17 May 2018
The Past Is Never Dead
It isn’t even the past.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Let’s take a break from the Present this week, and escape into the Past with some current stories about heritage – Rome’s Colosseum, Marie Antoinette’s toy farm, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat – which can’t possibly have any bearing on what’s happening in the world today.
First of all, Rome’s Colosseum. This week the archaeologist recently appointed as the director of the Colosseum announced a new €13 million project to restore the ruin’s flooring and seating and turn it back into an entertainment venue for concerts, plays and, yes, gladiatorial combats and other re-enactments to remind us of the glorious days of the Roman Empire when the people were kept quiescent on a diet of “bread and circuses” – free food and the diverting, entertaining and very public spectacle of foreigners, barbarians and other savage animals being taught a lesson they deserved.
How very different from today’s Italy, where the Five Star Movement and the League are busy putting together Europe’s first populist government, on the promise of free cash hand-outs to the impoverished South, tax cuts to the prosperous North, and a very tough line on immigrants and other unwelcome foreigners everywhere.
Hang on, we seem to have got ourselves onto current affairs somehow. How on earth did that happen? No idea. Anyway, back to the past…
In France, Marie Antoinette’s pretend farm has just been opened to the public for the first time; visitors are queuing up and guided tours are already fully booked. The farm – which included a cottage, a windmill, a barn, a stable and a dairy, complete with animals – was built around an artificial lake in the grounds of Versailles for the country’s queen in 1788. She’d been worried that the royal family was appearing to be too aloof, too god-like, too distant from the common people over whom they ruled; but if she and her son could somehow share in the peasants’ way of life, and be seen to share in it… Of course, dressing up as a milk-maid and pretending to be a shepherd didn’t work; the peasants just thought she and King Louis XVI were mocking and insulting them, and repaid the compliment by chopping their heads off five years later.
But President Macron came under renewed attack this week for being too “Jupiterian” himself, too aloof, too god-like, too distant from the common people over whom he presides; he was criticised for remaining at Fort de Brégançon, the presidential retreat on the Mediterranean where he’s on holiday, when one person was killed and another four wounded by a knife-wielding Islamist in Paris on Saturday (though he did return to the capital on Monday evening). If only he could be seen to be more open to the public, more accessible, less cloistered and aloof… And, lo and behold, who’s that in a film shown only a few days ago at the Cannes festival, sitting at a table in an ordinary café? It looks like… but it can’t be… not Emmanuel Macron, surely, far from the Élysée Palace and Fort de Brégançon, chatting and bantering about the state of France with the other characters like any ordinary café-goer? But indeed it is, the man himself. However, this cameo appearance in the movie The Crossing wasn’t any more successful or less artificial than Marie Antoinette’s attempt to get down with the people. He’s been widely ridiculed on social media about it. His critics see it as more evidence of his apparent showmanship, his reliance on stage-managed appearances. His enemies claim it’s an insult, an inappropriate platform for the president as it was financed by tax-payers to be broadcast on the state-owned channel France 5.
Enough about modern presidents (how did we get there? Search me). Now for a past president of the USA…
This week, the custodians of the Abraham Lincoln presidential library in Illinois announced that it is €10 million in debt. They may have “no choice but to accelerate the possibility of selling unique artefacts on the private market” to make up the shortfall, if no other funding is forthcoming. Imagine that – icons of national importance from their collection, such as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and the gloves (still stained with his blood) which he wore to Ford’s Theatre on that fatal night in Washington in 1865 – going under the hammer, being sold off, disappearing into private collections who knows where.
How could that happen? To Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of all US presidents, a symbol of the presidency itself? Is he no longer revered and respected? Is the US presidency no longer revered and respected? Why is it no longer revered and respected, today, in this age of Donald Trump, the president who has just turned his back on the Iran agreement and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? Who knows? It’s a mystery.
Another American, William Faulkner, once wrote “The past is never dead. It isn’t even the past.” I have no idea what he meant.