Monuments

Another old thought from Berlin, this one sparked by a conversation with one of my MPhil instructors after the trip.

We were discussing the places I had been in the city, ended up discussing what we felt about the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and I made a remark about how odd it was to see couples lounging on top of the slabs of the Memorial, to see children running around, to feel a general air of casualness about the place. What I expected was to encounter a vista of solemnity, silence. It’s a memorial to a genocide, after all, and not one that has faded from historical memory. My instructor, though, questioned if that might be my American-ness speaking, my unconscious American insistence on the sobriety of the monument. In his opinion, monuments and memorials in Europe don’t command that same performance of seriousness in their presence– not because they are bad memorials or because people don’t care, but rather because they don’t demand that performance. He might be right, he might not– there’s no way for me to verify. But I am always struck when someone points out an aspect of my American-ness, since I’ve only ever been accused of being un-American in my own country. That old cliche about not realizing in full the meaning of your nationality until you leave the nation holds true.

But anyway, the important bit– if it is ‘american’ to view memorials as places of sobriety and reverence instead of just remembrance, and why that might be. i tend to go for worst-case scenario cultural explanations when theorizing out of thin-air. so what i thought about at first was how this american attitude may stem from how the military forms such an important part of our cultural imagination, our social reality, our image of american-ness at home and abroad. military memorials demand reverence because our military demands worship, our folk in uniform our unending love and admiration and respect (our consent to being brainwashed with love for the nation). does that attitude then extend into the world of the monument at large? do we then always demand reverence in the face of death, no matter who it is? do we revere death, at the expense of thinking about how the objects of our respectful gaze met their deaths? does our respect for death facilitate our endless ability to visit it upon others? unanswered musings.

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