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What I learned from the work of Claude Vigée

To write about my own encounter with the work of Claude Vigée is to try to speak with the same clarity, his clarity, which I now must try to make my own.

There is nothing more difficult than paying homage to someone whom one admires – for his work, his courage, and the brilliant lucidity of his voice. Nothing more terrifying − it’s like risking a misstep from one sentence to the next − than describing this encounter, which altered the direction of my path in life.

I’m not an academic, nor am I exactly a poet, nor am I Paul Valéry’s bored Monsieur Teste. I write stories, tales that are located somewhere between today and a time in the future that the past points us towards.

Before I discovered Vigées work, I had heard the crystalline sound of his reflections enjoining us to share this moment in human existence which we are, however briefly, part of, I had to use subterfuge to enter this world, to find my rightful place, usually by waving in the direction of the threshold of various chasms.

My approach to Claude Vigée will, therefore, be very personal. Nothing could persuade me to explain his poetry or his other writing. I merely seek to try and explain, as simply as possible, the gift that his writing offered me.

There’s a Jewish joke so ambiguous it has always made me shudder as much as it makes me laugh. The joke has two versions and two punchlines:

Version I:

A Jew and a non-Jew are travelling in the same train compartment. At every stop, when the name of the station is announced, the Jew shakes his head and wails, “Oy, oy, oy! Oy, oy, oy!” After several stations, the non-Jew, exasperated, cries out:

“What on earth is the matter with you?”

“Oy, oy, oy! I’m on the wrong train!”

As is often the case with Jewish humor, the joke becomes downright unfunny if applied to real life − suddenly it’s a somber metaphor for the ineluctable road down which we are led, one way or another, by the randomness of fate. The die, as it were, is cast.

Earlier this year, when we celebrated the miracle of Purim, we were relaxed as the holiday began, disguised, in accordance with tradition, as clowns, kings or Satan; by the time it ended we were suffocating in our cotton masks.

In Hebrew, the word “Purim” means to draw lots, either to decide the destiny of another person, or to pick an important future date. Nothing could be more antithetical to the Jewish tradition than the notion of unresolved fate or complete predestination. And yet, although Purim is an important Jewish holiday, it is the only one in which the name of God is not cited at any point in the text. It is the pure miracle of mankind.

But what is a miracle?

In Vigées “La Manne et la Rosée” (Manna and Dew),” a work of eloquent insight dedicated, pertinently, to “he who listens,” Vigée illustrates the context within which Purim takes place by sketching brief portraits of the key characters in the story. He begins with Haman, a descendant of Amalek, the “determined enemy of Jacob’s descendants,” who was spared by the weakness of King Saul, and has now returned with the same proof of the crime; Ahasuerus, the idolatrous king of Persia, tyrannical and concupiscent; Mordechai, a fourth generation Judean, guardian and cousin of Esther, whom he delivers almost casually into prostitution for the lascivious pleasure of the king. And finally, Esther herself, garbed in a mask of anonymity, who proffers herself in silence.

And so the die, it seems, is cast.

Meanwhile, as the king is enjoying multiple orgies in the city of Shushan with the inhuman or bestial indifference of a day laborer, Haman seizes on Mordechai’s alleged treason to call for not only Mordechai’s death but that of all his people. From this point on, Esther embodies salvation, or, perhaps, the ordinary, knowing face of time passing. Oy, oy, oy!

“As we reread this ancient story that is constantly renewed,” Vigée writes, “as Mordechai’s heirs, spokespeople of the revealed Word at Sinai − we still see today entrenched evil — does not the capital city Shushan still permeate the entire world?”

“This world in preparation,” he goes on, “remains, almost certainly, at risk of slipping once again, as it has done throughout history, into a gigantic masquerade. For do we not inhabit a world that is jaded, vulgar, a world of pure appearance?”

To write as Vigée does, inscribing oneself not only upon the rock of Judea but also in the between-time that constitutes both human existence and Jewish history, constantly being reborn and rewritten, is not simply an achievement over the self, but also one that requires the strength to emulate one’s own vision as a way of aspiring towards this perilous but incandescent next step in life.

In order to write within this gap, one must know how to keep the masquerade at a distance, despite the accoutrements that these garrulous tongues, whether belching or honeyed, fashions, diseases and stereotypes, the desire to love, fear, and violence, compel us to wear.

But in writing, where is this truth concealed? Is it in the mastery of time, as it is with Jacob struggling with the Angel?

Vigée recounts in several places a parable from the Zohar about the Hebrew alphabet, which leads him to conclude each time, “These letters, in which the world is created, are not simply signs that refer to it: they are part of the very substance of our world.” “When one carelessly speaks, writes, shakes these letters, words, sentences and books, one unsettles the entire world.”

What a terrifying responsibility!

Walter Benjamin -– whose literary criticism punctuates his “Arcades Project” with extraordinary brilliance – has this to say about the way language burst into human history:

“What Proust intends with the experimental rearrangement of furniture in the matinal half-slumber, what Bloch sees as the darkness of the lived moment, is nothing other than what we must establish here, on the level of the historical, and collectively. There is a ‘not-yet-conscious knowledge’ of the past.”

Benjamin was convinced of this knowledge, he for whom the Revelation of the Word in Sinai led to a past without a tomorrow, in that place in the middle of nowhere, Port Bou. A knowledge inscribed in linguistic time, which wears, like Esther, both the anonymous mask of its era and the unique face of the “existential.” Claude Vigée had the courage to continue on the path of this not-yet-conscious knowledge, so that the origin of man would always, as he put it, be ahead of him, “in the future.”

This tension in Vigée’s writing, between different levels of temporality, almost effects a kind of magic, as every sentence is an appeal in extremis for a miracle. His work is situated in such contrast to the world around us – an almost radical contrast – that it seems barely possible for us to properly listened to it or understood it today. The obstinacy of this world, “marching towards death” with the rage of an Esau, no longer expecting anything of life, not even trying to find his exchange, is arrogantly distancing itself from “the time of joy, that future time that will burst forth from a redeeming silence,” towards which Vigée never stopped trying to lead us in each successive book.

How can we hope today to tear this world away from the chaos of the “love of raw materials, the insanity of murder and suicide with which it is obsessed”?

To write salvation is not a question of lamenting, in the stasis between two journeys, having taken the wrong train. Perhaps the randomness of the lottery of life requires us – as through a pane of glass we observe, intermittently, day and night, the parade of kingdoms – to remove the grimacing masks it reflects back to us.

All these masks! Even the ones that are made of paper cannot protect us from the shadows of duplicity.

The Torah brings together techniques of thought, commentaries within commentaries, and ways of organizing time, echoing the creation: the separation of foods, of certain organic or vegetal materials, ritualized celebratory chants, the use of the Hebrew alphabet for counting (Gematria), the hierarchy of generations, even twinship – a whole tangle of different earthly and spiritual temporalities carries the Jewish people in an incessant movement within and without all logic of inevitability.

In the first and sixth commandments, two temporalities coexist — one divine, the other human, at once injunction and preface to an eventual destiny − one decreed by God, the other imposed on man. Only the first, however, says “I,” and the one who says “I” also says “I am the one who brought you forth from the house of bondage”; but man, who does not say “I,” is referred to as “You”: “You must not kill.” This burden – which underpins the heavenly world, to which returns the responsibility of the verb, and the terrestrial world, where we walk freely towards our encounter with human destiny − and whose child is also Europe, has frequently found itself engulfed from head to tail in an inversion of these attributed roles.

If the nature of time, as Vigée suggests, both eludes us and forges us, it is also, he adds, the most intimate aspect of our inner selves.

In this place without a name, in silence, where we must be complete, in the trembling moment that is not yet either the minute that comes after, nor the one that comes before, in the silence of the Aleph, the world to come has its origins in every person.

What I learned from Claude Vigée, and what I would like, by a thousand means, to elude, to flee, for the struggle is so intimidating, is that we have to write from that place. That is what it means to be a Jewish writer. And it is thanks to him that I have become one. Because my predecessors, Katzenelson, Vogel, Berlgelson, Greenberg, Zelda, Markish, Singer, Der Nister, whose importance and courage are without equal, these writers and so many others writing in Yiddish and Hebrew – who so resolutely encouraged me to live among their stars in the world of exile of which they were the heirs, as they continued to go forward – alas, were still surrounded by the smoking ruins of history.

They had to hold steady, from one station to the next, hold onto the world as it marched ahead towards the chaos of the final stop.

Claude Vigée revived the free idiom, bringing to an end a language of exile. Time moves freely again, with its tensions, paradoxes, intimate and cyclical laws: “The horizons of exile are the thousand faces of nowhere, the place within us that is our true homeland,” he murmurs to us in “Apprendre la nuit” (“Learn the Night”).

For the first time a Jewish writer, describing himself as such, opens the horizon to the future, going beyond the theft of the Word given at Sinai, the mendacious horrors of History, the lost, tears of sacrificial memory, either terrified or stupefied.

A Jewish poet as a man of the future.

When one considers the state of the world today, with its constantly reiterated bursts of fury, its threats of chaos, its rumbling pandemonium, the deafening thunder that is the same, haunting signal: the desecrated graves of the dead, which people wish to destroy again, the same dead we mock during Carnival when we mistake life for its profanation, laughter for sarcasm, daylight for darkness, what idiom must we use if we now wish to repair, redeem ourselves, speak, hope for human history? And discern again what the mask reveals?

Which brings us back to Purim.

“We can still detect entrenched evil, etched with red hot iron onto the mask of the surrounding society: does not Shushan, the capital, still permeate the entire world?” Vigée writes.

In order to transmit to mankind the future in, as Vigée calls it, “this opaque, bad, arrogant, bestial universe,” means revealing the source of Time, hearing the breath of the infinite, discerning the invisible through Esther, at the heart of the drama, as she pierces the soul of History.

Esther, who brought out the humanity in a lost king’s eyes.

To write, to play with the immanence of the alphabet, is to bear the weight of this understanding, which distinguishes the minute from the hour, the lie from the truth, salvation from chaos. The terrible lesson that Vigée teaches through his critical and poetic works − a lesson that is almost unbearable, because of the responsibility it brings to bear on the articulation of every word − is that which inscribes each of us, with humility, within this future tense: “I shall be.”
“If we can decipher it, this world of the demonic, satanic grimace can be changed and redeemed. That is the basis of the Jewish history of Salvation.”

Version II:

A Jew and a non-Jew are travelling in the same train compartment. At every stop, when the name of the station is announced, the Jew shakes his head and wails, “Oy, oy, oy! Oy, oy, oy!” After several stations, the non-Jew, exasperated, cries out:

“What on earth is the matter with you?”

“Oy, oy, oy! Am I really on the right train?”

The question of the world reappears in this arguably rather more tragic version of the joke, in which the humor is no longer farcical. Perhaps we shall encounter hope? postulates a Talmudic treatise. Perhaps we are heading in the right direction in the allotted time before the next station?

“The confusion in the Hebrew mind is not about God, which is a theological problem, nor is it about man, which is a philosophical problem. It is about the world: “How is it possible that the world exists?” as Léon Ashkénazi asked in one of his lectures, attended, as it happens, by Claude Vigée.

The existence of man in his brief and fragile temporality must interrogate that question without answering it (absolutely not!), must fill the world with its precious trembling. Oy, Oy! Are we in the right world?


Haunted by the obligation to doubt, in spite of everything. And still we must continue to make our way, poised between our own movement and that which continues relentlessly, between the rustling of the self and divine silence.

Like this Promise, renewed.

To write in this between-time, both poetry and prose must “speak of life, terrible and magnificent, for the first time,” Vigée writes, as at “the dawn of the world.”

I know of no other poet who is able to exhort with such clarity the total opposite of what André Chouraqui calls, alluding to the ninth plague, the Darkness.

What other contemporary writer has been able, with such pertinence, and with such piercing humility that offers a true challenge to arrogance, to celebrate life, life that is constantly reborn, bursting, pulsing, advancing, and, without seeking compromises, revealing therein also the signs of hell, of the “devouring void?” And in doing so, he who listens not only distinguishes the dawn from the advancing twilight, but, like Jacob writhing on the ground, wounded at the hip, recognizes the battle ahead. This is what it means to say that writing, to appropriate Vigée’s wry expression, signifies several different vocations: It means to be Jewish twice over, and doubly a poet, doubly responsible for the times of which I am, perhaps, the junction − Perhaps. So that one might yearn for a tomorrow.

“Yes, in spite of everything, the day will come, an unimaginable morning whose immaterialised light will carry us beyond hatred, will lift us above the ruins and the destruction of the present hour,” said Vigée, speaking of Benjamin Fondane.

A bright day, I hope, when different tributaries will meet and converge once more, towards that immanent Time – within us, precious and ineffable – of the absolute human. We shall be.

May it be that thanks to your hands, we will be worthy.

Merci Claude Vigée.

Post-Script. Claude Vigée died on October 2, 2020, three months short of his hundredth birthday. The centenary celebration will be a commemoration. In the words of the traditional blessing after someone dies, Baruch Dayan Ha’emet: Blessed be the Judge of Truth. I called his phone in order to hear his voice one last time: “Ici Claude Vigée dans la messagerie: je reçois vos messages au fur et à mesure. Merci,” he said.

“This is Claude Vigée’s voice mail. I check my messages from time to time. Thank you.”

To honor the centenary of the poet Claude Vigée (January 3 1921), there will be a colloquium online on November 29, 2020 at the Elie Wiesel Institute of Paris, “Claude Vigée, Poet and Prophet.” Postponed from May to November because of Covid, the Paris celebration will now be a commemoration, following the death of the poet on October 2, 2020.


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