Jabès: The book of Questions – over God

Over God in the Book of Questions van Edmond Jabès:



I say: I am death, and forthwith am before God was.

If we spurn God’s image, do we not reject creation?

Then where is truth but in the burning space between one letter and the next?

Thus the book is first read outside its limits.


(God is the measured and immeasurable death of God.

He who has destroyed himself what can he remember but notorious destructions?

Scream: desire of the book before the book. O death, with you all has been said.

Vital knot-why do I think of vipers knot? A burst of sun and sea has struck the universe with liquid fire.

Does a word not die as surely of the colored poison of the pen as by a pointed stone or knife? Once finished off in its standard form, it is read, it is born.

Thus we see the beginning through Good and Evil, the embodiment of our short-lived laws. Our birth enters the immemorial moment of the

death of God and the world.)

He who cheated you out of your world by some trick or other deserves only violent hatred. Against the Enemy of the soul the battle must be decisive.

If you win you will later (no doubt because you are lonely and tired) be indulgent with your victim, and someday, who knows, even tender. But beware of the senseless love which leads to desiring God with a passion.

He who pretends to give all deprives us of our future. Giving means opening out, means forging our tomorrows from the best in us gathered for others. God hampers universal brotherhood. He forbids man to imagine kindness.

But for those who are in love with the absolute, obsessed by eternity, turning to God to adore or destroy Him means reaching the depth of human anguish. For we are desperately driven to claim responsibility for the death of God in order to love Him more than ourselves, against ourselves.

A great love carries within it a mourning for love. 

O Yaël, how I would have loved you in my misery.


(The word is a test, the summons a pact.

Dawn. And the end of the day. Eternity is preserved.)


With nothing left to invent God drowned in Himself. It would be interesting to know which was His last invention-the fatal one. Some claim it was man.

(Innocence of Evil. Could it be that original sin was, rather than a sin of knowledge, the part we played in the death of God which, for being born last, we take entirely upon ourselves?)


(Have I, in my hope to undo the evil that eats us, held your head too long under water? Your child’s-head, lissom dawn and sponge? 

Shore of absence where the body ran aground, the light, free of bandied words, spreads from mouth to ear for you, O living-dead. 

You, half open at the core. In your flesh I violate the void.)

A circle

and in the circle another


and in the new circle still

another circle

and so on till

the last: a forceful


then an invisible point

unbelievably present,

majestically absent.

A woman and a word.

A woman turning

around a word turning

slowly, faster,

unbelievably fast

till they are but

one circle in the space that spawned them

pursuing a smaller

and ever smaller,

grotesquely tiny circle.

A hole. An empty socket

An eye of night.

A shattered eyeball.

And then? You look.

You plunge.

Is this what is called unity:

a circle undone?

A circular scream,


and avowal?


(Was it perhaps your heart, Yaël, that made me hate God?

I took you in as a word.

I” is the book.)

On the 17th of March, last year, I had a dream which left me very upset.

A woman used my life for her own ends.

“Lilith, Eve, Cressida? Which one?” Gabriel will write me later.

“The lie of God,” I said to myself.

“Beautiful through death.

“No doubt ours.”


( One man suggests that Eve was God’s first word of love; another, on the contrary, that she was His last.

Eve betrayed God

and God created night.

We shall seize the pathos of the lie in all its brutality.

O voice of rose and mud.

Is it in the end a matter of finding out if perhaps speech was given to us only so that we could settle down in the lie?

Luckily we die of it. And against us, at the cost of our flesh and blood, truth stamps itself in glittering negative letters

on the blue void,

on the black nothing.

Listen: in every vowel and every consonant beats the pulse of the book, blankly oblivious of the world.)

“Wherever my voice fails the voice of the book steals in.”

“Tell me, what is this voice of the book?”

“A familiar voice. Mine, maybe.”

“Are you the book?”

“Am I myself?”

“Wherever the voice of the book fails yours wastes away.”

“Could you be speaking from the heart of silence?”

“Am I speech? Am I silence?”

This is a book or, rather, the hope for a book written and rewritten night after night, as if it could not come about by writing alone, as if it were happening elsewhere, far from my pen, without my patiently awaited words, with other words, other dreams, by other routes, during other rests, with other screams, but with the same silence.

This has gone on for some time. For some time I have been writing to myself because from the prelude to the end there is finally only one man. And I have gotten used to proceeding by words and in the wake of an unknown word.

So I write as one speaks to one’s shadow: softly. So softly that our words sometimes merge.

As I talk to myself my words let go and plunge into silence. I am convinced that the book is a piece of land on a subsoil formed by my trapped words. Arid land. Without shade. 

What can I have to say, to write, to myself? We must make a distinction:

The man who talks to himself goes back over what has happened

or is about to; he is angry at or (most of the time) moved by recent events or gets giddy with words never to be said by anyone else. Whereas the man who writes … Ah, that is a different matter.

The act of writing comes last in a series of gestures (at least three) which we tend to consider natural, but which are not always so. This puts writing at a distance from the hand in charge, which is all the greater because the ink-fed hand in turn marks, with every sentence, its distance from the person it belongs to.

You can say anything that comes into your head. You cannot (even if you try) put it that way on paper. 

A man at his desk is in the position of an angler by the river. One looks for hours at an untouched sheet, the other at the water with a brighter circle on the surface, around the bait, the center of attraction. 

One spies on words, the other on fish. This shows what an important part the pen plays and how careful the fingers holding it must be in order not to thwart its moves and shiftings which discreetly, as if in the dark, follow the tracks of their prey and sometimes even anticipate its crossing.

I have for a long time been on good terms with words. But this does not mean that they always show a liking for me. 

Some mornings I have endless trouble tackling them. Everything irritates them. We face each other like dog and cat. I am the dog, of course. My faithfulness is sorely tested lying in wait for the moment of transformation when the cat turns dog to please me.


Lie down, woman. You are a real woman, and I am man enough to

wake you.

I can accept God only dead, just as I wanted you dead, Yaël,

against a fading sky.

O how much.

The sun spares the infinite.

(It is said that the word can see even where 

nobody hears it.

The sounds quietly shed light.

This for your eyes, Yaël.

This for our road.)


You do not want to die, yet one day you will.

You do not want to lie, and yet you lie.

Man is moved from birth by frustrated desires which drive him to rebellion.

Eternity escapes him.

Stolen life is life harassed by fate, by divine fault.

A child blames his toys. Man blames man.

The hour-shadow and flame- wields its power of life and death over the universe and man. But its minutes are numbered.

Yaël is passage and use of God, she is the body He turned from in final retreat,

body which rots for Him of the merciless moment.

Ah, to be the moment.

To tear the skin off all words.

To speed their insides on toward the void.

To shake the flame.

A tree is a home for birds and a pain for the earth, which moves space to pity.

This is why leaves tremble like wings and weep dew.

Strangers to one another, we only answer ourselves.

(If fire grown cold closes the loop, does this not admit an impossible seam at the place of death?)

Blinding interval where dreams atone.

As far from death as from life.

We stay apart

in the face of eternity.

Where what little health a sheet of paper has leaves the words free to die at their own hour, there we learn, Yaël, that blankness is the simple need to lose.

(You have caught the incurable disease of the book. O my brother, let us carve our road into the void.)


To come outside the walls, to break free of the vise. To let my blood flower.

To compose a hymn to gardens, to birds.

O dreams and scents dear to the soul, to live by the wings and petals of the lie. Busy bees, roses already nude.

To take pleasure in my weakness and limits.

Truth is a dagger at the gate of forbidden nights.

Let me survive in what sprouts and delights in the best of the plant.

(Man of writing, you must not stop on the road. Words forbid it, and the book, O gammoning, O bowsprit, presses tight against your soul.)

Your step, Yaël. Will it ever fall in with mine?


(These dork spaces. You hem them with time where the infinite burrows .)

Does renunciation lead us to the truth? I tried to be true. I have not renounced anything, Yaël, not anything. On the contrary, I have wanted to own everything in order to destroy it all-but is this possible?

I have sailed with you on the suspicious sea. I have continued to write, to resort to the word which has taken your name. 

My doubts, my anxieties, my cowardice, my disappointments only your life and your voice could translate and express them.

Your reality in the book became mine. I became the other for you and against myself. I was your song and your echo. Will the weapon which could not touch you tum against me? I have lived the life of a dead man.

Behind the hour, behind our hour, Yaël: eternity.

Is the hook the place where the hour fades into time? Then it is also the rectangle reserved for meditation in Persian gardens, where the world comes down from the four horizons to confront its fate as a celestial body with the darker fate of man.

(Talk of decadent literature or militant literature always makes me smile.

The book eludes all labels. It does not belong to any clan or class. It never follows a single vein. 

It is the lonely place where the writer feels his solitude.

Writing the book is an undertaking alien to the current ideals and the ideas we have about man and the world.

The infinite (which is the space of the book) cannot serve as background for communication, nor eternity (which is its impass) for our exchange of opinions.

The days of the book pass against the beat of time, pass in the margins of a sheet the size of the dream and ambition of words.

Ah, to be color for the painter; tone for the composer; word for the writer; as, when we scan the horizon at dawn, we are without knowing it the first blaze of death.)

All reasons for living are in the book. But the book of a life is reason’s honed blade.

The word bums with its ink, Yaël, as the broken mirror of your misfortune glitters in the sun.

(Schism: kin to the scythe. Bread must be divided.)


Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions, Yaël, elya, Aely, Translated from the French by Rosmarie Waldrop, Middletown, Connecticut 1983, (Wesleyan University Press)

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