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Tag: Avicenna

Eco: Dante and Abulafia


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), The Haywain or The Hay Wagon Triptych (1516), held after 1907 as accession number P02052 in The Prado Museum, Madrid. Bosch signed this work “Jheronimus Bosch” in the lower right corner of the central panel. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“If we turn from DVE to Paradise, xxxvi (several years having passed in the meantime), we find that Dante has changed his mind. In the earlier work, Dante unambiguously states that it was from the forma locutionis given by God that the perfect language of Hebrew was born, and that it was in this perfect language that Adam addressed God, calling him El. In Paradise, xxxvi, 124-38, however, Adam says:

La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta

innanzi che all’ovra incomsummabile

fosse le gente di Nembròt attenta:

ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,

per lo piacer uman che rinovella

seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile. 

Opera naturale è ch’uom favella,

ma, così o così, natura lascia,

poi fare a voi, secondo che v’abbella.

Pria ch’i’ pscendessi all’infernale ambascia 

I s’appellava in terra il sommo bene,

onde vien letizia che mi fascia; 

e EL si chiamò poi: e ciò convene,

ché l’uso dei mortali è come fronda

in ramo, che sen va e altra vene.

“The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work [the tower of Babel] of the people of Nembrot was even conceived: because no product of the human reason, from the human taste for always having something new, following the influence of the stars, is ever stable. It is natural that man speaks; but whether this way or that, nature lets you yourselves do as it pleases you. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I–from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Born of humanity’s natural disposition towards speech, languages may split, grow and change through human intervention. According to Adam, the Hebrew spoken before the building of the tower, when God was named El, was not the same as the Hebrew spoken in the earthly paradise, when Adam called him I.

Dante seems here to oscillate between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. He must always have known these two texts; what could have induced him to modify his earlier views? An intriguing clue is the strange idea that God had once been called I, a term that not one of Dante’s legion of commentators has ever been able to explain satisfactorily.

Returning for a moment to the last chapter, we remember that for Abulafia, the atomic elements of any text–the letters–had individual meanings of their own. Thus, in the divine name YHWH, the letter Yod was itself a divine name.

Dante would have transliterated Yod as I, and this gives one possible source for his change of opinion. If this is so, it would not be the only idea that Dante seems to have had in common with Abulafia.

We saw in the last chapter that for Abulafia the Torah had to be equated with the active intellect, and the scheme from which God created the world was the same as the gift which he gave to Adam–a linguistic matrix, not yet Hebrew, yet capable of generating all other languages.

There were Averroist sympathies in Dante, too, especially in his version of the Avicennist and Augustinian concept of the active intellect (equated with divine wisdom) which offers the forms to possible intellect (cf. in particular, Nardi 1942: v). Nor were the Modistae and the others who supported the idea of universal grammar exempt from Averroist influence.

Thus there existed a common philosophical ground which, even without positing direct links, would have inclined both Dante and Abulafia to regard the gift of language as the bestowal of a forma locutionis, defined as a generative linguistic matrix with affinities to the active intellect.

There are further parallels as well. For Abulafia, Hebrew was the historic proto-language. It was a proto-language, however, that during their exile, the chosen people had forgotten. By the time of the confusion of Babel, therefore, the language of Adam was, as Dante puts it, “tutta spenta” (entirely extinguished).

Idel (1989: 17) cites an unedited manuscript by a disciple of Abulafia which says:

“Anyone who believes in the creation of the world, if he believes that languages are conventional he must also believe that they are of two types: the first is Divine, i.e. agreement between God and Adam, Eve and their children.

The second is derived from the first, and the first was known only to Adam and was not passed on to any of his offspring except for Seth, [ . . . ] And so, the traditions reached Noah. And the confusion of the tongues during the generation of the dispersion [at the tower of Babel] occurred only to the second type of language, i.e., to natural language.”

If we remember that, in such a context, the term “tradition” can refer to the kabbala itself, it seems evident that the above passage alludes, once again, to a linguistic wisdom, a forma locutionis, regarded as a set of rules for constructing the differing languages.

If, in its original form, this wisdom was not a language, but rather a universal matrix for all languages, we can not only explain the mutation of Hebrew between Eden and Babel, but also understand the hope that this original wisdom might somehow be recuperated and (in different ways, obviously, for Abulafia and Dante) even be made to bloom again.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 46-9.

Arabic Antecedents of Alchemy

Another “oriental” influence is that found in the Western alchemical traditions, deeply influenced by Islamic spiritual practices and philosophies. The entire history of alchemy passes through Islamic alchemical traditions, inherited from the Greeks, but is infused with Islamic spiritual ideas regarding the alchemical processes. Jabir ibn Hayyan (fl. c. 760 CE), later known as Gerber (in Latin), a Persian Sufi living in southern Arabia, was believed to be the author of many alchemical texts, showing a clear attribution to “oriental wisdom” in the transmission of alchemy to the Medieval west. The mystical style of the Jabir corpus reflects many Sufi ideas and may have been authored by the Iranian brethren of Purity (c. 1100). However, one text, the Kitab Sirr al-Khaliqa wa San`at al-Tabi`a (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), attributed to Jabir, c. 800, who in fact attributes this text to Apollonius of Tyana, is the basis for the single most popular text in Western Hermeticism, translated into Latin (1140) as the Tabula Smaragdina (Emerald Tablet) (43).

This text, transiting from Greek to Syriac, to Arabic, to Latin and finally to modern European languages, is a symbolic testimony to the interweaving of classical, “oriental” and later European alchemical and hermetic thought. The very term alchemy (al-kimia) is, of course, Arabic transmitted from the Greek (chemeia) and carries with it a fusion of Greek and Arabic ideas, as expressed in the famous, influential alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (“Conference of Philosophers,” c. 900 CE, translated into Latin by the 13th century) which combines pre-Socratic philosophy with Islamic-Sufi ideas (44). Maslama ibn Ahmad’s The Aim of the Wise was translated into Spanish and Latin, where it became known as Picatrix (1256). Many other Arabic influences (Razi, Avicenna, and so on) can be traced in the history of western alchemy, stemming particularly from the 7th through the 11th centuries (45).

–Lee Irwin, “Western Esotericism, Eastern Spirituality, and the Global Future.”

The Absolute Book

“Superimposed on the notion of a God who speaks with men in order to command them to do something or to forbid them to do something was that of the Absolute Book, of a Sacred Scripture.

For Muslims, the Koran, (also called “The Book,” al-Kitab) is not merely a work of God, like men’s souls or the universe; it is one of the attributes of God, like His eternity or His rage.

In chapter XIII we read that the original text, the Mother of the Book, is deposited in Heaven.

Muhammed al-Gazali, the Algazel of the scholastics, declared: “The Koran is copied in a book, is pronounced with the tongue, is remembered in the heart and, even so, continues to persist in the center of God and is not altered by its passage through written pages and human understanding.”

George Sale observes that this uncreated Koran is nothing but its idea or Platonic archetype; it is likely that al-Gazali used the idea of archetypes, communicated to Islam by the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity and by Avicenna, to justify the notion of the Mother of the Book.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

Spurious Attributions in Renaissance Alchemical Literature.

“The Processus sub forma missae and its author were not unknown to the alchemists of the early modern era. The text was printed in the famous anthology of alchemical literature, the Theatrum Chemicum (Chemical Theater), by Lazarus Zetzner in 1602.

This point needs to be emphasized because the confusion in the literature concerning both the person and the work of Melchior is so great that it is hard to differentiate between evidence and legends even with regard to such simple things as the bibliographical data of his published text.

Melchior’s portrait appears on the title page of the Symbola Aureae Mensae Duodecim Nationum (The Symbols of the Golden Table of the Twelve Nations) by Michael Maier (1568–1622), the alchemist of Emperor Rudolf II. In this international history of the royal art, Melchior is chosen to represent Hungary among the twelve most famous alchemists of the world, and thus he appears in the noble company of Hermes Trismegistos, Maria the Jewess, Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and Raimundus Lullus.

He is mentioned and quoted by such authors and editors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg, Petrus Borelius, Libavius, and Athanasius Kircher. Even Isaac Newton was acquainted with Melchior’s name; relying on Maier’s description, he incorporated a number of Latin notes on a wide range of alchemical authors and myths in one of his many alchemical manuscripts, among these a few references to the alchemist of Transylvania.”

–Benedek Lang, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe, 2008. Pg. 145.

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