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Spring 2002
   
The Monument They Deserve
Myron Magnet
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The attacks of September 11 made us sadder but also wiser: as a nation we grasp more fully at a deep emotional level the value of the civilization that the terrorists sought to destroy. Now we are struggling to find again the voice and language to describe what we so strongly feel to be the unique preciousness of our way of life. Designing a monument to the 3,000 who died that day is part of our endeavor to translate such powerful feeling into articulate expression; and as officials and committees ponder what kind of memorial we should build, they need to be sure that whatever rises at the hub of the World Trade Center site is an eloquent, unembarrassed declaration of the profound, shared, but still inchoate sense of the grief, patriotism, resolve, and rededication that the city and nation feel together.

How then to put our feelings into words, before transmuting them into an affirmation in bronze or stone? The one thing we all know, to begin with, is that the monument must convey our sorrow at the overwhelming loss of so many of our colleagues and neighbors, friends and relatives. Our shared lament over the destruction of so many innocent lives should reverberate down the endless vistas of the future. We are building a shrine to commemorate those who will have no other gravestone but this.

Yet those who died lost their lives not only as private individuals but as representatives of our American civilization and the world order it has created; and with our lament should go no less clearly an affirmation of the high worth of that civilization, with the unparalleled liberty and opportunity it has engendered for so many millions here on our shores and, more recently, with the prosperity it has nurtured for so many additional millions around the globe, through the efforts of people like those lost when the towers fell.

One out of every nine who died was a fireman, policeman, or emergency worker; and the memorial needs specially to record and honor their heroism, almost certainly in a separate monument. The virtues they displayed that morning—courage, duty, loyalty, selflessness—emphatically prove that the chivalric code Burke feared had died two centuries ago still lives even in the new millennium and still inspires in its acceptance that, yes, there are things worth dying for. The WTC attack was the deadliest-ever foreign act of war on our soil, and the rescuers, uniformed officers in our city’s service, embodied all the martial virtues as they managed to save more people than at first seemed possible. In giving the last full measure of devotion, in Lincoln’s luminous phrase, the rescuers showed that our civilization still nurtures ordinary men with moral qualities capable of amazing the world.

Ideas like these are what our monument needs to sum up, as eloquently and movingly as our culture can. But if most citizens share a broad sense of the emotional charge they want the memorial to carry, the elite committeemen who will make the final choice of design may not be the ideal translators of that common feeling into concrete form, given the mindset of today’s elites. For example, a famed elite institution recently balked in horror at the idea of accepting a figurative sculpture for its facility, because its officers didn’t want to commit to any definite meaning, certainly not with such self-confidence as to cast it in bronze or carve it in stone. They reluctantly acceded to a sculpture only after stipulating that it not signify . . . anything. Their fear, one imagines, is that in a world of multiple perspectives and equally valid values, to fix on one value, thus suggesting its preeminence, would be to transgress the whole multiculti decalogue, from hegemony to phallocentrism. If you can’t say anything relativistic, don’t say anything at all.

To avoid affirming any value beyond an indiscriminate tolerance and compassion, the tendency of today’s elite culture is to drop into noncommittal vagueness. But in the face of September 11, our monument can’t limit itself to the abstract gesture of a trickle of water weeping out of a polished stone or a ribbon of rusted steel contorted in agony. As sculptor Nathan Rapoport once put it, it is not adequate to make a Warsaw Ghetto memorial by drilling a hole in a stone and saying, “Voilà, the heroism of the Jewish people.” The reality calls for something more profound and direct.

Yet indirection is (at least in my view) a key defect of one idea for a Twin Towers memorial that has sparked much interest—the proposal by the Metropolitan Museum’s subtle and cultivated director Philippe de Montebello that we re-erect a twisted chunk of the North Tower that remained standing after the rest of the two buildings fell. Like those gutted churches whose shells some European cities have preserved as reminders of the bombing they suffered during World War II, the WTC fragment would in one sense make a quite literal and direct statement, of course: Look at the destruction wrought upon us; look at the destructiveness of which man is capable. But is this the affirmation we wish to make? Is this a fitting memorial to the human reality of the events of September 11? Moreover, as sculptor Alexander Stoddart puts it, “Whom shall we allow to design our monuments?” The terrorists?

Still more important, though, de Montebello’s idea attracts support because of the associations that surround this piece of the ruined building. Not only is the tortured steel structure reminiscent of abstract sculpture—it is a fragment, testifying to our supposed inability to be whole or to see whole in the modern world; it is a “found object,” the product as much of chance as of design—but also this seven-story-high remnant of Minoru Yamasaki’s building, cut off just above the arches that formed the structure’s base, resembles a ruined cathedral. So to many who like this scheme, it is as if, out of all the carnage, comes without human design a religious message of divine consolation, which you can take or leave, as you like, since it is all in the eye of the beholder. The equivocation of its affirmation—if affirmation it be—is first among the defects that ought to disqualify this proposal. This is not the faith that looks through death.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our culture should need some time to find the right artistic idiom for the WTC monument. It’s not just that we’ve endured half a century of abstraction in sculpture and both modernism and postmodernism in architecture, dead ends from which we have to find our way back. In addition, the last time our country faced a task like this was in building the Vietnam War memorial; and the decorous tact of Maya Lin’s low-key design has understandably left many with the view that a wall of names is what a memorial should be. Monument committees, like generals, seem always to be fighting the last war. But what made Maya Lin’s minimalist design so appropriate was that it was commemorating the dead of a war that many Americans opposed and that we lost. What large affirmation could we make? Only the grievous roll call of the slain, acknowledging the magnitude of the loss, was fitting.

So no wonder some of the schemes that have been suggested strike the wrong note. Take the idea that Larry Silverstein, leaseholder of the original Twin Towers, reports receiving in a letter from a well-intentioned woman in New England. Why not, the woman writes, gather up a pair of shoes belonging to each of those who died, cast them in bronze, and arrange the 3,000 pairs in rows on the World Trade Center site? However good-hearted, this suggestion, reminiscent of bronzed baby shoes, will strike many as an excruciating plunge into kitschy sentimentality, far removed from (for example) the closely observed, deeply meditated sympathy of Van Gogh’s famous painting of a pair of shabby work boots, summing up a lifetime of honest, ill-remunerated toil that wore down the worker along with his shoes.

But beyond that, we mourn these dead not merely in their private existence as sons and fathers and husbands and mothers and sisters, whose shoes will never be worn again and whose individual places at the family hearth, the convivial dinner table, and the marriage bed will be achingly empty forever. We mourn them also as fellow citizens, killed because they belong to the greater whole to which we also all belong. We are not raising a monument only to private grief, of which there are many moving and beautiful examples, from Roman grave steles to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s sorrowful memorial to Henry Adams’s wife, Marian, in Washington’s Rock Creek cemetery to Manhattan’s bronze nymph gazing pensively over a calm expanse of water in memory of Isidor and Ida Straus, lost with the Titanic. These would have provided worthy models for the monument memorializing the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing: they remind us that, among other requirements, memorials should be art, testifying to the human ability to transfigure the raw materials of nature into something beautiful and ideal, just as we long to transmute the brute facts of pain and loss and mortality into something transcendent and redemptive. A memorial should strive to comfort, even as it laments. And part of the comfort is that the meaning of life is not death.

If we are to commemorate the dead not just as individuals but as fellow citizens, however, we must do so without even the slightest hint of denying or downplaying their individual particularity, as one much-publicized proposal did, to universal and deserved condemnation. Fire Department officials and developer Bruce Ratner proposed to model a bronze statue on the well-known photograph from the Bergen Record of firefighters Billy Eisengrein, George Johnson, and Dan McWilliams raising the American flag as the recovery effort began at Ground Zero—with this emendation: that the heads of two of the firemen be replaced with one black head and one Hispanic head. To these monument makers, it seemed not to matter who the firemen were who actually did this deed—and by extension it seemed not to matter who the heroic firemen who died in the tragedy actually were. All must proceed according to quota; the only value is a lax inclusiveness before which the individual facts of virtue and accomplishment are as nothing. This monument’s readiness to falsify gives an especially bleak and revealing glimpse into the cynical mendacity that is political correctness, always ready to elevate ideology over ideals. In the face of the outcry that hooted down the proposal, the Fire Department prudently scrapped the project.

Our memorial isn’t meant to be primarily the personal expression of its creator but rather the collective statement of the city, the nation, and the civilized world. Iconoclasm and novelty are not virtues in such a project, which calls instead for a deep understanding of the artistic traditions that are the lingua franca of the culture for which our monument speaks and whose values it invokes. The monument is about making links, not breaks, in time; it is an assertion of continuity, a promise that, just as we honor the values and conventions of our past that gave us the civilization the terrorists attacked, so will our city honor these dead by keeping their memory alive even beyond our own lives.

We have a rich tradition to consult, the elements of whose emotional power are not hard to catalog in a very brief list of examples that can serve us as touchstones and inspiration. The earliest and simplest of famous Western war monuments, raised in memory of the 300 Spartans who fought to the last man in 480 b.c. defending the pass at Thermopylae against Xerxes’ army of some 200,000 invading Persians, was, Herodotus tells us, merely an inscription, starkly unequivocal: “Go and tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Even though the stone no longer exists, that inscription, and the heroism and fidelity it recorded, live on in our collective memory as extraordinary and inspiring two and a half millennia later.

An inscription also forms the emotional heart of the evocative tomb of the unknown soldier of the American Revolution in Philadelphia’s Washington Square. The monument’s backdrop, a marble wall bearing a bronze copy of Houdon’s statue of our first president, is inscribed with an account of how “In unmarked graves within this square lie thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington’s Army who died of wounds and sickness during the Revolutionary War.” But the tomb’s truly moving element is a simple marble sarcophagus, resembling an altar, before which burns an everlasting flame and on whose lid is inscribed: “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.” In this inscription, the past reaches out and touches us directly, electrifyingly, personally; yes, we owe the blessings we enjoy to the deeds and sacrifices of real individuals who came before us, whose actual but unnamed remains lie all around us.

We can draw inspiration, too, from a rich inheritance of purely architectural monuments. Take for instance two eloquent Civil War memorials, one a gigantic and one a diminutive tempietto, both commemorating New York servicemen. The huge example—the 100-foot-high white marble Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument designed by the Stoughton brothers on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive—takes the breath away not just with its overpowering scale and superb esplanade setting overlooking the Hudson but also with the utter confidence of its classical detail and the American eagles that triumphantly crown its architrave. The inscription around the monument’s top honoring these servicemen for saving the union finds architectural dramatization in the grand Corinthian columns that unite to support the structure. The imperial magnificence and swagger of the monument, its imposing dignity that casts an ennobling aura over all who catch a glimpse of it, establish beyond question that the dead it commemorates did not die in vain but preserved by their sacrifice something of the highest worth. They preserved, the monument declares, those fundamental Western values of individual liberty, rationality, democratic government, and the ideal of equality that we inherited from Greece along with its architecture.

That the memorial is a tholos—a circular Greek temple—hallows and consecrates their sacrifice and entrusts the dead to the care of a mighty, if slightly chilly and remote, deity. In this respect, a pint-size relative of this monument at the Gettysburg battlefield, commemorating New York State’s Excelsior Brigade, is in its modest way no less moving. Precisely the incorrectness of its classical detail and proportions, its endearingly earnest awkwardness, the wonderful eagle soaring off its top like the handle on a sugar bowl—all these attributes, testifying to the designer’s pious wish to invoke the sacred, really do create a homely sense of the numinous and the holiness of the dead and their cause.

Both these monuments burst into sculpture at the top, and arguably sculpture is the most expressive and dramatic way to memorialize the dead. Another monument to fallen Civil War soldiers and sailors, Frederic Ruckstull’s 10-foot-tall bronze Angel of Peace, is a transcendent case in point, shedding benignity and comfort from where she graciously stands on her 10-foot-high granite pedestal at Hillside Avenue in Queens. With her calm, sober, and understanding face, her strong uplifted wings, and her outstretched arms holding out the palm and the laurel wreath of victory, her healing message of binding up the nation’s wounds with charity for all is unmistakable and transfiguring.

Very different, but no less affecting in its violent activity and dramatic realism, is Karl Illava’s World War I monument to the 107th U.S. Infantry that stands on the edge of Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 67th Street. The seven doughboys at the very moment of charging into battle, bayonets fixed, with one soldier just wounded, truly convey, as Illava intended, “the hell of war”—and in so doing they also convey the courage it takes to face such danger so vividly as to make the heroism that the statue honors concrete and immediate. In the same way, the most famous of U.S. war memorials, Felix de Weldon’s Arlington, Virginia, statue of five marines and a sailor raising the flag at Iwo Jima, is an icon that has indelibly impressed on the national psyche the selfless grit and patriotic determination it took to win World War II. De Weldon based his statue, cast in Brooklyn and the world’s largest bronze, on an Associated Press photo; and if our memorial to the heroic firemen who died downtown on September 11 were to be modeled on the Bergen Record flag-raising photo, the fact that it would be following the tradition of de Weldon’s Marine Corps memorial, emphasizing determination and patriotism and defiance, would be a plus, not a minus, in my view.

The cover of our Autumn issue presented what we considered a brilliant design by sculptor Alexander Stoddart for a deeply moving monument that emanates from this long artistic tradition and speaks to our most cherished virtues, and we believe that this remarkable work, which catches exactly the right note, is the memorial that should rise downtown. Stoddart envisions two bronze figures, personifying the muses of memory and history, atop two massive stone plinths that evoke the vanished Twin Towers. Each of the thrice-life-size figures—little sisters (as Stoddart calls them) of the nation’s and the city’s greatest and most iconic sculpture, the Statue of Liberty—holds out one of Liberty’s attributes: Memory holds up her torch, and History holds out her tablet to catch the light the torch sheds. Between the bases of the two figures, directly below the torch, lies a heavily draped bronze catafalque, the only grave many of the dead will have. The beautifully shaped distance between the two figures, emphasized by the void Stoddart places at the center of the monument’s base, evokes the absence we mourn; the sorrowful expression on the averted faces of the figures expresses the grief we feel for those we’ll never forget; the evocation of the Statue of Liberty affirms our civilization’s and our city’s claim to be a lamp unto the nations in the freedom and inclusiveness it embodies.

Stoddart, it has been objected, is a Scot; and only an American should design our statue. But Stoddart is fast becoming recognized as one of the world’s most gifted figurative sculptors, with Buckingham Palace, Oxford University’s new library, and Princeton University as his latest commissions. Would we turn down Michelangelo or Bernini, if we could have them, because they were not American? Do we think that because Frédéric Bartholdi was a Frenchman, his Statue of Liberty is any less the American symbol? If an American sculptor can surpass Stoddart’s design, steeped in the Beaux Arts tradition that is New York’s prevailing artistic idiom, then of course he should win the commission; but until then, Stoddart’s monument should remain the benchmark, the one to beat.

Whatever monument we finally choose, it should rise in a square amid a rebuilt center of business, not in the midst of a 16-acre necropolis. Even though emotions are raw, we have to keep in mind that we are building for the ages. Fifty years from now, the best memorial to those who died in the attack will be that their monument adorns what is still the world trade center. They believed in the ceaseless activity of commerce and finance that extends prosperity and freedom around the globe. They wanted to be where the action is. And future generations should remember them in the midst of the energetic, ever-striving, optimistic world that they helped to create, that their murderers sought to annihilate, and that we will keep forever alive.

 

 

 
Our memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attack should be an affirmation of our values, not just a cry of grief.
City Journal Spring 2002.
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