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Against Books

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This month on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________. In today’s piece, which is rich in trivia, though not on a trivial matter, Franek Korbanski takes a look at those who are against books, and those who work against them.

 

1600

In 1600 the heretic Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake at Campo dei Fiori in Rome, sentenced on numerous charges by the Roman Inquisition, primarily, for the heresy of pantheism. Among his other crimes one can count his heliocentric cosmological beliefs, which held that the stars are just distant suns and that no planet could be the center of the universe. The evidence in the case was easy to find, all noted down on the pages of the works written by the accused himself. It is therefore perhaps not so surprising that Giordano Bruno dies in the flames with “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words”. With his death, he became a symbol for generations to come: the one of being a martyr for one’s own convictions. Only three years after his death, his opera omnia, the entire body of his work, was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

 

1955 / 2017

documenta  is an exhibition of contemporary art founded in 1955. It takes place every fifth year in the German city of Kassel. Unlike the previous editions, however, in 2017, documenta 14 takes place not only there (10. June – 17. September) but is also paralleled by an exhibition in Athens (8. April – 16. July). Approximately 250 participants will present their works in two cities over the course of the double exhibition: among them is a veteran Agrentinian artist Marta Minujín. The work she exhibits is The Parthenon of Books.

 

1953 / 1989

The Captive Mind is a book by a Polish poet Czesław Miłosz published in 1953. It uses the examples of four polish writers, disguised in the text as Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, to analyse the complex influence of the oppressive system (here: communism as it was incarnated in the post-WWII Poland) on their personal, creative, moral and professional choices. In the author’s note Miłosz explains that the book’s subject “is the vulnerability of the twentieth century mind to seduction by socio-political doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of the hypothetic future” (p. vii). If the bulk of the literature written on the subject of the atrocities of the 20th century has a quite understandable tendency to polarise the issue into a contrasting black and white types of a narrative, then the work of Miłosz’s stands out, painting in a deliberately nuanced palette. With the refusal to simplify the complicated and to step into any of the ready-made positions, the book immediately brings to mind works like Eichmann in Jerusalem or Homage to Catalonia. Miłosz writes The Captive Mind during his emigration in Paris and after his deflection to the West, which took place in 1951. The book, like the rest of his oeuvre, was banned in the People’s Republic of Poland and only published there in the underground, illegal editions: it was not officially available there until 1989. In the 1953 it appeared for the first time as an English translation.

 

483 BC

The construction of Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens, was completed in 483 BC. It is located at the top of the hill of Acropolis, overlooking the city, at the place of an older temple, referred to by the historians as Pre-Parthenon, which in turn replaced a yet earlier temple, known as hekatompedon. Over the course of its history it served as a treasure, was transformed into a mosque as well as into a Christian church and suffered a severe damage in the artillery attack in 1687. It is considered one of the most important surviving examples of the Greek architecture, a symbol both of Athenian democracy and of the western civilisation, as the collective modern mind of Wikipedia informs.

 

1559 / 1948 / 1966

Index Librorum Prohibitorum was published for the first time in 1559 by Pope Paul IV. It is a list of publications banned, because seen as heretical or anti-clerical, by the Roman Catholic Church. Four centuries after its introduction, Index was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1966, though as late as in 1948, its final, 20th edition was published. The list of authors who found their way onto the list is considerably long and many of them belong to the canon of western thought, including some of the winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. Among others, one comes across the names of Hobbes, Pascal, Descartes, Montaigne, La Fontaine, Swedenborg, Kant, Sand, Flaubert, Sartre or de Beauvoir… Lists similar in nature (books seen as dangerous), though complied according to different criteria (because they are considered a danger to different aims), could be presented for a number of systems and institutions, ancient or modern, religious or political.

 

2016

Ahead of documenta 14, an announcement published on the biennale’s official website invites readers to donate books to be used to create The Parthenon of Books. This work of art, a recreation of the Greek temple, constructed out of 100.000 copies of previously of currently banned books, is to be erected on the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. One can donate them in Kassel or send them via post. As the announcement reads: “The installation The Parthenon of Books will be presented in Kassel as a replica of the temple on the Acropolis in Athens, which symbolizes the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.” As a part of the project, Minujín collaborates with the University of Kassel to compile a list of forbidden and banned books, a 2224 pages document containing some 70.000 entries. Index Librorum Prohibitorum constitutes a significant part of this list.

 

1980

In 1980 Czesław Miłosz receives the Nobel Prize for Literature and in his acceptance speech says: “The exile of a poet is today a simple function of a relatively recent discovery: that whoever wields power is also able to control language and not only with the prohibitions of censorship, but also by changing the meaning of words. A peculiar phenomenon makes its appearance: the language of a captive community acquires certain durable habits; whole zones of reality cease to exist simply because they have no name.”

 

1933

Around 2.000 books were burned by the Nazi regime at Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz as a part of the the so-called Campaign against the un-german spirit. The action was nationwide and many cities witness similar scenes. Already then, the procedure of biblioclasm has a long history and it will reappear: books will burn forty years later under Pinochet in Chile, they will burn nineteen years after that in Sarajevo when the Vijećnica, a former city hall transformed into a library, will be shelled. Snipers will shoot at those, who will try to save books from the flames. These are but two places where books will burn after 1933.

 

1983

The first version of The Parthenon of Books is created by Minujín in Buenos Aires to celebrate the fall of the seven year regime of the Argentinian Junta. Some 30.000 books previously banned by the authorities are used to create the structure, which after five days is collapsed to the side and the books are distributed to the public. The same symbolic gesture of returning the banned books into circulation is to be performed after documenta with the new Parthenon.

 

1943

In the preface to The Captive Mind Miłosz writes: “The part of Europe to which I belong has not, in our time, met with good fortune. Not many inhabitants of the Baltic States, of Poland or Czechoslovakia, of Hungary or Rumania, could summarise in a few words the story of their existence. Their lives have been complicated by the course of historic events.” (p. ix) Lives of many other polish writers, artists and intellectuals whom the poet knew are living proof of this statement. Witkiewicz, whose novel Insatiability is discussed by Miłosz in The Captive Mind, committed suicide in 1939, upon hearing the news that Red Army had invaded Poland. That same year, Gombrowicz, finding himself in Argentina at the outbreak of the War, decides to stay there: he will remain till 1963. Alfa, Beta, Gamma and Delta remain in Poland, where they too experience the course of the historic events. Miłosz will later move to France and, finally, to the U.S. But in 1943 he finds himself in Warsaw, where he writes his poem Campo dei Fiori:

[…]

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori

in Warsaw by the sky-carousel

one clear spring evening

to the strains of a carnival tune.

The bright melody drowned

the salvos from the ghetto wall,

and couples were flying

high in the cloudless sky.

[…]

But that day I thought only

of the loneliness of the dying,

of how, when Giordano

climbed to his burning

he could not find

in any human tongue

words for mankind,

mankind who live on.

[…]

Those dying here, the lonely

forgotten by the world,

our tongue becomes for them

the language of an ancient planet.

Until, when all is legend

and many years have passed,

on a new Campo dei Fiori

rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

 

2017

As I sit in the bookstore in the heart of Copenhagen and think of those fragments, which tell but a fraction of the story, I realise that the figures they present and the actions they tell about will probably keep reappearing, in one form or another. There will always be authors writing books that will enrage this or that authority and there will always be those who will take action, often brutal, against them and their authors. There will always be indexes. There will always be Alfas, Betas, Gammas, and Deltas. There will always be those, who, perhaps with slightly naivety but with strong conviction, will continue to make the symbolic gestures to speak up for those who are being silenced. There will be those who act against books and there will be their defenders. And there will always be those, who, though not directly involved, will nevertheless be witnesses to this perpetual struggle. And although they do not have to care, they may well choose to do so. I think of all this leafing through my copy of The Captive Mind and, though in principle I am quite distrustful of symbolic gestures and though I am keen to keep the book on my shelf, I realise what I will do now: look for an envelope and go to get some stamps.

 

Title photo: Marta Minujín: El Partenón de libros, Buenos Aires, 1983. © Photo: Marta Minujín archive

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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