Variations and Broken Vessels: Žižek, Benjamin and the Kabbalah

I love variations. Why make one artwork when seventeen will do?

Kidding aside, a large group of variations can be a challenge for an observer to consume, but it’s an interesting way to get at the heart of a creative concept.

What makes variations so interesting? Why have our greatest cultural minds pursued them with such vigor, from Handel to Brahms, Monet to Warhol?

I’m reminded me of the Black Box game. Imagine a set of invisible atoms hiding in a 2-D grid (like a chess board). You guess where the atoms are by shooting rays into the box, and observing the deflections or absorptions of those rays[1].

One can imagine the artist’s mind as a black box, full of ideas bouncing around, some flowering energetically, some gestating deliberately, ready to be interrogated by the artist, possibly resulting in one or more artworks, as investigative results leave the artist’s body. With each new artwork created,an increasingly broad idea emerges of what the amorphous original motive may have been.

Walter Benjamin had a similar thought, more elegantly expressed, buried deep in his seminal 1923 essay The Task of the Translator.Benjamin’s formulation is built upon what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the “Lurianic notion of the broken vessel”[2].

Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.

“Fragments of a broken vessel” is a metaphor from the Kabbalah. This 16th-century document describes God’s creation of the world by sending creative energy (rays!) into the universe, and capturing it in vessels, many of which shattered as a result. The fragments of these broken vessels were expelled into the universe, yet retaining sparks of the divine message imprinted into it. Our earthy job is to support the conditions under which those vessels may be made whole[3].

Benjamin applies this metaphor (loosely) to the art of translation. He is saying that the idea behind a text is like a vessel, of which the original text and its translation(s) are fragments, like puzzle pieces. This is not quite what the Kabbalah says, but I find it an powerful use of that mystical image.

In Benjamin’s analysis, the first instantiation of the author’s idea is that author’s original text. Like the scattering pattern of the energy beams in the black box game, a piece of writing is the tangible representation of the inchoate idea otherwise locked, non-verbally, in the mind of the author.

Benjamin’s insight is that the task of translator is not merely to transcribe the original text, but to dig deeper and transcribe that text’s internal meaning. The original text has already already undertaken “the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed”, by which he means that the original author has already told you what information the text should contain.

He also accounts for aesthetics: the “essential substance of a literary work [is] what it contains in addition to information … the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic’.” (One does not translate Ann Carson as one might translate Thomas Bernhard.)

But here the translator must take one more step, and devise a translation that will help build the original vessel as it must have been imagined in the mind of the original author[4].

Žižek takes the metaphor further, and posits that variations are also like fragments of a broken vessel. Assembling them into a whole can give a broader, perhaps deeper sense, of the shape of the original idea. He mentions for example Zachary’s Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey (reviewed by The Guardian as “44 concise variations on Odysseus' story”).

Which brings me to my practice. Visitors to my studio have used words like patience, concentration, and obsession to describe their conception of my state of mind when I produced what they see hanging on my walls and cluttering my floors. They are inspired in part, no doubt, by the repetitive pattern-making, the exploration of the same motives in multiple colors and variants, and the overall sense that I portray everything with great intensity. A simple glance at my catalog will give an immediate sense of this.

Unfortunately these words miss the point. (Putting aside the absurdity of calling me “patient”.) I prefer to think of myself as motivated and curious, but more importantly, I use variation and repetition as my means of getting to the heart of an idea, sometimes methodically, often elliptically.

Whether you consider them puzzle pieces, fragments of a broken whole, diffraction patterns from atomic collisions, or unique facets of a multi-dimensional crystal, variations are a useful means of bringing a complex idea to fruition, in a deeper and broader way than trying to convey it in one artwork. It may require more effort on the part of the observer to absorb the cloud of information produced by the artist, but hopefully the net effect is a more profound connection to that artist’s original motivation than otherwise.

August 2021


[1] Rays travel horizontally or vertically. If a ray hits an atom straight-on, it gets absorbed and disappears. If it glances just beside an atom, it bounces at ninety degrees and exits the box. If it doesn’t hit anything, it exits directly opposite its point of entry. Firing more rays creates an increasingly solid sense of where the atoms are.

[2]Taken from a lecture entitled The Hegelian Wound (2014,just before the 30-minute mark; I believe his material here is taken from essays in his book Absolute Recoil).Žižek’s broader topic—conducted in the adorably infuriating, wide-ranging, brilliant, over-the-top, politically-incorrect, discursive style we all know and love—is the Hegelian notion that a means of injury is its own cure. I don’t have enough Hegel to understand his point fully, but the idea seemingly owes as much to Wagner, specifically a concept from the opera Parsifal: “The wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it.” Žižek’s point is that a psychic injury, such as inflicted upon a traditional culture by a colonial power, cannot be healed by retreating to some now-gone mythical past, before the wound was delivered, but must use the disruption of the wound to forge ahead and create a new and better existence than was before.

[3] Benjamin does not reference the Kabbalah directly. Hannah Arendt would make explicit the connection to the “Cabala” some decades later, but the language of fragments and broken vessels leaves no doubt of his inspiration. Žižek’s adjective “Lurianic” refers to Isaac Luria, the 16th-century Jewish mystic and influential scholar who revised and extended the teachings of the Kabbalah in a complex series of narratives and beliefs which would profoundly affect and extend the teaching of these ancient esoteric texts.

[4] As Žižek puts it: “The original itself is already the fragment of a broken vessel, so the goal of the translation is not to achieve fidelity to the original, but to supplement the original, to treat the original as a broken fragment, and to produce another fragment which again will not imitate the original but will fit it as a fragment of a broken whole may fit another.” [Emphasis added.] And then his knock-out: “A good translation retroactively devalues the original, makes you aware of how, already, the original is a fragment.” [Emphasis added.] What a provocative and thought-provoking insight.