"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Iconoclasm Then and Now

What ought we to do about statues--whether in the American South or elsewhere--we do not like, or with whose politics we disagree? I do not have any definite answers to these questions, but I would note that those demanding the removal of the statues have given little evidence of  having carefully and calmly considered just a few of the necessary and important questions, not least among which is the demand for moral perfection in those commemorated. All great men and women who change history in dramatic ways are flawed, as indeed are all human beings. Who may be found worthy and on the basis of what criteria? Who has the power to decide?

Who, moreover--and, again, on what basis--may decide when remembering must give way to forgetting? As I noted on here last summer in several installments, recent works of David Rieff and Manuel Cruz on the importance of forgetting may have things to tell us in these debates today.

Another necessary set of questions concerns the politics of the future. For one thing that has become clear in the study of iconoclasm, which has really taken off in the academic world as dozens of new books on the topic have appeared in the last decade or so (see, e.g., here, here, here [treating iconoclasm in the Latin Church after Vatican II], and especially here) is that iconoclasm is always the prelude to a new politics. So let us say we pull down every statue we object to. What comes next? Once again mobs braying and rampaging seem scarcely to recognize these as questions, never mind to have coherent and satisfactory answers to them.

The politics of iconoclasm has been well treated in a book I have mentioned and discussed on here before: James Noyes, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam, which was released last year in a paperback edition.

Other recent studies are also very useful. Routledge, just last month, released Kindle editions of books first published several years ago, including Jeffrey Johnson and Anne McClanan, eds., Negating the Image: Case Studies in Iconoclasm.

Stacy Boldrick's fascinating and useful book, Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present, was also just released in a Kindle edition.

What is clear in these and other works is that "iconoclasm" has moved well beyond its Byzantine provenance, where it has been extremely well covered by such as Leslie Brubaker in Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (a good basic introductory text for those with no background) and then at lavish length, with John Haldon, in Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680-850: A History.

Finally, one of the best general works that begins in Byzantium but works its way outward, treating ancient Greek philosophy, Jewish and Muslim arguments, and much else besides in the ancient and modern worlds, remains Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm.

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