Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2011 / 13 Shevat, 5771
The Shattered Glass: On Lee's Birthday, 2011
By Paul Greenberg
By now successive generations of historians have set out to capture the uncapturable essence of the man -- the Real Robert E. Lee, they say. And yet, despite all their efforts, the mythic
The revisionists have left only a jagged, shattered image behind. Yet it is strangely fitting. For there is something almost unnatural about the portraits of the dashing young
Just as the most moving picture of
As for the real
Imagine if his image were new, shiny, untarnished. What a counterfeit it would be. Instead, like an ancient coin, nicked and rubbed almost clean, Brady's photograph speaks of a different world, one we enter now to be astounded not by the resounding clash of arms, the smoke and fire of the futile Confederate batteries at Gettysburg, but by the utter stillness, the perfect peace within which The General moved, always. He still does.
But why should an ever upwardly mobile society like this one take note of him? Why take time this one day of the year to focus on an old man from an old war? Time is money, as everyone knows. Why waste it? And on a war he lost at that. It is success that counts, as every American who worships it knows. Yet he still speaks to us. The shattered glass of the old icon still glistens, obliterating any need for words. We pause, waiting to hear what the silence says. We have an idea it's important, that it may yet save us.
His birthday arrives like an unexpected sabbath. There comes a stillness. All stops. Perception returns. The daily cacophony of the new and the news ceases. A silence envelopes.
It happens every
It's like climbing a mountain every year, scrambling up the cliffs, past the shadows and thickets, finally reaching the top, and finding only the clear sky -- a lead-gray Southern sky in the depth of winter lit only by the yellowing, late-afternoon sun of memory. There are names for that view. Call it history, perspective, a sense of proportion. We can see now what is truly important, and what is not. From that coign of vantage, we spy features ordinarily obscured. They disturb. Rank upon rank the dead wait patiently. But as always, a single whispered word is enough to calm the soul:
The din of the year dissipates, pettiness vanishes, rancor departs, calculation and argumentation no longer matter. History itself fades into a series of sepia photographs pasted in a crumbling book. On this one day, we look down from the heights of history instead of forever trying to surmount them. We accept. Grant said it: Let us have peace.
We are like strangers just arrived on the scene from the future, looking about, trying to understand what happened here in this other country that is the past, searching for words to describe it, till we realize no words are necessary. It is silence, that rarest of modern qualities, that is called for. Words would only break the spell.
It's as if the day had become a cathedral, and we some heedless tourists who had chanced upon it, come to take needless photographs. For the vista is already ingrained within us. It is our birthright in these latitudes. It only waits to come to life in due season, like the ever fecund South itself.
Ever hear a couple of Southerners just passing the time, perhaps in a petty political quarrel, when the name
The stillness at
We can lie about him.
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy's mouth,
Say, 'Here Lee must have thought.' and 'There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt, this pang or that --' but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.
What is missing from all the schematic explanations, the cheap debunks, the New Interpretations, is . . . everything. Everything inward that made him
It is not even the
It is not the storybook
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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