Sapientiam Autem Non Vincit Malitia - Eagle photo: Donald Mathis


How to read the Bible

Olavo de Carvalho
Jornal do Brasil , January 17th , 2008


When you read a novel or a play, you won't be able to judge the verisimilitude of situations and characters if first you don't let the plot impress you, so you can relive it internally as a dream.  This is fiction: a directed, awaken dream. As the characters don't exist physically (even if they might have existed historically in the past), you can only find them in your own soul, as symbols of human possibilities that are in you as in anybody else, but which the characters embody, in the most limpid and exemplary manner, away from the contingencies that may render obscure our everyday experience.  Reading fiction is an exercise in self-knowledge before it can be literary analysis, school activity or even entertainment: it's not entertaining to follow an opaque story, whose developments don't raise corresponding emotions.

The same requirement applies to History books, with the attenuating circumstance that usually the historian has already intellectually processed the data and provides us with a principle of understanding, instead of the rough plot of events. If you don't grasp the acts of historical characters as symbols invested of psychological verisimilitude, you don't have the least condition to then evaluate if they are historically true or not. A History book must be read first as fiction and only afterwards as reality.

The problem is that the possibilities that lay dormant in the depth of our souls aren't always known to us, and then we cannot recognize them when they come up in fiction or History. The result is that the narrative becomes opaque. Even worse, you may let yourself be fooled by fake similarities, reducing the symbols of the narrative to conventional signs of already-known possibilities or to trivial stereotypes of actuality.  Internal recognition is not only a memory exercise, but a serious effort to enlarge the imagination, so that it may encompass even the most extreme and unexpected possibilities. You cannot do this if you are not willing to find, in your soul, monsters, heroes and saints who you never suspected to find there.

Understandably, monsters are easier to find than heroes or saints. Fear, disgust, hatred and contempt are routine emotions, and they are enough to confer a likeness of truth to whatever seems to us to be worse than ourselves. On the other hand, whatever is noble and elevated only reveals itself to those who love it, and this love immediately brings with itself a sentiment of duty, obligation, as in the well-known sonnet by Rilke, in which the perfection of a statue of Apollo transcends mere aesthetic contemplation and summons the observer to change his life, to become a better person. The humiliating impression of not being up to par with this summoning almost automatically generates a negative reaction of resentment.  By denying the existence of what is better, reducing it to what is trivial, or turning it into a misleading disguise of what is ugly and despicable, the soul finds a momentary relief for its wounded pride, restoring a tranquilizing self-image at the expense of miserably shortening the maximum measure of human possibilities.

If this problem exists with any fiction or History book, imagine what happens with the Bible, where the central character is God himself. To open oneself up to the calling of divine perfection is a task for a whole life and then some, and it comes mixed up with innumerable defeats and humiliations but without this opening up you will not understand a single word of the Bible. One hundred percent of militant atheism is made of resentment and incapacity of serious reading.