Thursday, July 09, 2020

'Imminence of a Revelation As Yet Unproduced'

Geoffrey Hill writes in “Scenes with Harlequins” (Canaan, 1996): “History is aglow / with bookish fires.” Note the present tense. Book burning neither started nor ended in 1933. A taste for destruction is self-justifying and self-perpetuating. Books follow naturally from statues and have the advantage of being flammable. The object of both assaults (apart from sheer pleasure) is erasure of the past. To abolish knowledge of the past is to gain an advantage in controlling the present. Those who know nothing of the Civil War will go on fighting it.

If all books were to disappear from the world, think of the impact not on readers, those of us who live by the book, but on the great mass of humanity who are non- or indifferent readers. Nothing. No impact at all, thank you. Perhaps even relief. One less nagging sense of inferiority to carry around. Just as purportedly educated people approve of knocking down Jefferson and Lincoln statues, so will they acquiesce to putting the torch to Spinoza and Henry James. Of course, there’s another, less conspicuous way to destroy books: don’t read them. We’ve reached a place in history where illiteracy and aliteracy carry a certain cachet, like driving a Prius.

In “The Wall and the Books” (trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 344, Selected Non-Fictions, 1999), Borges reminds us that the Chinese emperor who ordered construction of the Great Wall, Shih Huang Ti, also ordered the burning of all books written before his time. Borges refers to the latter decree as “the rigorous abolition of history.” Among the writers slated for the emperor’s auto-da-fé were Chuang Tzu, Confucius and Lao Tzu – figures well-known even to readers in the West. With the loss of knowledge goes something less tangible but comparably essential to those with the capacity to cherish the beautiful. Borges concludes his essay:   

“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn't have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.”


Edward Bauer said...

I once had hope that the Harry Potter phenomenon would start some younger people on the path to reading other and better things, much as my reading of adolescent books and magazines gave me a hearty appetite for more substantive books and ideas. Alas... There is little more depressing to me than to see what has happened to my local library, where thousands of books were sold for a dollar or two and the stacks shrunk to half their length. Very few read. No one cares. Thank you again for your nearly heroic efforts to promote good reading (and thinking).

Wurmbrand said...

After I retired from a certain small public university, the curriculum was revised. You can get a BA in English from it having taken, for your literature requirement, no more than 5 3-credit courses. If they were all offered in the same semester you could knock off the literature component & still have time left over.