We seem currently to be going through a period of iconoclasm which has an interesting history itself. One of my favourite plays is “Forty Years On” by Alan Bennett. It often seems to me that British, and particularly English, society resembles some sort of minor public school. Hence I can easily hear John Gielgud intoning Ecclesiastes 44-1:-
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. 2The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. 3Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: 4Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions.
Now, when I googled this a moment ago, I discovered that the first six words of the title refers to a book written some 75 years ago by Agee and Evans with photographs of tenant farmers and their dreadful plight in the depression. The verse from Ecclesiastes was obscured and immediately raises the question about how the meaning of the past can be changed or indeed obscured. It also raises the questions about for whom history might be written, recorded or commemorated.
However, before examining the text, consider the last sentence….” meet For the people, WISE and ELOQUENT are their instructions”. Well it would be nice if the present incumbents of the senior management team were wise and concerned for the people and by no means can the repetitive bumbling be described as eloquence.
(Incidentally, I remember hearing that controversial Cornishman D.M. Thomas remarking once that we had moved from reading Isaiah to watching dire television in two generations!)
Now before we start praising famous men, let alone building statues to them, we also need to consider women and children. The statue which really brought pimples to the skin and still does was near the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin which shows those children going to the West in the Kindertransport and those from whom they have been sundered, facing the death camps in the East. Then, also very moving is the statue by Kathe Kollwitz. This sculpture is under an oculus and exposed to the rain, snow and cold symbolising the suffering of civilians during World War II. It is a pieta- a woman with her dead child. She had lost her son, Peter on the battlefield in the First World War.
At this point I should like to recommend a book and close with a couple of quotations which I think are worth pondering. The book is by Rachel Hewitt and is called “A Revolution in Feeling” It deals with the changes of feelings during the 1790s. To quote from the dust jacket;” Every society in every age, feels differently, and from the seismic shifts of the 1790s Britain emerged the contours of our contemporary attitude to need, longing and emotion”.
Now from that complex but original thinker Walter Benjamin, “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
WALTER BENJAMIN, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Here we return to eloquence again, a reminder that style in historical writers engage our interest from Hazlitt-
The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of POETICAL JUSTICE; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase, though they do not share in the spoil.
WILLIAM HAZLITT, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays
Finally, I listened to a radio programme last night about refugees in camps across the Channel in France desperate to escape persecution and many of them, children in conditions cramped as in a slave ship. What are we going to do to alleviate their situation?
On Iconoclasm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Iconoclasm
There may be elements of magical thinking in relation to monuments as clearly their destruction does not entail the erasure of the past or the racist structures still in existence. It might be argued that in their removal they can become instrumental towards that aim. Some may also consider that they are works of art which raises further questions about aesthetics – content and form etc.