Repetition and Divine Indifference in Psalm 42
George Mason University
The following discussion functions within a mode of thinking common to work in scriptural reasoning. In particular, I think of the following remarks as what I will call ‘after-reflection’ or ‘after-thought.’ Quite some time ago, Peter Ochs, Steven Kepnes, and Robert Gibbs composed a slim volume called Reasoning after Revelation: Dialogues in Postmodern Jewish Philosophy, not only coining a new term but courageously developing Karl Barth’s notion of ‘nach-denken,’ or ‘after-thinking,’ to describe the exercise of reflection characteristic of Textual Reasoning and, now, Scriptural Reasoning. Here I continue to engage this trope. However, I want to suggest specifically (though this was clearly implied in the conversations charted in that book) that the ‘after-reflection’ characteristic of Scriptural Reasoning bleeds into all forms of thought that can take place ‘after’ SR study. In this piece, I will experiment with after-reflection for what I consider a kind of SR philosophical thinking, but one need not consider philosophy or theology as the only possible branches of after-thought. There are many possible modes of SR after-thought, but the more pressing question is what characterizes ‘after-reflection.’ Here, I only want to make a few initial suggestions – suggestions that I hope will be taken up and explored by others.
On the one hand, by ‘after-reflection’ I mean nothing more mysterious than the notion that through SR, we discover that our thought presupposes what has ‘already’ been thought. We might say that Scriptural Reasoning reflection (during and ‘after’) happens ‘after’ divine thought, ‘after’ scriptural thought, ‘after’ commentary, ‘after’ discussion of commentary. As well, this ‘after’ or ‘already’ of thought within which reflection happens points to what we might call an exponential future of thought, the adding-on to which is the inevitable result of the accrual of perpetual ‘afters.’ Still, ‘after-thought’ so considered need not only imply a succession of thought, but it can also point to a notion of thought as ‘reflection’ – whether by reflection we mean a reproduction of parts of what has ‘already’ been thought, or a ‘turning over’ – a reconsideration of that which is prior. In either event, after-thought is by virtue of its indebtedness to what comes before, never fixed, always responsive, animated, effected and relational. The remarks that follow embody both of these features and may serve as an example for a kind of thinking and writing that can take place as a response to the practice of scriptural reasoning.
I. Initial After-Hypothesis
In my initial writing session, I advanced the following hypothesis (or ‘after-hypothesis’): Oded Zehavi’s musical composition functions as a response to the psalmist’s cry – the psalmist’s question. More specifically, it is a response which we might characterize as offering a ‘non-relational relation’. The piece is not only a response to the content of the psalmist’s question – “Where is the living God for whom I long?” – but to the grammar or the form of the question: the interrogative. The psalmist’s interrogative posits a language which waits, therefore vacating its own announcement. That is what a question is: it is a vacating of one’s announcement by way of a waiting for another announcement, and the psalmist positions himself in this grammar, in this vacancy. It seems that the vacancy endures in the daylight of deed and also in the prayer of night. In other words, the question persists.
Before detailing the particular reading I offer, let me specify a bit more what a ‘non-relational relation’ might be. Four possibilities present themselves, though certainly many more could be developed. It is worth noting that the four possibilities presented here derive from both my own considerations and the considerations of the following written papers presented by Mark James and Kevin Seidel.
1.) A non-relational relation could mean a parallel but not directly engaged response – i.e., a filling up of the vacancy, but not by way of correlation with the question or interrogative. Rather, it is a ‘more-saying’ afforded by the music that is itself a filling-up of linguistic space but that is not relational to the particular emptiness announced by the question.
2.) A non-relational relation might refer to a ‘relation’ in the sense of context or whole. Seen from this perspective, the music might be said to provide an order within which the interrogative operates.
3.) It could mean a co-presence which, because it is not relational, does not share in the identity of that with which it has a relation – for example, a monadic co-presence such that the music were one monad and the text – i.e., the interrogative – another. So understood, the two forms stand next to one another but do not interact, nor do they share features other than that they both occupy time (although how would need further elaboration) and space.
4.) Finally, non-relational relation might refer to a metaphysical context of radical indifference to that which exists within it. Such a metaphysical context would therefore differ from the aforementioned notion of context or order so far as it would exceed any order it might contain, becoming more than the sum of the parts which constitute a unity.
In the context of the discussion below, I will look into each of these formal possibilities in consideration of the hypothesis that Zehavi’s piece alters the grammar of the interrogative, that it musically scripts what I call a non-relational relation in the piano’s part, with the repetition and pattern of its chords, and in the cello’s part, i.e. its elongated notes and horizontal overlay on the piano chords.
II. The Music
A. The Piano Chords
This discussion will consist of two parts: a description of the character of the chord repetition and an examination of what it might mean to suggest that they operate in a non-relational relation to the psalmist’s question.
The most noteworthy feature of the piano chords is their repetition. Such repetition grounds and generates our anticipation of recurrent chords. Subsequent chords which do arise, however, presuppose and constitute a memory or signify the prior chords from which or out of which they follow. Chords relate together like pearls on a string; the earlier suggest the later and the later refer back to the earlier. Such a pattern of ‘repetition’ does not, however, preclude alteration in the string of pearls, for alteration remains possible provided that there is repetition of some sort prior and after. Said otherwise, novelty remains possible as long as the new moment introduced bears a relation to a moment prior, constituting a kind of partial memory. In his piece, James notes an example of such apparent novelty which is immediately resituated into rule. The piece, he tells us, ends with a ‘C’ which, though “ambiguous” and “dissonant,” nonetheless “remains comfortably within the E minor framework of the song’s closing section.”
If we analyze this for a moment, we might say that the repeated piano chords operate similarly to written and spoken language. Language, we might speculate, works on at least two conditions: 1.) the perpetual relation between words/letters (in a sentence or in a string of sentences) prior and words/letter after 2.) the rule-governed repetition of letters and words which constitute the before and after within a phrase, sentence, or string of sentences. Both chords and language therefore function by repetition or rule.
Alternatively, we might introduce a second analogy which more deeply illuminates both language and music. We might say that the repetition/relationality of the chords and/or language operate organically. Why do I say “organically?” Because the repetition is a demonstration of both continuity and the need for continuity. Repetition in both the chords and language works like a heartbeat. The heart beats continuously – it repeats over and over – and its repetition constitutes its vitality, its longevity, its continuation. Still, it is also the case that, from heartbeat to heartbeat, there is a hollow, a privation, a moment of non-heartbeat and a prospect of end – of nothing. Perhaps we might say there is a ‘novelty’ that cannot be reintegrated into a rule. Of course, it then becomes interesting to consider the extent to which novelty marks the nothingness of vacancy or the prospect of new life.
Without the perpetual repetition of the next beat, there is nothing – no more life. Life is constituted by a repetition that strives or aspires to overcome the ever-present possibility of vacancy. Both language and the chord repetition seem to mimic this exercise of life. The repetition in both language and in the chords seems to bury the prospect of no-language or no-saying. Both seem anxious to overcome the prospect of vacancy suggested by the interrogative (more on this below). Indeed, both language and the chords exploit rhythm; that is, both manipulate time through rhythm in such a way that the apparent ‘emptiness’ of ‘quiet’ time (announced in the interrogative) is appropriated as a moment within the relations between letters or words or chords – i.e., what was an ‘empty’ moment of no-saying or no-sound is taken up as a modifier of either a word, sentence, or chord relation. Both language and the chord repetitions ‘take’ time and ‘organize’ time. They ‘use’ time and render it a supplement or feature of language or music.
The above consideration of repetition in language and in the musical chords presents us with a question regarding relationality as organic. It seems that the relationality implicit within the repetition found in both language and in the chords is a relationality characteristic of life. With this observation, we might pose two immediate questions. Is it the case that the relationality discovered in repetition (in language and in the chords) is an ‘organic’ relationality – i.e., a relationality characteristic of life, of what lives? And if relationality is a characteristic of what is organic, does the organic qua vitality presuppose the prospect of non-vitality – i.e., is relationality a characteristic of that which is non-eternal? Could we not imagine a relationality or vitality that is not challenged by a non-vitality, but rather a relationality of what always perdures? In other words, is relationality a feature of finitude, or does such finitude preclude the possibility of a kind of infinity? I leave these as questions for the time being.
But how does this description of the chords help us to consider the relation between Zehavi’s piece and the psalmist’s question? How might we think of the chord repetition in the music as a response to the interrogative expressed by the psalmist? Recall my earlier suggestion that the interrogative of the psalm introduces a waiting, a vacancy. (One can imagine an existential anxiety accompanying this grammar – “Will life go on? Will there be relation? Will there be a ‘more’ without which there is nothing?” expressed by the interrogative.) Certainly, it seems that both the chords and language more generally also presuppose a waiting – a hollow or an emptiness. In what follows, however, I will suggest that the emptiness of the former is not the same as the emptiness of the latter but is, in fact, transposed by it. The chords, I will suggest, present what I earlier referred to as a non-relational relation to the interrogative. More specifically, of the four possible understandings of non-relational relation introduced above, two of them apply to the role of the chords in Zehavi’s piece.
What is it that distinguishes the vacancy present in the interrogative and that which appears in the space between the chords? The most immediate difference we may note is that the emptiness of the interrogative ‘remains.’ This is definitional here. The ‘question’ is exactly the announcement of waiting, of open-endedness, of the anxiety that accompanies the inability to anticipate what might be next. Conversely, the emptiness of the space between the chords is an emptiness that operates as a sign of what comes next. The emptiness functions as a ‘bridge’ between two moments of relation, which together constitute a unit of meaning, a unit of a semantic ‘something,’ however undefined or indeterminate – a something that can be interpreted or considered.
To say, however, that the emptiness of the one differs from the emptiness of the other is not the same as saying that there is no relation between the chords and the interrogative. The chords fill up the empty space of the interrogative. They ‘speak’ or offer a ‘saying’ that nonetheless does not communicate directly to the empty space of the psamlist’s question, much in the way that the repetition of God’s greatness and glory in the Mourner’s Kaddish fills the space and the time of the mourner but does not take up the sadness of the mourner. The chords do not prepare or stage an additional space or opportunity for a subsequent reply by the psalmist. They simply fill the emptiness with a ‘more,’ a ‘something’ that has past and has future: the ‘more’ of life. That such a ‘more’ retains its own fragility is left for consideration. Such a ‘more’ may signify an eternal ‘more’ whose repetition always and everywhere appropriates the time between. Such a ‘more’ may amount to nothing other than a finite or even infinite string of finite relations. The organic character of the relational ‘more’ may point to an inhuman (divine? natural?) ‘more’ in any number of senses worth considering. In any of its possible variations, however, such a ‘more’ operates in a non-relational relation to the psalmist’s question; it ‘affects’ the question without acknowledging it.
Still, we might consider a second possible understanding of what it means to describe the chords as offering a non-relational relation to the psalmist’s cry, one implicit in my description of the repetitious character of the chords and brought into higher relief by James’s comments. In his initial comments, he says the following:
More striking to me is that Zehavi attempts to offer a kind of resolution to the elemental crying with which he begins. He clearly does not envision the possibility that soul’s churning can simply be overcome, the self and its relations to others and God neatly wrapped into a simple chordal triad. But his piece does slowly carve out a determinate space – his E minor – a background of sense against which the cries of the second half of the song become both meaningful (because against the background of a kind of regularity) and more manageable…If the self is like a piece of music, its unity will not be that of an underlying substance, but the possibility of repeating patterns in time, of rhythm and harmony into which discord too can enter without the threat of the self completely dissolving. Perhaps Zehavi is evoking the order which the psalmist finds in God – in his memories of what was, in today’s cataracts, in his night-song, and in his hope that the future may yet contain praise for God.
Recall model two of non-relational relation introduced above, namely a non-relational relation of a context or order within which elements or laws operate. The above comments by James help to illustrate how such a model may emerge from a recognition of the repetitive character of the chords. Specifically, Mark speculates on the notion of the chord repetitions as constitutive of a ‘unity’ or a ‘whole’ (my word) which, though non-substantive, nonetheless ‘houses’ all moments, including that of the psalmist’s cry. Such an order does not directly or even intentionally speak to the cry of the question. Still, as present, such a unity, system, or context can console the one who cries. Yes, as James indicates, the interrogative announces despair, but the context announces a perpetual something within which vacancy is reinterpreted as a piece of a whole. The interrogative is no longer open-ended nor is it isolated without relation. Rather it is one of many parts woven into a network of pieces constitutive of a unity.
Before moving on to the cello part, we might, without offering a developed analysis, ask about the theological implications of either of these two possible accounts of the relation between music and the interrogative or ‘cry.’ Most obviously, we might ask whether there is a revelatory or redemptive character to the chord repetition in Zehavi’s piece. One way to address these questions might be to take up the above-stated hypothesis regarding the non-relation/relation and apply it to each. As a something that stands next to, beside, above, below, or around another something with which there is no identity – only common space or common time – the chord repetition announced in Zehavi’s “Psalm 42” appears revelatory to the one who cries so far as it is precisely the anticipation of the ‘more’ and/or the unity or order signified by the chord repetition which the psalmist’s cry does not contain and does not know. It is, in this way, an ‘other’ to the psalmist and adds a something ‘new.’ Whether or not this ‘something new’ is redemptive, however, is another issue. As a non-relation, the ‘something new’ is not purposefully directed towards the vacancy of the question, but it nonetheless ‘speaks’ to it without communicating with it.
B. The Cello
If the chord repetition in Zehavi’s piece presents an organic indifference of finite repetition and/or an order within which repetition takes place, the cello part expresses an even stranger announcement – the sound of what Seidel refers to as “the inhuman” and which, from my perspective, stands in a non-relational relation to the cry of the psalmist. Again, let me begin with a description of the cello part and then analyze what it might mean to say that it relates non-relationally to the interrogative.
1.)We might first consider the cello’s own relation to the piano. The cello announces itself at the start. Later, piano chords emerge. At times, there is simultaneity between the two, but there is almost never a fusing, a harmony, a blurring or a merging of the two. (There are odd occasions on which the piano attempts to ‘follow’ the announcement of the cello, but they disappear.) The cello is either separate from the piano or an imposition or overlay on top of the piano. It exercises a dramatic and knowing indifference to the piano chords below it. Again, the cello offers a ‘telling’ and does not wait for a reply. It operates horizontally and almost never vertically in relation to the chords.
2.) The cello’s part does not, like the piano, perform a repetition. It does not, we might say, pulsate. Its elongated notes express a certain and undying sound. They are devoid of rhythm, existing and then dying without anticipation of a next. There is no timing that links them to what was prior and what comes after. The sound moves, but like a perpetual wave deep in the water. Without pulsation, it is neither life nor non-life. It simply is. In its announcement, it can afford to be and then not to be, but it comes and goes in its depth as it sees fit without the desperation for a repetition or a rule needed to sustain it.
3.) It is sound that is not discourse. It is sound that is not grammar. It is sound that we do not wait for and which does not wait for us. It is there, and we are listening to it, but it is a sound which speaks only to a soul and not to a thinking mind which organically anticipates and remembers. In this sound, we are taken. It precedes us and goes on without us.
As before, we might speculate on two models of non-relational relationality emerging in the role of the cello. In all three of the above descriptions, the cello, unlike the repetition of the piano chords, refers not to what is organic – not to what is vital. If anything, it refers to what Seidel calls “the inhuman.” As such, we might speculate on two different types of non-relational relation between this “inhuman” and the all too human interrogative. We might, taking our cue from Seidel’s own thought, consider the inhuman as elements in nature – rocks, canyons, streams – elements which, as inhuman, do not relate to our cries. But nonetheless, like separate monads, each individually stand next to, nearby, above, under and around us in our waiting. On the one hand, they are indifferent to us. On the other hand, as Seidel suggests they are there, and this presence seems to non-purposefully, unintentionally, beckon us into “their company,’ invite us to ‘be with them,’ to relate to them non-relationally but to co-fill a space or constitute a place in an order. What might such a co-belonging of element (human) and element (non-human) be like? And again, I wonder: might it be revelatory? Might it be redemptive?
But what if the inhuman were not a monad, not another element? What if the inhuman were a metaphysical indifference or a metaphysical no-living/no-dying – a context, as before, but a context that is more than any order it might contain? What if it is a context that precedes any order within it and perdures beyond any order that may or may not continue – a metaphysical, meta-grammatical and meta-elemental something that cannot live or die but greets us always as indifferent, as simultaneously there but always other?
“Where,” we might ask as Seidel does, “is God, in the music and in the psalm?” If, as I’d like to suggest, God is in the music, I’d also like to suggest that we find a God with whom we are radically unfamiliar – if by unfamiliar we mean unschooled. Still, existentially, such a God is entirely familiar. All too frequently (all the time), we find this God in the indifference of organic repetition and overarching order, in the darkness of what precedes our world and in the silence of what accompanies it and outlasts it. Absolutely revelatory, Zehavi’s music presents us with a divine non-redemption, a divine non-relational relation, an overlay, a telling, an eternality, without any prospect of not being. It presents us with a non-answer to the psalmist’s desperate cry for a ‘living’ God from a God who does not live, who is there but is not ‘present,’ who does not engage, who will not communicate, who will not wait, and who, perhaps, should not be waited for: the God that precedes and follows all that waits.