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Between history and myth in Austin, Texas.

 By CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM.

The mournful truth is that the historian has a much better chance of being read if he gives free play to his fancy than if he is strictly accurate.
—Andrew Lang, The Maid of France

To give an accurate description of what has never occurred is not merely the proper occupation of the historian, but the inalienable privilege of any man of parts and culture.
—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

I.

I AM UNCLE CHRISTOPHER, and these days Uncle Christopher has three nephews and three nieces between ages one and nine who might one day ask: “What was it like, uncle, when you were living in Austin in 2017 and working for the University of Texas and that hurricane blew those old Confederate statues down? Were those exciting times — exciting as you claimed they were for our great-grandparents when they lived through the 1960’s? Did it feel as though you were living through an important moment in history? What was it like to see that history?”1

I might answer that no one “sees history,” at least not in the way the question was asked. One sees the present, experiences the present and accepts being in the present, but only afterward might some of that become history. And it would be best not to ask me about history, anyway. I was never any good at it. Nor at science.

Instead, I have a habit of making up stories and sometimes telling those stories to other people. So I can tell you a little of how statues and stories go together, particularly as they relate to what happened at the University of Texas in August of 2017.

I don’t feel I lived through an important moment in the history of the United States but rather an important moment in mythmaking for the state of Texas.

Looking back, I don’t feel I lived through an important moment in the history of the United States but rather an important moment in mythmaking for the state of Texas. For back in that far off time before the hurricane blew in, the best place to study sculpture in Austin was not on the UT campus but at the Elisabet Ney Museum on 44th Street, perhaps because a Westphalian woman’s touch is generally preferred over masculine mythmaking.2

Perhaps not, but in the seven years it took me to complete my undergraduate studies (it’s a long story; don’t ask), plus the additional ten working for the university, not once on campus did I see independent artists or students of art make sketches and studies of the statues that were later removed. Not once did I ever see any members of the Texas Historical Commission give guided tours amongst those granite plinths where stood likenesses of James Hogg (the first governor of the state born in Texas), Confederate postmaster John Henninger Reagan, and Generals Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, the latter of whom also has an Elisabet Ney statue over his grave at the State Cemetery. No Sons of Confederate Veterans ever came to polish them. For the last seventeen years I saw them gather oak pollen and grackle shit, but not much attention.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

Yes, the metallic representations of those four individuals (not all Texans, not all Confederates, but all quite WASPish) were deconstructed and, like corpses from a hospital morgue, hauled away in the middle of the night. Everyone woke up the next morning quite surprised. Yet one should not forget what foreign affairs analyst Walter Laqueur once observed: generally, surprise is the tactic of the weak.3

Regarding the backlashers to the statue removal, while their methods weren’t as covert as those of their opponents, the motives of the former certainly appeared as something less than overt. Some of them cried that history was being lost because the best way to hide history, they said, is to stuff it into a museum, as the uprooted statues were scheduled to be. However, some countered that the backlashers refused to acknowledge the only history one can ever learn from a statue is the history of sculpture.

This talk of corpses and statues reminds me of a passage from Livy where he describes a violent and superstitious moment in ancient Rome after a devastating plague. This plague wiped out a significant portion of the population, and afterward, all practical human efforts to alleviate their suffering and confusion, including prayers to their gods, failed. Out of their desperation, the Romans turned to drama. They began to stage plays of pantomime in hopes of forgetting about their problems. They began to project outwardly their inner feelings of frustration, and by doing that, they found understanding through art.4

In his essay on Southern mythology, historian George B. Tindall recognized that, “mythology has other meanings, not all of them pejorative, and myths have a life of their own which to some degree renders irrelevant the question of their correlation to empirical fact.” This ability to find understanding through methods that are neither scientific nor historical is what I call mythmaking. When you understand something, or tell yourself you understand something by way of a story, a dramatic presentation, a metaphor, an analogy, or sometimes just pretending enough to suspend disbelief—when you do any of these things to make sense of the situation at hand without relying on science or history—you understand the situation mythically. (But you’ll have to question this definition yourself, because I’m neither a scientist, nor a historian, and only an amateur mythographer.)5

Adults make myths all the time because they learned to do so in childhood. Livy qualifies the story of the origins of Roman drama as one which others “have said” happened, yet he offers no independent evidence. So whether the report is historically accurate remains quite questionable, but no doubt Livy’s story makes a myth. Nor is mythmaking limited to ancient peoples, for it abounded in the U.S. in 2017. Years before the rhetorical storm toppled over those statues, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates had already begun celebrating the counter-myth of liberation from being “woke” out of Dr. King’s mythic American dream. Through the counter-myth he espoused in Between the World and Me (2015), Coates dared to face the nightmare of his modern waking life.6

Before Coates, there was a man from an Austin suburb named Michael Morton. In the early 1980’s he was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife and sent to prison. After DNA evidence led to his release 25 years later, he described in his 2014 memoir the necessary illusion of privacy in each prison cell. Morton described the taboo of anyone walking down the aisle of a cellblock and peering in through the bars to gawk at the inmates in their individual holds. To violate this taboo “was considered disrespectful. And it could be dangerous.” The point is that prisoners need privacy, and the only way they can get it is by making a myth and pretending privacy exists.7

The examples of plague followed by pantomime (Livy), pretended privacy amid unjust imprisonment (Morton), or that to be systematically “plundered” and “terrorized” is a nightmare, not a dream (Coates), all demonstrate that such mythmaking is not limited to childhood alone, but is an essential part of coping with adulthood as well, and a sound strategy for surviving in a “post-truth” world.8

II.

It seemed that no matter what one was opposing, everyone intentionally refused to comprehend the other side of the argument, even when such comprehension would strengthen one’s own preferred side of the argument.

IN THE EARLY 21st century, it seemed that no matter what one was opposing, everyone intentionally refused to comprehend the other side of the argument, even when such comprehension would strengthen one’s own preferred side of the argument. This led, quite naturally, to further confusion and suffering. An old farmer my grandfather’s age named Wendell Berry once summarized the situation as a problem of communication versus conversation. The first is one-way; the second, two-way. Communication is when you’re being told to do something by someone else, like to remove a statue or let it remain. Conversation, on the other hand, is dialogue, a back-and-forth process of giving and receiving. Or to use the words of Martin Buber, while conversation is a mode of discourse where an “I” and a “You” function as reciprocal partners, communication is a mode of discourse between an all-powerful “I” talking down to a faceless, listening “It.” The first treats humans as individuals; the latter as mere objects of manipulation. Hence the fluidity of conversation is open to inquiry in ways that rigid communication isn’t.9

Learning, therefore, requires conversation: teacher and student, master and apprentice. Communication means mere memorization. Conversation makes memory. Conversation has style. Communication has statistics. Traditionally in human history, when one is ambushed by communication, one must retreat from conversation. In Livy’s Rome, in Dark Age Europe, and in Arabia upon the invasion of Napoleon, the retreat from conversation led to less learning. Memorization was regarded as more important than free inquiry. This led to power grabs and further mythmaking. As Swift put it when writing of circumstances in Ireland a half-century before Napoleon:

A people long used to hardships lose by degrees the very notions of liberty; they look upon themselves as creatures at mercy, and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger hand, are, in the phrase of the [government’s] Report, legal and obligatory.
—“Drapier’s Letter IV”10

There are even times when mythmaking and power grabbing merge into a single phenomenon. In his essay “The South and the Politics of Sectionalism,” historian Dewey W. Grantham, Jr. explained how widespread ignorance and confusion in the southern United States during the 1950’s (some of it socially based, some of it economically based) led to a proliferation of race-based mythmaking on par with those made in all the articles of secession that had been drafted by all the states that had seceded back in the 1860’s.11

Now George Littlefield (1841–1920) was a great mythmaker. He made his myths by buying many books for the University of Texas, commissioning voluminous histories to be written from a particularly Southern point of view, and sponsoring the construction of the said statues on campus. Whether his political ideology was “cookie cutter” Confederate may be debatable. But when one considers that he enlisted in the rebel cause at age 19, it seems somewhat important for both mythmakers and history tellers to remember that — whatever the true history behind the adventures of his youth might’ve been — Littlefield and his memories, being human-all-too-human 50 years after the war, would have mythologized those adventures into somewhat exaggerated proportions. With this in mind, it is not so surprising that in his last years Littlefield sought (for good or ill) to impart these somewhat inflated teacher-based myths onto UT students. By 2017, however, this so-called “teacher” was no longer there to tell them what the myths meant.12

III.

A METAPHOR IS just a tool for mythmaking, and the great mythmaker Umberto Eco has mentioned the need to break out of silence, to evolve beyond infantile babble and start speaking childlike metaphors: “I do not think that semiotics can avoid another problem,” says Eco in Kant and the Platypus (1997), “What is that something that induces us to produce signs? . . . We produce signs because there is something that demands to be said.”

For a people to be confused and distracted, suffering enough to the point where learning among them decreases and lawlessness increases — to make myths of blame based on race and rely on absolutes achieved only by living less free and more dependent, day after day without change — all this is to be utterly childlike. The child (whether in its first childhood or its second) sees something and wonders. Such wonderment demands something to be said. But what can be said can only be said by making a myth. For “the weaker its power of reasoning,” writes Vico, “the more vigorous the human imagination grows,” or, as Proust pointed out nearly two centuries later, imagination requires ignorance:

We must have imagination, awakened by the uncertainty of being able to attain our object, to create a goal which hides our other goal from us, and by substituting for sensual pleasures the idea of penetrating into a life prevents us from recognising that pleasure, from tasting its true savour, from restricting it to its own range.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower13

Vico and Wittgenstein both stress the importance behind the fact that when we are childlike and making myths to understand our confusion, one of the most common methods of such mythmaking is to verbally animate inanimate objects. For “the need to be understood,” writes the University of Berlin’s founder Wilhelm von Humboldt, “forces man to turn to anything comprehensible already in existence.” When this happens, everything literal is lost.14

In the late 1600’s, for example, some mythmakers wanted to punish the long-dead Lord Protector Cromwell with a posthumous execution. They decided to make a myth by digging him up and playing around with his body parts in public, but they could not literally kill that which was already dead. And there also is the Dark Age story of gravediggers burying their Gothic king Alaric in a secret place beneath a Calabrian river, only to later find themselves murdered and buried beside that same king, so that no one might locate the royal resting place. Obviously someone thought the myth important enough to pass down, but if such a story was literally true, who then lived to tell the tale after the incident occurred?15

Yes, ignorance can be a dangerous thing, but I’m also reminded of Professor Lichtenberg’s quip that “a good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.” I seem to recall that in 2017 the UT campus police did keep extra eyes on the spots where those Littlefield statues once stood, just as a decade before when they guarded the student-funded Martin Luther King statue (but only after it had been vandalized twice subsequent to its unveiling).16

But the coming down of the statues at the University of Texas also wrought a great period of creativity to the area, similar to when statues came down in Russia after the fall of Communism, and in Iraq after the fall of Ba’athism. Like mushrooms in moist soil, overnight all over Austin appeared high quality epics, poems, novels, symphonies, and visual art. This was the first time citizens could recall their city breaking free of the bureaucratic interests of state government and the handful of monolithic multinational corporations that made up their coterie. And the first myth made in this new era was that the hurricane was to blame for the statues coming down.

IV.

IN DESCRIBING THE post-Reconstruction period, historian George B. Tindall once pointed out that “to place the ideas of the South in the context of mythology, of course, is not necessarily to pass judgment upon them as illusions.” Still, I think it not too judgmental to say that while Littlefield’s myths had by 2017 certainly matured, not all had blossomed or bore fruit. Indeed, some were quite sour. Consider a contemporary of Littlefield’s who knew a thing or two about collegiate landscape design: Frederick Law Olmsted. When Olmsted visited Austin in 1856 he noticed that slavery, as a topic of discussion among the locals, “could not be ignored.” I find little legitimacy in arguing against the claim that, in the context of the 1850’s and 1860’s, slavery and race were two topics innately bound. No, Littlefield may not have been an utter racist, but when some of the backlashers to the 2017 statue removal claimed that the myths, of the Lost Cause and the New South as a resurrected Lazarus, endowed by Littlefield upon the university were untainted by racial bias, they merely propagated an additional myth onto the original one. It was an act of rhetorical coat-tailing — one more destructive, in my opinion, than constructive — particularly when one realizes Olmsted reported five years before war broke out that the subject of slavery could not be ignored in the city where the university was later to be established.17

Now in my experience, one family’s bandit tends to be another’s benefactor. You see this myth played out in novels like William Carleton’s The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine and Hugo’s Les Misérables. It is thoroughly articulated in Machiavelli’s fifth chapter of The Prince and G. E. M. Anscombe’s essay “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” And amid confusion and suffering, the peasants of ancient Rome, Dark Age Europe and Enlightenment-age Arabia all made myths for themselves about who was robbing them and who was protecting them.18

And in Austin in 2017, after those statues were taken down, one side made a myth that their history had been robbed. Another side made a myth that their history which had previously been robbed had now been restored. Still another side made a myth over the fact that the felling of the statues had occurred in the middle of the night, like a political backroom deal, such as in 2015 when Indiana’s then-governor Mike Pence deliberately shunned the press from witnessing him sign a controversial marriage law. But others said it was a sanctioned theft, similar to when Jacob swindled his brother’s blessing from their father Isaac. Yet once everyone agreed to blame the hurricane, a great spark of creativity suddenly ignited throughout the city formerly known as the live music capital of the world. 19

Now were you to ask me: were those who chose to do what they did with the statues acting as just feudal lords (bearing bright and shining ethics) or merely unjust thieves, sneaking in the night? The answer doesn’t really matter, because such questions were themselves the very ingredients which developed into the myths that eventually led to the widespread proliferation of high art and fine literature in Austin, Texas, for the remainder of the 21st century.


Christopher Landrum is on the administrative staff at the University of Texas. He lives in Austin and writes about books at bookbread.com. Recently, his essay on language was published by Real Clear News of Chicago.

ENDNOTES.

  1. Gregory L. Fenves, “Confederate Statues on Campus,” August 20, 2017. Messages and Speeches. http://president.utexas.edu/messages/confederate-statues-on-campus.
  2. Handbook of Texas Online, Emily F. Cutrer, “Ney, Elisabet,” accessed September 04, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fne26.
  3. Walter Laqueur, A World of Secrets: The Uses and Limits of Intelligence (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985), 259.
  4. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, VII, ii.
  5. Tindall, “Southern Mythology,” The South and the Sectional Image, ed. Dewey W. Grantham, Jr., (New York, NY: Harper Row, 1967) 9. See also Robert S. Cotterill’s provocative essay, “The Old South to the New,” Journal of Southern History, (February 1949): 3–8, and Charles Taylor’s discussion of the term “social imaginary” in A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) 171–73 based on Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries (2003).
  6. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 9, 11–12, 20, 119.
  7. Michael Morton, Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014) 115–16.
  8. See Oxford English Dictionary’s blog entries: “Word of the Year 2016 is . . . ” November 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016; and “post-truth — definition of post-truth in English,” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth.
  9. Wendell Berry, “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information,” (The Hudson Review. 58.3. 2005): 399–410 at 406–08. See also Martin Buber. I and Thou, Translated by Walter Kaufmann, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1970).
  10. Jonathan Swift, “Drapier’s Letter IV: A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland.” For decreases in learning during Dark Age Europe see William Carroll Bark, Origins of the Medieval World, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1958) 58; Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Translated by Samuel George Chetwynd Middlemore, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1990) 136. For decreases in Arabia upon the arrival of Napoleon, see: Edward Atiyah, The Arabs: the Origins, Present Conditions, and Prospects of the Arab World, (Edinburgh: Penguin, 1958) 73.
  11. Coates, “What This Cruel War Was Over,” The Atlantic, June 22, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/; Dewey W. Grantham, Jr., “The South and the Politics of Sectionalism,” The South and the Sectional Image, 48–49.
  12. Handbook of Texas Online, David B. Gracy II, “Littlefield, George Washington,” accessed September 04, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fli18.
  13. Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, Translated by Alastair McEwen, (New York, NY: Harcourt, 1997) 10, 12 but compare Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, I, § 282; Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, 1919. § “Place Names: The Name.”
  14. Wilhelm von Humboldt, “On the Comparative Study of Language and its Relation to the Different Periods of Language Development (1820).” Essays on Language, ed., T. Harden and D. Farrelly, translated by John Wieczorek and Ian Roe, (Berlin: Peter Lang Co., 1997) 5.
  15. For the burial of Alaric see Jordanes, History of the Goths. Ch. XXX.
  16. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Waste Books, Vol. E. 1775–1776, no. 91 quoted from Aphorisms, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1990); Sylvia Moreno. “New Home Suggested for Defaced King Statue.” Washington Post, September 12, 2004, page A02. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14679-2004Sep11.html.
  17. Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through Texas: or, A Saddle-Trip on the South-Western Frontier, (New York, NY: Mason Brothers, 1857) 112–13, 434; George B. Tindall, “Southern Mythology,” The South and the Sectional Image 9.
  18. G. E. M. Anscombe, “On the Source of the Authority of the State,” The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III, (London: Blackwell, 1981) 136, 154–55; William Carleton, The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine, (London: Simms and McIntyre, 1847), particularly 64–65; Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. V. For literary examples of “one family’s bandit will always be another’s benefactor,” see William Carleton, The Black Prophet: a Tale of Irish Famine, (London: Simms and McIntyre, 1847), 64–65, or the entirety of Hugo’s Les Misérables.
  19. “Gov. Mike Pence signs ‘religious freedom’ bill in private.” Indy Star (Indianapolis, IN), March 25, 2015. http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/03/25/gov-mike-pence-sign-religious-freedom-bill-thursday/70448858/.

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