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God Among the Letters: An Essay in Abecedarian


“When they ask what [God’s] name is, what shall I tell them?” —Exodus three:13

“Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.” —Dr. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century Persian Sufi, wrote of a pilgrimage of birds. His masterpiece The Convention of the Birds recounts how 30 fowls have been led by a tufted, orange hoopoe (wisest of his sort) to seek out the Simurgh, a kind of bird-god or king. So holy is the hoopoe, that the bismillah is etched onto his beak as encouragement to his fellow feathered penitents. From Persia the birds journey to China, in search of the Simurgh, a big eagle-like creature with the face of a person (or typically a canine) who has lived for millennia, possesses all information, and like the Phoenix has been immolated solely to rise once more.

In the birds’ want to see the Simurgh, we perceive how we should always yearn for Allah: “Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God; / Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers,” Attar writes. An esoteric fact is revealed to the loyal hawk, the romantic nightingale, the resplendent peacock, and the stalwart stork. There isn’t a Simurgh awaiting them in some hidden paradise, for the creature’s identify is itself a Farsi pun on the phrase “30 birds.” Attar writes that “All things are but masks at God’s beck and call, / They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.” There isn’t any God however us, and we’re our personal prophets.

As a dream imaginative and prescient, The Convention of the Birds seems to be borderline atheistic, however provided that you’re oblivious that such mysticism is definitely God-intoxicated. And as with all mystical literature, there’s (purposefully) one thing onerous to grasp, although a clue on interpretation when Attar writes that “The shadow and its maker are one and the same, / so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries.” Equivalence of shadow and maker—it’s a shifting understanding of what writing is as properly, the place the very merchandise of our creation are intimations of our souls. My strategy to those mysteries, plumbing previous the surfaces of look, is in an illustration of the epic’s themes accomplished in the attribute Islamic medium of calligraphy. Alongside the intricate miniatures which outlined Persian artwork, there developed a practice whereby ingenious calligraphers would current Arabic or Persian sentences in clever preparations, in order that entire sentences would compose the phantasm of a representational image.

One such picture is nothing however the phrase “Simurgh” itself, but the method in which the artist has configured letters like the ascending alif, horizontal jim, rounded dhal, and sophisticated hamzah presents the look of a chook rearing with regal countenance—all feather, claw, and beak. A stupendous evocation of Attar’s very lesson itself, for as the avian penitents study that there isn’t a Simurgh save for his or her collective physique, so, too, can we see that the phantasm of the image we’re introduced with is just an association of letters.

Pithy demonstration of the paradox of literature as properly. If the Simurgh of The Convention of the Birds is just composed by the fowl themselves, and if the picture of the calligrapher’s artwork is constituted by letters, may there be a lesson that divinity itself is constructed in the later means? Simply as every chook is a part of the Simurgh, might every letter be a part of God? For as photographs had been banned, they nonetheless can’t assist however come up out of those abstracted letters, these symbols imbued with a fiery life. Little marvel that incantations are conveyed via phrases and that we’re warned to not take the Lord’s identify in useless, for it’s letters that each outline and provides life. A sure conclusion is unassailable: God is an alphabet—God is the alphabet.

“Bereshit” is the phrase by which Genesis is inaugurated, and it’s from that phrase that the identify of the ebook derives in its unique language. No textual content extra explicitly offers with the generative powers of speech than Genesis, and in seeing the Torah as each product of and car for God’s creation, we get nearer to the sacredness of the Alphabet. Bereshit begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet—guess—which appears like this: ב. One thing about the form of the abstracted letter jogs my memory of a tree with a department hanging out at an angle, applicable once we think about the topic of the guide.

There’s one thing uncommon in the first letter of the Torah being guess, for why would the phrase of God not start with Her first letter of Aleph? Medieval kabbalists, adept in numerology, had a solution: It was to point that actuality has two ranges—the bodily and the religious, or as Attar referred to as them, the surfaces and the mysteries. But when the floor of the sheep vellum which constitutes a bodily Torah is one factor, the precise actuality of the letter is one other. A deeper fact is conveyed by the thriller of letters themselves, the method in which summary image could make us hallucinate voices in our heads, the method in which complete worlds of creativeness could be constructed by dying the pores and skin of lifeless animals black with ink.

We dissuade ourselves towards magic too simply, particularly since literacy itself is proof of it. That language is sacred ought to be an apparent fact. Whilst the previous verities of holiness are discarded, the unassailable proven fact that language has a magic is intuited at the degree of an eye fixed scanning a web page and constructing universes from nothingness. Jewish sages believed that the alphabet preceded that preliminary Bereshit; certainly, that was a requirement that letters existed earlier than creation, for a way would God’s accomplishment of the latter even be attainable with out Her entry to the former? As the kabbalistic e-book Sefer Yetsira explains: “Twenty-two letters did [God] engrave and carve, he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.”

Chiseled onto the sandy-red shoulder of a sphinx discovered at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula is proof of the alphabet’s origins that’s virtually as evocative as the story informed in the Sefer Yetsira. As enigmatic as her cousins at Giza or Thebes, the Sinai sphinx is a votive in honor of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, guardian of the desert, and she or he who protected the turquoise mines which dotted the peninsula and operated for near eight centuries producing wealth for distant Pharaohs. The Serabit el-Khadim sphinx is simply somewhat beneath 24 centimeters, greater than diminutive sufficient to seek out her new house in a British Museum cupboard. Excavated in 1904 by Flinders and Hilda Petrie, founding father of Egyptology as a self-discipline, the little Hathor lioness lay in watch for maybe three,800 years, graffiti etched into her aspect testifying to alphabetic origins.

coverThe sphinx was carved by laborers whose language was a Semitic tongue intently associated to Hebrew (and certainly some have related the inscription to the Exodus narrative). In Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Formed the Western World, John Man describes how these “Twelve marks suggest links between Egyptian writing and later Semitic letters,” for although what’s recorded at Serabit el-Khadim are glyphs like “an ox-head, an eye, a house, a snake, and water,” what’s discovered on the haunches of Hathor’s sphinx are the abstracted “roots of our own a, b, v, u, m. p, w, and t.” By 1916, Alan Gardiner used the decipherable Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription between the sphinx’s breasts, which learn, “Beloved of Hathor, Lady of the Turquoise” to translate the 11 marks on her aspect, making this certainly one of the earliest examples of a script referred to as “Proto-Sinaitic,” the most historic occasion of alphabetic writing to ever be discovered. Gardiner hypothesized that this was an alphabetic letter system, arguing that it was both a type of simplified pidgin Egyptian utilized by the directors, or that it was a simplified system invented by the staff. By simplifying the strategy of communication, the alphabet’s objective was pragmatic, however its implications rank it amongst the most paradigm-shifting of historical past.

coverFrom In the Starting: A Brief Historical past of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman explains that if it’s “easier to learn the tens of hundreds of symbols required for syllabic system than it is to learn the thousands required for a purely logographic system,” than to study simpler nonetheless consonantal methods (as each proto-Sinaitic and Hebrew are), as these system “generally require fewer than 30 symbols.” Vowels could also be the souls of phrases, however consonants are their our bodies. The previous awaited each the Greek alphabet and the diacritical marks of Masoretic Hebrew, however the skeletons of our alphabet have been already recorded in homage to the goddess Hathor.

Man writes that three options mark the alphabet as essential in the historical past of communication: “its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability.” Maybe much more importantly, the place pictograms are difficult, they’re additionally indelibly wed to the tongue which first uttered them, whereas alphabets can “with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages.” The alphabet, a Semitic invention born from Egyptian supplies for sensible ends, “proved wildly successful,” as Hoffman writes, with proto-Sinaitic creating into the Phoenician alphabet after which the Hebrew, which was “used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all the world’s alphabets.” Birthed from parsimony, proto-Sinaitic would turn into the car by way of which abstraction could possibly be unfold. Nonetheless, the blurred edges of our letters proclaim their origin in footage—the prostrate penitent worshipping prayerfully in an “E;” in an “S,” the slithering of the snake who triggered the fall.

Each single main alphabetic system, save for Korean Hangul developed in the 15th century, can hint its origins again to this scratching on a sphinx. The Phoenicians, a individuals who spoke a Semitic language, developed one in every of the first correct alphabets. Michael Rosen, in Alphabetical: How Each Letter Tells a Story, explains that the Phoenicians “used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an ‘ox’ (in their language ‘aleph’), and on down through the words for ‘house,’ ‘stick,’ ‘door’ and ‘shout’ up to ‘tooth’ and ‘mark.’” The alphabet is common, relevant in any cultural setting, and but the speedy context of its creation is of sailors and turquoise miners dwelling in the Bronze Age.

An epiphany when some turquoise miner abstracted the intricate footage of Egyptian hieroglyphics, however used them not for concepts, however somewhat models of sound. The ocean-faring Phoenicians, clad in their Tyrian purple material dyed from the mucus of clams, would disseminate the alphabet round Mediterranean ports. It’s the origin of chic Hebrew, which God used when he struck letters of fireside into the tablets at Sinai; the genesis of Arabic’s fluid letters by which Allah dictated the Qur’an. The Greeks tailored the Phoenicians’ invention (as they acknowledge) into which the oral poems of Homer might lastly be recorded; the death-obsessed Etruscans whose tongue we nonetheless can’t hear appropriated the symbols of Punic sailors, as did the Romans who would stamp these letters on triumphant monuments all through Europe and Africa in so enduring a approach that you simply’re nonetheless studying them now. Languid Ge’ez in Ethiopian gospels, blocky Aramaic written in the tongue of Christ, Brahmic scripts which preserved Dharmic prayers, the mysterious Ogham of Irish druids, the bird-scratch runes of the Norseman, the stolid Cyrillic of the Czars, all derive from that preliminary alphabet. Even Sequoyah’s 19th-century Cherokee, although a syllabary and never technically an alphabet, attracts a number of of its symbols from a Latin that may be finally traced again to the mines of Serabit el-Khadim.

coverMatthew Battles, in Palimpsest: A Historical past of the Written Phrase, writes how this “great chain of alphabetical evolution collapses in a welter of characters, glyphs, and symbols, mingling in friendly, familial and even erotic enthusiasms of conversant meaning.” We sense familiarity throughout this household tree of alphabetical techniques, how in an English “A” we see the Greek α, or how Hebrew ח evokes the Greek η. However as the French rabbi Marc-Allain Ouknin explains in The Mysteries of the Alphabet, all of our letters have been finally tailored by the historic Canaanites from Egyptian footage, for earlier than there was an “A” there was the head of an ox, earlier than there was “H” there was an enclosure. Ouknin writes that the “history of meaning is the history of forgetting the image, the history of a suppression of the visible.” In the starting there was not the phrase, however slightly the picture.

Throughout the 17th century, the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner was bedeviled by the query of how picture and phrase negotiated over dominion in the Kingdom of Which means. Kirchner is an exemplar of the Renaissance; born not fairly in time for the Enlightenment, he was fluent in conjecture quite than proof, esoterica somewhat than science, marvel fairly than purpose. His was the epistemology not of the laboratory, however of the Wunderkammer. In The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in Historical past and Creativeness, artwork historian Johanna Drucker writes that Kirchner’s research included that of the “structure of the subterranean world of underground rivers, volcanic lava flow and caves, an exhaustive text on all extant devices for producing light,” and most significantly “compendia of information on China, [and] Egypt.”

coverKirchner is each the first Egyptologist and first Sinologist, whilst his conclusions about each topics can be confirmed utterly inaccurate in virtually all of their particulars. His 1655 Oedipus Aegyptiacus was each an try and decipher the enigmatic symbols on papyri and monuments, in addition to a “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” the secret Airtight information which the priest related to the ancients. He concurred with the historic Neo-Platonist Plotinus, who in his Enneads claimed that the Egyptians didn’t use letters “which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing … Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.” Kirchner thus “translated” an inscription on a 2-millennia-old obelisk which sat in the Villa Celimontana in Rome, explaining that the hieroglyphs ought to learn as “His minister and faithful attendant, the polymorphous Spirit, shows the abundance and wealth of all necessary things.” Not a single phrase is correct.

coverFor Kirchner, what made each hieroglyphics and Chinese language writings so evocative was that they acquired as near unmediated actuality as potential, that they weren’t mere depiction, however essence. In The Seek for the Good Language, Umberto Eco explains that Kirchner’s enthusiasms have been mistaken, as a result of his “assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram … was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset,” for opposite to his presupposition, neither Mandarin nor historic Egyptian operated like some type of baroque rebus.

Nonetheless, Kirchner’s was a rivalry that “hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world,” as Eco writes. Pictograms have been as a window unto the world; fallen letters have been merely scratches in the sand. The place Kirchner and others faltered was in letting abstraction obscure the concreteness of the alphabet. Should you flip an “A” the wrong way up, do you not see the horns of the ox which that letter initially signified? For those who flip a “B” on its aspect, do you not see the rooms of a home? Or in the curvature of a “C” that of the camel’s hump?

Iconoclasm explains a lot of our amnesia about the iconic origins of our letters, nevertheless it’s additionally that which provides the alphabet a lot of its energy. Imagery has been the nucleus of human expression since the first Cro-Magnon lady blew pink ochre from her engorged cheeks onto the cave wall at Lascaux in order to hint the define of her hand. However the shift from pictographic writing to alphabetic inaugurated the reign of abstraction whereby the imagistic forebearers of our letters needed to be forgotten. Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains that “Behind each of the letters with which we are so familiar lies a history, changes, mutations based on one or more original forms.”

Since Gardiner’s translation of Serabit el-Khadim, there have been a couple of dozen comparable abecedariums discovered at websites principally in the Sinai. From these sparse examples, students hint the morphology of letters again to their unique, once they brewed from that primordial soup of images, their unique meanings now obscured. From our Latin letters we transfer again to the indecipherable Etruscan, from these northern Italians we hint to the Greeks, after which the purple-clad Phoenicians, lastly arriving at the historic Semites who crafted the alphabet, discovering that the our letters will not be a, b, and c, nor alpha, beta, and gamma, and even Aleph, Guess, and Gimmel, however moderately their unique footage—an ox, a home, and a camel.

Philologists and classicists have recognized all of the photographs from which the 26 letters derive. In proto-Sinaitic, “D” was initially a door. When you flip an “E” on its aspect you see the arms outstretched above the head of a person in prayer. “I” was initially a hand; the wavy line of “M” nonetheless seems like the wave of water which it initially was. “R” nonetheless has at its prime the head above a physique which it initially signified; “U” nonetheless appears like that which an oar was positioned upon in a ship. Kirchner thought that hieroglyphics have been good footage of the actual world, however hidden inside our personal alphabet absconded from the courts of Egypt are the ghostly after-images of the originals.

The alphabet unfold one thing greater than mere comfort—it unfold monotheism. Man argues that the “evolution of the belief in a single god was dependent on an ability to record that belief and make it accessible; and that both recording and accessibility were dependent on the invention of the alphabet.” God made the alphabet potential, and it might appear that the alphabet returned the favor. What first needed to be forgotten, nevertheless, have been the which means of the letters’ unique shapes, for in pictograms there lay the danger of idolatry, of conjuring these previous gods who birthed them.

At Mt. Sinai, the Lord supposedly used hearth to emblazon Moses’ tablets together with his commandments, the second of which calls for that none shall make any “likeness that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” When writing these letters God very properly couldn’t use ones that occurred to appear to be a person, or an ox, or a camel’s hump. Ouaknin conjectures that “iconoclasm required the Jews to purge proto-Sinaitic of images,” for the “birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the receiving of the law.” The rabbi argues that it was “Under the influence of monotheistic expression [that] hieroglyphics began to shed some of its images, resulting in the first attempt of an alphabet.” Accessible abstractions of the alphabets weren’t a fortuitous coincidence, however relatively a requirement of the Mosaic covenant, since the newly monotheistic Jews couldn’t worship God if the letters of their writing system evoked falcon-headed Horus, the jackal Anubis, or baboon-faced Thoth with stylus in hand. Man writes that “both new god and new script worked together to forge a new nation and disseminate an idea that would change the world.”

A skeptic might observe that the alphabet hardly induced an instantaneous rash of conversions to monotheism in Greece, Rome, or the north nation, as Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr nonetheless reigned amongst their respective peoples. But alphabetic writing’s emergence occurred proper earlier than a interval which the Austrian thinker Karl Jaspers referred to as “the Axial Age.” Jaspers noticed that in the first millennium earlier than the Widespread Period, there was a shocking synchronicity between radically disparate cultures which nonetheless produced new methods of understanding actuality which nonetheless had some unifying similarities between one another.

coverMonotheism in the Levant, Greek philosophy, Persian Zoroastrianism, and the Indian Upanishads can all be traced to the Axial Age. For Jaspers, a paradigm shift in consciousness resulted in abstraction. What all of those totally different strategies, approaches, and faiths shared was enshrinement the common over the specific, the actuality which is unseen over the shadows on the cave wall. In The Origin and Objective of Historical past, Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “an interregnum … a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”

coverJaspers famous the simultaneous emergence of those faiths, however proffered not a full speculation as to why. I’m wondering if the abstractions of the alphabet weren’t that which incubated the Axial Age? In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud claimed that this “compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see … meant that as a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” This triumph of abstraction included not simply the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, however the philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the sages Siddhartha and Zarathustra, all of whose phrases have been made everlasting in the alphabet.

coverFrom the Aegean to the Indus River, the widespread thread of the Axial Age was alphabetic writing, with the one main exception being China. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Battle Between Phrase and Picture, Leonard Shlain noticed that the rise of phonetic letters coincided with the disappearance of idol worship in the Levant, writing that the “abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking,” a progeny born from the curve and line of the Phrase. But previous gods can all the time be born once more, their voices barely heard, but nonetheless current in sacred phoneme, their faces peaking out in the areas between our letters.

In the Babylonian desert, excavators incessantly discover small bowls, ringed with Aramaic and designed to seize demons. Molded by magi, the demon bowls are a lure, a harnessing of the magical efficacy of the alphabet. These talismans mixed phrase and picture to tame the malignant lesser gods who nonetheless stalked the earth, even after God’s supposed victory.

Applicable that God’s alphabet is that which is ready to constrain in clay the machinations of erotic Lilith and bestial Asmodeus. One such bowl, which depicts the succubus Lilith at its middle as an alluring lady with lengthy hair barely obscuring breasts and genitalia, incants that “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and caste collars of copper upon your temples.” Israeli scholar Naama Vilozny is an skilled on the photographs of demons painted on these bowls by in any other case iconoclastic Jews. In Haaretz, Vilozny says that you simply “draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words.” There’s management in the alphabet, not simply in trapping demons, however in the potential to seize an idea’s essence. Writing’s theurgic energy of writing, the place curses towards hell are as robust as baked clay.

coverMagic and monotheism needn’t be strictly separated; a way of paganism haunts our religion in addition to our letters. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Thoughts, posited a controversial speculation that human beings have been solely “conscious” comparatively lately, since shortly earlier than the Axial Age. The alphabet maybe performed a task in this improvement, theoretically eliminating the others gods in favor of the one voice of God, the solely voice in your head. However Jaynes explains that the “mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities.” Definitely true when a frightened Babylonian locations a bowl in the earth to seize these chthonic spirts which threaten us although their dominion has been abolished.

The alphabet facilitated a brand new magic. Contemplate that the fourth commandment, which reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” isn’t an injunction towards blasphemy in the trendy sense, for certainly the all-powerful can abide obscenity, however that in historic context it particularly meant that you simply shouldn’t use God’s identify to carry out magic. To know the letters of somebody’s identify is to have the capability to regulate them; there’s a cause that the “angel” whom Jacob wrestles with refuses to be named. The 4 Hebrew letters which represent the correct identify of God—יהוה—are generally known as the Tetragrammaton, there being no clear sense of what precisely the phrase would have truly been pronounced as.

These letters have a charged energy, no mere ink-stain on sheep-skin, for the right pronunciation was guarded as an occult secret. Hoffman writes that the letters have been “chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic powers in that they were the Hebrew’s magic vowel letters that no other culture had.” The yod, hay, vov, hay of the Tetragrammaton demonstrated each the victory of monotheism, but in addition the electrical energy of the alphabet itself. God encoded into the very identify, which in flip was the blueprint for our actuality. A harmful factor, these letters, for simply as demons could possibly be managed with their names painted onto the tough floor of a bowl, so, too, might the most adept of mages compel the Creator to their bidding.

Incantation is usually referred to as prayer, different occasions poetry, and infrequently the alphabet can substitute for each. As acrostic, alphabetic prospects have lengthy attracted poets. In Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, he writes about “Abecedarians,” that’s, verses the place every line begins with the respective letter of the alphabet. As all formal poetry does, the type exploits synthetic constraint—in this circumstance, in order to mediate upon the alphabet itself. That is an “ancient form often employed for sacred works”; Hirsch explains how all of the “acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew of the alphabet.” The “completeness of the form,” Hirsch writes, “enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.”

St. Augustin, the fourth-century Christian theologian, wrote an abecedarian towards the Donatist heretics; almost a millennium later, Chaucer tried his hand at the type as nicely. Centuries later, the English journalist Alaric Watt wrote his account of the 1789 Hapsburg Siege of Belgrade in alliterative abecedarian: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. / Cossack commanders cannonading come, / Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.” There are, to the better of my information, no main examples of abecedarian prose. Maybe someone will write one thing quickly? As a result of as Hirsch notes, the type has “powerful associations with prayer,” the rapturous repetition of the alphabet stripping which means to its naked essence, emptying each penitence and supplication of ego, in favor of the ecstasies of pure sound.

Such was the knowledge of the Baal Shem Tov, founding father of Hasidism, who was impressed by the ecstasies of Pietists to return worship to its emotional core. He sought to strip ritual of empty logic and to re-endow it with that misplaced sense of the glowing sacred. Typically prayer needn’t even be in phrases, the sacred letters themselves perform properly sufficient. The Baal Shem Tov’s honorific means “Master of the Good Name”; he who has introduced inside the very sinews of his flesh and the synapses of his thoughts the pulsating energy of the Tetragrammaton. A lot can depend upon 4 letters.

The Baal Shem Tov, or “Besht” as he was typically referred to as, lived in the Pale of Settlement, the chilly, gray Galician countryside. Drucker writes that the Besht exhorted the “practicing Jew to make of daily life a continual practice of devotion,” whereby “each of the letters which pass one’s lips are ascendant and unite with each other, carrying with them the full glory.” The Besht taught that letters weren’t incidental; the alphabet itself was essential for “true unification with the Divinity.”

In accordance with Hasidic legend, one Yom Kippur, the Besht led his congregation in their prayers. In the direction of the again of the synagogue was a simple-minded however pious shepherd boy. The opposite worshipers, with fingers urgent prayer guide open, repeated the phrases of the Kol Nidre, however the illiterate shepherd might solely fake to mouth alongside, to comply with writing which he couldn’t learn. Feelings turned rapturous as black-coated males under and ladies in the balcony above started to sway and shout out the prayers. Lastly, overcome with devotion however unable to repeat after the remainder of his fellow Jews, the shepherd boy shouted out the solely prayer he might: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” via the remainder of the 18 Hebrew letters.

There was a clumsy silence in the sanctuary. Embarrassed, the younger man defined, “God, that is all I can do. You know what your prayers are. Please arrange them into the correct order.”

From the rafters of the shul, adorned with Hebrew letters in blocky black ink, got here the very voice of God, main the complete congregation in the holiest of prayers, repeated from that of the easy shepherd: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” And so, in the courtroom of the Baal Shem Tov, in the early 18th century in a synagogue upon the Galician plain, God deigned to show men and women find out how to worship as soon as once more, in the holiest prayer that there’s. The alphabet, repeated honestly with religion in your soul, is the purest type of prayer.

Alphabets are under-theorized. As a result of it’s so omnipresent, there’s a method in which it’s straightforward to overlook the spooky energy of 26 symbols. Contemplating how elementary to primary functioning it’s, we regularly overlook the sheer, transcendent magnificence of the letters which construction our world. Disenchantment, nevertheless, needn’t be our lot, for there’s a realization that letters don’t convey actuality, however relatively that they’re actuality. Ecstatic to grasp, the means in which stains on lifeless tree are the conduit via which all which means traverses, very similar to the electrons illuminating our screens. Basically, what I’m arguing for isn’t just that our alphabet is a way of approaching the divine—no, not simply that. God is the alphabet, and the alphabet is God. Heaven is traversed via the alpha and the omega. I argue that the alphabet betrays its origins, for phrase and picture are joined collectively in symbiosis, regardless of how occluded.

Simply as Kirchner believed hieroglyphics contained actuality, so, too, is the alphabet haunted by footage obscure; as Ouaknin enthuses, it’s in “unearthing the traces of the origin of letters and understanding how they evolved” that present occult knowledge. Figuring out that letters shift forwards and backwards, in order that they will return to the photographs which birthed them, as in the calligraphy which illustrates Attar’s Simurgh, is an indication of their fluid nature. Literal although we might misapprehend Egyptian pictograms to be, their summary progeny in the type of our 26 letters are nonetheless haunted by their origins, and we will imbue them with a way of their birthright every now and then.

Furthermore, the mysteries of the alphabet subconsciously have an effect on us, in order that as Battles claims regarding letters since “whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things,” the higher to elucidate “why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia.” However, the haunting of earlier incarnations of letters’ previous shapes can’t alone clarify their unusual energy. Solely one thing divine can absolutely explicate how some marks on Hathor’s cover charts a direct line to the letters you’re studying proper now. Maybe “divine” is a loaded time period, what with all of these unlucky spiritual connotations; “transcendent” can be simply as apt. Questions can definitely be raised about my contentions; I don’t want to be learn as ethereal, however with each letter of my sentences I can’t assist however consider that the kabbalists and Gnostics have been proper—the alphabet constitutes our being.

Actuality, I consider, might be utterly constituted from all 26 letters (give or take). Sift via all of them, and understand that the reply to any query lay between Aleph and Tav, not simply as metaphor, however these solutions are merely uncovered by discovering the correct group of these letters. The reply to any inquiry, the answer to any drawback, the very knowledge that frees, may be found just by discovering the right association of these letters. Beneath the floor of those shapes are indications of their start, but in addition that fuller actuality simply past our gaze. Vexation needn’t comply with such an remark, however slightly embrace the countless transition between picture and phrase which is the alphabet. We’d like not decide between letter or image, there’s room sufficient for each. Xenoglossic is what we ought to be: fluent in language unknown to our tongues, however quite spoken in our souls. You want solely repeat the alphabet as when you’re an illiterate shepherd in the meeting of the Baal Shem Tov. Zealots of the alphabet, with these very letters carved by hearth into our hearts.

Picture: Temple of Hathor stays in Serabit el-Khadim by Einsamer Schütze

Ed Simon
is the Editor-at-Giant for The Marginalia Evaluate of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Evaluation of Books. A daily contributor at a number of totally different websites, his assortment America and Different Fictions: On Radical Religion and Publish-Faith shall be launched by Zero Books this yr. He might be adopted on Fb, his web site, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.