Book Review: Agamben, The Fire and the Tale

AGAMBEN, GIORGIO. The Fire and the Tale. Lorenzo Chiesa (trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017; 144 pp.; $24.99 (paper).

Giorgio Agamben’s book appeared originally in Italian in 2014. In it, Agamben brings together 10 essays that illustrate what drives his current research: the mystery of literature, of reading and writing, and of language. The book is also enriched by analysis in the areas of religion and mysticism.

The first essay, “The Fire and the Tale,” sets the context and the background of the book. According to Agamben, literature points back to an initial mystical experience. Agamben retells the story of Baal Schem, the founder of Hasidism. When Baal Schem had a difficult task, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire, and meditate in prayer. A generation later, when the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go to the same place in the woods, pray, but could not light the fire. When another generation had passed, and Rabbi Moshe Leib faced the same task, he would go to the woods, but could not light a fire, nor say the prayers, as the secret meditation had been forgotten. But the practice was still thought to be sufficient. When yet another generation had passed, and Rabbi Israel faced the same task, the location in the woods had been forgotten, and he could neither light the fire nor say the prayers. Yet, that they could tell the story of all this was still thought to be sufficient (1-2).

According to Agamben, the story is an allegory of literature. In the course of history, humanity has moved further and further away from the sources of mystery and has lost memory of what tradition has taught us about the place, the fire, and the prayer. Yet, it is thought that it is sufficient that we can still tell the story. We have forgotten the fire, but at the same time, the stories strive, at all costs, to rediscover it. Can this be sufficient? Agamben questions whether we can be satisfied with a tale that no longer relates to its origins. Secularization, in the name of progress, has resulted in the liberation of the tale from its mythical sources, and now we have an establishment of literature that is autonomous and adult (2). Yet, it is enigmatic how this can still be sufficient, since it is not credible that we can be satisfied with such a tale. Even ordinary, everyday life, as he argues in the essay “Mysterium Burocraticum,” has entirely lost its mystery, which is exemplified, in a sinister way, in the figure of Eichmann.

The mysterious is an essential element of every true novel. And this is what makes every novel both fragile and adventurous at the same time. If a novel consumes itself in a host of private facts, then “the form of the novel is lost together with the memory of the fire” (4). And this is, according to Agamben, what more often happens today. If literature wishes to preserve the right relation with the mystery, it becomes adventurous and precarious (7). Language, however, separates the tale from the fire, so that it is literary genres that reflect the oblivion of the mystery: “tragedy and elegy, hymn and comedy are nothing other than the ways in which language cries for its lost relation to the fire” (7). Language is not a neutral instrument, according to Agamben; it always calls for the formula and the place. The story exposes the mystery, and in mystery there is no story yet told: the presence of one is the proof of the absence of the other, bearing witness to its absence. Thus, every writer faces an impossible task, which, as Dante described in his Paradise, makes the hand of the artist tremble. The work of the artist is to expose the mystery, but once it is accomplished, there is no longer a mystery. The mystery is in a way revealed only to enclose it in a story.

In the essay titled “Parable and Kingdom,” Agamben suggests that the parable is the perfection and the secret model of all narrative, for the parable contains in itself the story and the mystery. Jesus often spoke in parables—he made a habit of it—to the point that the French and Italian languages express the act of speaking as parler and parlare. In the parables, Christ establishes that there is a similarity between the Kingdom and something that is here and now on earth. Even though it discloses the mystery, the parable is cyphered so as to prevent those who should not understand it from understanding it. In the parable, the story reveals the mystery without destroying it.

In the concluding essay, “Opus Alchymicum,” Agamben reminds us of the philosopher’s stone. In a similar fashion, writers, with the passion of alchemists, struggle to forge their works in their word furnaces, as every act of creation tenaciously resists creation, thereby giving each work its strength and grace. Agamben offers an interesting reflection on the paradoxical relationship between the artist and the artwork, and on the complex dynamics of potentiality, actuality, and inoperability that are always at work in artistic practice and its products.

To conclude, let me say that, even though the book is not in itself an important contribution to Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, it nonetheless casts an interesting light on his overall project, and is a very thoughtful and enjoyable book to read. Agamben also offers a valuable piece of advice: stop looking at best-seller charts, and instead find those books that demand to be read, as they contain within themselves a capacity for further development. This allows readers, being unable to distinguish between what is theirs and what belongs to the author, to be filled with joy (34).


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