David Bouchier: Monument

Sep 11, 2017

We have so many anniversaries, big and small, happy and sad, that it’s hard to keep up with them all. Every day is the anniversary of something or someone, and most of them, we are willing to forget. But not this one, not yet.

The weight of the past is so great, and the mass of facts to be remembered is so immense, that we can only hold on to random fragments: a phrase here, a carefully selected image there, a few names and dates, floating in a great void of forgetfulness. Of course we don’t remember the siege of Vilnius in the Lithuanian Civil War which began on September 11 in 1390, or the Battle of Brandywine during the War of Independence on this date in 1777, which the British won. I had to look them up, just to remind you.

Events within our own lifetimes, or even the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, have a special vividness. We experienced those things, or had been told about them personally by someone who was there. I have memories of being a child during the bombing of London during the Second World War. But, for the present generation, it’s just an old man’s unreliable story. In another generation or two that conflict will be as remote as the Battle of Brandywine or the Lithuanian Civil War. When a generation passes, a lot of history goes with it.

Since the invention of photography our collective memories have been reinforced, and perhaps even taken over, by the undeniable evidence of pictures. Every day we see real images of starving children, burning buildings, or terrifying floods. The worst moments in recent history haunt us because of the pictures: look how the Vietnam War keeps coming back, as it did after the recent anniversary of the Tet Offensive. The pictures are memorable because they are terrible. Hurricane Harvey is in our minds now, and will stay in our minds until the helicopter shots of the  flooding vanish from our screens, or are replaced pictures of Hurricane Irma or some other disaster.

But we can’t re-live all our important moments at the same intensity forever. Each war, each big storm produces a huge archive or more or less identical heartrending pictures. They come and they go. Attention spans get shorter as news cycles move faster and faster. The past vanishes almost as soon as it happens, amd only the most visually dramatic moments stay with us.

The television images always fade or become stale eventually. That’s why permanent, tangible memorials are important, and why wealthy and powerful people throughout history have built vast palaces, museums, and monuments, so that later generations would remember them, and what they stood for. They knew that if you wanted a memorial to last, you had to make it a big one: the pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, The Acropolis, the Statue of Liberty. In those terms, One World Trade Center may be just about the most impressive memorial ever. As a visible, monumental response to barbarism, it gives us an unforgettable image and a permanent reminder, not just of what happened on that day, but of everything that has happened since.

Copyright: David Bouchier