bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.

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.