OF READING, BURNED BOOKS AND BURNING IDEAS
"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark."
Every day, multiple online e-letters and e-zines arrive in my inbox. Most of them I never have time to even scan. But this week, seemingly by chance, I happened to read an article in one that sparked a thought chain I’d like to explore. The article concerns Luis de Carvajal, author of a remarkable book. Ironically, in writing it to keep a flame from being extinguished he risked a fiery death.
In late-1500s Spain and then the New World Spanish territory we know as Mexico, Luis and his family led double lives under Inquisition terror, publicly Catholic, secretly Jewish. (Once pejoratively called Marranos–pigs–today they are known as Conversos.) How poetically apt that they zealously preserved one ritual in particular, the kindling of Sabbath candles (the practice of Jewish women through the ages, performed before nightfall on Friday evening to usher in the day of rest). I can almost imagine the mixture of faith and defiance, trust and trepidation Luis’ mother and sisters and so many like them must have experienced in the light of small beacons concealed in basement hideaways.
When sensing he would not recover from grave illness, Luis’ father transmitted to his son knowledge about their tradition. It changed Luis’ life. He began openly professing his true beliefs, encouraged others to do the same, and wrote his Memorias. On tiny pages crammed with teeny script and stitched into a volume small enough to be slipped stealthily into his pocket, he preserved his memoirs, Jewish prayers and creeds of Judaism.
For his efforts he and his family were brutally tortured and set afire at the stake. Somehow, the little treasure he had created–a book bursting with passion for his heritage and burning desire that its values be perpetuated–escaped the flames. (If you’ll be in NY before March 12, you can see it on display at the New-York Historical Society, after which it will return to Mexico. A larger version of the image shown here can be viewed at http://www.nyhistory.org/carvajal-manuscript).
The fascinating story of its origins, how it became lost and recently recovered appears, most appropriately, at Aish.com (http://www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Secret-Jew–Incredible-Survival-of-his-Lost-Manuscript.html?s=mm). It is the website of the Jerusalem-based Jewish learning academy Aish HaTorah, whose name means (are you ready for this?) Fire of the Torah. It suggests the heated feeling of devotion for the inspiring guide-to-living contents of the Old Testament.
And–stay with me–ancient Jewish sages described the Torah as having been written with black fire on white fire. The visible black conveys the easily read surface meaning, the invisible white beneath the letters and especially around them additional meaning to be discovered. Perceiving something in what appears to be negative space is all in how you look at it–like those “double entendre” drawings. Depending on where you focus, you might see one image and/or another, and perhaps additional significance in the combination.
Thinking about how a scroll written in a fire meant to illuminate can be consumed by a fire meant to destroy, I envision those black letters like bits of ash in the wind, ascending heavenward in swirls of white luminescence. Eventually they have to return back to earth, the truths they spell out eternally with us. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, it is impossible to destroy “flesh and blood ideas that cry out when books are burned.” Every failed attempt to obliterate inconvenient concepts has proven it. At any one time (or more), in history, not only Torah scrolls but also the treatises of any religious tradition you can name were fed to flames. Conquerers torched the storied Library of Alexandria, said to have contained the knowledge of the world. Chinese and European monarchs, Communist dictators and ISIS have all set condemned books ablaze.
As did the Nazis, perhaps most infamously in Berlin’s May 1933 frightening Bebelplatz propaganda fest and pyre fueled by university students with the contents of a nearby library. A century before anyone had heard of Hitler, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote of the Inquisition era of Luis de Carvajal, “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned, too.”
Early in the Nazi reign too many Jews ignored Heine’s at once historic and prophetic words. Today we seem oblivious to the striking relevance of Bradbury’s warning. In the dystopian world of his novel, since anyone could find something offensive in written works, the way to keep everyone with their delicate sensibilities happy was to destroy all potentially unpleasant references, all reminders of the past, all instigation of thought and questioning–in effect, all books. But as eventually occurs under every oppression, individual thought and truth, the product of keen observation and honest evaluation, cannot be permanently suppressed. Like Luis de Carvajal, Bradbury’s hero rebels against censorship and mindlessness and risks his life to protect a book (actually several, one of which happens to be–guess what?–a Bible).
Now, as much as at any time of past darkness, we need the illumination that can rise from the pages of an opened book–even and perhaps especially a controversial one; we need the new ways of thinking about and approaching the world’s daunting problems that reading’s firing of imagination and sparking of brainstorms can produce.