Statues are not history. They are not for the dead. They are for the living. They are memories cut in stone and bronze. Those memories are no more impartial and disinterested than any of our own. We don’t build statues to gravity any more than we think of gravity as a thing apart from our everyday reality. Those things just are and there’s no need to think about it, much less carve and cast it. They are there whether we think about them or not.
Statues are not like that. They are objects that tell us what to think about and how to think about them. They tell a story. Given enough time, those stories are told by the dead to the living. Often those stories are about what the dead thought about people who were already dead. Statues are the dead telling us how to remember other dead.
The dead do not speak ill of the dead. There are no statues of Osama Bin Laden in lower Manhattan, Arlington, VA, or Shanksville, PA and I expect there never will be. And rightly so, I suppose. For such a statue to exist we’d have to relegate the objects to mere historical record and we have many other ways to do that. Such an object in those places could never be merely neutral. There would be a message to those who would come after. The dead don’t like their stories to be that complicated.
Statues are stories told by one set of dead people about another set of dead people. Their existence is a fact of history, but they themselves are not history. They are selective memories. They are the stories our ancestors told themselves. They are our ancestors pointing to their past and saying “this is what you should think about when you think about us.” We don’t commemorate the Shoah. We commemorate and honor the memories of those who perished in it. That’s not everyone. We don’t commemorate the guards and the orderlies and secretaries and the train engineers who made it all possible. And we should not. We can’t change the fact they existed. We can only punish them by making them anonymous. Not forgetting what they did. Forgetting them.
Statues do not spring from the earth fully formed, and they do not pass through our generation to the next without our consent. When we pass a statue along to those who will follow us, we say “Yes, this is how we think of this as well.” We, who will be dead, add our voices to those who already are.
It was not for Ozymandias to decide to find himself in that desert. Someone apparently did look upon his work and despair. And decided it was time to stop.