“Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The traditional fear of all civilized people has always been that the barbarians are at the gates. This is largely due to the fact that the barbarians are at the gates. The specific nomenclature used to describe your particular barbarian isn’t especially important, be they Visigoths, Huns, Mongols, Nazis, or the various and sundry “Evil Empires” of history. Everyone has their own personal barbarian. The Athenian Greeks of antiquity thought everyone who didn’t speak proper Greek was a barbarian. The Romans maintained the North African Berbers, the Teutonic tribes, and the Celts could use some manners. Indic peoples of the Vedic period thought the Sakas, Huna people, Yonas, Kambojas, the Pahlavas, Kiratas, Khasas, Bahlika people and Rishikas were low and sinful wretches. Ancient China differentiated between the Hua (Chinese) and the Yi (uncivilized foreigners). The Japanese, upon encountering Europeans, referred to them as “Barbarians from the South” (that’s the direction their ships came from). Even the Aztec and the Inca were worried about the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that skirted the edges of their respective empires. Most cultures throughout history have been confident that some uncouth fellow and his rowdy friends were lurking in the forest, steppe, or mountains at the border of civilization, eyeing our relative luxury with covetousness and murder in their hearts. This is largely why one of the first things we learn to build are walls. Apart from the raping, sacking, and pillaging, the average historian has a special horror reserved for barbarians, not necessarily due to the unbridled violence and breakdown of the social contract that they tend to usher in since that makes for a lively narrative, but specifically because those unwashed masses hovering around the margins waiting for an opportunity to engage in a little wanton destruction and robbery have an disconcerting fondness for burning libraries.
Obviously, the “barbarian” appellation is largely pejorative, a fact of which your typical barbarian, regardless of his ethnic extraction, is no doubt resentful of. Resentment breeds hatred, and hatred frequently entails the uncharitable desire to erase the authors of your torment from the face of the earth. Some barbarians channel this unbridled rage into socially productive activities like establishing the Yuan Dynasty or governing California. Most just stew, biding their time until the Legions are away in Scythia and the incompetent civil guard accidentally leaves the city gates unlocked while they visit the vomitorium. Then, given motive and opportunity, the savvy barbarian unleashes hell. Margherita Sarfatti, propaganda advisor to Mussolini’s National Fascist Party once casually remarked to Mussolini, “How useless it is to murder one’s enemies if one cannot also erase one’s fate”, which we should probably take to be a guiding principle of the barbarian at the apex of his victory. After all, what’s the point of over-running civilization if all those eggheads with the book learnin’ still call you a barbarian for the next few thousand years. Not that there’s any innate shame in being a barbarian, it’s just those uppity historians never use the term in a complimentary fashion. So, maybe you just sacked Rome or Samarkand and you’re busy dividing the spoils of war, when it occurs to you that you just might want to set up a dynasty or something – that is, given the fact that you just stomped on those civilized snobs, why not undo their traditional view of you, and while you’re at it, best to erase their historical memory (the authoritative kind that gets written down) entirely. Basically, an effective barbarian make-over requires burning the libraries. As Winston Churchill said, “history is written by the victors”, but if you’re going to rewrite history, one must clear a little space. A librarian would call this “weeding the stacks with extreme prejudice”.
“The literary treasures of antiquity,” says Mr. D’Israeli, “have suffered from the malice of men, as well as that of time. It is remarkable that conquerors, in the moments of victory, or in the unsparing devastation of their rage, have not been satisfied with destroying men, but have even carried their vengeance to books. The Romans burnt the books of the Jews, of the Christians, and the Philosophers; the Jews burnt the books of the Christians and the Pagans; and the Christians burnt the books of the Pagans and the Jews. The greater part of the books of Origen and other heretics were continually burnt by the orthodox party.” Gibbon pathetically describes the empty library of Alexandria, after the Christians had destroyed it. “The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator, whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice. The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages; and either the zeal or avarice of the Archbishop might have been satiated with the rich spoils which were the reward of his victory” (Symonds, 1863, p25-26).
The trick to identifying a barbarian is to make sure that whatever group you intend to stigmatize has the disadvantage of illiteracy. That way, it will take them a long time to figure out that you’ve been mocking them for generations, and if some fool lets the cat out of the bag, they’ll be relying solely on hearsay. Once said barbarian has gotten around to clubbing you over the head, looting your treasury, and marching your women and children off to be sold into slavery, lack of reading skills presents him with a public relations problem. Which books to burn? The solution, as most barbarian solutions are, is inelegant, but effective. Just burn them all. Start over. Nietzsche, more or less the patron saint of barbarians, figured that in a battle between hopes and memories, memory eventually yields and everything we believe and know is swept away.
Man must have the strength to break up the past; and apply it too, in order to live. He must bring the past to the bar of judgment; interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it. Every past is worth condemning: this is the rule in mortal affairs, which always contain a large measure of human power and human weakness. It is not justice that sits in judgment here; nor mercy that proclaims the verdict; but only life, the dim, driving force that insatiably desires—itself. Its sentence is always unmerciful, always unjust, as it never flows from a pure fountain of knowledge: though it would generally turn out the same, if Justice herself delivered it. “For everything that is born is worthy of being destroyed: better were it then that nothing should be born.” It requires great strength to be able to live and forget how far life and injustice are one. Luther himself once said that the world only arose by an oversight of God; if he had ever dreamed of heavy ordnance, he would never have created it. The same life that needs forgetfulness needs sometimes its destruction; for should the injustice of something ever become obvious—a monopoly, a caste, a dynasty for example—the thing deserves to fall. Its past is critically examined, the knife put to its roots, and all the “pieties” are grimly trodden under foot. The process is always dangerous, even for life; and the men or the times that serve life in this way, by judging and annihilating the past, are always dangerous to themselves and others. For as we are merely the resultant of previous generations, we are also the resultant of their errors, passions, and crimes: it is impossible to shake off this chain. Though we condemn the errors and think we have escaped them, we cannot escape the fact that we spring from them. At best, it comes to a conflict between our innate, inherited nature and our knowledge, between a stern, new discipline and an ancient tradition; and we plant a new way of life, a new instinct, a second nature, that withers the first (Nietzsche, 1909, p28-29).
Across time and geography, libraries have burned. In 206 B.C. Qin Dynasty China’s Epang palace archives were deliberately burned by rebels. The famed Library of Alexandria and its sister Library at Serapeum were burned, the acts attributed to various culprits from 48 B.C. – 642 A.D. Between 364 A.D. and 1258 A.D. the great libraries of Anitoch (Syria), Ctesiphon (Persia), al-Hakam II (Spain), Rayy (Persia), Ghazna (Afghanistan), Nishapur (Iran), Nalanda (India), the Imperial Library of Constantinople, and the House of Wisdom (Baghdad) were all wiped from existence. Unfortunately this is a just a sampling of the biggest repositories of knowledge that we know about from ancient history. Barbarian book burnings and library demolition has continued apace to this day. Even in 2014, about 60% of the National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina were deliberately burned during civil unrest. We build our civilizations to great heights, gather up the material culture upon which we have based our myths, histories, sciences, and philosophies thinking to preserve a clear memory for all eternity, but inevitably we succumb to another myth, another history, another philosophy. We bemoan the end of the era, the forward march of the barbarians, be they urban Hipsters or Hittites. Then we burn the libraries. Then the collective amnesia sets in. And then history is rewritten, and historians argue over scraps. Anaïs Nin captured this when she said, “I often see how you sob over what you destroy, how you want to stop and just worship; and you do stop, and then a moment later you are at it again with a knife, like a surgeon.” Enlightenment follows a dark age, only to be followed by yet another dark age, and yet another enlightenment in an endless merry-go-round of supreme confidence in our rarefied view of history and science. The scientist of any age “knows” what is real and not real. The historian “knows” what happened in the past, or rather knows where to look for the authoritative record, and if history drunkenly stumbles into folklore, well they will happily make accusations of bad historiography, neglecting the fact that everything the human race has ever known about its past has at one time been burned to ashes. This is why honest inquiry into anomalies, strange phenomena, and folklore is such a fascinating and contentious exercise, since it inconveniently highlights our hubris about what we know and what we do not know about our past, present, and future. You see, the main problem is that the barbarians have learned to read.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Edinburgh and London: T. N. Foulis, 1909.
Symonds, John Addington, 1807-1871. Waste: a Lecture Delivered At the Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science, Literature And the Arts. London: Bell and Daldy, 1863.