The Strange Adventures of Jacob d'Ancona
There are found books and there are “found” books. To which category should we assign the curious case of a book called The City of Light, recently published in a long-delayed American edition as “The Hidden Journal of the Man Who Entered China Four Years Before Marco Polo?”1
This kind of question has been around, if not for as long as books themselves, then for the better part of their existence. The earliest known case occurred in 622 B.C.E. and can be read about in the Bible. Chapter 22 of Kings II tells us:
And it came to pass in the eighteenth year of King Josiah that the king sent Shaphan . . . the scribe to the house of the Lord saying, Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may sum the silver which is brought into the house of the Lord. . . . And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan and he read it. . . . And Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest . . . saying, Go ye inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.
Exactly what “book of the law” it was that the high priest “found” while counting the silver in the Temple is a matter of debate. Many scholars think it was Deuteronomy, for which there is evidence of a 7th-century provenance and in which there are grim warnings of the fate of those disobeying God’s word that might explain Josiah’s reaction. It is also debatable whether the book was found at all. The suspicious presence of a scribe in the story suggests him as its possible author, in which case we may be reading about the oldest literary hoax on record—a “hoax,” if that is the right word for a document as monumental as Deuteronomy, with spectacular results, since it persuaded Josiah to launch a massive religious purge of Judeo-pagan practices. Perhaps Shaphan and Hilkiah were in cahoots; perhaps Josiah was in on it; perhaps the “found” book was cobbled together from preexisting sources. Most likely, there were Judeans of the age who wondered about it, too.
Religious works, particularly those purporting to be divinely inspired, feature prominently among famous “found” books, it being more credible to lay the mantle of revelation on ancient personages of renown than on living men known, foibles and all, to their contemporaries. But one must distinguish between a book merely declared “found” and a book calculatedly presented as “found.” Many of the biblical apocrypha written shortly before and after the commencement of the Common Era start with an assertion of hoary old age that is little more than a hurried formality; this is true, for example, of the 2nd-century B.C.E. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, whose chapters begin, “A copy of the testament of Reuben,” “A copy of the words of Simeon,” etc., with no further explanation of how the last wills of Jacob’s twelve sons managed to survive unknown for two millennia. The equally apocryphal Sybilline Oracles, on the other hand, were issued in at least one ancient edition with a studious prologue tracing their composition to seers in the time of Euripides and Alexander the Great and detailing their preservation for hundreds of years in the Capitol in Rome. It is doubtful that the antiquity of The Testaments was ever taken seriously by anyone, but the Oracles fooled sophisticated readers well into the Renaissance.
No one ever accused the anonymous fabricators of the Apocrypha of pecuniary motives. The same cannot be said for the author of a more influential “found” book, the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon, who wrote the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch, and advertised it as a work by the 2nd-century Tannaitic sage Simon ben Yohai—his copy of which, de Leon claimed, the only one extant, had previously belonged to Maimonides. Already in his own day de Leon was accused of writing the book for profit; indeed, his contemporary Isaac the Blind was told by an acquaintance of de Leon that the latter, “a great spendthrift,” financed his expensive habits by selling sections of the Zohar to wealthy patrons—a fact later confirmed, according to Isaac, by de Leon’s wife. None of this prevented the book from becoming one of the most revered in the Jewish library, or from being commonly published to this day with the title page, The Book of The Zohar on the Five Books of Moses by the Divine Tanna Rabbi Simon ben Yohai.
A scandal of historic proportions? This was the opinion of the leading 19th-century Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz. But Graetz was answered by Gershom Scholem, the great 20th-century scholar of Kabbalah. “Pseudepigraphy,” wrote Scholem, “is far removed from forgery, [for] the mark of immorality, which is inseparable from falsehood, does not stain it [and] the further a man progresses along his own road in the Quest for Truth, the more he might become convinced that his own road must have already been trodden in the ages before him.”
If de Leon’s desire to capitalize on his talents should not be held against them, this can also be argued for the Book of Mormon, “found” by Joseph Smith in 1827 near his home in Palmyra, New York. Said by Smith to be engraved on buried, eight-inch-square “golden plates” dug up on angelic instructions and never seen by anyone but himself, the book was supposedly written 1,500 years earlier by Moroni, a descendant of ancient Hebrews whose forefathers had reached America in 600 B.C.E. Smith, the evidence indicates, hoped to earn a hefty sum by publishing the Book of Mormon and only later founded a religion based on it. By then he may well have come to believe “his own road must have been trodden in the ages before him.” The risks he ran as the leader of a persecuted offshoot of Christianity that ended with his lynching by an Illinois mob in 1844 hardly support viewing him as an ordinary grifter.
Not all “found” books have been religious. Perhaps the most celebrated example of the purely literary variety in Western culture is James Macpherson’s now all-but-forgotten The Works of Ossian, published in 1765 as a combined edition of Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763). Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard allegedly come across by Macpherson, a Scots minister, on his travels to the Hebrides, turned out never to have existed; before this became apparent, however, his romantic epics had caused a sensation and been enthusiastically read by (among others) Goethe, Schiller, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, and Napoleon.
Subsequently elected to Parliament and upon his death buried with state honors in Westminster Abbey, Macpherson seems to have begun the Ossian series as a lark, only to find himself lionized for a discovery he could not disavow without embarrassment. One of the first to suspect the truth was the formidable Dr. Samuel Johnson, although it is hard today to see how anyone—let alone some of the finest writers in Europe—could have fallen for prose like, “A tale of the times of old! The deeds of days of other years! The murmur of thy streams, O Lora! brings back the memory of the past. The sound of the woods, Garmallar, is lovely in mine ear.” Macpherson was still alive when, inspired by his success, the young Thomas Chatterton “found” the poems of a 15th-century English priest named Rowley, took poison at the age of nineteen when nothing came of them but rejection slips, and became a Romantic hero himself.
One of the most prolific book “finders” of modern times was a picaresque 19th-century figure named Abraham Firkowitsch, who also pilfered, wheedled, and borrowed without returning many genuine old manuscripts in the course of his wanderings through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Firkowitsch’s specialty was documents proving that the Karaites, a Jewish sect (to which he himself belonged) that denied the authority of postbiblical rabbinic tradition, were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes who were exiled centuries before the time of Jesus, and therefore could not be blamed for the crucifixion. The best-known of these documents, “found” in 1840 in a synagogue in Derbend on the Caspian Sea, was written by “Judah, son of Moses the punctuator from the east land, son of Judah the Brave of the tribe of Naphtali, of the family of Shillem, who wandered into exile with the exiles who were carried away with Hosea, king of Israel, together with the tribes of Simeon, Dan, and some families of the other tribes of Israel.” Oddly, the same Graetz who excoriated de Leon’s grand creation accepted this flimsy forgery as authentic in the second edition of his seven-volume History of the Jews.
But, of course, many found books have truly been found, Jewish ones included. The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, composed, or translated from the Sumerian, circa 1750 B.C.E., was recovered from cuneiform tablets excavated in the 1840’s at Nineveh by the English archeologist Austin Layard. The Egyptian Book of The Dead, the Akhnaton Hymns, the myths of Ugarit, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi are but a few of the other genuine literary and religious texts that have come to light in excavations. Most of the verse of the 11th-century Shmuel Hanagid, arguably the greatest of medieval Hebrew poets, turned up in 1926 amid some old manuscripts purchased by the Jewish bibliophile David Sassoon in Aleppo. The lost Finnish national epic the Kalevala was discovered in oral form in the remote countryside in the 19th century. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Black Snow, written shortly before its author’s death in 1940, surfaced 30 years later in the files of the Soviet censor. David Fogel’s 1928-29 Hebrew novel Married Life, buried in a garden on the eve of Fogel’s deportation to a concentration camp, was finally published in Israel in 1986. And there are found Holocaust books themselves, like the diaries of Anne Frank and the notebooks of Emmanuel Ringelblum. Just because a book is said to have been found doesn’t mean that it wasn’t.
Which brings us back to The City of Light.
The City of Light, published as the work of one Jacob d’Ancona, as translated by David Selbourne, first appeared in England in 1997. Selbourne, the grandson of a rabbi, the author of many books—among them Against Socialist Illusion (1985) and The Principle of Duty (1997)2—and a tutor in political philosophy at Oxford until he settled in Italy in 1986, explained the circumstances of its publication in his introduction to that edition.
In 1990, wrote Selbourne, he was visited in his home in Urbino by an unnamed Italian Christian “aware of my interest in Judaica” who wished to show him a medieval manuscript. Several months later, he was given this manuscript to read in the man’s house. Bound “in creased and discolored vellum,” it was “25.5 cm tall and 19.5 cm wide,” contained “280 leaves,” and was written “on both sides of each page . . . on clear, fine paper in a small but careful and usually clear running italic hand.” Although it had no title or title page, its opening paragraph stated:
It was in the year 1270, which is to say 5030 years from the creation of the world, blessed be He, upon the sixteenth day of April and the twenty-third day of Nisan when Giovanni Confaloniere was podesta and Matteo Angeli and Giacomo Bladioni were captains of the people, that I, Jacob, son of Salomone of Ancona and grandson of the great Rabbi Israel of Florence, may his memory be recorded, merchant of Ancona, embarked on board ship for my departure to Greater India and the farthest shores of the earth.
As he read on, Selbourne wrote, he realized that he was looking at “an extraordinary find”—the late-13th-century memoir of “a Jewish scholar-merchant [who] had preceded Marco Polo by a handful of years to the furthest Orient, leaving a brilliant account of his travels and experience . . . in particular, the astonishing description which he gives of the tribulations of the southern Chinese city of Zaitun, as [the] Mongol conquest drew near.” (“City of light” was, Jacob tells us, the inhabitants’ name for Zaitun, known as Quanzhou in modern China and Canton in the West.)
Written in Italian though possibly translated from a Hebrew original, the manuscript, according to Selbourne, had been kept concealed over the centuries due to its anti-Christian passages, which would have endangered its original Jewish possessors and embarrassed the Christians into whose hands it eventually passed. Indeed, even its present owner had great qualms about making it public. He “changed his mind several times about the wisdom of permitting the book’s existence to become known, while I, having been made aware that he would probably not permit the book’s exact whereabouts to be identified during his lifetime, and that his heirs might do likewise, wrestled with my own doubts about translating a manuscript to which others would not have easy access, and even no access at all.”
Nevertheless, Selbourne continued, he overcame these doubts and translated the manuscript after accepting the owner’s condition that it not be photocopied or removed from his house and that his anonymity be preserved. Selbourne was of course aware that, by publishing an alleged medieval document of a sensational nature without an original to vouch for it, he would be exposing himself, even if he annotated the text copiously, to charges of fabrication. Yet, he wrote, “Although I have naturally come under pressure to reveal more, I do not intend to do so. It is both a matter of honor and of gratitude for an act of faith.” (In the end, he was accused by his Italian acquaintance of breaking faith anyway after he approached a literary agent about the manuscript in 1996. Since then, he has said, its indignant owner has refused to talk to him or even answer his letters.)
Thus born out of literary wedlock, The City of Light aroused a storm of controversy from the start. Understandably suspicious of Selbourne’s story, the first scholars to review the book’s English edition looked hard for incriminating evidence and found it. Academics like Tim Barret of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the American professor of Chinese history Jonathan Spence, the Italianist David Abulafia, Frances Wood of the British Museum’s Chinese department, and the Jewish historians Bernard and David Wasserstein cited numerous details in Jacob of Ancona’s account as incorrect, implausible, inconsistent, anachronistic, and clearly indicative of a contemporary authorship. Jacob, they argued, could never have reached China from Ancona in the first place; uses words and names that are uncorroborated or came into existence decades or even centuries after his supposed trip; and describes features of life in China and Zaitun that do not square with historical fact. His memoir, all agreed, could only have been the work of Selbourne himself or of someone Selbourne was duped by, a conclusion that so alarmed Little, Brown—Selbourne’s prospective American publisher—that it canceled its contract with him.
Just when the case of The City of Light seemed about to be closed, however, the plot thickened. A vigorous counterattack was launched in Selbourne’s defense. Surprisingly, its main spokesmen were Chinese. They argued that, far from Jacob of Ancona being mistaken in his Chinese terminology and descriptions, those in error were his Western critics whose knowledge of medieval China was deficient. The most impressive of Selbourne’s supporters was the director of Quanzhou’s Maritime Museum, a local historian named Wang Lianmao.
In a lengthy essay, Wang examined the ostensible refutations of Jacob’s veracity and found fault with each. Jacob’s descriptions of late-13th-century Zaitun, he maintained, were in fact astonishingly accurate—so much so that they could be taken for prima-facie evidence of his having been there. Several of his Chinese terms, scoffed at by reviewers, were actually medieval Quanzhou dialect, which led Wang to ask: “Could there possibly be someone so competent in medieval Italian, Hebrew, and Latin, and also so familiar with the history, customs, and dialect of Song-era Quanzhou who would be able to forge such a book?”
The tide had turned—if not in the direction of Selbourne’s acquittal, at least toward a hung jury. A publisher was found for an American edition of The City of Light and Wang Lianmao’s essay, along with a retrospective afterword by Selbourne, have been included in it.
For the reader who has some knowledge of the issues involved but is neither a medievalist nor a Sinologist, all this makes The City of Light both a more and a less judgeable book. On the one hand, unable to assess the fine points fought over by the experts, such a reader has little means of deciding among them. But on the other hand, if the experts cannot agree, perhaps expertise is not the sole key to the matter. A book can be right or wrong in its details; it can also, however, feel right or wrong in its totality, its overall tone. As it happens, a parallel debate is now going on over the supposed travels to China of Marco Polo himself. As part of that debate, it is possible to ask whether tea was a popular Chinese drink in Marco’s time and, if so, why does he not mention it; but it is also possible to ask whether Marco sounds like a man who has gone where and done what he says he has.
One can look, in other words, at the forest or at the trees—and while it is clearly preferable to do both if one can, there is also justification for leaving the trees to the botanists and experiencing the forest for oneself.
Actually, The City of Light is two forests, the first richly variegated, the second wearily repetitive.
Until Jacob’s trading expedition reaches Zaitun—that is, for roughly the first quarter of his account—the scenery keeps changing. We follow him on his departure from Ancona for the Adriatic seaport of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik); sail from there to Crete; continue to Cyprus; land in Acre in Crusader Palestine; travel by camel caravan to Damascus; cross the Syrian Desert to Basra, where Jacob marries off his son Isaac to the daughter of his brother Isaia, a merchant based in the Persian Gulf; set sail from there for India; round its southern tip with a stop in Ceylon; survive a storm in the Bay of Bengal in which one of the ships in Jacob’s fleet goes down; make port in Sumatra; and finally, on August 13, 1271, a year and four months after setting out from Italy, cast anchor in Zaitun’s great harbor on the South China coast, filled on the day of Jacob’s arrival with an estimated “fifteen thousand ships.”
Along the way, Jacob buys and sells goods, visits Jewish communities, takes in the sights, and records his impressions in language that (as befits a man of the world, a pious Jew, and an avid disciple of the philosophy of Maimonides) combines observation with reflection. A typical passage reads:
For some days and nights we journeyed in the desert of Syria . . . and suffered greatly from the heat of the sun, so hot that it was a marvel. When the noon comes, since there is no shady place, it is difficult to stay alive in the rocky hills, and even the camels cry out in their dolor, the tears running from their eyes, may God have pity upon them. . . . Yet I gave praise to God for keeping me in safety and called upon my Christian servants to do likewise. Some murmured against me, but in all men, provided that they be better than beasts, there exists an impulse toward God. For who but God, I asked, is the promoter of the natural life of the world? But they, because of the evil works of idolatry, have no true conception of God, may the Unnameable One be exalted. . . . For that man stands for them in the light of God, blessed be He, whom they therefore cannot know.
One can have one’s doubts about such prose. It is unlike that of any other Jewish writer of the Middle Ages, a period that did not encourage stylistic originality, and seems verbose and discursive in comparison with medieval Jewish travel documents like Benjamin of Tudela’s or Petahiah of Regensburg’s (both from the late 12th century). Furthermore, if originally written in Hebrew, there are puzzling things about it. Whereas “that man” for Jesus is genuinely Hebraic, phrases like “the Unnameable One” or “an impulse toward God” are not.
One may also wonder about Jacob’s itinerary and behavior. It is rather odd, certainly, that, so near Jerusalem when in Acre, he does not bother to visit it or other holy places in the Land of Israel; odder still that, though his route to Damascus would have taken him right past or even through Tiberias, the site of the tomb of his revered Maimonides, he does not stop there to pay his respects. (Although it is not absolutely certain that Maimonides, who died in Egypt in 1204, was actually buried in Tiberias, a tradition to that effect already existed in Jacob’s time.) The graves of great rabbis were shrines of importance for medieval Jews and it is hard to understand why Jacob would have missed this one.
But such things, of which there are many in the manuscript’s opening pages, are hardly conclusive. It is possible to give Jacob, if one is so inclined, the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he composed his memoir in an Italian influenced by Christian models despite there being no known case of a medieval Jew writing in a European vernacular. Perhaps he was in a hurry to reach Basra for his son’s wedding and lacked time for a side trip to Jerusalem. Perhaps he did visit Maimonides’ tomb and forgot to mention it. It is only when he reaches Zaitun that the reader begins to smell—as did Dr. Johnson in Macpherson’s Ossian—a serious rat.
Jacob is at first overwhelmed by Zaitun. It is a metropolis far bigger than any he has known, so that he asks himself in his first days there, “How shall a man speak rightly of the great city of Zaitun, when his soul is thrown into such confusion in it that he would go with his ears stopped and eyes covered in order to preserve his reason?” In addition to its hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents, it is filled with Indians, Arabs, Armenians, Turks, Franks, Venetians, Genoese, Pisans, Anconetans, and even 2,000 Jews—who, “of all the peoples in the city who have come from other countries . . . have inhabited it the longest.” All have been attracted by its commercial opportunities, for its markets “are of an abundance such as has never yet been known” and its shops “are more numerous than in any other city of the world.” Through its streets, day and night, pours a “vast throng [of] peasants and citizens without number, the rich and the poor, men and women, masters and servants, noblemen and miscreants, Sinimiani [Chinese] and strangers, and those who go in silk and those who go in rags.”
As Jacob’s stay in the city of light lengthens, however, he comes to realize that its woes are as great as its riches. Its poor are legion and uncared-for. Its streets are dirty, crime-ridden, and unsafe. Its wealthy live a life of conspicuous consumption, caring nothing for the common weal. Its politicians, corrupt and self-seeking, are out to feather their own nests. Sexual permissiveness and profligacy are everywhere. Homosexuality is rampant. Religion and its codes have ceased to be taken seriously. The educational system has broken down. The young no longer respect their elders. Women, in rebellion against their traditional roles, do not wish to be mothers or housewives. Family structure is in disarray. The entire city, in fact, is in an advanced state of social and moral disintegration.
To make matters worse, the barbarians are at the gate. The Tartars or Mongols, ruled by the legendary Kublai Khan, have already conquered Cathay or northern China and are about to launch an attack on the south. Torn by internal conflict and rotten with decay, Zaitun is in no condition to resist. “While the Tartars drew near,” Jacob writes, “each man looked only to himself.” Feeling that he can see “the sun glitter upon the swords of the Mongols,” he hesitates to venture beyond the city’s limits and fears it may fall before he can finish his business and reembark for home.
Yet Jacob is fascinated by Zaitun. Although he could presumably sell all his merchandise and stock up on Chinese goods for the homeward voyage in a matter of weeks, he lingers in the city, accompanied by his Italian-Chinese interpreter Lifenli, for six months, “greatly troubled in soul and body as I passed through the streets, inquiring of myself how such a city . . . might be justly governed.” These cogitations find a focus when he meets an elderly sage called Pitaco who hosts an intellectual salon that Jacob begins to attend. Soon the two become allies, for the Maimonidean Jew and the old-style Confucian share a point of view. Both are horrified by Zaitun’s decadence and believe the only cure for it is a return to tradition, social discipline, civic responsibility, and strict standards of personal conduct, and both are convinced that the city of light will be easy prey for the enemy unless such a change of head and heart occurs.
The pages that follow, comprising over half of Jacob’s manuscript, are largely devoted to his and Pitaco’s wordy disputes with their opponents. With one exception, these are representatives of what today would be called “left-wing” or “liberal” positions who speak in defense of the trends at work in Zaitun. A partial list of them would include the social egalitarians who insist that “only if all are considered equally, without regard to merit, can peace reign among men”; the anti-capitalists who argue that it is “unjust [for the rich] to be permitted to lie on a soft couch while others have to carry the heavy pole on their shoulders”; the radical feminists who contend that a woman “should not give her body to the lusts of men, for men seek only to employ the bodies of women for their relief”; the criminal-reform advocates who maintain that “better indeed that men should break the law than that punishment should make us less than men”; the progressive educators who believe that a child should be taught “to recognize that which is true for himself and not only that which is true for others”; and the foreign-policy appeasers who oppose fighting the Tartars because their victory will lead to a more just society and ask, “Why should we die in a battle which must at the last be lost?”
Finally, on the Right, as it were, are the free-market Utopians who think all would be ideal in Zaitun if only everyone pursued his own private interests exclusively, it being “in the nature of man to seek his own ends,” so that “in the round of buying and selling, in which all take part, the city becomes both rich and free.” As neoconservatives with a social conscience, Jacob and Pitaco challenge all these various schools of thought in the name of the old virtues, among them a concern for the public good and for the welfare of the less fortunate.
Needless to say, terms like “social egalitarian,” “radical feminist,” and “neoconservative” are not used in Zaitun; yet the fact that they so naturally occur to the reader of Jacob’s manuscript must arouse suspicion. It is one thing to read of a great medieval city that has many of the ills of contemporary New York or London; cities are cities, after all, and, cultural and technological differences notwithstanding, may come to resemble each other. It is quite another thing to find that the intellectual discourse of such a city (allowing for stylistic differences between Jacob’s debating partners and, say, the New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement) is that of contemporary New York and London, too. The possibility that one is reading, not the account of a medieval traveler, but a late-20th-century dystopian novel à la Gulliver’s Travels, can hardly fail to occur.
Nor is this the only thing about the Pitaco chapters of The City of Light to strain credulity. Jacob, let us remember, apart from fearing the Tartars, has a family and business responsibilities in Ancona, where his investment partners, like him, are losing money each day he remains in Zaitun with his ships and sailors. (Although he stays on until late February, the prevailing winds would have been favorable for a return trip as early as November.) Furthermore, he does not know Chinese and depends on Lifenli to translate the often tumultuous discussions at Pitaco’s. Even supposing that this Chinese youth might have picked up the political and philosophical vocabulary in Italian needed for such a task, is it conceivable that, with his aid, Jacob could follow and actively participate for hours at a time—indeed, for months on end—in rapid-fire Chinese debates full of shouts and interruptions? Is it conceivable that he would attempt to do this at the expense of his commercial interests?
The Pitaco chapters, spelled here and there by Jacob’s titillating excursions into Zaitun’s nightlife and lowlife, are tedious not only because they are windy and redundant, but because we already know all their arguments from the intellectual wars of our own times. In fact—mirabile dictu!—we know Jacob and Pitaco’s arguments from Selbourne’s own books, and especially from his The Principle of Duty:
Here, for example, is Pitaco:
Now there are even sages among us who teach not only that wrong may be right, but that good may be bad, so that all have lost the way. . . . Worst of all are those among us who say that a man should not be judged for his deeds. . . . They also argue that the same man should not be taught that his deeds are wrongful, since none may rightly judge such matters. . . . Hence they have made a wilderness of the city, in which the wild beast within man is unchained.
And here is The Principle of Duty:
[We see] the increasingly common refusal in the corrupted liberal order to permit practical discrimination at all between the moral and amoral. . . . The suppression of the concept of justice-as-desert . . . has also done much to displace and discredit the very idea—an ethical and civic idea—of worth and unworth in citizen conduct. . . . In such an ethical limbo . . . ethical categories are at cynical worst considered to have no meaning at all. . . . Under the rule of dutiless right, law, blind to its ethical tasks, may lose its way even with the basest of crimes; even when man turns beast. . . .
Reading these books in tandem, indeed, suggests two possible conclusions: either Selbourne wrote The City of Light or else he plagiarized it. That the first of these is more probable emerges from his own account, which simply does not hang together. Why, for instance, should the Italian owner of Jacob’s alleged manuscript, having agreed to let Selbourne peruse and translate it, refuse to allow it to be photocopied? Even had he been determined to preserve his anonymity, how could a mere photocopy have compromised him? Precisely such a copy, even of a single page, examined by handwriting experts, could have proved that his manuscript was genuinely old. (So could have a small piece of its vellum subjected to radio-carbon tests.) Why object to this?
Or take the fact that we do not have even the text, let alone the manuscript, of Jacob’s book in its original Italian, which might also have enabled experts to establish its authenticity. According to Selbourne, this is because he translated the manuscript in its owner’s house, from which he came away with only an English version. Yet this makes no sense. Translating takes far more time than copying. Why did not Selbourne copy the Italian text and translate it elsewhere at his leisure? That way, he could also have referred back to it when necessary rather than having to rely on memory.
Selbourne’s story of the owner’s refusing to step forward because of the anti-Christian passages in the manuscript is likewise impossible to credit. For one thing, these passages could have been omitted from a published version; most of them occur in a single chapter of The City of Light in which Jacob debates a Catholic priest at Pitaco’s salon, and their absence would not have been felt. Moreover, although Jacob is certainly hostile to Christianity, he says nothing about it that has not been said in print innumerable times by Jews and Gentiles alike. That an Italian Catholic of our day and age, however devout, would fear the consequences of its becoming known that such a medieval manuscript was in his possession is, to say the least, farfetched. And if nevertheless he did feel this way, why show the manuscript to Selbourne in the first place? Why not continue to keep it the secret it had been?
These questions have no logical answer. Or rather, they have only one: that there was no medieval manuscript and no Italian owner of it to begin with.
But why “find” Jacob of Ancona’s manuscript if it did not exist? And especially, why “find” it if you are, as acquaintances of Selbourne have testified, a man of great personal integrity? It was indeed Selbourne’s stubborn sticking to principle in academic matters, it is said, that helped make enemies for him at Oxford and deprived him of backing when left-wing faculty successfully sought to oust him from his job.
This leads one to propose a theory. At worst, it could be wrong.
Let us think of David Selbourne losing or leaving his position at Oxford in the mid-1980’s because his anti-Left opinions are unpopular in academically chic circles. Now living in Italy, he sets out to write a historical novel about a medieval Italian traveler to China and researches his subject so thoroughly that native Chinese scholars will be impressed by his knowledge when the book appears. It is a highly political novel in which he strikes back against his opponents, whom he portrays as fatuous 13th-century Chinese intellectuals, while advancing his own views on what he will later call, in The Principle of Duty, “civic disaggregation”—the contemporary disintegration of the bonds of mutual responsibility linking citizens in the body politic.
This disintegration, he believes, derives from a political philosophy, ultimately traceable to English Enlightenment thinkers like Locke via 19th-century liberals like Mill and Bentham, by which “a path or passage has been traced in the name of the (corrupted) liberal ideal from the noble principle of the freedom and dignity of the individual to the base politics of dutiless rights.” Such a politics, as he sees it, has undermined European and American society and imperils the very basis of Western civilization.
But Western civilization is imperiled from another direction as well, that of Soviet totalitarian expansion—which, though its threat may be pooh-poohed at Oxford, seems real to Selbourne precisely because the “corrupted liberal order” lacks the political and military will to resist it. He therefore chooses to set his story, called The City of Light, in a parallel situation, in the wealthy metropolis of Zaitun on the eve of its fall to the Tartars, which took place in March 1273. Novelistically, this works well, since the ominously growing Tartar menace adds a touch of suspense to an otherwise static work of fiction. He also decides to make his hero a philosophically inclined Jew who, as an outsider looking in on both Christian Europe and China, can cogently speak for Judaism as the supreme religion of duty. Jacob of Ancona, in other words, will be an alter ego of the author of The Principle of Duty, who in that work will say of himself:
I have written this essay on duty as a citizen among citizens, or as a Jewish citizen-stranger, and not as a voice of authority. . . . In asserting a “principle of duty” by which both citizen and civic order are bound . . . I fulfill my personal moral duty as an intellectual and explain the need for a like duty to be assumed by others. At the same time, I seek to fulfill the more particular task—or “historic mission,” as the poet Heine put it—of the ewiger Jude [eternal Jew] to “spread the seed of social transformation.”
And so the novel, The City of Light, is written in the mid-1980’s. Selbourne, however, has failed to take into account one thing—namely, that by the time his book has been gotten ready for publication, the Soviet empire will have unexpectedly collapsed. A historical development he is thankful for, this nevertheless plunges him into authorial despair. What is he to do now? Publish the novel as is? But the dramatic parallel it is built on has vanished, turning its one fictional strength into a thematically irrelevant distraction. Rewrite it by excising the Tartar material? This would be structurally difficult and leave the book lamely plotless. Trash it? He has invested too much for that.
For several years, his manuscript lies in a drawer. And then he has an inspiration. He will change Jacob of Ancona from the manuscript’s fictional author to its real one, and “find” it. This will make it an attention-getter despite its weaknesses and guarantee it the hearing it deserves. . . .
My scenario breaks off at this point because I have no idea what might go through a mind like David Selbourne’s at the moment of such a decision. Does he initially, like James Macpherson, consider it a lark from which it later becomes impossible to retreat? Does he, like Moses de Leon, feel he has written something so important that he is justified in promoting it by subterfuge? Here, as the biblical Joseph tells Pharaoh’s wise men, interpretations belong to God.
It is possible, however, to add a postscript to this entirely conjectural script. Between writing Jacob of Ancona’s story and publishing it as a “found” book, Selbourne did write The Principle of Duty, a more important work than The City of Light. Composed in a spare, lucid, functional prose that is the very opposite of Jacob’s prolixity, and that is admirably free of academic jargon, it provides a first-rate analysis of where contemporary liberalism went wrong intellectually. It should be required reading in any college course on modern political philosophy.
As a “found” book, The City of Light is not one of the more memorable examples of its genre. But although Jacob of Ancona the traveler to China is almost certainly a figment of David Selbourne’s imagination, he has justified his existence if he helped Selbourne to formulate the ideas of The Principle of Duty more clearly. Perhaps this is enough to remove from him the “stain of immorality” of which Gershom Scholem absolved Moses de Leon. Meanwhile, the first American edition of The City of Light costs only $29.95 and may some day be worth its weight in Depression glass. Imagine if de Leon’s duped patrons had saved their chapters of the Zohar.
1 Citadel Press, 538 pp., $29.95.
2 This book has recently been reissued in paperback by the University of Notre Dame Press, 344 pp., $18.00.