April evenings in Buenos Aires have a warm glow about them that softens the light and leaves the sky in placid shades of violet and mauve. This slows the pace of life in the city, permitting the senses to take in just a bit more of what the world has to offer. It’s a small gift from the cosmos, but one that invariably inspires gratitude in the beholder. On one such evening some years ago I found myself strolling the streets of Recoleta. It may have been happenstance, but I attribute the way my attention was captivated by the unremarkable bookstore to the manner in which my senses were heightened by those colors of the evening sky.
The front of the shop to which I was drawn consisted of little more than a small door surrounded by a thin frame, and a sign hanging above, embossed with the single word “Books”. The door was a simple affair, with a solid slab of mahogany interrupted only by four dingy panes of glass, providing a glimpse of a seemingly featureless darkness within. A knob protruded modestly and seemed to serve primarily as a collector of dust rather than as a means to gain entrance. Without knowing precisely why, I grasped the knob and gave it a sharp twist. The door gave way and I was immediately assaulted by a musty odor that spoke of years of neglect. I paused at the threshold, halted by an escalating trepidation. Considering carefully, I resolved to choose enterprise over restraint, and stepped inside.
It was silent in the shop. My eyes adjusted to the darkness slowly and it was some time before the tall bookshelves gradually emerged from the fog of my diminished vision. The door closed quietly but firmly behind me and I was left alone with whatever I could make out in the small shop by the dim light that streamed in through the window in the door. All about me were a series of dusty bookshelves, but nothing else. No other furnishings, no other entrances or exits, and no clerk. Only the looming bookshelves.
I stepped into the row of shelves closest to me and squinted at the titles of the books they held. I inspected one shelf by the meager illumination, then another. I turned around and browsed the facing shelves. I went down the row, then investigated the next row. From what I could apprehend, the books in the shop’s inventory all shared the same subject. I pulled down one volume and opened it. Its subject, as seemed to be the case with every book in the shop, was the history and practice of the ancient gnostic faith.
I held in my hand a text dealing with the Sophia, an important character from the gnostic creation myth. What little I knew about gnosticism primarily concerned the duality of the imperfect material world and the perfect spiritual world. Beyond that, I knew little, but the volume I was holding seemed to have the purpose of revealing much more about this mysterious topic. I found it to be an interesting subject, but the shop was not conducive to reading. I would enjoy perusing the book in more comfortable surroundings, but felt uneasy about removing it from the premises without permission from someone in authority. I searched the shop, but again could not find anything to suggest the presence of a proprietor or indeed anything to suggest the presence of anyone at all, past or present.
I only intended to borrow the book for a short while so I could properly enjoy it so, having attempted and failed to to find anyone employed at the shop, I felt relieved of my obligation to seek permission and proceeded out into the street, and from there carried the book home with me.
Upon reaching home, I began to feel guilty about removing the book from the shop, but I rationalized my behavior by asserting that I would only borrow it for a short while, with the consequence that I felt compelled to read it immediately. If I did so, and returned it quickly, surely no one could find offense in my actions.
And so, I devoured that book in a single night, absorbing the words as if in a trance, right through until dawn, coming to the final page as the sun rose at daybreak.
The text described the Monad, the transcendent entity that embodied the fulfillment of timeless perfection. A series of further divine emanations, called aeons, served as avatars or aspects of the Monad. Each represents a characteristic, including the aeon Sophia, which represents knowledge.
That afternoon I set out to return to the bookstore. At first my objective was to restore the borrowed book to its shelf as I had promised the evening before. Reflecting on it though, a complication occurred to me. If I encountered someone at the bookstore, how would I explain bringing a book into the shop? Perhaps it would be best to avoid any such a confrontation by keeping the book at home a bit longer. Instead, my objective in revisiting the shop was to borrow a second book, for in reading the first one I had discovered it was the first of seven volumes.
Returning to the shop, everything was as I had left it. The feeble sunlight seeped in through the window in the door. The books wore their mantle of dust bespeaking years of neglect. I searched for the shelf where I found the book the day before and selected volume two of the series. I slipped it inside my coat and exited the shop.
That night, again I found myself enthralled by the text which described the tenets of gnosticism and again read until dawn.
I learned of the Sophia’s pursuit of knowledge, which was a forbidden endeavor. This proscribed pursuit accidentally created a rent in the fabric of the divinity, leading to the creation of the Demiurge, an imperfect being. This places the Sophia at the nexus between the transcendent perfect world, and the subordinate imperfect world. The division between these worlds is marked by seven pillars which act as a support in the heavenly realm.
The next evening I repeated the process, again choosing to leave the borrowed book at home before setting out to fetch the next volume. I removed it from the shelf in the bookstore and returned home. While on my way home, nightfall came quickly and, it seemed to me, rather early.
This volume described the actions of the Demiurge, who created the material world and populated it with mankind. Since the Demiurge is an imperfect, or even incompetent, entity, this product of his efforts is imperfect and flawed. The world was created in error and its design contains many mistakes. Most notable among these flaws is evil. However, the Sophia managed to plant a divine spark in every being created by the Demiurge, providing a hope of redemption.
The following evening I once again performed the same sequence of actions, this time taking the fourth volume. On the way home, passing through the neighborhood of San Telmo, I decided to stop at a parilla, which was a particular favorite of mine, for dinner. Sitting outside under the autumn starlight, I happened to look across the water to Puerto Madero and was surprised to see only darkness coming from that neighborhood. I took little notice of it at the time and attributed it to some fog obscuring the distant lights.
I took more serious notice of the fog on the fifth evening. From San Telmo, not only was Puerto Madero hidden in the mist, but I could also see nothing in the direction of La Boca…nothing but a murky darkness. This was odd, since that neighborhood could usually be seen from far down the avenues. This was obviously some strange meteorological phenomenon with which I was unfamiliar.
On the sixth evening I arose from sleeping during the day as I had again spent the night enraptured by pages of the subsequent volume from the shop. I set out for the bookstore, but I took a small detour toward the waterfront to enjoy the air from the Plata. After walking several blocks in that direction until I should have arrived at the waterfront, I was astonished to find myself precisely where I had begun my detour, still some distance from the water. I stopped, arrested by confusion. Looking about in all directions, I tried to make sense of this turn of events, but could not. Now feeling disoriented and bewildered, I proceeded on the direct course to the bookstore.
Arising from my daytime sleep on the seventh evening, I was in possession of six volumes from the shop. I felt not only groggy, but mesmerized, with incomplete control of my faculties. I stumbled out into the street in the direction of the bookstore. The fog from the previous evening had now descended deeply into the city and when peering down the side streets as I made my way, I could see nothing but a misty darkness. Only my path was endowed with any illumination from the sun. I pressed forward, propelled by compulsion.
Reaching the bookstore, I entered and sought out the shelf with the seventh volume. Grasping the book, I felt a connection slowly forming in my fevered mind between the seven volumes I had been reading and the Sophia’s seven pillars, which served as the foundation of the material world. I began to construct the notion that the seven pillars were somehow manifested in these seven volumes, and I was disassembling the material world, one pillar at a time, by removing them from the shop.
As I lifted the last book from the shelf, the light outside was gradually extinguished, leaving me in utter blackness. I stood there in the dark for some time. I entertained the idea of eliminating all evil, all suffering, all deprivation. I contemplated eliminating the entire world, and with it all the errors committed by the Demiurge that account for the flaws of humankind.
I felt the weight of the book in my hand, suddenly quite heavy. Slowly I lifted it upwards, towards its assigned space. I replaced it on the shelf and stepped out of the shop into the growing light, starting on my way home to retrieve the remaining six volumes.