Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is a commentary on the Elisha text, but a commentary that fulfils both obligations of flame: the text’s illumination is also its destruction. A novel concerned with children and language and the terrors wrought when one comes into possession of the other, it holds speech to be dangerous not just to Samaritan delinquents and itinerant seers but also to religion and the life of the mind. Marcus does violence to prayer – it doesn’t help, it harms – and to philosophy, which becomes a playground of forgery and misattribution: he misquotes Thoreau as having called the alphabet ‘the saddest song’ (shades of Psalm 137); he has Schopenhauer impossibly plagiarise Wittgenstein (‘if it can be said, then I am not interested’); while the Nietzsche citation is not only false but a reversal of Nietzschean Sprache: ‘if I could take something from the world … it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.’ […]
The title itself is Judaic. Samuel maintains it’s a kabbalistic tradition but he, or Marcus, is off by ten centuries. The Flame Alphabet first appears in the Oral Law, sparked not by divine contemplation but by a lexical problem involving the Written Law (the Torah). Exodus 32 holds that the twin tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were written on by the forefinger of God on both sides, and that the lettering went through the stones. The Talmud, which is the written compilation of the Oral Law, holds that the souls of all the Children of Israel, past and future, were gathered together to receive the Torah, the book that describes its own giving. After addressing the question of this metafiction, the rabbis wonder about that graphological feat. How is it possible, they ask, that the two tablets were readable by everyone, and by everyone in the correct way, which in Hebrew is from right to left?
The Jerusalem Talmud answers with mysticism: Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that the commandments were written with white fire on black fire, and leaves it at that. The later Babylonian Talmud attempts to clarify: Rabbi Hisda says that the words could be read from both sides in two word orders and that both forward and backward readings were correct (suggesting that the retrograde letters contained even more arcane meanings). Kabbalistic writings of the 14th and 15th centuries – according to the religious, the age of kabbala’s codification; according to historians, the age of its creation – proposed the Talmud’s alphabet of fire as an ur-alphabet. Before glyphs and the innovations of Cadmus (or Kadmus?), before Babel, this was the language we spoke, the language we will speak again after the coming of the Messiah and the disconfusion of tongues. All the languages around us, Indo-European and Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic, are mere representations of this tongue; their sounds and letterforms portals into a semi-comprehensible, apocalypse-grade inferno.
I like that kind of mysticism (and enjoyed Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book for that reason).
And on the general topic of the dangers of language, comedian David Mitchell has a video called “Authenticity” that starts off with an agonized discussion of how his fellow Brits pronounce valet and how they perceive others’ pronunciation of it, and winds up with “I don’t want to be inauthentic, but I can no longer remember what I authentically said. I’m searching for the most honest way to be fake.” Lots of fun.