“Violence no longer dares speak its names.” —Emmanuel Levinas
Writing begins with the city. Cities, like books, are an attempt to make sense of the body.
Early in the book of Genesis (Chapter 10, Verse 10), there’s a passage that begins by describing the aftermath of the Flood. It lists Noah’s children and describes them branching out to settle the world. Noah’s son Ham has a son named Cush, who has a son named Nimrod, the first great hunter. Nimrod rules a kingdom in Mesopotamia whose crowning cities are “Bavel, Erekh, Akkad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.”
One of these polities is not like the others. “Bavel” is clearly “Babylon” (in its own language, “Bābilim”). “Erekh” is Uruk, a legendary ur-opolis that roared under Babylonian civilization, thriving until its channel of the Euphrates dried up. Today, it’s remembered as the city of Gilgamesh. Akkad is the swallowed capital: still never found. When the language of all these cities, forgotten and illegible since the time of Jesus, was deciphered again in the nineteenth century, it turned out it often called itself “Akkadian,” and was embodied in a massive written literature that mentions Akkad regularly. But the city itself was abandoned, sometime, and the ground retook it. We don’t know where it was.
The fourth place, by contrast, is of no ancient renown; there is no legendary Mesopotamian city of Calneh. The consensus of modern scholarship is that the word is a mistake; when vowels, which in Hebrew are written as optional diacritics surrounding the main letters (and are often omitted), were first added to this text, a scribe misread the word “kulanah,” meaning “all of these,” as a fourth city, Calneh.
“Shinar” is the usual Hebrew for Sumer, a place that called itself something like “Kiengi,” but that was called “Shumerû” in Akkadian. The place where urban, literate civilization was invented, it was the wellspring of all subsequent political order in Mesopotamia. This is to speak again of the cities Nimrod founded: Babylon, Uruk, Akkad, all of them in the land of Sumer.
Consider the lost library of Calneh, city born of misdirected breath. A scribe in a room somewhere marks the wrong vowels, and a phantom settlement rises on a river in our minds. The library here would more exactly be a bīt ṭuppim, a tablet house, where scholars practiced writing in cuneiform on slabs of clay. Literacy brings fresh legerdemains, turns speech into science, creates a new kind of space where thinking and repeating thoughts can, as actions, build into a bustle. And set loose in Calneh, the misvocalic ghost town of Shinar, to rummage through shelves of astronomy, medicine, divine praise, and exorcism, the tablets I most want to imagine myself stumbling on would be something like Lewis Freedman’s new book, Residual Synonyms for the Name of God (Ugly Duckling Presse).
I think this bustle, the intellectual frenzy of a counter-factual tablet house, frames Lewis Freedman’s writing well. The questions raised by Residual Synonyms are as big and consequential as the frameworks of our knowledge, and the role it adopts, projecting a complete cycle of inquiries zodiacally out from what it makes a center, is as old as textual community itself. But writing in our moment of, let’s say, critical systems failure, the book enacts these roles not through declarations or direct questions, but in a language of slippages and porous psychic ephemera, textured with the cultural grit that blows through our imaginations and crusts our sleep.
One of the book’s synonyms is “The Inaccuracy of One”:
Popular with yourself in your hermetic room . . . monad of the case . . . case from which you threw the screen in enmity to save yourself from your own advertisement of yourself to yourself in each screen you forced yourself clear at to . . . from within which with pitiless filing you blotted to beyond doubt . . . this name is not entirely phonetic. This name occurs because it’s like clear.
Faced with the instability of self wrought by our crisis of infinite screens, Synonyms offers to replace it not with stability, but with a different instability, a holy one. Hyperactivated and unencumbered by received divisions between regimes of thought, it proceeds by echo, resemblance, accident, adjacency, rhyme, kinship, intuition. It seems to flash between a reality swamped with unworldings and an imaginary studded with makeshift actualizations — in other words, an apocalypse, a crisis of orders. “So we may miss the sign with positive enthusiasm . . . excited by the incomprehensible fluke . . . and with no reservations about logical inconsistencies in the continuous truth convictions of the continuous book.”
In thinking through a discontinuous present, Synonyms is part of a tradition that celebrates writing’s power to force continuities, to remake the world by assembling it again, and again, in different configuration. Every reconfiguration is also an undoing, every forced continuity the eradication of a lacuna or synapse. The entire regime of literacy, a technology that was born in the union of irrigation, history, and praise, is now culpable for the invention of a backwards world in which language is accountable to power, rather than the other way around. Sunlight still hits a wall, but the fact of it has been hollowed out, its polarity inverted. It’s worth saying that six thousand years is an instant in the life of a species, and writing may be the technology ours didn’t survive. I think the book identifies its lineage early on.
You know, it’s a genre convention, like surfers’ hair. Enlightenment is to be thought . . . it’s safer that way. Imagine an impressive ever-deepening awareness as long as it’s not inferior to any other. Thanks . . . thanks to the naked advancements of Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Origen, and Augustine . . . we cab our way to social functions on paved roads under the Big Scribe. Heathendom and idolatry as weapons . . . this is a teaching used by a priestly clan to restrain a lower class, assimilated by parable at the manifold points around skin.
When I talk about bustle and frenzy, I mean that the book flings its insurgent associativities in all directions, creates a space that churns with them. At the same time, in an ancient way, Synonyms feels like a consecration into community of the audience it invites to hear it. A radical body awakens to a morning of plurality. A scholar is whatever speaks to its neighbor and listens.
Emmanuel Levinas was once asked whether he found the attitudes of faith and philosophy to be in conflict. He replied that they weren’t at all, rejecting the notion that questioning “is only a deficiency of answers.” Then he explained, “Questioning qua original attitude is a ‘relation’ to that which no response can contain, to the ‘uncontainable’; it becomes responsibility.” That is, I think, exactly the spirit of responsibility that Synonyms proposes — one that develops from a relationship to the uncontainable. Its surfaces bloom in a fractal of erupting and receding perceptions — “A crypto-conscience turning the cherub into a leopard” — and, maybe, back again — “Lost credit card retroactively forgiven . . . letting opposites a bi-convex history light-writing.”
We need this, of course. By making our omni-Other a “Big Scribe,” by elevating the traces of speech in stone to the level of what we call the sky, we have written ourselves all the way to a precipice. Residual Synonyms for the Name of God is derived from a book written by Lewis Freedman’s grandfather called Rabbinical Synonyms for the Name of God, which focused on the first centuries of the Common Era. As I write these paragraphs in New York City, every throne in sight has been ceded to a dangerously impoverished mode of questioning. We walk on broken pottery and talk like people who’ve forgotten that kings have always been wicked. We look back on looking back on looking away.
One of the synonyms is “World of Rex,” and one is “A Prior Meaning of Searcher.” An early one called “Speak Ersatz” says this:
A known punishment is the loss of your soul . . . but did you know . . . like the national scene resists the foreign language speaker . . . great wealth passively corrects its crime by making pubic hair iridescently visible . . . through cloth . . . as a metaphor for . . . the negation of the said?
We are all complicit in the greatness of wealth, in its accumulation by violence in the hands of the wicked. We have all of us together built the king’s city, though in our defense there seemed to be no world outside it. How can we unsay now all that we’ve been part of? How do we re-align the grids of shame and power when all we have is everything and its opposite? What is the meaning of conscience if we’re already too late?
At one point Lewis Freedman writes of an author who “lived in an age and country where both pronunciation and illiteracy were codeterminously forbidden”:
Using supernatural states of tone . . . but with a degree of that ephemeral tact which so many of us lack . . . she mockingly released herself from prison, went to the royal palace, and whispered the Name itself into the terrified King’s ear . . . then inscribed the Name on a King’s ear-shaped tablet and gave it to him. Whatever the King had thought was great writing died in blasphemy that day to a deeper place too easily local and judged only by need.
This is from a sort of essay-appendix, called “THE NAME” and divided into three sections: “Pronunciation,” “Visibility,” and “Memoir.” I think the tripartition here offers a decent schematic for beginning to trace the relays of Synonyms’ infinite micro-engagements. It gives us a preliminary map of the circuits words take under the non-Euclidean rubric of Lewis’s transgressive enthusiasm, its scrambling, semantic disco across the old temple floors of scholarship.
And not a moment too soon, because if our apocalyptic moment demands anything, it is the thinking through of the impossible. We need to change the shape of our breath, to reform our ephemeral relations with the unflinching buildings and consonants and hierarchies we make our lives in. Without knowing how to know this, we still somehow do. And Residual Synonyms for the Name of God to me seems as urgent, articulated, and good-humored an activation of this knowledge as humanity has made so far.
Picture yourself in a cool dusk, with nowhere to be, on a mud terrace in Calneh. We never got Civilization right, but it’s a beautiful idea, a dream worth sleeping. Nimrod, the warrior-king who founded those earliest cities, enjoyed centuries as a legendary hero, before his name was taken sarcastically by a cartoon rabbit to taunt a lisping hunter; now he’s a punchline. Babylon was a city on a hill, loved for its resplendent gardens and its patron god Marduk, calf of the sun; because it occupied Jerusalem for half a century, its name lives on as a euphemism for public cruelty. Akkad is the name of the mysterious gnostic in Lawrence Durrell’s novel Monsieur, and Akkad Boy is the burned, anguished entity whose unspoken inner thoughts are the target of an interrogation device called the Omnosyne in Mark Doten’s wonderful The Infernal. Uruk over thousands of years shifted its breath and became Iraq.
We may never find another buried city, recover the names lost in the interiorities we’re drowning in dust. But we can rebreathe the city we’re in, reform our external positions toward the shapes of responsibility. If matter makes us be something, and being makes us exist in relation, and relations give rise to experience — the one phenomenon we understand least in our universe — Residual Synonyms for the Name of God invites us to found a different form of knowledge based in a holier orientation of those forces. “Instead of guilt why don’t I fill a space with the attempt to divine aptitude . . . here here . . . on a placard read up . . . on what you got.”
Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, and musician. His writing has appeared in Bomb!, The Agriculture Reader, Elderly, Entropy, Web Conjunctions, Sink Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Pallaksch, Pallaksch., and elsewhere, including several small chapbooks. His translations have appeared in n+1, Jacobin, Music & Literature, and elsewhere, and in books including Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux classics), Comradely Greetings (Verso), and The Nose (Melville House). He lives with Anna in Brooklyn and is great at making soup.
Banner image: Charles Ray’s “Two Boys” (2010).