In ‘Pinacographic Space’ his introductory essay to The Perverse Library (2010), Craig Dworkin makes the egregious claim that the fire of 48BC at Ptolemy’ XIII’s Alexandrian Library never took place, or at least was a minor incident rather than holocaust, one affecting infrastructure rather than contents. In taking this stance he treads in the footsteps of historian Edward Gibbon who was also sceptical of the story. Dworkin cites various authorities to make his case, ranging from Galen to Bertrand Hemmerdinger, which he proceeds to take in a startling new direction: actually reconceiving this fabled event as a generator of writing, the Musaeum site a huge house of post-structural text manufacture.
The accumulative imperative of the library, which put it in necessary competition with other libraries, encouraged hoaxes, fabrications, and plagiarisms. Entire bibliographies –pseudo-Platonic and pseudo-Aristotelian corpora –arise from the logic of the library.
Drawing mainly on Daniel Heller-Roazen’s article ‘Traditions of Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria’ (October #100, Spring 2002), the categorical tone of Dworkin’s claim must be treated with care as classical sources variously put the loss of scroll literature between 40,000 and 700,000, a landmark event according to Heller-Roazan:
Real or imagined, the conflagration remains the supreme emblem of the Alexandrian archive itself, which sheltered the works of the past in exposing them to disaster, constituting and conserving its history in threatening it with its own destruction. For the very life of the library, like that of the fire, was to nourish itself on what it consumed, to allow writing to live in outliving itself, bearing witness, in this way, to the catastrophe of the past in the present.
So ultimately the subject matter is fugitive. As Matthew Battles asks
What happened to the books of Alexandria? Many, many centuries happened to them — too many for their inevitable dispersal and disappearance to be staved off, no matter whose mobs rioted in the streets, no matter which emperors set fires.
Clearly bibliographic governance in paper-based libraries is both shaped and forever jeopardised by the possibility of irreparable damage, of failing to prevent the most virulent and unstoppable forces of nature in the form of fire or water, a real headache to librarians everywhere. So it is that every modern temperature-controlled library has foam filled fire extinguishers strategically placed in case of an electrical short circuit, their book wardens haunted by the knowledge that in a worst case scenario such as at the one at Herculaneum in 79AD, holdings can be carbonised by pyroclastic lava flows at a temperature of 300º, or destroyed by human agency as in the immoral act of vandalism perpetrated by invading German troops in 1914, one which gutted the great library of Louvain, Belgium. Writing in the TLS (Jan 30, 2008), Craig Gibson commented
At 11.30 pm, troops broke into the University Library, one of the most important collections in Europe. Using petrol and incendiary pastilles, they set fire to hundreds of thousands of volumes and manuscripts. Within hours, a priceless piece of European, indeed, world heritage had been reduced to smoking ashes.
A different kind of intentionality is at play in Bernard Aubertin’s Livre Brüler Et à Brüler (1962-1971), a book work valued at £6,000 by Sims Reed Rare Books, London, in 2009. Aubertin’s instructions contain a blend of lower and upper case letters inked in to accompany his overwriting of the host book’s title -a forlorn copy of Gaëtan Picon’s Panorama des Idées Contemporaines (1957)- redubbed as Livre Brüler Et à Brüler. This inscription is suggestive of a ham-fisted attempt by the Paris based Auto-Destructive artist and member of Group ZERO, to follow a self-imposed oulipean truc aimed to deceive the reader/co-conspirator that Aubertin himself might be semi-illiterate, at the very worst pigeonholable as a mad or outsider artist:
le spectateur est invitÉ À lire le livre, À continuer de BRÛLER les pages en enflammant les allumettes collÉes, À ajouter d’autres allumettes, À rÉduire le tout en cendres. IngrÉdients: allumettes ordinaires, allumettes dÉtonantes.
To follow the pyromaniac instructions would mean the incineration of the object too; an asset up in smoke. As with John Latham though, Aubertin’s attack is on the deep-seated symbolic power of ideas and superstructures of knowledge; a contemporary bonfire of the vanities highlighting the disposability of its matériel, for by his own admission throughout Brülé Aubertin attached “ordinary matches, detonating matches, snowy matches, sachets of fragrant smoke generating powder, sticks of fulminate and percussion caps” all of which gives any potential abuser the choice of either destroying the book piecemeal or in a violent blaze; a professional quandary for Bibliothèque Nationale de France Special Collections staff and a challenge to the universal bibliographic decorum which protects the bound page, for with its accession such a title is forever poised on the edge of its own cremation, a problematic brebis galeuse.
But when fire does breaks out as in the devastating holocaust that swept through The Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art in 2014, publisher Simon Cutts decided to make a virtue of a necessity by bringing out in 2015, a stapled booklet of digital photographs taken by librarian Duncan Chappell of aglio 6 olio (1983), a.k.a. ‘The Garlic Book’, a tribute to Elizabeth David, the only Coracle title to be affected amongst 81 books salvaged. Blackened and charred, the poignant images are a commemoration and ‘victory’ over the fickle and unpredictable nature of fire.