By Prof. Sehdev Kumar
A hundred years ago, in 1917, the world population was 1.9 billion. Today it is over 7.5 billion; almost a four-fold increase. A hundred years ago, about 23 percent people in the world were literate. Today that number is estimated to be over 85 percent.
Despite very low levels of literacy world-wide for millennia, books have always inspired, enlightened, educated, stirred, amused and informed the young and the old everywhere.
Yet, over the centuries, some of the books have been reviled and banned; they have been ceremoniously burned; they have been condemned out of moral indignation, hatred or ideological or racial purity.
In 1873, ‘New York Society for the Suppression of Vice’ was founded; on its seal book burning was declared as one of its worthy goals. Over the years the Society is believed to have burned more than 15 tons of books and 4,000,000 pictures, all deemed ‘lewd’.
In 1950s in USA a number of books by psychologist William Reich were burnt under judicial orders.
But the times have been slowly changing: the last book ever banned by the US government was Fanny Hill in 1963.
The most ubiquitous institution that condemned and banned books on a grand scale, with all the ecclesiastical fury it could muster, was the Vatican. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum (‘List of Prohibited Books’) was a long list of books that were deemed anti-clerical, or heretical or lascivious and were thus banned by the Roman Catholic Church. The early version of the Index started to appear almost five hundred years ago, from 1529 to 1571.
When obedience and dogma are the most pertinaciously prevailing edicts of faith, any hint of dissent, even of doubt, has the smell of heresy and blasphemy. Any dissent thus has been controlled and crushed by all institutions of power, the Church, the State, and the tribes alike.
The Index was thus meant to protect the faithful from any disruptive books that may possibly introduce any error in their thoughts. Among thousands of such book were astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae, philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and books by Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Montaigne, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nikos Kazantzakis, John Milton, Galileo Galilei, and a thousand other philosophers, scientists and authors, as well as numerous editions and translations of the Bible that had not been approved by the Church.
By some strange irony of reasoning none of Charles Darwin’s books were ever included in the Index.
Though books continued to be forbidden by the Church, the last, the 20th edition of the Index appeared in 1948; it contained 4,000 titles that had been censored for a variety of reasons: heresy, moral deficiency, sexual explicitness.
In the post-world war, with the promulgation of charter of Universal Human Rights, for many thinkers and writers now to be included in the Index had become a new badge of honour.
The Index was finally abolished on 14 June 1966 by Pope Paul VI.
The custodians of the state were no less strident in controlling dissent and criticism. As the new technology of printing presses was being introduced in one country after another, all governments established controls over printers all across Europe and required them to have official licenses to produce and trade books.
In 1546, printer and writer Etienne Dolet in France was burned at the stake for atheism.
The Edict of Chateaubriant of 1551 included provisions for inspecting and unpacking of all books brought into France. Authors and printers were viewed as rebellious and radical; more than 800 book dealers, printers and authors were incarcerated in the Bastille before it was stormed in 1789 in the French Revolution.
Often the prohibitions of the Church and the state followed each other. Rene Descartes’ books, for instance, were placed on the Index in 1660s; a few years later, teaching of Cartesianism in schools was prohibited by the French government.
Elsewhere, in other countries like India, Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, China, Russia, the coming of the printing press, and what was published and what could not be published have had their own convoluted history which is marked by low levels of literacy and strong control at all levels of social, political and religious life.
In 1835, for instance, Thomas Macaulay, in his position paper for public instruction under the British in India, most disparagingly observed that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
Macaulay had obviously no knowledge of the library of Nalanda, known as Dharma Gunj – ‘The Mountain of Truth’ – which was, for centuries, the most renowned repository of Hindu and Buddhist knowledge; when set aflame by Muslim invaders in 1193 AD, its hundreds of thousands of volumes are said to have burnt for months.
All of the above is only a brief expose of the splattering of destruction and suppression over many centuries in all parts of the world of anything that was intolerable to the powers that be. In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German playwright Heinrich Heine refers to the burning of Koran in Granada in 1500s that was expected to be followed by burning of Muslims and then the Jews: “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” (“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.”)
A hundred years later Heine’s books were among the thousands of books that were put to flame by the Nazis in Berlin’s Opernplatz.
The power of words – written, spoken, whispered, gossiped, hinted, sung, recited, chanted – is quite literally inexhaustible. It is not only our personality, and our self, that are so wrapped in words, it is our very being, the very essence of what we might be, or imagine ourselves to be.
Yet our deepest experiences in life – of love, despair, honour, shame, awe, wonder, homelessness, serenity, harmony – seem so often beyond words; they seem inexpressible.
Words can be, and have been, suppressed again and again. But deepest experiences find other ways to express themselves.