According to the statue-topplers, the past can be rewritten in the spirit of liberal intellectual terror
Familiar yet unsettling pictures and videos have spread across the globe in recent days. The insanity that has pervaded the Western world following the death of an African-American criminal as a result of a violent altercation with the police – in itself a deeply reprehensible act – is no longer expressed in peaceful demonstrations nor takes the form of mere rioting, looting and robbery, but has moved on to the desecration and toppling of statues and the tossing of them into rivers. In the present essay, I will make a brief attempt to explain this phenomenon.
What could be going through the minds of those spray painting the statues of respected politicians and statesmen? What could lead them to saw the head off a statue of Columbus in Boston, scrawl across a memorial to Queen Victoria in Leeds, and throw into a river a statue of Edward Colston, the former slave trader who used his profits from the “black cargoes” to make his city flourish?
Before I try delving deeper into the matter, I should mention that there is always a moment when the toppling of a statue cannot be viewed without a great sense of tragedy, be it the statue of the greatest dictator, the tearing down of Stalin’s statue in Budapest in October 1956, or that of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. It is at that moment when a statue falls onto its face (or back), crashing into the pedestal or the surrounding concrete. Since we are talking about human figures, no matter how great the malefactor, the observer inevitably imagines, at the moment of the fall, that the figure, in defense, raises its hand in front of it to protect itself from tumbling to the ground. But no, the statue strikes the concrete rigidly and motionlessly, for it is lifeless matter. And this inability to defend itself involuntarily evokes a measure of compassion within us.
Adjacent to this is the impossibility for us to define in a sentence what a statue is. After all, it can be just as much a cult relic or work of art, as it is a means of historical memory. Vast distances separate the haughty statues of the Assyrian kings from Michelangelo’s Pietà, yet we grace both with the same name. In the present context, we may perhaps proceed from the position that in most cases, a statue (also) bears a symbolic content, that its meaning extends beyond itself. And in all likelihood, this symbolic meaning is also operating in the minds of those who now find joy in the desecration and destruction of statues.
Because those statues which are slated for ruination are, in most cases, representations of historical figures, they are in this sense historical symbols. And this is of profound importance, for history is nothing other than the essence of man unfolded through time. If we are looking for an answer to the tricky question of what is man, it is perhaps enough to point to human history and say: ‘this is you’. José Ortega y Gasset rightly says that ‘a man has no nature; what he has is history’. He then adds, shrewdly, that what distinguishes Madame Pompadour from a Neanderthal female is history (It should be added that this path can not only go forward, but also in reverse).
Statues of historical figures are points where historical time translates into space. Statues, apart from their symbolic nature, represent encapsulated points and concentrated expressions of history. So when these statue-topplers begin their disgraceful work, they are actually declaring war on history; they simply wish to erase certain people and periods from the collective historical memory. In modern parlance, they want to reset or even delete them. The statue-topplers believe that the mutilation or tearing down of a statue is tantamount to eradicating that part of the past symbolised by the statue itself.
It is at this point that we encounter the ultimate driving force behind this pathetically tragic series of events of recent days; it is nothing more than the elimination of that revealed identity which constitutes the very essence of our being, which we call history, or rather the historical narrative. Individuals, and even groups of individuals, are composed of many different identities. However, one of the guiding principles of present-day ultra-liberal democracies is the breaking down and eliminating of all kinds of identity, for it is by relying on these identities that people gain self-identity. This is why there are almost daily attacks upon the Christian faith as one of the strongest factors in identity formation. This is why they attack the nation, and the localities within it, as so many forms of attachment, and also why they launch assaults upon the ultimate element of all human existence – the family.
The smashing of historical identity likewise fits in as the ultimate element of this process, for the latter not only tells us who we are, but also how we have become who we are. Attacks committed against the statues of noted historical figures are an attempt to carry out this very process, whether the statue abusers are aware of this or not. The ultimate goal is to cultivate a structureless human mass without any identity, a spreadable Nutella-man, who can be manipulated at will by the ‘Lords of the Earth’ with the powerful participation of global media.
During the Great French Revolution, some tried to free themselves from the rule of the Christian era – and of the historical past in general – by shooting church towers into bits; now they would slay historical time encapsulated in space in the form of statues. But they will not succeed; for what has happened in the past can not be undone, whether they realise this or not.
Our brief discussion concerned statues, and we shall end it with statues. A few years ago, the renowned British sculptor, Antony Gormley, erected hundreds of cast-iron human figures at Crosby Beach near Liverpool under the name Another Place. The figures, standing in the sand and water of the beach, staring stiffly towards the west into the light of the setting sun, make a startling impression; they gaze westward in the same manner as their distant ancestors, the creators of the culture Oswald termed Faustian – the Vikings. And their expressionless faces seem lost in thought, pondering what is happening with their counterparts over there, across the ocean, in the final stage of the twilight of the West.