How much is still left of the night?

How much is still left of the night?

The mystery revealed/9 – Let us ask ourselves if our dreams from childhood are truer than our adult reality.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 29/05/2022

"They came to me in the morning to be a bit consoled
But I think I'm a bad comforter. I am able to listen,
but I can hardly say anything"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reality and Resistance, February 1, 1944

A disturbing vision of the king and the entrance on the scene of the queen mother, who asks that Daniel should be called upon, give some insights into the world of things and the intelligence of women in resolving conflicts.

Our life is not accompanied only by people, animals, plants, the sea and the mountains. Even things, objects, our artefacts, have their own mysterious life. They are impregnated with our humanity, they are impregnated with our scents and perfumes, as we are with them - we have remained breathless, at least once, encountering our grandfather again, when opening an old wardrobe, being met with the unmistakable scent of his old ties. Things lengthen our life, they colour it, and they give flavour and fragrance to our daily actions. They speak, they tell, they remember, they call upon us. We also inhabit the world by enriching it with things, which subsequently become signs, languages, companionship, and new words.

Capitalism has multiplied things out of all proportion, and one day the earth found itself overflowing with objects. However, things that become infinite lose their smell, spirit, their soul and life. If I have only a few things, they are all special precisely because each one is a unique piece: I know the object, it has a story that speaks to me, and it has its own name. If, on the other hand, I have twenty pairs of shoes and thirty dresses, I am surrounded by more things, but fewer names - this is one of the poverties of opulence, a misery that our national accounts record backwards, but that our soul every now and then is able to intercept in the solitudes flooded by silent objects. Ancient man was immensely more competent than we are in the language of things. He knew their soul; he knew how to discern their good spirit from bad ones. He was perpetually immersed in a magical garden, where everything spoke to him with words of life and death, where nothing was silent. One day we woke up and called this entire magical world a childhood dream and expelled it from our serious reality. However, some people continued to dream, and did not stop living in a world populated by angels, spirits, in a land inhabited by God. The Bible is the invisible kingdom of God's dreamers - what if one day we end up discovering that dream of a small child was truer than our adult reality?

After the vision of the king of Babylon, reduced to a wolf-man and then re-established in his kingdom (Daniel, chapter 4), the story told by the Book of Daniel takes us to a totally different environment. We find ourselves inside a large banquet at court. We are at the end of the Babylonian empire. Belshazzar is the king (or the regent during the absence of the father king). According to the text, Belshazzar is the son of Nebuchadnezzar, but it is likely that, as in the previous chapter, the author confuses Nebuchadnezzar with his son-in-law Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king. As we now know, the historical data of the Book of Daniel is mixed with legend, although in the light of new archaeological discoveries, today we believe it is considerably less fanciful than the exegetes of the last century believed.

«King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.  While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them» (Daniel 5,1-2). The presence of wine and women creates an orgy-like environment. The central point of the story is the sacrilegious use of the vases stolen from the temple of Jerusalem, sacred objects of worship transformed into wine glasses in a delightful banquet. Desecration or sacrilege is one of the forms that idolatry takes in the Bible, objects created and designed to honour God that are distorted and perverted by those who want to claim to be greater than the divinity for which those objects were reserved, because by marking the boundaries between sacred and profane you wish to be god.

We find it very difficult to understand the gravity of this sin, because in our world emptied of gods we have lost the very meaning of profanation. Ancient man, on the other hand, who knew the essential boundary between that which is sacred and that which is profane with utter clarity, was infinitely sensitive to the improper crossing of that threshold.

Yet some traces of that sin remain, secularized, in our Western society, and not in secondary aspects. We all understand what the desecration of tombs is, and we all feel its gravity, not just in religious terms. As we know that not all things, not all objects around us are the same. Some are different because they are part of our identity – our personal family community - they have a different nature hidden under their material envelope.

Some gifts, for example, are among them. As long as we loved each other and shared our life, that book and that chain received as a gift were objects mixed among many others, but we know how to recognize them, they have a different chrism and a different light. They were guarded, protected, separated ("sacred") from all other objects. The day our story ends forever, one of the first signs of this death is the return of those gift-objects to ordinary things: that special light goes out and their chrism is cancelled. Thus, you go back along the road, to cross the border, and those gifts turn into things again, filed away among normal objects; or at least we try, we would like them to change their nature, that they were not there, reopening the wounds in our eyes and our heart every day. Things, however, have a mysterious resilient autonomy; it is not easy to erase our past from them because our relationships have a tendency to change them forever. That is why we sometimes end up destroying those gifts or, as they did once upon a time, give them back, forever silencing their demons that keep crying out to us. Here is another example, those of you who have a library - know exactly which books were given to you by friends, teachers, or colleagues, and which ones you bought on the market. A guest would only see books; we however might see faces, words and signs once again in some. Perhaps a definition of faith is the gift of eyes that are capable of recognizing the nature of the books of the "library of the earth": the library is the same for all of them, but some people name the giver of some special books without trying to become the master of even a single sheet.

One night, thieves broke into my home. They stole some items and some of my pens. One of them was the fountain pen that my dear professor Pier Luigi Porta had given me the day I became a tenured teacher in Milan, with my initials engraved on it. I felt upset and displeasure for the other stolen objects, but the word that immediately rose from my soul for that pen was: profanation.

In the midst of the fumes of the party, an unexpected and shocking event occurs: «Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking» (Daniel 5,5-6). Once more, while faced with a disturbing vision, the king summons the experts of interpreting the arcana: «Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant» (Daniel 5,8). After yet another failure of the court magicians, we should really ask ourselves why the Babylonian kings insisted on continuing to use a profession of soothsayers who did not manage to figure out a single mystery! Perhaps because every political and religious power has an essential need for various wizards and experts (speech writers, consultants, futurologists and script writers), who in regular times generally do enjoy some success. It is, however, during the great crises where the professional magicians and soothsayers of the state turn out to be rather bankrupt. Each epochal crisis is a "creative destruction" of consultants and experts, from which a new class is born, that will repeat the same thing with the arrival of the next crisis. In the case of extraordinary visions and dreams, one would need at least one prophet, but there is almost never one to be found, as they end up eliminated by the successes of false prophets during easy times.

And here is a new twist: «The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Do not be alarmed! Do not look so pale! There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him… Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means”» (Daniel 5,10-12). The queen mother enters, according to Herodotus (Annals I, 185-188) she was Belshazzar's grandmother: her name was Nitocris, mother of Nabonidus.

She is the first woman to appear in the Book of Daniel, hitherto dominated entirely by male figures. The queen has some characteristics that we often find in women in the Bible. They come to solve difficult problems when men with their typical resources have run aground. They solve the problem by making use of memory, remembering what men have forgotten.

Remember is the first verb of these different solutions: remember the good things you have forgotten, the real things that the fathers did. Remember your roots, because the roots are your future. A "remember" that in the great crises of human relationships often takes the form of: "remember yourself", remember who you really are, because it is the only place from which you will be able to find the solution.

The queen also knows how to recognize the presence of the spirit of the holy saints and god. She did not believe in Daniel's God-YHWH, she prayed to other gods, but she instinctively knew how to intercept the good spirit of God wherever it happened to blow, less conditioned by the dogmas and boundaries set by religions as she was. There has always been a great kinship between prophets and women, and it continues to exist in the mysterious encounters of different freedoms.

Finally, the first aspect of the problem that comes to the attention of the queen is not linked to political power or to court strategies. Do not be alarmed. Do not look so pale: it is the personal condition of her grandson that worries her, that worries her emotions, her fears. The solution of the problem is inseparable from the well-being of actual people, the management of what is good and right cannot take place without taking care of our emotions and relationships.

How we miss women and mothers in the attempts to resolve conflicts and wars! How long do we have to wait before a different woman enters the scene of a war today, entirely occupied by males, their hallucinations amplified by their experts? Guard: How much is still left of the night?

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