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Alberto Manguel
   
 
photo of Alberto Manguel   Look at Me  
 
 

A building is the species; a monument, the individual. Like music, which is read both for the score and for the content, monuments carry a text, but a text whose several meanings exist only in our interpretation. In German, two words, Mahnmal and Denkmal, serve to remind us of this double reading. The Latin roots of their English equivalents, "memorial" and "monument," lie with the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, adopted by the Romans as Moneta, an epithet of Juno, in whose temple coins were struck, giving us the English word "money." Memory becomes concrete in stones and coinage: something to serve as reminder and admonishment, and something to serve as a starting point for thought or action. Every memorial and every monument tacitly carries the inscription "Remember and think."

Statue of the soldier Falucho, in Buenos Aires (augustin Cicchino).

In a small square in the city of Buenos Aires stands a sculpture commemorating one black soldier, the "negro" Falucho, who, at the cost of his own life, saved the Argentine flag during the nineteenth-century War of Independence. The monument, modest but visible, never elicited more than a reminder of a patriotic hymn sung at national holidays, in which the heroic Falucho was briefly mentioned.

With Death at his heels he ran
And lay on his flag in the slime
And kissed it for one last time,
The general's brave black man!

The monument's presence, dark above the flowing traffic, did not make me think during my high school years of the absence of black faces in our surroundings. It did not bring to mind the years of slavery abolished by decree in 1813; it did not remind me of the black gaucho killed by the hero of our national epic, the Martín Fierro, in the poem's last cantos; it did not make me think of the ferocious epidemic of yellow fever whose victims were in large proportion what remained of the black population. The monument had mere anecdotal value. It did not anchor my memory. It celebrated a character who seemed to me on the verge of fiction. Nothing more.

Such dearth of reading may be blamed less on the monument itself than on its beholder. Augustus' temple to Mars, erected in the Roman forum, no doubt was imposing, but we can ask ourselves whether every passerby saw in its noble marble the multiplicity of readings that Ovid lists in the fifth book of his Fasti: the residence of Mars Ultor, a monument to victory, a warning to the enemies of Rome, a memorial to Augustus. "Magnificent is Mars and magnificent his temple. How could he have dwelt differently in the city of Romulus, his son! This building could even be a monument to victory in a battle between giants. From now on, Mars will unleash bloody wars against those who might dare provoke us in the East or refuse to submit to us in the West. Mars ... lifts his eyes towards the temple and reads there the name of Augustus, and then the monument seems to him even more magnificent."

Along the trail of the Tessali Plateau in the Algerian Sahara there are small piles of stones set up in places where travellers have met their death. They carry no indication of who the victims were or when the accidents happened; in time, the wind or a scurrying lizard demolishes the small constructions, and in time, new piles are again erected. Their intention is to acknowledge human frailty and the implacable violence of this nature. They call for a moment of recollection to honour the anonymous dead, and also, perhaps, they offer conciliation with the desert itself.

Compared with the solid monument to the fallen black soldier, the stones are artless and far more ephemeral. Yet they seem more transcendental: their commemoration of any man's death weighs more profoundly than that of one folk hero, especially a folk hero deprived of his own history (the history of the blacks in Argentina) and circumstantially inserted in the official history of the nation. Stones are neutral; they belong to the place where they are set up; from quietly becoming a monument they return quietly to being merely stones; their construction barely requires a human gesture. This essential simplicity allows for a vaster resonance, the simple monstrosity of one man's death brought to mind by the simple piling up of a handful of stones.

Basalt Satue of a lion in the site of Babylon, Iraq.

Among the stones of Babylon, archaeologists found a larger stone that had been roughly cut into the figure of a lion, seemingly an attribute of a Mesopotamian god or the symbol of a long-forgotten victory. No one knows exactly what this monument commemorates. Empty of reference, of memory, of authority, it is nevertheless a monument, the starting point for a question. Less like the stones of the Sahara, more like the black soldier's statue, it elicits no echoes because it stands outside history. It stands inside a semiotic vacuum.

But absence too can be a monument -- a notion or conceit that became commonplace in the seventeenth century. Not an absence of language, in order to recognize the impossibility of communication (as in the case of Jackson Pollock or Samuel Beckett) but the deliberate building of an empty space to mirror that which has departed. Both the baroque poets Francisco de Quevedo (in Spain) and Joachim du Bellay (in France) found in that absence a true memento mori, and in this sense admonished the visitor who seeks in Rome the glory of Rome and only finds it in its ruins. "That which was solid," concludes Quevedo, "has vanished,/Only the transient remains and lasts." And Du Bellay: "That which is solid by time is destroyed,/And that which sifts away, stands up to time." The paradox was echoed by their contemporary, the German Andreas Gryphius: "What is so boastful and defiant, will turn tomorrow to ashes and bone,/There is nothing that lasts forever, neither metal nor marble."

The West front of St. Paul's Cathedral, London (1702 engraving by S. Gribelin).

If neither metal nor marble will last, why not then accept their transience as being, in itself, a monument? After completing the building of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which he knew to be his crowning glory, Sir Christopher Wren, stubbornly believing in the persistence of his handicraft, added to the cathedral the following words for the future viewer in search of grandeur: "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" (If you require a monument, look around you)." Years later, in one of his South African stories, Rudyard Kipling subverted this notion in the context of the labours of war, telling of the revenge of a Sikh soldier for the sake of his murdered English colonel. After razing to the ground the Boer farm where his "Kurban Sahib" has been killed, the faithful Sikh has Sir Christopher Wren's words cut into a great rock. "It signifies," he explains, "that those who would desire to behold a proper memorial to Kurban Sahib must look at the house. And, Sahib, the house is not there, nor the well, nor the big tank which they call dams, nor the little fruit-trees, nor the cattle. There is nothing at all, Sahib, except the two trees withered by the fire. The rest is like the desert here -- or my hand -- or my heart. Empty, Sahib -- all empty!" Emptiness, as, the Romans understood when they razed Carthage, is also a memorial.

But sometimes such tactics seem insufficient. An event, or a succession of events, may seem so enormous that we confuse its enormity with complexity and take its ineffability to be in itself meaningful. At the far end of the Île de la Cité in Paris lies the Monument of the Deportation. Down a flight of stairs and along an ever-narrowing corridor, the visitor reaches the tip of the monument, which is also the tip of the island. There, looking over the river, is a small barred window that allows no escape. Every visitor re-enacts (or is meant to reenact) the moment when French citizens who were also Jews were taken from their homes and marched along the streets of Paris to the trains that would take them to their death at the hands of the Nazis. The monument is effective in the simplicity of its dramatic intention: to put the visitor on stage. But the experience remains, of course, this side of fiction, valuable only as a sign or a symbol. The monument does elicit our emotion, does record one awful moment at a time of relentless awfulness, and is meant to honour the victims. But it does not begin to touch the horror of a single deportation. Nothing can do that. That horror cannot, in all its magnitude, be "read." The event itself is its own monument.

In Argentina, some attempts have been made to record the atrocitics of the military dictatorship of the 1970s. A plaque, for instance, set up at my old school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, soberly lists the names of the students who were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Among them are the names of several who were injected with a powerful drug, chained to one another and dropped from a military airplane into the river to drown. No plaque or monument can stand in lieu of that event. We must hold it in our minds for what it is; there are no valid metaphors for it. Once again, any reading of this -- the bronze plaque, for instance -- can only graze the surface of the story.

Each instance of evil exists in its own terms, firmly attached to its prey like Prometheus' vulture eternally ripping at the living flesh, even if that flesh has long ceased to exist. We don't need to become universalists in order to understand evil, blurring the bloody particulars. On the contrary. The Holocaust, for instance, is its own paradigm; each other instance of evil -- the torture of Argentine children by the military or the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia -- is only equivalent to itself. We don't need to assemble them to have a gestalt portrait of evil. Evil, like God, is in the details.

But how to live in the presence of evil, even when its actions are in the past, since evil possesses, like good, a continuum that flows from its source backward and forward through time, contaminating everything? How to carry on a day-to-day life along the street where a child was shot, at the corner where a woman was made to lick the dirt off the sidewalk, in the house where a family was beaten to death? How does one acknowledge the past and carry on with the present when that past seems to deny all possible human activity? The suffering souls of the Holocaust whose sounds echo in our present were blameless. They were not punished for their sins: they were tortured and killed for no other reason than for existing (and maybe not even because of that: evil requires no reason). How can we find something to represent this memory of evil -- evil without purpose, without reason, without boundaries? How can we contain in the framework of a work of art a representation of something that, in its very essence, refuses to be contained? And why do we require such a memorial?

Almost four centuries ago, Sir Thomas Browne contended that Christianity had lent importance to funereal monuments because it believed the soul to be immortal; in this he saw a paradox, since the immortal soul requires no monument. Why, then, strive to commemorate it in stones and wood? "Christian invention," he wrote, "hath chiefly driven at Rites, which speak hopes of another life, and hints of a Resurrection. And if the ancient Gentiles held not the immortality of their better part, and some subsistence after death, in several rites, customes, actions and expressions, they contradicted their own opinions.... Thus Socrates was content that his friends should bury his body, so they would not think they buried Socrates, and regarding his immortall part, was indifferent to be burnt or buried." Perhaps, Browne suggested in his prefatory letter to his friend Thomas Le Gros, because in such relics we might behold "some Originals" of ourselves, reflections of vicarious glory. For that reason, he concluded, "We mercifully preserve their bones, and pisse not upon their ashes."

The arguments that have raged in Germany ever since the first announcement of a plan to erect a Holocaust monument stem largely from these questions. The objections are multiple and valid: a memorial would provide an excuse not to remember; a memorial would suggest boundaries for both guilt and remembrance; no monument can represent the unrepresentable; any construction must imply an aesthetic and how can there be an aesthetic of evil? Chesterton speaks of a tower "of which the very shape was wicked," but how can such a monument be constructed? For certain critics (the novelist Günter Grass, for instance) an event such as the Holocaust cannot be remembered by means of a single monument: it is the limitations of the building that, in Grass's mind, invalidates such a project. The Australian art historian Robert Hughes is more adamant, declaring precisely that "all Holocaust art is terrible." Asked what artwork should be put up at the Dachau concentration camp to commemorate the dead, he answered, "The ovens themselves are perfect. With their simple brick lines and their metal mouths, they are the supreme images of what was done to the Jews. How is an artist ever going to improve on the eloquence of the place?"

And the project itself is a grammatical nightmare: what preposition can we use to name such a monument? Is it to be a monument to the Holocaust? For the Holocaust? On the Holocaust? About the Holocaust? In assembling the Holocaust in one monument or memorial, would we not be silencing its myriad individual voices, reducing its horrific complexity to a comprehensible singularity, blending its throngs of names and faces to a nameless and faceless emblem?

Then there are the private arguments. The German writer Martin Walser complained angrily that he did not want to spend the rest of his life staring out of his window, "reading" the Holocaust. Though I can sympathize with Walser's plight, the decision (as Walser should know) is not Walser's. We must all stare at the Holocaust every time we open our window: that is part of our human condition after World War II. We have not been given a choice, any more than we are given the choice to see the sun every morning. The Holocaust is there, rooted like a poisonous tree in history. It happened, and it is now one of our atrocious starting points from which we must begin yet again. And, in spite of knowing that there are no words to comprehend evil, we cannot but continue to address it.

However, the discussion around a Holocaust memorial has the danger of becoming abstract, of concentrating on guilt and remorse, innocence and retribution, instead of the deliberate slaughter of human beings. The most terrible lesson of the Holocaust is that there is no lesson. That is, essentially, all that can be read in a Holocaust memorial. We need to remember simply because it happened. There are no rewards in doing this. Evil has no rewards to offer, not even to experience. Listen to Heinrich Heine, writing three years before his death in Paris, in 1856:

Cast aside your allegories
And empty hypotheses!
Give us straight answers
To the accursed questions.

When the American philosopher Philip Hallie interviewed Magda Trocmé, who together with her husband had saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis in their village of Le Chambon, in France, at the daily risk of their own lives, he found himself moved to say to her, "But you are good people, good." For the first time in their conversation Mme Trocmé became vehemently angry. "What did you say? What? 'Good'? 'Good'?" And then, more quietly: "I'm sorry, but you see, you have not understood what I have been saying. We have been talking about saving the children. We did not do what we did for goodness' sake. We did it for the children." Any discussion that touches upon the Holocaust must bear in mind Mme Trocmé's children. Those children have no room in the open space in the middle of the city of Berlin allotted by former chancellor Helmut Kohl to condemn "evil" and honour "goodness."

Kathe Kollwitz's memorial, Father and Mother.

Mnemosyne, daughter of Heaven and Earth, was the mother of the nine muses. We must attempt, through every means at our disposal, to remember, to set up memorials that, by means of an inspired craft, will act as touchstones to the past. Käthe Kollwitz's sculpture Father and Mother or Cynthia Ozick's story The Shawl help us enter the horror through the conduit of a work of art -- as it were, under the protection of Virgil. They help us phrase our question, they don't provide answers, and they allow us to remember what, in a very literal sense, we never knew, because the suffering of the Holocaust belongs only to the victims; to the perpetrators belongs the knowledge of what was done from the almost inconceivable viewpoint of those who craft the suffering of others. Everyone else is an outsider.

In June of 1999, the German Parliament, the Bundestag, accepted one of the "aesthetic" projects to erect a Holocaust monument in Berlin: that of American architect Peter Eisenman. Until 1998, the American sculptor Richard Serra was also involved in the project; in mid-June he decided "for personal and professional reasons" to withdraw, and Eisenman remained sole designer. The project, however, continued to be plagued by controversy: in January 2000, after Germany's chancellor and president had both agreed to attend the opening, the mayor of Berlin announced that he would snub the dedication of a memorial that, in his view, was "too big and impossible to protect."

Peter Eisenman's August 1998 model for the Berlin Holocaust monument.

Peter Eisenman is certainly one of the most controversial architects of our time. His interest lies in structure, in the possibility of revealing that which upholds, not decorates, a building. Paradoxically, his designs, instead of stressing something comforting and sheltering (the beams and buttresses of a building that, in a medieval church, for instance, would both lift and sustain the whole), Eisenman introduces into his designs elements that destabilize and rupture, threaten collapse and haphazardness, making his buildings seem disturbingly incomplete in their attempt to "mimic movement." The co-author of a book with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Eisenman draws his theories from outside architectural dogma, from literature and linguistics, from Noam Chomsky and Nietzsche. His designs have therefore been equated with texts, with "speaking architecture."

According to the Bundestag, Peter Eisenman's design for the Holocaust memorial requires an accompanying "commentary" to identify the symbols that compose it since, like all of Eisenman's designs, it relies on literature. Literary associations were apparently a temptation for most of the architects who submitted proposals to the Bundestag. Two previous projects by other designers (both rejected) had suggested that the monument include thirty-nine symbolic poles carrying the word "WHY" inscribed in different languages, or eighteen giant symbolic sandstone blocks symbolizing the bulk of Jewish history. Eisenman, instead, proposed to erect four thousand huge stone slabs on the site -- a field of stone pillars -- to indicate the weight of suffering and the extent of the devastation; later, for practical reasons, he lowered the number to about twenty-five hundred, and added a huge building to house an extensive archive and information centre. In a somewhat awkward turn of phrase, the architectural critic Arie Graafland excuses Eisenman from any responsibility for the effectiveness of his work. "Eisenman," he writes, "conceives the plan as a text [whose] signification is never exhausted" and that can lead to "an erroneous interpretation." If the monument fails as a monument, Graafland seems to be saying, the blame is on us, the viewers, who are incapable of interpreting it correctly, not on the monument's maker.

A process may be never exhausted if its rich ambiguity allows it to be read ad infinitum, or it may be never exhausted because, being unformed and ill supported, it allows any reading whatsoever, however arbitrary or misconceived. Imagined as a gloss on a text not made explicitly available to the viewer, or as a system of symbols or allegories translated exclusively into Eisenman's private Derridian vocabulary, Eisenman's proposed solution, I believe, will remain for the most part silent to the common visitor, inscrutable, a bulky memorial that requires, like so much conceptual art, "large signs in German and English ... showing what the memorial will be and explaining its significance." At most, what will confront the viewer in the two hectares of prime Berlin property is the impossibility of representation.

Alfred Speer's model for Hitler's Nuremberg Stadium.

Eisenman's design ignores the gravity of the debate and lends prestige to the monument itself, to the construction, to the "work of art," not to the dreadful event it is supposed to commemorate. That Eisenman gives pre-eminence to his design is something akin to enthroning Alberti's architectural model before it has served the purpose of developing his ideas, before it has become active in any creative way. In such cases, monuments betray their true nature. After the war, the German architect Albert Speer, who had built the Nuremberg Stadium for Hitler, revisited the abandoned site of what had been his masterpiece. Seeing a weed that had pushed its way through the stadium's steps, the seventy-year-old architect bent down and ripped it out from between the cracks. "The Fuhrer would be furious if he knew the concrete was letting weeds through," Speer said. Likewise, the Berlin Holocaust memorial ignores its context and its raison d'être. For whom is this monument being erected?

During the discussions, only one voice, it seems to me, has acknowledged the full complexity of the problem. Someone (I don't know who -- I haven't been able to track down the proposer of this intelligent solution) took into consideration the various objections and concluded that a Holocaust monument, if any, needs to represent almost an infinity of individual cases demanding to be heard; it has to allow for the endless revelations that come daily from the darkness; it has to consider an ongoing dialogue intent not on solving but on affirming, questioning, recalling and informing. The aesthetic of such a monument would not concern the monument itself but the building that houses it. It would not be made of Gryphius's dead stone but of living memory. Such a monument would simply be a library. It would carry the name of Holocaust or Shoah Library, but it would not need to be a library dedicated solely to the Holocaust: it would collect, of course, as much material as possible on the Holocaust, but it could also collect all manner of historical and literary works, since the Holocaust, as I've said, while incomparable, is not limited to its own circle of horror and requires to be seen, in all its inhuman detail, within the vaster human world. The American poet Richard Wilbur writes:

It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

A monument that is also a library would acknowledge the Holocaust as its own memorial, and, through "words and the defeat of words," help us bear the now everlasting presence of evil's labours.

Instead of a library, Eisenman designed within his monument a wall of books, 20 metres high and 115 metres long, containing one million volumes on the Holocaust -- a wall of inaccessible books that, because they are largely beyond our reach and not allowed to serve the purpose for which they were conceived, are emptied of meaning, become their own shadow. Building a library, building a living monument to the power of reading, would have allowed in turn for a reading of the monument itself both as a place and a symbol, as well as a stage upon which we could have attempted to follow something approaching a cautionary tale. But by being nothing more than the display of a theory or a concept, by choosing to remain vaguely symbolic and not cross over into active symbolism, the Berlin Holocaust monument disallows for the viewer such cautionary readings. Eisenman's monument excludes the viewer, and so it only allows, through its intellectual design, a simulacrum of freedom that is dangerously close to indifference.

To become an image that grants us an illuminating reading, a work of art must force us into a compromise, into a confrontation; it must provide an epiphany, or at least a place for dialogue. In 1771, Denis Diderot began writing a novel, Jacques the Fatalist, in which we, the readers, are asked to accompany a valet and his master on their ride through France, making us take part in their dialogue and forcing us to comment on their actions as they wander from castle to inn to adventurous castle. Every authentic monument (that is to say, every monument that is both memory and reflection) must carry engraved on its portal the words Diderot has us read on the wall of one of those castles: "I belong to no one and to everyone; before entering, you were already here; here you will remain after departing."


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Author Photo: Simo Neri