I have a holy text. Kind of. It’s a book, of sorts, that contains advice and guidance, teaches me moral lessons. It gives me examples to follow, and shows me the hazards I need to avoid.
It’s quite a good book. Big. Interesting. Boring as shit. Baffling. Facile. Factual, fictional, poetic and proselike, monotonous and musical.
It’s a very big book. It’s so big that there isn’t a library built that could hold a copy; and for you smartarses who’re already rushing ahead, no – I don’t mean the Internet.
What shall I call my book? It doesn’t have a fixed name. I could borrow the Wiccan name, ‘Book of Shadows’, since that’s at least partially where my book exists: in shadows and reflections. The Book of Mirrors, perhaps? Just as good. My book exists between the pages of other books; its words among the lines of other texts. It can be heard in the words spoken in plays or in speeches and television programmes. It can be read through the gestures of an actor, and heard in the lyrics and melody of a song.
You can see it in mathematical and chemical formulae. It’s there in the singing of the wind or the rustle of leaves. It shows itself in the ripples in water or the flickering of a flame.
So if you guessed my Book of Shadows/Mirrors was the Internet, it wasn’t a bad assumption, since I spend most of my life wandering around one bit of the Net or another. But no: the Internet is part of the Book, but it’s not the whole Book.
It’s barely a footnote, to be honest.
I’ve never read the whole Book, obviously. How could I? Read the whole thing? Impossible. Since the Book contains every word spoken or written by every human being in history, every natural phenomenon, cause and effect, every process, natural or man-made, it’s still being written. Perhaps Page One describes the Big Bang, but then again, maybe the Big Bang is Chapter Twelve, or Four Billion Two Hundred and Three.
There’s a lot of the Book we simply couldn’t read even if we wanted to. You know there are galaxies out there that’re moving so fast away from us, and accelerating so quickly, that the light they emit will never reach us? Whole Volumes of the Book, ever out of our reach. Hey, what if they contain the really important stuff? What if that’s why the bit we can see makes so little damned sense?
I suppose it’d be easier to describe my holy text as “wisdom wherever you find it”. And there’s a lot of it out in the strange places we might never think to look.
There are lessons to be learned from history. The Book teaches us where our forebears have gone wrong, showing us their mistakes so we can avoid them.
The Book sets examples for us. It shows us human beings at their best and at their worst. It demonstrates the values that might aspire to embody; and it warns us of what we can so easily become if we allow our darker nature too much sway.
It shows us wisdom – but it expects us to look for it; to recognise it when we see it; to interpret it. The Book can offer us possibilities – exercises to think through, to reflect on.
All this is in the Book. It’s constantly being added to. It is an unlimited repository of information. And it’s alive. It’s not written, finished – done and locked down and published. And it’s not ‘alive’ in the sense that a website is actively updated – even one that’s updated every day, or every hour.
The Book of Mirrors – or maybe Shadows – is writing itself, and we’re writing it as we go. And our every interaction with it, every lesson we learn (or fail to learn) from it creates more pages. It is full of lessons. And we who try (because we can only ever try) to read the Book will find those lessons in places that others might dismiss out of hand. Here is a lesson:
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Yeah, you’ve heard that lesson, haven’t you? You probably saw the guy who said it saying it again in your mind. Little green fellow. Ears. Floaty chair. Yep – it’s Yoda, Jedi Master, from… I don’t know. One of the Star Wars prequel films. Episode I? II? Or the other one – the name escapes me for the minute.
But that’s not a lesson. It’s not wisdom. Because it’s from Star Wars. Good gods, George Lucas himself probably wrote that. That’s hardly holy words, is it?
Read it again. And again. See what it’s saying. See the process it’s describing. Now think about it. Tell me: is it wrong?
Arguably it might not be complete – there are plenty of other routes to get to suffering; and there are different places you can go from fear. So if we take it as an absolute, without the possibility of deviation, then of course it fails.
But consider it as a general principle, and it’s sound. Very sound. The central sections are pretty universal. Find hatred, and examine it closely, and you’ll see the anger that drives it. Examine that anger, and you’ll find fear. Always. You might find a legitimate fear, but you’ll find one. And you’ll find a decision made to surrender to that fear; to be driven by it like an animal, working on instinct; to push away restraint, rationality, reason.
This is a lesson from the Book.
But… but… George Lucas (you’re probably spluttering)! George Lucas isn’t a philosopher (you might be insisting)! He’s a hack sci-fi writer (you perhaps accused)!
Perhaps. Some would say he’s a fairly good sci-fi writer. He’s certainly a successful one.
But no, you’re right: he’s not a philosopher. But that’s the Book of Mirrors for you. It contains George Lucas’ life, and all the things he’ll ever have done, or said, or written (along with everyone else’s) – but the words are not about him. And he is not the point of the words. Rewrite the words. Use different words. The principle holds. The truth remains.
Hate is based on anger which is based on fear. A sound principle indeed.
“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do.”
That’s from Neil Gaiman – and it’s also part of the Book. Also, his book, obviously. But the Book as well.
And that’s what the Book is, and what it does. It holds information and ideas and principles and rules and advice. It shows us the wrong ways, and it shows us the right ways, and it tells us what we need to do to win – at least the part of the Book’s story that we’re in.
But it doesn’t point us to the answers. It doesn’t list its lessons in chapter or verse; it doesn’t read from front cover to back. It’s just there, waiting for us to remember that we’re all reading it, all the time.
It tells us about ourselves and it tells us about the world we live in and what the nature of the world is and the nature of ourselves, and gives us answers to questions we haven’t thought to ask and sometimes it gives us answers we don’t really want, or can’t really deal with.
You want an example?
All right. Since we’ve heard from Mr Gaiman, let’s now hear from one of his characters:
“If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think we know is a lie. It means the world’s about as solid and as reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don’t even want to think about. It means that we’re just dolls. We don’t have a clue what’s really going down, we just kid ourselves that we’re in control of our lives while a paper’s thickness away things that would drive us mad if we thought about them for too long play with us, and move us around from room to room, and put us away at night when they’re tired, or bored.”
That’s from Rose Walker, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: The Doll’s House.
Did Neil Gaiman intend those words as an illustration of the real world we’re living in? Probably not. Or maybe. How the blazes would I know?
But if you let them sink into your mind and roll around a little, you can see what they’re saying, and you might – if it’s late at night and you’re tired, or anxious, or scared, or melancholy, or just a little drunk ; or some combination, perhaps – realise that it’s true.
From a certain point of view.
I’m going to leave you with that last one – but I think I’ll come back to its ideas next time.