Men raise monuments to remind themselves of things that should not be forgotten. Our word monument comes from the Latin monere, which means to remind; and as G. K. Chesterton told us, we men are ever in need of reminding. Take away our monuments and we become creatures of the present, a rootless, amnesiac breed.
A monument aims to do more than evoke a memory. It also indicates the way in which we ought to remember the person, event, or cause that it memorializes. It suggests the emotion that every decent person ought to feel when this thing is called to mind. A celebratory monument indicates emotions such as awe, admiration, gratitude, or pride; a vilifying monument indicates emotions such as horror, hatred, or shame; a sublime monument indicates a complex pathos of loss and longing.
Where there are no monuments, there is no memory. At least no shared memory. And where there is no shared memory, there is no culture. A culture is, after all, an agreement as to the fundamental shape and meaning of things, and thus as to the emotions proper to the recollection of things that have been.
If you are a member of a culture, you will therefore look upon its monuments with warm approval. If you are an enemy of a culture, the sight of its monuments will fill you with enmity and a thirst to pull them down.
If you see a man pulling down a monument of which you approve, he is your barbarian (as you very likely are his). This is because “barbarian” is nothing but the name of the other side in a culture war.
My barbarian is the man who sacks my churches, who burns my libraries, who razes my monuments. When I lay the ax to his Irminsul, I am, of course, his barbarian.
Charlemagne Destroys the Irminsul (details), Hermann Wislicenus (c. 1885)
Perhaps the quickest way to know one’s side in a culture war is to ask, which monuments are mine, and who are my barbarians.
Perhaps the quickest way to loose a culture war is to doubt, and dither, and forever decline to answer these questions.
In fact, to doubt, dither, and decline to answer these questions is to tacitly concede that one has no side because one has no culture. It is to betray the fact that one’s culture has reached that stage of terminal decadence where meaning, sacrilege, and barbarians fade into nothingness.
Now go back and look at the painting by Wislicenus. Do you find yourself in it? Are you one of the victors on horseback? Or are you one of the vanquished priests and chieftains who are prudently bowing their heads? Or are you one of the puzzled rubes gaping at the stump of an Irminsul you though would never fall?
Or are you, instead, a fourth type of character in a culture war? Are you a listless energumen of acedia, a decadent without a culture, a man for whom meaning, sacrilege, and barbarians are no longer anything at all.
Are you to be found somewhere in here?
Romans in the Decadence of the Empire, Thomas Couture (1844-1847)