Translated by Lorenzo Chiesa

 

(This excerpt is from the “The Fire and the Tale,” the opening piece of  The Fire and the Tale. English translation ©2017 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved. The Fire and the Tale was originally published in Italian in 2014 under the title Il fuoco e il racconto 

© 2014, Nottetempo.)

At the end of his book on Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem tells the following story, which he learnt from Yosef Agnon:

When the Baal Schem, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer; and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods, and say: “We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray.” And everything happened according to his will. When another generation had passed, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov was faced with the same task, [and] he would go to the same place in the woods, and say: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that can be sufficient.” And sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down in his golden chair, in his castle, and said: “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all this.” And, once again, this was sufficient.

It is possible to read this anecdote as an allegory of literature. In the course of its history, humanity moves further and further away from the sources of mystery and, little by little, loses the memory of what tradition taught it about the fire, the place, and the formula—but of all this men can still tell the story. What remains of mystery is literature, and “that can be sufficient,” the rabbi comments with a smile. The meaning of this “can be sufficient” is, however, not easy to grasp, and perhaps the destiny of literature depends precisely on how we understand it. If we simply understand it in the sense that the loss of the fire, the place, and the formula is somehow progress and that the result of this progress—secularization—is the liberation of the tale from its mythical sources and the establishment of literature—now autonomous and adult—in a separate sphere—that is, culture—then that “can be sufficient” really becomes enigmatic. It can be sufficient—but to what? Is it credible that we can be satisfied with a tale that is no longer in relation with the fire?

After all, by saying “we can tell the story of all this,” the rabbi claimed exactly the opposite. “All this” means loss and forgetting, and what the tale tells is indeed the story of the loss of the fire, the place, and the prayer. Each tale—all literature—is, in this sense, a memory of the loss of the fire.

Literary historiography has by now accepted that the novel derives from mystery. Kerényi and, after him, Reinhold Merkelbach have demonstrated the existence of a genetic link between pagan mysteries and the ancient novel, of which Apuleius’s Metamorphosis offers us a particularly convincing document (here the protagonist, who has been transformed into an ass, finds in the end salvation by means of a literal mystery initiation). This nexus is manifested by the fact that, exactly like in mysteries, we see in novels an individual life that is connected with a divine or in any case superhuman element, whereby the events, episodes, and vicissitudes of a human existence acquire a meaning that overcomes them and constitutes them as a mystery. Just like the initiated—attending in the dimness of Eleusis the mimicked or danced evocation of the abduction of Kore by Hades and her annual reappearance on Earth in spring—penetrated mystery and found in it the hope of having his life saved, so the reader, following the series of situations and events that the novel weaves pitifully or ferociously around its character, somehow participates in his destiny and, at any rate, introduces his own existence to the sphere of mystery.

Yet this mystery is separated from any mythical content and religious perspective, and hence can be somehow desperate, as happens with Isabel Archer in Henry James’s novel or with Anna Karenina. This mystery can even show a life that has entirely lost its mystery, as in Emma Bovary’s story. In any case, if what is at stake is a novel, there will always be an initiation, however miserable and confined to nothing other than life as such and its squandering. It belongs to the nature of the novel to be at the same time loss and commemoration of the mystery, disarray and remembrance of the formula and the place. If the novel forgets the memory of its ambiguous relation with the mystery, as always more often happens today, or if, cancelling any trace of the precarious and uncertain Eleusinian salvation, it claims to have no need for the formula, or worse, consumes the mystery in a host of private facts, then the very form of the novel is lost together with the memory of the fire.

The element in which the mystery is dispersed and lost is history [storia]. We need to think again and again about the fact that the same term designates both the chronological progress of human events and what literature relates, both the historical gesture of the researcher and that of the narrator. We can access the mystery only through a story [storia], yet (or maybe we should say, “in fact”) history [storia] is that in which the mystery has put out or hidden its fires.

 

[…]

 

The fire and the tale, the mystery and the story are the two indispensable elements of literature. But in what way can one of the elements, whose presence is the irrefutable proof of the loss of the other, bear witness to this absence, exorcising its shadow and memory? Where there is the tale, the fire is out; where there is the mystery, there cannot be the story.

__________________

Notes

Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 349–50. [Where necessary, citations are adapted to Agamben’s own citations in Italian. Source citations are provided only when they are provided by the author.—Trans.]

The Italian storia means both “history” and “story,” in the sense of “tale.”—Trans.

 
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