Heads of Stone, Hearts of Lead

Four months ago, I published The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List™. By now, more diligent readers than I must be in need of new reading material. In recognition of society’s recent collective shift of attention, I present The Public Statue Reading List™.

The qualifications for the list:
– It must be available for free online; trips to the library are still out of the question for many people.
– It must deal with a public statues, with particular emphasis on the significance of public monuments.
– It must be relatively short; many of us have learned recently that an extraordinary amount of time at home does not mean an extraordinary amount of reading time.

The Book of Daniel, Chapter 2. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon dreamed of a colossal statue whose “head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” With God’s help, Daniel interprets the dream, explaining how the statue represents the rise and fall of successive empires.

Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus, Book I, Chapters 45-47. According to Diodorus, the city of Thebes was “the most prosperous city, not only of Egypt, but of the whole world.” “For no city under the sun has ever been so adorned by votive offerings, made of silver and gold and ivory, in such number and of such size, by such a multitude of colossal statues, and, finally, by obelisks made of single blocks of stone.” Preeminent among the statues was that of Ozymandias (whom we know today as Ramesses II), which was not only gigantic, but “also marvelous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith. Shelley and Smith wrote their sonnets as part of a friendly competition. Each poem uses the ruins of a great Egyptian statue as an allegory for the impermanence of the works of man. Even the greatest statue of the greatest king will eventually crumble and be forgotten.

The Bronze Horseman by Alexander Pushkin. This narrative poem follows its protagonist through St. Petersburg’s great flood of 1824. The protagonist loses everything in the calamity: his home, his fiancée, and his sanity. Later, in a moment of “painful clarity of thought,” he recognizes in the great equestrian statue of Peter the Great the ultimate source of his troubles.

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. The main characters of this children’s story are a statue and a swallow. Despite his title, the statue of the Happy Prince is quite sad and weeps for the poor of the city. From his pedestal, he has an unparalleled vantage of the citizens’ suffering. To ease their pain, the Happy Prince has the swallow pluck out his gems and peel off his gold leaf and distribute them to the needy. The town counsellors and the mayor, seeing the statue stripped of his ornamentation, tear it down and vote to enact government spending reform to alleviate the tax burden on the city’s poor. Just kidding, they fight over whose statue should replace the Happy Prince.

The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. Lazarus wrote this sonnet as part of a drive to raise funds to build the pedastal for New York Harbor’s Statue of Liberty. The statue, of course, is of Liberty personified, and the poem describes Liberty as “the Mother of Exiles,” holding the torch of freedom for the whole world to see.

Oration on the Occasion of the Unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument by Fredrick Douglass. The Freedmen’s Monument, in Washington, D.C., portrays a benevolent Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation and standing over a crouching erstwhile slave in broken chains. In his speech at the monument’s unveiling, Douglass acknowledged that Lincoln was not principally interested in vindicating the rights of slaves. “[Lincoln] was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty,” if it meant peace for white Americans. Lincoln had even offered to preserve the institution of slavery if the Confederates would lay down their arms. Regardless of Lincoln’s primary intentions, however, Douglass believed that the monument was appropriate.

Each of the above readings provides a framework for considering the purpose and import of public statues. For those who actually followed through on the The Authoritative Quarantine Reading List™ (and anybody else who is interested,) I would also point to Book 6 of The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. There, Thucydides relates how, shortly after Athens recovered from the plague, many of the city’s statues had their faces mutilated in the night. History never stops repeating itself, does it?

Beer of the week: Dogfish Head Sixty One – This is meant to be the same beer as Dogfish Head’s flagship 60 Minute IPA, but brewed with Syrah grape must. As it pours out of the bottle, this beer looks like a sparkling rosé. In the glass, however, Sixty One is a very dark pink, nearing amber. The head is rocky and long-lasting. The aroma is definitely has plenty of red wine notes. This delicious beer is hard to pin down because the hops are somewhat muted compared to the earthy grape notes. I think that it is well-balanced, but hard to describe.

Reading of the week: The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue in Metamorphoses by Ovid – This is the perfect story for someone who really loves statues. However, I omitted the tale of Pygmalion from the reading list because it does not deal with a public statue; Pygmalion kept his ivory maiden in a private, ornately decorated room.

Question for the week: What is the best argument for spending tax money to erect and maintain statues–any statues?



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