Milan Kundera

Varieties of silence, and near silence

(Jabès, Eluard, Celan, Kundera)

Edmond Jabès. Photo by Bracha L. Ettinger via Wikimedia Commons.

The aesthetic stridency of modernism was frequently accompanied by strong political stances, often with disastrous results. Among the innovative writers who managed to navigate the twentieth century without becoming entangled in its worst excesses was Francophone Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès (1912­–1991). Did Jabès’s attitude toward language offer some degree of immunity from totalitarian attitudes? An inscription in a pamphlet Jabès published in Cairo in 1953 connects to a controversy that pitted Paul Celan and Milan Kundera against Paul Eluard; retracing this historic thread leads to an appreciation of writing that embraces the neutral and the ambient, a writing that courts silence.

The aesthetic stridency of modernism was frequently accompanied by strong political stances, often with disastrous results. Among the innovative writers who managed to navigate the twentieth century without becoming entangled in its worst excesses was Francophone Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès (1912­–1991). Did Jabès’s attitude toward language offer some degree of immunity from totalitarian attitudes?

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