Chronicle of Current Events

Chronicle of Current Events: History Ends at Sumer

Waltham’s approach to the fruits of human creative and artistic labor, including those retrieved by archaeology, would not have history begin there, but end— and not with a bang, but a twitter.

By Philalethes

The list-serve Agade is an invaluable research tool relied upon by many scholars of ancient Near Eastern archaeology, language, and religion, Biblical studies, early Christianity, and many other disciplines. Most mornings, there can be a score of Agade messages, re-routed from postings by museum curators, European publishers, the editors of learned journals, specialists in Mesopotamian mythology, correspondents for news sites in the Middle East that report on archaeological digs, and other similarly professional sources. A lone professor manages the project as a selfless service to his colleagues and to scholarship. In retirement, far from any center of learning, in a town that does not have an academic bookshop, I find Agade a lifeline. The colleague who trawls for and manages the postings cannot, of course, review them all in detail; and this morning’s catch netted one strange fish indeed. I remarked to him that a reply to it was in order and he suggested I publish a rejoinder on line that he might consider then re-posting. Here it is.

The South African author of the essay re-posted on Agade, “Damnatio memoriae: Ancient Rome’s cancel culture”, has these scholarly credentials: “Luke Waltham is a writer, blogger and activist for social justice and human rights. He is currently a BA Honors student at Stellenbosch University.” The article, although not footnoted, reads like a reasonably well-researched undergraduate term paper. 

Waltham’s English style is forgivably shaky: many young people in college these days, even those who elect to do the modest extra work required for an Honors degree, have not been taught to write their native language well. We can expect more of this, as English and Freshman Composition departments issue declarations that they will no longer pay attention to such features of systemic racism as syntax and grammar. Waltham capably surveys the historical record of angry mobs or new regimes toppling the statues and otherwise obliterating the legacy of past leaders and heroes fallen out of favor, from ancient Rome down to the Renaissance, the Soviet Union and its aftermath, and the BLM/Antifa movement today. 

What the author lacks in stylistic excellence he makes up for in the starry-eyed, cliché-studded candor of a true ideological zealot. The opening paragraph, for instance, reads: “In the last few weeks, the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the globe has sparked mass protest action, which has also involved the toppling, removal and open criticism of statues depicting historical figures who have been problematic, oppressive and racist towards black people.” 

The protesters in question have toppled, removed, and openly criticized, presumably in that order, a statue at the Wisconsin state capitol of an Abolitionist and Civil War hero of the Union. In Portland, OR, they attacked an elk. I wonder whether the bronze animal understood their open criticism. But doubtless they needed to vent. In Copenhagen, social justice warriors defaced the statue in the harbor of the Little Mermaid with the angry accusation “Racist Fish”. I do not know how the Abolitionist Hans Christian Heg or Hans Christian Andersen’s aquatic friend were “oppressive and racist towards Black people.” Maybe they were just “problematic”. Now there’s a vague word suitable for a multitude of accusations. One expects we will hear it often in earnest denunciations of enemies of the people for whom a more concrete accusation cannot be found. But wouldn’t the tried and true “Trotskyite” or “Japanese spy” work just as well? 

In a brief foray into Russian history, Waltham offers this cogent analysis: “Another example of statue removal was at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed and subsequent statues of Stalin were vandalized and removed.” I readily confess that I do not know what a “subsequent statue of Stalin” is. Most statues of the Leader, such as the monolith that dominated the skyline of Erevan, Armenia, were actually removed much earlier— a year or two after his death in 1953—and the embalmed corpse of the Best Friend of All Social Justice Bloggers was evicted from Lenin’s mausoleum several years later still. I suppose it is possible that somebody after 1991 (when the USSR was disbanded) cast a likeness in bronze of Iosif Vissarionovich, then vandalized it and removed it from wherever he had put it. Like a sort of voodoo doll. That would make it “subsequent”, perhaps. 

The thing is, the Soviets had already destroyed or removed Tsarist monuments in their turn long before. Fat, depressed Alexander III on his fat, sulky horse (“It’s snowing, can’t we go inside and drink tea?”) are still exiled to a lawn behind an odd corner of the Hermitage, while an Obelisk, erect and rock-hard— sometimes a cigar is not a cigar at all— with a little red star like a ravished cherry on top stands in the middle of Vosstaniya (Uprising) Square, where nobody looks at it and everyone does his best to get on with life and forget the rhythmic exertions of seven sanguinary decades of revolutionary tumescence. As for the city where said Obelisk stands, St. Petersburg became Petrograd became Leningrad became St. Petersburg again: damnatio memoriae as a ferris wheel.  

Our learned friend evaluates the significance of the phenomenon he is discussing this way: “It goes similarly in modern society. While defenders of statues argue that removing statues will ‘erase history’, the ancient Romans teach us that it does the opposite: it immortalizes them in history and exposes the heinous acts they committed while alive. [Waltham presumably doesn’t mean that the statues themselves were once alive and committed heinous acts. Should teacher bother with a note in the margin? Oh, the hell with it.— Philalethes] Furthermore, modern acts of damnatio memoriae contribute to discourses of academic transformation, spurring an interest in the people we memorialize in statue form in our towns and cities. Post-protest reflection has resulted in books and other forms of media.” 

That is, befuddled old men like me who believe that the preservation of historical evidence is an aid to the study of the past have got it the wrong way around. We should applaud those who destroy it, since their action stimulates people to reflect on the person whose statue has just been smashed to bits. “Discourses of academic transformation” indeed: one feels simply buoyed by the romantic afflatus. Though one suspects that the transformation within the ivory towers looks more like Kafka’s metamorphosis. I particularly cherish his further observation that “post-protest reflection has resulted in books and other forms of media.”

Let us imagine such a scenario. The “mostly peaceful demonstrators”, as the media calls the arsonists, pogromists, and other terrorists who are systematically destroying America’s cities, have just defaced a statue in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. His crime? He saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. The activists also scrawled “Fuck Israel” on the wall of a nearby synagogue— the latter comment or invitation to be understood as “open criticism”. That part is guaranteed real life, folks. It happened. 

But let’s now deploy our imagination and follow our hip young Angeleno knights of social justice, accoutered in the latest hoodies and skinny jeans, to a nearby café and listen in to their après-ski conversation over fair-trade lactose-free decaf latte frappes. “Let’s reflect on that dude whose shit we just fucked up,” suggests a pensive youth. “Awesome,” agrees a comrade-in-arms of indeterminate gender. “Like, post-protest reflection has been known to result in books… and other forms of media!” Their young faces visibly brightening at the prospect of other forms of media, the social justice warriors forget about their transformative discourse and twiddle with their smartphones. 

But some of that reflection must still “result” in books, the mechanism of that resultant result being somebody setting pen to paper. Nine months later, a book is born, but in the interim the author has been canceled for having said something, maybe, ten years ago that was, well you see, problematic. Can’t have that, can we. What to do with the book? Damnatio memoriae rides again, this time with an act of historical preservation our earnest young friend neglects to mention. A merry band of Stellenbosch (or Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, George Washington if it hasn’t been renamed yet, etc.) students in spiffy brown shirts with colorful armbands depicting an ancient solar symbol toss the volume onto a bonfire. Just before igniting at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, the book shares the mute company of the tomes of Thomas Mann, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, Erich Maria Remarque, Albert Einstein, and other recipients of white privilege. That will send our 21st-century Pimpfe back to their dorm rooms to look up Death in Venice on Wikipedia. Does that mean Mann was LGBTQ+ (the plus signifying the rest of the Phoenician alphabet)? Uh oh. But no fear: actual gay people are not exempt from cancellation. It’s only “queer theory”, which has nothing to do with living people, that matters.

Charles Lamb once wrote an essay on roast pig: a Chinaman’s house burned down by accident, but there was a pig inside. The fellow picked through the charred ruins, came upon it, and tasted it. It was delicious. He told his friends and they followed suit, imprisoning hapless animals in their own dwelling places and then setting fire to the lot— to enjoy roast pig. Somebody got the bright idea that you could cook a pig some other way, without burning your house down. 

When statues are removed or defaced now, we can use the examples of ancient Rome to disprove the conservative arguments for defending statues,” Mr. Waltham concludes triumphantly. Want to study the ancient Egyptians, do you? Torch the British Museum and make sure all those mummies and papyri are burnt to a crisp. Then reflect on them afterwards. Interested in the Spanish Civil War? Take a boxcutter to Picasso’s painting of Guernica (if the curators haven’t sold it to buy canvases by Black Latinx Transgender painters or whatever). No, better, just join the Luftwaffe and bomb the town itself into oblivion. Best way to make sure it’s remembered. See that, Pablo? That was Guernica. We destroyed it the better to remember it. Stimmt, Hans! Let’s roast a pig. In Warsaw!

Samuel Kramer’s book History Begins at Sumer was my boyhood introduction to the Ancient Near East, as it was for many savants. Waltham’s approach to the fruits of human creative and artistic labor, including those retrieved by archaeology, would not have history begin there, but end— and not with a bang but a twitter.  

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