Percy Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias is, in part, a meditation on memorials. Ozymandias, better known as Ramses II, wished to be remembered as the architect of great works of engineering that would long outlast him. “Look on my works, ye Mighty,” he proclaims, “and despair!” The irony is that there is nothing to see. All that has lasted of his “works” are the remains of his crumbling statue. Its stone face reveals his sculptor had the last laugh: in the “frown, and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,” he depicts a boastful tyrant. The sculptor, in reading his master’s character so well, has performed an act of revisionism for posterity, showing him as he was, and not at all as he wanted to be remembered.
From the simplest gravestone for the humblest among us to the great pyramids and temples erected for our most illustrious predecessors, like those to Lincoln and Jefferson, these memorials are intended as a stay against mortality, for we know we must all die, and our reputations matter to us. Like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, our tombstones will cry out, “Remember me!” Will we be remembered in times to come for the good we did, or will dissenting revisionists modify posterity’s view of us? ‘Speak nothing but good of the dead’ was the observance in Roman times. Does it still hold true today?
The world is acquainted with revisionism in the case of memorials to other unlamented tyrants.
Once revered as the saviour of his country, Comrade Stalin was subsequently revealed as a brutal murderer whose paranoid fantasies legitimized the starvation of millions in the Ukraine, the arrest, deportation, and exile of intellectuals and artists to death-camp gulags in Siberia, and cradle-to-grave surveillance of Soviet citizenry by the secret police. His compatriots vandalized, tore down, and scrapped in their thousands the statues and monuments to his memory, and re-named Stalingrad Volgograd. A similar fate befell monuments to Italy’s Mussolini, Ceausescu of Romania, Gaddafi of Libya, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and a host of similar evildoers. Perhaps the atrocities of “The Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong will eventually inspire a like deconsecration. Revisionism is, for better or worse, the science of second thoughts. The question of contentious memorials is timely, in the wake of a recent decision to remove a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from the front of a municipal building in Victoria, B.C.
Admiral Nelson, in spite of his imperfect personal life, remains secure on his perch high above Trafalgar Square in London. Despite the egotism that saw the imperialist Bonaparte invade neighbouring countries, and claim them for France, Emperor Napoleon is safe from revisionist depredations in his ornate tomb in Les Invalides. Outside the House of Commons in London, there stands inviolate a statue of the regicide Oliver Cromwell, upon whose orders civilians were massacred in Ireland, and churches desecrated in England, motivated in both cases by a desire to extirpate ‘popery’ from the islands. From my childhood in Venezuela, I recall the ubiquitous statue of Simon Bolivar, mounted on horseback, sword held high, urging his countrymen on to victory over Spanish ‘tyranny.’ Yet Bolivar was an autocrat who disdained the common people, and coerced ‘volunteers’ with forgery and theft. The ‘freedom-loving’ Thomas Jefferson kept his slaves at the end of the Revolutionary War. The statues of the ‘Famous Five’ feminists acclaimed for their role in legalizing the status of Canadian women as ‘persons’ take tea on Parliament Hill despite the group’s enthusiastic support for eugenics, which advocated forced sterilization for the ‘mentally defective unfit.’ The Five thus made themselves complicit in the mutilation of some 3,000 people in Alberta between 1928 and 1972. There is not—yet—a demand for the removal of their statues.