After Li He, Li Ping plays the Kong Hou

by Robert Majzels, with Claire Huot

Notes on the 85

Robert Majzels
Calgary, March 1, 2007

Each of these pieces contains exactly 85 characters, and constitutes a book. 

In Le livre brûlé (Paris: Lieu Commun, 1986), Marc-Alain Ouaknin returns to the ancient Talmud (Chabbat Treatise) to remind us that, even on the Sabbath when work of any kind is strictly forbidden, a holy book must be saved from a burning house, and this even if the book is damaged, so long as it contains a minimum of 85 letters.

Why 85? The text of the ancient Torah scroll contains no vowels, no punctuation, and only the occasional space, or paracha (passage), between words. Chapter 10:35 and 36 of the Book of Numbers, "Whenever the coffer was to travel...," which contains 85 letters, is unique in that it is separated and bracketed by two backward nounim (the Hebrew letter n). According to the rabbinical sages, those two backward letters are meant to identify the enclosed passage as a book in itself. These letters which are not letters (because backward) are the trace of an erasure of the very passage they enclose. The book is at once written and unwritten, out of its place and in it. Displaced. By this metonymical maneuver characteristic of rabbinical thinking, we arrive at the question of what constitutes a book? And the answer turns out to be 85 letters!

The subject of the passage in question is the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Law that Moses brought down from Sinai, the law that governs all meaning. The passage stipulates that the Ark must remain mobile, always ready to travel. To ensure its portability, the poles of acacia that flank the coffer must never be removed. This perpetual movement of the Ark is a metaphor for the continual movement of meaning.

This then is the essence of what we call the book: it contains a minimum of 85 letters and it generates meaning endlessly. The being of the book is forever becoming. The Book is neither object, nor text, nor reader; it is the relation between them. By its non-synchrony, the Book produces a surplus of meaning. As it moves, it moves us. Reading breaks open the contents of The Book. The Book is explosive.

In restricting myself to 85 characters, and in eliminating word breaks, I am whittling my texts in order to concentrate their effect, to the point where each individual letter achieves its own sacred presence on the page. I am hoping that restraint, reduction, erasure paradoxically open up the text to vast possibilities.

“The letters are without any doubt the root of all wisdom and knowledge, and they are themselves the contents of prophecy, and they appear in the prophetic vision as though opaque bodies speaking to the reader-writer face to face, saying most of the intellective comprehensions thought in the heart of the one speaking them. And they appear as if pure living angels are moving them about and teaching them to the person, who turns them about in the form of wheels in the air, flying with their wings, and they are spirit within spirit.”

Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, 1280

The attached book is a transinhalation of Tang Dynasty poet Li He. Chinese, of course, is one of the oldest surviving languages on our planet, and one which (not unlike Hebrew) regards writing as a system autonomous to speech and constitutive of the world around us. Chinese poetic tradition has produced works of concentrated energy with an open-ended view of the world gorgeously compatible with the ancient rabbinical texts of the Hebrew tradition, and entirely in tune with our own contemporary sensibility.

By a process of transinhalation (inhalation is the movement of withdrawal, concentration and restraint to make room from the other, that precedes all creation), I have moved from Li He’s Chinese characters into English, the dominant world language today, the language of AmeriKa.

As one works to read these texts, stutterings and echoes implicate the reader by slowing her down, stressing the value of letters and relations between them. The eye hesitates over the continual enjambment, meaning slips, stumbles, multiplies.

I have produced several series of 85-letter books, based on the Song of Songs in the Torah, on poems by Paul Celan, on Chinese Tang Dynasty poets, and on Bada Shanren. The Tang Dynasty series, of which the attached is one, has also been printed on paper 36” x 20”. My own knowledge of Chinese being extremely limited, I have benefited from the invaluable assistance of Dr. Claire Huot, who has produced new and carefully detailed character-by-character translations of the Chinese texts. For her detailed description of the project and process, see Claire Huot, “Spinning Chinese Characters, Hebrew Letters, and Plain English: Robert Majzels’s 85 Project,” in Yishu—Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2006.