I saw this image, “HOLLAND HOUSE BADLY BURNED. WS/57” (1940), while reading Jay Winter’s book this afternoon, War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2017). The original photography was no doubt staged, but Eduardo Cadava makes the point that it was art with the message “…to combat the psychological effects of the blitz: the Germans may have tried to destroy our books, our buildings-the symbols of our civilization-but we are still reading.” (“‘Lapsus Imaginis’: The Image in Ruins.” October, MIT Press, vol. 96, 2001, p. 51, footnote 25).
Jay Winter’s point is more nuanced, looking at the occlusion of faces in war art from 1914, with the material of destruction coming to the fore. I agree with Winter’s message that the de-legitimation of war lies in seeing the impact on the human face. But the aftermath of the bombed-out Holland House library has a powerful point about what lies behind our faces, in our imagination and thought.
As we face a global pandemic, and are isolated in our houses, it is worth thinking about the valuable trove of knowledge in books and learning. The morons who horde hundreds of dollars’ worth in toilet paper are most likely to think, looking at the image, that we have three persons who are idealists oblivious to the real world. However, the reverse is true. It is in books and learning that we can see the real world. The morons who do not read books, or don’t have any interest in formal learning, are panic artists who can only see oncoming destruction, and they are ones who are truly lost.