Who Controls the Past Now Controls the Future

Basilica of Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now controls the past
Who controls the past now controls the future
Who controls the present now?

I’ve been thinking about the lyrics of this song by the band Rage Against the Machine, which are based off the novel 1984, after having gotten back from Paris. There are monuments around the city that are very much the province of the left, and there are those that are very much the domain of the right. For the average tourist, it is not so obvious.

For example, the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, which appears as a must-see on most tourist itineraries both for its iconic shape and location in the famous Montmartre neighborhood, which is a hill where many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists lived and worked.

It’s also where a large number of Paris Communards were massacred in the final days of the Commune, and for many leftwing Frenchmen, the Basilica, built in the aftermath of the first major Communist uprising, is seen as a gigantic middle finger to their political beliefs.

Aesthetically, the church is sort of a lemon, cold and dark on the interior, and failing to really capture the beauty of the historical styles it was attempting to emulate. Our own New Cathedral, which is a mix of Romanesque and Byzantine Revival, is far more beautiful and successful.

It is pretty lit up at night. But it raises the question: can two competing views of history exist at the same time in the same city? The Communards were successful in destroying the Tuileries Palace, which has never been rebuilt. It reminds me of the destruction by East German Communists of the Berlin City Palace after World War II. Interestingly, the one in Berlin has now been rebuilt, in what is a building-size rebuke of the former Communist East Berlin–the demolition of the Palace of the People (oops, we found asbestos!) was required to resurrect the former seat of the Prussian kings and German emperors. Ownership of real estate can have powerful meaning.

I was also fascinated by the co-opting of a memorial by another group without the permission of the original builders of the monument.

Admittedly, this is a pretty benign instance, where a monument to France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States has turned into an unofficial (but future official?) memorial to Princess Diana of Great Britain.

As it turns out, this memorial coincidentally happened to be located just above the tunnel where her fatal car crash occurred, and we happened to be in Paris just a couple of weeks after the 25th anniversary of her death. There were still large numbers of handmade tributes left around the flame, which is a life-size replica of the one that replaced the original during the Statue of Liberty’s refurbishment in 1986.

I also thought about how popular history is written, or “Wikipedia History,” as we could possibly call it. I always check Wikipedia articles to see how accurate they are, and many history articles are actually pretty good, though some read like somebody copied them out of a Nineteenth Century book (though thankfully those are being phased out). But the Wikipedia articles on European painting history are absolutely horrible. Trust me, I wasted my twenties studying the subject and working in art museums so I know what I’m talking about. And the Lemp one, good God. The St. Louis Wikipedia articles sound like they were written by someone who moved out of town in 1980 and never visited since then.

I thought about the popular conception of history as I walked the same places that people such as Louis XVI and his wife once walked while they lived and when they died. The chapel in the Conciergerie, which we visited a couple of days ago, is one good example. I am always a little suspicious of these sites (how do we know Marie Antoinette wasn’t held in a cell thirty feet to the west?) but they intrigue me from a historical standpoint as they give us insight on how victors’ history is written. I also found it interesting that the commemoration of the king and queen, who of course were both executed after sham trials during the Revolution, focuses on their religious devotion, which of course enrages their political opponents even more today. I also think about how a year or so ago there was a movement to remove statues here in St. Louis, which seems to have died down. I view these various monuments dispassionately, as historical evidence that informs my understanding of French culture; in other words, I left France with a new appreciation that there is still tension between the left and right and that is confirmed reading the news. But that is why I enjoy history so much: it makes me understand why events today happen the way they do.

But what the heck? Commemorating a tyrant and establishing a democracy by building a column based off the Roman Empire? I guess Neoclassicism doesn’t always make sense.

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