Hermeticism and its discontents

Apikoros Sleuth

By X. I. Selene

A review of Apikoros Sleuth by Robert Majzels

Published on April 1, 2005

Apikoros Sleuth
Robert Majzels

The Mercury Press
$19.95
paper
144pp
1-55128-105-8

At the heart of Apikoros Sleuth is the question “Why the book?” The current hybrid reading environment – in which text, often publicistic, placards métro walls, chips shadows onto glowing computer screens, ornaments cereal boxes, and splashes up on television sets – traumatises, if not imperils, the printed book and magazine. Certain authors, such as Robert Majzels, who has here composed his pages to resemble those of the Talmud, respond to this situation by taking the reader back to the primal scene of the book, where reading is ritual and where eyes, of their own magical accord, unlock terrible knowledge.

At the same time, Apikoros Sleuth reflects current hypertextual practice, in which the author conceives of the text in its integrity, often taking responsibility for its visual and typographical aspects. This is not so contradictory, for, as Christian Vandendorpe has pointed out, “annotated editions of the Bible or the Talmud demonstrate a hypertextual aesthetic avant la lettre.” In this case, author and design artist Majzels collaborates with editor Jim Roberts and typesetters Nigel Allen, Isabel Preto, and Martina Weigl to produce an ingenious, affordable, manipulable reading machine that hugely advances book art. According to a note, the author “sometimes changed words or phrases to fit the measure.” Thus, the forme informs the form. The glosses and apparatus criticus framing each “main text” of Apikoros Sleuth liberate the novel from its immersive, linear character, thus permitting the development of diverse reading strategies. Apikoros Sleuth asks the reader to assemble a text where “All is not assemblable” (Lévinas). The ever-changing page composition invites reading of another order, responding to the reader who strives “To read what was never written.”

By composing not only the contents but also the container, Robert Majzels is also able to level an impressive hermeneutic critique of hermeticism. In the beginning of Apkioros Sleuth appears the hand marked with encoded names of God, which at first seems to be raised in warning, signifying “Stop! This book is only for the initiates of the Kabbala!” However, despite the hand, despite the texts in Chinese, Hebrew, French, and Aramaic, despite the letterpress faded in places, despite the mad riot of overlapping texts, despite the bloodstains, despite the oblique style and pages of Kabbalistic code, despite all this, reading is possible. Reading is its own initiation. If one is to believe Pierre Bourdieu, “when we look at texts no longer only as texts, we find that they always give us some clue as to how to use them.” On the other hand, Majzels’ punning wordplay and perverse, hilarious mystification of the trivial deflate the authority of religious laws, encouraging readers to ignore all authorial clues as to the use of texts. Furthermore the fact that an identical sentence may be found in the main text, in the glosses, and in the footnotes reinforces this central idea of Apikoros Sleuth: all is interpretation, all is open to interpretation. At a certain point, the forbidding hand flips over and offers itself in a friendly greeting: a hospitable gesture on the part of the author.

It should also be noted that Apikoros Sleuth is a mystery novel, which is not as unlikely as the back cover blurb suggests. Ernst Bloch has linked the un-narrated crime of the detective novel to original sin: “the beginning in the Cabala resembles a type of dark, primeval Egypt that has repercussions in the world as exile, a world that demands Exodus in order to break out and dissolve the beginning. […] Evil ante rem – precisely this represents the confluence of the detective form and what is certainly the most eccentric metaphysics.”

The real mystery, however, is why cover designer Gordon Robertson pasted ugly black and red horizontal bars across the face of Apikoros Sleuth. The cover image, a grid of perfectly square, multi-coloured windows, rather cleverly recalls the pages of Kabbalistic code inside. However, Robertson’s black and red banners, senselessly glued over the neat little windows, correspond to absolutely nothing in Majzels’ cache of correspondences. In the new literature, the poet supersedes the graphic artist. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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