A Language of the Border: On Scholem’s Theory of Lament

In: The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
Ilit Ferber Tel-Aviv University

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In a diary entry from 1916 entitled “Über Klage und Klagelied” (On lament and dirge), originally written as a prologue to his translation of a collection of biblical lamentations, Gershom Scholem proposes a geographical metaphor to describe what he calls “all language.” The metaphor depicts two lands separated by a border: one land signifies the language of revelation, the other the language of silence; the border between them stands for what Scholem denotes as the language of lament (Klage). This article offers a close reading of this enigmatic text in an attempt to interpret Scholem’s early linguistic theory of lament and its relation to revelation and silence. In order to illuminate Scholem’s insights, I turn to Benjamin’s early fragment on lament (1916) and to his correspondence with Scholem on the relationship of lament to Jewish thought (1918), as well as to Werner Hamacher’s remarks on the linguistic form of lament. I argue that both Scholem and Benjamin portray lament as “a language of the border,” emphasizing its singular capacity to mark the boundaries of language and its expressive limits, while pointing to the possibility of lament to manifest a purely linguistic expression, devoid of any propositional, communicative, or subjective content. In his ambitious attempts to formulate a “metaphysics of language,” Scholem demonstrates the productivity of the intersection between the theological and philosophical, the linguistic and the metaphysical, in early twentieth-century continental philosophy.

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