Saturday, 18 September 2010

Books Ablaze - What is Book Burning?

In August, Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida announced his church's plans to burn copies of the Qu'ran in what they called "International Burn the Koran Day" on the 11th of September. To the horror of bibliophiles and sensible people around the world, Jones was claiming to want to send a message to the followers of "the religion of the Devil". In this capacity, he prepared to add a new chapter to a shameful history which has had unknown, damning consequences for our cultural heritage. Jones' plans were thwarted after urgings from the President and, in his own words, God. However, after such a close encounter with the horrible spectre of libricide we should take pains to familiarise ourselves with this phenomenon. Below is a bibliophile´s introduction to the nature and psychology of book burnings exemplified by three historic cases.

Rev. Terry Jones

Nature of Book Burnings
One of the benefits of civilisation is that its inherent safety of subsistence allows its members to transfer their efforts into creating expressions of culture. Thus, society and culture has always had a reciprocally reliant relationship. However, this relationship has never been a tranquil one and all too often disputes between the political or religious leadership and the cultural element have flared up, sometimes literally.

The Ancient Roman practice of damnatio memoriae could serve as an introduction to the mechanics and motivations of libricide. If a member of Roman public life had been considered as tainting the state, its leadership, be it Senate or Emperor, could decide to have every memory or mention of the individual erased. They would have his memory condemned, as it were. Following such a decision, statues would be destroyed or resculpted, property would be confiscated, mention of his name or deeds would become punishable and any written records of their existence would be obliterated. The political and religious leaders wished to remove any threat to their hegemony, and as cultural expressions such as scrolls and books are the sole conveyors of such threats the removal of these would be most expedient.

The same recognition that prompted leading political figures like Augustus, Churchill and Kissinger to have their histories recorded thus offering invaluable historical source material also led Diocletian to burn Christian texts, Torquemada to burn Islamic ones and Nazis to burn "Entartete Texte". Thus, Jones follows up a tradition with inglorious forefathers whose actions contribute more to demonising his own position than the one he wants to fight.

Tomàs de Torquemada
Nazi Book Burnings

What these leders saw was the importance of any physical representation of ideas.Although ideas can be preserved in the human mind or transmitted by word of mouth no extended existence can be guaranteed until the ideas are encoded in some physical medium. This is the reason for the Church's hegemony in Post-Roman times and the tremendous significance of the printing press. Today's internet constitutes a similar manifestation. By suppressing such media, the authorities would be able to suppress the ideas.

Psychology of Book Burnings
Psychologically, the destruction of such media serves a significant purpose. It establishes or maintains a social hierarchy. This can be done either by safeguarding or elevating one's own position or by degrading or dominating the other's and libricide falls into the second category. As with personal relationships, destroying what is personally central to others effectively belittles and harms these individuals' self esteem, social standing and cause. Heinrich Heine tapped into a psychological truth when he in his 1821 play Almansor commented on the above mentioned burning of the Qu'ran by Torquemada through the now familiar phrase "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings."

"Where they burn books..." 
(Nazi book burnings of 1933)

"... so too will they in the end burn human beings." 
(The furnaces of Auschwitz)

The responses to such tactics are limited but often as drastic as the tactics themselves and the effects are invariably regressive. Either the target is destroyed, like Senator Aulus Cremutius Cordus who had his History of the Roman people destroyed in 25 AD and was forced to commit suicide or some reaction is occasioned, like the reactions to Rev. Jones. In these latter instances, libricide tends to polarize whatever discourse it is part of.

Three Cases of Book Burnings
To illustrate, I will present three cases of libricide; how these were the result of intolerant, misguided zeal and their destructive effects. For a good essay on the context of the case at hand, click here.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola
I have earlier written on Renaissance Florence as the birthplace of Humanism. However, in 1494 the most influential patrons of the arts, the Medici, were ousted by the invading French. The Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola assumed leadership of Florence and proclaimed a republic. Tapping into fears of the supposedly apocalyptic turn of the half millenium, the arrival of syphilis (with the French) and discontent with the ousted Medici rulers and the Papacy Savonarola urged a return to a simpler and more morally correct life. In pursuit of this he instigated the Falò delle vanità, the "Bonfires of Vanity". In 1495 he

Statue of Savonarola in Ferrara
"organised [the children of Florence] into bands, with standard-bearers and officers like the time-honored city companies with ther gonfaloniers, and sent them round the city to seize vanities, forcibly stop gambling, to collect alms for the poor, and even to exercise a supervision over the ladies' dresses."

The vanities; books, paintings, instruments were all burnt most notably in the early days of 1497. By this time the violent upheaval in Northern Italy following the French incursion, pestilence, famine and internal discontent in Florence gave this, the largest bonfire this far, an omnious atmosphere. As priceless works of antiquity like the works of Ovid and Renaissance art were consumed by the flames a resentment within the Fiorentine population was about to bring matters to a head. Later that year Savonarola was excommunicated by the Pope and several groups started a riot which became a full scale revolt. The Signoria, the government of Florence, joined this revolt and with their sanction Savonarola was burnt in the same place as his largest bonfire of vanities on May 23rd 1498. Savonarola was an influential character who in part inspired the Reformation but whose suppression of ideas through libricide heralded the end of the Fiorentine golden age.

Fray Diego de Landa
In Spanish historiography there is a tradition called "La Layenda Negra", "The Black Legend". This tries to depict Spanish colonialism as a thoroughly destructive and shameful. Although the tradition itself is somewhat discredited some of its examples are controversially extreme enough to astonish even the soundest historian.

Page from the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán
Fray Diego de Landa was the Fransiscan Bishop of Yucatan from 1573 to his death in 1579. As a monk he travelled extensively in the newly conquered lands of the Yucatan and became quite an authority on Maya culture. De Landa was a millenarist, which meant that he believed that the second coming of Christ would coincide with the turn of the century, much like Savonarola did in the preceding century. Thus, he had to fight Maya religion and culture as effectively as possible and convert the population to Catholic Christianity before the turn of the century.

On the 12th of July 1562 he ordered an inquisition in the Mayan town of Mani. In what is called an auto de fé, an act of faith, he had more than 40 Maya books and 20.000 Maya images burnt, dramatically reducing our source material of this culture. In addition, de Landa´s fanatical paranoia made him disregard both the decree that forbid religious persecution of indigenous peoples and the formal requirements of the inquisition. This lead to an excessive use of torture which appalled and dismayed even inquisition authorities.

The Black Legend is however counterweighed by the White Legend´s attention to a consolatory poetic justice. Like Savonarola, de Landa wrote a number of texts where he tried to justify his actions. Ironically, one of these, the Relación de las cosas de Yucatán ("Account of the matters of Yucatán"), became vital for the preservation and study of Maya language and culture.

The Nazis
The spectre of cultural "cleansing by fire" arose several times between de Landa and the 20th century, but the most famous case of book burning is undoubtedly the Nazi book burnings of May and June 1933. Based in a number of extreme theses and an initiative from the German Student Association Jewish, anti-nationalistic and "un-German" literature was gathered. More than 25.000 books were burnt accompanied by speeches by Nazi officials like Goebbels. Only interrupted by rain, the book burnings marked the beginning of a period of state control with culture and censorship.

The books deemed fit for the fires were surprisingly diverse. Books the Nazis defined as "products of Jewish intellectualism" were obvious choices (once more exemplifying how book burnings target humans as much as literature itself), as were literature by socialists. Helen Keller, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, might seem like odd targets for the Nazis. Helen Keller, of course, was an example of a successful multi-handicapped author which did not sit well with Nazi ideology. Hemingway and London were simly deemed un-German because they represented foreign influence and literary success. Most noteworthy was perhaps Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German Jew who foresaw the atrocities to come.


The book burnings were broadcast to the rest of Germany

It should be noted that although it did not lead to genocide, the Allies followed up with a libricide of their own after the war. As related in TIME Magazine, the Allies targeted "undemocratic, militaristic and Nazi" literature for destruction. While the ideological motivations for this action can be understood from its contemporary context, the soundness of it was also contested by contemporary observers who "condemned the order as a piece of unenforceable foolishness which would only increase interest in the verboten books, and martyrize Germany's nationalistic spirit". This highlights two issues of libricide. Firsly how justifiable book burnings can seem in an athmosphere of fear and power struggle and secondly the sensitivity of the issue the closer we get to our own context.  

The Lessons of History - a Conclusion Book burings seem to be one of the extreme alternatives to responsible literacy and cultural sensitivity. When the multi-faceted nature of literature with its roles and effects is not responsibly assessed it can become the target of irresponsible and dangerous actions which may have serious consequences. Heine´s link between literature and humanity is obvious. Sadly, acts of libricide as acts against human identity has too often preceded acts of violence against humanity itself. The line between destroying elements central to human identity and conseption of self and the destruction of humans is dangerously easy to cross once the first act has been commited. No matter the religious or ideological motivation, no good can come from book burnings. Not only do they push the extremes of human interaction for those who burn books; they also provoke reactions of an excessively extreme nature in the targets of these actions. Of course, these target groups should ascertain whether these crude acts are representative of the societal structures to which the book burner belongs and adjust their reactions accordingly, but the extent of the reaction does not justify the provocation. Book burnings show a contempt for humanity, a cultural ignorance and a lack of cultural sensitivity which is unfitting a member of modern society. The case of the Florida pastor has shown that the world is ready to bury the spectre of libricide.  
As given
Blom, Frans: The Conquest of Yucatan, Cambridge 1936
Clendinnen, Inga: Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517–1570, (2nd ed.), New York 2003
Gardner, Edmund G.: The Story of Florence, London 1928
Goldstein, Cora: Purges, Exclusions and Limits: Art Policies in Germany 1933-1949, link (last visited 17.9.2010)

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