For the Love of Wisdom
Philosopher, Academic & Senate House Library Member, Johannes Achill Niederhauser, PhD, explores the Library then and now in the quest for knowledge...
The Stillness of the Library
There aren’t many places left in the world which know and cherish stillness. The library is such a place, at least it should be, for in stillness thought can open up to the world and human beings can come into touch with themselves.
Senate House Library is one of the last islands of stillness in the rapids of the metropolis, at least it was for me over many years before London entered its own period of stillness this year.
Labyrinths of learning
I remember when I first arrived into the Big Smoke, nearly eight years ago now. I had just finished my undergraduate in Bolzano, a small mountain town in the North of Italy, and was about to embark on my academic journey in the UK at King’s College London. The prospect of chaos in the big city at first had some appeal, but it took me some time to appreciate the beat of this wondrous city and its many hidden angles and corners. But as Nietzsche says in Thus spoke Zarathustra, “one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star”.
Senate House Library was recommended to me by a professor at King’s early on during my MA. It was the first time I walked up towards Russell Square from the Strand. I took an idle detour through the British Museum and couldn’t quite fathom that I could come to a place to read and study every day and visit this sublime museum during breaks. Senate House, this Art Deco palace, beckoned in all its might and somewhat out of place glory when I left the Museum through the rear entrance. It was, of course, a rather rainy day. The London drizzle had fully taken control of the landscape, so it was difficult to look up. I only began to realise the magnitude of the building after making my way through the foyer and up the elevators into the Library.
There might be architecturally more pompous libraries in the world, older ones, and libraries built as libraries. Still, Senate House has its specific charms. It has a bold character, it is a bit like a throne to itself presiding over Fitzrovia, Soho and Russell Square. It wasn’t too far from the building that The Wheatsheaf Poets met at their pub. One of them George Orwell who found in the building inspiration for his Big Brother, the big anonymous bureaucratic Other. Yet, inside the library I never had this sensation. In fact, being so high above London, there was a quality of lightness, of bearable lightness if you allow me to say so. One was lifted above the things of the everyday and so one’s mind was free to roam.
Years ago the library at Senate House was still more of a maze even than it is now. After I had spent a year there a new acquaintance of mine mentioned some ominous room packed with leather sofas. Now the room can be easily found, but just a few years ago one almost had to climb into it, through the fifth floor (I think), through some backroom no one ever used, and if you turned in the right direction you sensed relief, for you were close to finding the most well-kept leisurely secret of Central London.
“Narrow souls I cannot abide” Nietzsche says in the Gay Science
The soul needs places where it can lose itself and feel at home. I often stumbled upon lonely readers somewhere all the way in the back of the sixth floor in the Library, hiding from the world, deeply drawn into the argument of a book, often smiling as they lose themselves and then resurface back into the presence of others.
We readers make silent bonds amongst each other when we sit for hours alongside one another, wondering where each other’s minds might be wandering at that moment. The howling winds we could often hear especially on the sixth floor, the floor of the splendid philosophy collection, was often the only thing reminding oneself of the fleeting world outside.
When night fell, after a day of reading and writing, I packed my bag, returned the books, wished good night to staff and security and off I walked home. In my early years in London I spent many a 'Dickensian' night walking all the way back from my humble oasis of quiet at Russell Square to my room in Whitechapel. I walked, as I couldn’t afford to travel by bus every night. But those walks to and from the library were inextricably part of my journey every day. I gathered my thoughts on my way to the library and back. The place where I wrote my MA thesis on Kant’s moral philosophy, where I came years later to finish my thesis on Heidegger and where I last year completed the manuscript for my first academic book.
Future Thinking: the Horizon of Being
I have been writing in the past tense as though this is all a thing of the past. It isn’t. Sometimes thinking of something in the clear past lets one cherish it again and even more what that something stands for. Just as the stillness inside the Library provided space to learn, think and reflect, the world outside the library is now trying to embrace the stillness. In the face of the unknown, the uncertain which has made a forceful return, we are reminded of Heidegger’s silent ‘call of conscience’ which discloses world to human beings. And a new world is on the horizon.
Senate House Library has survived much worse and so it will still stand strong in our absence, being there while London is navigating the dark waters of this new horizon. When students of all disciplines can come together safely once again in search of stillness, knowledge and solemn comradery, Senate House will be the island of stillness, the guiding light for studious souls once again.