First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Death and fire both mercilessly play up the uncertainty of life. We are reminded that bricks and mortar bound together by our ancestors as early as 1776 can survive for centuries only to be taken down by a fire in five minutes. We are reminded that books written by our forebears years ago can be collected and protected in glass cases only to have fire violate all our efforts at preserving our memory. Where books burn, we also burn as a people. It is a double loss: a loss of material books and a loss of ourselves as reflected and recorded in those books.
This past week death reminded us that a promising young life that loved South Africa so deeply, ultimately does not belong to us – but belongs to eternal life. And fire reminded us of our own vulnerability and the fragility of our memory, that no matter what we do to preserve ourselves, our efforts can never guarantee our safety and our immortality.
The burning of a library, as we witnessed when the African Studies library burnt down at UCT, is surprisingly devastating. Crying over books, in light of the human loss we have experienced this past year, seems misplaced. But it is particularly devastating at this time because it is not something that seemed to be an imminent threat. We have been so vigilant in keeping ourselves safe from a virus that worrying about a fire devastating the lives of so many people and burning down a historic library seemed too remote, too cruel and beyond the bandwidth of what we can take.
The burning of a library, in the words of historians, is a “cultural atrocity”, a collective cultural damage and an “assault to our cultural patrimony”. In the words of former US president Warren G Harding, it is “an irreparable loss to scholarship”. Academic Claudia Fabian writes: “It surprises people of my generation that the loss of a library or a cathedral provokes greater emotion than human suffering and loss. But here we are in the realm of symbols, memorials. Both libraries and cathedrals are intrinsically linked to people; they serve people, network with people, and attract them with a single or multiple purposes. In this way, they transcend the individual to become a focal point for a community, for a society: they can even reach further than a nation, implying a community of values, ideas and ideals.”
It is said when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.
I almost lost an elder to Covid-19 this past week. I lost a precious young one who still had so much to give, so that I know that when a young person dies, a library of the future burns to the ground too.
We lost an actual library and it feels as if we lost part of ourselves. How do we move forward from death and fire? Honouring the people and the heritage that we have is a good start. So many of our heritage sites have been neglected and so many are closing down, which risks us becoming an untethered people with no memorials to our history and sense of ourselves.
We need to allow death and fire to awaken our consciousness. We honour our beloved departed and our burnt books through memory and “keeping alive the fruits of thought and creativity”. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.