BEFORE THE BEGINNING
“I no longer recall precisely when I first arrived in this place,” the old man began, “but if the cobbled clatter of my stick had momentarily distracted you from more ethereal concerns you would have given little heed to the greybeard canted slightly forward like a man carrying a heavy burden uphill – and so I felt myself to be, but that is of no concern… The fact of the matter is this: I could have been a brigand or a prince, a troubadour or a contriver of schemes, and you would have paid me no more mind than if I had been one of these wretches.”
Reaching out a crabbed hand the old man snatched by the scruff a dog that had been snuffling about at the hem of his robe. The scrofulous cur, used to ill-treatment, cowered, its whimper inaudible to all but his canine fellows skulking silently to the other side of the room. With one hand the Sage pulled the dog’s muzzle up and forward while with the other he swabbed a piece of bread through a mostly empty bowl of soup. The abbé, whose soup it was, shrugged and muttered a common but colorful French obscenity. The Sage dropped the sop to the floor and released his canine captive. The dog quickly gulped down the morsel before slinking between the tables and through the kitchen door. In a trice three other dogs moved to the speaker’s side.
“What if I were to tell you,” he continued, “that that stooped old fellow hobbling along the road was a figure of legend, a traveler from a land unknown even to those who have traded in the silk bazaars of Samarkand or passed among the floating spice islands of Shikoku or gazed upon the unveiled faces of the blue women whose footsteps leave no trace in the endless desert – a man as ancient as the world he walks, one for whom the times to come are even more tediously familiar than the times that have already been, one for whom there had been neither direction nor destination until that unreckoned day he passed unnoticed through the city gates and happened upon this particular inn?”
“I would say,” said the Trappist without looking up from the ball of string he had been unraveling, “that I would never have known.”
“Precisely,” remarked the old emissary.
“And your point is what, precisely, my dear Sage?”
The Sage considered whether this question, posed archly by the smartly-dressed young Westerner, constituted an invitation or a challenge. Neither, he decided. A gangly acolyte passed through the Great Room ringing the sacristy bells, alerting the gathered scholars and contemplatives that sabbath services in the town would begin soon. “Which summons shall we heed this morning?” the old man asked of no one in particular.
“But it was my understanding…”
“Yes of course. However, my dossier instructs me to respect the local customs.”
“A man of legend holds no portfolio,” challenged the Antipodean.
“This is the usual objection,” the Sage acknowledged as he hoisted his coat over his shoulders. “It is not obligation but curiosity which impels me.”
Without restraint the bitter wind scattered the voices of the cloaked and cowled theologians, figures from an unremembered dream who drifted toward their appointed but unstated destination.
* * *
“More soup?” The clattering of spoons and bowls on the rough-hewn tables having eloquently expressed the theologians’ will in the matter, the Proprietor of the Inn nodded subtly toward the kitchen. He took a seat against a pillar, folded his hands before him, closed his eyes, and said no more. As the uproar subsided, an unaccustomed silence commingled with the clouds of smoke and the sharp smell of stale beer that suffused the hall. The Trappist, grumbling into his cup, maintained his vow of silence for a change. Glancing from table to table, the old Traveler emitted a resonant belch and straightened himself in his chair. Dismayed yet reconciled to inevitability, the gathered theologians understood at once that they were about to be subjected to yet another of the old fellow’s rambling and pointless anecdotes.
* * *
Once I met a young man on the road. Take it, the young man insisted as he thrust the scroll toward me. It is the story of how the world began.
Not without reluctance did I accept what was being offered. How did you come to know this story? I asked him.
A zealous seeker after truth, the young man had sought out the Prophet who, he believed, could tell him of the beginning of all things. I see the future, the Prophet had told the young man, but not the past. Disappointed but not dissuaded, the young man asked the Scribe. You may read what has been written, said the Scribe as he gestured toward the pyramids of scrolls that covered the tables, but there is none who knows. The young man asked the Priest, who warned him sternly of the evils that had befallen others who had delved too deeply into this mystery. But the warning would not be heeded, for the question had already taken possession of the young man’s soul.
He undertook a rigorous asceticism, eating nothing but the buds of a certain shrub that grew uncertainly near the mouths of the caves, training himself in the disciplines of silence, offering neither encouragement nor resistance to the question that grew and grew until at last the question had absorbed him inside of itself. Having studied the signs in the sky he knew with precision the day his enlightenment would arrive. No one saw him leave the village. Three days later the weaver would find him lying by the well. Two days more passed before the young man recovered his senses, six before he could speak. On the fourteenth day he asked that a quill and scroll be brought him.
Lightly did I hold the scroll which the young man had handed me. It is the one, he affirmed, and without another word he walked up the lane toward the desert.
Many years later and half a world away I met another man. With downcast eyes he muttered something in an accent I had heard only once before in all of my wanderings. He had to repeat himself twice before I could understand him: This is the story of the how the world began.
This man too had begun his quest by asking others; he too found no satisfaction. Instead of seeking mystical enlightenment, the man undertook years of investigation into the nature of things. He collected rocks and sand, leaves and fruits, skins and eggs. He studied the movement of the streams and the clouds and the stars. He counted things, carefully listing his tallies in many volumes. The merest glance at his collections left no doubt that his travels had taken him to remote lands where even I had never been. Though he had written extensively, he had shown his writings to no one. Now, in this one thin scroll, he presented to me the essence of his accumulated understanding.
The third seeker reasoned her way to the beginning of the world. The fourth asked the wisest among his people what they believed. The fifth asked the simplest people. The sixth was an inventer of tales who, having perfected her craft, turned her imagination toward the beginning of all beginnings.
* * *
Reaching beneath the table the Old Man pulled forth his rucksack, scarred like its bearer by the years and the miles but still serviceable. He swept his arm across the table, the sodden crumbs barely reaching the littered floor before the dogs could snap them up. One by one he extracted six scrolls from the heavy sack and placed them side by side on the tabletop. Though yellowed and creased, the scrolls apppeared intact. It was evident to those seated nearest the fire that the seal on each scroll remained unbroken. “The seventh,” he said firmly but without elaboration as he closed the rucksack and set it on the floor, “will be my own.”
The Sage tapped his pipe on the heel of his boot, dislodging a plug of half-burned leaves that flared like a shooting star as he kicked them vaguely toward the fireplace.
“You mean to say…” exclaimed the Trappist. The old man shrugged.
“Why haven’t you read them?” demanded the Antipodean.
“Not curious,” the Westerner speculated from behind closed eyelids.
“Incurably,” the Old Man muttered, though none could hear. “Insatiably.”
But now the others spoke and not the Old Man. “Which should be read first?” “Which is most likely true?” Only the dogs paid heed to the two burly scullions who bore the steaming cauldron in from the kitchen, so distracted were the theologians by the seven scrolls. Soon, however, the rich aroma of the soup proved persuasive and the theologians fell to eating in earnest. The baker slid loaves of hot bread onto the tables; pitchers of spiced wine were passed from hand to hand. Everyone began speaking at once, tellling tales of distant homes and the many roads that had brought them to the Inn.
Amid the din the Sage leaned across and shouted into the Trappist’s ear. “The story of your messiah’s birth intrigues me. There is some question, then, as to whether he was born a god or became one?” With a rheumatic forefinger the Old Man tapped the Trappist on the chest. “Tell me, is it not true that in your ancient stories the sons of the gods bred with the daughters of men? That these women gave birth to a mighty race? That the sons of men were overwhelmed with jealous rage directed at the sons of the gods? That this competition between gods and men led to great strife and corruption? That the Almighty, who would become your god, destroyed the half-breed race of god-men in a flood? That He began populating the world again with a pure human stock, preserved through the flood on a boat? That even after the flood the mighty half-breeds could still be found in the land? Tell me then: why at last would the Almighty have consented to breed with human woman? Had the god-man mongrel race at last overwhelmed the purebred humans, so that of all the gods only the Almighty could trace no human lineage?”
The Sage lowered his head over the steaming bowl, dipped in his spoon, and tipped it into his mouth, the thin broth dribbling down his beard and onto the floor. “Ah, yes!” Leaning back from the table and rubbing his stomach, he turned again to address his interlocutor, only to find himself facing a profile of the Trappist’s tonsured head. Following the Trappist’s eyeline across the Room, the old man observed the urbane Westerner and the gruff Antipodean engaged in an exchange that had attracted the attention of the other theologians seated near them. The surrounding din had organized itself into a complex polyphony of discussions and debates and monologues. When he lowered his head for another spoonful of soup he seemed diminished, as though he had already been reduced to a vague and faded memory.
“The age of legends is behind us now,” the Sage began. “But if a new legend could be configured from these seven scrolls, what would be its tenor?” He spoke softly, as one who no longer expects to be heard. “The road could again issue its summons and I would again respond, in my confusion leaving the scrolls on the table. Or I could gather the scrolls, return them to my pack, and depart undetected without having revealed their contents. Or I could consign them to the flames, so:” the old man tossed a crust of bread into the hearth, where it immediately blackened and crumbled. He picked up one of the scrolls and twirled it between his gnarled but surprisingly nimble fingers. “What if I opened them one by one and they all tell the same story of the beginning of all things? Or if all the stories differ one from another in every respect? Or if each scroll is written in a language that none can decipher? Or if nothing at all is written on them?”
Again the Sage pulled forth his rucksack. He took out a sheet of parchment, a quill, a pot of ink. With quavering hand he wrote as, all around him, the clamor of voices surged and receded like the surf of a sea. When he had finished he blotted the page with his sleeve and rolled it into a tight cylinder. Reaching across the table with his free hand he grasped the candlestick, dripped hot wax onto the scroll, and impressed it with his signet. With some care he replaced his writing implements and the other six scrolls in his pack, then he fastened the frayed straps. He struggled to his feet.
“Look here, where are you headed at this hour?” It was the Trappist.
“I have other affairs to settle,” the old man muttered. “A function, perhaps a reprieve. No, no, don’t stand.” The two shook hands firmly. The Sage donned his cloak and shrugged his pack over a stooped shoulder. Grasping his staff, he limped toward the door.
“But wait,” the Trappist called after him. “You’ve left one of the scrolls.” The Sage smiled, lifted his staff in benediction, with some effort pulled open the heavy door, and was gone.
The Trappist stood, stretched, yawned: perhaps a short private meditation before the serious debates begin later in the afternoon? He ascended the stairs leading to the hostelry. The scullery maid, attending to the mess which the Trappist habitually made of his repasts, cleared everything onto a tray and carried it away. The Proprietor, who happened to be passing through the Great Hall, plucked a stray scroll off the table and tossed it haphazardly onto a stack of other documents waiting to be catalogued and shelved. The wait would prove interminable.
Shafts of smoky light glanced obliquely off the hunched figures seated in threes and fours around the massive tables. Shading his eyes with one hand while hoisting a stein to his lips with the other, the Trappist recognized a familiar silhouette framed in the doorway. With a sweep of the arm the Trappist gestured for the newcomer to approach, spraying foam on a burly neighbor who was too deeply embroiled in rancorous debate to notice. The Sage – for so the visitor revealed himself to be after pulling back the cowl of his cloak – raised his staff amicably and scanned the Great Room. “Oi, shut the door mate, we’ll catch our death,” came a muffled shout, followed by a general grumbling of assent. With some visible effort the cloaked figure pulled the door to. Weaving through the clutter he made his way toward the table by the hearth where the gesturing man had resumed his seat.
“Hail, Sage! Come, warm your bones.”
The old man hung his cloak on a wooden peg protruding from the roughly plastered wall, propped his walking stick on the floor under his cloak, and eased himself into the empty chair next to his friend. “But I’m not the least bit cold, Trappist. I’ve rarely encountered a more delightful spring afternoon in this old city. Why, the trees are abud, the children frolic amid the ruins…”
“Not a bit of it,” the Trappist sniffed. “Worse and worse, from what I’ve heard. But the soup is hot and the rooms are… well, they are familiar.” The serving wench swiped the table ineffectually before thumping down a full measure of the local brew in front of the Sage. “Another for me too, lass.” The wench shrugged the Trappist’s hand from her meaty shoulder and walked briskly away. “What adventures, man?”
“None worthy of note,” the Sage, smiling, replied. Truth be told, though he’d found the Trappist a boon companion and a worthy adversary in debate, he knew that the recounting of tales from the road rarely captured the good monk’s attention.
“How long now, Sage: a month? Two?” The Old Man nodded noncommittally – it had been more than three years since last he’d joined the convocation of scholars, clerics, mystics, and contemplatives perpetually gathered at the Inn. “You may find the present conversation stimulating,” the Trappist confided with a wink. He leaned to his left and elbowed the short, frail fellow who had been engaged in earnest conversation with a stern and striking woman seated across from him, garbed in the traditional blue robes of the Tuareg. “Our wandering friend has returned at precisely the right time, eh, Eremite?” The slightly-built fellow nodded, frowning and stroking his wispy beard, but he said nothing. The Tuaregian glared at the Trappist, whose rather gourd-shaped nose was now no more than six inches from the Eremite’s. “You were about to expound on whether the messianic figure passing through the clouds, as referenced by one of the ancient prophets, was traveling from heaven to earth or vice versa, were you not, brother?”
The Eremite rose to his full height in an attempt to compensate for the woeful inadequacy of his pinched contralto monotone. “Though I am generally persuaded, that is…”
“Of course, of course,” the Trappist boomed. The Eremite’s face had already settled into benumbed passivity; the blue-clad woman surveyed the Great Room from right to left, evidently seeking more congenial company. “What say you, Sage? By now you have familiarized yourself with this controversial episode recorded in our scriptures, have you not?”
The Old Man shook his head. “I may have read it, but I find my memory to be no longer as serviceable as once it was. I expect to learn much from your discourse,” he confided to the Eremite, who smiled gratefully. “Perhaps afterward, however, if someone will remind me, I will recount an event I experienced since my last visit that bears directly on your most ancient scriptural narrative.”
“No, I mean at once, by all means,” the Eremite, relieved, pleaded with the Sage. The others shifted in their chairs to face the new speaker.
“Very well,” the Sage began, “I will be brief. As you have perhaps surmised, the road has taken me to distant places, distant times. I have been privileged to witness first-hand an event strikingly similar to the creation recounted at the very beginning in your holy book.” The Trappist, who had obviously been poised to embark on a lengthy theoretical interruption at the first opportunity, stared open-mouthed at the Sage. The Eremite looked nervously away as if trying to discover an escape route. The Tuaregite leaned slightly forward, her scowl suddenly transformed into bemused expectation as she directed her full attention toward the ancient traveler.
* * *
A first contact has been established. As usual, the local inhabitants are possessed of a primitive culture. Though they are language-users, their communication is basic and concrete, concerned exclusively with food, shelter, predators, and other basic survival issues that affect every life form. Again as usual, the away team violates the Prime Directive of non-interference with the internal development of more primitive cultures. The visitors make friends with the natives, and the chief of the local tribe invites them to enjoy a meal and to spend the night. Late night turns to early morning, with the visiting delegation and the tribal leaders still palavering around the campfire. The rosy fingers of dawn begin to stretch themselves across the horizon.
“Look,” says the science officer: “light.”
“That is Asham,” explains the chief; “each day he drives the chariot of fire across the sky.”
“Right,” the officer replies, “but I’m talking more abstractly here.” He points to the campfire: “light.” He points to the volcano silhouetted in the red distance: “light.” He whips out his weapon and torches a nearby bush: “light.”
Slowly the rosy fingers of enlightenment spread across the furrowed brow of one of the elders. Suddenly he jumps to his feet: “Light!” he bellows, waking up the whole tribe.
The weather is subtropical; the food, simple but savory; the people, eager to please. The captain announces an unscheduled R&R stop. For five days he and his associates instruct the chief and his aides-de-camp concerning this local sector of the galaxy: light and darkness, earth and sky and seas, sun and moons and stars, plants and animals. Late on the fifth night the captain is surprised by a young and lovely maiden creeping silently into his tent. She snuggles next to him under the fur blankets.
“I am honored to sacrifice myself to the god who comes from the sky,” she confesses to him when they awaken the next morning.
Hurriedly the captain tugs on his overly tight uniform and steps out of the tent, shielding his eyes from the sun’s mid-morning glare. The chief, pleased, awaits. “What’s all this?” the captain asks him.
“We have offered you our most desirable young virgin, and tomorrow we will throw her into the volcano for you.”
“Don’t think I’m not grateful,” the captain demurs, “but can’t you see? I am not a god; we are not gods. You, your headmen, that fine young maiden in my tent: you – are – no – different – from – me. I’ve just been around the galaxy a bit more is all.”
The chief is astounded: “The gods from the sky have created us in their image and likeness!” Thus was born the Legend of the Six Days, when the sky gods created the heavens and the earth.
* * *
“Yes of course, an entertaining fantasy,” the Trappist remarked, “but it seems you’ve misread the holy text. I understood you to say that you had witnessed an event similar to our own creation story.”
“And I have just described it,” replied the Sage. “Almost precisely the same.”
The Trappist shook his head resignedly. “But nothing is created in your story. All is as it was. The emissaries merely assigned names to what they saw around them.”
“And by assigning names to the things, and by assigning meaning to the names, the emissaries created an entire universe for their hosts. Just the same.”
“I begin to believe, Sage, that your ignorance of our creation narrative is feigned. Perhaps you seek to teach us some lesson, some deeper insight into this mundane tale of yours. And of course every weary traveler’s tale contains the seeds of eternal verities. Get on with it man: give us the moral to your little story.”
The Sage frowned. He took a long draught from his stein. “Permit me to tell it again. Imagine that you have been transported back in time thirty thousand years or so. Language for your tribe is a tool but, like your stone axe and your fire sticks, it is a relatively primitive tool, concrete and pragmatic. In your tribe you can exhort a kinsman to run from danger, or you can offer a gesture of friendship to a neighboring tribesman, and you will be understood. One day there arrives in your territory a band of migrants, perhaps a trading company opening a new territory or a scouting party dispatched by a distant civilization, Sumerian perhaps, possessed of a language you cannot understand.
“The visitors pose no imminent threat, and they are in no great hurry to move on. They seem unperturbed by your inability to understand what they have to say. At first, as they set about the task of learning your language, you think they must be a backward lot, not knowing the true names of things. Then, as they develop competence in communicating with your people, they begin to ask the names of things for which there are no names. Grain, onion, meat – what do you call all these things together? They are nothing together, you answer; they are grain, onion, meat. Then the visitors give you a word: food. Now you have learned two things from them: the name for all edible things, and the idea that so many different kinds of things can be the same in some important way. What, they ask, are the names for this kind of grain and that kind of grain? There is only one name, you reply, though less confidently this time: grain. It seems that the strangers have two names: this grain is wheat, that one is oat – and so you learn that the same things can also be different.
“There is light, one of the visitors says. It is the moon, you inform him. Then the visitor points to the campfire: there is light, he says again. Is he confused? He points to the eastern sky, just before dawn: there too is light. You’ve never had reason to consider what these very different things have in common, but now it dawns on you. You possess the innate mental capacity to understand, to see what the other sees, to say what the other says. There is light, you reply at last. In hearing the word you have learned the word; in considering the abstract idea you have learned the idea; in saying the word you have entered a larger world. You are at the beginning.”
From inside his robes the Sage brought forth a clay pipe, a wooden wick, and a tooled leather pouch. He tamped some of the shredded leaf down into the bowl and reached across the table for a candle. As the first puffs of smoke rose into the air the Trapppist drained his mug and slammed it to the table.
“Quite preposterous, of course, but a worthy effort nonetheless.”
“I assure you, my good Monk, the event I described did take place, not once but many times, indeed countless times. You too have witnessed the enactment of this subtle miracle.”
The Trappist looked around to see if someone else had entered the room. “I?”
The Sage nodded. “You were a child once, surely? When you were a very young lad, though of course you cannot recall the precise moment, you made your own transition to full humanity. My dear fellow, do you believe that you were born with an innate knowledge of the universe, or that you discovered its truths unaided? No soothsayer is required to know what transpired. Someone, your mother perhaps, pointed to sea and sky and land and taught you the words. The universe was created again for you, in you. Each of us is born with a raw capacity to understand. What we lack is knowledge of the world, and a way of making sense of that knowledge. If we had never learned from the others who did understand, almost certainly we would never have grasped the fabric of reality on our own. You have of course heard tales of children raised by wolves? Though Roman legend would have it that feral twins founded that great city, the best hope to be entertained for such children is that they might become rather inept scavengers who grunt and growl their frustrations to an uncomprehending world of civilized men. No: ours is a cumulative and collective knowledge, begun by the ancients, preserved and expanded and passed down through the ages to us. It is necessary for us to emulate our parents and teachers, the mature carriers of our culture, the creative wielders of ideas and language, if our latent mental powers are to make themselves manifest. Only then, after we begin to take on the image and likeness of these creators who teach us to be fully human, does the world begin to make sense.”
“But look here” – once more the Trappist had drained his glass, and he looked across the Great Room hoping to catch the attention of the serving wench. “In our scripture God creates the universe. Surely even you can see the difference between creating and merely describing, no matter how unprecedented and momentous such a description might prove to be.”
The Sage puffed contentedly at his pipe. “Yes, I see. How could a broad and imperfect categorization of nature possibly be regarded as an act of creation? Light is so commonplace a property even the merest crawling thing detects it instinctively, running toward it or fleeing into the shadows according to its kind. But what if being consciously aware of the light wasn’t commonplace at all, even among men? What if, in fact, no one had ever actually thought about light, or given it a name, in the long and as-yet-undistinguished history of humankind? The sun, a forest fire, a bolt of lightning, an active volcano: diverse phenomena share a certain property that links them together and distinguishes them from other kinds of phenomena like the sea, the trees, insects. To grasp mentally the shared element across individual and separate things is what it means to create an abstract thought. To assign words to the abstract thoughts is to create language. Suppose our hypothesized Away Team were the first beings ever to arrive at the abstraction called light: would we regard that as an act of creation? What about the first time someone proposed the idea that light is made up of waveicles: was that a creative act?”
“No matter,” said the Sage, waving his hand dismissively. “But you take my point surely? ‘Let there be light,’ the visitor intones, and there was light. Have you a Hebraist in the house?”
The Eremite seized the opportunity to leave the table. A moment later he returned, tugging by the elbow a graybeard whose velvet chevrons and gold-tasseled cap identified him as a scholar of the Old Order, perhaps Galician or Maghrebian in his institutional affiliation. The Eremite nearly pushed the scholar into the chair he himself had so recently occupied, then made his way toward one of the carrels clustered on the far side of the room, where the cabal’s archives lined the shelves floor-to-ceiling in row after dusty row. Was it mere coincidence that the buxom and good-natured wench, holding an empty tray by her side, stood leaning against one of those very shelves?
“Welcome, good Don,” said the Trappist, clapping the Hebrew scholar on the back. “Do you think you could enlighten our peripatetic friend here as to the force of God’s words in our creation narrative? Meanwhile, it seems I must take matters into my own hands.” And with that the Trappist grasped his empty flagon and strode purposefully toward the kitchen door.
The scholar seemed to know precisely what was called for. “The precative mood falls somewhere between a direct command – ‘Light, come forth!’ – and the simple indicative ‘There is light.’ A speaker may also use the precative to express an indirect command or request or intent. ‘Please let there be light’ or ‘Would that there was light’ exemplify the use of the precative in our common tongue. A speaker wishing to elicit agreement from the listener would also use the precative.”
“Indeed,” the Sage replied. “Might the call for agreement have taken the form of a hypothesis for which the speaker sought confirmation? A geometer or a chemist might, for instance, invoke such a phrase when putting forward an abstract proposition: a formula, say, or a proof. Or an astrophysicist addressing a classroom: there is a property in the universe, shared by things like the sun and the stars, fires and lightning and volcanoes, to which I’d like to call your attention: let the word ‘light’ stand for this particular physical property. The professor pauses, awaiting a response from his students. Eventually one of them attains the necessary insight: Yes, ‘light’: I see – please go on, Professor.”
“Not impossible,” the Don conceded. “There are those who would deny this sort of scientific mindset to the ancients. However, it is a dead language with which we must contend here. Anyone who claims to know what is and is not possible, what sorts of things were and were not said by those who spoke the language spontaneously in ordinary discourse so long ago – why, in his very self-assurance that person proves himself a charlatan.”
“Quite so,” observed the Sage. “Now, if you would be so kind as to tell me about the verb ‘to create.’ Must this verb always refer to creation from thin air of some material thing that had previously not existed? Can one not speak of creating an idea by invoking this selfsame verb?”
“Fascinating,” the Don replied, stroking his beard. “We are blessed – some would say cursed – with a materialistic, pragmatic bent, expecting our actions to yield tangible results. To create is to create some thing. But certainly ‘to think’ is to create a thought, ‘to speak’ is to create a meaningful string of language.”
The Trappist scowled as he returned to his seat. “Surely you go too far, sir,” he said, quaffing liberally from his refilled flagon. “Any true thought you or I might hazard comes from above, fully formed. We do not create true thoughts; we discover them. We replicate in our own minds what already exists in the perfect mind of God.”
“Surely,” the Sage began, “your all-powerful God can create new thoughts, can he not? Or is his every true thought eternally present? Is his work of creation limited to the fabrication of mere things, the patterns of which are already present in his mind? If so, then he is no creator; he is merely a replicator.”
A spoon dropped onto the floor, its clatter punctuating the grumbles and brief outbursts of laughter that the Sage’s latest remark had provoked. Smiling, the Trappist held up a hand. “There is no need to label our speculative friend a blasphemer. Despite his frequent presence in our midst, he remains after all a stranger to our faith. His meandering peregrinations through the world are well-matched by the convoluted workings of his mind.”
“Well said, old friend,” the Sage replied with a gracious nod, doing his part to restore the salon’s convivial atmosphere. “And you needn’t remind me that the ideas I’ve just tendered are themselves replicas of older ideas. You acknowledge, Trappist, that other religions assign the work of creation to a pantheon of gods?” The Trappist nodded. “And what of certain Hellenized variants of your own faith, popular for centuries, which asserted that your spiritual God, being pure spirit, would not have sullied himself with materiality? He would have assigned the messy task of creating heavens and earth to a crew of underlings occupying the intermediate realms between pure spirit and impure matter. These demiurges – lesser deities, angels perhaps – merely followed instructions. ‘Let there be light’ – the most high God issued his command to the construction crew, and they got right to work on it.”
“And as you well know,” parried the Trappist, “this theory does not accord with the scriptural account. It is God who created heavens and earth, we are told in no uncertain terms.”
“But he also created the idea of heavens and earth, did he not?”
“May I?” the Hebraist offered in his relaxed yet authoritative scholarly air. “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light – the idea of light precedes its manifestation. So yes, I believe it is in accord with the scriptural account to assert that God created the idea of light.”
“And the idea preceded its material manifestation,” the Trappist asserted.
The Sage puffed his pipe. “But we can acknowledge the separation. Let there be ideas; let there be materiality corresponding to those ideas.”
“First the one, then the other.”
“Or perhaps a cycle,” hazarded the Hebraist. “Darkness was over the face of the Deep, and God separated light from darkness. So we infer that the darkness preceded the light. But he set light and darkness in cyclical counterpoint with one another, night and day and then night again, darkness following the light following the darkness over and over. Perhaps in like manner ideas and materiality…”
“Intriguing,” said the Sage. “And God saw that the light was good. The materiality of the light inspired the creator’s aesthetic and moral judgments about the light. Materiality preceding and inspiring thought.”
“To think about something,” the Hebraist considered,” to name it, to evaluate its merits, to assign meaning or function to it… Yes, I believe that these are legitimate acts of creation, especially if these ideas had never before been grasped. I see no reason why acts of immaterial creation would have been precluded in the beginning. To insist that the verb ‘to create’ refers only to the fabrication of material things is to impose unnecessary constraints not only on language but on the act of creation itself.”
“Excellent; well said. Now tell me, Don,” the Sage pressed on: “When your God said ‘Let there be light,’ is it likely that he would have been speaking to the light itself, gently coaxing it to shine forth in a nascent lightless universe?”
“Possible, but unlikely. Of course now we move beyond linguistics into theology. To speak to the light would mean that the light would be able to hear this speech, which implies that the light already existed before it was created, does it not? There are those among us who propose that God created a material replica of the perfect ideal realm in which pure light shines perpetually. But to speak to the light: this would imply that light, like God, is sentient, that it understands language. As if the light were a god, and the Creator were seeking its cooperation. No, I believe not.”
“Might the creator-god have been speaking to his minions, asking them to busy themselves with the work of creating light in the midst of darkness?”
“As we have already discussed and dismissed. Linguistically possible but theologically unlikely. The possibilities cannot firmly be rejected solely on exegetical grounds. However, there is no mention of sub-creators either in this narrative or in the rest of our Scriptures.”
“To whom, then, does the Creator speak? Why does he not merely conjure the material universe directly, saying nothing, if no one is there to respond to his orders, or even to hear what he has to say?” The Don held his tongue. Only after the ensuing silence had become somewhat awkward did the Sage begin again.
* * *
“Look,” says the Creator, pointing first to the still-smoldering campfire, then to the eastern sky at the beginning of what would be the first day of creation: “there is light.” Someone else is there, a witness, listening to what the Creator says, looking at what the Creator sees, trying to understand. “Yes,” confirms the witness: “there is light.” Who is it that sees, that hears, that understands, that speaks the echoed words of the Creator? It cannot be man, can it, because man remains uncreated until day six. But it might be someone on the verge of becoming human: call him proto-man. Call him also the Witness.
With the dawning of day one, the Creator sees light-emitting objects shining in the universe, just as they have been shining since they first came into existence, since long before anyone was there to see them shining. When the Creator says ‘light,’ he speaks the word that refers to light, that means the idea of light. The idea gives the substance meaning, pulling it forth from the formless void of raw nature and into the coherent reality of the universe. It is the word that lets the meaning be understood by the Witness. As the Witness simultaneously hears the word and sees the specific objects to which the word refers, the light attains meaning for the witness. It is a reality that day by day the Creator has assembled, a way of embedding raw stuff in meaning. Now the Witness begins to participate with the Creator in a shared system of meanings. A reality created when the Creator matched idea to substance begins through language to extend itself to another mind.
When the Creator pointed and spoke the word, the Witness followed the pointing finger to the fire, to the volcano, to the dawn, and behold: there was light! Until the Creator spoke the word, the Witness had never before understood. Now, for the first time, he does. What has been handed down through the millennia is a written record of the Witness’ own astonishment – a record of the creation, in humans, of a consciousness of things. The words of the Creator lifted systematic hierarchical abstraction to heights never before imagined by the Witness and his tribe, spanning the very universe. Still, the gap between the Creator and proto-man was not unbridgeable, and the Witness had understood the meaning of the words.
In the beginning the Witness lived in a raw world, a proto-reality, where meaning systems had not been created yet. In making sense of the raw world, the Creator began to pull proto-reality out of the preconceptual void into reality. By showing reality to the Witness and describing it in words, the Creator began transforming proto-man into man. “Let there be light,” the Creator proposes; and there was light, affirms the Witness. The Creator speaks first, to reveal the creation; the Witness, understanding the Creator’s meaning, echoes his words. In offering the responsorial ‘and there was…,’ the witness proclaims that the Creator’s revelation has been received.
So: the Creator is speaking to the Witness. To whom, then, is the Witness speaking as he reports the events that transpired on that first day, offering his verbal vouchsafe of the newly-created reality of light? Not to the Creator: there is no dialogue between Creator and Witness in this story. Does the Witness speak to himself? Are there multiple witnesses speaking among themselves? We’ve faced this same puzzle before. Perhaps the answer here is the same as before: the Witness too has witnesses. In the beginning the Witness is the only one among his people who can grasp reality. But the others are like him. Proto-human, they are capable of grasping reality but they have not yet heard, not yet seen, not yet known. And there was light, the Witness tells the spellbound audience gathered at his feet. As they hear they understand, and in their understanding the universe begins to attain meaning for them. And as the universe becomes real to them they too become fully real, fully human. And so it is that the creation is extended across the void, person by person, generation after generation. The transmission of reality from mind to mind is so seamless it seems not to have happened at all, as if the reality of the universe had been there all along. “Let there be light;” and there was light: the words cling together, with nothing but the smallest of conjuctions standing between them.
For five days the Creator creates a reality in the presence of the Witness, a reality extending to the farthest reaches of the heavens. On the sixth day the Creator shifts his full attention to the Witness. What does the Creator see? He sees someone else who sees with a vision that encompasses not just a vast assembly of raw things, but the reality that ties everything together and gives it meaning. The Creator sees someone who sees what he himself sees. What does the Creator hear? He hears someone say “there is light” – exactly what he himself just said. The Witness too has been created, has become fully real, but in a different way. ‘In our image and likeness,’ the Creator declares, and so it is, for the Witness has himself become a Creator.
And so it was that, on that long-ago sixth day, the creation reached its climax. From that day forward the story was passed from person to person, from generation to generation. In ancient times, it is told, there was a remarkable group of emissaries who visited our ancestors. Whether gods they were or men it matters not for, if men, they had been so perfectly wrought in the image and likeness of the gods as to be indistinguishable from them. They were seafarers; the awestruck shore-dwellers who witnessed their arrival swore they had seen a spirit moving over the surface of the waters. One of their number, speaking into the void of what was destined to become the first dawn, pulled reality out of the raw world. This is this, the Creator declared, and it is to be found here; that is that, and it goes there. And so the Creator imposed order where neither order nor disorder had reigned. Did he bring a new universe into existence, or did he discover that which already was and reveal its truths? To the haphazard and anonymous denizens of that land newly made the Creator said: “You are become fully human, like unto us as like can be.” In the speaking of the words his truth was made manifest, and the inhabitants understood what the Creator had declared: they were human indeed. And it is rumored that perhaps, at the moment that man became man, he also became god…
* * *
“Is this true?” asked the blue-robed Tuaregite who, unlike most of the others, had remained silently attentive during the Sage’s discourse.
“The important thing,” the Sage responded, “is that it could be true, that such an event might well have happened. Conjuring the material universe from nothing in six days? Preposterous, if I may say so.”
“But what of our more recent interpretations concerning the True Myth?”
“Alas, the weariness of the road catches me up. Perhaps tomorrow morning?” The old man sighed heavily. He stretched his long arms and gazed around the Great Room. Many who heard the beginning of his story had wandered off or been overcome by drowsiness. None, it seemed, felt compelled either to endorse the Sage’s views or to renounce them. Gathering himself and his few belongings, the Sage walked somewhat unsteadily toward the stairway.
The Inn’s reception area was located one floor above ground level. From his small office the Proprietor maintained a semblance of order amid the perpetual self-organizing anarchy that pervaded the Inn. After exchanging greetings the Sage asked the Proprietor if his usual room might available: it was. Might your superb cook – Rik, is it not? – might he have my dinner brought to me? He might, the Proprietor assured him. Though sunset remained an hour away the Sage ascended another flight and began winding his way through the labyrinth of hallways which he had come to know so well on his prior visits.