Monumental

Historical record is a palimpsest, erased in whole or in parts and reinterpreted, rewritten, revised, rebuilt, restructured, reconsidered, and–often–reviled. In the USA, we are once again evaluating our statuary monuments. Columbus. Juan de Oñate. Mayor Frank Rizzo. General Robert E. Lee. 

What a society considers beautiful, or of aesthetic value, usually differs little from what it considers to be of cultural value. Such judgment seems natural; but it frequently provides societal blinders because citizens want to avoid what’s ugly, brutal, and complicated. If it’s good, it must be beautiful; if it is beautiful, and has been around a long time, it must be a good symbol for our society.

One thing about a symbol is its simplicity–we think we know exactly what it stands for, and we can admire our own reflections about that shared idea. Except that human perspectives are annoyingly unique, and it turns out we cannot even agree about what a symbol represents, let alone what it means, and whether or not it should be interpreted in the context of the society that created the symbol or in light of the point of view of the person who now perceives it.

Monuments, though we think of them as commemorations or reminders, are intentionally raised up to become symbols or icons in a way at variance with the more common, individual headstones or grave markers. They are not art but society’s major markers. I learned about the difference a decade or so ago on a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). A tour group was walking through the Ancient Egyptian galleries, and one of the visitors asked the docent about how and when the artistic styles of the large sculptures changed.

“Anthropologists seldom refer to these objects as art, actually,” replied the docent. She went on to add that while they are beautiful and most people think of them as art, the monuments really were indicators of society–status, leadership, importance in the world of the time. While they seem lasting to us, because they’re large or carved of stone, they were created by craftsmen, not artists. No one cared who made them; they were there to tell the people living in the cities, towns, and countryside who was in power, whom to worship, and what the governing powers valued. Many statues were destroyed or vandalized once a nobleman was out of power. It didn’t matter that they were made of stone, or whether they were aesthetically beautiful or made by a renowned craftsman–the figurehead kings or gods were no longer important. They could safely be demolished.

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Granite sphinx of Ramses II, Penn Museum

Or re-used. Speaking of palimpsests, read about this sphinx at the Penn Museum’s gallery. The cartouches show definite signs of having been repurposed from a previous pharaoh. “The previous king’s name is entirely eradicated.”

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If you suspect I am making an analogy to current events, you suspect correctly. It is human nature to want things to stay as one remembers them, and we tend to feel confused when change occurs rapidly. But renaming, erasure, and destruction of socially-sanctioned monuments has been going on for a long, long time. We should not be as surprised as news media seems to want us to be when monuments become controversial.

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The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word monument:

late 13c., “a sepulchre,” from Old French monument “grave, tomb, monument,” and directly from Latin monumentum “a monument, memorial structure, statue; votive offering; tomb; memorial record,” literally “something that reminds,” a derivative of monere “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of),” from PIE *moneie- “to make think of, remind,” suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.” Meaning “any enduring evidence or example” is from 1520s; sense of “structure or edifice to commemorate a notable person, action, period, or event” is attested from c. 1600.

Monuments relate to thinking, to memory. We want our thoughts to endure–our society, our “own way of life”–to last forever, because we know we will not last forever.

Monuments have the disturbing quality of often belonging to only one group in a culture, however. The victors, or those who wish they had been victors. The victims, mourned. The powerful, because they have the means to build monuments. Monuments can fade from significance; the culture can change its point of view, making the old statues controversial or useless; new leaders can appear.

I am rethinking what I consider to be cultural and social monuments.

Here’s something I love to hear when my head and heart get too full of complicated histories and emotions: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” sung by Otis Redding. *

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* [FYI from Wikipedia: “In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”[2]]

Mimesis

Mimesis: “Imitation, in particular. 1.1 Representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature”… “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” … “the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change” (OED).

“Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.” —Walter Benjamin (“On the Mimetic Faculty,” 1933)

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From time to time, I mull over mimesis and its role in human learning. Research on animal behavior since Benjamin was writing has somewhat undermined his assertion that the “highest capacity for producing similarities” belongs to human beings, but the concept remains generally accurate. What I notice among my students, however, is the human ability to perceive differences. My students much prefer to focus on what makes things different than on what makes them similar, but perhaps the reason is that similarities seem so obvious (due to our capacity for “producing similarities”) that we take them for granted. I introduce poetry to my students as an ancient art derived from exactly what, no one is certain, but likely from invocation or ritual or song or the human desire for narrative–and I tell them that it has been carried along through history by, among other compelling things, mimesis–that mimetic faculty we possess that makes us want to repeat or copy, in order to learn, to love, to pass along, to entertain, to communicate, to enjoy. We can look in the mirror and see another human’s face, or our own faces slightly changed through the process of copying another.

The mimetic urge has a long history among those people who intellectualize. Theories of Media (Univ. of Chicago: W. J. T. Mitchell) glossary offers a concise but comprehensive “mimesis” entry authored by Michele Puetz–the article in which I found the Benjamin quote above. (By the way, the Theories of Media glossary project is a great resource!) As I looked through my go-to philosophy resources, though, I was left with the distinct impression that the concept of mimesis has moved from the realm of the philosophical–Plato and Aristotle are our main thinkers on mimesis in the philosophical arena, so that’s pretty far back–and into the realms of sciences, both social and biological. Mimetic response has been researched, and speculated upon, by psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and neurologists (see the initial excitement about “mirror neurons” in this 2006 New York Times article). The term has found considerable employment in the writings of Rene Girard, whose writings span cultural anthropology, literary criticism, psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Writes Gabriel Andrade, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Girard believes that the great modern novelists (such as Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Dostoevsky) have understood human psychology better than the modern field of Psychology does. And, as a complement of his literary criticism, he has developed a psychology in which the concept of ‘mimetic desire’ is central. Inasmuch as human beings constantly seek to imitate others, and most desires are in fact borrowed from other people, Girard believes that it is crucial to study how personality relates to others.”

Clearly, human psychology and biology cannot be simplified to mere reflection and copying, but it is equally clear that the metaphor of mirroring can be fruitful as we explore the complexities of mind and consciousness, culture and art. Sometimes I take on the role of educator; and when I do so, I recognize the need for student learners to imitate, to hear information repeated, and to attempt to create their own “similarities.” Sometimes I take on the role of poet; and when I do that, I am clothed in centuries of form, rhythms, sounds, similes, stylings and borrowings and references: copies and reflections, altered through time.

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras

Mirrored Room by Lucas Samaras Photo: © Albright-Knox Art Gallery/CORBIS

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A brief aside: When I was eight or nine years old, I went with my parents to an art museum–it may have been the Chicago Art Institute–and there was an installation of Lucas Samaras’ piece “Mirrored Room.” [See the photo at left.] I was deeply impressed by the mirrored room, partly because it was inside this artwork that I finally understood, metaphorically, the concept of infinity. I was awed by the many diminishing selves I could see, the way a single “I” could change (in size), and by the tricks of light and how easily one could get lost in such a small space.

The mirrors copied me.

Mimesis implies something active, a borrowing, a taking–a kind of theft, on the one hand, and a kind of tribute or ritual motion on the other. It is also inherently continuous. The behavior does not stop at the first copy; it is carried on, perhaps through generations, like DNA.

Here is the brilliant Anne Carson:

“[It’s] what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

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Carson describes how I feel when I’ve read a poem or novel that moves me deeply. For that matter, it is how I feel when I find a work of visual art, or a play or dance, that seems to speak with immediacy to my own sense of experience, which arouses my passion, compassion, or emotion and alters my entire psyche for awhile– “by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”

Sometimes I even manage to compose a poem that gives me that sense of feeling different than I was at the beginning. On those rare times, I may look at myself in the mirror and see a changed face.