“I Cannot Read and Therefore Wish All Books Were Burned”

This title is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s iconic play Doctor Faustus. It is a phrase that has been on my mind recently when I reflect on various current events. But first, perhaps some context will be useful: These words are spoken by the allegorical (and demonic) representation of Envy. Mephistopheles has conjured up representations of the seven deadly sins as a “pastime” for Doctor Faustus who was recently doubting his choice to serve evil. The seven representations parade before Doctor Faustus and give little speeches that summarize what they are.

The speech from Envy has stuck in my head recently, because it is a fascinating twist on what we usually think of envy. The usual understanding of envy is something like “My neighbor has a heated swimming pool, I want one too!” We tend to think of envy as wanting something purely for ourselves first, and then possibly denying it to others second. But Christopher Marlowe switches this perspective around. Envy says that he does not have something (literacy) and so rather than take it purely for himself, he would simply deny it to all others through a “scorched earth” practice. Envy does not care about even having things for himself; in his selfishness he paradoxically turns outward to others and commits acts of violence upon others. The selfish desires are subsumed by outward violence.

It’s a fascinating perspective when one looks at acts of violence being committed against others in our societies (and around the world) and see if they fit into this Marlovian depiction of envy. I wonder how many acts of violence have been committed purely because the violent cannot understand something about their victims and so determine that they must be burned? And perhaps Heinrich Heine had something of this in mind when he looked at books being burned in Berlin and famously prophesied that “Where they burn books, soon they will burn people.”

Violence towards the unknown; the legacy of Cain. He didn’t know why Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his rejected, but he could easily have said with Envy “I cannot offer an acceptable sacrifice and therefore wish all sacrifice to cease.” Then he fell upon his brother and murdered him.


~ by crossingthebosporus on September 14, 2012.

5 Responses to ““I Cannot Read and Therefore Wish All Books Were Burned””

  1. It is a fascinating perspective. thank you. I will add it to my reasoning process.

  2. Like Caliban, envy cannot bear to see itself in the mirror.

  3. More for you:


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