The Electronic Labyrinth

The Book of Nature

The idea of the Book as a totality, as a complete and unified structure that galvanizes the polyvalency of language into a single, determinate meaning, was (and perhaps in a residual sense still is) the model for our understanding of the world itself, for the way in which people try to make sense of the irreducible complexity of what we call nature, or reality.

Early Christian doctrine held that God was the author of two texts, the Book of God, or The Bible, and The Book of Nature. The two were co-extensive: given the right interpretative tools, one could read the eternal verities of God's design from Nature back to the Bible, and vice versa. The medieval world was thoroughly semiotic, the stars in the sky and the leaves on the trees were shot through with semantic meaning, signifiers of the Creator's absolute authorship. Writing in the twelfth century CE, Hugh of St. Victor reminded his contemporaries that the true Christian is an unflagging hermeneut, who in reading the Book of Nature seeks to penetrate the outward appearance of things in order to recover their God-sent meaning:

For this whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power [...] But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book looks at the figures but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish natural man who does not perceive the things of God outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvellous is the wisdom of the Creator. (qtd. in Josipovici 29)

The world in all its immediacy, its diversity and arbitrariness, in its radical otherness, is subsumed into history, histoire, the book which contains its polyvalency within the safe confines of a supernatural plot, bracketing it between a beginning, a middle and an end.

In particular, the world-as-book secures meaning from the corrupting influence of language; the Book of Nature dissolves the written word, forcing it into transparency. As Michel Foucault writes in The Order of Things:

The great metaphor of the book that opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference, and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals. (35)

The Book of Nature, as another manifestation of The Book, reveals the enormous impact which the linear model of textual organization has had not only our values of what constitutes literature (its importance being especially evident in the emergence of the novel) but on the way in which we have imagined our world.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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