Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Taliban and the Statues

John Bedell

I have been wondering why I am so depressed by the Taliban's destruction of Buddhas and other religious statues.  Compared to some of their other crimes, firing a few tank rounds at stone idols cannot weigh very heavily in the scales of justice.  Or can it?  As I ponder this, I think may be is a sense in which the destruction of historical monuments is a grave crime, as grave in its way as murder and oppression.

Why do we preserve old things?  Why does almost every nation of the world have historical museums, beloved historical monuments, and famous antiquities?  Why is Stonehenge more important, more meaningful, than any circle of concrete posts you and I might set up in a field?  These are hard questions to answer, but they are impossible to shrug off.  Every tribe has a history, and while there are and probably always have been some people for whom history is bunk, there are also people in every society who care deeply about its past and its traditions.  We all know the names of our ancestors, the deeds of our people's heroes, the places where those deeds were done.  I believe this search for continuity in time is central to the way people understand themselves, and to the way they find meaning in their brief, troubled lives.

Human life is a struggle against time and death.  As individuals we all lose this struggle in the end.  But as a species we are still in the game, and there is no sign now that our end is coming soon.  More important, for most of us, our civilizations are also ancient.  Most traditional peoples have rather brief narratives of history, and they connect themselves to the gods through a few generations or humankind.  They pattern themselves after their divine great-grandparents, imitating their actions in rituals, singing their songs, and they imagine that not much has changed in the course of human existence.

Our great invention of writing has radically changed the time span of our histories, preserving memories long beyond the span of lives, beyond even the span of the lives of nations.  We know the names and the deeds of kings who ruled 5000 years ago, and we ponder the words of prophets who spoke to our ancestors of a hundred generations back.  Through archaeology we extend our reach even further through time, contemplating our ancestors across two million years.

For many of us, these long historical narratives provide the framework within which we understand ourselves and our place in time.  In America we have hundreds of thousands who identify themselves in terms of a Civil War that ended a century before they were born.  In Ireland they annually celebrate, or mourn, a battle fought 310 years ago.  Every Muslim is enjoined to repeat a journey made by Muhammad 1300 years ago.  I have a habit of reaching even further back, and defining myself in terms of the rational tradition begun by the Greeks in the time of Socrates and Thucydides; this, not my ethnicity or my place of birth, is to me my true identity.

To connect ourselves to these ancient traditions is to reach beyond the small span of years allotted to us, and to imagine those traditions continuing into the future is to cheat death in a small way.  The more I am part of things that began before I was born and will continue after I die, the less of me disappears when my heart ceases to beat.  For those of us who do not believe in a spiritual afterlife, this cultural immortality is the closest we can come to salvation.

Whenever an ancient monument is destroyed, the continuity of civilization is broken.  This is the significance of those statues, and of every historic house or battlefield as well:  they allow us to reach beyond ourselves and identify ourselves with things that stretch far longer through time than a single human life.  An assault on statues is not just a bit of rock breaking:  it is an attempt to confine our dreams to the narrow prison of the present.  When those tank shells explode against the standing Buddha, they will not just smash a work of art:  the will negate part of humanity's struggle to reach beyond ourselves and touch eternity. 

From the 
Commonplace Book

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

--Milan Kundera


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