Back to the roots

“Plato and Aristotle are the very latest thing – not because I say so, but rather because nothing has surpassed them yet.” This reflection by José Luis Martínez helps us understand why this philosopher, a lover of literature and good wines, has created Mallorca’s first School of Humanities, as well as opening the bookshop  Librería Alejandría, a jewel containing the one thousand best books in the history of literature.

In Raphael’s fresco painting The School of Athens, Plato is pointing upwards, alluding to the concept of the world of ideas, and Aristotle, in an opposing gesture, signals downwards, towards the material world. Master and disciple are presented to us in this composition surrounded by art, philosophy and science, in reference to what was the great school of knowledge. 

With the Palma School of Humanities, José Luis has tried to emulate the steps of the ancient Greek masters, inspired by the words of Socrates when he sustained that studying the stars was all very well, but that humans are much more exciting. 

“The Internet culture is the culture of oblivion. Nothing has any value, everything is exactly the same,” believes José Luis, who is also the owner of La Biblioteca de Babel, one of Palma’s loveliest bookshops. Challenging the accelerated pace today’s society is subject to, the School of Humanities proposes a return to the roots, to debate, to conversation with friends sitting around a table, to promoting exchange and knowledge in defiance of the frenzy of the digital age. 

A school focussed on the study and dissemination of the humanities where sciences and letters go hand in hand, complementing one another through courses, workshops and seminars imparted by experts in literary creation, neuroscience, Chinese calligraphy, audiovisual script, classical languages or mythology, among others, with the aim of humanising culture.

Librería Alejandría bookshop

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors,” writes Jorge Luis Borges in his short story The Library of Babel. 

José Luis and his team were inspired by this idea of Borges’ to create, in the central street of Costa de Can Muntaner, with an original proposal: its shelves house the one thousand best books in history, according to the criteria of José Luis, which are also available in their original language. “Alejandría bookshop is our paper Noah’s ark in the face of the digital and technological deluge. The green sign at the entrance is reminiscent of the typical London bookshop of Charing Cross Road in the 1950s,” he says as he pulls up the metal blinds of this peculiar space. 

As he hurriedly finishes his coffee, José Luis admits to feeling genuine admiration for people who are capable of going a whole year without reading a book “in this excessively boring everyday life. I don’t know how they do it, I admire them,” he declares ironically. The energy the bookseller gives off when he starts to talk about his favourite books and authors is contagious – “relatively famous books that anyone might like,” he says. 

First of all, he talks of the Bible, “a foundational book in which all the literary genres appear, moreover, from the fantasy genre of the Apocalypse to the romantic, pastoral poetry of the Song of Songs. In a way, the Bible already contains all the other books,” says José Luis.

The Odyssey is the mythical text of the great journey, the great adventure of the hero, Odysseus, who fights to attain his humanity, and of the sacred cycle of life. Don Quijote de la Mancha signifies many things, but above all, the brilliant invention of the novel, the immense pleasure of the narrative, bringing the greatness of humans to the fore through tenderness and irony.”

Gargantua and Pantagruel, Tristram Shandy or any of Charles Dickens’ novels are works that contribute to enriching the inheritance of Quijote: funny, sarcastic, wonderfully irreverent. “And on a list such as this one, naturally there have to be some of the mystical works, from the Sufi poets to the Spiritual Canticle by Juan de la Cruz, where the word takes flight and the music is silent, as in an intimate celebration... And how could we forget Hamlet by Shakespeare, the Essays of Montaigne, or indeed any work by Balzac, or Pérez Galdós?,” José Luis continues, in his role of prescribing bookseller.

For him, the tales of Chekov and Maupassant represent the best example of the great novels of the 19th century. “And please, nobody should fail to read the great Chinese classic Journey to the West: The Monkey King’s Amazing Adventures. They’ll thank me.”

José Luis does not want to omit some of the most important writers of the last century. “I think everyone should read The First Man, by Albert Camus, the Grey Notebook by Josep Pla, and any work resulting from the boundless imagination of Álvaro Cunqueiro. As well as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, of course,” he recommends. And he concludes by naming “three extremely intelligent and fascinating female authors, all three of them unclassifiable, who have shone out in the motley world of 20th-century thought: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and María Zambrano.”

La Escuela de Humanidades and Librería Alejandría: two spaces in the centre of Palma that do their little bit to save people’s souls with culture.

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