Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Scholarship, Kabbala and Praxis

I have just finished revising a paper that I'm giving this summer to a conference on medieval English texts, so I'm in that shaky moment between submission and feedback. This paper elucidates some of the material in previous posts about the problems that arise when theological discussions lose their empirical foundations—what I have called the work of silence; that is, how the mind works in and with silence, and how the silence changes the life of the person. Unsurprisingly, the loss of this perspective is also a problem that affects the study, translation and transmission of medieval English contemplative texts.

Yesterday I had the great good fortune to attend a lecture by the great scholar of kabbala, Moshe Idel. My knowledge of kabbala is very limited, but my ears really pricked up when I heard him talking about the problems he had run into in the history of scholarship of kabbala.

Idel is particularly interested in the ars combinatoria, a practice of combining the letters of the Torah in a search for all knowledge and knowledge of the All. Idel has a very soft voice and spoke quite rapidly, so some of what follows may not be entirely accurate as to the details of dates. He was speaking of some volumes of medieval kabbala commentary that were found in Spain on the Catalonian border. There were at least a dozen of these volumes, and in the 18th century all were published except the volume on ars combinatoria. Scholars, Idel dryly observed, in their preoccupation with theory and abstraction, have a real problem with the practical.

Evidently working with the letters is analogous to working with silence: if it's wrongly done, it can be very dangerous. As every scholar knows, an exciting project can be all-consuming; one has to keep the text from taking over one's life. The material, which is leaping into existence from wherever it is that texts arise, demanding immediate attention, has to be disciplined without losing its wildness. I've had a taste of this in the last few weeks with The Cloud of Unknowing: it keeps unfolding and revealing itself at the oddest and most inconvenient moments. Perhaps, I remarked to a friend in the audience after the Idel lecture last evening, I shall end up wandering Oxford streets gibbering strings paradoxes, and then I shall be sectioned. Not a chance, he replied; you'll just be like the rest of us around here.

Though much of the content of Idel's lecture to was beyond me, I came away reassured that what I had perceived about problems with interpreting and transmitting medieval contemplative texts is paralleled by problems with interpreting and transmitting kabbalistic texts. It is a topic, as scholars are wont to say, that's in the ether.


Blogger Bo said...

Good. This is an excellent sign, I think. Having just read your wonderful paper---which made plain a lot of things that I had not really grasped from reading the blog---I hope it will get a wide audience. It is strange how just the thing we need comes along at the right moment.

The Ars sounds fascinating: I've dealt with an utterly non-scriptural and far less formal analogy in my work on medieval Welsh poetry, which uses intricate consonantly chiming/rearrangement to point to the marvellous multiplicity of the created universe, and through that to the Creator's foresight.

12:45 am, February 10, 2011  

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