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Monday, 8 April 2019

Taking Down the Statues: Memory and Memorials




We are afraid of forgetting. From school days on, we are chastised for it and as we sense ourselves ageing, so we become terrified of any forgetfulness as if it can only be a premonition of much worse to come. At school, we got gold stars for remembering and now in our diaries we dutifully note birthdays and wedding anniversaries shameful to forget. The diaries themselves are usually printed with reminders of dates we are expected to remember – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day even (such is romance). 

The United Nations encourages us to remember a quite different list ( http://www.un.org/en/sections/observances/international-days/), now extending to one hundred and fifty six days, beginning with the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust on 27th January and ending on 20th December with International Human Solidarity Day. The month-long breathing space before it all starts up again is partly owing to the congestion created by the different parties of organised Christianity who remember Saviours born on different Christmas Days. Partly also to the fireworks and inebriation obligatory at New Year. Some of the UN days have a tragic connecting logic: World Tourism Day on 27th September is followed on the 28th by World Rabies Day. Other juxtapositions suggest something else: World Philosophy Day on 15th November is shortly followed on the 19th by World Toilet Day, a delight for fans of Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Our obsession with not forgetting anyone or anything is exhausting. We are trying to remember too much and we don’t know how to prioritise, as the time managers might put it. As a result, not only do we have over-stuffed diaries but - to take the example I want to discuss -  over-stuffed city streets cluttered with bronze and stone effigies,  monuments in perpetuity to personages who were erected in order not to be forgotten.

Many tourists visiting London will already know that it is Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But other characters are memorialised in the Square, asking for whose names would put an end to anyone’s aspirations to become a TV quiz millionaire. Nobody knows, nobody cares, but if I have driven you to Wikipedia you will discover that they represent George IV (who contends for the title of England’s most dissolute king), General Sir Charles Napier (“the best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing”) and Major General Sir Henry Havelock (Memoirs of the Afghan Campaign). You don’t even have to make it up.

But take down those monuments because we have now forgotten? Oh no. They are history, they are heritage. True, no one is corrupt enough to claim that the monuments have artistic merit. No one even tries that on. I defy you to find an aesthetically pleasing, artistically significant monument to a dead king or general bigged up on a plinth. You might, I suppose, try the Bronze Horseman – the equestrian monument to Peter the Great in St Petersburg. But then look again and you’ll see that it’s the nameless horse which is the success story, not the toy rider.

I realise that there are people now who want to bring more balance, more diversity to our city streets and squares, people who want to big up a different kind of person. It’s been done recently in London, where in Parliament Square the bronze effigy of a suffragette now stands among the dead men, Millicent Fawcett holding a tea towel. It’s dire, and necessarily so. If your imagination does not extend beyond bigging up in the traditional mould - bronze or marble, on a plinth, upright bearing, best foot forward, chin up, strong gaze towards heaven - then you reduce the challenge and energy of your revolutionaries, your radicals, your feminists, to fit the smugness of your generals, your slavers, and those famous only for their accident of birth.

Get rid of them all. Have the courage of your own forgetting. But also have the courage to remember in different ways – how is it that we have limited them so disastrously?

Memory starts out as personal memory. He was killed in the war, and she remembers him and will remember him until she dies when all will be forgotten. In peacetime, if he had died in a car accident, then neighbours and friends would rally round. In wartime, it is quite different. Everyone has their loss, their losses. Likewise, in a mining disaster when many die it is a community which is affected as well as families and individuals.  So instead of those who have not suffered rallying round those who have, we have shared suffering, shared grief. In that context, it is not surprising that people should look towards shared remembering. But what kind of thing is that?  The obvious analogy is with shared celebration, where we all come together to mark victory, independence, a successful harvest. In these cases, we don’t need much encouragement – we will come together anyway; quite often we will want to have sex with the person next to us. That is, traditionally, how harvests and the end of war are celebrated.

Grief fades with time, and so too does memory. If we are afraid of that, or guilty about it, then one function of a shared ritual of remembrance is to keep the memory alive, perhaps even revive the grief. In some ways it seems a bit perverse; in other respects, we might argue that nothing is ever truly forgotten, no grief ever truly exhausted and so it is better to return, from time to time, to the scene of the crime committed against our hopes and happiness. Or, at the very least, to show some respect especially to the memory of those who died that others might live.

In New South Wales, the Mount Kembla Mining disaster of 1902 killed 96 miners leaving 33 widows and 120 fatherless children in the adjacent mining village. We can be sure that none of those children are still alive, but an annual commemoration of the disaster still takes place on the 31st July and the memorial erected still stands. Why? Well, probably some children of the fatherless children are still alive and their lives were no doubt marked in some way, probably a very significant way, by an event which preceded their birth. The disaster is part of their history, even part of the history of one or two further generations.

The last Holocaust survivor will die in the near future, but the Holocaust will take much longer to die in the lives of its children, grand-children, great-grand-children. Eventually, however, it will become one of those things which took place a long time ago and in another country, rather like the Conquest of the Incas which is not now marked by solemn occasions anywhere, though its horrors have been amply documented, and for centuries, in historical works.

But it is not just for short-term memory purposes that people want commemorations and days of remembrance; they want them to remind us of something, to teach us a lesson. We learn early on that life is about being taught lessons. Mount Kembla reminds us of the negligence of mine owners, one of the most enduring negligences, still delivering its deaths on every continent. So the point of the commemoration, one might say, is directed beyond and outside the circle of those who were most immediately and intimately affected. That, of course, means that there is the possibility of a tension arising between the needs of those directly in line of the hit and the motives of activists and ideologues. It is a commonplace that suffering is hi-jacked, agitators swarming to the scene like wasps to a honey pot, the current disaster cut and pasted onto the standard issue placard. The Holocaust is well on the way to suffering a similar fate, not so much remembered and grieved over as used to coerce.

Such mismatches between suffering and the way in which it is made use of are most obvious in the ways in which nation states officially recognise the war deaths of those they have sent to fight and, sometimes also, the civilians who were victims of the enemy. In the old Soviet Union, the party line dictated that the twenty million casualties in World War Two could only be memorialised by huge and brutal installations which suggested the crushing might of Russia and the iron will of its fighters. But those memorials - lacking any elements of simplicity, intimacy and privacy - must surely have left those who were still grieving feeling awkward and confused. It could have been done differently.
One day during a 1998 holiday, I walked around the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan. My attention was caught by a very large painting (196 x 250 cm) which depicts all kinds of simple but very colourful flowers stuck in jam jars, often only a few to a jar, lined up in rows as if on shelves, some pieces of fruit also scattered around. I smiled, felt warmed, but also felt that the painting expressed some sadness. I looked at the gallery description. It told me that the painting by Martiros Saryan, dated to 1945, was a tribute to Armenians who had fought in the Red Army, both those who survived and those many who died. I was astonished and moved. I now saw the jam jars placed on simple graves with whatever flowers were to hand, and imagined the actions and feelings of those who bent to place them there. Perhaps also, the flowers could belong in the centre of kitchen tables, set to celebrate a safe homecoming.

If that second way of seeing the painting is legitimate, then Saryan has done a very interesting thing. His painting allows for the expression of both sadness and joy. If we follow through that idea, it suggests that our habit of firmly separating celebrations from commemorations or remembrances, gaiety from solemnity, should at least sometimes be disrupted. It often is at modern funerals which try to celebrate the life of the deceased instead of mourning their passing. That has its dangers. It may work well for a professional colleague or even a friend of long-standing. It may be harder for those still punched into immediate grief and, worse, little more than denial if they seek to find laughter simply because too much embarrassed by tears.

But even with that caveat, I want to say that we need to loosen up, be more imaginative, about the ways in which we choose to remember as well as more willing to acknowledge and even welcome the fact that we forget. For the present at least, all new statues should be firmly off the plinth if the best we can come up with are effigies in the style of mummification originally favoured by the nasty party of humanity. And those old statues put up to forgotten bit-players of Empire should simply come down. They have had their day.

That a subscription was raised to put up a monument in perpetuity places no obligations on future generations. Let us continue to have the history books about English public school boys trained to put down Indian mutinies and Afghan defiance. But since we have forgotten their names and if, perchance, we do remember then we no longer admire, the statues should be cleared off the streets, out of the parks, and removed to some outdoor museum – or sent to the scrap yard since they have no artistic or aesthetic value. There would be no vandalism involved. Private graves in cemeteries are eventually bulldozed to make way for new coffins or simply to create public green spaces. No one much cares or thinks that vandalism, though one might want to save for museum purposes the occasional drooping angel to illustrate how monumental masons have conceived drooping angels through the centuries. Likewise, one might reserve a few Queen Victorias and Lenins for the clinical gaze of the historians.

A private subscription or a centuries-old governmental decision cannot take away from us the right to control our own public spaces. We are the ones who have to live in them now and, if the faces in bronze or stone are forgotten or disdained, they should go. We redecorate our private living spaces, we re-furnish our rooms. There is no reason why we should not do the same with our streets and other public spaces. I know that the urge to clutter public space is very strong – municipal authorities abhor a vacuum and will never miss an opportunity to put up yet another street sign. But we should resist the temptation and if we want to install new things, then we should think more widely and look to the merits of temporary installations, of things which change through the seasons like plants and trees, of objects which are less literal and less static, like fountains -  almost everywhere a neglected genre of public art. We should be more willing to recognise that most heroes are local heroes and temporary ones too, more suitable for writing about in history books than parked on a plinth on our pavements, their only devotees dogs and pigeons. 

There is something to be said for a cityscape where all that is solid melts into air. It has been rammed into us from childhood that forgetting is a fault. We should challenge that. It’s only human to forget and we should sometimes accept our humanity. Those men on plinths had their time and now we have ours. If we are afraid of them, it is only in the Oedipal way that Don Giovanni is afraid of the ghost-statue of the Commendatore. From time to time, such fear is overcome and the statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein are pulled down to public glee. Since we have largely forgotten them, there’s not much glee to be had in pulling down the bit players, the Napiers and the Havelocks. It’s merely a task for municipal authorities, charged to sustain public spaces which are a pleasure to share both with our friends and the ever changing cast of strangers who come and go. All might take passing delight in a less literal cityscape, furnished with fountains and avenues of trees but never with bodies in rigor mortis petrified on plinths. For those who deserve to be remembered, there are much better ways of prompting our memory.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019.


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