Tuesday, 2 March 2010

"Burning the Alexandrian Library, Again and Again

The year is 1906. Bernard Shaw’s comedy Caesar and Cleopatra is playing in Berlin. It is the world premier, directed by Max Reindhardt. Julius Caesar stands on the stage, a stage made to look like Egypt. A Greek scholar enters and reports to Caesar that the Alexandrian library is burning. Caesar: “I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” The scholar says, “What is burning there is the memory of mankind.” Caesar replies, “A shameful memory. Let it burn.”

In legend the Library had to be burned three times. Once was not enough. Its collection of papyruses was the largest in antiquity, a wonder of the world. There was no ancient book that could not be found there, or so tradition says. It may have contained four hundred thousand volumes. The human imagination found it hard to accept that something so large and grand could completely disappear at one go.

The great library had the unusual distinction of being burned in turn by Pagans, Christians, and Muslims. The destruction was thus a multicultural event. However suspect its basis in fact, the imagined record of destructions does divide the blame, and so demonstrates a measure of political correctness.

Borges dislikes Shaw’s turning Caesar into a leader who makes the burning of the Alexandrian library into a “sacrilegious joke.” The burning of libraries does not amuse Borges. In the concluding lines of his “Poem of the Gifts,” the blind librarian intones,“In vain the day/Squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,/As distant as the inaccessible volumes/Which perished in Alexandria.” “The Library of Babel,” one of his most famous parables, allegorizes the cosmos as a vast confusing library, as indecipherable as the world itself. Yet it allows Borges to define man as the “imperfect librarian.” Thus, to destroy libraries is to destroy our humanity. Elsewhere, Borges confesses he “ had always thought of Paradise/In form and image as a library.”

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