Book Section2023-09-04
Federico Dal Bo

‘My Mother Tongue Is a Foreign Language’

On Edmond Jabès’s Writing in Exile
This chapter examines Edmond Jabès, who chose to write his oeuvre in French despite his Jewish-Arabic origins and his being conversant in both Hebrew and Arabic. French was never a true ‘mother tongue’ to him but rather ‘a foreign one’. This poetical choice was also instrumental to his creation of a cosmos that is very clearly defined by la page blanche, or the ‘blank page’. His writing develops this idea, both literally and metaphorically. A blank sheet is the only thing a writer has to work with at the start of every writing act, therefore it represents a kind of material opposition that all writers must overcome. It represents in this context an existential nothingness that precedes and simultaneously escapes both human and divine creation. In Jabès’s writings, a blank page has two connotations at once: a condition for writing and nothingness. This ambivalent condition results in the paradoxical assumption that his ‘mother tongue is a foreign language’, because it cannot offer the same spiritual intimacy as another language, say, the Holy Language, and because the writer’s ‘mother tongue’ — and, by extension, human language — is always impure and infiltrated by foreignness.
Keywords: Jabès; Talmud; Mother Tongue; Foreign Language; Shoah; Tzimtzum
Title
‘My Mother Tongue Is a Foreign Language’
Subtitle
On Edmond Jabès’s Writing in Exile
Author(s)
Federico Dal Bo
Identifier
Description
This chapter examines Edmond Jabès, who chose to write his oeuvre in French despite his Jewish-Arabic origins and his being conversant in both Hebrew and Arabic. French was never a true ‘mother tongue’ to him but rather ‘a foreign one’. This poetical choice was also instrumental to his creation of a cosmos that is very clearly defined by la page blanche, or the ‘blank page’. His writing develops this idea, both literally and metaphorically. A blank sheet is the only thing a writer has to work with at the start of every writing act, therefore it represents a kind of material opposition that all writers must overcome. It represents in this context an existential nothingness that precedes and simultaneously escapes both human and divine creation. In Jabès’s writings, a blank page has two connotations at once: a condition for writing and nothingness. This ambivalent condition results in the paradoxical assumption that his ‘mother tongue is a foreign language’, because it cannot offer the same spiritual intimacy as another language, say, the Holy Language, and because the writer’s ‘mother tongue’ — and, by extension, human language — is always impure and infiltrated by foreignness.
Is Part Of
Place
Berlin
Publisher
ICI Berlin Press
Date
4 September 2023
Subject
Jabès
Talmud
Mother Tongue
Foreign Language
Shoah
Tzimtzum
Rights
© by the author(s)
Except for images or otherwise noted, this publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Language
en-GB
page start
45
page end
83
Source
Untying the Mother Tongue, ed. by Antonio Castore and Federico Dal Bo, Cultural Inquiry, 26 (Berlin: ICI Berlin Press, 2023), pp. 45–83

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Cite as: Federico Dal Bo, ‘“My Mother Tongue Is a Foreign Language’: On Edmond Jabès”s Writing in Exile’, in Untying the Mother Tongue, ed. by Antonio Castore and Federico Dal Bo, Cultural Inquiry, 26 (Berlin: ICI Berlin Press, 2023), pp. 45-83 <https://doi.org/10.37050/ci-26_3>