19 October 2010

Marc Estrin : Into the Flames

"Paulus in Ephesus" by Gustave Doré, circa 1883. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / October 19, 2010

Late last month, Pentagon officials stood around supervising the scene as St Martin’s Press destroyed the entire first run of Anthony Schaffer's new book on spycraft and special operations in Afghanistan.

Was there a good old bonfire -- as with the Nazis, or the anti-Harry Potterites? Somewhere in the center pentagon of the Pentagon? Or was there a festive scene roped off over at Madison Square Park with folks peering down from the Flatiron Building?

I queried my editor about how publishers "pulp" books, and he, in his innocence, never having pulped one, suggested that perhaps they feed the books into a large machine which turns the shreds into packing material, new paper and jiffy bags.

I suspect publishers don't actually burn books these carbon-conscious days, but offer them up as sacrifice to the chemical companies to deal with. And for a hardback book, that's a multi-step process, tearing off the covers, and dealing with them separately, cloth, cardboard, glue, and possibly plastic.

But whatever the process, "book-burning" is a description more accurate than an anodyne "recycling of printed material," and 9,600 copies met their maker as brass looked on, checking to make sure the deed was done.

Interesting, too, was the price we taxpayers forked up for the party. The book retails at $25.99, and Amazon sells it for $14.21 plus $3.99 shipping. The Department of Defense twisted St. Martin's arm to sell them the first run -- none to bookstores or Amazon -- for only $47,000. If you do the math, that's only $4.90 a copy. What a buy we got!

Not to be accused of censorship, our Freedom Fighters allowed St. Martins to publish a heavily redacted copy of the second edition. The great Russian writers had to deal with this all the time, so who are we to complain?

I once tried to burn a book. New in grad school, I thought I could make the world a better place with a ritual burning of Kafka's The Trial. I went out and splurged on a new, hardcover, Modern Library edition, along with a hefty tin pail in which to make the fire. With the LA Times for kindling, and some good Los Angeles brush and sticks, I had a nice blaze going, said an anti-blessing, and consigned the book to the flames.

Kafka smothered the blaze in billows of smoke with no significant damage to self, and unhip neighbors upstairs called the fire department -- which didn't quite get the issue. Also I melted a hole in the floor's shellac. So you see it was a good idea for our defenders to check to see that the job was done, and done right.

Why am I telling you all this? Most commentators have deplored the censorship aspect of this chapter of national-security mania. But I want to use these events to draw your attention to a story by that dark spirit of Salem, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a tale frequently left out of anthologies -- "Earth's Holocaust" -- an incisive cautionary to would-be reformers, radicals, or revolutionaries like me, or possibly you.

Once upon a time, the inhabitants of the world determined to rid themselves of the evil accumulation of “worn-out trumpery," by heaving it all into an enormous bonfire. Into the flames went
coats of armor, nobility
sceptres of emperors and kings
hogsheads of liquor
bank notes
enamored sonnets
weapons and ammunition
machinery to inflict the punishment of death
marriage certificates
daybooks and ledgers
statute books and printed paper in general
priestly garments
the Bible

Interesting list.

As the fire burns down, and the satisfied reformers leave to go to bed to wake to their new world, a little party -- convivial, but despondent -- is left hanging around the fire. It is the last murderer, the last thief, the last drunkard and the hangman.

"The best counsel for all of us is," thought the hangman, "that, as soon as we have finished the last drop of liquor, I help you, my three friends, to a comfortable end upon the nearest tree, and then hang myself on the same bough. This is no world for us any longer."

The despair of the wicked at the new-created world.
"Poh, poh, my good fellows!" said a dark-complexioned personage, who now joined the group -- his complexion was indeed truly dark, and his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire; "be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There's one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and with which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself into a cinder."

"And what may that be?" eagerly demanded the last murderer.

"What but the human heart itself?" said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. "And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery -- the same old shapes or worse ones -- which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!"
You can see, perhaps, why this is rarely anthologized.

Call it depraved or misguided, but it is this "foul cavern" -- foul, if often sublime -- that continues to attract and orient my attention. It's why I write novels.

Oh, btw, the title of the book the DoD recently burned was Operation Dark Heart.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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