SYRIA - 2001/01/01: Syria, Palmyra, Ancient Roman City, Triumphal Arch And Colonnaded Street. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Monuments to the Mind

Making monuments is as much a mental act as it is a physical one. The bulk of monumentalising occurs in the mind, even if it is physical and calculable magnitude that is usually associated with monuments and their making. There are sites on this earth that were never meant to be monuments but have been looked upon and treasured as monuments by many. At the same time, there are edifices that were planned and created as monuments but failed at becoming symbols simply because very few were willing to accept them as such. On my first trip to Rome, I sought out and walked to the Protestant Cemetery because it contains two gravestones that monumentalise, for me, the entire Romantic ethos and a way of life. Incidentally, the Protestant Cemetery skirts a structure that is ancient and literally monumental – a 120 feet tall pyramid containing the tomb of a Roman magistrate who died around 12 BC. The Pyramid of Cestius, surreally rising above the neat and sunlit rows of graves in the cemetery, demanded attention but it was a stone slab demarcating the final resting place of an English poet that had all the roses.

 

Both the pyramid and the tombstone are funerary structures but while one was designed to impress, the other was not (there are a number of tombstones in the vicinity of John Keats’ grave that bear far more elaborate adornments than the simple relief of a lyre adorning his). Yet both receive visitors, both add to the inexhaustible appeal of The Eternal City. The urge to make monuments, to mark a place as sacred, to bestow permanence to memory, is an intrinsically human one. The Jungian school locates in man’s primordial reverence for stone this shared and almost reflexive desire to immortalise. M.-L. Von Franz, a long-time collaborator of Jung’s and a gifted psychologist herself, writes in Man And His Symbols, under The Process of Individuation:

 

The custom of placing stones on graves may spring partly from the symbolic idea that something eternal of the dead person remains, which can be most fittingly represented by a stone. For while the human being is as different as possible from a stone, yet man’s innermost centre is in a strange and special way akin to it (perhaps because the stone symbolises mere existence at the farthest remove from the emotions, feelings, fantasies, and discursive thinking of ego-consciousness). In this sense the stone symbolises what is perhaps the simplest and deepest experience – the experience of something eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable.

 

Stone, because it is tough and unmoving in contrast to man’s own soft and organic vulnerability, remains closely linked to the word ‘monument’ (which, in turn, is tied up with a sense of achievement) in our psyches. Perhaps this is largely because most of ancient man’s triumphs and failures, when presented to us as mythic and religious chronicles, or archaeological data, involve the proud creation of stone monuments and their eventual, equally awe-inspiring destruction. These are tales of hubris and divine punishment, excessive power and unlikely rebellion, architectural advancement and violent envy, all told through the unwavering medium of stone. From Samson bringing the temple down on the Philistines to Herostratus setting the colossal Temple of Artemis on fire, the examples are numerous, and memorable because something grand and indestructible came tumbling down; they serve to show how we invest stone with ideas of enduring strength and how it is might and longevity that we expect of a monument, whether it is a commemorative, political, or simply historic structure.

 

A monument, because it has mutable value and meaning, can be one, all, or none of the above. It is a building, sculpture, or appendage to a landscape that is made to last and outlive men and their ideologies, their wars and hegemonies, hence the fluidity of its significance over time. Its meaning springs in part from our perception of it. To illustrate this observation, I would like to look at monuments three different ways:

 

Monuments as passages:

Growing up in a Shiite household, I would often hear my elders exchange stories of trips to Karbala, Iraq, one of the most consecrated cities for Shiite Muslims, and remark with wonder on the apparent nonchalance with which the locals would go about their lives there. ‘How can they walk so casually past the site where Abbas ibn Ali lost his arms during the battle?’, they would exclaim, avowing that given the chance to live close to such monuments, they would never be anything but full of veneration for them at all times. The sentiment, though noble, would have changed, of course, with proximity to the site of devotion – not because of the disillusionment that sometimes follows passion but because commemorative monuments like mausoleums allow a cathartic passage from the pain of loss to the mitigation of distance. In other words, the irony is this – physical nearness to a memorial allows psychological distancing from the suffering it represents.

 

Margaret Inversen, in her book Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes, suggests that monuments and memorials act as buffers; they provide a cushioning to those who cling emotionally to whatever grief or trauma that they, the memorials, symbolise. They allow ritualistic expressions of mourning or remembrance to develop around them and so absorb, in a manner, the grief or nostalgia of the commemorators, letting them carry on with their lives. They are essentially ‘bulwarks against oblivion that eventually become, for the most part, invisible’, writes Inversen. ‘Ritual, like psychoanalysis,’ she explains, ‘offers some mediation. That is, it allows one to frame the lack within a symbolic structure that reconciles one to the inevitability of loss.’ And although Inversen uses, as examples, war memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, her argument is applicable to most monuments of a commemorative nature.

 

This figurative gravitational pull of certain monuments is also what makes them susceptible to the machinations of regional or global politics. Monuments like the mausoleums of Shiite Imams in Iraq or the Al-Baqi cemetery in Medina (of particular religious importance to Shiite Muslims) have not only represented a spiritual rite of passage for visitors through the ages but have themselves transitioned from commemorative monuments to symbols of a group or sect’s resistance to oppression. In these situations, a monument also becomes a means to write, erase, or rewrite history; it becomes contested land, a political arena; its original meaning becomes conflated with political meaning and the decision of its fate becomes an assertion of power. The shrine of Husayn ibn Ali was destroyed repeatedly during the Abbasid rule, and remade as many times by a dynastic dissenter or a sympathiser to the Shiite cause. In 1926, Ibn Saud – in a bid to wipe out what he considered a heretic tradition of mourning at monuments – had tombs in the Baqi cemetery demolished, obliterating centuries of Islamic history in the process. These monuments, therefore, also became seismographs of turbulence, unbiased records of gross bias, which brings us to a second way of assessing monuments.

 

Monuments as palimpsests:

What does the defacement or destruction of a site tell us? Why are some statues hauled to the ground and some buildings ravaged while others remain unscathed? Every attack on a monument is an unwitting admission of its uniqueness and significance, and every change made to it – be it an addition, subtraction, or alteration – adds a new layer to its history. Sylvia Plath’s gravestone has been exposed on numerous occasions to the fury of her maenad-fans, who have attempted to scratch away Hughes’ name from the inscription. The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria have unfortunately been exposed to the far more damaging rile of ISIL in the past year, leading to a wholly unpleasant retelling of their history in subsequent days. Nonetheless, the desecration has become a part of Palmyra now. Now, Palmyra is not just a delicate, sand-coloured composition of columns and blocks against the blue desert sky, it is a documentation of iconoclastic rage and unchecked extremist ideology. A mention of Palmyra, in 2016, will conjure a very different set of images than a reference to Palmyra would have in 2010.

 

An example, closer to home, of a monument being used as a means to narrate, or re-narrate, would be the Ziarat Residency in Quetta, which was burned down in 2013 – the Balochistan Liberation Army claiming responsibility for the attack. The attack on a ‘national’ monument in a troubled province was poignantly telling and  was followed by a fervent restoration project, swathed in assurances by the authorities that the building would be returned to its ‘original’ state. How can a monument once destroyed revert to its original state? In undergoing damage, it also undergoes a change in what it henceforth symbolises. The original Ziarat Residency is lost, but in order for the restored Ziarat Residency to be an authentic monument, the violation it has suffered must be allowed to become a part of it (visually, it cannot be easily forgotten for the rebuilt structure has been painted a lurid shade of green, as if in some way the overwhelming colour will ward off evil). The same can be said in response to the proposal to rebuild some of the wrecked structures at Palmyra, such as the Arch of Triumph, using 3D printing. When a monument is no longer a plain manuscript (which monuments seldom are, to begin with), its transformation into a palimpsest should not be facsimiled over.

 

Monuments as scraped tablets:

With the exception, perhaps, of sepulchral or religiously significant monuments, most monuments are eventually reduced to more or less empty structures which can be filled with various meanings. In Pakistan, for instance, many monumental constructions dot roundabouts in the larger cities but except for the guilt-ridden importance that is heaped upon them on national holidays, they pass mostly as navigational conveniences. These monuments yield to a certain pointlessness because they have neither aesthetical nor historic weight to speak for them. Rather, the majority of them are outcomes of different political parties coming out on top at different times in the country’s electoral history.

 

Writing about the Eiffel Tower in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Roland Barthes ascribes a ‘uselessness’ to the edifice that universally symbolises France. He posits that ‘wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there; incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of Nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable.’ The tower’s ‘inutility’, he claims, is exactly why it has perpetual hold on men’s imaginations –

 

Further: beyond its strictly Parisian statement, it touches the most general human image-repertoire: its simple, primary shape confers upon it the vocation of an infinite cipher: in turn and according to the appeals of our imagination, the symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or of the nineteenth century, rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, confronting the great itineraries of our dreams, it is the inevitable sign…

 

And –

 

…the Tower attracts meaning, the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts; for all lovers of signification, it plays a glamorous part, that of a pure signifier, i.e., of a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history), without this meaning thereby ever being finite and fixed: who can say what the Tower will be for humanity tomorrow?

 

This question can be asked of every monument but most relevantly of structures that become receptacles through virtue of their arbitrary designs, faux-nationalist purposes, or gradual succumbing to urban or natural entropy. In the end, it is the individual mind that chooses to prize or reject a monument, it is the individual mind that chooses what qualifies as a monument. It may be that making monuments has itself become a thing of the past, when raising buildings into the sky or chiselling giants out of stone testified to a civilization’s progress (one can only assume, in this regard, that the UAE are late bloomers), and that we have been left with the task of locating monuments in the cluttered, multi-cultural and increasingly industrial landscape that now engulfs us. It may be that Robert Smithson was being oracular when he journeyed through New Jersey in 1967 (for his photo-essay titled A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic), taking pictures of pipes, pumping derricks, parking lots, and identifying in them the monuments of ‘an abandoned set of futures.

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