Literature has always had a profound influence on my political thought. Some of the most profound and lasting political ideas were expressed through the literary medium. Whether it’s Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, literary works have undeniably been so influential to political society that they continue to be debated today.
But what is it about a work of literature that strikes us as so integral to our understanding of ourselves as political animals, as Aristotle once succinctly put it? Is it because they put greater social realities into perspective for us as individual thinking, feeling, and dreaming beings, who otherwise feel insignificant to the course and development of history?
I mean, the entire project of the humanities is to evaluate the human enterprise and study what it is that makes us special. A project which, without a doubt, is impossible without a coherent historical awareness.
While literature, might in many ways remove us from our tangible realities, or the overbearing presence of the “right now”, it creates an opportunity of clarity, to see in the space of a few hours things a little more clearly, and a little more humanely. After all, when confronted with expert opinions, political theories, the left and the right, things appear as if looking through a glass darkly.
The debate around the removal of the Sir John A. Macdonald statue from the front of Victoria’s city hall is equally muddled by political obfuscation. Both sides have their facts and reasoning but neither have their literature.
Two poems distinctly strike me as pertinent to the issue at hand and to the greater history of statue removal: “Ozymandias” by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, and “The Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden. Both of these poets are English, so make of that what you will, but please bear with me because each poem deals in its own respective and often conflicting way with the very character of monumental statues and their political natures.
Before delving into literary details, we should take some time to define what exactly is the nature of a statue? And with this question, I do not wish to delve into the art or material realities of sculpture-making, but rather to offer a few words on their essence.
In essence, the statue has the ontological character of permanence. And what is the greatest enemy to a material attempt at permanence: change, more specifically change in time and political opinion. Much of what we know today about the past comes from monumental architecture and art.
They are the mantle pieces of individual achievement and patronage exuding power and notoriety into the distant epochs from the time of their creation. So when statues are removed, and monuments are destroyed, they are explicitly anti-historical actions directed at the influence of individuals on history’s progress.
The character of the statue is also essentially alchemical. It is the embodiment of the maxim “brain over brawn”. The ability to forge the metallic elements into one’s own likeness is an overpowering testament to the influence of the individual person on the course and development of history.
Public monuments, like the one of Canada’s first prime minister, are reserved for individuals society has deemed as irreplaceable to how a people define themselves, and who they point to as representative of their cause.
In April, while celebrating my 23rd birthday in Old Quebec City, my girlfriend and I visited the “Musée de la civilisation”. There, in the museum, sequestered off behind reinforced glass, the disembodied bronze head of a young Queen Victoria stood looking blankly out at me.
The statue, which had once overlooked Parc Victoria in Lower Town, Quebec was decapitated with dynamite in the early hours of July 12th 1963, by FLQ separatists .
While statue razing had once been the favoured tactic of revolutionaries, radicals and political purges, the torch seems to have now passed onto elected municipal officials.
Shelly’s sonnet “Ozymandias” reads like the exotic account of a travelers encounter with a monumental statue crumbling into ruin. It is foremost a warning against the hubris of overreaching leadership. The “vast trunkless legs” of “Ozymandias, King of Kings” stand, surrounded by arid desert, a testament to a forgotten ruler whose visage, much like Victoria’s lays toppled nearby.
I imagine that for many, who take issue with monuments of remarkable historical figures, Shelly’s poem captures their sentiment very accurately.
There is a certain disdain in liberal society for the grandiosity of statues representing individuals, especially political leaders. Most Western politicians today, no matter how popular, would quickly stamp out any suggestion that a statue would be raised in their honour, for fear of seeking too much glory, appearing too much the tyrant. Yet paintings and portraits, they are fair game.
One can find many similarities between today’s sentiments towards statues of historical figures and the protestant mentality towards what it saw as idolatry. Today’s monument warriors were the iconoclasts of the 16th century, who sought to destroy all types of religious imagery and decadence seeking to express what they saw as the inexpressible.
The iconoclasts too saw their work as a crusade against an imperial power, which they identified with the papist Roman Catholic Church.
It is in the identifiable power of the individual on history which is the main target of the monument warriors. Even they wouldn’t dare to call for the removal of World War II monuments. That is because there are two forms of historical monuments under debate here. Of the one kind, historical and individual, we have already touched upon, while the other is historical and abstract.
Monuments dedicated to the servicemen of the two world wars, are not treated with the same enmity as those of identifiable historical individuals simply because they often represent a collective.
Forget the fact that for the left, Canada’s participation in the first world war was an extension of British Imperial dominance and that WWII is riddled with marks upon Canada’s moral character like the internment of the Japanese. Yet the collective identity of these monuments actually bolster the leftist notion of class conflict and historical materialism.
The poem par excellence for this kind of statue is W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”. The poem begins with the inscription:
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
The marble monument dedicated to the unknown citizen, like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, robs individuality from the citizen by framing him as entirely a product of social and material factors. The most damning and relevant lines of the piece read:
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
While it is the proper opinion of the time to deride anything and everything that has the slightest intonation of a colonial past, individual and historical agency is the price that’s paid.
It’s ironic that the mayor of Victoria, chose the statue of John A. Macdonald as the target of her recent progressive ambitions and didn’t pick a fight with the namesake of her city, who saw the largest expansion of the British Empire during her reign.
Whether we like it or not, individuals are complex beings, who while being a product of their times also are drivers of unprecedented social change. The removal of statues is as effective as it is damning to those doing the removing. The iconoclasts failed their mission, Queen Victoria sits safe behind glass, and history still declares John. A. Macdonald as the father of the nation.