What Foundations Have Been Laid for Them: The Building and Burning of Knowledge
Democracy without books is not democracy.
There where they burn books, they burn, in the end, people.
We are accustomed to equating literature and architecture—a stanza, the basic unit of poetry, is, after all, a “room” in Italian. But in the case of the edifices built to hold books, this relationship is more intimate, not just linguistic or metaphoric but concrete (often marble). If a stanza is a room for words on the page, a library is a series of rooms for words—and the books that hold them—on the ground. And ground is often disputed, desecrated, possessed and dispossessed. It is always political: just as it is the site for the building and projecting of knowledge, it is often the site of its destruction as well. Consider three examples:
The Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, opened in 1779 as a library and public museum, one of Europe’s earliest. Along with the art collections of the Hessian landgraves, it held more than 100,000 books. The Fridericianum’s construction was funded by Friedrich II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, who made his fortune by selling local mercenaries to Great Britain to fight in the American Revolution. After briefly becoming a parliamentary building under Napoléon’s brother Jérôme, then King of Westphalia and Kassel, the Fridericianum was returned to its original function; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would work at the library there. The museum’s collections were relocated to Berlin under Prussian rule, and by the early twentieth century the building became a state library only. Thus marks some of the nascent stages of Fridericianum’s building of knowledge, but burning would come.
On May 19, 1933, approximately 2,000 books were burned on Friedrichsplatz, reportedly attended to by enormous crowds. The bonfire was held in conjunction with book burnings in university towns across the country, a nation-wide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” as it was termed, that aimed to rid Germany of “Jewish intellectualism.” Nearly a decade later, in 1941, the Fridericianum—still a library at the time—caught fire during the Allied bombing raids that flattened Kassel. In images taken after the bombing, we notice not just the thousands of burned volumes leafing out palely from the dark rubble, but the now naked Neoclassical armature of the building’s columns; indeed, the eighteenth-century structure was designed in the “spirit of the Enlightenment” by Huguenot architect Simon Louis du Ry.
The main architectural embodiment of that spirit, and of the classical ideal more generally, was, of course, the Parthenon in Greece. Built during the rule of Pericles in Athens between 447 and 432 BC, the temple was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, civilization, justice, and war, among other attributes. And the Parthenon would become the architectural model that has most often inspired the shape of Western public institutions’ edifices of knowledge, among them libraries, museums, universities, government buildings, courts, and banks. Though built to shelter a monumental gold-and-ivory statue of Athena, the Parthenon would also house the city’s treasury. Indeed, the temple was funded by taxes derived from both the Athens treasury and tribute from cities across the Aegean after the Athenian victories in the Persian Wars (Plutarch famously offers a story about Pericles wasting allies’ money on “sacred buildings”). Transformed into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and partially destroyed and rebuilt many times in the interim, the deconsecrated Parthenon of the modern period became an emblem of Western cultural hegemony, not exclusively democratic.
It was likely against that symbolism that the Greek poet and artist Yorgos Makris turned when, on November 18, 1944, just a month after the end of the Nazi Germany occupation of Greece (before which book burnings of “anti-Greek” and dissident literature had become common under Ioannis Metaxas’s dictatorship), he suggested bombing the Parthenon. His public “Proclamation” begins: “Sharing as we do the aesthetic and philosophical view of destruction and the mortality of the form of beings that are part of the context of life’s consummation … we decide to set as our aim the blowing up of ancient monuments and the promotion of propaganda against them.” Finally, with exasperated candor, he notes: “Our first act of destruction shall be the blowing up of the Parthenon, which is literally suffocating us.” Though the proclamation was simply a critical provocation (never so simple), its espousal of destruction was paradoxically a generative, patently literary gesture—one that might help work against past and future occupations, as well as “national tourism and the nightmarish folklore literature around it.” Only by destroying (imaginatively) the emblem of the supremacy of Western civilization, and Greece’s glorified, projected past, would a new building of knowledge and a Greek future be possible.
Nearly four decades later, the Parthenon inspired another transgressive gesture, this one not built on destruction, however, but its opposite. In 1983, Argentina was just emerging from the dark years of its military junta and dictatorship (this, just a decade past the end of Greece’s own postwar dictatorship). Artist Marta Minujín was working on a series called “La caída de los mitos universals,” or “The Fall of Universal Myths,” when she decided to make a new work for the series, this one titled El Partenon de libros prohibidos—The Parthenon of Prohibited Books. In a square in Buenos Aires, she built a skeleton of the famous Greek temple; then she used approximately 25,000 books, all of which had been banned or burned by the military dictatorship, to build its walls. Thus did Minujín bring together two potent and undoubtedly familiar symbols: the Parthenon as the emblematic building of knowledge and democracy, and the desecration of books under authoritarian rule.
As long as books have been written, they have been burnt. As long as buildings of knowledge have been erected, they have been destroyed—often to be rebuilt again. In 1955, the first documenta was mounted by Arnold Bode in the provisionally restored ruin of the Fridericianum, only a decade past its last fire. The guiding idea of the exhibition was, in part, reconstruction (both of the modern art-historical tradition, severed by the Nazis, and German and European culture more generally dealing with the trauma of world war). Likewise, the strange confluence of the three examples of knowledge building and burning cited here reveal that the buildings erected to hold knowledge are never just that—libraries and temples are embodiments of power relationships and emblems of hegemony (from the Greek ἡγεμονία, or hegemonía, meaning rule). They project and receive power, which always includes violence. Their architecture is indivisible from ideology and political and economic aggression, just as it can serve as shelter for literature and ideas and resistance. Architectural projects can be “understood as cognitive objects allowing us to fathom the potential of the social production of space,” Łukasz Stanek notes. Temples and libraries, those old stories of knowledge climbing upward through the political air, are also our new stories: in them we read and locate our contemporary commons, a kind of debt.