Tag Archives: memory

War and Architecture – Part 2

My recent posting about how cities memorialize their history in the buildings they renovate or build from scratch generated comments that added a great deal to the discussion going on in my own mind.

Emily at Back Bay View is “suspicious of postmodernists like Libeskind who want to make their patrons uncomfortable and to force them to think. Granted, trying to recreate the past too precisely sometimes results in a sentimental/themepark like effect. But, on the other hand, for how many years can you exist in/with a building that is a criticism of the human person? At some point, I would think, the discomfort will fade and the intended self-conscious effect won’t take place.

“Wouldn’t it be more healing to build structures that promote healing, rather than criticism? Couldn’t you say that the old building doesn’t represent a severe authoritarian past, so much as an orderly past, a past that preceded the Nazis by centuries, and an attempt to restore order is an act of hope? Whereas the architect who intends to break self-delusions promotes a discomfort with the self that leads not to hope but to melancholy?”

Frances informed me that Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-5 is about the bombing of Dresden, and also shared her experience of living and traveling in Germany: “I’ll always remember Freiburg, which was heavily bombed during WWII. When they rebuilt it, they used the original, medieval plans, so that it was exactly the same as before.”

Emily’s comments sent me back to the review I wrote of Architecture of Happiness, and I figured out that one basic reason I couldn’t like the new military museum was its failure to abide by the first principle of good architecture laid down in that philosophical book:
“Order. But not over-simplified. We like to see complex elements arranged in a regular pattern. What the author calls the ‘perverse dogma’ from the Romantic Period, that all edifices must be of original design, led to chaos in the landscape. ‘Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.’

“I was wondering if perhaps a museum might get away with such a brash statement, where being made to think isn’t a bad thing, but you are probably right, the statement will lose its effect. (I hope in the meantime it squelches those Neo-Nazis a bit)…and yes, the jarring buildings fail to offer hope or show harmony. But without reference to or undergirding by the Christian gospel, an artist is unlikely to find those elements, and will drift from melancholy right on to nihilism.”

We have to ask, as Jody did, “If you were to rebuild Dresden and not look back, but forward, how would you go about it? I agree that “onward and forward” is the best, but would there not be little bits of the past that one would want to honor, I wonder? (not the ugly, of course)”

Emily also “…went to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, VA, which has a very similar slanted pyramid design which is supposed to recall the photo of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. (and a statue is right in front of the museum so that reference isn’t missed). But in the case of the MCM, the glass pyramid doesn’t interrupt another building like Libeskind’s design, since it’s located outside the city and rises above the treeline and catches the sunshine. So a very similar design in a different context has a completely different effect.

“Likewise, I couldn’t help thinking of another glass pyramid, the one designed by IM Pei as an additional entrance to the Louvre. I don’t know the philosophy behind it, but it just strikes me as out of context and so a little silly, like a non sequitur comment. Maybe there is some reason for its being, but it was lost on me, your average tourist.”

Kari hopes that “we can find a way to heal the past without forgetting, and to go forward in peace, love, harmony. The Holocaust brings us face to face with forgiveness and with how to forgive in the face of the unforgivable.”

I wanted to share this discussion with anyone who might have been interested in the topic but who didn’t get in on the ensuing and improving thoughts. Since I wrote the original post we had the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which got me thinking about further aspects.The Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse page now has an article on the subject, wherein the author points out links to the whole Allied strategy. Consequentialism is a word that was new to me, discussed here on the Witherspoon page and on Touchstone’s Mere Comments. The Ochlophobist questions our utilitarian mindset that can’t tolerate the absolute moral principle.

I’m in over my head as usual, but it’s obvious that some of my readers are good at this kind of swimming. I hope I am learning something from them as I flail about.

Memory and Memory Eternal

My father-in-law has been forgetting things. In fact, in the last many months he can’t remember most events longer than a couple of minutes after they take place. If they happened 60 or 80 years ago there is a good chance that he will remember them, but what one would call his short-term memory, that which he is losing, is broadening in scope. Ten years ago he often told us stories about things that happened 10, 20, 30 years previous, and I heard some of those stories enough times to remember them myself.

One had to do with his old leather jacket. We were at the assisted-living place where he lives, about to go out to dinner, and I wanted to take his recent favorite jacket home to launder, so I handed him another old favorite to put on. As we took the elevator down and signed out at the front desk, he got several compliments on his appearance. I told the concierge, “He and his cousin both bought leather jackets in Spain when they were on a trip there together more than 30 years ago.”

“I did?” he chuckled. “I’m glad you remember these things.” I remember some other stories he used to tell, but lately I hear new stories, from further back. Even his daughter was surprised to hear, when the conversation at a Christmas gathering turned to pets, “We always had fox terriers.” She didn’t know anything about a fox terrier tradition, because the dogs of her childhood were dachshunds and schnauzers. But W. was referring to the first dog he remembered, when he was a boy, named “Spot.” And he’s told us a few times since about Spot.

When we passed a purple house on the way back from a doctor’s appointment one afternoon, he said, “That reminds me of a woman in our church who we always called ‘The Purple Lady.’ Everything she had was purple. I haven’t thought of Mrs. Finnegan for a long time.” That was a church of his childhood, 75 yeas ago. It’s as though the loss of one data set has forced his mind to resort to a long-neglected mine of memory if it wants to keep busy.

One tale that is like the overarching First Story of his life, sweetly involves his wife, my late mother-in-law. And it happened when he was only about five years old, so I hope it will be the last one to be forgotten. Their families were friends–an aunt and uncle had even married–and they lived only a couple of blocks from each other. W. came by and walked F.K. to school on the first day of Kindergarten. They were always companions, never dated anyone else, and married when they were 21. The picture was taken in 2nd grade, cropped from the class photo where they were sitting next to each other.

W. has some good habits, which trump the rational; that is, he doesn’t have to remember to do these tasks. On another laundry-gathering visit, I asked him to take off his clothes and put on clean ones right then, so I could take the dirty ones home. When I came back into the bedroom, he had neatly folded the pants and hung them back on their hanger on the doorknob, and hung up the shirt likewise. Because he always does. And he had already forgotten why he was changing his clothes in the middle of the day.

He has a habit of being friendly and gentlemanly, so that he kept trying to help ladies scoot their chairs up to the table even when he was becoming unsteady on his feet. And he cracks really funny jokes–new ones–in the emergency room or anywhere there are people, strangers or friends.

God only knows if I have any good habits that will remain when I lose my mind’s faculties. How many pair of pants needed folding before it made a habit that endured? If I start now, building the habits I think might serve me, or God, is it too late?

I once heard Wynton Marsalis exhorting young people about the power of the daily habit of practicing their musical instruments: “Every day you go around making yourself into you.” We are not what we dream of being, we are not our vision of ourselves, or God’s plan for us, but a collection of usually little, seemingly insignificant acts that add up to a unique person.

I see people I love weaken and become confused by the afflictions of age and the loss of memory, like Vivian, who asked her daughter, “Am I myself?”

“Yes, Mom, you are.”

But there are people who don’t seem to know themselves, and certainly multitudes who have forgotten their own important stories. One aunt of ours thought she was in her right mind, but did not recognize her own daughter, and told her she was an impostor.

The possibility that I might forget important people, forget who I am, is certainly disturbing. It happens to a lot of people, being another way we are not in control, even of our own memories.

The scariest thing imaginable is to forget God. When Christ said to “take no thought for the morrow,” surely this thought was included! I have to quickly move on, and rest in the belief that it’s more important for God to remember me, than for me to remember Him. And I pray He will not soon forget someone who has tried to “stick to Christ like a burr to a coat,” as Martin Luther’s wife Katharina is said to have resolved.

Recently I read Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle,” which added a new dimension to my musings on this mysterious unknown toward which we are all headed. Niggle and his art are eventually forgotten by everyone on earth, and what he accomplished in his life “down here,” which was always less than he should have done, and always incomplete, has faded somewhat from his own memory. God remembers him, though, and makes use of Niggle in surprising and grand ways. What Niggle learns of Love becomes a story, a work of art and even a spiritual retreat, called by his own name, that continues to benefit souls out of time.

In the Orthodox Church we sing a simple hymn, “Memory Eternal,” at the end of memorial services, and in me it is a prayer for just this wondrous kind of thing God can do, to wrap us up in Himself and carry us through whatever shadowy places we encounter, whether in our minds or along our pathways, until our minds and hearts, and all things, are made new in that heavenly and everlasting Kingdom.