• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Let These Statues Stand: Part II

July 2020

And so, I repeat, “Let these statues stand”.

These were the four words of the great political idealist, the intrepid Italian nationalist, and the staunch democratic crusader, Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini, like his contemporary Giuseppe Garibaldi—himself a dauntless international hero with whom, for many years, Mazzini so valiantly worked—is a person unbound by history, a towering figure who stands above the pages of time. He, perhaps more than any other statesman, king, or pope (three titles between which, for a long stretch of time in that region of the world, no thanks to the spurious Donation of Constantine, little differentiation existed) set in motion the process of the unification of Italy, the binding of that fragmented state for which, to this day, a proud, happy, and cohesive people remain sincerely grateful.

Yet for all his commitment to progress and his liberal pursuit, for all his revolutionary democratic zeal, he was, like Edmund Burke, an aesthetic conservative at his core. He knew that which was beautiful, and stood in awe before the sublime, without losing sight of his hope for the future, and his reverence for the past. Throughout his delightful essay, “Byron and Goethe”, to which I urge you to devote a well-spent hour of your time, this much is made clear. In it, toward its grand peroration and memorable end, Mazzini mounts a defense for the preservation of old statues, an apology of whose relevance—at once prescient and gripping—I hardly need make mention.

He assumes, as his position, the anti-iconoclastic stance. This is a posture at which, automatically and reflexively, every spray-paint-wielding, rope-slinging, statue-defacing, history-hating Millennial might cringe. In our own day, so less empirically troubled than was his (he lived, one might note, through that famous “Springtime of the Peoples”, a truly continental age of tumult from which no corner of monarchical Europe was successful in hiding. It was the vernal, though lamentably unfertile, revolution of 1848, an event out of which the fame of Marx arose and the remnants of Italy hobbled), such a position has come to be seen as a contrarian one. All the more reason I’m attracted to it, and all the more reason I’m attracted to him.

“Let these statues stand”, says Mazzini, with the moral immediacy and unconcealed grace for which he and his published works are so justly renowned, “The noble monuments of feudal times create no desire to return to the days of serfdom”. We might say the same of our own society. We might refer to the institutions of racial bias, of the bondmen’s trade, of the rank servility out of which, with no shortage of bloodshed and strenuous effort, we were finally raised. In the opinion of Mazzini, and in that of my own, there is, in one’s sober observation of a statue, no risk of backsliding into the benighted follies of our past. This is not a descent about which the visitor of said statue, one curious of its lengthening shadow and the discomforts of its meaning, ought to be concerned, so long as he’s properly enlightened and free. So long as he’s apprised of the context out of which it was hewn, so long as he’s aware of the repercussions of its continued pose, he ought to be left in his solitude to study it, to know it.

By looking back upon one’s history, by examining and appreciating that which is old because it is old, one does not, by necessity, renounce his aspirations to present progress. One doesn’t retreat beneath his covers as the age of reform dawns, doesn’t shirk the distant calls of a future beckoning for his work. Far from it; he retains them still, and with ardor does he hasten himself from his bed to the bedewed blades of the field, a landscape in which he’ll see to their tending and their growth. Indeed, reflection on the past is a precondition to that lofty title of progress, for which so many of our young strivers so vociferously yearn. In fact, as Mazzini points out, “Those only should dare to utter the sacred name of progress, whose souls possess intelligence enough to comprehend the past, and whose hearts possess sufficient poetic religion to reverence its greatness”.

Mind you, it’s not Mazzini’s enjoinder that we must reverence the “all” of the past; not all of it was great, of course, but that which was, must be recognized as such. It must be exalted, and we mustn’t hesitate in our distinction of the great from the good, and the good from the bad. These are traits, marmoreal and cold, by which every statue, like every person, is by the time of his death encumbered. We must read in their lineaments both their contributions and their blames, both their glories and their faults, by which the accuracy of our measurements and the commitment to our aims might be better informed. We must do so with the acuity of our reason and the penetration of our gaze, but we must never erase them merely for being harmful to the eye. That is not reason enough to wipe clean the world of its images, to dispossess a nation of its stories. Even in their ugliness, even in our reproach, they ought to be studied and read—if they’re never again to be celebrated. They demand not censorship, but scrutiny, not extirpation, but context.

I fear, however, that in this moment of civil frustration and urban unrest, the nuance of this discernment is being left unexercised by the mind of the crowd. I’m not so sure, based on the radicals’ defacement and toppling of such luminary men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Christopher Columbus (with whom, one might add, Mazzini shared a Genoan place of birth), that they have “intelligence enough to comprehend the past”. Rather, in dispiriting fashion, I think they have just the opposite: ideology enough to blind them to the subtlety of its truth. As for the possession of hearts with “sufficient poetic religion”, I very greatly doubt that those throwing incendiary bombs while chanting, “No Justice, No peace” are endowed with that kind of delicate aestheticism, divine thoughtfulness, and artful spirit.

These naughty and aimless radicals, these sons and daughters of Marx, lack the ability to revere the true and nourishing soil out of which they’ve grown. Gazing down and back upon it, that earth upon which, with dismissive foot, they stomp and tread, they seek its deracination only. They come into possession of the “destructive instinct”, an impulse quite less than human, and one rather nearer to the brute. In the words of Mazzini, if he were to assess this troglodyte class, if he were to examine this group upon which the refining influences of culture and history have left no impression, he would observe that there is something “hard, repulsive, and ungrateful in their destructive instinct which so often forgets what has been done by the great men who preceded them, to demand of them merely an account of what more might have been done”.

Sure, Jefferson might’ve been the great author of liberty, the divinely-inspired democrat from whose conflicted soul in 1776 that most eloquent of political documents leapt; sure, he might’ve been that most brilliant of promulgators of early American thought, a philosophy in whose likeness the rest of the “Old” world—now startled by the New—endeavored to re-fashion itself; sure, he might’ve been the epitome of a president, tactful and sharp, broad and lean, to whose lofty stature and mental reach all his countrymen had aspired; sure, he might’ve been the paragon of patriotism, the champion of cultivation, and the recipient of both domestic and foreign renown, but—led by the wisdom of the mob and the destructive instinct by which it’s propelled—more might have been done by him. He might have, with greater alacrity and seriousness, confronted the hypocrisy with which he lived. It was the same hypocrisy for which his slaves, as slaves and not freedmen and women, died. He might’ve addressed the fact that he was a liberty-loving owner of slaves, two notes in a life’s chorus beneath which a glaring discord buzzed. He might have silenced this unmusical, strident aspect of his life, but he failed to do so in a meaningful way. Not even the euphony of the Declaration of Independence can deafen us to this fact. In it, he spoke of truths that were “self-evident”, gifts bestowed to all by nature, but he appeared himself to be completely self-unaware.

Because “more might have been done” by him, he’s diminished in the estimation of our thought. He’s no longer a Founding Father, but a rebarbative master of slaves. The former is a title of which, with the assurance of our modern scruples, he’s been incontrovertibly stripped. It won’t soon be re-applied, and there’s nothing from his grave he can do. The latter is the designation by which, henceforth, he’ll forever be known. The moral superiority on which we pride ourselves has no trouble looking back and reducing him in our retrospective view. We are immaculate and progressive; he is incorrigible, sullied, and old. We demand only “what more might’ve been done” by him, while neglecting those accomplishments of which we are the joyous inheritors, for which he’s considered to be great.

The same might be said of Washington, of Madison, of Sherman, of Grant, of Roosevelt, of Churchill, of Columbus, of Vespucci, and of all those once-cherished icons upon whom, with iconoclastic zeal, our collective odium has since been poured. Yet are we, like them, not also susceptible to the pock-marks of life and its faults? Are we not also the products of our age, a time upon which, years from now, a future generation will look back in disgust? Are we, in the words of Mazzini, “so free from the evil reflected in them as to have a right to condemn their memory?” After all, “that evil was not introduced into the world by them. They saw it, felt it, respired it; it was around, about, on every side of them, and they were its greatest victims”. Knowingly or not, victims they were.

These men, despite their perceived shortcomings, were figures of genius. This is beyond dispute, and geniuses they remain. They do so despite their lack of inclusivity, their narrow chauvinism, and the moral blindness by which their age was defined. Yet, again quoting from Mazzini, genius has, from the earliest times, “been made the scapegoat of the generations”. There’s no easier move than to condemn the clever. Intent upon avoiding our own responsibilities and the present troubles to which we still lack answers, these scapegoats of genius appear to us a most welcoming flock. We thrust upon it our guilt and our ire, and pour out its blood on the altar of the hour.

To conclude this two-part submission, I’ll allow Mazzini once again to talk; his eloquence far outweighs and overwhelms my own. It is not, he said, by deposing Washington or Jefferson, or any of the heroes aforementioned, that “we shall destroy either skeptical or anarchical indifference among us”. It is, rather, “by becoming believers and organizers ourselves” that this task will be achieved. Let us believe in the truth, contend with our history, and preserve and organize the waning brilliance of our mind. In so doing, anarchy will be dismayed and noble liberty will rise again. But, it will only do so if we “revere enthusiasm, the fatherland, and humanity; if our hearts are pure, and our souls steadfast and patient, the genius inspired to interpret our aspirations, and bear to heaven our ideas and our sufferings, will not be wanting”.

Let our genius not be wanting. Let our hearts be pure, and our souls forever patient. Let us have intelligence enough to comprehend the past, and sympathy enough to forgive the faults of which it’s guilty. Above all, though, let these statues stand. Let them stand, and we might not fall.

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