This is not a particularly well structured post. It’s more a series of scattered thoughts, and an excuse to post a photo juxtaposition of two major figures in American history, facing each other. Keeping that in mind…
- History sometimes trots along at a steady pace, and all seems mostly well, until it trips up on something — maybe something that was in the ground all along. Sort of like Robert E. Lee’s horse, which was named Traveller, and who survived the Civil War only to step on a nail in 1871 and contract tetanus. As a result, he had to be shot.
- If a statue requires that the man or woman depicted be perfect, there would be no statues. Every individual is flawed. The role of a statue of a historical figure is to show what a society or government respects and honors, what values it holds dear. It may also tell us what that society or government is willing to overlook, or even hide. And so when I visit countries, I make note of the statues. Some that come to mind as I type now: Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany; Joseph Stalin in Gori, Georgia; Tamerlane in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
- If you are mentally fraying because someone of the character, temperament, and ignorance of Donald Trump is in the White House, or because of the events in Charlottesville, take a few minutes to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach. There’s a chance it’ll help. You can click here for almost two hours of Bach on YouTube.
- Joseph Stalin’s hometown was Gori, which is why they have a huge statue of him — or had, since they took it down in 2010. Removing it was controversial, for he was the local boy who made it big, who defeated Fascism. Some Georgians thought it right to honor him. On the other hand, he was — and for simplicity sake let’s just focus on one flaw — a mass murderer, and many other Georgians thought, “Yeah, let’s take this thing down.” The idea was that society and the values society wants to reflect evolve, or sometimes need a course correction, and so even heavy statues of the local boy become movable.
- In 1993, two years after Uzbekistan became independent, the government unveiled a statue of Tamerlane. It is in the center of the capital, Tashkent, and while I don’t know much about the size of horse testicles, the testicles on this statue — Tamerlane is riding a horse — struck me as suspiciously large. A sheep stealer in his youth, Tamerlane went on to become one of the most skilled military campaigners in history, conquering more territory than any other ruler since Alexander the Great. He led his forces as far north as Moscow, as far south as Delhi, and as far west as the Mediterranean shores of Anatolia. His military campaigns ended only in 1405, when at the age of 68 he died of illness while on his way to sack China.
Islam Karimov, who until his death in 2016 was the authoritarian ruler of Uzbekistan, said, “If somebody wants to understand who the Uzbeks are, if somebody wants to comprehend all the power, might, justice, and unlimited abilities of the Uzbek people, their contribution to the global development, their belief in the future, he should recall the image of Amir Temur [Tamerlane].”
Yikes. What he didn’t say, at least directly, is that Tamerlane also built pyramids with people’s decapitated heads and — well, let’s just summarize it this way: some estimate that Tamerlane is responsible for the death of about 17 million people, or 5% of the world’s population at the time. And yet the President of Uzbekistan tells us to look at him to understand who the Uzbeks are.
- People often have a hard time letting things lay to rest. Just ask the bones of Robert E. Lee’s horse.
- Or ask Robert E. Lee, who was opposed to monuments to himself and to the American Civil War in general. “I think it wiser,” he wrote in the year before his death, “…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” So the statue of Lee in Charlottesville doesn’t honor Lee, since honoring him would have meant respecting his wishes and not erecting one in the first place; the statue is about something else.
(Incidentally, in Vietnam, when Ho Chi Minh died 99 years after Lee, he requested that his body be cremated. But the government leadership, with wishes of its own, embalmed him anyway, and so to this day his body is on public display.)
- I don’t know Robert E. Lee. Never met him, and what I have learned about him is mixed. I grew up in a part of the United States — suburban Atlanta — where most of what I heard about Lee was flattering. As an adult, it has been good for me to balance this out by learning more of the details that are unflattering. I do know that Lee lived in a difficult time in American history, and he made a difficult choice. We do well to only humbly imagine what we’d do in another person’s shoes. Besides, the point is what we choose to do or not do in our own shoes.
- Albert Schweitzer wrote: “Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.” I suspect Lee would have resonated with this idea as he threw his hat in with his home state and the Confederacy in those dark days of 1861. Similarly, many people who think his statue and other Confederate statues should be removed will also resonate with this quote.
- The world has too many statues of sword-bearing generals and not enough of kind waitresses bearing nothing in their hands but a pecan pie. When I visited Tashkent in 2004, I met a young Uzbek waitress at a cafe who was caring, sincere, and, rather than stack my head in a pyramid with other heads, invited me to stay with her family, and on my final morning in the city she gave me the gift of a slice of pecan pie from her workplace. Her story is for another time, but suffice it to say that I thought Tashkent would be a more appealing city if the statue in its center was of her — or someone like her — rather than of a warrior, sitting on a horse with suspiciously large balls, staring off into the distance, beyond people. What I’m trying to say: It’s good to think carefully about who and what we honor, because it shapes our narrative and our imagination.
- How we relate to our neighbor’s flesh and blood is more telling than how we relate to statues of stone or bronze. They can be connected, of course, but in looking at a statue may we never lose sight of the living people around us. And if sometimes we find our backs to a wall, may it be because we ourselves have put them there, and then taken a seat to have a conversation, one fluid wave with another, parts of the same deep sea.