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Kabbalah: Umberto Eco’s Poetics Meets Jewish Mysticism

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“The truth of Malkhut, the only truth that shines in the night of the Sefirot, is that Wisdom is revealed naked in Malkhut, and its mystery lies not in existence but in the leaving of existence. Afterward, the Others begin again.”

- Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Reading Eco’s book, I was pleased to find the prophetic Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia and his system of meditation featured in a postmodern work of fiction, as no less than a personal computer.

Befitting its historical human precursor, Abulafia the computer generates the variations of God’s 720 names along secret files and possibly impossible schemes. The book reads like a coincidental conjunction of plots and subplots, much in the vein of Abulafia’s (the historical) method of reaching the Absolute by permutations of words and names. As such, it is constantly reminiscent of the other infinitely potential plots, much like the God of the Kabbalah who created several worlds before he decided on ours.

This is postmodern fiction, which means it parodies the idea of a coherent, plausible logic of events. Consequently, it also puts on the same level mystical devotion, religious orders, the occult, and, to a certain extent, even science. It quotes equally from Abraham Abulafia, Eliphas Levi (19th century French occultist), Aleister Crowley (20th century British occultist and magician), Alexander Dumas, Woody Allen, Thomas Burnet (17th century British theologian) and many others. The juxtaposition of Kabbalists, mystics, theologians, and occultists with writers of fiction serves well to demonstrate the book’s general attitude towards the credibility of the above.

And yet…The first chapter starts with a quotation from Isaac Luria (the Safed 16th century Kabbalist) describing the emanation of infinite light that initiated the creation of the world, and now, of the book. From there, the chapters’ names emulate the emanation of the sefirot in the Tree of Life, and different references and interpretations of Kabbalistic ideas weave a poetics of Kabbalah – for instance, the allusion to Zimzum, the act of self limitation the Absolute comitted in order to make room for the “Other.” As Eco puts it,

“…for creation had to be inspired by love of someone who is not ourselves.”

It’s interesting to note that this beautiful interpretation of Luria has been already thought of by Chaim Volozin, an orthodox rabbi, whose ethical work (Nefesh Ha-Chaim, the Spirit, or Soul, of Life), is based on Isaac Luria’s system. Hence, by almost a coincidence of opposites (another Kabbalistic theme), Eco’s poetics meets Jewish mysticism.

However, the most apt undercurrent is the impossibility of being a total skeptic or an absolute believer. As one of the characters puts it: “’It’s not true, but I believe in it? Well, I don’t believe in it, but it’s true.’”

One fact remains certain; there will be an end, of the book or of one’s life. It may be that mysticism is the wish to overcome this absolute, to conquer it. Or more humbly, perhaps mysticism is about finding consolation in the face of the only definite absolute.

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