The Monument Does Not Remember



FOR many years, my special field of study being the history of architecture, I have taken more than a casual notice of monuments — a term which connotes all those forms that architecture assumes when it seeks eternal life. With the war at an end, these invite an interest more immediate than that of a historian. Now, when the seeds of a million war memorials are warm in our soil, we ought to examine monuments more curiously than hitherto; and especially we should take note of those familiar strange shapes set up on village green and city square after each of our wars, which address the future in the commingled languages of architecture, sculpture, and letters. Shall we again entrust to these the memory of our soldier dead? We should ask our philosophers to speak of these matters: to tell us what monuments are, why we build them, and if we ought to build them.

In the midst of an evolving and fragmentary world, we are forever searching for permanence and completeness. The endless pattern of change perplexes us, deprives our lives of importance, frightens us as we stand each day nearer to eternity. Therefore we have taken eagerly to ourselves whatever appeared to be enduring, anchored, and yet apposite to human life. We see the hills, solid and firmly set upon the earth, but the continuity which these proclaim is not our own. Not so the pyramid, which, smaller in bulk, is yet infinitely larger in human effort. Stable, balanced, incapable of collapse or fracture, of change or of growth, co-existent with the mountain after which it was patterned, the pyramid, most perfect of monuments, shares the energy of the mountain and yet announces our energy. Whoever builds a pyramid collaborates with the gods, perfecting their work with a model more conformable to our desires. They were most nearly gods who placed three pyramids side by side.

We have searched also for definition and finality — and we have discovered these also in the monument. Symphonies, poems, and philosophic pantologies console us with promises of order and completeness; they are walled Utopias having each its gate and secret key; and yet they may lift us out of this our uncongenial world with a force less compelling than that of the great obelisk which commands the Washington Mall or the arch which crowns the Avenue des Champs-Elysées.

Lost in the jungle where no thing arrives at more than a momentary perfection, where even the systems and the suns must submit to the caprices of nebulae and comet, the mind clings to such symbols. The monument — geometric, arbitrary, and selfsufficient — stands before us evident and complete, accessible to the intelligence. Pure of form, like a sonata, the monument solicits our disinterested vision; we follow the lines, the planes that answer or oppose each other, the sequences and the harmonies, some of which reveal themselves subtly and after a sustained experience; we are for that moment free.

These are the first and philosophic gifts of the monument; but we demand a wider utility. We ask for shelter. The primeval monument was a heap of stones protecting the body of a departed hero: from that time to this we have tried to give such dignity to useful space. We ask for praise. The house of a god must be tall and more nobly built than that of his worshipers: from that source flowed the stream of architecture confirming through long generations the majesty of gods and kings, of democratic legislatures, and of the Pennsylvania Railroad. We ask for pleasure. The monument, clothed in anecdote and peristyle, decorates the city; steeped in history, it is the last refuge of the Academy. We ask also that the monument should remember.

This need for remembrance added effigy and picture to the monument. The gods were the first to ask that favor of the monument. Although they were well served by architecture, which worships them even in the meanest house, they were yet not so confident of eternity as to rely wholly upon an art of abstractions. They had need also of statue and story explicitly to confirm their authority. The autocrats, the conquerors, and the great kings, who always aspire to be gods, then extended their dominions into time by the same device. Like the gods, they loved monuments as simulacra of that ordered world which is the natural home of the absolute mind, — a passion they shared with philosophers, themselves a species of autocrat, — but they could not rely merely upon solidity and harmony of form. The monument must set forth more patently the nature and the causes of their grandeur. Queen Hapshepsut explains and warrants her temple with the story of her birth carved on the granite walls of Dierel-Bahari, and the renown of the Emperor Trajan, secure in the magnificent sequences of his Forum, must yet be defended by a ribbon of his soldiers wound around a marble column. An infatuation with monuments is the common trait of Pharaoh, Philip, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.


THE people, to whom monuments are presumably addressed, do not understand abstractions, and care for them less. They will look for picture first and for architecture after the story is told. When monuments are big enough they will astonish the people; when they are old enough they may capture the people’s romances; associated with the dead they are pegs for the people’s piety (there are many who mistake a monument for a tombstone); but without picture the people will not love them. Monuments must enact history: as does Liberty, for example, enlightening the world in New York Harbor, or Farragut, in Madison Square, swept by the breezes of Mobile Bay.

These are actors on a wide stage. The excitement they occasion as picture, the emotion they provoke as symbol, have little to do with form or taste or provenance, still less with their architectural harmonies. Rare indeed are the instances of popular approval of a monument “for its own sake,” a work of art valued for that contemplative delight which we are told is the essential of the aesthetic experience. For that sort of thing we build museums.

The people want to see their heroes and to see them at the moment of their heroism. Saint Sebastian is not summoned to the people’s mind by the slender shaft which leans against the abbey wall: they must see the cruel arrows bristling from his beautiful body. So Nathan Hale must look proudly into the British rifles, and Stonewall Jackson flourish the sword of Seven Oaks above the Atlanta tulips; and so must the men of Guadalcanal ride their tanks over fronded marble. To the people a monument is a frame for these pictures in three dimensions which they mistake for sculpture. Architecture is a means for giving permanence to these pictures.

Architecture also confers dignity. Sometimes we approve monuments without liking them, because they appear to give importance to our history. The people, as every politician knows, like to usurp the homage due the gods. The symbols of autocracy are translated into symbols of democracy with surprising facility. We know how Thomas Jefferson, himself an architect, fills the round imperial Pantheon with democratic sentiment: the two had made an appointment in heaven to meet again on earth.

In like manner the statue of Abraham Lincoln, consciously awkward, is prefaced with that same peristyle which once promised us, not Lincoln, but the thearchy of Athena. A popular success necessarily arises from the fusion of themes so dear to the people with the cadences of an old and aristocratic art. The equivocal nature of this dignity will not offend those who know little Latin and less Greek.

Architecture has this advantage over sculpture: its absurdities are evident only to those who love it. A sculptor once unclothed Washington and gave him, in a heroic statue confronting the Capitol, the nude grandeur of a Roman god (the costumes of gods being ever a sculptor’s dilemma), and we know that the renown of Washington might not have survived that apotheosis had not Congress wisely sequestered Greenough’s masterpiece in the unvisited halls of the Smithsonian Institution. Such mummery is less often rebuked in architecture.

This then is the people’s memorial. Raised by the gods to assure men of eternal life, the monument also illustrated in picture and statue the legends which sustained their theocratic power. The conquerors, who walk the stage of history less remotely than the gods, made that symbol their own and, in order that the gods might not claim them, covered their monuments with the picture and inscription which recited the stories of their conquests. The people, persuaded of the immortality of the memories entrusted to monuments, adopted the tradition. The people’s heroes, the energies of their spirits and the story of their wars, were thenceforth described in bronze and set in frames of architecture. A popular ritual of diuturnity is established.

Shall we ask now what it is that we have thus immortalized and what may be the nature of this immortality?


No PICTURE, not even a thousand pictures, can show us war. Pictures are at best peepholes revealing the merest fragments of reality. The most candid of cameras — and of motion picture cameras — selects, arranges, and distorts. There is no realism which can compass war, this horror and madness, this confusion, pain, filth, and waste; neither is there any symbol which will invoke the smallest part of it.

How then shall we port ray our heroes? The warrior without war? That is precisely what the conquerors have shown us. In their monuments we see war, as Perseus saw Medusa, in a mirrored shield. We are shown the glamor, the adventure, the movement and heroic posture, but not the cruelty which gives these meaning; nor is there any realism of attitude, costume, or facial expression which can move these from behind the footlights. We know, for example, how Wolfe died at Quebec and Nelson at Trafalgar, their officers grouped picturesquely about, and every visual circumstance given emphasis by the sanctions of the Academy. We hear the music of the cannon; we see the sunlight on the stage; only war is missing. Not men, but sawdust fantoccini, are torn by the confetti shrapnel of Meissonier.

On his elegant horse, led by a delicate Victory, General Sherman rides out of Central Park. His cape falls in studied folds, carefully adjusted in a Parisian studio. What was it that Sherman said of war? Who was the better witness, the general or his statue? Where now are the endless marches under the Southern sun, the blackened villages, burned fields and uprooted gardens, white columns wrapped in red flames, the hatred and anguish and despair spread over half a nation? They are not on the monument — and neither, let me add, is Victory. They who have seen Victory give quite a different account of her.

High over Monument Avenue on his rococo pedestal rides General Lee, wrapped in his beautiful legend. We do not see around him the casuistry which provoked four years of useless and unnecessary conflict, the ungenerous rancor which sent him and the gallant men who followed him into their cruel struggle and more cruel disillusionment; nor do we find one hint of the ruin and bitterness which these scattered over the land. What is there here of war? A gentleman rides his horse on Monument Avenue.

It will be interesting to note how the sculptors of our day will represent generals, now that our generals no longer ride their horses. Marshall answering the telephone? Doolittle at the controls? Probably we shall not show them at all: in art, generals have gone out of fashion. The Column of Trajan and the Arch of Titus are classic precedents, if such are needed, for describing in sculpture and in terms sufficiently ingenuous the common soldier, certain to be the hero of this present war. Colonel Shaw, cast in bronze on Boston Common, rides his horse against a panel of infantrymen; it will be the colonel now who will fill in the background.

We have seen in Times Square the sculptures which tell us how the Marines raised the flag over Iwo Jima: a prophetic work heralding a population of marble soldiers. The sculptor, without being conscious of it, was as economical of war as were those who cast the equestrian generals. You have not seen the flag raised over Iwo Jima until you have seen the black smoke and red flames of our guns, the terrible swift descent of our bombers, the enemy tortured by tank and flame-thrower, the emergency operation, the noise and stench, the loneliness and desolation which covered that narrow island.

The sculptors will fill our parks and squares with faithful presentments of our soldiers, explicit of helmet, bayonet, and button, and no homely circumstance slighted. They will try to bring the grim business to your doorstep in a democratic guise. They will not succeed. The war will hide its head behind the common man quite as easily as behind the trophies of conquerors. Do not ask the monument what is hidden. The monument does not remember.


WE acknowledge the need to commemorate, to build some witness to this sacrifice and to our gratitude. If not the monument, what then?

Whatever continues and sustains that for which our soldiers fought is a commemoration more eloquent and enduring than the loftiest monument. That man is most remembered whose endeavors are most imitated; whose words and deeds are published by the words and deeds of other men; who lives in the lives of those who follow him, their spirits kindled by his spirit. Lincoln is less honored by those who caricature, however lovingly, his gaunt figure and quaint costume than by those who repeat his generous soul; and Washington, I am sure, would give his obelisk to have a few pounds of his steadfast courage under the iron dome on Capitol Hill. So the Salvation Army youth, beating his drum on the sidewalks of the Bowery, continues William Booth; so the Scout leader continues Robert Baden-Powell; and so the nurse in the alien Solomons continues and honors Florence Nightingale. Art cannot attain so just an expression.

Four hundred monuments, it is said, burden the field of Gettysburg; and yet they add no single leaf of laurel to those who died there. Gettysburg is transfigured, as we all know, by a briefer dedication infinitely less facile.

Now I do not suggest that we should let this present moment pass without some gesture which shall translate our hearts. I am for some act, immediate and unequivocal, repeated in every town and village, which will attest our faith in the cause for which these men have made so great a sacrifice. The flags and the bunting will come down, the band will play for only a day, the bravest toasts are speedily drunk, and even the speeches will end at last. Our lives will resume their even rhythms, and the new war will be hurled each day backward towards Château-Thierry, Appomattox, and Yorktown. Let us not turn to our ledgers without some durable achievement which shall give added life to that for which our soldiers have fought.

I do not know what our soldiers have fought for if it is not to guard and to nourish the spiritual energies of the people among whom they were born and among whom they hope to live. The Four Freedoms? Freedoms are opportunities. When we have won the Four Freedoms, we have won only the freedom to build whatever theater for our lives we may wish to build.

Let the stones of that theater honor those who defended its foundations. Build no monument, but a civilization fit for free men. Build something that is simple and considered, useful to the community, unaffected and full of a present happiness; some fine thing that we cannot afford and yet will afford. Do not wait for the completed plan of a city; take now the first utilitarian steps. A park in a neighborhood which is now a waste of asphalt and brick; a playground where children have only the streets; a schoolhouse to replace that dreary box so long overtaken by the progress of the art and science of teaching; a music hall, a theater, a library, a church accessible to all faiths. The role of these continues through the years; they are not static; they are not makebelieve; they serve; and they are always beautiful.

People tell me that in these buildings purpose and use will obscure the dedication. Our memories must be brief indeed if they are so readily distracted. People tell me that in building useful memorials we are exploiting the soldier, building in his name the things which suit our convenience. He is bankrupt of argument who calls me a knave. Clearly I am thinking, not of conveniences, but of that service to the spirit which gives meaning to useful things. I am not for Memorial Convention Halls or Memorial Baseball Fields or Memorial Waterworks — although it may be that my judgment in these matters is more a judgment of taste than of principle. There is no serviceability which does not give dignity to architecture, but there are degrees in serviceability as there are degrees in dignity. There are buildings which lift the communal life out of the narrow business of getting and spending. These I would illumine with that renewed purpose and hope which our men will surely draw from their ordeal by fire.

It is that purpose and hope which I would commemorate— not war, for that is glorious only to conquerors and the ancient gods; not war, for that can never be recorded. If our soldiers remain anonymous in our useful buildings, that is because they are already anonymous, being inseparable from the nation out of which they sprang. How then can one give them added life except in the life of that nation? The monument recites names, dates, events, and our own piety, but never the spirit. That also the monument does not remember.


I SHOULD like now to return to the beginning of this paper and to remind the reader of the basic nature of the monument which I noted there: I mean the monument as an essay in permanence and completeness. I should like to consider not so much the appearances of the monument as the quality monumentality. I would have the monument address us once more in the language of architecture, disencumbered of picture, legend, and conventional piety. Will it then have some meaning for us — and perhaps some quality apposite to the spirit of our soldiers — which in my comments on the more popular memorial I have overlooked?

It will not be easy to imagine such a pure monument, so overlaid are architectures with alien shadows and reflected suns. How shall we imagine the Invalides without Napoleon, Versailles without Louis? How shall we imagine Mont-Saint-Michel free from the cadences and colors of the Chanson de Roland, now that Henry Adams has made these inseparable? And if we could disentangle the Colosseum from Rome and set it down like the Yale Bowl all crisp and shining at the edge of New Haven, would it not be the Yale Bowl? The crater of the Bowl has as majestic a sweep; only it does not, as it happens, contain the blood of Christian martyrs — well, at any rate, not so much of it.

Within the variable and uncertain meanings which time lays on architecture there are enclosed architectural ideas which are constant and universal: among these the idea of the monument. If the obelisk, free of Washington, stood before us a pure mathematical creation of the spirit, if it no longer decorated the city, conclusion and crown of the great Mall, it would nevertheless speak to us. What then would it say? It would reaffirm, I think, precisely that which the pyramids promised us: stability and finality.

Why is it that this message has had power over our imaginations? Is it not because we believed in and desired the peace that is promised us? Suppose that we came in the course of time to find less oppressive than hitherto the ideas of impermanence and change; if we were indeed to accept the actuality of a universe in evolution, of a mankind borne forward on a great tide whose distant end and present values are inaccessible to our imaginations; if we were to accept this actuality without fear and without rebellion; should we not then find somewhat less persuasive the story told us by the monument ?

Thus made modern-minded — less wistful of eternity, less enraptured of symmetry — we might cling less tenaciously to its consolations. Perhaps we should conclude that the monument, considered as philosophic expression, belongs definitely to the civilization out of which it developed: I mean the classic world-picture to which nature was finite and man the measure and fixed pole of the universe. It is not by accident that our monuments are so often dressed in the Doric mode.

These considerations will appear less fantastic if we will acknowledge first the principle of architecture as an art of expression (a principle somewhat reluctantly recognized in our present practice), and second the necessity in architecture, so often affirmed and so little heeded, of a relevance to the genuine culture of its time.

If with these principles in mind we were to examine the American scene, we should, I think, discover a surprising dissonance between our present thought and the monument — a dissonance which began with the Greek Revival and continues to this day. A people in continuous and accelerated change covers its land with fixed and static symbols. Our giant and unpredictable energies, which admit no impediment in science, in technologies, in social progress, or in war, submit in art to the imprisonment of an arid ritual. Our techniques multiply; our powers widen; new patterns of thought and conduct, of valuations and loyalties, come crowding upon us; we are free men and the world draws near us — and we give outward form to our thought and feeling with quaint adulteries of Greece and Rome.

It should be understood that I do not reproach the innocent men who raised the Washington obelisk. They were speaking Greek without understanding it. They had returned in their dreams and in their oratory to the glories of antiquity; a coquetry with Rome seemed appropriate to a republic governed not by a parliament but by a senate; and the future tinge of democracy in the fabric of government could not have been then discerned. They expressed not themselves but their doctrines, architecture being a dead art.

There must be many of us who, knowing the latent power of architecture for human happiness, wish for an architecture which is no longer a dead art. We should like to relate our architecture to ourselves in order that it may have meaning for us. Living in the midst of a becoming and an unfolding, conscious of change and of the necessity of change, of the end of old systems and thoughts and usages even when we love them ardently, opening our arms to an unpredictable future, we, too, desire a symbol. That symbol, if it is to command us, must be founded upon our own thought. We do not ask for escape.

Useful buildings — useful in the sense that I have described — will satisfy us with an ordered pattern which, if we understand it, must be inherently more eloquent than any monument : not from a dignity of service merely, but from the share it assumes in the march of our civilization. That relevance completes the pattern which otherwise lacks the faith essential to all finality; and if these buildings pretend to no eternity, but like ourselves are clearly to be dissolved into the stream of history, it may be that that, too, will bring them closer to our hearts. Long life is no virtue either in man or in his constructions.

Our soldiers will understand our faith. They fought for it. They will know that whatever we build for the happiness of our people — of their people — honors them; that we continue them in the structures which serve the ends they served. They will see that we believe in that which they believed in; that we have made the freedoms they defended the bases of new freedoms; that we have taken to ourselves their spirit and merged it into the crescent civilization which we share. This land is their immortality.