The House of Wisdom

March 24, 2011

This post is the fifth of seven posts about the future. Caveat lector.

All art is a process of transmission: a passing of messages between minds and generations. As the Ethiopians carried the Ark away down the Nile, as the Arabs cared for Greek learning for five hundred years, so our current work is not one of production ex nihilo, but one of cultural protection, preservation and transmission.

The middle ages lasted from the 5th to the 15th century (“medieval” was not coined until the 15th—the periods historians tell us we are living through are rarely apparent to us). What happened in this interlude has become known as the transmission of the classics.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge of Greek literature and thought declined in the West, where interest was primarily in religious documents. Non-Christian texts were scraped clean and their materials recycled; those papyri not copied over to parchment decayed and became dust.

It was the expansion of the Caliphate, and particularly the growth in power of the Persian-originated Abbassids that saw the Hellenistic knowledge taken up by Arab scribes and scholars. In the House of Wisdom in Baghdad from the 9th to the 13th centuries, thousands of Greek texts were translated; first technical and medical works, and later philosophy. In turn, the commentaries on these texts by figures such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina fuelled a rationalistic revolution in the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, not only the texts, but the very ideas they carried—pagan ideas—were lost to Europe for centuries. If they returned, they did so as foreign conquerors, in the libraries and hospitals of al-Andalus. Only in the 12th Century, following a tentative beginning in Spain, did the second wave of translation begin, as the monks of Monte Cassino and the scholars of Toledo, and figures such as William of Moerbeke and Gerard of Cremona, began to make available the ancient knowledge, philosophy and drama of the Arabs, Jews and Greeks to a literate Western Latin readership.

Sometimes the gate through which such knowledge passes is very narrow indeed. Take Euripides, who wrote around ninety plays in ancient Athens, of which eighteen have come down to us. Unlike Aeschylus and Sophocles, whose seven best works survived in numerous editions due to their quality, what we have of Euripides is a semi-arbitrary collection of works which derive from a single archetype of the 9th or 10th century, copied some time in the 11th century to produce the manuscripts called L and P. The eight plays in P survive only by virtue of their titles: P is the the E-K section of a larger, alphabetical collection.

This is one form of transmission: geographical and lexical, across languages and borders, through time and space. The other is the kind of transmission that happens in a little room, as the text itself is transposed. In the mediaeval world, this took place in the scriptoria of the great monasteries—rarely a dedicated room in itself, as was once believed, but an ad hoc space where the work could be carried out. Copying manuscripts was hard work, but it was good work; doing good and receiving its just rewards.

We may be interested in how it transformed the scribes themselves, the people doing the transmitting. Johannes Trithemius, the great cryptographer and Abbot of Sponheim, wrote De Laude Scriptorum (In Praise of Scribes) to list the virtues both of the people and their practice:

“The dedicated scribe, the object of our treatise, will never fail to praise God, give pleasure to angels, strengthen the just, convert sinners, commend the humble, confirm the good, confound the proud and rebuke the stubborn… [This scribe,] while he is writing on good subjects, is by the very act of writing introduced in a certain measure into the knowledge of the mysteries and greatly illuminated in his innermost soul; for those things which we write we more firmly impress upon the mind… While he is ruminating on the Scriptures he is frequently inflamed by them.”

Trithemius believed it was necessary to continue to copy manuscripts by hand, even in the age of the printing press, because of historical precedent, because of the spiritual action of transcription, because of the fragility of printed books (“The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear. But the scribe working with parchment ensures lasting remembrance for himself and for his text”). In this way, the monks of the Middle Ages came to intimately know and experience the texts that they copied. The act of transcription became an act of meditation and prayer, not a simple replication of letters.

In Fahrenheit 451 the books are being eliminated by a totalitarian society, because they “make people unhappy”. And so people learn the books, in order to preserve them:

“[The Book People] are books. Each one, men and women. Everyone commits a book they’ve chosen to memory and they become the books. Of course sometimes one gets arrested. That’s why they live so secretly. Because the secret they carry is the most precious secret in the world. Without them, all human knowledge would pass away.”

With reference to the previous post in this series it is worth noting that in Soylent Green, the character of Sol, played by the masterful Edward G Robinson is also “a book”: both a scribe and a researcher, a repository of knowledge.

Another Borges story: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard is one of those faux-biographies that Borges and many South American authors are so fond of (cf Bolaño’s superlative Nazi Literature in the Americas). Menard’s singular achievement is to produce an invisible work:

I turn now to his other work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless. And—such are the capacities of man!—the unfinished. This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two. I know such an affirmation seems an absurdity; to justify this “absurdity” is the primordial object of this note.

Menard composes not “another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself.” A word-for-word re-rendering of the text: a perfect identification with the original author which produces an entirely new work: because, of course, it means something radically different. For a former soldier to write the Quixote in Seventeenth century Spain is one thing; for Menard, a Twentieth century Frenchman, to do so is a radically different conception.

In the scriptoria of Google’s scanning labs and the digitisation houses of Alexandria and Noida, in Bangalore and Manila, the Pierre Menards of the Twenty-First Century are working now. Our literature goes out from us and returns again, subtly changed and reenergised.

Every time we engage with culture, we change it. Copying is an act of creation—recreation is creation because it arouses the spirit of the original in a new time, giving it new meaning. The work of the House of Wisdom continues today, every day, and the process of transmission, transliteration, transmutation and retransmission that once took five hundred years now happens in the blink of an eye.

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