Friday, January 09, 2015

Je suis...

Well, hmm, I don't actually feel confident enough in my Googling skills to find an accurate French translation of  'gutless'. Note, first, that I am not posting this in the blog I have under my real name. Second, I am *not actually* going to post the offensive limerick referred to in this story, which was in the original version I took down from a now defunct website in 2002. That is just how gutless I am.



So. This is an unfinished undergraduate sort of story about how ideas can really mess you up, written a little more than twenty years ago. Note the strong Eco-fanboy and Borges-fanboy nature of the thing, and the shameless theft of Marco's name.




Epigraph: It is obvious and manifest that the true meaning of the utterances of the Birds of Eternity is revealed to none except those that manifest the Eternal Being, and the melodies of the Nightingale of Holiness can reach no ear save that of the denizens of the everlasting realm. 

If you ever become friendly with the chief librarian of the University of Ravenna, ask her to show you the ªLiber Cohanumª.  This is a manuscript of the early fifteenth century, just nine pages of crabbed latin and three more of illustrations.  There is only one copy in existence now, but there were once many more; the brief preface to the manuscript states that the Emperor Julian the Apostate caused ninety copies to be translated from the §Kitab-i-Quhan§, an Arabic text that was itself a translation from the tongue of the Sabaeans, inhabitants of the Yemen in the days of King Solomon. 

The existing ªLiber Cohanumª is believed to be a direct copy of one of those first ninety, the only one to survive eleven centuries of fire, war, suspicion and neglect. It was made at a monastery near Toulouse suspected of heretical inclinations and apparently had some part in provoking its final persecution and closure. Because of this, it warrants passing mention in a few books on the varied heresies of Languedoc - none, however, more recent than the Emperor Napoleon.

The ªLiber Cohanumª is not found on any list of the manuscripts held by the University of Ravenna. 

Lutetia Parigi (not her real name) is a happily married woman with very red hair for an italian and a rather ugly circular scar like a piranha bite on her chin. When you first ask to see the ªLiber Cohanumª she will most likely tell you to go to hell. "It's all bullshit, anyway. Go out to dinner instead! You will enjoy it more!" She may suggest that you have read too many Umberto Eco novels, and will imply without ever saying so that you probably don't have enough Latin to decline your way out of a paper bag. 

Go out to dinner this time, but do not be discouraged. Take your spouse, if you are lucky enough to have one, and have a marvellous time. Remember that all the best restaurants in Ravenna are run by communists. There is one on the Via Ricci, near Dante's Tomb, that I can recommend highly - I forget the name; it is at basement level, down a flight of stairs, and specialises in seafood.

The next time you ask Lutetia, take her and Pietro (not his real name) to dinner with you. Allot two small glasses of grappo per person present. When these are empty, bring up the ªLiber Cohanumª again. She cannot show it to you drunk, of course, for that would involve driving to the library, but she may possibly paraphrase portions of it while giggling it to scorn. "If you could take it seriously, you would be very depressed - like reading those german philosophers - but it's a beautiful thing, ha! You really can't take it seriously, no matter how hard you try. The pictures are what clinches it. There's this thing called an Iramahin that looks like a bundle of penises with hooves, or red asparagus tied up in a bundle. Drawn by, by Salvador Dali as a child. Some people find it disturbing at first, but it's really terribly funny. There's one picture that's even better - not in that thing, in a commentary on Ezekiel. The things with four faces and ten wings, and the wheels of eyes. Of course, we have to see all the faces, and all the wings, and it's all coloured in a ghastly bright green that makes it look like a tossed salad. One can't help think some of the illuminators were closet heathens using art to make Christianity look ridiculous."

You will probably nod your head sagely, or giggle, depending on how much of the grappo you actually drank yourself and whether you are a happy drunk or a sad one. 

"Italy is supposed to be the paganest country in Europe. You've probably heard that before."

Pietro will agree solemnly at this point: "It's the essential Etruscan-ness of us all - a thousand years of stolid Romans, building aqueducts and laws - some more thousand years of Graeco-Judaic religion, building cathedrals and laws. We're still Etruscans at heart. The Romans weren't very good pagans, not really."

He will not expand further, except around the waist. (If dessert has not already arrived, the waiter will be telling Pietro how sorry he is, but they have run out of the hazelnut cake and would he care to order something else.) 

By now you will be very curious, if you have any shred of humanity in you at all. If you are not, then by all means get back to your golf or strap on your service revolver and return to the concentration camp. Or find a thick book full of tits and car chases that is described as "fast-paced" and "racy" on the back cover.  Now!  I will not have your grubby little paws on my story another minute.

The third time - the third time you raise the subject to Lutetia you must say how keen you are to see the pictures, and laugh at them. She will say, without looking you in the eye, what a terrible thing it is to presume on a friendship or ply a person with alcohol to maneuver them into doing something they wouldn't dream of while sober. "You're friends with Hafez, aren't you? He's told you all about the ªLiber Cohanumª and how it turns the history of monotheism on its head, or how the crusader Armand of Maine killed himself after hearing a copy read in Syria?  How the nun who read it to him later founded the Sisters of Simon the Leper and was burnt by the King of Jerusalem.  No?  How its lucid mystical imagery is a forerunner of the great works of the Sufis?"

(You see, you are learning a little bit. You must be persistent.)

"Hafez is an arrogant and pretentious 'intellectual' who writes books no-one ever reads. He publishes them out of his own pocket. He is in love with the idea of the Sabaeans, who he sees as the ancestors of his people, coming out with a developed monotheistic philosophy centuries before the Talmud or the Gospels and couched in fantastic and colourful allegory. He is wrong. The ªCohanumª is dull and drab and very poorly written and the university has its own reasons (which I won't go into) for keeping it locked away."

You may protest feebly, apologetically, at this point.

  "I'm sorry," she will say, smiling momentarily. "Perhaps your actions were not premeditated. You must forgive me. Hafez has stirred up so many fools who come and I am very busy. It is all bullshit, you understand, but the manuscript is old, and fragile."

You will say, most likely, that you understand, and that the fire of curiosity lit by the unreadable Hafez has been burning away at your bowels and causing you to act improperly. But you can control that fire; you are grown up, and have controlled headier desires.

Lutetia will sympathise; she takes pity on your plight. "I cannot show you the book itself; it cannot be handled. But if you are so keen to gawk at the pictures I can bring you to my notebook on the ªCohanumª. It has fragments of the translation, together with photographs of the illustrated pages and some supplementary drawings I've made."

You will thank her profusely and she will arrange a rendevous: "Come to the Library, to the third floor. Lunchtime is a good time, just after one o'clock. Turn right at the elevator and go to the door marked "Staff Only". Knock and wait; I will be inside. Then you will see for yourself what a fool this Hafez is."

If your heart beats, it will be beating quickly as you make your way to the library. It is a postwar building of gloomy concrete at the Adriatic end of the campus, far younger than the other university buildings but already seeming far older and dingier. A great hairy mass of vines reaches up around and above the door; a curious anachronism, that such a building should be an ivy-covered hall. 

There are many students on the ground floor, bustling about on commonplace errands; the elevator is straight ahead. You will feel excitement - tension in your stomach, dampness on your palms; you are about to find out what is written in this mysterious document Mrs. Parigi guards so jealously. You will stab at the button for the elevator, eager to penetrate her secret. The elevator does not come, so you stab again and again. You wait.

Perhaps you should try the other elevator, at the east end of the building, past the old card catalogues? A student makes the suggestion helpfully. They have had trouble with this one lately, he says. You are uncertain; you have no instructions for finding your way to Lutetia from the east end of the building. Putting off the decision, you will find it made for you, since the elevator will arrive. You will enter, stab once again at a button in the wall, and ascend. You will go out alone into an empty hall, feeling naked without the comforting ebb and flow of students around you. This is the inner part of the library, not yet the "sanctum sanctorum" but not far removed; you can smell it from here. Many rooms full of books can be seen from the hall, some holding a few students, most empty. They are waiting, you may think as you go by. Books are sitting there like seeds, full of potential, waiting to be picked up by a reader and brought to life.

You float down the corridor; you knock at the door that says "Staff Only". It will open immediately; a white hand will pull at your sleeve. "Come."
The photographs are black and white, and grainy, and the colours fade into one another. It is hard to make out details. But the drawings! The drawings are beautiful, I know, I have seen them. Here is a man with a long beard like St. John on Patmos, carrying two plates. Lutetia has drawn them like star maps, one of each hemisphere. From each comes two tails, like snakes; if they have heads, they are hidden behind the plates, buried in the wrists of the man who looks like St. John. Perhaps that is why his eyes are filled with such agony. Behind him are ruins (which could almost be Patmos), grecian columns and suchlike rising in rank after rank, obelisks and ziggurats and arches and towers - There are two suns in the sky, both discoloured; looking more carefully you should notice that one is really a drawing of a louse, done in a dozen shades of green. The other has a thick pattern of sunspots that look like braille.
 
Surely this next one shows the Ascension? You have never seen one in a forest before- it is a rich and fanciful forest, full of tropical plants and animals existing only in medieval bestiaries, and the christ-figure glows all over in blue and silver. The shadows of the plants are like shadows on the moon, all dark with no trace of light. The figure has one arm raised in blessing; the aureola from its head fills the sky. In one corner, you think you can see the illustrator himself (herself?) squatting under a leaf like a philodendron, about the size of a rat, dressed in grey robes and scribbling with a brush. Such detail Lutetia has put into these pictures!

The Iramahin - or Aramacan, as Lutetia will insist it is called now, is the guardian of the gates of hell. It does look much like a bundle of penises, perhaps eight of them; there are thick things like veins along their sides and nodules or spikes protruding from the foreskins. It would be very painful to have a penis like the ones in the bundle, you think. 

This thing is drawn with eight legs, each drawn like a woman's arm, smooth and fair but red as a lobster. Some end in hooves; others in hands with long curling nails. One of these grips a sinner, dangling her by the hair over a fairly traditional pit of fire. All around, between, behind, above the Aramacan are the damned, writhing predictably as they undergo various torments.

You will be eating lemon gelato, if you are fond of it, later in the day, and walking about without too much sense of purpose. And why not? You have found out about the ªLiber Cohanumª

You probably meet Pietro in the garden; he is smoking but when he sees you he quickly crushes the cigarette underfoot. Amid the concrete planters you no doubt exchange a few pleasantries - you say, for example, there is no need for him to extinguish his cigarette on your account.

Pietro will know you have been to see his wife, and will ask you if you managed to see that Latin manuscript that interested you.

You reply? Yes, no, but you saw some photographs of the illustrations, in black and white only, and read a translation of some pages of text. You confess to being disappointed, if you feel talkative. The pictures were fine, exuberantly creative, reeking of death and the fear of death like so much art of the 14th and 15th centuries - but the text? There are no great mysteries there, no great answers, just turgid prayers and incomprehensible visions. You do not know what you expected; whatever it was, you have not found it.
 
Pietro will be silent for a while, as if he has not heard you. Then he will start to talk about a completely different piece of writing, a pamphlet by a man called Jose Augustin de Gavilan. "A man from Navarre who was interested in moths."

Pietro will ask: "How much do you think we humans are ruled by instinct?"

Not much, you are likely to say.

"Gavilan thinks a moth would say the same thing, if you could ask it. He thinks that from a viewpoint outside of ours we could see ourselves like moths, thinking we choose our own path through the night, flying free. But we only know certain ways to steer, because of the walls of instinct rising high around us, and we are drawn willy-nilly towards the streetlight. Do you follow?"

You may agree or disagree; it will make no difference.

"The pamphlet is all about human beings as moths. We steer by ideas, by convictions. But not all beliefs are possible or imaginable by instinct bound creatures; there are only certain points in "idea space" where we can see them - these are lights. When we see them, we steer by them, we follow them. Some are like the moon, they are true guides. Some are false guides, like streetlights, and will make us go in circles forever. And some are like those blue and white lights in cages that mosquitoes fly into and die."

Pietro will grin rather broadly, reach into his jacket, and pull out - a cigarette, I think. He will light it but not raise it to his lips. "You did not see the manuscript you wanted to see. She has a notebook like that for the curious; we wrote it together."

Why? How can you help yourself from asking? 

"Aha! She asked me to, and mutual help is one of the joys and duties of marriage."

You will not be satisfied with this.

Pietro will shrug; he is the kind of person who does so almost automatically when confronted with questions about motive. "Gavilan thought it was all to do with moths. The pictures, did you see the pictures? She drew those all herself, aren't they magnificent? I had nothing to do with those - I couldn't draw an apple you could tell from an orange."

Your next question will almost certainly address another problem of motive; why is Pietro telling you these things? Surely you would have just forgotten about the ªLiber Cohanumª if he had said nothing? Or is he merely joking?

Pietro will shrug again. You may get the feeling that he really does have no motive for doing what he does. Perhaps he is some kind of blind force for randomness in the world, an anarchist, a pagan, in love with the sparkly lights of the bombs and the dizzy dances of the Bacchanal. 

"Anyway," Pietro will say, starting to smoke again. "That is not why I was waiting here. Lutetia and I much enjoyed our dinner together; would you care to eat again?" He will invite you (and your spouse, if you are lucky enough to have one) out to dinner at the same restaurant - you will accept, although it is difficult not to think of Mr. and Mrs. Parigi as a very strange couple after today.

Pietro was probably joking, after all. You will be almost certain of this.

Perhaps it is Bologna, and not Ravenna, where the best restaurants are owned by communists. While on your way back from the library, perhaps on a toilet wall in the university, you will have found a limerick deeply offensive to Muslims. It will work its way into your head, repeating itself over and over again for perhaps an hour before being forgotten. 

You will think, as you exit the same building with the limerick, that you hear a girl's voice say "Hafez", in a loud voice somewhere behind you, but when you turn around there will be no-one there. It is the distraction of the limerick running through your head that will keep you from being sure you heard the voice say "Hafez".

Dinner again: the fourth time. A more delicate matter, for after all you will already have been, after a fashion, shown the Liber Cohanum. Pietro talks volubly about butterflies (he is a collector of them), and orders the hazelnut cake again. Lutetia is quiet and drinks too much red wine. She sits with her hand to her chin, to hide the scar.      

Looking at them, you may find yourself ready to abandon the search for the Liber Cohanum; after all, you have only the word of a rather unreliable source that it is even worth looking at, and you will have undergone quite a few trials at the hands of this couple you suspect of having some fun at your expense. You have wasted some time, but no money as this dinner should pay you back for the first one. Will you be tempted? Will you give up hunting for the mysterious Liber Cohanum? [1]

It is likely that you will not - you are a tenacious and inquisitive person, or will be. When the dessert things have been cleared away, and you are drinking coffee - sweet and strong in little cups, or else what they call in Italy "american coffee" or "water coffee" - Lutetia will speak.

"Pietro has been telling you about that cursed Spaniard Gavilan and his moths?" It is a question, not a statement. Your face will give you away.

"I thought as much. You fool!" She will turn and scowl at Pietro, but Pietro will pull faces and she will not be able to keep it up long. "Let me tell you about another kind of light, which he never mentions. If you go to southeast asia you will see lights outside, on verandahs and suchlike. Around these there are seething crowds of insects of all kinds - moths, beetles, tiny gnat things too small to see properly - but that is not all. There are also geckoes, little lizards with pink skin like babies, moving around on the wall or the ceiling, gobble gobble munch crunch. There are spiders, with webs built close in around the light to catch the unwary."

"You see-" she leans forward across the table, and you will smell the wine on her breath. "There are ideas out there that are watched. By Watchers. They use them to lure people in, and when they do, it is gobble gobble munch crunch."   

Perhaps you will have an idea of what she means, perhaps you will not. In either case you are likely to ask her to explain further. This may be a good time to approach the subject of the Liber Cohanum; does it have anything to do with those watched ideas, you may ask. 

"Pietro thinks so. I do not. There lies the problem. Pietro, though I love him, is morally defective in certain respects. He does things to other people that are not in their best interest, to see what will happen. It is a source of great amusement to him. He has to be watched all the time."

Pietro will lean back in his chair, grinning broadly. Spreading his hands in resignation, he will turn to you. "A great exaggeration."

"Not a great one, Pietro."

"How can we approach these ideas? How can we even know where they are? Is there any way that we can grasp them without being destroyed?"

"We can observe other people being destroyed."

Do you enter? What do you find there? What do you learn there? You must tell me. Tell me if you can.   



[1] If you are, you may go straight to the end, where you will find the limerick deeply offensive to Muslims. If you are ever questioned about it, be sure to say that you read it in a university toilet in Ravenna. [Author's note: But as of 2002, you won't. It's been redacted by the gutless author.]

1 comment:

Marco Parigi said...

To make a dumb analogy, you don't need to outrun a tiger to avoid being eaten: you just have to outrun the slowest of those trying to escape its clutches. Thus equally, we are not in danger of being targeted if there are more brazen distributors of stuff that may be offensive to Muslims. I guess I don't want to be defined by the sorts of things I would be tempted to joke about that may offend.
The real action is in the scientific realm, and I would much rather be defined by the crazy stuff that say in that regards.