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Words, Words, Words

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

In a world of useful people and of useful job, lost in the craziness of useful projects and necessary actions, I have had to come to terms with being useless, unnecessary, not part of any focused process. Literary scholars, like me for example, deal with the nature of literary fiction and invest a great effort into teaching students how literature reveals the constructed nature of all forms of representation. This may sound a tad post-modern and highfalutin, but I sincerely believe that the study of literary texts may teach us how to free ourselves from the constraints of foundationalisms, irreconcilable ideologies and ultimately to acquire a meta-position from which one may see that beliefs are ultimately arbitrary and not absolutely true. Literature, or in general the study of texts, may lead, I think, to see how things represented in them are always fictional, verbal illusions. In this way, the interpretation of literary texts and their understanding as verbally generated illusions, could offer society a critical perspective on the ideological systems by which beliefs are nourished and enforced as “true” – and it should be clear to my reader that among these systems one should include those that discount the special status of literary forms.

I would like to turn to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and then use the tragedy’s protagonist in order to elucidate my reading of Moses’ poetic heritage and to its role in the history of the people of Israel. Hamlet is a play that stages the imperfect capacity of language to represent things, people, and states of mind. Against the background of a world that seems to have gone mad, in the joyful celebration of his mother’s second marriage a month after his father’s death, the young protagonist declares his incapacity to express in words what he has inside:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Facial expressions, clothing, behaviors – all these are but “forms, moods, shapes” of being which can but represent in a ghostly manner that “which passeth show.” The true denotation of things, whether they are states of mind or objects or historical events, is, in Hamlet’s view, a mere lie. Words are not the natural signs of being, the visual substitutes of their referents, but are simply the “trappings and suits” of being. From this point on, in the life of the protagonist and of the audience, words will be the magical tools for the enactment of a miracle and a mirage – a miracle because the ethereal representation of a text appears to the reader to be frozen into an instant’s vision – and a mirage because what the text conveys is nothing but an illusion, an impossible pictorial representation which vanishes the moment we stop reading. A text is a text is a text – and words are but, to use Hamlet’s expression, “Words, words, words.”

Despite the fact that the Revelation of Divine power immediately following the miraculous redemption of the People of Israel from Egypt certainly provides the latter, and us, with a moment of truth, of univocal meaning, that momentous event vanishes within their memory the moment they step into the labyrinthine meanders of the “desert.” Although empowered by a historical event (the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai) conveying the presence, truth and undeniable meaning of Gd’s word, the Torah seems then to convey the impossibility for this “truth” to withstand the erosion of time, human understanding and interpretation. Or, as I wish to argue, the latter is exactly the lesson we are called to learn – that truth is not a fixed ideal, immutable and eternal, but rather that it must change, and it must be considered as an ethereal ghost. In a way, when each one of us approaches the understanding of that truth, struggling to hear the voice of Gd on Sinai within the vivid descriptions of the Torah, all that we see is a mirage, an impossible picture that can and will stand only within the words of the text.

So here comes the difficult part now (undermining truth-claims is, I think, rather easy and fun): how do we maintain a tradition based on texts? Meaning: how can we build the foundations of any cultural endeavor? It is quite obvious to me that Moses, upon dying, had the same question on his mind. Like the dead king of Denmark in Shakespeare’s play, Moses and his prophetic understanding of truth, his vision and conscious perception of Gd’s words, are to us, following his death, nothing but ghostly apparitions, ethereal dreams we are invited to talk to, evoke, and confront.

Deuteronomy 31: “24 After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, 25 he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: 26 “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! 28 Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to testify against them. 29 For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.”

The song of Moses is a poem, a lyric expression in which the prophetic author puts into the form of verses his vision of the people’s future, and thereby creates a textual conscience for his stiff-necked audience. Let me say that again – the text as a receptacle of conscience. We are not to think, that is, that truth and presence are all we need to deal with history – the message Moses hands to his people upon dying is that we must engage the illusions of linguistic representation in the most creative of ways, in order to keep alive the text as both a miracle and a mirage. True, the words of the text are, ultimately, but “words, words, words” – and they can but create illusory representations of what “passeth show.” But maybe, maybe, while lost in the meanders of a desert-like cosmos of conventionally defined signifiers and lost essential signifieds, we will learn to be more humble and accept other opinions as legitimate and necessary. After all, every understanding is the result of an erratic “antic disposition”…

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.