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  • MYTHS AND RIDDLES: SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LITERATURE AND THEOLOGYAuthor(s): ARTHUR A. COHENSource: Prooftexts, Vol. 7, No. 2 (MAY 1987), pp. 110-121Published by: Indiana University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 19:09

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  • 110


    Myth is an answer in which a ques tion is comprised; riddle is a question

    which postulates an answer.

    Andre Jolles

    1. Theology is a public discourse with a private language. In this it

    resembles literature. The difference between theology and literature? one difference, at least?is that most people presume to understand literature. Few bother to understand theology or, bothering, assume

    that its arcanum is purposely obscure, designed by theologians to warn

    trespassers off their preserve. God, the unsophisticated believer seems to insist, is the simplest of

    beings and therefore unequal to the complexities with which theology belabors him.

    I prefer the gentle and exceedingly simple formulation of Saint

    Sylvester: "God is like an onion. He is very simple and he makes one

    cry." Let us pursue this metaphor. I do not bother to discover who is

    Saint Sylvester. He sounds to me like a Judaizer. Saint Sylvester's theological formulation is, after all, so monochromatic, so concrete, so

    lachrymose. The onion is all of a piece, it is generally recognized. There is

    nothing different at its core than what appears at its surface. Nothing new is revealed if we begin to remove its layers. Nothing at all. We

    weep, however, as we pare away each layer. One thing, of course, does occur. With each layer that we remove the onion becomes smaller. Is

    this the same with God? Is the image precise, much less respectful? But we must begin, I am afraid, with such matters as God and

    onions. We are persuaded to do so less by the accuracy of God's diminishment with each onion paring than we are by the certainty of our tears.

    It comes to mind, however, that even tears are inappropriate. The Psalmist always begins with tears and follows his lamentations with an

    overwhelming of tears, a transfiguration of confidence and hope. We

    dare not, as Kierkegaard noted, despair before God.

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  • Some Observations about Literature and Theology 111

    Unfortunately this is all literary theology, a parsing of personal estates, both individual laments and individual aspirations. The con

    junction of literature and theology unnerves me. I doubt the propriety of literature?its usefulness, its consequence, its capacity to shake us

    awake, to compel our attention?to the God who shrinks as he is pared or who makes us cry all the harder as he becomes smaller.

    2. I do not understand what is Jewish literature. I have some fairly specific notions about what is Jewish in Jewish

    literature however. It is "literature" that baffles me. I do not under

    stand literature. It tends to be used as a salute and a congratulation. Much too general, like an anthem. There is, however, something

    terribly concrete and particular about the Jewish. It doesn't much matter whether the Jewish is a condition, a lengthy fatality, an

    incurable estate of optimism. Whatever it is, the Jewish is identifiable. It is chicken bones in the pocket of the poor penitent on Erev Yom

    Kippur. So says Sholem Aleichem. For no one other than a Jew would

    these specifics have any meaning. Only in English would such facts

    require a footnote of explanation, since it is possible a Gentile might read the story and not understand. But a Jew reading such a story with

    such an arrangement of fact, particularly a Jew who could read such a

    story in Yiddish, would be obliged to wince and to laugh. Or it might well be "One day during the time of the massacre I was sitting in a

    dingy room, writing. As if the Angel of Poetry had confided to me: The

    choice lies in your own hands. If your song inspires me, I will protect

    you with a flaming sword. If not?don't complain . . . my conscience will be clean.'"* So writes Abraham Sutzkever in his Green Aquarium. For no one other than a Jew would these images have any meaning. And such a Jew would be obliged to feel the pain of Sutzkever's irony.

    There is no doubt that Sholem Aleichem and Abraham Sutzkever are Jews. They would not know how to write properly with the hands

    of Esau, holding a smooth pen, with fluent ink, preparing clean

    manuscripts. Jewish manuscripts, I think, are constantly subject to

    erasures. (Except for scribal copying which is after all copying. But

    that's another problem to which we will return. It will be seen there

    that even copyists have theological problems with mistakes.)

    3. The modern Hebrew term for literature is essentially an abstrac

    tion of the Hebrew for "book." It is "bookness." Sifrut is the quintes

    *Abraham Sutzkever. Griner akvarium un andere dertseylungen [Green Aquarium and Other

    Stories] (Jerusalem, 1975). Translated by Ruth Wisse with introductory text in Prooftexts 2


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    sential book, book as essence, book even as substance without acci dents. Book as actuality. Sifrut does not allude to literacy, which in its archaic derivations comes forth out of litteratus, that is, marked with letters. A coat of many letters. Literature is a constellation of lettered culture. Hebrew seems to think differently. It presumes the letters were formed before creation and that at least one book was written.

    Sifrut requires only a single Sefer. "Jewish book" is the proper formulation for the Jew, not Jewish

    literature. Jewish literature alludes to a culture formed of letters

    rigorously gathered out of their natural dispersion. The Jewish book is

    somehow always in place. As I have noted, it is clear to me what defines the Jewish?a

    resonation and sound chamber of particular experience, which employs a considerable variety of images and metaphors that signify the

    experience of Jews. But not only historical experience surely. There is no historical experience of the Angel of Poetry (or the Angel of Death

    also alluded to) or even of Yom Kippur. The disordering gift of the imagination may well reside in the

    ability to take the historical experience, bare and unwinnowed, and leaf it with the language of perpetual and renewing myth or liturgy that enables it to endure long after the specific event has been forgotten. If literature is an art it may be said that literature lifts the event out of the dust and makes of it myth. We are so stupid that only with myth is the

    memory alive and vigorous. Events are forgotten and misconstrued, indexed and forgotten. But who has not heard of Troy or, if they know

    nothing of Troy and its ardents, who has not heard of Adam and Eve, or Cain and Abel, or of Joseph and his brothers? And is there any doubt that what they have heard is myth and not only the myths of our

    origins and descent into history, but the myths of other nations and

    peoples as well? Myth is not all slogan (although it can be that too). It is a mnemonic of feeling and the source of the deepest loyalty. It is so easy to betray history and survive. It is impossible to do the same with one's own myth.

    4. Some have written that it is impermissible to assimilate the destruction of European Jewry to the millenial memorial of the destruc tion of the Temple on the 9th Day of Av. They say (quite correctly I

    believe) that there is nothing in these modern events that does not

    overwhelm the confines of the ancient tropes, rendering them distended and flattening these catastrophes of our own day by false similitudes.

    (Again I believe they say something that is true.) All events, as events, are incommensurable. No fact is like any other. It is the resemblance of

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  • Some Observations about Literature and Theology 113

    the catastrophe to the unconditioned finality of the fact that makes

    catastrophes incomparable and unassimilable to ordinary historica