We were warned about statues. The Psalms were so concerned about them that they said almost exactly the same thing in both the 115th and 135th of those often savage poems: “As for the images of the heathen, they are but silver and gold, the works of men’s hands. They have mouths and speak not: eyes have they, but they see not. They have ears, and yet they hear not: neither is there any breath in their mouths.” And then comes the final fist between the eyes: “They that make them are like unto them: and so are all they that put their trust in them.” Take that, idolaters.
As one who loves sculpture, stained glass, and painting, I do sometimes wonder if I am fooling myself about what so often seems to me to be the great and moral beauty of such things. I can see in most old churches in England the desolate evidence of this unending quarrel, in headless saints and ruined windows. It grieves me. “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins said of a similar desecration. But being on the Protestant side of the great dispute, I have to ask myself if my severe, destructive forebears may have been right, and I am just a sentimental fool.
John Buchan’s haunting short story The Grove of Ashtaroth cleverly brings that very old controversy into the modern world. An English settler in Africa is bewitched by an ancient pagan shrine on his land, and has to be rescued, very cruelly, by a friend before it altogether destroys him. Evil, Buchan observes unflinchingly, can be lovely. At the end of the tale, there can be no doubt that iconoclasm was for the best. But oh, the pain and loss of it.
And now it has come back to Oxford, to our glorious High Street, the single loveliest stretch of building and beauty in Europe (after the Grand Canal in Venice). Having the great good fortune to live nearby, I try to pass along it at least once every day of my life. It is full of sculpture. At the river end, there is what I have always assumed to be the severed head of John the Baptist, looking very dead indeed in its dish. Continue to lift your eyes upward and you will also see an owl with a mouse in its beak, a professor apparently bashing a student over the head with a book, Queen Anne shaking her fist at passersby (I have no idea why), a rotting corpse and a very grand sculpture of the Virgin and Child, placed over the porch of the University Church. Almost directly opposite, 50 feet above the street, is a rather ugly graven image of the businessman, politician, and philanthropist Cecil Rhodes, clutching a silly hat and looking a bit like a boxing promoter. You can almost smell his reeking cigar.
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. It was, as such things are, incoherent. A rather old campaign to take Rhodes down, copied from South Africa, has now somehow merged with a British “Black Lives Matter” movement, copied from the U.S. 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. No doubt Rhodes, Churchill, and Lincoln said and did things that we might now think of as bad. Quite probably, like most humans, they did and said things that they themselves regretted and were ashamed of.
But should they be hurled into the dust like some overthrown despot? I used to long for the removal of the legions of marble and bronze Lenins that infested Russia in my time there. They oppressed the mind and instilled a sort of hopelessness. I was pleased especially by the fall of the likeness of the terrible Felix Dzerzhinsky, apostle of Red Terror and founder of the Soviet secret police. His funeral wreath (once preserved in the KGB museum, where I was allowed to glimpse it in 1990) was made of bayonets. If there was ever a wholly bad man, it was him.
But I also remember the extraordinary memorial to Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was once a bloodstained Stalinist slave-driver (never let it be forgotten that it was mainly Communists who revived slavery in 20th-century Europe). But later he was the man who dared to end the cult of Stalin and was then overthrown by lesser men in case he went further. In the beautiful and melancholy Novodevichy Cemetery, on a great bend in the Moscow River, you may find Khrushchev’s monument. It is the work of the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, who Khrushchev himself once denounced as “degenerate.” Yet the deposed leader’s family chose Neizvestny to commemorate him, and the result is brilliant and full of thought. The dead man’s head is surrounded by huge stones, half black and half white, to commemorate the mixture of good and bad in him. Any human monument surely acknowledges this mixture already. I am no enthusiast for statues of slave-traders or Confederate leaders. But what do we gain by throwing them down? Only that cheap simulation of virtue, which comes from damning sins we have no mind to, while committing the ones we are inclined to.
But why do they provoke such feelings? Let us return for a moment to Oxford High Street, to the very spot where Cecil Rhodes now stands (for a while anyway). Look across the road and you will see that statue of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Infant which I mentioned at the beginning, now serene and beautifully restored. But on a June day in 1646, in the midst of England’s Civil War, Anglican Oxford fell to the Puritan soldiers of Cromwell’s New Model Army. And as the victorious Ironsides marched up that glorious street, some especially zealous troopers saw the graven image, cried out with rage at its idolatry, levelled their muskets at it, and opened fire. The scars remained there for centuries. Now we can barely understand why they cared. But the power of rock and metal, forged or hammered into human shapes, is astonishing and disturbing.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.
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