bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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_est-dec1948

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.

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’?

Buy Renaissance Pornography for Christmas

Posted in Humanism by bonaelitterae on 18 December, 2010

Now there’s a title liable to cause a spike in viewing figures. But, for those of you in search of some visual titillation straight from the flowering of Italian culture, you will be disappointed. There is not even a reproduction from I Modi to provide  momentary stimulation. You will have to be more committed an onanist that Martin Amis’s Mr. Self to find appropriate inspiration here.

Instead, this post is a belated celebration — belated because its subject has been on the market for several months now. Wrapped in the pale blue uniform of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, the object in question is the parallel text of Panormita’s Hermaphroditus. Now, alongside the Platonist reveries of Ficino or the advice on education of Pier Paolo Vergerio and others, can rest on the bookshelves a collection of neo-latin poems so scurrilous, so devoted to all sorts of sex that, as its editor and translator, Holt Parker announces in his introduction, it is blessed with a loathsome reputation. For those who prefer their humanists pure, single-minded scholars avant la lettre, this is a volume best kept out of sight, but if we want to develop a fuller understanding of these authors and their milieu, it is precisely by not flinching to watch them when they spit venom or tell dirty jokes or wallow in sexual licence that we are going to create a more rounded analysis of those we often see as our intellectual forefathers.

One aspect that interests me is how this is a work that generations have wanted to burn. I have, as more attentive readers have may have noted, been working on a small piece concerning William Shepherd, early-nineteenth-century Unitarian minister, advanced Liberal, friend of William Roscoe and biographer of Poggio Bracciolini. In his Life of Poggio, he mentions the Hermaphroditus, because Shepherd’s ‘hero’ — himself no stranger to sex or to lewd humour — had censured Panormita (Poggio’s letter appears in the useful appendix to the I Tatti volume). Shepherd goes on to mention how, at the Council of Ferrara in 1438, ‘the cause of decency and morality was vindicated by the passing of a solemn censure upon [the] Hermaphroditus, which was ignominiously consigned to the flames in the most public part of the city’. Even for such a Liberal, an opponent of arbitrary rule and of the censorship that comes with it, the destruction of books has its place in civilised society.

With the horror of Kristallnacht engrained in our psyche, the burning of books — be they rude poetry or someone else’s holy book — holds a greater ability to shock than the book itself. But this should not let us complacently imagine that we have become a model of tolerance: Panormita still has such an ability to offend it can be censored. I can prove this with a more recent anecdote, that comes from the time a decade ago when I was editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. I asked a colleague to write an essay on homosexuality, and she, understandably, quoted the Hermaphroditus in it, ending her contribution with one of its epigrams (in the edition as poem XII). I found myself called in to the publishers to talk to their editor who insisted that the words could not be used — it would offend the audience and she, the editor, had to defend Hutchinson’s good name. I remonstrated and asked what else she might decided to cut. I pointed out that there was an entry on Matteo Colombo and a mention of his famous ‘discovery’, the clitoris — ‘do you’, I asked, ‘have anything against the clitoris?’. ‘No, I have nothing against the clitoris’.

Reader, she had her way: the published volume did not quote Panormita’s words, but rather delicately paraphrased them.  Now that Panormita has achieved the respectability of being in the I Tatti series — a respectability he himself might have loathed — perhaps such periphrasis will no longer be necessary. Somehow, though, I doubt that.

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.