Eternity is in love with the productions of time. — William BlakeMonuments come in many shapes and sizes. They may be large, enduring, and, of course, monumental. They may also be monolithic, granitic, and neolithic, perhaps all three simultaneously. The earth itself is locked up in these three adjectives, imputing its size, substance, and age to physical objects: the Great Pyramid at Giza, the stone heads on Easter Island, Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. There can be little doubt from their rarity, their prominence, or the energy that went into their making that such objects are prospective: they were designed to be monuments.
Other monuments are small, ephemeral, or intangible. They may come in colors, tones, scents, flavors, and textures, even emotional moods or ideologies. In the same way that raw materials were exhumed, shaped, and placed to create a particular form, so can ideas, words, and events produce something memorable. But such results are usually only recognized after the fact: they are declared to be monuments. Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg on a cloudy day in 1863, Van Gogh painting in his bedroom at Arles in September 1889, Ahmad Jamal playing “Poinciana” at the Pershing on a January night in 1958, or the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox competing in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series — none of these expected that their momentary efforts in words, paint, sound, or play would so endure. But they have, ultimately because of cultural values that demanded their preservation, not because of the molecular bonds in a sand grain or a stonemason’s skill in shaping limestone blocks.
In the end, the distinction between tangible and intangible monuments blurs. Whatever historical uncertainties surround the origin of a particular object, it is difficult to imagine people coming together to build a Stonehenge or a Macchu Pichu without someone having first articulated in words a mystery to be evoked, a vision to be realized, or perhaps a worship to be shared. Eventually, someone records the words themselves to be passed on in their own right. The individual dies; and any written, printed, or magnetic record fades; but the words themselves can last forever — and can reach out to your present to tell you that they do so. We all share in this rite of passage through what was told to us as children, what we tell our children, and so on, as far backward and forward as we are able to establish the story.