What is at stake in literature? Can we identify the fire that our stories have lost, but that they strive, at all costs, to rediscover? And what is the philosopher's stone that writers, with the passion of alchemists, struggle to forge in their word furnaces? For Giorgio Agamben, who suggests that the parable is the secret model of all narrative, every act of creation tenaciously resists creation, thereby giving each work its strength and grace. The ten essays brought together here cover works by figures ranging from Aristotle to Paul Klee and illustrate what urgently drives Agamben's current research. As is often the case with his writings, their especial focus is the mystery of literature, of reading and writing, and of language as a laboratory for conceiving an ethico-political perspective that places us beyond sovereign power.
About the Author
Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary Italian philosopher and political theorist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent title with Stanford University Press is The Use of Bodies (2016).
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The Fire and the Tale
By Giorgio Agamben, Lorenzo Chiesa
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Nottetempo
All rights reserved.
The Fire and the Tale
At the end of his book on Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem tells the following story, which he learned from Yosef Agnon:
When the Baal Schem, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer; and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods, and say: "We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray." And everything happened according to his will. When another generation had passed, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov was faced with the same task, [and] he would go to the same place in the woods, and say: "We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient." And sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down in his golden chair, in his castle, and said: "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all this." And, once again, this was sufficient.
It is possible to read this anecdote as an allegory of literature. In the course of its history, humanity moves further and further away from the sources of mystery and, little by little, loses the memory of what tradition taught it about the fire, the place, and the formula — but of all this men can still tell the story. What remains of mystery is literature, and "that can be sufficient," the rabbi comments with a smile. The meaning of this "can be sufficient" is, however, not easy to grasp, and perhaps the destiny of literature depends precisely on how we understand it. If we simply understand it in the sense that the loss of the fire, the place, and the formula is somehow progress and that the result of this progress — secularization — is the liberation of the tale from its mythical sources and the establishment of literature — now autonomous and adult — in a separate sphere — that is, culture — then that "can be sufficient" really becomes enigmatic. It can be sufficient — but to what? Is it credible that we can be satisfied with a tale that is no longer in relation with the fire?
After all, by saying "we can tell the story of all this," the rabbi claimed exactly the opposite. "All this" means loss and forgetting, and what the tale tells is indeed the story of the loss of the fire, the place, and the prayer. Each tale — all literature — is, in this sense, a memory of the loss of the fire.
Literary historiography has by now accepted that the novel derives from mystery. Kerényi and, after him, Reinhold Merkelbach have demonstrated the existence of a genetic link between pagan mysteries and the ancient novel, of which Apuleius's Metamorphosis offers us a particularly convincing document (here the protagonist, who has been transformed into an ass, finds in the end salvation by means of a literal mystery initiation). This nexus is manifested by the fact that, exactly like in mysteries, we see in novels an individual life that is connected with a divine or in any case superhuman element, whereby the events, episodes, and vicissitudes of a human existence acquire a meaning that overcomes them and constitutes them as a mystery. Just like the initiated — attending in the dimness of Eleusis the mimicked or danced evocation of the abduction of Kore by Hades and her annual reappearance on Earth in spring — penetrated mystery and found in it the hope of having his life saved, so the reader, following the series of situations and events that the novel weaves pitifully or ferociously around its character, somehow participates in his destiny and, at any rate, introduces his own existence to the sphere of mystery.
Yet this mystery is separated from any mythical content and religious perspective, and hence can be somehow desperate, as happens with Isabel Archer in Henry James's novel or with Anna Karenina. This mystery can even show a life that has entirely lost its mystery, as in Emma Bovary's story. In any case, if what is at stake is a novel, there will always be an initiation, however miserable and confined to nothing other than life as such and its squandering. It belongs to the nature of the novel to be at the same time loss and commemoration of the mystery, disarray and remembrance of the formula and the place. If the novel forgets the memory of its ambiguous relation with the mystery, as always more often happens today, or if, cancelling any trace of the precarious and uncertain Eleusinian salvation, it claims to have no need for the formula, or worse, consumes the mystery in a host of private facts, then the very form of the novel is lost together with the memory of the fire.
The element in which the mystery is dispersed and lost is history [storia]. We need to think again and again about the fact that the same term designates both the chronological progress of human events and what literature relates, both the historical gesture of the researcher and that of the narrator. We can access the mystery only through a story [storia], yet (or maybe we should say, "in fact") history [storia] is that in which the mystery has put out or hidden its fires.
In a letter of 1937, starting from his personal experience as a scholar of the qabbalah, Scholem tried to reflect on the implications of the nexus that knots two at least apparently contradictory elements such as mystical truth and historical investigation. He intended to write "not the history, but the metaphysics of the Cabala"; however, he soon realized that it was not possible to access the mystical kernel of tradition (qabbalah means "tradition") without going through the "wall of history":
The mountain [this is how Scholem refers to mystical truth] needs no key at all; only the misty wall of history, which hangs around it, must be penetrated. To penetrate it was the task I set for myself. Will I get stuck in the mist, will I suffer, so to speak, a "professorial death"? But the necessity of historical criticism and critical history cannot be replaced by anything else, even where it demands sacrifices. Certainly, history may seem to be a fundamental illusion, but an illusion without which, in temporal reality, no insight into the essence of things is possible. That mystical totality of truth, whose existence disappears precisely when being projected onto historical time, can become visible for today's man in a primary and pure way only in the legitimate discipline of commentary and the strange mirror of philological critique. Today, as at the very beginning, my work lives in this paradox, in the hope of being truly addressed from within the mountain, of that most inconspicuous, that smallest possible fluctuation of history, which causes truth to break forth from the illusions of "development."
The task that Scholem defines as paradoxical is, following the teaching of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, that of transforming philology into a mystical discipline. As in every mystical experience, it is for this reason necessary to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the obscurity and mist of philological inquiry, with its melancholy archives and gloomy documents, with its unreadable manuscripts and abstruse glosses. There is undoubtedly a very strong risk of losing one's way in philological practice, of not remaining focused on the mystical element that we wish to achieve — because of the coniunctivitis professoria that this practice involves. But like the Grail that was lost in history, the researcher must lose himself in his philological quête, because this very bewilderment is the only guarantee of the seriousness of a method, which is to the same extent a mystical experience.
If investigating history and telling a story are, in all truth, the same gesture, then the writer himself faces a paradoxical task. He will have to intransigently believe only in literature — that is, in the loss of the fire. He will have to forget himself in the story that he weaves around his characters, and yet, even if only at this price, he will have to know how to discern at the end of this oblivion the fragments of black light that come from the lost mystery.
"Precarious" refers to what is obtained by means of a prayer (praex, a verbal request, as different from quaestio, a request that is made with all available means, even violent ones) and is, for this, fragile and adventurous. Literature is itself adventurous and precarious, if it wishes to preserve the right relation with the mystery. Like the initiated at Eleusis, the writer proceeds in darkness and dimness, on a path suspended between infernal and celestial gods, between oblivion and remembrance. There is, however, a thread, a sort of probe sent toward the mystery, which allows him to measure his distance from the fire at each turn. This probe is language, and it is on language that the intervals and breaks that separate the tale from the fire are implacably marked as wounds. Literary genres are the sores that the oblivion of the mystery has inflicted on language: tragedy and elegy, hymn and comedy are nothing other than the ways in which language cries for its lost relation with the fire. Today, writers do not seem to notice these wounds. They walk as if blind and deaf over the abyss of their language and do not hear the lament that cries from the bottom; they believe they are using language as a neutral instrument and do not perceive the resentful babbling that calls for the formula and the place, that demands accountability and vengeance. To write means to contemplate language. And those who do not see and love their language, those who are unable to spell out its tenuous elegy or perceive its murmured hymn, are not writers.
The fire and the tale, the mystery and the story are the two indispensable elements of literature. But in what way can one of the elements, whose presence is the irrefutable proof of the loss of the other, bear witness to this absence, exorcising its shadow and memory? Where there is the tale, the fire is out; where there is the mystery, there cannot be the story.
Dante has condensed in a single verse the situation of the artist faced with this impossible task: "the artist / who for the habit of art has a hand that trembles" (Paradise 13.77–78). The language of the writer — like the gesture of the artist — is a field of polar tensions, whose extremes are style and manner. "The habit of art" is the style, the perfect possession of one's means, in which the absence of the fire is peremptorily assumed, because the work contains everything and can lack nothing. There is no mystery, and there never was one, because it is entirely exposed here and now and forever. But, in this imperious gesture, a trembling is at times produced, something like an intimate vacillation, in which style suddenly overflows, colors fade, words stutter, and matter clots and spills over. This trembling is the manner that, in the deposition of the habit, attests once again to the absence and the excess of the fire. And in any good writer, in any artist, there is always a manner that takes its distance from the style, a style that disappropriates itself as manner. In this way the mystery undoes and loosens the plot of the story; the fire creases and consumes the page of the tale.
Henry James once told how his novels originated. At the beginning there is only what he calls an image en disponibilité, the isolated vision of a man or a woman still devoid of any determination. That is, they present themselves as "available," so that the author may weave around them the fatal intrigue of situations, relations, encounters, and episodes that "will make them come out in the most appropriate way," to make them become, in the end, what they are, the "complication that they are more likely to produce and feel." That is: being characters.
The story that, in this way, page after page, while it narrates their successes and failures, their salvation and damnation, exhibits and reveals them, is also the plot that seals them into a destiny, constitutes their lives as a mysterion. It makes them "come out" only to enclose them in a story. In the end, the image is no longer "available," has lost its mystery, and can only perish.
Something similar also happens in the lives of men. Without a doubt, in its inexorable course, existence — which initially seemed so available, so rich with possibilities — little by little loses its mystery, one by one puts out its fires. It is, in the end, only a story, insignificant and disenchanted like any other. Until one day — perhaps not the last, but the second to last — existence finds again for an instant its enchantment and all of a sudden atones for its disappointment. What has lost its mystery is now truly and irreparably mysterious, truly and absolutely unavailable. The fire, which can only be told, the mystery, which was integrally violated in a story, now leaves us speechless and shuts itself away forever in an image.CHAPTER 2
Perhaps there is no better place than the footage of Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem to glimpse the intimate and unmentionable correspondence that unites the mystery of guilt with the mystery of punishment. On the one side, enclosed in his cage of glass, the accused: he seems to catch his breath and feel at home only when he can meticulously enumerate the names of his departments and correct the imprecisions of the prosecution with regard to numbers and acronyms. On the other side, pompously facing him, the prosecutor: in the same determined way, he threatens the accused with his inexhaustible pile of documents, each evoked through its bureaucratic monogram.
Beyond the grotesque element that frames the dialogue of the tragedy of which the two are the protagonists, there is truly an enigma here: office IV-B4, where Eichmann worked in Berlin, and Beth Hamish-path, Jerusalem's House of Justice in which the trial is held, duly correspond to each other, and somehow are the same place, just as Hauser, the prosecutor who accuses Eichmann, is his exact double in the mystery that unites them. And both seem to be aware of this. If, as has been said, a trial is a "mystery," this is indeed one that, unappeased, links together in a dense network of gestures, acts, and words guilt and punishment.
Yet what is at stake here is not, like in pagan mysteries, a mystery of salvation, however precarious; nor is it — like in Mass, which Honorius of Autun defines as a "trial that takes place between God and his people" — a mystery of atonement. The mysterion that is held in the House of Justice knows neither salvation nor atonement, since, independently of its outcome, the trial is in itself the punishment. The sentence can only prolong and sanction it, and acquittal can in no way invalidate it, since it is only the acknowledgment of a non liquet, of the insufficiency of judgment. Eichmann, his ineffable lawyer Servatius, the gloomy Hauser, the judges, each in his own lugubrious attire, are nothing other than the quibbling officiants of the only mystery that is still accessible to modern man: this is not so much the mystery of evil, in its banality or profundity (in evil we never have mystery, only the semblance of mystery), but the mystery of guilt and punishment, or rather of their undecipherable nexus, which we call Judgment.
It now seems certain that Eichmann was an ordinary man. We should therefore not be surprised that this police officer, whom the prosecution tries in every possible way to present as a ruthless killer, was an exemplary father and a generally well-intentioned citizen. The fact is that the very mind of an ordinary man represents today an unexplainable conundrum for ethics. When Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche realized that God is dead, they believed they had to draw the conclusion that man would become a monster and an abomination, and that nothing and nobody could hold him back from committing the most nefarious crimes. This prophecy turned out to be unsubstantiated — and yet somehow correct. No doubt, there are, from time to time, apparently decent kids who gun down their classmates in a school in Colorado, and, in the outskirts of big cities, petty criminals and infamous assassins. But, as has always been the case, and perhaps to an even greater extent, they are an exception and not the rule. The ordinary man survived God without too much difficulty and, rather, is today unexpectedly respectful of law and social conventions, instinctively inclined to abide by them, and, at least with respect to others, eager to invoke their implementation. It is as if the prophecy according to which "if God is dead, then everything is permitted" did not concern him in any way: he continues to live reasonably even without the comfort of religion and endures with resignation a life that has lost its metaphysical sense, a life about which he does not, after all, seem to have any illusions.
Excerpted from The Fire and the Tale by Giorgio Agamben, Lorenzo Chiesa. Copyright © 2014 Nottetempo. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Contents§ The Fire and the Tale,
§ Mysterium Burocraticum,
§ Parable and Kingdom,
§ What Is the Act of Creation?,
§ In the Name of What?,
§ Easter in Egypt,
§ On the Difficulty of Reading,
§ From the Book to the Screen: The Before and the After of the Book,
§ Opus Alchymicum,
Note on the Texts,