Wednesday, May 4, 2011
The Library of Heaven
“The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and ivory and iron, tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams.” The Old Curiosity Shop. Ch. 1.
Just as I hope that Heaven will be a Library of a particular sort, its adjunct will not be some library gift shop with prints and postcards and coffee table books, but a Shop such as that, differing also from ordinary library stores in that nothing ever leaves the shop, but remains there for our eternal appreciation; and when some right thing presents itself it is added to their stock, placed in some unlikely corner or in the back of a dusty vitrine.
Such new acquisitions are not sorted and arranged by any rule, as its existing stock has not been, but objects which arrive together are placed together, as if they came out of a sailor’s sea chest or from a dirty box found under the eave of a house being torn down. The great advantage of this system is that the browser (and as nothing is ever sold, all who give their custom are browsers) is compelled to look at everything on every visit, for it is in the nature of such things that he will not have known what he wanted as he will have likely not even known it existed until he set eyes on it. Shoppers who feel they have no time for this sort of thing would be happier if they went elsewhere, and perhaps have no business in Heaven in the first place.
I could be wrong about this, as it has been over fifty years now, but I do not recall that Dickens, for all his normally fulsome description, gives very much detail on the Shop and its contents If I were writing a story that allowed me to describe such a place, I would wax lovingly over its dusty shelves and dark cabinets and things seen to move out of the corner of the eye in the dim half-light, and Grandfather's problem wouldn't have been the lost money (or whatever it was) but the odd things that have been happening since he bought that curious artifact from the old sailor, and the strange Eastern gentleman who has been inquiring about it. But then my tastes run to melodrama and pulp fiction.
The Library of Heaven
Heaven would be a library with tall shelves and deep leather chairs and good reading lamps with green glass shades and a large orange cat. There is so much I have never read. Were I a pharaoh I would have myself entombed in a library, accompanied by priests who would read to me for all eternity. Actually, I think I might prefer priestesses, nubile maidens with soothing voices, reading to me forever. Odd, how the mind seems to wander when thinking on eternal things.
The seminar was held at the Redwood Athenæum in Newport, a beautiful mid-18th Century structure built with wealth from the China trade. Tall shelves with marble busts and leather-bound volumes, and early American portraits -- the originals of the ones that once illustrated history books -- hung floor to ceiling. A gem of beauty and order, what I hope the library will be like in Heaven. Curiously, the younger women in the group complained the library was oppressive and they couldn’t work in it. Has there been some breakdown in the transmission of culture?
The Athenæum seemed to me a sort of 18th-Century Enlightenment heaven. A place of awe and secular holiness, sacred to those faces of God which he has shown to us in Reason, Order & Beauty. Had the young ladies some sort of Pavlovian response to portraits of dead white males?
A description of a home in Addis Ababa, from L. M. Nesbitt, Desert and Forest (1934):
“The walls of Molina’s dining-room were almost covered with maps. The desire to travel widely had seized upon his mind. He constantly spoke of journeys he would like to make, both by land and sea. He delighted to follow with his finger, or with the billiard cue which stood ready in the corner, the rivers and the great mountain chains, and to ask me information about them.
“The drawing-room came next. It was very much like a museum. It was half filled with prepared skins, heaps of carpets, stuffed birds and animals in all sorts of positions. There were snake-skins and lion-skins hung up or strewn on the floor; there were photographs of Spanish people and scenes mixed up with Abyssinian strings of beads, filigree work, plumes, lances, leather shields, knives, scimitars and osterich eggs. The osterich eggs were hung in front of gilt-framed mirrors, some of which were cracked. But the cracks were supposed to be concealed by sprigs of blossom painted on the glass. The room also contained a number of chairs and couches, heavily lacquered and gilded. The servants quarters were crowded with black men and women and their children, and these were treated better than most of the servants in Addis Ababa, for Don Alibio’s profession was a profitable one.” Don Alibio ran a roulette wheel.
In what I expected to be the self-serving autobiography of a German who became a rich Middle Eastern antiquities dealer I found this description of his arrival by ship at Alexandria, in 1925:
“Legions of crippled beggars lined the quay . . . sweating, coal-black Nubians carried heavy bales of cotton . . . From the hundreds of small boats surrounding our ship, colorfully dressed Egyptian and Sudanese merchants held up their trinkets and screamed for the attention of the passengers. Gesticulating, naked Arab boys stood poised on the gunwales to dive for coins . . . I found Egypt had no dignity at all, but shared the all-pervasive cheapness of the modern world.”
The writer later remarks that he was only 21 at the time, very young and naïve, and had not realized that he had arrived in paradise.
In a world full of wonders, fantasy is unnecessary, but also unavoidable.