Monday, June 15, 2009

The Index

The Catholic Index, that is. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1948. It's a beautiful thing. There are a lot of wonderful books on that list. Spinoza is there. And Descartes. Defoe made the cut, but only his The History of the Devil is on the list, and none of his novels. Zola , Emile, that is, is on the Index: "Opera omnia." Another Zola, Guiseppe, an 18th-century painter, has six works on the list, in Latin and Italian. Martin Heidegger is not on the Index, but Ioannes Henricus Heideggerus, Opera omnia, was indexed in 1669, and Johann Conrad Heidegger, Reflexionen eines Schweizers über die Frage: Ob es der catholischen Eidgenossenschaft nicht zuträglich wäre, die regularen Orden gänzlich aufzuheben oder wenigstens einzuzchränken?, in 1769.

No, I'd never heard of the older Zola nor of the two older Heideggers.

There was this wonderful Bavarian novelist and humorist, Oskar Maria Graf, who responded to the Nazis' book-burning early in 1933 with an open letter entitled "Verbrennt mich!" ("Burn Me!"), in which he pointed out that the Nazis had burned titles written by a fairly comprehensive list of great, good and competent German writers, and demanded to know why he was not one of them. "I have done nothing to deserve such an insult!" he wrote. (Shortly after the letter was published the Nazis obliged Graf: they burned his books and took away his citizenship. He escaped to the US and lived the last several decades of his life in Washington Heights in Manhattan, in a neighborhood which was sometimes referred to as "the Fourth Reich" because a lot of German refugees settled there.) Anyway, going over the Index sort of reminds me of Graf and the Nazi book-burnings: every now and then you notice that someone's missing from the list who really didn't deserve the insult of not being mentioned alongside those other greats. Francis Bacon and John Milton and Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson are on the Index -- why not Henry Fielding?! Why, I oughtta... Why are Voltaireand Renanon the Index, but neither Schopenhauernor Nietzsche? Why Heinebut not Marx? Why so many Lutheran theologians, but not Lutherhimself, nor Melanchthon? Why Giordano Brunobut neither Copernicusnor Galileo?

But of course, that's how it is with any great reading list: if it interests you at all, chances are that you would've liked to see a lot of items on it which were omitted.

It may have occurred to you, gentle reader, that I don't seem to be taking the list seriously either as a warning against sinful books, nor as an outrage of censorship. Right. I don't take it seriously either of those ways, I can't. Maybe it was an effective tool of censorship as recently as 1948, I don't know. I sort of doubt it. The Index was begun in 1559, not all that long after printing had become widespread in Europe, and back then, of course, censorship was a very serious matter indeed, and books got people killed in large numbers. By 1948, however, it's hard for me to see how the Index still could've been for anyone more than it is for me: a wonderful list of suggestions for reading, and a source of great amusement.

Not that I would imagine that every item on the Index is a great read. Many of the books seem to be harsh criticisms of Catholicism from a Protestant point of view, and such things are dreary to me, about as dreary as Catholic condemnations of Protestantism, or Armenian condemnation of Greek Orthodoxy, or Orthodox attacks on Copts, and they area all intensely boring to me for very similar reasons. They are all deadly serious defenses of this or that version of a fairy tale.

No comments:

Post a Comment