11 May 2016

Pyromaniac, thy manuscript will not burn!

It is called ‘biblioclasm’ or ‘libricide’. It is censorship in its most brutal, visible and intimidating form. It is the practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, books or other material in public, typically motivated by moral, religious or political objection. Famous cases of libricide include the torching of the Library of Alexandra and the destruction of Mayan codices by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic priests.  In Sri Lanka, we have the burning of the Jaffna Library.  

On May 10, 1933, that’s exactly 77 years ago, a horrendous act of libricide was perpetrated by the Nazis. Books were burned in public. More recently, there was the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library. 

It’s all about censorship. It is about faith gone mad. It is about being paranoid and insecure about the explanatory power of logic-systems that one adheres to. It is about defending the indefensible by eliminating threat. It is about re-construction of historical record by erasing event and personality from the narrative.

This is a censored, censor-loving, censoring world that we live in. The easiest way to deal with opposition, i.e. people and views that oppose us and what we believe in respectively, is to render irrelevant by elimination rather than through the employment of superior logic. This is the lazy and destructive path. There are various instruments of erasure that the slothful can employ, including vilification, name-calling, name-dropping, intimidation, assault and of course physical removal. This is why a word like libricide was coined, and why people are killed. 

I remember a time when people argued for removing ‘history’ from the school curriculum.
Interestingly these proposals came from and were supported by those who were championing the idea of ‘traditional homelands of the Tamil people’ and/or were arguing for power-devolution to ‘areas of historical habitation’. 

Even that ‘historical reference’ remained largely unsubstantiated and more to do with myths and legends rather than facts that could be established. Removing ‘history’ from curricula helps only those who cannot buttress claim with reference to event and fact. That, one notes with a certain degree of concern, was state-sponsored libricide. 

Then there was the ‘libricidal’ efforts based on the indecent and mischievous allusion to the idea that history is version. This is true. History is someone’s version. It is interpretation.
On the other hand no version that holds that the Ruwanweliseya is a church can be taken seriously. Neither can we take seriously the claim that a Nestorian Cross found in Anuradhapura ‘establishes’ that the Buddhist and Christian faiths thrived side by side in that wondrous ‘multi-ethnic, multi-religious’ character that tweaks both reality and relevance. History is discomforting to some. It is not innocent, true, but neither is it irrelevant. And so historiography is necessarily a discipline that ideology-pregnant. And it is the ideologically slothful that opts to engage in libricide of one kind or another. 

There is another kind of book-burning, I realized: self-libricide. It is the art of wishing away the uncomfortable. We call it self-censorship. It is at the same time a refusal to engage, a disavowal of conversation and debate, a fear of one’s frames of reference being rendered irrelevant. 

Mikhail Bulgakov had a classic line in his masterpiece, ‘Master and Margerita’: ‘manuscripts don’t burn’. We live in the 21st century. This is the age of electronic archiving. 

The hardcopy can be destroyed, but the soft copy lives on in multiple forms and in multiple places too numerous for the pyromaniac to eliminate it. On the other hand, when an individual chooses to burn manuscript, he/she burns himself in the process. We diminish ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge the uncomfortable, the disconcerting. 

I believe this is the crux of the message that Udayasiri Wickremaratne expresses in ‘Baya una minihek oba amathai’ (A fearful man addresses you), the third part of a soliloquy-sequence titled ‘Suddek oba amathai’ (A white man addresses you). The fear is simple and therefore profound: ‘I am scared that I might utter something truthful; I am scared that I might do something right’.
That ‘truth’ and the correct action the addresser speaks of refer to the uncomfortable, the disconcerting within us; in short that which compromises stated/believed truth-system. Once we acknowledge this, our universe crumbles, our truth-frame collapses and we become internally displaced within ourselves. This is the ‘logic’ of self-censorship, the logic of self-libricide. The problem is that self-libricide is easier desired than accomplished. 

When we rant and rave about Christian fundamentalists, we are simultaneously ranting and raving against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. When we vilify Buddhism and Buddhists, we are spitting on the core principles of the Christian faith.

Liberation requires self-examination, a slaying of personal ghosts, a recognition that the devils that stifle the search for truth or the union with God (as some might desire) exist not outside us, but within. It requires us to resist self-libricide, check out ourselves in the mirror and ask ‘who is the fairest of them all?’ It requires us to be brave enough to tell the truth and do the right thing, regardless of consequences.

There is an archive within us that is burning all the time. No one set it on fire. We did. When will we begin to douse these flames? Will be able to contain the fire to a point where we will not suffer asphyxiation thanks to the poisonous fumes of ignorance we engendered ourselves and even extinguish completely and save the libraries so necessary for us to save ourselves?

At the end of the day, once the debate is done, the rhetoric ceases, the points made and conceded, we will be confronted with a simple truth: manuscripts do not burn. That should make us happy, but it does not. Why? 

This article was first published in the Daily News (May 10, 2010).

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene