If there’s one thing The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown and “The Library of Babel”’s Jorge Luis Borges have in common it is a love for obscure religious and occult books and artifacts. But why do I compare Borges—one of the most highly-regarded, but difficult, of Latin American poets and writers—to a famous American writer of entertaining paperback thrillers? One reason only: despite the vast differences in their styles and registers, Borges would be deeply moved by Brown’s recent act of philanthropy, a donation of €300,000 to Amsterdam’s Ritman Library, also known as the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica House of Living Books.
The generous gift will enable the Ritman to digitize thousands of “pre-1900 texts on alchemy, astrology, magic, and theosophy,” reports Thu-Huong Ha at Quartz, including the Corpus Hermeticum (1472), “the source work on Hermetic wisdom”; Giordano Bruno’s Spaccio de la bestia trionfante (1584); and “the first printed version of the tree of life (1516): A graphic representation of the sefirot, the 10 virtues of God according to the Kabbalah.”
Brown, the Ritman notes, “is a great admirer of the library and visited on several occasions while writing his novels The Lost Symbol and Inferno.” Now he's giving back. Some of the revenue generated by his bestselling novels, along with a €15,000 contribution from the Dutch Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, will allow the library’s core collection, “some 3,500 ancient books,” to come online soon in an archive called “Hermetically Open.”
For now, the curious can download the 44-page guide to the collection as a free ebook, and watch the animated video at the top, a breezy explainer of how the books will be transported, digitized, and uploaded. Just above, see a trailer for a documentary about the Ritman, founded by businessman Joost R. Ritman in 1984. The library holds over 20,000 volumes on mysticism, spirituality, religion, alchemy, Gnosticism, and more.
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Many a writer, like Brown, has found inspiration among the Ritman's more accessible works (though, sadly, Borges, who was blind in 1984 and died two years later, could not have appreciated it). Now, thanks to the Da Vinci Code author’s magnanimity, a new generation of scholars will be able to virtually access, for example, the first English translation of the works of 17-century German mystic Jakob Böhme, which librarian and director Esther Ritman describes as “travelling in an entire new world.”
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In an introductory essay, the Ritman notes that academic interest in occult and hermetic writing has increased lately among scholars like W.J. Hanegraaff, who tells “the ‘neglected’ story of how the intellectual community since the Renaissance has tried to come to terms with ‘esoteric’ and ‘occult’ currents present in Western culture.” That those currents are as much a part of the culture as the scientific or industrial revolutions need not be in doubt. The Hermetically Open project opens up that history with “an invitation to anyone wishing to consult or study sources belonging to the field of Christian-Hermetic Gnosis for personal, academic or other purposes.” Look for the digitization project to hit the web in the coming months.