Spirituality and Religion in American Culture, Olomouc 2000



Boris Vejdovsky, Ph.D., Lausanne University, Switzerland


Who is called upon to keep a secret? How can one properly interpret the secret message of the secret? Can we read it? What language is it in? Is it a language we can ever learn, and can we understand it? In one word, how are we supposed to assume responsibility for a secret we are entrusted with despite ourselves and which we do not understand? Like in a paradoxical order saying "destroy this message without reading it," the secret makes itself known as a secret; we are elected by it, and it appeals to our responsibility as its keepers. Here are some questions and some hypotheses that hauntingly return in this examination of the role of the religious and the sacred in American literary culture, and of its impact on the world at the waning of the millennium.

Through writings by Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, French nomadic thinkers Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Lévinas, American writer Herman Melville, and others, I want to pose the question of responsibility and the sacred to suggest that they have a common history in which is grounded that which we ordinarily—and maybe too approximately—designate as literature. In a time when many signs seem to indicate that the twenty-first century will be America’s century, when America appears as the leading nation of the Western world, when it seems to be able to impose its semantic domination—a new world order—even beyond the limits of what once used to be called the "West," it seems necessary to examine the sacred and secret forces that animate a culture that is becoming increasingly global.

The first dominant figure of this essay is Abraham, the patriarch of the plains of Mamre, and his terrifying secret. The secret is his duty; Abraham is the one who knows he must not speak. My questions follows Derrida’s when he asks, "How can [we] ... interpret Abraham’s secret, ... the law governing [his] silence"? (Derrida, Donner la mort). In the name of his absolute duty Abraham is ready to relinquish his own responsibility, and because of the sacred cause assigned to him by God, he is about to commit a horrid, unthinkable, atrocious crime. In the name of a sacred cause, in the name of a secret he does not even comprehend, he "[takes] the knife to slay his son" (Gen. 22:10). The morality tale of the "sacrificed son" is about a totalitarian order of duty which demands that we relinquish, disavow, renounce and denounce responsibility and all human laws. The sacred cause, the absolute duty, manifests itself in the secret that must be kept, and demands that we act irresponsibly—perfidiously, disloyally—while "recognizing, confirming, and reaffirming that which one sacrifices, namely ethics and human responsibility" (Donner la mort 96).

In one word, the morality of the Abrahamic narrative is that "ethics must be sacrificed in the name of duty" (idem). What Abraham is asked to do is to behave monstrously, unethically in the name of his duty, in the name of his sacred duty, in the name of the sacred expressed as duty. That necessarily singular duty is the unpronounceable name of God. As Derrida rightly puts it: "God [is] the other to whom I am bound by an absolute and unconditional obligation, an incomparable sense of duty which I cannot negotiate" (idem).

The second dominant figure of the essay is really a repetition of the same, since I seek to call Melville’s Ishmael ... back. If Ishmael is the only survivor of the tragedy of the Pequod, I suggest, it is because he reverses the secret and sacred values attached to the white whale which predetermine and predestine the journey of the Pequod. Ishmael survives by defacing the Abrahamic heritage of the captain-fathers who command whaling ships that stand metaphor for an expanding and colonizing American civilization. Ishmael’s "triumph of life" may seem to proclaim the advent of a renascent textuality. One might even have the sense that "God is dead" and that we are freed from the holocaustic secret, if Ishmael can win. All victories, however, bear the gory traces of a battle.

The third figure of the essay is literature, a figure of absence. Ishmael’s return does not end the horrific history of the sacred and the secret, for he can only reject and deface the Abrahamic heritage by repeating it. He returns in an apocryphal book, Moby-Dick, and his return is his response, his responsibility, his act of bearing witness. It is the trace left by the heritage, a trace that has remained for us both legible and illegible, and this trace, this legacy, lies before us as "a testament in a literary corpus" (Donner la mort 191). In its desecrated, apocryphal, and illegitimate character, this corpus—in this case, the body of The Whale/the whale—has come down to us as literature itself. In Melville’s novel, the sacrificed son, the cherished future of the captain, dies and is substituted for by him whom call "Ishmael." The legitimate son is replaced by the fiction of a son, by an "Ishmael" whom the captain of the Rachel takes on board as if he were his son, and it is in this as if, which is the as if of literature, that the impossible possibility of the future is contained. Literature—that which we call literature—desecrates and secularizes the Scriptures but it also reveals, by returning it to the world, the sacrifice of Isaac.

Literature thus comes into and betrays the Abrahamic heritage. "Literature" is that-which-is-written by consumptive grammarians, sub-sub ushers to decrepit grammar school, and the latter always poorly repeat fragments of the lost voice of the father. The grammar and the language of literature betray the transcendent grammar of God that was once to order the world. But in this betrayal is precisely the origin of literature. Literature inherits a sacred history of which the Abrahamic moment is an essential secret; but literature also renounces and denounces that heritage in an apocalypse that reveals the hidden father to the world. This may be the ethical response of literature to the world. Derrida, is right when he suggests that literature has never ceased to "apologize" for this desecration of the sacred heritage, but the apology is itself a part of the heritage—it is Abraham’s apology, the apology he could never ask for. Abraham asks for forgiveness, not because he betrayed the covenant with the sacred, but because he obeyed.


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