One problem that I have with the mind-set that would burn books as a means to the end of establishing a “public orthodoxy” is that it is emblematic of a kind of cowardice. It is an effeminate act, a sort of intellectual nesting impulse, which wants to abide behind basalt-hard walls of cultural stasis, perched upon feathered layers of the pluperfect, hunkered down upon the finished, the thoroughly known, safely classified and encased; the self a part of the time-frozen diorama that defines it. It is, among other things, a priggish fear of the mixed metaphor.
In the introduction to his interview with Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens displays his admiration for Mailer’s expression of the polar opposite understanding of the cultural role of the intellectual:
Hitchens: The phrase ‘culture is worth a little risk’ was uttered by Mailer in the early 1980s, after his literary protégé Jack Henry Abbott, author of In the Belly of the Beast, had been released from prison only to slay again. I always thought that the statement itself was more important than the calamitous context in which it was uttered.
While Mailer’s personal history, as well as his literary career, shows him to be unafraid of risk-taking, aware that one can often learn as much, or more, from one’s failures as from one’s successes, this does not mean that Mailer is unappreciative of that which is rife with traditional culture:
Mailer: Culture’s worth huge, huge risks. Without culture we’re all totalitarian beasts. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the only thing that keeps us from going totalitarian, given the new world of technology, which inspires us to be totalitarian. After all, what technology promises is that we can all be control freaks. That the world is ours to dominate. The fact that we no longer have any senses left after we’ve been working at a fluorescent-lit computer for six hours, that’s by-the-by. …And culture is more than just being able to get it on CD-ROM. Culture is going into a library, and finding an old book on an old shelf, and opening it, and it has the patina of the past and maybe hasn’t been taken out in five years, and that’s part of its virtue at this point. There’s a small communion that takes place between the book and yourself, and that’s what’s disappearing.
Mailer, in fact, refers to himself as a “left conservative,” about which more in a future post.
[On a personal note, as a bibliophile who spends more than a little time searching the stacks for esoteric literary gems, I am very much attuned to Mailer’s observation concerning the “communion” between the book and the reader. When I borrow an old, long-neglected volume from the library, I always check the back to see how much time has elapsed since it was last checked out. The longer it’s been, the more special I feel my personal relationship to that book to be.]