The book of the desert

Michelangelo Anselmi, St. Jerome and St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1532-1540, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Books don’t chase away solitude, they make it bearable, turning it into a sweet presence, unthreatening, even kind. Sometimes they even foster it, and it’s an alluring proposition.

Books don’t populate the cities of the mind, they build those cities up. They bring us to their gates and ask us to enter. Not every reader has the courage to step inside th pomerium, the sacred enclosure. Most of us watch from the sidelines of fiction the madding crowds within.

In Western iconography, the book of loneliness belongs almost exclusively to St Jerome. The theologian, translator, scholar, revered Church Father, Jerome is recognisable in manuscript miniatures, paintings and engravings not only by his eremitical, meditational, solitary setting, the lion of the desert, the customary skull, the hirsute, frugal pose, but also, and most of all, by the books furnishing the surrounding wasteland. Why is that?

Jerome was a prolific writer, the world’s best known translator (the Latin Bible is his achievement), and to represent him surrounded by books is to make a key biographical point. But I think there’s more to it than that. Books don’t belong in the desert. As solitary as reading might be, the written page is essentially a social, communal project. Literacy is shared, education is passed down. The letters may be individual, but they represent human civilization at its highest. A shared journey for the benefit of each individual reader. Books are written with hosts of readers in mind.

So the book of the desert is an anomaly, an uprooted sprouting tree replanted in barren ground. But is it really barren? The wasteland, like Jerome’s desert of choice, may be devoid of life, but it is not ungenerative of life. In it, the seeker finds new resources in herself, hidden greeneries and unsuspected pastures. And Jerome’s books, sand through their pages, parchment scorched by the sun, ink fossilised in the heat of the day, are more than a vehicle of wisdom, knowledge and information. They are the counterpart to the desert, the silent voice of multitudes from whom the human spirit, even in the most secluded space, can’t escape. For escaping it would mark the end of the journey.

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