The image one finds on the main page of the Textual Reasoning web site plays with signs whose significance is not immediately evident. The image itself is not the same for all viewers. The capacity of webbrowser and monitor determines what one sees. When loading the web site and viewing it on a particularly small monitor, for example, the first recognizable image to appear is the shin on the right upper corner. Even this marginal element of the composition can be recognized for what it is only if one is familiar with the Hebrew alphabet. Someone equipped with a large monitor and familiar with the Hebrew alphabet immediately recognizes the large bet in the middle, accompanied by three smaller letters shin on the right.
The composition combines the second and twentyfirst letters of the Hebrew alphabet (bet, shin) with a masoretic vowel sign (kamats) under the image of a vessel. The vowel sign is not unambiguous. Its pronounciation depends on the tradition one follows, making it either an 'ah,' as in the British word 'after,' or an 'oh,' as in the word 'four.' One is reminded of the dictum by which Hillel the Elder defended the necessity of an oral tradition: were it not for the mediation of an oral tradition we would not even know what the letters of the written tradition mean, what they stand for, etc.
Finding the vowel sign under the image of a vessel instead of under a letter is an iconic irritant, reminding the observer of the fact that the Phoenician alphabet from which Hebrew script derives replaced iconic forms of denoting things and sounds. This shift from iconic to un-iconic systems of writing can be read as a meaningful gloss on the un-iconic worship of the ancient Hebrews. In Hebrew, the letters are deprived of their original cosmomorphic connotations (alef used to be the image of the head of a horned animal, bet a house, gimel a camel, etc.), making them the perfect tool for the self-disclosure of God whose being is becoming, where God is different from anything that is. Thus, the system of writing contributes to making the language sacred that records the self-disclosure of the divine.
The most prominent part of the image, the letter bet, is also the letter with which the Torah begins. The rabbis tell stories about the beginning which, quite natural to their universe of discourse, is a beginning with signs and letters. The Hebrew letters all competed for the privilege of First Letter of the Torah and, with it, First Speech of creation. The natural world and the world of letters are one in this tradition. Or, one might say, a world which is beyond speech and letters (speech and letters, that is, in all their ambiguity to us and their utter clarity in God's mind) is "void and empty" (tohu vavohu), chaotic and destructive, as the remnants of Canaanite myths in the Bible testify. Chaos is conquered by the speech of God. A linguo-morphic cosmogony.
The rough lettering used in the composition is a gloss on the pursuit of Textual Reasoning: tentative, inconclusive, almost naive, sketchy, drawn not in a once-and-for-all stroke but mulled over, repeated, never quite exact, yet not without a purpose; inviting to do better next time. Hence, perhaps also the letters shin and bet which spell "shav," the prophetic word for the "one who returns."
Miriam Shenitzer (b. 1962) is a printmaker trained at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. Her sketches for Textual Reasoning are an homage to Zohar, a friend and fellow artist, who once made a print that contained some of the elements used here.
Ms. Shenitzer's work includes a cycle on the Vita Adam et Evae, and prints based on Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale/New York produced Miriam's first pop-up book for adults, titled How to talk about Art, featuring a rat who becomes gradually acquainted with art-speak. The book was featured in the 17th Drawing Show of the Boston Center for the Arts (Dec. 2001-Feb. 2002) at the Mills Gallery in Boston.
Illustrations by Miriam Shenitzer have appeared in the Boston Book Review, The New Yorker Magazine, The New York Times, Harvard Magazine, the Harvard Law Bulletin, Threads, and elsewhere.
For more information, see www.miriamshenitzer.com or go HERE.
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