Monday, July 11, 2016

Commemoration and time

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (France).
The detail in the right upper corner of the photo shows names
 of soldiers written on the memorial (since I took this picture,
 the memorial has been cleaned)

Times are changing. What once was obvious will sooner or later disappear. New phenomena will take their places. Passages, shop windows, coffee houses and street cafés, and souvenir shops as well are relatively new phenomena. Or take sending view cards when you are on holiday. It came up with the rise of mass tourism but now in the age of the mobile telephone it’s disappearing and it is replaced by phone calls, SMS messages and the like. As such tourism is a new phenomenon, which finds its origin at the end of the middle ages, when people begun to travel for educational reasons. Shop windows are typical of mass society. When products are produced on a massive scale you have to sell them and in order to sell show what you have and seduce people to buy it. That’s what happened at the end of the 18th century when the shop window was invented and gradually became to dominate the street scene in the centres of big cities. But do they have a future in this time of Internet shopping? Now we see already that many shops are closed, since people increasingly buy on line: The shop window is replaced by the screen of your computer or mobile. It will have consequences for the way city centres will look like. When shops disappear, shop windows will disappear, too. Only some types of shops will remain, namely those with products you want to see “live” or where you go for the fun of shopping. Cloth shops are of that kind. But even then probably the traditional shop window will change. It can already be seen in shopping malls: The separation between public space and shops becomes diffuse. More and more shops there have open entrances. There is no demarcation anymore between shop and public room (the “street”). Then there is no need for the usual shop window. The shop has become shop window and selling place at the same time.
Another phenomenon that has changed during the ages is commemoration. It has become a mass phenomenon as well. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s not negative. I just think that it’s a positive effect of the massification and democratization of society. Commemoration is as old as history and much older. People want and wanted to commemorate especially the dead and so they build and built monuments for them - monuments that often withstood the ages, like grave mounds and pyramids. These examples also illustrate that commemorating was often an affair of the wealthy and powerful. It’s not that the common people didn’t commemorate but only the rich and powerful could afford to build monuments that remained. Besides grave monuments, also war monuments that show the power and victories of the rulers and generals are already as old as history. The Egyptian obelisks are of that kind as are the Roman triumphal arches.
Now I must fly through history and ignore the little monuments for the common people. They certainly existed, although many have been lost, but think of the crosses in Christian countries that you find everywhere on places where something important happened in the past, like on cross roads or just somewhere in the field. But the real democratization of commemorating took place since the French Revolution, two centuries ago. If we take war monuments, since then not only the victorious generals are commemorated and get their memorials but also the ordinary soldiers. They are no longer simply thrown in anonymous mass graves, but they get their individual graves in grave yards. If their names have been lost, they get a decent grave or if buried in a mass grave, the mass grave gets a more or less striking monument. There are even monuments for the unknown soldier. And people do not talk only about the political or national aspects of the military facts (victory or defeat) but also about the bravery and sufferance of the individual soldiers. Commemorating is by everybody and for everybody.
Such thoughts came to my mind when the Battle of the Somme was commemorated on July 1. Although commemoration is still often by the elite and for the elite (and also often used and misused for political purposes, already since the first monuments were erected), commemorating has been democratized as never before and has become a mass phenomenon in the positive sense: Ordinary people are increasingly involved. Commemorating as such is an eternal phenomenon but the way we do is the product of the time we live in. For where, to take an instance, do you find a Roman triumphal arch with the names of the fallen soldiers written on it like, for example, on the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme battles? Times are changing also for what is everlasting.

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