Now, Memory Fails Us
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Remember, tomorrow's Memorial Day. That's what it's for, remembering.
The holiday's gone blurry. Now it's mostly fun (ballgames, setting up the barbecue, another day off work), but it used to be for focused recollections of the dead.
Not the dead in general, the dead in sharp particular. Half a million soldiers had died in the Civil War. When the rites were first observed in 1866, there were plenty to recall.
Each spring at the end of May, their graves were strewn with flowers, their faces brought to mind. This was deeply serious business. The fallen mustn't be forgotten. We used words like "the fallen" then. That seriousness bred art. That art would shape the country's look, and Washington's especially. Vast amounts of money, artistry and effort would be expended on its making. The beauty of the art would illumine its high purpose -- to immortalize remembrance. Strewn flowers weren't enough. The fallen would be given stone-and-metal monuments impervious to time.
Washington is filled with them. If you want to get Memorial Day, look around at the memorials. They're victors' monuments. They put generals on pedestals, and dead presidents above them. Washington's memorials share a certain style. Their statues aren't just portraits, though they're often that, as well; they're personified ideals. Their bronze laurel wreaths and eagles, and Greco-Roman lions, say: The past approves of us. They're insistently high-minded, august.
They represent an art movement, now dead. For a long time their architects and artists, their stone-carvers and bronze-founders got better and better. For a long time their elevated style got nobler and nobler. Then, suddenly, it died.
It died a poignant death -- at the peak of its accomplishment, just when it got great. We know the date exactly. Memorial sculpture's greatness left Washington forever on the 30th of May, Memorial Day, 1922.
* * *
That Memorial Day was when they dedicated the Lincoln Memorial.
The Lincoln is a temple. In the temple is his statue, a colossal marble figure by Daniel Chester French.
Of Washington's great personified sculptural memorials, the Lincoln is the greatest, and the last.
We keep trying. Other statues of dead presidents have succeeded French's Lincoln, but it's no use; it's over. They keep getting worse and worse.