Italo Calvino’s If on a winter night a traveler is a novel of starts with no stops. Calvino explores language and the relationship between texts and readers. I happened to be reading it at the same time I was going through Brant A. Gardner’s new book The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I’ll post my full review of Gardner tomorrow, but here’s an excerpt from Calvino to ponder in the meantime.
The Koran is the holy book about whose compositional process we know most. There were at least two mediations between the whole and the book: Mohammed listened to the word of Allah and dictated, in his turn, to his scribes. Once—the biographers of the Prophet tell us—while dictating to the scribe Abdullah, Mohammed left a sentence half finished. The scribe, instinctively, suggested the conclusion. Absently, the Prophet accepted as the divine word what Abdullah had said. This scandalized the scribe, who abandoned the Prophet and lost his faith.
He was wrong. The organization of the sentence, finally, was a responsibility that lay with him; he was the one who had to deal with the internal coherence of the written language, with grammar and syntax, to channel into it the fluidity of a thought that expands outside all language before it becomes word, and of a word particularly fluid like that of a prophet. The scribe’s collaboration was necessary to Allah, once he had decided to express himself in a written text. Mohammed knew this and allowed the scribe the privilege of concluding the sentences; but Abdullah was unaware of the powers vested in him. He lost his faith in Allah because he lacked faith in writing, and in himself as an agent of writing.
If an infidel were allowed to excogitate variants on the legends of the Prophet, I would venture this one: Abdullah loses his faith because in writing under dictation he makes a mistake and Mohammed, though he notices it, decides not to correct it, finding the mistaken form preferable. In this case, Abdullah would be wrong to be scandalized. It is on the page, not before, that the word, even that of the prophetic raptus, becomes definitive, that is to say, becomes writing. It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen. Otherwise what is outside of us should not insist on communicating through the word, spoken or written: let it send its messages by other paths.