Amia Srinivasan writes about the Rhodes Must Fall campaigns in Cape Town and Oxford (LRB, 31 March). The artist William Kentridge has thought a lot about South Africa’s past and the people who made it, and has evolved methods of drawing – smudging and overscribbling and erasing – which retain the memory of what went before while at the same time rubbing it out, literally. Transmuting the meaning of his historic subjects, communicating profound anger and pity, he manages to instil in his work a sense of the longue durée, crucial to developing an ethics against forgetting. Kentridge has called these processes ‘thickening time’; he compares them to ‘vertical thinking’ in archaeology.
But alongside Kentridge’s highly idiosyncratic and powerful memory work, there’s a far simpler, less demanding alternative to pulling down statues. It was mooted at the University of Cape Town during the Rhodes Must Fall protests there, but came to nothing. On Delhi’s old parade ground, for example, a site of much extravagant, ornamentalist imperial pomp and ceremony, the viceroys and heroes of the Raj, who once proudly dominated city squares and streets up and down the subcontinent, have been put out to pasture. Likewise, in Budapest, the brokers of the Communist bloc have been moved to ‘Memento Park’, where ‘giant monuments from the Soviet dictatorship’ are displayed cheek by jowl: they’re all here, the heroic peasants and founders of the fatherland, Comrades Lenin and Stalin – the latter figured only by his boots, which were all that was left of him after the revolutionaries of 1956 pulled him down.
These new conditions keep history and its makers in our sights, and they don’t trumpet their deeds as glorious. Instead they own up to the past, its failures, its crimes. As the British historian David Priestland commented in the Guardian last year, ‘History is therefore respected, but in a way that provokes critical reflection; this avoids pretending the memorials never existed, or leaving them in place, as if the wounds of the past don’t matter.’ It seems such parks are popular – a favourite place for family picnics and evening strolls. It’s an idea that’s close to a waxworks museum and chamber of horrors, and might prove a hit with GCSE history classes.
In Grutas Park in Lithuania, statues of Soviet and Lithuanian Communist leaders have been gathered and put on display. Set in a dense conifer forest, it is an excellent place to wander and contemplate a nation’s discarded past. When I visited, a PA system on the mock border fence surrounding the park was playing period Russian music, ending with a baritone voice intoning an ironical version of ‘My Way.’ Instead of being merely removed and stored or destroyed, the Oriel College statue of Rhodes could have pride of place in such a park, surrounded by statues of other historical figures no longer in favour.
In advocating ‘an independent, internationalist campaign against the EU’, Joseph Choonara confuses an admirable medium or long-term goal with what is possible in the next couple of months (Letters, 31 March). The immediate question is: where does he want the UK to be after 23 June? Inside the EU, where we might have some influence in reforming the EU’s many inadequacies, which he correctly details? Or isolated on a little island, almost certainly led by an even more right-wing government, with a demoralised Labour Party and according to most analysts, a faster declining economy?
Cameron could indeed fall after a ‘Leave’ vote. But how would the Labour Party, which has campaigned to ‘Remain’, benefit as a result? And what about workers? Does Choonara believe that their conditions and wages would be maintained or improved? EU legislation on workers’ rights would go, as would freedom of movement to and from Europe (especially beneficial for young people). Britain would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Every opposition movement would find the balance of forces tilted sharply against it. Brexit would be a victory for racists, little Englanders and right-wing nationalists. Sometimes, even a deeply flawed status quo may be better than the other possible outcomes.
Carl Gardner; Maurice Naftalin
London EC1; Edinburgh
Colin Kidd acknowledges feeling ‘dirty’ when he ventured into giving his personal opinion in media debates over the Scottish referendum, as opposed to providing his expert historical knowledge (LRB, 18 February). I must confess that I was rather shocked, when taking part in a Newsnight discussion on the evening before the vote, to realise that the members of the audience, separated into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ contingents, were intent merely on shouting at one another. I feel that I am used to passionate, lively debate, whether at a dinner party or while walking the dog, but there’s always the understanding that in the end the two sides will agree to differ (perhaps this is because, living in a rural area, we cannot avoid each other). The general standard of debate on the independence referendum was only marginally better than it currently is on Europe: polarised, predictable and interested only in preaching to the converted.
Colm Tóibín writes about the ‘immense destruction to life and property’ caused by the rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916 (LRB, 31 March). This serves to remove all agency from the British. The number of civilians who were killed and the damage done to the city are often invoked in criticism of the 1916 leaders, but the rebels were armed only with rifles, not heavy artillery. The British chose to risk (or to accept) civilian deaths, and to destroy property by heavy shelling. Just because the rebels knew beforehand that they were dealing with an empire made and maintained by force does not make them responsible for the actions of that empire. The same cannot be said, however, for their culpability in relation to the young men and women who fought and died alongside them.
Colm Tóibín mentions in his admirable piece about the Easter Rising that Patrick Pearse qualified for the Bar, but didn’t practise. He did practise, in fact, as documented recently by Colum Kenny in ‘Patrick Pearse in King’s Bench’, published in the Bar Review: Journal of the Bar of Ireland. A case of particular interest is McBride v. McGovern from 1905, which turned on whether an owner’s name, written in Gaelic lettering, on a cart or carriage, was ‘legible’, as required by a statute of 1851.
We were friends of the late Michael Wolfers for more than fifty years and simply don’t recognise him in Lara Pawson’s ad hominem comments (Letters, 31 March). Wolfers wasn’t some dreadful old bore who was radical in his youth and a propper-up of the establishment in his maturity, but someone who stuck to his principles throughout his life and acted on them. It is absurd to ally him with fat cats or colonial oppressors: he was practically impoverished most of the time and certainly no frequenter of ‘exclusive London clubs’.
Sheila MacLeod, Christine Shuttleworth
Whether the error is August Kleinzahler’s or Langdon Hammer’s, there is a reversal of meanings in the description of ‘the ancient Greek notion of eromenos, “the mentor and lover who helps the erastes, a beautiful youth, to discover the passion for knowledge through their erotic relationship"’ (LRB, 31 March). The error certainly wouldn’t have been James Merrill’s. Eromenos, with its passive participial ending, signifies the ‘beautiful youth’ who is the object of the eros of the erastes, ‘mentor and lover’, with its agent-noun ending (cf. agonistes). The two are usually translated ‘beloved’ and ‘lover’, which works well enough, especially since the words are most likely to be encountered in Plato’s ‘erotic’ dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus, where the connotations of eros are fully explored.
Ben Lomond, California
Joshua Cohen writes that Kramer is an ‘explicitly Jewish’ name (LRB, 3 March). It is a common German surname among Jews and Gentiles alike. The name of H.G. Adler’s protagonist, Josef Kramer, sounds to me more like a Central European version of John Smith: an Everyman whom the Nazis, not his name, turned into a Jew.
Terry Castle relates the story of Joseph Beuys claiming that tent-dwelling Tatar nomads spoke to him in Russian when they found him and his German warplane crashed in the steppe (LRB, 31 March). One wonders if they tried the word for ‘water’ in their own Turkic language before using the Russian word (voda)? Given that they were camping in Central Asia only because they had been deported from their native Crimea by Stalin’s henchmen, it is unlikely that they saved Beuys thinking he was Russian; it’s more likely they were hoping the Wehrmacht would win.
Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway
Jackson Lears didn’t mention that Robert Moses, as well as building up and tearing down New York City, did the same thing throughout the state of New York (LRB, 17 March). He ‘banded’ it with parkways bearing his name – while he was still alive – from my hometown of Niagara Falls all the way back (five hundred miles and nine hours’ driving) to his own adopted hometown of Babylon, Long Island.
In fact, Moses built what was then the world’s largest power project in Niagara Falls, and another slightly smaller one in Massena on the St Lawrence. (He had his name painted in three-foot-high black letters on a covered walkway extending from the Robert Moses Power Dam over the Robert Moses Parkway.) While these state-wide projects were huge boons to upstate New York cities during their construction (Niagara Falls’s population swelled to 120,000), Moses, never one to learn from his mistakes, went on to tear down all of downtown Niagara Falls to build a convention centre that looked exactly like an airplane hangar.
Niagara Falls now has fewer than 45,000 residents, most of the Robert Moses Parkway has been closed down and is covered with weeds and crab-grass, and the Robert Moses Power Project has silently been renamed the Niagara Power Project. The Borghese-style lettering has been removed.
Haledon, New Jersey