Like footprints in the desert

Hello, world.  As I’ve been thinking about how to approach creating a little window into the way I see things, I keep coming back to the image of the desert. So that’s where I’ll begin.

The image of the desert haunts me.  While I grew up in what ought to have been a desert (if sprinkler systems hadn’t had their way with the land), it wasn’t until I encountered Le livre des questions by Edmond Jabès that the idea of the desert, with its permanence and its constant change, started seeping into my mind. The seemingly infinite and barren expanse that holds no footprints for more than a moment is fertile ground for Jabès’s reflections on pain, longing, and alienation—but also, more unexpectedly, for his thoughts on writing, captivity, and the nature of God.

In Le livre des questions, Jabès uses the image of the desert in his homeland of Egypt to explore the idea of blankness. As a writer, the most daunting blankness may be that of a blank page threatening failure; as a Jew, it may be the barrenness of the desert and the lingering fear of wandering and exile. Both images prominently in the book not only as menaces, but also as unlikely prisons. Pure blankness can be more confining than a brick-and-mortar prison, as it undermines the human need for limits and boundaries; when none exist, limitless possibility can have a paralyzing effect. As Jabès asks, how can a person conquer the nothingness of the desert? There is nothing to destroy: “vivre c’est affirmer ses limites… Que peut-on contre un mur sinon l’abattre? Que peut-on contre les barreaux sinon les scier? Mais contre un mur qui est le sable? Mais contre des barreaux qui sont notre ombre sur le sable?” (61). Furthermore, the desert’s vastness makes any progress irrelevant, as none is visibly apparent. Freedom, instead, is to be found in the confines of the familiar, as “nous ne sommes vraiment libres qu’entre nos quatre murs” (83). To combat the captivity of open space, Jabès suggests that humanity seeks refuge in creating borders, to the point that establishing limits becomes synonymous with life: “Élever des murs, n’est-ce pas vivre?” (108). The human desire to establish a defined space of home and comfort is strong, and Jabès recognizes the legitimacy of the quest to ease the anxiety of too few limits.

Still, despite their potential for imposing confinement through their very openness, the infinite possibilities of the blank page and of the uncharted desert can in many ways be considered emancipatory, allowing the writer and the wanderer to choose their own paths. The blankness is simultaneously freeing and confining, just as the body is depicted both as a form of imprisonment and as life-sustaining: “‘Nos poitrines sont nos geôles… Nos côtes sont les barreaux qui nous empêchent d’étouffer'” (95). Jabès likewise recognizes the dual nature of blankness which includes its potential freedom; he places great value on the process of searching that such an environment enables. Faced with a blank page, the writer must ask: “Où est le chemin? Le chemin est toujours à trouver. Une feuille blanche est remplie de chemins” (59). The desert forces similar searching, even to a greater degree, for one’s path is always at risk of erasure: “Il s’était retrouvé, à midi, face à l’infini, à la page blanche. Toute trace de pas, la piste avaient disparu. Ensevelies” (60). With all of his footsteps washed away in the heat of the noon sun, the risk inherent in this particular blankness is immediate and physical. Still, Jabès does not suggest a more prudent path. As Jabès may never write a definite answer to any of the questions he poses, still the gesture of circling around those questions and ideas is one of meaning and value. The risk one encounters by eliminating boundaries is an important one to take, for by moving toward blankness and infinite potential, Jabès can create a space of questioning, which he prioritizes over knowledge. The closest thing to knowledge may be asking the right questions in the best possible order, which Jabès suggests separates the student from the teacher. One reason that Jabès focuses on questioning rather than on obtaining knowledge is his sense that absolute understanding can be present in a sense of nothingness as well as in a sense of totality. He depicts the two as necessary counterparts to one another: “la véritable connaissance, c’est de savoir chaque jour que l’on n’apprendra, en fin de compte, rien; car le Rien est aussi connaissance étant l’envers du Tout, comme l’air est l’envers de l’aile” (130). Even God is portrayed as a question rather than a response to questioning: “Dieu est une question… une question qui nous conduit à Lui qui est Lumière par nous, pour nous qui ne sommes rien” (130). This acceptance of unanswered questions and of unresolved contradiction is ultimately Jabès overarching strategy for coping with trauma. By acknowledging the necessity of trauma as fundamental both to writing and to Jewish heritage, and by recognizing the intrinsic duality of such essential forces as life and divinity, Jabès enigmatically encourages acceptance of suffering as essential to truth and identity.

While blankness as a starting point provides innumerable possibilities, Jabès also suggests that true meaning requires more—namely, a wound or mark on the surface of that blankness. Using the imagery of a lake surface, either smooth or rippled, he asserts the beauty of wounds:  “—Qu’est-ce que l’eau du lac? Une page blanche. Les plis sont ses rides et chacune est une blessure. Un lac sans plis est un miroir. Un lac ridé est un visage. Marqués, nos visages reflètent celui de Dieu'” (94). Jabès does not want to remain perpetually in front of a blank page; writing or the wound must mar the pure surface in order for understanding and transformation to take place. The ink can be seen as the wound on the white page, but in a reversal of the image, the blank spaces or silences are also envisioned as wounds to the text. Here, rather than the text being seen as a mark that interrupts the smooth uniformity of the blank page, the silences are understood as interrupting the fluidity of the text. The sign appears as wound: “Avant et après la parole, il y a le signe, / et, dans le signe, le vide où nous croissons. / Ainsi, étant blessure, seul le signe est visible. / Mail l’œil ment” (96). This passage hints at the complication: the sign here does not seem to indicate the word, but the space or silence before and after the word. The sign, though, is all that is visible, which would seem to indicate that it is rather the printed word than the empty space. One way to understand the blurring of whether the sign refers to the words or the space around them is to minimize the perceived difference of the two elements: if both word and empty space are signifiers, then either may be meaningful at any given moment. In the passage above, emptiness is the focus and draws the eye of the reader. Still, though, the final note that “the eyes lie” makes it clear that the visual response cannot be trusted, and that one can perhaps take the place of the other. If both text and white space are alternately seen as inflicting trauma, then the printed book seems to layer one wound on top of another in inspiration, content, and form.

Taking into consideration the way that Jabès discusses both blankness and the marks inflicted on that empty space, the relationship between the page and the words printed there is a complicated one. The unmarked Saharan sand, figured both as a dangerous site of potential entrapment and as a space of openness essential to the act of questioning, suggests a blank page that has not yet been filled with words. The desert, as the blank page, enables the possibility of various paths, choices, and narratives to play out once someone begins to mark the pristine surface. Even this image, though, is not fixed, but shifts as Jabès writes about it. Words would seem to diminish the blankness of the white page, but even the finished book, once all pages have been filled, is at times conceived of as blank: “Le livre est l’espace blanc du sommeil” (123). This suggests the infinite potential not only of the page before it contains words, but also after, as textual interpretation can take any number of directions. Jabès’s project frequently works with the idea of a total book, as is present in both the Kabbalistic tradition as well as in the writing of Stéphane Mallarmé and Jorge Luis Borges. With this idea in mind, the printed book cannot merely be limitation of possibility, but must also be openness. Jabès’s work does indeed invite interpretation and continued questioning, which enables it to keep growing, perhaps endlessly. The vast potential of interpretation that follows writing echoes the rabbinic discussion of the sacred texts in Jewish tradition; not only are the words important, but also the continued reflection upon them, implying both the completeness of the original sacred work and also the possibility of its infinite expansion through interpretation and questioning.

A few months after I first read Jabès, I discovered the Sahara for myself. Though my time there was short, I can close my eyes and relive the moment when I first saw nothing but dunes all around me. I understood in that moment why oases are measured by the number of palm trees they can support; the potential terror of turning around and watching your footprints be swept away by the wind; and why Jabès had written of the desert both as a place of immense freedom and of stifling imprisonment.

As cynical as it may sound, I have continued to think about efforts to make a mark on the world as footprints in the desert. Words and photos last as long as the paper they’re printed on, and even if a masterpiece is encoded in DNA, it is immediately subject to the mutations of the medium. Real progress is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge, as the terrain is constantly transforming itself.

I held off from creating this type of venue for my thoughts for a long time because of a sense of irrelevance that stemmed from the issues above.  I finally realized, though, that I’m not bothered by impermanence. Rather, I find ephemerality liberating. My words won’t stick around for long, but even if they vanish behind me as soon as they’re written, I might as well put one foot in front of the other and see where it leads me.

Jabès, Edmond. Le livre des questions. Paris: Gallimard, 1963.