Friday, October 18, 2002

Ruth Franklin, in a fierce review of The Autograph Man in the New Republic, makes an interesting point about Zadie Smith's use of the tetragrammaton, the four-letter symbol (YHWH), in Jewish tradition, of the unpronounceable name of God (she uses them as section breaks in the book's prologue):

"There is something discomfiting about Smith's incorporation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton into her impudent imaginative universe. Part of this is simple superstition: even secular Jews have a hard time letting go of the gravity that surrounds these letters. (Tradition dictates that the paper on which the word is written must be buried.) If Smith is toying with it for shock value, she has certainly hit her mark. But despite her comedic tendencies, Smith is too deeply serious a writer to rely purely on the need to offend. Like her riffs on the halachah of pot-smoking, her visual punning on the supposedly unsayable name of God—each invocation resides within a little cartoon bubble, as if it were being spoken—has something in common with Rushdie's irreverent game with religion in The Satanic Verses. But while Rushdie clearly had a philosophical point to make, Smith's end does not justify the means. I do not mean to accuse Smith of blasphemy, because non-believers cannot blaspheme. I mean only to say that Smith's purposes in this novel are too small to justify such profaneness."

(Oddly enough, what this recalls to me is an anecdote from one of Salman Rushdie's essays, I can't remember which, about being made, as a child, to kiss any book he happened to drop accidentally to the floor, as a sign of apology & respect to the written text.)

But could Smith's repetition of the sacred letters, symbolising the attempt to capture the uncapturable nature of God, not be intended to point to the moral void of the idea (in a book whose main plotline, after all, is the search for an elusive autograph) that a person's worth to the world can be reduced to his or her name written on a scrap of paper?

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