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St Francis of Assisi

Peace Does Not Happen by Itself – The Need for the Individual Conscience

May 16, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

In response to Roma Tearne’s article about the on-going significance of the burning of the Jaffna Library, some people have contacted us with their own moving accounts of what this means for them and what they think should be done. Here is one which we thought you would like to read

Food for thought: Elmo Jayawardena’s library project

In a Sunday Island article (‘Peace begins with me’, 15 November 2009), Elmo Jayawardena sketches his effort to open libraries, stretching from the North and along the Eastern coast. Given the major problems presently pressing upon the Island, some might wonder whether there aren’t more important and urgent matters that demand available resources and energy.

For instance, Marxism emphasizes the basics of life: food for our very survival, clothes on the body (as society expects and the weather demands), and shelter from the elements. Isn’t it, therefore, more important to attend to necessities, to build homes and hospitals, repair the war-devastated environment, enable cultivation to resume, than indulge in the luxury of libraries? An initial answer would be that the one does not deny the other: it is not a matter of “either or” but of “and”.

It is not easy to statistically establish the value and importance of books, being an area that does not lend itself to quantification. A not uncommon reply to the question, “What are you doing/” is “Nothing. Reading”: to read is to be doing nothing. There is bodily hunger; then we are urged to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, that is, to lead a good, virtuous, life. Another form of hunger is the “hunger” to read – reading in order to know, and for the pleasure of knowing.

When I taught at an African university, I placed books on reserve (they could be read in the library, but not borrowed and taken home) before mentioning them to students: so eager were some that they would leave the lecture-hall and rush to get the books. In Stefan Zweig’s novella, Chess (original title, Schachnovelle), a man is imprisoned and tortured. The torture does not take the Abu Ghraib form; there is no “extraordinary rendition” to sites where horror and agonising pain, perhaps death, await the victim: the man is simply denied anything to read, not even a scrap of printed paper. Given the nature of that particular prisoner, to be “starved” of anything to read was a very effective form of torture.

Throughout history, rulers and governments have attacked libraries and books. The Qin Dynasty of China (221-206 BCE) burnt books and buried scholars. Centuries later, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Pierre Mulele of Zaire behaved on similar lines. (For the latter, see Naipaul’s novel, A Bend in the River.) The famous library at Alexandria was sacked more than once.

I would suggest that libraries, given their value and the regard in which they are held, can be seen almost as sites of the secular sacred. Those who burn books and destroy libraries are barbarians. (It can be argued that barbarians are “innocent” in that they are ignorant of the value of what they destroy: deliberate destruction, perpetrated with intent and full knowledge, is a far worse evil.)

In his 1821 play, Almansor, Heinrich Heine (German, Jew) wrote, “There where they burn books, they will also, at the end, burn human beings.” (“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.”) Heine had in mind the burning of the Moslem holy book, The Qur’an, by the Spanish Catholic Inquisition but, a little more than a hundred years later, on 10 May 1933, his own books were among the thousands burnt in Nazi Germany by university students and others. It was followed by the mass gassing and incineration of the Jews. To burn a library is not only to burn books which are the source of knowledge, but to heap humiliation on a people, to seek to destroy their spirit and self-esteem. In August 1992, Serbian forces, intent on the obscenity of “ethnic cleansing”, attacked the Bosnian library. On 31 May 1981, the Jaffna Library was attacked and burnt by the army and police. (Most books can be replaced but original works on palm leaves are lost to posterity.) Two years later, during the pogrom of 1983, Tamils were burnt alive in homes, in cars and on the street in a horrible attestation of the veracity of Heine’s observation.

It is difficult to over-estimate the value of reading and, therefore, of books and libraries. The ‘Fall of Constantinople’ (1453) was followed by the departure of scholars to Italy, carrying with them ancient Greek works long lost to, and forgotten by, Europe. This exodus is regarded as one of the factors contributing to the European Renaissance that followed.

During the years when the United States was a slave society, it was forbidden to bring literacy to slaves. (The economy of a slave society depends on slavery, while that of a slave-owning society does not.) Slave-owners were aware that reading leads to knowledge, and knowledge to independent thought. This fact was long recognised by those wielding religious power, and “jealous” (possessive) of that power and elite status: hence the chanting or saying of prayers in dead languages such as Pali and Latin. The Catholic Church resisted attempts to translate the Bible into vernacular languages.

Discouraging women from reading (if not actually denying them formal education) was in order to maintain male domination. Nor is this entirely a matter of history, as the attitude and practice of the Taliban shows. During the years of British rule, some of the “natives” were taught basic reading and writing in order to help the imperial machine function: thus far but no further. So it was that, at independence, many an African country did not have a university, and no more than a handful of graduates to help run the country.

Seen in the context of the above, the value of Elmo Jayawardena’s efforts becomes clearer: reading helps the individual to grow, think independently, and realize her or his potential. Recently, I wrote to Arjuna Hulugalle of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre about a friend who, many years ago on the streets of Colombo, said he never gave alms to a beggar because there were far too many of them. The attitude (or was it an easy excuse/) was one of, “If I can’t help all, I will help none.” Similarly, it is understandable if some Sri Lankans, like Prince Hamlet (Act 1, Scene V), recognize that things are seriously wrong with the world (the Island) but don’t see how they can be put right.

Daunted by the many and major issues bedevilling Sri Lanka, they turn their face away and content themselves with their private lives, its problems and preoccupations, pleasures and distractions. Returning to the alms-giving analogy, Jayawardena’s attitude seems to be that if he has helped even a few children to a meal (books), then he has, indeed, helped a few “starving” children to a meal.

I would make a distinction between idealists and practical idealists, that is, those who, in however large or small a way, attempt to work towards, if not realizing, then approximating to, their ideal. At the end of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, it is suggested that, on balance, there are more things to admire in humankind than to despise and deplore. Some of us, at certain times, may feel inclined to doubt the proposition, but the practical idealism and courage of a few individuals inhibit its total rejection. Plague is a virulent and highly infectious disease: if not combated and eradicated, the whole community is endangered. The plague (compounded of “racism”, lack of ethics in political and public life, criminality and cynicism) rages in Sri Lanka, but there are individuals and groups “stubbornly” (in a positive sense) working to cure and cleanse the Island.

“Peace” is not merely the absence of war but the presence of harmony. In its turn, harmony is the product of equality and inclusion, the possession of rights and the enjoyment of freedoms. True peace means harmony, and harmony is the fruit of justice. Jayawardena’s “Peace begins with me” reminds us that peace does not happen by itself: it must be made to happen. Since The Plague is an existential work, it is well to remind ourselves that existentialism argues that each and every one of us is compelled to accept individual responsibility: there is no excuse, no escape. “Peace begins with me” (Jayawardena).

Elmo Jayawardena’s work of building libraries and providing books; making available food for the mind; helping children to grow and develop, deserves our support. Those familiar with the chapel at STC Gurutalawa will readily recognise the following as the words of St Francis of Assisi:

Where there is hatred,
let me sow love;
where there is darkness, light…
for it is in giving that we receive.