Complicity, complacency and the bonfires that burn books
If it is the mark of a stimulating book that a reviewer finds it impossible to confine their response within the word limit available, then I have recently read one. The volume is On the Burning of Books. How flames fail to destroy the written word; it is the latest product from the pen of Kenneth Baker, who, in another life, was a cabinet minister. That biographical detail is not merely incidental, as I suggest in the review which appears today (behind a paywall: sorry) in the Times Literary Supplement. I do not want to reiterate all that I say there but I will mention that a topical event saw the opening of the piece change at the last minute. Before that happened, my preferred version began:
A preposition can be the wrong thing to start a title with. The ‘On’ on the dust-jacket of Kenneth Baker’s latest book is off the mark: it hints at the promise of a disquisition on book-burning, but the author is having nothing of that. There are, he says, already books on the subject by scholars and librarians, for scholars and librarians. He offers instead a ‘personal anthology’, one that stands as testimony to his fascination with the subject and his wide reading, on topics ranging from the foundation of imperial China to the Hutton Report. This, in other words, is a treatment of its topic with the thinking taken out.
As that paragraph might suggest, my reaction to the book was ambivalent: it is engaging and well-written (even if it has a few too many lapsus calami) but also, on some level, deeply troubling.
The title sums up what argument there is in Baker’s book: he rails against ‘fanatics’ and ‘bigots’ whose reaction to books they find odious is to set them alight. He positions himself as their enemy, standing up to them wherever they may be. He finds them in Europe’s past – even in the quadrangles of England’s ancient universities – and in the wider world’s present. In his epilogue, he cautions us: ‘Don’t think it will get better in the future’. There will continue to be those who want to destroy knowledge, he says. There is no reason to be complacent. Why, then, do I find a worrying complacency underlying what he says?
When Baker was a front-line politician, frequently appearing with slicked-back hair and a fixed grin, some wit commented: ‘He’s seen the future and it smirks’. Given this latest book, we might have to change that and say ‘and it smokes – albeit ineffectually’. Baker wants us to realise our values are under attack, but that we will overcome. He reminds us repeatedly out how the burning of books fails to suppress texts. This is a common assumption, which I myself have made: however many copies are destroyed, more can appear. That is true in most cases, though not all, but it does beg a question: if a regime is so repressive and so controlling that it feels the need to destroy writings it finds subversive, why would it resort to a technique which has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective?
The public burning of books is, at best (from the regime’s viewpoint), symbolic – it is not a successful act of repression but an expression of intent. Baker recognises that but does not follow through its implications. Why make use of this particular symbol? Why do we fixate on the bonfire, rather than any of the other methods of destruction? Perhaps we feel that this is an unnecessary question – onto our cultural memory is seared the image of the book-burnings associated with Kristallnacht and, with that, we know that what was a fear in Heinrich Heine’s mind became a reality: ‘where they burn books they will also burn people’. Heine wrote his words, of course, over a century before the Nazis rose to power, and we do not do them justice if we take them simply as a bitterly realised prophecy. They surely encourage us to think about what is happening when the flames are kindled. Fire has an elemental power, frightening for its destructiveness but also warming, bright and cleansing. We stand back from it but we also want to stoke it. Is there something of the pyromaniac in us all? Certainly, in images of Hitler Youth at the fireside or of the comic burnings in the post-War States, you can see the faces of happy children, excited by their own potential to make the flames blow higher, if they feed it. This, surely, is at the heart of the allure of book-burning: it is a carnival which encourages complicity. Look, it is paper, only paper, so insignificant that it turns to dust in a second…
With the creation of complicity, a spiral can begin. But must there be a fireside for complicity to be born? If we were to be Foucauldian about this, we might see the bonfire as akin to a public execution, a technique which becomes unnecessary when the apparatus of the state constructs more complete control: the panopticon has no need for eye-catching spectacle. If this is the case, it might imply that an absence of book-burning is not necessarily a victory for liberal values, but may be a witness to the increased insidious power of the authorities. You do not need to burn books if you can find other ways – more effective ways – to make them unavailable. This is to say that presenting oneself as an opponent of burning books means little if you do not also oppose the apparatus of censorship.
This is where I find Baker’s work most disturbing. He himself attempts to draw his readers into a sort of complicity: note how I talked above about ‘our values’ which ‘we’ must protect. It implies a sense of our superiority to the fanatics we are confident exist; it thus impels us to a need to defend what we have — and so to quell our liberal instinct to question and to require more. We may not burn books but does that permit us complacency?
We should never assume that our society and its constitution is the perfected product, incapable of improvement – and especially now. In one of Lord Baker’s most recent Parliamentary interventions, following last summer’s referendum, he, himself a Remain voter, declared: ‘we are all Brexiteers now’. He was expressing a noble acceptance of ‘the voice of the people’, though whatever that voice ‘said’ was nowhere near a plan of action and was much more a cacophonous babble. What happened during the campaign and afterwards suggests that Mr Cameron’s clever ruse to end the European debate has uncovered and unleashed a ferment of loathing, whether it be directed towards ‘foreigners’ or judges. Are we comfortable that in our society the parameters of free speech are safe from threat? We do not need to look to the foreign other to find intolerance. If we are all Brexiteers now, God help us.