bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Books and the Wall

Posted in Biblioclasm, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 10 August, 2017

I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me

I read again today Borges on the first Emperor of all China and, as rarely happens with that consummate miniaturist, I was left less than satisfied. Borges approaches an explanation, in which the intention of the building and the burning is, in some secret way, to counteract each other but then he steps back, denying his own ability to explicate. Borges’s art, however, is always to take us beyond his own words and to hint to us at whole worlds. So, perhaps, we should take the imperfect cadence on which his essay ends as an invitation to begin.

Let us imagine, then, that one day Shih Huang Ti received a visitor. The wandering Jew had heard the tales of his grandiose achievements. Ushered forward by the counsellors, he narrates to the emperor a story from the history of the far west, telling him of Nimrod and his tower at Babel. The Emperor smiles: ‘I am greater than Nimrod. He attempted more than he could achieve and so his tower was never completed. But I am capable of what I will and, look, my wall is done.’ The Jew raises his sad eyes, momentarily catching the imperial stare. He hastily lowers his gaze again, as he gives a slight shake of the head and mutters: ‘but that is not your Babel’. And so he leaves, avoiding the fate of those, alchemists or Confucians, whom the Emperor orders to be buried alive.

The Emperor gives no sign of having heard the Jew’s response. If he had (his counsellors assume), he would have brushed it aside: how ridiculous; of course, it is my Babel; if not, then what else? They talk among themselves about what might have been meant, and one says what the other dare not: of Shih Huang Ti’s twin deeds, the more gargantuan task, so great that its accomplishment was implausible, was the destruction of all the books. The removal of written records should have killed off Confucius, but his fame has not died.

The counsellors, so close to their master, are still liable to misjudge him. In the corridors of his own mind, a chill breeze of recognition has brushed his cheek. No, I cannot destroy all books, but at least I have my wall. It is a consolation for my failure.

Years after the visit of the wandering Jew, when that day could hardly be remembered, the burnt books take on an added meaning for the Emperor. He is old and does not want to end his days. Timor mortis conturbat me. He seeks the elixir of life and seeks, ever more desperately. During this, his last challenge, he reviews his past life and reasons to himself how right he had been to cast out all those memorials of previous times. To remember is to live before birth and beyond death – but to do so is necessarily to acknowledge the temporal limits of life. To forget is immortal.


Complicity, complacency and the bonfires that burn books

Posted in Biblioclasm, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 16 February, 2017

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…


Comic Burning in Binghamton, New York, 1948

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.

Art under Attack at the Tate

Posted in Biblioclasm, Exhibitions by bonaelitterae on 6 January, 2014

I went to visit a turkey last week and I do not even like turkeys. Tate Britain’s ‘Art under Attack’ was declared by The Independent to be the museum world’s ‘turkey of the year’. It is not difficult to see why it has received such unwanted accolades – but it deserved a better reaction. It is disjointed – jumping from the ‘long Reformation’ to later modern attacks on statues – and incohesive, attempting to combine suffragette hacking at art with post-War theories of creative destructivity. Its title is also a triple misnomer – but even a problematic exhibition that cannot but fail to live up to its ambitions can be thought-provoking, and this one was certainly that.

I said that its title, which in full is ‘Art under Attack: histories of British Iconoclasm’, is a misnomer thrice over; here is why. First, an exhibition that includes New York destruction of royalist monuments during the American Revolution takes the definition of Britain to its edges but when it includes similar attacks on statues in post-independence Eire, it stretches beyond acknowledged limits. Second, if iconoclasm is the destruction of images, then this show is a celebration of its failure: it necessarily catalogues survivals, sometimes partial, sometimes near-complete. It documents damage and disrespect rather than full-scale loss. Indeed, in some cases like when the suffragettes took the cleaver to gallery exhibits the intention was clearly not to end the work’s life but to violate it. In that context, there was certainly an acknowledgement that what was being attacked was art – as the exhibition shows, idealised female beauty was being made to submit to the ugliness of the culture in which it was venerated – but in other milieux was it ‘art’ that was at stake?

In the reconstruction of battles over public monuments, for instance, were the high-up statues involved considered ‘high art’ and attacked as such? The battle was surely over the creation of a public memory manipulated by the positioning of a monument which was also vulnerable precisely because of its accessible location. The statue’s artistic merits were not the issue – this was primarily conflict over space not beauty.

Of course, it could be said that iconoclasts uncover the anti-beauty in the image which they find so provocative it requires a violent reaction. So, whatever the delicacy of a pre-Reformation devotional object, an evangelical or later Puritan saw that dwarfed by a larger truth: the image tells an ugly lie. But, as this exhibition showed, the reaction was not always complete dismemberment but maiming by slashing or cutting out of an offending element. Perhaps, then, iconoclasm should be re-defined as the intentional disendowing of an object of its value as an icon.

The irony is that the process of disendowment does not entirely remove the artistic: it can only change its focus. The stand-out work on display – worth, as they say, the entrance fee alone – is Thomas Johnson’s 1657 depiction of Canterbury Cathedral (in private hands), shown because it depicts the Puritans at work, smashing glass and searching out wall-paintings but inevitably leaving a shadow of the former art within a structure stunningly reproduced by Johnson’s brush, with all the love of detail of his Dutch contemporaries. The tiny specks of men are at work but it merely redirects attention. The attack on some art endows other art with more power: the charisma of the icon shifts.

This shift may require us to have a broader view of ‘art’ that ‘Art under Attack’ at times allows. One room is given over to discussing the replacement in forward Protestant churches of visual images with written text. This is most strikingly demonstrated with one exhibit, a part of a black-on-white text where the whitewash has faded away to reveal beneath some of the figures that were once integral to the rood screen of which this piece of wood had once been. But the dichotomy is surely too simple. In a culture where the majority would have been illiterate, were the sentences of the commandments placed on the church’s wall merely read? Or was the interaction with these words often itself visual? In two of the items on display, what caught my attention was the care taken with the presentation, which in itself created something fictive. In one case, the triptych of texts, presented closed, where the black lettering against white background, placed within a red-brown surround, was clearly intended to evoke the page of a bound book. In contrast, the other piece used deep hues of red and green on which to write a careful italic-influenced but idiosyncratic, ostentatious script written in gold – a new use for chrysography. The directly pictorial has been removed but these are still images or representations, the art of depicting the concept of the Word. Art, when under attack, has the ability to imitate Proteus and to take on new forms.

Similar points can be extrapolated to other sections of the exhibition. Behind some of the earliest exhibits here lie stories of protection, benign disregard and eventual revival. Too often, we can only speculate whether a near-complete statue outlived Reformation hatred and still exists because it was consciously hidden in order to survive, or simply forgotten and discarded. In some more recent cases, something more happens: the misfortunes of an art work might actually enhance its iconic status. So, the Rockeby Venus gained attention through the slashes across her back inflicted by Mary Robinson in 1914 – a response similar perhaps to the yet-greater status imposed on the Mona Lisa after its disappearance and later damage, or the ‘fresco’ (though, notoriously, not painted with the accepted technique) by the same master in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Last Supper. Is it a function of the impact that iconoclasm has had that we are conditioned to find our art particularly evocative when it is imperfect or incomplete? Such objects allow us to engage through our imagination: in miniature, they are like a walk through the open-roofed nave of a long-dissolved abbey, allowing us to re-construct our own original in our personal idealised form. It is much easier to do that than to think on the absolute loss that has at times occurred – the entire destruction of both object and its memory. If ‘Art under Attack’ fails because it simply cannot let us engage with such obliteration, perhaps that failure – concentrating our thoughts instead on what has lasted and what might have been – is, in itself, art’s Pyrrhic victory.

A good day for book-burning

Posted in Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 31 October, 2012

It is rare enough to find a scholarly discussion of the destruction of books that rises above the emotional response our culture’s rationale demands of us. To have a set of four disquistions dedicated to ‘Bibliophobia’ — as Brian Cummings has titled his Clarendon Lectures that started in Oxford yesterday — is surely cause to celebrate, to sound the horns or to light the bonfire.

Let us first pause on the overall title for the series. Prof. Cummings played with various concepts in the opening section of his characteristically well-crafted and wide-ranging lecture: bibliophilia, bibliomania and bibliofetishism. He places bibliophobia in a natural binary opposition with bibliophilia, but if we think of other contemporary usages, we might use different terminology: those who hate not the Devil but the European Union and all its works call their own opponents Europhiles and themselves Eurosceptics. That is a rare case where a cabal has been able to choose a positive sobriquet for themselves, one which plays down their visceral dislike and presents their position as a reasoned and reasonable critique. And if the Europhobes are allowed to redescribe themselves, I wonder whether we should not talk, in this more intellectual context, of biblioscepticism. It is to Cummings’ purpose to talk of a phobia since he is providing, as he put it, not so much a history as an anthropology of the book (with requisite nods to Freud). But it also strikes me that his discussion is likely to lead us to a recognition of book destruction as elemental, certainly, and ritualistic most often but also rational — and, indeed, ironically affirmative of books.

His first lecture was entitled ‘Book-burnings’ and he did his subject proud. I have argued elsewhere that our emotive responses to book-burnings, conditioned by associations with both Kristallnacht and the subsequent mass incineration of humans, tends to overlook their futility — for each book burnt, several more can come off the printing press. So, it was pleasing to hear Brian Cummings stress that the association made between book-burnings and censorship is over-done. He moved us towards a clearer realisation of book-burnings as symbolic, in which the use of fire has connotations of both the purgative (and thus the punitive) and the festive.

Cummings’ particular focus was on the sixteenth century, with much space given to Martin Luther’s contribution to the history of book-burning, here presented as a riposte to the more ambitious attempts to destroy his own work by the pope’s agent, Girolamo Aleandro. That focus also, of course, invites comparisons between the information technology revolution through which we are living and the one which Luther harnessed to such earth-shattering success. However, in questions afterwards, I proffered the suggestion that the coming of age of book-burnings came not with print but with paper. Anyone who has consulted the re-mounted fragments of Cottonian manuscripts damaged in the 1732 fire will have seen how flame can distort, shrink and make translucent sheets of parchment, without necessarily managing efficiently to destroy it or even make its text illegible. Paper, on the other hand, while it might have to wait for 450 degrees Celsius (not Bradbury’s Fahrenheit), is more effective material for the fire. But even then, as was implicit in my comment and as two separate people mentioned to me afterwards, the other physical aspects of the book could also affect its perishability: in particular, its binding. Early modern images of biblioclasm often show a whole bound volume being thrown into the flames, as in Le Sueur’s wonderfully anachronistic image of St Paul at Ephesus (one which Cumming had as his opening image, using the National Gallery copy while I  have concentrated my attention in the one in the Louvre). Yet, if one wanted to speed up the burning process, one would presumably tear a book from the wood, leather, metal and other materials that had been designed to protect it: in other words, a process of destruction by tearing apart would proceed the conflagration. Or, to put it another way, the book would already have been maimed and died before its inwards were consigned to the flames. Of course, many printed books circulated and were sold unbound; others were mere pamphlets — when Luther in December 1520 threw the bull of excommunication on the fire, the pope had little chance: such an ephemeral printing would burn easily. Yet, of course, the reformer did not destroy the pope or his bull; there were available far too many other copies of Leo X’s words to make that possible. And this is the way in which print makes book-burnings all the more futile: a technology based on paper makes the destruction of the individual object easier, but also makes the individual one of a collective most often too large to be eradicated utterly.

The culture or cult of biblioclasm by flame, then, is an activity inherited by the Reformation period from earlier centuries, when a volume would necessarily be unique but when fire would be less efficacious as a method of destruction. This is to reinforce Cummings’ point that the symbolic and ritualistic, rather than the ruthlessly practical, are central to the practice of book-burning. I would take it further: there is a pitting in battle of two conceptions of man’s uniqueness in the activity of consigning a codex or a scroll to flames. The burning pyre is witness to the Promethean myth, the idea that humanity, among all the creatures, has mastered the secret of fire, so that it need not merely be fleed (like animals from the burning forest) but could be controlled and deployed. Meanwhile, the manuscript which is to be consigned to that fire is testimony to the classical belief in the miracle of human communication that goes beyond the spoken and can be persuasive even when it is a plethora of inky flecks painted on animal skin. But if this is a battle, who wins?

When I was in Ravenna a couple of months ago, I facetiously commented on the mosaic of St Laurence in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia — ‘they shouldn’t allow those flames so close to the bookchest’.

St Laurence and his gridiron, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

It occurs to me now that the proximity is the point: Laurence may be about to writhe in agony on the gridiron but his death will not be in vain because the Holy Book will survive — the bookchest holds four volumes, each of them carrying the name of the Evangelist who composed it. Both a manuscript, pre-paper, and a human body is made of flesh, but the book does not so easily become a dead thing. The adoption by the Church of the Martyrs of the technique of book-burning suggested a determination to demonstrate control not just of the methods of survival but also of the means of destruction that had been used against them. As Brian Cummings noted yesterday, all the Abrahamic traditions are religions of the book which have also histories of iconoclasm.

Pedro Berrugreute, St Dominic and the burning of Albigensian heretical books (El Prado, Madrid)

There is, however, something yet more in the combination of fire and parchment. The late medieval mythology of Saint Dominic credits him with many virtues, main among them his persecution of the Albigensians. In one scene, depicted in a painting of the 1490s now in the Prado by Pedro Berrugruete, the saint presides over the burning of heretical illuminated manuscripts, but among them happened to be one of his own books which, miraculously, jumps out of the fire. This tale tells of flames not being fully under human control: they are still a mystery, despite Prometheus. What is more, the flames have knowledge of what is worth saving — or, indeed, the flames are knowledge, consuming ignorance, and only that. In this myth or miracle, God (to whom The Book bears witness) is in the burning fire.

Let’s not lose the Gallery of Lost Art

Posted in Art, Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 29 July, 2012

A work of art is growing on-line: the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art. It catalogues pieces of modern art from Duchamp to Emin that no longer exist — or, in some cases, never did exist. Each piece is provided with images and a full essay (the text alone can be downloaded as pdfs), building an on-line space that provides the delight of discovery less like a stroll through a gallery than a delving in drawers. The curators talk of their collection being populated by ghosts who can have only a virtual existence, an art museum, as it were, which is open only after hours. These spectral presences makes us think about the processes of loss, about the art of absence and about memory (the mind’s backward eye) as a viewing-point.

On my brief visits to date I have been struck by what might be called the morality of loss. In the essay on Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I have ever slept with’, which was destroyed by the 2004 fire at the Momart warehouse, there is a quotation from the daughter of another artist, the late Patrick Heron, whose art was also lost in the same event:

Even at the worst stage of people burning books, actually, somewhere, the manuscript or the idea or the story stayed, and even if you lost the score of a piece of music, or if you lost a choreography, they can be recreated, because they exist by being reproduced. The thing about something like a painting or a sculpture or any other artefact-based art form is, once it’s gone, it has gone. It’s so absolutely final.

Though this might ignore the uniqueness of individual volumes, there is a legitimate distinction here, but it is one that this Gallery — which, it appears, will not feature Heron’s abstract art — undermines: it is a demonstration of how the death of art does not need to be  final and how it can have only a limited sting. As someone who studies the history of the destruction of books, I am particularly interested in the wording in the quotation above: note the perfect tense for book-burnings, a sense of it as an activity whose existence is ended. That, of course, is not the case even though (or, perhaps, because), as I have written elsewhere, our society is culturally conditioned against this particular process of destruction. At the same time, another theme of the Gallery is that possibility that destruction itself can be artistic, vital and creative — that, to transfer it to the tradition of biblioclasm, there could be beautiful book-burnings.

Destruction as creation is the theme of one exhibit already on display in this virtual museum: Willem de Kooning’s untitled drawing which he gave to Robert Rauschenberg presicely so, in 1953, he could destroy the art through erasure. He uncreated de Kooning’s work to provide a sort of palimpsest where the upper layer is as blank as that it replaces. As the Gallery has very clear limits, it does not mention parallel cases in modern art like the Chapman brothers’ exuberant vandalism (I use the term neutrally) of a copy of Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’. But the possibility is clearly there to consider whether the process of loss is as completely negative as our perceptions of the creative would usually assume.

Perhaps it was with that in mind that the originators of this project thought it appropriate that their work should itself be transient. The clear-headed strategy is that, over the course of a year, the Gallery will be augmented each week with a further piece of art — it will expand and then collapse, disappearing from view at a pre-ordained moment in time. At the foot of the website, a countdown (like that to the Paralympics in Trafalgar Square) helpfully records the passing minutes until its death-date. Presumably at the design stage the creators also game-planned  how they would respond if their decision was challenged. I want to give them the opportunity to put that plan into action because, since their work is so valuable and stimulating, I would contend they should not be allowed to make it self-destruct.

If, as I have done in opening this discussion, we take the Gallery to be an art-work mediating on the death of art, its own demise might seem to provide an elegant and ironic fulfilment of itself. But must we let it die? Or, indeed, as it so untactile, can it really die? If, instead, we term the Tate’s project to be an educational resource, then the closure of it would be all the more criminal: it would provide a deletion of knowledge which could not be re-described as creative vandalism.

Are you ready to petition the Tate? And how will they respond? Will they be ready to be counted alongside those councillors who voted send the bulldozers in and not to reprieve Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’?

Water in the Library

Posted in Biblioclasm, Libraries by bonaelitterae on 3 June, 2012

I am out of touch with the times. To those who know me that much has been clear for many years but it has only struck home with me in recent months. Over a decade ago, when I was teaching at Mansfield, the Librarian would thank me if I reprimanded a reader who was found in the library showing such numb-skulled disrespect to books that they had brought in something to drink. Now, when I step into the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (which, in my imagination, remains a timeless haven for protecting learning) and see so many desks adorned with plastic bottles and watch readers swigging water from them, I have to restrain myself from breaking the silence with a call to the custodians who, I still assume, would rush to catch these culprits who have so clearly infringed the spirit if not the letter of the Bodleian oath that they should be summarily escorted from the hallowed premises, divested of their University Card and advised to leave Oxford with all their belongings on the first train.

But, of course, they are not culprits, as the Reading Room staff patiently explained to me when I remonstrated with them a few months back: the rules were changed in 2011. The previous ban on all food and drink was, so to speak, watered down to allow water in the reading rooms. And, as the staff went on, it has proved very popular (popular, I wanted to shout, but saving the Library’s patrimony for future generations is not about seeking fleeting popularity). They provided the ‘lesser evil’ defence: there had been readers who wanted to bring in tea or coffee or cola, and so, confining them only to water was some sort of success. I asked the staff why water was so much better than other drinks; they guessed the reason was that it would not stain, which made me wonder whether it would be acceptable to bring in white but not brown spirits, vodka but not brandy, mother’s ruin but not the water of life.

I am not, however, writing this to be a grumpy Ciceronian, declaiming ‘o tempora, o mores’; my palpitations have subsided. The purpose of these paragraphs is not to condemn but to understand, for I sense there is here a cultural change that deserves to be analysed and understood. When I was an undergraduate twenty – sorry, twenty-five – years ago, very few students would have thought that taking water into the Bodleian could be acceptable. A delight of owning a book was that you could do what you wanted with it: you could have it at your desk and have a cup or glass to hand, something you could not contemplate doing in the college library, let alone in the Bodleian with its national status as a copyright collection.

It was not considered either acceptable or, for that matter, necessary: my impressionistic memory is that water was drunk far less often than it is a couple of decades later. Perhaps I am misremembering or post-dating the development. After all, the internal design of the British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1997, included plentiful water fountains, though, again, my impression is that they began as something of a curiosity and have become more of a welcome feature. I will not speculate on reasons for the apparent life-style change, beyond noting that the dietician’s advice to drink H2O regularly seems even to inform the Bodleian’s new reading room rule, which reads: ‘Remember that water is permitted in the reading room…’. It is an injunction that seems not just to condone but to encourage water-drinking in the library.

But how does this arrangement accord with the Bodleian oath that I remember reading aloud as a Fresher in 1987? What is usually remembered is the phrase about not kindling flame, but that is a specific injunction within a more general prohibition about not defacing or damaging books in any way. And, as William Blades wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘next to fire, we must rank water … as the greatest destroyer of books’. It could be fairly retorted that he had in mind primarily loss of volumes at sea, to which should be added the destructive power of floods: not for nothing is the traditional library built on the first floor, not at ground level. In comparison to the quantity of liquid that causes the calamities of drowning or flooding, it might be said, the water students bring into the Bodleian is a mere puddle. It might be added that with the teats through which most imbibe soft drinks now, the danger of spillage is minimised (you will note that the reading room rule talks only of water without specifying how it is carried, allowing the possibility of it being in a paper cup or a glass or – like the farmer presenting his meagre gift to Artaxerxes – in cupped hands, but other information shows that the Library’s expectation is that the water will be bottled. Whether it could be San Pellegrino held in green glass is not made transparent, if you pardon the pun). The danger of spillage may be minimised, but it is still there; even if a litre and a half would not turn pages to papier-mâché, it could cause the sort of damage Bodley’s oath is intended to guard against happening.  Perhaps, though, we have become purblind to this; perhaps we are culturally conditioned to downplay the possibility of water as one of what Blades called the enemies of books. What I have in mind is less the benign nature of water at a time when we perceive it to be increasingly scarce but, rather, the association that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive forces.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not all the Bodleian’s rooms which are as insouciant about the presence of drink. Go down the few steps from the Upper Reading Room into the Arts End of the old library and the notice at the entrance into Duke Humfrey’s, complete with graceless cartoon graphics, states boldly that ‘no food or drink (including water bottles) are allowed [sic] in this reading room’. Duke Humfrey’s has been lamentably denuded of its status as the prime location for manuscript consultation but it still has a certain aura of the inner sanctum – indeed, the distinction between reading rooms as watering holes, on the one hand, and spaces of scholarship where full abstinence is required, on the other, is surely increasing that divide. It also, of course, assumes a gradation in the books themselves – those that can be consulted in one of the general spaces being considered less valuable or, perhaps, more dispensable than those that are confined to places like Duke Humfrey’s. Whether a legal deposit library should promote such a distinction when all its collection needs protecting for posterity is, of course, a wider debate.

That a process of gradation exists could be seen as an admission of failure: an inability to protect all so the inner bastions become the line of defence. Even there barbarians might lurk: we should not be too dewy-eyed about Duke Humfrey’s as a special haven when Judith Loades can remind us of the time in the 1970s that Margaret Crum happened upon a reader in the room with a Thermos flask of tomato soup. If policing a collection has been a perennial concern, it may shed a different light on the decision to soften the rules about no food and drink in the library.  I mentioned that the staff used the ‘lesser evil’ defence. One can imagine that argument being made in starker form: if readers do not feel comfortable in the library, they may either not use it (which would be their loss, not the Bodleian’s) or, worse, abuse it by stealing books from it. The possibility of water-damage to some volumes might then be calculated to be a risk worth taking if it reduced the rate of theft. If, though, that was in the authorities’ thinking, it suggests a deeper malaise: what standards of comfort are these? A reader needs to be able sit painlessly and to read without straining their eyes – but why has the requirement for acceptable seating and adequate lighting been supplemented by an insistence on being able to hydrate oneself?

The answer surely lies in expectations imported from other libraries and from new technology. Students’ experience of other libraries can make the absence of water seem a deprivation: after all, most if not all Oxford college libraries now allow bottles in, often on the basis that as they are open 24 hours they cannot stop it happening. What is more, one can e-mail, one can check Facebook, one can text in a reading room, so why should not one be able to fulfil a bodily need for liquid there? I sometimes regret the ability to be on the internet in the library – I am nostalgic for the times when it was a place where you were beyond communication, a hiding-place from the demands of every-day life – but, of course, I could not work without the resources it provides. My point is that the new connectivity has broken down walls in ways which sets new challenges for libraries like the Bodleian. It is not just barriers to learning that have been removed; the separation of ‘library’ from other, mundane space has been reduced as the outside world seeps into the reading room through the computer screen. Perhaps, indeed, the increasing need to make distinctions between reading rooms is a result of this logic, a need to internalise differences within the library where it previously existed between library and beyond.

Water in the library dilutes the space: it is a symptom of how the stone walls have become porous. I am not suggesting that the fabric of Schools Quad will suffer the fate of Jericho before the trumpets of Joshua. Thomas Bodley chose for his library the motto ‘quarta perennis’ – the fourth will last forever, where the previous three libraries of the University of Oxford, the mythical one of Alfred’s and the more real ones of Bishop Cobham and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had all perished. Libraries do die, but we need not predict the Bodleian’s demise. Cultural shifts are making the old rules indefensible, but with the loss of those rules something less tangible but more essential also dissipates – the aura or charisma of the space. The challenge is this: how, in the emerging world order, can the library be re-endowed with fresh charisma?

The Futility of Book-burning

Posted in Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 9 September, 2010

The culture of biblioclasm — the traditions of intentional destruction of books — holds for me a fascination much as the candle does for the moth. I can not, then, let pass without comment the news that a pastor of a church of 50 members in a small town in Florida will liven up his Saturday by buying twenty copies of the Koran and then dispatching them into a bonfire.

The act itself is, of course, pitiful. Why twenty copies? Why not two thousand or two hundred thousand? When, of course, the figure reaches the tens of thousands, it would require industrial organisation to be in any way efficient — which would not be impossible to arrange, but beyond the pastor’s means. Even then, the destruction could hardly expect to be effective: the book would continue to exist. And, when the number is so confined, the fire so small, the overwhelming impression will not be the smell of burnt paper but the stench of impotence. How puny the pastor will seem: perhaps even he will wonder to himself how many copies of the Koran will have rolled of the world’s printing presses in the time it takes him to dispense with one score witnesses to the Prophet’s revelations.

Book burnings have had moments of being celebrated activities, as I have discussed before. The art of biblioclasm blossomed as the power of the act itself withered: a culture of print made it rare for the destruction of books to be anything other than symbolic. Even the Nazis, with their industrial efficiency which the Floridan pastor could only dream of emulating, proved less than successful at eradicating books they disliked. And so they moved on to people.

The futility of book-burning being so obvious, it leaves the question of why the act of a little-known pastor has received such international attention. In part, it is the circumstance: the coincidence of the anniversary of 11th September with the celebration of Eid, the involvement of a self-styled churchman who has failed to grasp the most basic tenet of Christianity. It is a story which takes little journalistic skill to conjure up copy, even without the emotive pull that it can command.

The emotive pull is multi-faceted, affecting equally disparate audiences. In Muslim cultures, the destruction of examples of the Holy Book could be taken as act of desecration. Some Islamic scholars have pointed out the difference between mushaf — the printed pages — and the Qu’ran — the revelation itself. Armed with that distinction, it could be argued that even if all printed copies somehow succumbed to the fire, then the Qu’ran would survive, not least on the tongues of those who have memorised its words. A textual community, in other words, could exist without a written text. So, any book burning can not lessen the prophecies themselves, which have an existence, both conceptual and oral, beyond any printed testimony. But this distinction may have little relevance for those who see each copy of the book as sacred, as something to be treasured even in its most dog-earred and delapidated state.

In the west, book burning tends most immediately to evoke memories, or learnt  resonances, of the destructive force of the Nazis, bringing to mind images of Kirstallnacht and fears of a pogrom of books which could be both organised and popular. A fear  of repetition — not just of the act but of both the complicity, through involvement or through silence, and the spiral into infernal inhumanity that it signified — drives some of the condemnation of what is planned in Florida.

That  determination that what happened in the 1930s must not happen is worthy in itself, but in the desire for cleansing (as if full purification were even possible), there is the risk of becoming culpable yet once more: the incessant expressions of outrage simply make the flames rage higher. The media – the newspapers hoping to sell copies by its coverage — is in danger of giving an impotent act a significance, even a spurious power, that it lacks. It is as if they wanted to look into the fire and find something more substantial than a mean-spirited but futile act. And, of course, by drawing attention and so exacerbating the tensions, they may indeed will something more into existence and provide their own self-fulfilling prophecy. They are like the pyromaniac that can not turn away from his fire.

When Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave its secret to humanity, he was eternally punished for his pains. He managed to give us the power of fire, but not the capacity properly to control our use of the flames. Perhaps the gods were right.

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The Art of Book-Burning

Posted in Art, Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 19 April, 2009

I have been fascinated for some years now with the burning of books. I can pinpoint the moment when my interest was kindled: I was wandering the galleries of Louvre and stopped before a large, not highly accomplished, canvas. It was Eustace Le Sueur’s Paul Preaching at Ephesus, painted in 1649 (a couple of months after, on the other side of the Channel, a king had lost his head); it formerly hung in Notre Dame. Paul stands at the centre of the picture with, in front of him, the locals rushing to tear up their books and throw them onto a small but lively fire at bottom-centre of the image. I was standing, in this temple to high culture, before a celebration of biblioclasm.

Eustace Le Sueur, Paul at Ephesus

Eustace Le Sueur, The Preaching of St Paul at Ephesus (Louvre, Paris)

The episode from Acts has proven a fairly rich vein for similar images. The National Gallery in London has what appears to be a preliminary version of Le Sueur’s painting. Several decades before Le Sueur, the Italianate Dutch artist, Maerten de Vos, painted the same scene (now hanging in the excellent Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels). A couple centuries later, Gustave Doré, most famous for his illustrations of Dante, included a similar depiction in the scenes he selected from the Bible. In all of these, there is the anachronism that bound codices, not papyri rolls, are what are being thrown onto the fire. And all naturally follow The Book in seeing the burning of books as a virtuous act.

What brought this information flooding back into my mind the other day was  an article in The Times that my fiancée, knowing my curious interest, brought to my attention. The article is about the Nazi destruction of books in May 1933, the precursor to Kristallnacht five years later, and (according to the article) a staging post on the road to the Holocaust. The inspiration for the article is a book dedicated to the incident which was published last year (though The Times describes it as new). It is by a German journalist, Volker Weidermann, and called Das Buch der verbranntem Bücher. I would not want to judge the book by this article; perhaps that can be done another day. Instead, what I wish to highlight is the mismatch between the article and the headline the sub-editor gave it.

The article itself expresses the accustomed shock at the destruction of Jewish and other ‘degenerate’ books, and I took part in that shock as a reader. I instinctively recoiled at the mention of universities actively condoning the book-burnings by attending the occasions. But, then again, such connivance was hardly a twentieth-century invention: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was honoured by being burnt in the quadrangle of the Bodleian here in Oxford in 1683, thirty-two years after its publication. Our shock at biblioclasm is  our culturally-conditioned reaction  but it can hold us back from asking historical questions of the phenomenon. It may also give book-burning a power that, most often, the act itself does not have.

What struck me most in The Times’ article was the description of Weidermann’s own buying up of the books proscribed by the Nazis and his discovery that one bibliophile in Munich had ‘spent all his life and money collecting 15,000 first editions of the banned books’. That is a huge number of texts that were banned — and that survived the act of destruction. It would be interesting to know if any work had been completely extinguished in those fires: the likelihood is low. If the Nazis, with their religion of the automated, their science of inhuman organisation, believed that their bonfires could actually end the life of books, they under-estimated the ability of technology to subvert their plans. This is the point captured in the title of the article: ‘The Vanity of the bonfires’.

It is a bitter irony, of course, that it proved easier to destroy a people and whole communities than it did texts. The Nazis were not the first to prove this point — there was a history at least five hundred years old before them. It is not fashionable now to talk of a ‘print revolution’ but that transformation of information technology from individual manuscript to replicated print did change the dynamic between text and book-burner. Even in a manuscript culture, a text could survive the burning of both book and author. But, in print culture, the ability to ensure complete destruction became increasingly difficult. To my mind, the anachronism in the paintings of Le Sueur and de Vos, depicting bound books in front of Saint Paul, speaks to this: it takes the volumes of their own generations and transposes them to a golden era when their destruction could actually have been achieved. And it is surely not accidental that interest in this biblical scene arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as confessional strife lit bonfires across Christendom.

My point is this: the age when book-burning could succeed in destroying knowledge is an Arcadian past. The bonfires may be an act of hate, a symbol of destruction — but, most often, they demonstrate the impotence of the powerful in the face of pen. If book-burnings do have an ability to crush learning, it may not be because of the act itself, but because our reaction is to be shocked and cowed. The despairing on-lookers add fuel to the fire.