I'm not sure whether it's because I'm a geek, or a bibliophile, or an amateur student of history, but I've had my heart wrenched severely by the coverage of the looting and destruction at the Iraqi National museum and library. I'm trying really hard to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to the troops having guarded the Oil Ministry while the treasures of memory were vanishing from the common ground, I really hope it isn't as bad as it looks. Some remarks on Information, Destruction, and the value of memories and of lives.
There is a National Association for Information Destruction; I was horrified at its existence until I discovered it's a fancy storefront for paper-shredding service providers (enlarge the picture above to read the fine print), and some of the reasons for shredding are good.
The most famous example, perhaps, of information destruction is of course the downfall of the Great Library of Alexandria. In fact, there is a whole book on the subject, The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora. Here is an excerpt:
Obedient to the Caliph's orders, he set about his task of destruction. The books were distributed to the public baths of Alexandria, where they were used to feed the stoves which kept the baths so comfortably warm. Ibn al-Kifti writes that ‘the number of baths was well known, but I have forgotten it’ (we have Eutychius's word that there were in fact four thousand). ‘They say’, continues Ibn al-Kifti, ‘that it took six months to burn all that mass of material.’
Aristotle's books were the only ones spared.
I find that passage almost physically painful to read, and I ponder my own shudders at the news from Iraq this week, and looking into my heart I realize that my reaction to museum/library news from Baghdad was not dramatically less than to the news you can read about over at the Iraq Body Count site. Am I a monster? Has my geekiness outrun my humanity?
Here's another, less impactful but more colourful, from Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy:
On the last day of the carnival in the year 1497, and on the same day the year after, the great auto-da-fé took place on the Pizza della Signoria. In the centre of it rose a great pyramidal flight of stairs, like the rogus on which the Roman emperors were commonly burned. On the lowest tier were arranged false beards, masks and carnival disguises; above came volumes of the Latin and Italian poets, among others Boccaccio, the Morgante of Pulci, and Petrarch, partly in the form of valuable printed parchments and illuminated manuscripts; then women's ornaments and toilet articles, scents, mirrors, veils and false hair; higher up, lutes, harps, chess-boards, playing-cards; and finally, on the two uppermost tiers, paintings only, especially of female beauties, partly fancy-pictures, bearing the classical names of Lucretia, Cleopatra or Faustina, partly portraits of the beautiful Bencina, Lena Norella, Bina, and Maria de'Lenzi. On the first occasion a Venetian merchant who happened to be present offered the Signoria 22,000 gold florins for the objects on the pyramid; but the only answer he received was that his portrait, too, was painted, and burned along with the rest. While the pile was lighted, the Signoria appeared on the balcony, and the air echoed with song, the sound of trumpets and the pealing of bells. The people then adjourned to the Piazza di San Marco, where they danced around in three concentric circles. The innermost was composed of monks of the monastery, alternating with boys, dressed as angels; then came young laymen and ecclesiastics; and on the outside old men, citizens and priests, the latter crowned with wreaths of olive.
Once again, I wince and wonder. But maybe there's hope for the grimacing geek; because the only immortality we can be sure of lies in the realm of memory. To quote another harrowing passage, lyrics by Jim Morrison from Riders On the Storm:
There's a killer on the road / His brain is squirming like a toad / ... / If you give this man a ride / Sweet memory will die.
Thus, to turn Jim's lyric around, to kill memories is, in an (important) sense, to kill. And where do memories live when not between someone's ears? Museums and libraries, crystallized palaces of memory, repositories of all that's left of multitudes of lives, gone now, gone. It's not entirely unbalanced, I think, to shed tears over both the Iraq Body Count and Memory Count.
Of course, we may get lucky and the thieves were pros, doing it for profit, in which case we can buy back some of the multitudes' memories. Not like real flesh-and-blood deaths.