Thursday, September 09, 2010

"Manuscripts don't burn"

In 1562 Diego de Landa, a Franciscan monk resident in the Yucatán, gathered together all the Maya codices and images he could locate and burned them, ceremoniously, in a vast auto da fé. According to his own report the act caused the Maya "much affliction," as well it might, since Landa's bonfire betokened not only the irreversible loss of manuscripts whose cultural and historical importance was -- literally -- inestimable but the death knell of a good part of the culture itself.

Landa, a man of considerable determination and formidable intellectual resources, largely achieved his objective. The number of surviving pre-Columbian Maya manuscripts can now be counted on one hand, and whatever was consumed in the fire -- history, religion, folly, or knowledge as it may have been -- is now irretrievably lost. (In a bizarre irony, Landa's own careful notes on the Maya glyphs, rediscovered centuries later, would assist modern scholars in deciphering the Maya writing system.)

Today the burning of books is under discussion once again, but with a difference. The proponent in this case is a small man, not ordinarily worthy of notice, a cartoonish publicity-hound, though he is, sadly, no more than an extreme exemplar of currents of intolerance, ignorance, and anger that swirl around us.

If the Rev. Terry Jones decides in the end to stay his hand, as reports now say he will, then no doubt someone else, eventually, will step into the breach. There is no longer a line today that someone isn't crazy enough to cross, and there's no act so petty and absurd that it can't be captured and instantly disseminated around the world, with consequences that are all too predictable.

"Manuscripts don't burn," Mikhail Bulgakov famously wrote. His statement, baffling on its face, only made sense because the documents he was referring to were stored inside his head, the better to evade the prying eyes of Soviet authorities. The fact is, though, that Korans don't burn. There must be hundreds of millions of paper copies in existence, but in any case the book -- like any number of other human artifacts -- is now virtually infinite, since it can be accessed essentially anywhere, instantly, online. That's why the proposed burning, as even Jones must have known, would have been utterly pointless. You can't kill a book, not any longer. The act would have been strictly symbolic, a deliberate provocation, an affront meant as an opening salvo in a war that would never end or achieve a purpose. But we ourselves, sadly, don't share the immortality of our ideas; in fact in the replication of our unique identities we haven't managed even the revolution of Gutenberg, let alone that of the World Wide Web. Like manuscripts we are irreplaceable, vulnerable to fire, to sanctimonious parsons, and to fools.

1 comment:

dunnham said...

"currents of intolerance, ignorance, and anger that swirl around us." - that's what's been sending steam out my ears--with Hitlers Brownshirts as the most notable recent Bookburners, one would expect all Americans to choose ANY other form of protest.

But I believe the anger and intolerance are symptoms of the root cause: ignorance. For people who don't acknowledge the span of history, the breadth of scientific research, or the simple use of logical extrapolation anthing is believable. What, in my own mind, is instantly recognized as hogwash can be, in the minds of others, valid considerations, or even held as fact--simply because they trust the image of who- or what-ever their source is. It's made me feel as if having a fairly objective outlook on things is just a form of self-torture!