Conservative Tastes

Conservative Tastes

Monuments to Lost Meaning

By From the October 2011 issue

ALL CULTURE begins with commemoration of the past and honor rendered to the dead. The oldest literary monuments in the Western tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey, seemed to their original audience to be historical accounts, in suitably decorative form, of events they believed should not be forgotten by those who would be born long after all who fought at Troy were dead. Probably, the cave paintings at Lascaux, six times older than the Trojan War, were meant to commemorate a particularly memorable hunt, a kind of memory of whose victims has outlived by 17 millennia anyone's memory of the hunters. Such irony--by which I mean the tendency of meaning to change with context--is routine. Shelley's Ozymandias, whose "shatter'd visage" and "vast and trunkless legs of stone" were all that remained of those works upon which that hero had once invited the mighty to look and despair, is rather the rule than the exception for those in the commemorative trade, given a long-enough perspective.

Pages