a small Russian Orthodox bookstore down the street from where I lived). That widened and wandered into a few Central European forays—Danilo Kiš, Milan Kundera, Milorad Pavić, a few others whose names did not stay with me.
This was all back before the internet was really a useful tool for intellectual discovery, so more than a little of my education entailed finding the proper section in the university library and seeing what sat next to authors I already knew that I liked. Kundera may have been my first exposure to a literary author who also produced thoughtful and philosophical essays and I can recall saying to a friend after reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being that it was so painfully poignant that immediately after reading it, I wanted it to be the last work of literature I read, that I wanted to surround and nourish my memory of it with reverential silence.
Ah, to be young.
Pavić, though, I did not discover in the library but the airport (Atlanta’s, I think). It was his Dictionary of the Khazars, which was enjoying enough international acclaim to make its way into upscale airport bookstores (to be fair, airport bookstores seemed a good bit more cosmopolitan in the late 1990s). I recall being quite taken by it at the time, but nearly two decades later I was hard-pressed to recall the intimate details. So, when Stacey went looking for Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (she’s been reading and enjoying Camelia Elias‘s The Oracle Travels Light), I decided it was time to renew my acquaintance with the Khazars.
The book sits squarely in the double-frame of Levant and Caucasus from which Kabbalism proper flowers and does so by exploring history and memory as an intricate lattice of self-enclosing histories, histories which are entangled both in spite of and because of their self-enclosing tendencies. Written as three interrelated dictionaries (a Christian, Islamic, and Jewish one) describing an ostensibly pagan people’s conversion, the reader is free to trace a peculiar and personal trajectory through the book’s contents. While I wouldn’t quite call it magical, it does serve as something of an image of magical experience.
There within the pages of Pavić’s text, I found a variation on the cats in a library metaphor for gnosis. It is more poignant, to be sure, but I have a feeling that it is also more apt:
“‘You see…the moth is way up there by the white wall of the doorway, and it is visible only because it moves. From here it almost looks like a bird high up in the sky….That’s probably how the moth sees the wall, and only we know it is wrong. But it doesn’t know that we know….You try to communicate with it, if you can. Can you tell it anything in a way it understands; can you be sure it understands you completely?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘Can you?’
‘Yes,’ the old man said quietly, and with a clap of his hands he killed the moth, then proffered its crushed body on the palm of his hand.
‘Do you think it didn’t understand what I told it?’
Now, imagine…that there is someone who knows about us what we know about the moth….somebody who cannot approach us to let us know that he exists except in one way—by killing us. Somebody on whose garments we are nourished, somebody who carries our death in his hand like a tongue, as a means of communicating with us.” (126)
Apt in the sense that the relationship between the space we understand ourselves to inhabit and the boundaries in which that space is defined are possessed of an arbitrariness which we cannot reduce to discursive understanding. Apt, too, in the sense that this other world communicates with us through our mortality, through our thing-liness, through the suppression of our ego unto death, until it greets us in our actual death.