Disclaimer: I am about to write on a topic that stirs the passion in most of you.
It's Gone. It's Ruined
“It’s horrible,” my partner exclaimed as we paddled our kayaks around one of our favorite north woods lakes, “the entire shoreline has collapsed!”
She was correct. A section of the shore measuring about 30 yards wide and 10 yards tall had fallen into the lake. Excessive rainfall and erosion had irrevocably changed the view that we had enjoyed for decades. In an instant, it was different — nearly unrecognizable.
We paddled closer. What once had been a natural jetty into the lake, was now a symmetric curve of sand, stone, and dangling tree roots.
As I maneuvered my kayak alongside the debris field, I discovered something I hadn't anticipated: Though my perspective had been changed forever, I saw something new and interesting. The landslide had created a small beach under the water that extended out for about 10 feet. As soon as the water level recedes to pre-rainfall levels, there will be a new place to pull up our boats and enjoy a little sand between our toes.
Moreover, the landslide revealed a variety of glacier-rolled stones, ranging from about the size of a man’s fist to larger, kickball-sized mini-boulders. Scanning the stones, I spotted an all-white, football shaped specimen. I recognized it as quartz, resplendent with a gold-colored vein running around its circumference. No, not actual “Au” gold — I have been fooled enough to recognize pyrite when I see it. But, drawn from a northern Wisconsin lake, I regarded it as a wonderful treasure. I heaved into my kayak.
Later, back at my cabin, I proudly placed the stone on the corner of the patio. While I sipped one of my cheap beers and admired my new stone, I had an epiphany.
A GERMAN PARABLE
Over the past thirty some years, I have attempted to translate a short parable written by the German author and poet, Bertolt Brecht.
"Was tun Sie", wurde Herr K. gefragt, "wenn Sie einen Menschen lieben?"
"Ich mache einen Entwurf von ihm", sagte Herr K., "und sorge, daß er ihm ähnlich wird."
"Wer? Der Entwurf?"
"Nein," sagte Herr K., "Der Mensch."
It should be simple to translate — possibly, easier to forget. Regardless, the short parable has stuck with me all these years — and I can’t decipher it to my satisfaction.
In the literal, it reads:
“What do you do,” Herr K was asked, “if you love someone?”
“I make a copy of him in my mind,” answered Herr K, “and take great care to ensure that it fits.”
“The image matches the person?”
“No. The person matches the image.”
HISTORY EVOLVES. IT DOESN’T ERASE
Currently, a lot of cultures are undergoing a “monument revolution.” People are so stirred by what historic bronze or stone sculptures represent to them, that they are blinded to what is happening. Regardless of whether a person is pulling the rope around a statue’s neck or taking a defensive stand in front of one, something is clearly happening: Our images of our heroes don’t match our heroes’ actions.
One side wants history to disappear under the surface while the other needs the statutes to support their (often nostalgic) views of history. Both groups, however, are missing what’s revealed after the statues have been toppled.
I thought of that hill side. The jetty of earth falling away revealed something else to me — something I had never really considered, though intellectually, I guess I always knew was there: glacial deposits.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Please understand, I am prone to “hero worship.” For example, I regularly make a pilgrimage to Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, to sit at the steps of the General’s mausoleum and confer with him.
Heroes are funny creatures. We select individuals to encapsulate in singular ideals or abilities. It is as though we strip them of the frailties of being humans in their own time and place and reclothe them in nostalgic attire that will fit our time or belief.
I had done that with Zachary Taylor. By referring to him in the parlance of his soldiers, “Old Rough & Ready,” he became larger than life to me, bearing qualities worthy of casting in bronze or carving into stone. I worked hard to make sure the man fit the image I made of him.
But now, the current discussion — and violence — around statues and monuments has torn away the shore line that protected Zachary Taylor in my mind’s eye. Not only have I recently learned that “Old Rough & Ready” had an attendant slave with him during his campaign in Mexico in 1845-47, he had a slave-maintained plantation back in his home state of Kentucky!
Sitting on my patio with beer in hand, I stared at my small boulder of quartz and pyrite. I asked myself, “Is it wrong to have Zachary Taylor as a hero?” Should I topple him from the mental pedestal that I built for him?
I thought of a phrase from another famous work, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Zachary Taylor was just a man. A man of his times. And a Kentucky man of his times, owned slaves. It was horrible then as it is now, but there was an entire society that permitted him to “overlook” his conscience. Yep, that was rather slippery behavior.
The question for me was, could I accept both aspects of Taylor’s life? Both facts are correct. In respect to his owning slaves, I find his choices as not being very inspiring. Defeating the Mexican Army when overwhelmingly outnumbered, however, I find exceedingly admirable.
And that epiphany to which I earlier referred? It was while I was studying the line of pyrite in that white stone on my patio, that it struck me: Changing the landscape of my understanding does NOT erase what I already knew. Zachary Taylor’s military brilliance is well-documented. Furthermore, his popularity among his troops and later, the nation that elected him president, is equally borne out in the written record. Those facts are irrefutable.
Recently, however, I learned that that my hero had owned slaves and relied on them to make himself more comfortable, both physically and financially. Does that mean I must depose him as a hero? Or, as Bertolt Brecht’s Herr K. justified, do I take care to make sure Taylor matches the hero I made of him?
The historical record I had known about him was accurate. My new understanding of him having owned slaves certainly changes my opinion about him as a man, but it does not diminish the accomplishments that made him so impressive to me.
Just as the collapsed bank along the lake revealed a different perspective of an area I have known for years, this “new” history about Taylor added to my understanding about my hero.
Therefore, no, I will not “tear down” my hero and pack him away as if he never existed. In fact, with the new information I now know, the image of “Old Rough & Ready” stands even a bit taller. I can talk about him with clarity based more on facts and less reverence of nostalgic desire. Unlike Herr K’s image of his loved one, I won’t force the life of my hero into my preconceived image of him.
We don’t need to de-throne our heroes when others highlight or amplify some aspect of their history that we, as a society, were willing to overlook. While facts remain the facts, they aren’t necessarily the only facts.
We are scholars. We are students. And as such, we welcome the discovery or revealing of new facts. We don’t erase history. Rather, we embrace it — the good, bad, and the ugly of it.
Maybe, my struggle with Brecht's parable hasn't been with the translation, but with the meaning. If I adapt it to history, I could write it as:
"What do you,' Mr. K was asked, "when you love history?"
"I create an image of it and take great care to make sure it is accurate."
"No. The history."
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