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Iconoclasm and Race Wars

The pedestal of Silent Sam after it was removed on August 20, 2018. Photo by Hameltion, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pulling statues down or calling for the removal of “problematic” portraits isn’t motivated by a desire to forget the past, Michel Foucault argued. It is a way of returning to it and reigniting its conflicts. Blake Smith in The Washington Examiner: “What we are in the habit of calling ‘identity politics,’ and particularly political movements based on (somewhat contradictory) appeals to racial solidarity and anti-racism, depend on a ‘certain way of making historical knowledge work within political struggle.’ So argued Foucault in Society Must Be Defended, a 1976 book based on a lecture series about ‘political historicism.’ Many on the American Right hold Foucault, along with his French postmodernist contemporaries, partly responsible for the emergence of identity politics. It would be more accurate to say that Foucault was one of the first, and sharpest, analysts of the way identity-based political movements appeal to history and ignite what he called ‘race war.’ . . . Hiding their crimes with myths, the oppressors have made the oppressed forget who they are and what they have suffered. But the signs of that historical violence are all around us — in statues, place names, and everyday language. Purging the culture of these signs is not so much an ethical demand that the past conform to present values as it is a way of plunging the present back into past conflicts, which the oppressed now stand a chance of winning.”

Peter Hitchens makes a similar point in a short piece on iconoclasm in England in First Things: “It is the Rhodes statue that is controversial. But this is no longer really about Rhodes. In the last few days it has been under police guard. Not long ago a large demonstration, wholly ignoring supposed rules about avoiding viral infection, gathered beneath it while shouting about decolonization, as if Britain still had an empire. Perhaps they wish it was so. People need enemies, and dismantled empires are nothing like as good for this purpose as living, breathing ones . . . And all over Britain, statues of forgotten politicians, merchants, generals, and admirals (and now the blue plaques that commemorate them) are being investigated, to see if they in some way celebrate a wicked past. Even the looming sculpture of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has been first scrawled on by protestors (who also defaced a nearby monument to Abraham Lincoln) and then hidden in a box by Greater London’s feeble authorities. This is a good indication of the state of modern Britain, teetering on the edge of a cultural revolution so severe that its greatest modern figure has lost his power as a unifying force and memory.”

In other news: Another scholar has claimed he has deciphered the Voynich Manuscript. Has he?

In praise of Mozart’s piano concertos: “At the most basic level, each of the concertos is the same shape and follows the same design as the others. There is also the question of numerology. There are 27 of them, in the sense that the last one is No. 27, but Mozart only wrote 23: the first four once attributed to him are juvenile arrangements of the works of other composers, probably undertaken as a pedagogic exercise under the supervision of his father . . . A small number of the concertos, perhaps five, are widely-known. The 1967 film Elvira Madigan is now principally remembered for its use as theme music of the dreaming andante of the C major concerto, K467. The thought that this sublime piece bears the name of a Danish tightrope dancer is as vexing to the music-lover as is the nomenclature of the bellini cocktail and the tuna carpaccio to an amateur of Venetian art. Then there is its companion piece, the D minor, K466. As a generalisation, the 19th century esteemed Mozart less than we do now, and the range of his works then known to the public was not large; even so, it had a taste for the composer in his more dramatic and stormier moods. K466, a rare excursion in this context into the minor mode, so captured the attention of subsequent Romantic composers that Alkan, Clara Schumann, Brahms and Busoni all wrote their own cadenzas (passages of solo display, most conspicuously near the conclusion of the first movement, which Mozart himself would typically have improvised in performance, and his versions of which have survived in only a few cases). So did the young Beethoven, a fact which may have helped to keep this concerto in the public eye during the period of Mozart’s relative neglect.”

From the crime fiction desk, Andrew Taylor files this survey of classic works. Stefan Beck reviews Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest “meta” mystery novel, Death in Her Hands: “The book is set in motion by 72-year-old Vesta Gul’s discovery of a cryptic note while walking her dog, Charlie. ‘Her name was Magda,” it reads. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ (There is no body.) Vesta is a widow, a transplant to the depressed rural town of Levant, where she has used the life insurance policy on her late husband, Walter, to purchase a cabin. Wild speculation about this found note is to be her chief pastime and purpose. Vesta is like Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher in the grip of cognitive decline. She is imaginative, up to a point, but illogical, prone to leaps that have no basis in the information available to her. Where a detective deduces, she simply decides, her fill-in-the-blanks process more storytelling than investigation. ‘Sometimes I felt,’ she muses, ‘that my mind was just a soft cloud of air around me, taking in whatever flew in, spinning it around, and then delivering it back out into the ether. Walter had always said I was sort of magical that way, a dreamer, his little dove. Walter and I had shared a mind, of course. Couples get that way.’ This aside announces the book’s two fixations: how imagination, like water, finds its level when diverted and constrained by a lack of stimulation, and how imagination fertilizes identity and individuality, even in arid soil.”

How will the coronavirus reshape architecture? I think it’s too early to say if it will, but if it does, Kyle Chayka takes a look at how it might.

Photo: Grodno Castle

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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