There are libraries in this world so beautiful that the visitor can almost believe humanity has a chance. One thinks of sweeping architecture, polished stone, cool quiet atriums, deep stacks, the smell of old paper. One imagines a certain reverence for knowledge, for words and learning, in a place dedicated to the best of what we are.
Even the dingiest, poorest library can convey that sacredness, which is nondenominational and therefore inherently optimistic. In that sense, a library can be an island of decency, democracy, and culture in an unkind world. Unfortunately, decency, democracy, and culture seem to be on the wane. I believe I’ve already written enough about that.
The libraries, which is to say structures committed to the veneration of knowledge, can burn if that’s what the people want. And I’m no longer interested in arguing that they must be preserved, that humanistic inquiry lies at the heart of the democratic ideal. I’m no longer interested in trying to develop some taxonomy of toxic political subdivisions or in outlining the internecine schisms that have come into being across the current spectrum. Nor am I interested in the pushback, the spite, the purity spirals that must lead to deeper ignorance and iconoclasm. Those things will be obvious to the reader already or they won’t. And if they aren’t obvious, no one will enjoy reading about them for the first time here.
Instead, my goal is to mention a non-obvious, highly personal belief: the idea of knowledge as not just a product that can be bought, sold, or otherwise transferred in the marketplace, but as a metaphysical verity that seeks expression in the world generation after generation, cycle after cycle—the concept of knowledge as something that transcends its material media and therefore cannot be burned.
I’ll admit to being influenced by Neo-Platonism, but this idea is not, strictly speaking, Neo-Platonic. As I mentioned above, I’m not interested in formal taxonomies and categorizations. An uncharitable critic might say that I’m simply forming an ungrounded new-age assumption about what knowledge is and how it functions. That might be true, but I’m not here to convince anyone that my beliefs are authoritative or even slightly true. This is personal writing that I’m making public—a journal entry reframed as a blog post—because I think it’s interesting.
In my opinion, the non-materialistic concept is interesting because it does not view knowledge as residing in a book or a library or a university or a city or a culture. Rather, it sees knowledge as an essence always seeking entry into the world, a creative, constructive potential in all human contexts. So an ancient architect creates an aqueduct. Three hundred years later, a playwright completes a satire. On a different continent, writing in a different language, a historian completes an essay. And so it goes. The ways of knowing may all be unique and priceless, specific to their time and place. But the impulse to know will be constant and knowledge of all kinds will emerge. Therefore, one upholds the arts and humanities because it is very important to be able to curate and study each particular “emergence,” each way of knowing bound in human space and time. But one also keeps the faith: there will be new drawings and operas and comedies.
For example, there was only one van Gogh, even if painting as a way of knowing emerges again and again in culture after culture. Consequently, we admire van Gogh’s work as an impressive part of human history and a unique window on the human condition. At the same time, if all the van Gogh paintings in the world caught fire, we know that someone, somewhere is expressing himself or herself through paint. It won’t be van Gogh, but it might be just as significant. If we think this way, we might say that we have the optimism of a librarian.
In other words, you can’t kill knowledge. You can’t kill art. You can’t kill philosophy or history or literature. And you can’t eradicate the deep-seated human impulses that lead to the production of these things—idealism, joy, the love of freedom, inquisitiveness, the constructive power of language, the alchemy of color and perspective.
All you can do is attempt to outlaw certain ways of knowing, repress their expressions, lock them away in favor of whatever less enlightened ideology happens to be in vogue for those with power. You can burn the library, yes. And you can execute the librarians. And try to erase the histories. And exile the philosophers. And make the novelists eat their novels, chapter by chapter. And in such a generation of fools, the arts and humanities may become meaningless—for a time.
But it’s precisely when no one is looking, when the library has been reduced to ashes and the inquisitors have moved on, in the pre-dawn hours, while the town’s political officer still sleeps in his villa on the hill, that someone will light a candle, sit by the window, and, on a blank sheet of paper, write, It’s curious what I felt . . .