The Gift of the Second Telling

The Dawn of Midnight/22 – The life reborn is not just a copy of the life burnt

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 17/09/2017

170917 Geremia 22 rid“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry".

Emy Dickinson, from a letter of hers

Writing, too, can be a spiritual activity. There are many ways of writing, for many reasons, and very different things are written. But there has always been, and there will always be some who write because they have heard and embraced an inner command. Poets know this very well, who write to respond to a voice speaking and calling, and their poetry becomes the fruit of a 'yes' to an incarnation. They tell us that writing is second, because first there is the gift of a voice, a word, a spirit. There are many words spoken, even great and immense words, which do not become written words. But there are no great and immense scripts that have first not been said in the soul by a whispered word. It is this vocational and spiritual dimension of the written word which ensures that our other words written without vocation can also be mysteriously true, or at least not always and not entirely false.

The few spiritual words we have are a common good for all, even if we do not know this. The truth of the word of those who write by obeying a voice gives substance to the words of everyone, it saves us from the global, radical and absolute vanitas of chatter, to which we are condemned when we lose contact with vocational writing, when we stop reading the poets. Because - by their vocation - poets and writers are that righteous one found in our city of words that saves it from destruction. My grandparents did not know the poets' poems, but their dialectal words were true, because they were born of the truth of nature, popular piety and pain; and because they were mingled with ancient proverbs, the gospel, nursery rhymes, songs, saints and much prayer, a great number of prayers. And so when a daughter or grandson recited a poem by the poets taught at school, they knew how to sense it with their hearts, beyond semantics and metrics, and sometimes they got really moved, because they felt and loved those words before they understood them - and loved them, at least a little bit. Today we have lost these different truths of words. To save us from the vanitas of chatter, what remains for us is only the work of poets, great writers, the Bible - and little else. But we lack that little inner silence necessary to hear a different voice.

“In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: »Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations«” (Jeremiah 36:1-2). With this new command we find ourselves in a typical event of the Bible. The word that Jeremiah had said and shouted in the first part of his prophetic mission, now becomes, by an explicit order of God, written word. Jeremiah and Baruch offer us one of the most intimate, precious and secret experiences of the entire Bible. This verb that becomes a scroll is a sign, a prophetic gesture like the others, no less solemn and decisive than carrying a yoke, shattering a jug, not taking a wife. In order to try to decipher this event, however, we should return to that Middle Eastern world built on oral accounts, where the primacy did not belong to the written word but to the spoken word. What was pronounced with the mouth was worth more than what was written, because for those cultures there was nothing more certain and reliable than a person's own voice. The word's rate of truth was higher than that of writing because the value of man was greater than that of his instruments. No written oath reached the value of a verbally proclaimed oath - we can still infer it when we think about the power of the first "I love you" uttered, or that of the last "thank you" whispered to our mother.

“Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord that he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, »I am banned from going to the house of the Lord, so you are to go, and on a day of fasting ... you shall read the words of the Lord from the scroll... (...) It may be that their plea for mercy will come before the Lord, and that every one will turn from his evil way...«” (36:4-7). Jeremiah does not write his words directly (probably he could have done so: he came from a priestly family), but he dictates them to his scribe Baruch. Perhaps because to write “all the words of the Lord” one person is not enough: you need a community, at least one who first listens to the word spoken loudly, and another one who writes it. Writing is a dialogue, never a monologue, it is a social event, a collective action, a community, a relationship.

Furthermore, Jeremiah himself cannot go to the temple (perhaps for reasons of impurity, or because he would have been arrested before he could finish reading), and the translation of the word into writing makes it possible for another person to read and pass on the gift of the word. This is where a fundamental, perhaps primary characteristic of the word is explained: once the spoken word becomes written, it emancipates itself from the necessary relationship with the one who uttered it. Writing frees the word from its master, redeems it, calls it to a different kind of freedom. It is not the only instrument for this operation (even oral cultures knew how to embody words and liberate them through memory and the narration of traditions), but it is perhaps the most powerful; so powerful that the liberated 'slave' often ends up killing his master, when the written word is manipulated and perverted.

That first solemn reading in the temple produced some fruit. Micaiah, a close friend of the prophet, went to the leaders and “told them all the words that he had heard, when Baruch read the scroll in the hearing of the people” (36:13). Then the officials sent a message to Baruch saying: “Take in your hand the scroll that you read in the hearing of the people, and come” (36:14). Baruch read to the leaders and “When they heard all the words, they turned one to another in fear. And they said to Baruch, “We must report all these words to the king” (36:16). The leaders of the people and some priests in the temple took the words of Jeremiah seriously. King Jehoiakim, however, did not: “…the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. (...) And the king commanded ... to seize Baruch the secretary and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them” (36:22-26). Today we know the heart of the scroll read by Baruch, and the king also knew it, as he had heard Jeremiah and his prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many times. Words that Jehoiakim had not wanted to listen to, and that he still does not want to listen to. The effect of the written word was the same as that of the spoken word. The gesture of burning the papyrus, piece after piece, says with a new language what Jehoiakim had already said many times: your words are straw, vanitas, nothing. The written word shares the same fate as the spoken one.

But here's another wonderful surprise for us to discover among those flames and ashes. Jeremiah, an expert in the traditions of the North, the Covenant and Exodus, gives us another parallel with a great episode in the history of the first salvation. Just like YHWH dictated the Tables of the Law to Moses once again after the wickedness and idolatry of his people had broken them, now, after the destruction of the first scroll by a deaf and unfaithful king, Jeremiah receives a new order: “Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned” (36:28).

The text of the Book of Jeremiah that the Bible has preserved and handed down is therefore the second script of the word of Jeremiah, risen from the ashes of the first scroll. Jeremiah was still alive, free, and so he could rewrite the words he had received and said: “Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, who wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire” (36:32). The fire of the fire pot did not win over the fire of the word.

The story closes with a simple sentence containing a wonderful message. About the second edition of the scroll it says: “And many similar words were added to them” - similar to those that had been written in the burned scroll (36:32). In the first edition of Jeremiah's scroll, there were some words that were probably lost forever; words that were similar, not identical, to those he dictated again. The fire of evil and of the stupidity of mankind always leaves its mark - this is also an expression of the seriousness and truth of human history. But, and this is really important, in the second edition we have new words that were not in the first dictation. Perhaps that fire stimulated the writing of Jeremiah's most intimate confessions, his most beautiful prayers, the story of his call and his wonderful songs of despair. Maybe: we cannot know, but we can imagine it, we can wish that the most beautiful of his pages flowered from the wound that the fire engraved in Jeremiah’s soul (our wishes about what has already been do not change history, but always change our ‘already' and 'not yet').

The new life that is reborn from the ashes is never a copy of the burnt life. The resurrected body is not the earlier body reanimated. The second episode is not a replica of the first. When the first script of our story went up in smoke - because it was deliberately burned by someone, because it was burned by self-combustion, or it burned and that’s it, and we didn't understand why - as long as we are alive we can still write another one. Remembering the first words, and adding many more to them. We are alive and out of prison if in front of the ashes of the chapters of our life or those of our whole life we still manage to find the strength, and a friend to be our scribe, to start over, writing a new story. And, in the end, to find out that it was the most beautiful tale which we would not have written without the flames of the fire pot.

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