Friday, November 21, 2014

A Colossal Mistake: Trivializing the Past

Yesterday, Acculturated’s own Abby W. Schachter reported on the dismantling of the “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” art installation in London, a flood of red ceramic poppies serving as a poignant memorial to the nearly 900,000 British lives lost in World War I. As it happens, I had just read about a sort of modern upgrading of the Colosseum in Rome. In their different ways, the two monuments reflect a vital connection between memory and history.

Even though the United States participated in the nightmarish conflict that Henry James called “this abyss of blood and darkness,” it’s very difficult for Americans today to grasp the impact that the Great War had on Europe. It marked, in an unprecedented way, a traumatic break with the world of the past and the beginning of our modern era. Artist Paul Cummins’ installation, a temporary sea of individually hand-crafted and -planted poppies filling the moat surrounding the Tower of London, conveys that bloody chasm probably more effectively than any fixed monument ever could.

Now it’s being taken down despite calls and petitions to extend, or even make permanent, the display. Cummins insists that the installation should be transient, like life itself and the lives of the War’s victims. Abby Schachter believes that this is an appropriate gesture, and I agree – with reservations.

Memory tends to be transient too. We are constantly rewriting the past, literally in our history books and mythically in our minds; it is human nature to be unreliable and self-serving narrators of our own stories. So we are constantly in danger of losing not only the past, but the meaning of the past in the fog of time. Monuments are sometimes all that keep our link to that meaning alive. By their permanent presence, they serve as powerfully impacting echoes of the past for forgetful future generations. The “Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation has had such an effect on literally millions of visitors. Its impermanence has been part of its draw, but I would hate to see it gone forever. Perhaps it should be recreated – reincarnated, if you will – every decade.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Italian culture minister is backing a proposal to restore the floor of another testament to blood and darkness: the extraordinary, nearly 2,000-year-old partial ruins of the Colosseum where gladiators and animals once stalked each other to the death. This could lead to the building being used again as an arena – not for blood matches, of course, but for pop concerts.

An archaeologist suggested building a new stage to cover the ampitheater’s central section, which currently exposes the haunting subterranean tunnels and chambers where the gladiatorial participants waited. The point of the proposal is to encourage the public to help fund the ancient building’s substantial preservation costs with concerts and other performances. But as Daisy Dunn remarks in The Spectator, reviving it as a concert venue would be less like a restoration and “more like the beginning of the end.”

“To experience the contrast between the expectant [ancient Roman] spectators and the slaves summoned to ‘perform’,” she writes, “you need only cast your eye between the sun-bleached seats stretching into the sky, and the dark shadows in the arena’s bowels below.” Once a stage is constructed over it and you lose that view, warns Dunn, “you lose the view of the cross-sections which divided Roman society,” and our connection to the meaning of the Colosseum itself is broken. 
Attending a performance there by, say, Sting or Andrea Bocelli, would transform our experience of the building and with history itself. As respectable and sensitive as those performers might be to the venue, the ultimate effect would be no longer to memorialize the past but to trivialize it.

A new Colosseum stage should not be built, Dunn correctly urged, “at the expense of its spirit.” That spirit lives on in the echoes of cheers and screams from the arena, just as the horrors of war come alive again in a sea of red poppies in London. The former is an ancient edifice in the heart of the Eternal City, and the latter is a temporary, modern expression, but both are true to the spirit of the past that they honor.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/19/14)