The Tears of Isaac: Cultures of Language, Languages of Culture

Alberto Manguel

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c58b9af

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.

The Tears of Isaac: Cultures of Language, Languages of Culture

Alberto Manguel

National Library of Argentina, Buenos Aires

Several decades ago, I found myself in the Tassili region of the Algerian desert, close to the oasis of Djanet. I had gone there to visit the prehistoric caves painted with images of animals and humans: giraffes and bison, crocodiles and rhinoceros, a single agonizing antelope, hunters and dancers, and strange anthropomorphic figures with the heads of one-eyed Cyclops. They had been painted some nine or ten thousand years ago, when the Sahara was still green.

Fig. 1. Mysterious lives, carved onto the cave walls of Tin-Taghirt, in the Tassili n’Ajjer — the Plateau of Rivers

It is impossible to look upon these images and not see in them tales of adventure, depictions of mysterious rites, pictures of a social life of which we know nothing except that which these memorable snippets grant us, and which we, by imaginative means, translate into our scarce personal experience. What can we possibly know, from the distance of the twenty-first century, of the labours, fear and courage of those remote and talented elders? These human figures, small and large: are they parents instructing their young in the arts of hunting, in shamanic dancing, in the social codes of the tribe to which they belong? Are they teaching these ancient children the names the things of the world they are beginning to discover, of plants and stars, birds and beasts? Perhaps in these primordial scenes lie the seeds of the magical episode told in the Book of Genesis, in which God, like a pedagogically-minded parent, takes young Adam to meet the creatures recently brought to life to see what he would call them, "and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” Perhaps these first rituals were rituals of the word.

Accurately or not, there is something that we rescue, a story that we reconstruct based on these iconographic alms granted us by the Tassili walls. Driven by the narrative impulse that defines our species, and by the imaginative urge to understand our world, a certain truth (that isn’t entirely false) is born from our reading of what certainly is a system of signs whose grammar we have forgotten.

Fig. 2. Very little about the Tărtăria tablets, found in Romania in 1961, is certain. They perhaps date from c.5300 BC. The inscriptions may be narrative and pictorial, or symbolic and linguistic.

The culture of language is a much more recent invention. In both Greece and Romania, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, archaeologists uncovered a number of fragments of pottery and a few medals or amulets dating from the sixth millennium B.C.E., with inscriptions that have not yet been deciphered. One of these inscriptions looks like a capital D, and others are like small crosses and parallel lines crossed by diagonal strokes. If these inscriptions are supposed to mean something, then these ancient bits and pieces are the earliest examples we have of written language: not of a full syntactic system but merely of a few isolated signs, a sort of first intuition of the magic act still to come.

The elaboration of a complete and coherent system of writing took place a couple of millennia later, somewhere in Mesopotamia. In the fourth millennium B.C.E., an inspired merchant was looking for a way of documenting a commercial transaction. Two clay tablets preserved until a few years ago at the Archeological Museum of Baghdad, each no bigger than the palm of a child’s hand, carry the engraved depiction of an animal — a goat or sheep — as well as a small indentation made with the tip of the index finger that, historians guess, represents the number ten. With these tablets, the ancient merchant could be assured that anyone who knew the meaning of these signs, whether living far or near, at any moment present or future, could be a witness to the purchase (or sale) of ten goats (or ten sheep). The importance of this action is beyond measure. With these few discreet signs, this anonymous genius did away once and for all with the two greatest obstacles which every human being must face — time and space — and bequeathed us, the fortunate descendants, an almost limitless extension of the power of memory. The invention of writing granted us a sort of modest immortality.

Fig. 3. The Runic cryptogram in the ancient book which leads Axel and Professor Lidenbrock to Mt. Snaefells: Jules Verne, Voyage au centre de la Terre (1864-67)

That is what I myself felt, in a small way, far away and long ago, on the summer afternoon (this is only one example among thousands) when I descended with young Axel from Hamburg, through the mouth of the Snaefells volcano, deep into the centre of the Earth. There I was, with Jules Verne’s book in hand, accompanying the fearless adventurers to the far shore of the world, in a century that was not my own. Thanks to the story, I could strip myself of my conventional identity, of the name my parents had given me, of the date and place of birth stipulated in my passport, of every barrier except that which my timidity imposed on my curiosity. I knew intuitively that the thing that drove me was not a physical need like eating and breathing but something for I didn’t have a name and which I now realize was that which we call desire: desire for that which had not yet happened, for that which lay beyond the horizon. Throughout the following years, this desire was to become an essential part of myself. Reading offered me the place of a privileged spectator, from which I could view the kingdom of this world and of every other world imaginable, more intimately and convincingly than by observing reality itself. When decades later I travelled to Iceland and found myself at the foot of Mt. Snaefells, in spite of the majestic beauty of the volcano, I felt somewhat disappointed.

Fig. 4. The real Snæfellsjökull: everything one could ask, except that it is not a gateway into another kingdom

Throughout an adolescence that seems to me now to have lasted a lifetime, I began to understand that the characters in my books were like kaleidoscopic fragments of the changing person I met every morning in the mirror. The uncomfortable variations of size of the people encountered by Captain Gulliver, the abominable insect in whom poor Gregor has to recognize himself, Kim’s name that Kim must repeat in order not to forget who he is during the dark ceremony of initiation, the identity Odysseus chooses for himself when he tells the Cyclops that his name is Nobody — these creatures and many more called out to me from the pages of my books. I felt that Alice, lost in the rabbit-hole into which she had fallen, echoed my existential anguish. Thinking that she might not be herself but someone else, silly Mabel for instance, she says to herself: “If I'm Mabel, I'll stay down here! It'll be no use their putting their heads down and saying "Come up again, dear!" I shall only look up and say "Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I'll come up: if not, I'll stay down here till I'm somebody else." Like Alice, I didn’t want to be Mabel. And my books gave me the generous possibility to be whoever else I wanted to be.

Fig. 5. Fray Luis de Granada, drawn by Francisco Pacheco in 1599

Fray Luis de Granada, taking up a metaphor already commonplace in the sixteenth century, describes the world as a book written by God and “offered to all nations,” and scolds us for acting “like children who, when a volume is set in front of them with a few illuminated letters of gold, delight in looking at them and playing with them, and do not read what they say nor take into account what they mean.” The ancient metaphor folds over itself: books are worlds of paper and ink (or digital) in which we should be able to read our material reality. Unlike the book of God that, as Fray Luis warns us, contains a narrative too complex for our childish understanding, human books (that with becoming modesty don’t aspire to contain the entire story of the universe but merely partial intuitions) offer us nevertheless a vast catalogue of identities among which we may be able to recognize our own.

This conviction guides me through my libraries. Page after page, volume after volume, consciously or not, I’m looking for that fluid person that, like the god Proteus, changes mind and body year after year and hour after hour. Magically, haphazardly I find this person in hundreds of my books. In the chapter before last of Eugene Onegin, the enamoured Tatiana visits the country house of the hero, absent since his duel with Lensky. Tatiana wanders through the library of her beloved and, in floods of tears, leafs through the pages of his books in search of “the true personality” of this man seemingly so cold and heartless. In his notes scribbled on the margins, in a cryptic word jotted down here or there, in a tick or a question mark, Tatiana believes she can discover the elusive image of the real Onegin, of the Onegin defined by his reading. Because Tatiana knows that for every reader, that reader’s library is a kind of autobiography.

Fig. 6. Dr Watson (left, of course): both writer of the Holmes tales, and also the reader’s presence in them (illustration by Sidney Paget for The Adventure of Silver Blaze, December 1892)

I agree with Tatiana. I recognize myself in Little Red Riding Hood and her civil disobedience, and not in the servile Cinderella; in the klutzy Dr Watson more than in the shrewd Sherlock Holmes; in Doctor Faustus rather than in Orestes; and now, in my final chapter, in King Lear and his fond and foolish old age, much as before I recognized myself in his impatient daughters. In these recognitions neither logic nor historical truth carry much weight. When Hamlet famously declares that death is “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I believe in the poetic truth of his words, even though I’ve witnessed, moments earlier, the appearance on stage of just such a traveller who has returned to tell his son to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”

These numberless first persons singular make up the modest portrait of the reader I shall be upon reaching my last page. My readings form a monstrous cosmology of mirrors in which are present all the hours and all the places of my life, like that nunc-stans and hic stans that Hobbes found intolerable. Plato’s Republic and Bouvard et Pécuchet, The Idiot and Das Kapital, The Dark Night of the Soul and The Day of the Triffids are individual chapters in an immense saga whose coherence and meaning I can only guess. The Bible, made up of fairy-tales, historical accounts, proverbs, lyrical poems, prophetic texts and legal codes is a celebrated example of this polymorphous literary genre, and also a further chapter of the voracious book that holds all my readings. In spite of such ambitious conceits, I’m painfully aware that even this vast volume certainly does not contain the universe itself.

All religions, perfectly aware that a dogma does not convince anyone, fulfill their evangelizing missions through the culture of language: through stories, fables and allegories. When I started reading the Bible in the King James version, some of these narratives entered easily my autobiographical library. I enjoyed the story of Jonas uselessly preaching to the cattle-like people of Nineveh; the Prodigal Son welcomed back with generous joy by his father; Christ kicking the merchants out of the Temple (gloriously illustrated by Giotto with Christ depicted as a boxer with a raised fist.)

Fig. 7. Detail from Giotto’s fresco for the Scrovegni Chapel: Christ expels the money-changers from the Temple

Other stories I found abominable. Above all, I felt indignant (I still feel indignant) at the story of Abraham and Isaac, and at God’s unconscionable command that Abraham sacrifice his son. I don’t care to be told that this is merely a test of Abraham’s devotion, I don’t care to be told that an angel is sent to stop Abraham’s hand, and that the son is replaced with a sacrificial ram. Abraham is the emblematic father, the one who no doubt initiated his son in the rituals of the tribe like his ancestors in the Tessali desert and, following the example of his god, perhaps told Isaac to name the animals he saw, in order to teach him the magical powers of language. The idea that a father might accept the divine command to slaughter his son seems to me at the root of the worst atrocities committed by the three religions that claim themselves heirs of Abraham. A god who demands such an act, even knowing that it won’t be carried out and that it is commanded merely to put a man’s obedience to the test, merits in my eyes neither veneration nor respect, and if that god were a character in a novel we’d judge him infamous, as we do Oedipus’s father Laius, the drunk Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the abusive Sorel senior in Le Rouge et le noir, King Basil in Life is a Dream, with so many others. Nor am I convinced by the ethnographic explanation that sees in the episode a legend regarding the end of human sacrifice among the desert tribes, and the beginning of other rites less bloody and more symbolic. My library is not impartial.

As I see it, the paradox is this. We know that every piece of writing is a haphazard and ineffectual approximation to the chaotic tangle of knowledge, dreams, affects, thoughts and events present in every moment of our lives, without ever reproducing it faithfully. But we also know that, at times, that same haphazard quality can give us four of five words that seem to contain the universe itself.

The ancients believed that only a divine being could create works that exactly reproduce the things of reality. Plato, echoing Borges, taught that the only true creations were those of the natural world, and that poets and artists merely cobble together poor imitations of that magnum opus. The fourth commandment given to Moses forbids the making of “graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” because (Talmudic commentators say) on the Day of Judgment the artist will be summoned and told to bring his creation to life, and he’ll find himself incapable of doing so. Dante, warning the reader again and again that he doesn’t have the words to name many of the wonders he discovers in the worlds beyond, sees on the first ridge of Mount Purgatory images sculpted in marble “that would have made Nature itself burn with envy.” The highest virtue of these divine works is their verisimilitude, their exact equivalence to things in the real world. A mere poet, even Dante, being human, can never reach this degree of perfection.

Fig. 8. Ironically, human artists do sometimes try to depict the inhumanly perfect sculptures of Purg. 10: this is Gustave Doré's engraving of 1867

Saint Bernard, using an expression that Saint Augustine took from Plato, wrote that a sacred hymn, badly performed, belonged to the regio dissimilitudinis, the realm of dissimilitude that for Augustine corresponded to his own condition before his conversion, a realm in which he felt dissimilar not only to God but also to his true self. Every reader, even the wisest and the keenest, never reaches a thorough understanding of the text; readers always find themselves, like Augustine, in a regio dissimilitudinis from which they can only catch fleeting glimpses of the full richness of a literary work. However, that blindness is also a virtue. Because of that dissimilitude between our reading of a text and the text itself, between our reading of the world and the world itself, in that twilight zone of dark mirrors and ambiguous gestures, readers are able to put into practice their creative powers. I learned early on that the art of reading consists in reading between the lines.

To listen to words, to read and to write are our prerogatives. We don’t know if whales tell each other their adventures in their songs, or whether the gestures of sea lions add elements of style to their common barking, but most scientists agree that the invention of stories is an art proper to the human condition. Lost in a universe from which our grammars and our sense of individuality and otherness are absent, and in which our primordial notions of time and space are invalid, from very early on our species began constructing a sort of imaginary parallel universe, like an architect’s model or a cosmological chart where we give names to things and draw constellations of cause and effect, in an effort to lend meaning to the ineffable everything that surrounds us. Incapable of accepting that our brain cannot conceive the eleven dimensions of the universe, we have become cartographers of the inconceivable.

The late Stephen Hawking said in an interview: “I don't demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don't know what reality is. Reality is not a quality you can test with litmus paper.” This is not, of course, an argument for alternative truths. For Hawking, reality existed, even though we don’t know what it is or have a theory that proves its existence. And yet, I believe there´s an alternative to this brave confession of cosmic ignorance. Perhaps the proof of reality lies in literature.

Fig. 9. In Caravaggio's telling (c.1603), the sacrifice is a cruel act: Isaac is perhaps pleading for his life, but there is no dialogue, and Abraham has turned his son's face away. But this is only one version.

Some time ago, rummaging through the shelves of a New York public library, I found a fat anthology of Greek poetry edited by Peter Constantine and I started to leaf through it. On one of its pages, I discovered an anonymous sixteenth-century poem on the sacrifice of Abraham, translated into English by Karen Emmerich. It's a dialogue between the father and the son, and in its last lines, Isaac, seemingly accepting his fate, turns to Abraham and says:

But father, since there is no sign of pity from above,
since he who judges has judged thus,
I ask you just one favour before I die:
please don't cut my throat unfeelingly:
embrace me gently and lovingly as you slay me
so you can see my tears and hear my pleas.

This is what literature does. It allows us to tell, in the language of our culture, our ancestral experience in as many ways as necessary, and enables us to read in those fictions, however imperfectly and obscurely, what we suspect to be the truth.

Given at the Calman Learning Centre, University of Durham, 17 April 2018; © Alberto Manguel 2018