Musing On Death and Monuments

While reading an otherwise unremarkable blog post on Istanbul’s Tanpınar Literature Festival, I came across these paragraphs:

…Down the street from the Hagia Sophia (called Ayasofya in Turkish) are the unremarkable stacked stone drums of Constantine’s Column, repeatedly reinforced with metal rings since its construction in AD 330. One guidebook says, “Although what is left is relatively unimpressive, it has been carefully preserved.” Relics supposedly entombed at the base include the axe Noah used to build his arc and bread crumbs from the loaves Christ fed the masses.

Places like Hagia Sophia that mark the erection and destruction of empires and cultures make one think about the act of historical preservation: the decision to uphold and investigate the achievements of the past.  In modern times, we have come to fear the loss of such monuments and archives. Severance with past knowledge and culture—even the most basic tools of survival—is a key feature of some important apocalyptic literature. In both David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (the movie will be released this week) and the movie Quest for Fire, there’s a terrifying period in which those who remain no longer know how to make fire. At the close of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a small band of exiles whose crime was the possession of books discuss who among them have committed to memory which great texts and can, for a while at least, keep them alive…

Reading this crystallized something that has been hovering at the edge of my mind, a disturbing impression that the world (as opposed to people who are directly affected by violence) sometimes seems more outraged by the willful destruction or potential loss of such concrete links to the past — statues, neighborhoods, archives, temples — than by the killing of hundreds of people in the same area.

It is as if the ancient saints’ tombs of Mali, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the ancient market of Aleppo have a singular presence and personality that links us to a past that, while not lived by our particular ancestors, for us all expresses a worthy and collective human destiny, the best of what humankind can offer. Destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed  our civilizational DNA. There are those, as in the literature and films remarked upon above, who fear the loss of knowledge and culture as the beginning of an apocalyptic decivilization under the axes and bombs of ignorant barbarians. This fear echoes in the US Republican Party’s foreign policy rhetoric. You don’t need to know where or what Bamiyan’s Buddhas are to fear the consequences of their destruction.

And what of the hundreds and thousands of actual people who are killed in the pursuit of “civilization” and “decivilization”? The same Republicans want to raise defense spending and go out there to defend civilization with a bigger, better axe. People are the fodder, not the prize. Except for their relatives and friends, for whom they are everything, people are not unique links in the chain of human civilization in the same way as a Roman mosaic or a 7th century manuscript. Orhan Pamuk has tried to rectify this by elevating and preserving mundane, everyday objects in his Museum of Innocence. Still, they are objects. What is kept alive are memories, not people.

But, you object, we are horrified at the carnage in Syria! All decent human beings are horrified, of course, but we have a short attention span and the carnage is so widespread and so overwhelming in its brutal, detailed repetitiveness (as experienced sitting at the kitchen table over our newspapers).  By contrast, the threat to burn an illuminated 7th century manuscript leaps from the black ink:  a wondrous object is about to be snuffed out, never again to be reproduced, a different scale and quality of loss than one anonymous person among many mowed down by a car bomb.

There are endless exceptions. No one seems to care much, for instance, that Saudi Arabia is razing what remains of the architecture of the time of the Prophet Muhammad, including a seventh-century mosque, to make room for tourism facilities (click here). In the 1960s many cities and towns across Europe (and Boston) razed their historic city centers and replaced them with concrete modernist structures, convenient and soulless.  Many Americans haven’t heard of any of this, although they fear the end of civilization nonetheless.

Are we heartless, misguided, or are our moral sensibilities simply beaten down by media saturation so that it is easier to care about a single statue than to continually recoil at the blasting of individual lives?

One Response to “Musing On Death and Monuments”

  1. How many Americans lose sleep over the fact that a million Iraqis have died? Are they disturbed enough to oppose doing it all over again in Iran? My experience is that no-one cares as long they are told it will keep them safe. I think you have to devalue these people if you want to regularly go to war against them.

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