I work in the Main Stacks of the library here at U.C. Berkeley. It's a student job. I don't have many responsibilities; I am basically a drone. But I'm a hard-working drone. I seldom get distracted by the books that I have to shelve, sort, and re-adjust on their shelves. Last Saturday, however, I couldn't resist picking up a compilation of articles celebrating the 135th anniversary of the Argentine newspaper, La Nacion. When I was a bored and dissipated seminarian, I used to read this newspaper. I especially enjoyed its cultural section with art and music reviews. (Why else read the paper?) In this particular volume, however, I found a gem by one of my favorite authors of all time: Jorge Luis Borges.
The title of the short article is "The Cult of the Book". ("Culto" in Spanish poses many difficulties for a translator: it can mean anything from religious practice to learning in general.) In the brief reflection, he analyzes the history of written discourse in his characteristically erudite manner, starting from the ancient Greeks and jumping all the way up to Mallarme in a few short paragraphs. He points out how in the beginning there was a reluctance of the ancients to write anything down, quoting most significantly St. Clement of Alexandria who said that writing everything down in a book posed the same dangers as leaving a sword in the hands of a child. For many of the ancients, oral tradition was preferred because it was considered safe and living as opposed to partially passing on knowledge in written form.
Borges then rather oddly states that the tide turned in Western thought when St. Augustine attributed to St. Ambrose in the Confessions the ability to read without moving his lips, disconnecting the written word from oral pronunciation. The Argentine then proceeds to analyze the metaphysical concepts of the written word in Islam and rabbinic Judaism. In the former, the Koran is not just deemed a message of God but an attribute of God Himself. This is seen in another text by Borges, a fictional story about Averroes in which Muslim scholars in Spain debate the uncreated nature of Allah's Book. In latter rabbinic writings, God is said to create the universe from the numbers one through ten and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Borges writes:
That numbers are the instruments of creation is a dogma of Pythagoras and Iamblichus; the idea that letters are these instruments is a clear indication of the new religion of the letter.
He then goes on to quote Leon Bloy in a very significant passage:
History is an immense liturgical text, where commas and periods are no less important than verses and whole chapters, but the significance of them all is something undetermined and profoundly hidden.
Borges ends his piece echoing Bloy:
We are the verses or words or letters of a magical book, and that never-ending book is the only thing that there is in the world: it is, rather, the world itself.
There are many things I regret about history. I regret that Latin crusaders sacked Constantinople and gave the Byzantine empire a fatal blow. I regret that St. Bonaventure destroyed his version of the Office of Corpus Christi without letting anyone see it. And I regret that such figures as Iamblichus and Borges did not convert to Christianity. In the twentieth century, there were great luminaries of Christian theology, but certainly not enough. Imagine someone of Borges' depth of learning and imagination writing for the cause of Christ? Alas, it was not meant to be: Borges was a staunch agnostic and enemy of the Church. He was, however, one of the most acute minds of the literary world and an embodiment of culture in its highest form.
The day he wrote the above, however, he was probably having a severe lapse of memory. For he forgot the most significant passage in all of Western literature concerning books, or rather the Book that is all things:
And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon. And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
-Revelation, Ch. 5
It is hoped that Borges will stand corrected on that day when he comes face to face with the Lamb of God, the ultimate Writer and Reader of all that is.