The Unpronounceable Name of God: Concluding a Journey Through the Hebrew Bible
From Season 3 of The Cosmic Library Podcast
The Cosmic Library explores massive books in order to explore everything else. Here, books that can seem overwhelming—books of dreams, infinity, mysteries—turn out to be intensely accessible, offering so many different ways to read them and think with them. Season one considered Finnegans Wake; in season two, it was 1,001 Nights. Season three, titled Mosaic Mosaic and premiering on April 11, journeys through and beyond the Hebrew Bible.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
It’s not just the contradictions in the Hebrew Bible that puzzle and provoke readers—there are, throughout, passages of intense emotional or moral provocation. See, for instance, Ecclesiastes, which in the King James translation begins:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
Ecclesiastes challenges familiar notions of what life is about, notions of meaning or usefulness. You have to respond to something like that. You almost can’t help yourself: you have to think of your own answer to the book that declares: “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”
Poetry in general often poses such challenges that can’t be easily explained or resolved, but in return, these challenges activate the mind. The poet and critic Elisa Gabbert says, “When I’m reading or when I’m writing, I’m just thinking better than I am at any other time.”
The Hebrew Bible prompts you to figure things out on your own, with particular attention to language. As Peter Cole says: “At the very heart of this text, what do you have? You’ve got this ultimate transparency and ultimate opacity, which is the name of God, the four-letter name of God, which is unpronounceable, and no one really knows what it means.”
Peter Cole is a poet and MacArthur genius whose new book, Draw Me After, will be out this fall.
Elisa Gabbert is a poet and poetry columnist with the New York Times. Her latest book, Normal Distance, will be out this fall.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of books including How Emotions Are Made.
Tom DeRose is a curator at the Freud Museum in London.
Joshua Cohen is a novelist whose books include Book of Numbers.