Fire’s history is contradictory and paradoxical. There’s the unassuming fire that results from the burning kindling and invites reverie, or the conflagration brought about by the gesture of an arsonist. Fire may be the inadvertent spark that results in destruction or the wholesale damage brought about by the military might. Yet we cook with fire and warm ourselves in front of its comforting presence. Ravaging the environment, it also replenishes. Fire destroys lives and structures, but it also mesmerizes and we celebrate it. Damning yet redemptive, destructive but also comforting, fire leads a charmed life. [1]

On Tuesday the 16th of February members of Rhodes Must Fall, protesting the University of Cape Town’s accommodation policies, burnt several artworks belonging to the university. The Centre for Curating the Archive, true to its name, has started a collection of writings on past instances of burning artifacts (these often seem to have been over the burning of books rather than art or art-like artifacts) in South Africa and elsewhere, current articles and anything else that may be relevant.

One of the first instances of burning books that comes to mind is the first that destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria.

The infamous destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria, with the consequent loss of the most complete collection of ancient literature ever assembled, has been a point of heated debate for centuries. What exactly happened to this amazing storehouse of ancient knowledge, and who was responsible for its burning?[2]

There are so many theories as to how the fire was started that the library itself has become almost iconic and the loss of the library is remembered as both a great loss to the Alexandrian culture and a loss of Alexandrian culture.

This seems to be the general outcome with most deliberate book burnings, that is, to try to override a culture, or idea, that one group does not agree with, in order to replace it with another, more acceptable to that group.

In natural disasters, human agency is, at most, a secondary force at play, and damage to cultural materials does not raise questions about the basic order of society. The case is entirely different when books and libraries are systematically looted bombed, and burned, for then a deliberate and calculated attack on the culture of a group is launched, and the world responds from a sense that the whole human culture has come under attack.[3]

As was seen when, in 1933, the Nazis burnt books that went against their political beliefs. And, later, under Eisenhower, and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, so-called pro-communist books were burnt in the States.

The old goes up in flames, the new shall be fashioned from our hearts. –Joseph Goebbels

Of course the burning of things is often a lot more justified than in Goebbels case but, then again, it isn’t always.

Chatterley’s Lover was first censored because of it’s “adult” content and, later, burnt by some who took even greater offence to it .

It had a thrill of its own too: a queer vibrating thrill inside the body, a final spasm of self-assertion, like the last word, exciting, and very like the row of asterisks that can be put to show the end of a paragraph, and a break in the theme.[4]

 

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And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshipped, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.[5]

But why fire?

While shredding is private and doesn’t cause a public stir, fire is quite the opposite.

And it makes more of a statement than water, certainly, drowning books would not have quite the same illuminating quality. The bible can attest to this. Sure, the drowning surrounding Noah’s Ark made a pretty big statement but humans can hardly pull off something of that scale and, so, we turn, rather to that which will cause just as much of a splash, a shock, a spectacle.

All through the Bible, fire is used as a picture of the purifying and refining quality of God’s holiness.[6]

And as Goebbels and God have both pointed out it’s a way to start afresh, to purify (in adverted commas in Geobbels case) the past and start a better future, like the phoenix, Fawkes, in  Potter, who bursts into flames only to rise again, new, from the ashes.

Harry Potter being another burning book. In December of 2001 in New Mexico:

JK Rowling’s novels were burnt alongside other items considered to be the work of the devil, including horror books by Stephen King, ouija boards and AC/DC records.[7]

While CDs of Eminem’s music and Disney’s Snow White weren’t deemed quite evil enough for the fire and were, rather, relegated to the bin.
As we know, many other things that have been seen as evil, by some, have been thrown into the flames, like Pokémon cards, for example. But we also know that these things probably aren’t all that bad and shouldn’t have been burnt/censored/banned.

Don’t join the book burners! … Don’t be afraid to go to the library and read every book so long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency—that should be the only censorship. – President Esienhower

Of course when Eisenhower said this he was not including books of a communist nature, those were an entirely different matter to him.

But what about when books, or art or, artifacts do offend our ideas of decency? And why are most of the books that have been banned in the last few years, books by or about diverse people (that is, often, LGBTIQA people or people of colour)? 

Far from being a simple reflection of reality, archives are constructed windows into personal and collective processes. They at once express and are instruments of prevailing relations of power.[8]

Libraries are, in themselves, a type of archive, and what we store in them, or what is banned from them, reflects the choices of those in power. Burning books, then, could be a way of subverting this power, but what do we lose in the process? Should we not rather be adding new books instead of destroying old ones? While moving the offensive, of these, to the deeper rooms of archives, not housing them in prominent positions of power. Or does this only dilute the problem?

 

We have uploaded a list of the web sources we used here and current articles surrounding the burning done by the Rhodes Must Fall group, as well as, an interesting book-list on similar matters. We promise that none of the readings on these lists are banned.

 

References

[1] Krell, A. 2011. Burning Issues: fire in art and the social imagination. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

[2] Haughton, H. 2011. What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available: http://www.ancient.eu/article/207/ [2016, February 23].

[3] Knuth, R. 2003. Libricide. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

[4] Lawrence, D.H. 1928. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Florence: Pino Orioli.

[5] King James Bible. 2 Chronicles 7:1-3. God Answers with Fire From Heaven.

[6] Why did God speak to Moses out of the burning bush? Got Questions?org. Available: http://www.gotquestions.org/burning-bush.html [2016, March 01].

[7] B.B.C. News. 2001. ‘Satanic’ Harry Potter books burnt. World Edition. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1735623.stm [2016, March 01].

[8] Harris, V. 2002. The archival sliver: power, memory and Archives in South Africa. Archival Science. 2: 63-86.