On Bones and Libraries
Interesting essay / blog entry!

Small excerpt, click the link to read it.


Jerome became the patron saint of libraries and librarians because of the one task he is most known for: the translation, editing, and assemblage of what became the standard edition of the Bible for over the Millennium: the Vulgate. Various canonical lists of the Bible had been circulating as early as the mid-third century, but only with the Council of Rome in 382 did an official council of bishops agree on the list of books to be included. Known as the Damasine List, it was so named for Pope Damasus I, who headed the council, and who had hired Jerome as his personal secretary. And so it fell to Jerome, also present at the Council, to assemble a fresh translation of this newly ratified library—known first as the “versio vulgata,” or “commonly used translation,” and later simply as the Vulgate.

For all the controversy surrounding the Bible, its apocrypha and conflicting versions, Jerome’s accomplishment had long been seen in terms of divine intervention—as with the Council of Rome, he is guided by the hand of God. Seen in this light, the Bible is perfect: there are no books missing, no books extraneous. It is a perfect library, a collection of exactly the books that God intended for humankind.

Without the certainty of Jerome, every other librarian has only one option: include it all, leave nothing out. It was this caution that had motivated Ptolemy I to build the Library of Alexandria at the end of the third century BC, in which he hoped to assemble “all the books of all the people of the world.” Ptolemy calculated all the books in the world to be roughly five hundred thousand volumes, but long ago our capacity for books over took any sane number: the complete library is now, quite simply, infinite. If you do not have the divine grace of Jerome, to tell you which books to keep and which to exclude, you are obligated to take in everything, and you are condemned to a library without end.

This is the library imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story “The Library of Babel.” He describes the library as an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon’s free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first—identical, in fact, to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one’s physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance.”
I read this before seeing your post here. I'm glad to have someone to discuss it with.

It was an interesting article, but seemed to be terribly negative toward religion -- all the pointed remarks pitting the body against the soul, making St. Jerome out to be not merely bad-tempered (which he was) but a cold-hearted jerk (which I don't think is true). I got the idea that the author was comparing the idea of a sort of generosity -- the infinite library, in which nothing is or could be left out -- with a narrow, "smug,"  sort of pro-censorship Christian orthodoxy that deprives its followers of apocryphal books. That is, not just that the author was comparing St. Jerome's canon fancifully with Borges' imagined library and drawing parallels between them, but that he was using the comparison to take digs at Christian orthodoxy.
Last time I checked, there were several Latin translations of the Bible at the time of Jerome.  Jerome's was simply the easiest to read (hence it's title).  As I understand it, the canonical books were pretty well-established by this time...
(04-09-2010, 12:30 PM)Pilgrim Wrote: Last time I checked, there were several Latin translations of the Bible at the time of Jerome.  Jerome's was simply the easiest to read (hence it's title).  As I understand it, the canonical books were pretty well-established by this time...

That's true, too. As I recall, Jerome wasn't even going on his opinion or preferences when he compiled the Bible; he didn't think the deuterocanonical books were inspired.
Personally, I see the idea of leaving things out as a good thing.  The purpose of Scripture is to lead men to God, not be a "repository for knowledge" as the Library of Alexandria was.  Indeed, if Scripture were like Borges' library, virtually no one would get to God...

BTW, Satori, the library described by Borges mentioned in the article was one of Eco's inspirations for the library in *The Name of the Rose*.
I am still eagerly awaiting Quis' comments on this article.

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