Can history come to an end? Arthur Danto has written of art entering a “post-historical” phase; he believes that the history of modern art as moving toward a state of abstraction has been fulfilled—indeed, internally exhausted. Since the 1960s, this particular “narrative,” as he calls it, has come to an end, even as the art world continues to exist, even to flourish. Although I don't like the phrase “post-historical,” I think Danto is right. I had not, however, considered this idea in relation to history understood in its traditional sense as the actions of great men and nation building. But, a few weeks ago, the unnerving thought that this kind of history had come to an end confronted me.
My husband and I were standing at the busiest traffic circle in Paris, the Place de L'Etoile, in front of the Arc de Triomphe, which, as I learned from the guidebook that I was reading aloud to him, was once the largest triumphal arch in the world (165 feet tall), which meant that it was larger than any of the ancient triumphal arches still standing in Rome that were undoubtedly its inspiration. Reading that Napoleon dreamed of erecting a triumphal arch to the glory of the French army in 1806 following their victory at Austerlitz—a dream that would not be realized until 1836 when the arch was completed two decades after Napoleon's final defeat and exile—did not surprise me. But I thought our guidebook was off the mark when it described the project as "grandiose" and attributed it to Napoleon's "megalomania." Instead, as I told my husband, raising a triumphal arch that would surpass in scale and magnificence the triumphal arches of antiquity was testimony to the hold of the ancients (especially the Romans) on the imagination and aspirations of modern people living before the twentieth century.
This longstanding but now unintelligible ambition to rival the ancients helps to explain why Napoleon and his architect Jean Chalgrin ever conceived of such a project. It also explains why Napoleon's administrators did not hesitate to draw up a list of the most revered ancient sculptures in Italy to be confiscated and installed in the Musée Napoléon (today's Louvre) and then to orchestrate triumphal processions of the plundered treasures into Paris. My husband and I both recalled our sense of disbelief when a number of years ago we had read of one such ceremonial march where looted works from Rome—still packed in their crates—were met by cheering crowds in Paris on July 27, 1798, the fourth anniversary of the fall of Robespierre.
The idea of erecting the grandest triumphal arch in the world would continue to excite the imagination of later French rulers. According to our guidebook, in 1823, work which had stopped after the defeat of Napoleon began anew when Louis XVIII dedicated the arch to his victorious armies returning from Spain. In 1832, the architect G. A. Blouet took charge and four years later Napoleon's dream at last became a physical reality during the reign of Louis-Philippe, who dedicated the monument to the glory of France's armies. We learned that Blouet also supervised the elaborate decoration that we were trying to take in, which was not so easy, given all the traffic; and that the massive marble sculptures, bas-reliefs, and frieze were executed by the most eminent sculptors of the day and that these carved figures memorialized the most important triumphs of Napoleon's armies. We could see a row of shields above the attic storey, but it was only when I continued reading that we learned they were inscribed with the names of battles of the Republic and the Empire, not all of which were victories. I also read that the names of hundreds of generals who took part in these campaigns are inscribed on the inside walls of the arches and that those who gave their lives are honored by having their names underlined. As for Napoleon, our guidebook informed us, in 1840, the funeral procession bearing his ashes passed beneath the arch.
The magnificent Arc de Triomphe first envisioned by Napoleon and his architect Chalgrin was thus complete, but as long as the French remained powerful actors in world politics, this iconic edifice of the nation's glory, it seemed to me, was still open to future additions. And so we read that following World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was placed beneath it, the flame burning continuously since November 11, 1923. And that following World War II, a plaque was placed at the foot of the Tomb representing the insignia of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), dated August 25, 1944, marking the liberation of Paris. And then the account stops. It was at that moment that I was struck by the question: has nothing of political importance happened since World War II? Did history in France—and perhaps Western Europe as a whole—the history of great men, nation-building, and empire effectively end with the barbarism of World War II? Was the Arc de Triomphe, I asked my husband, now finally complete?
Not that that would be a bad thing, he responded. After all, he said, the two twentieth-century additions to the monument no longer memorialize the names of fallen heroes or revolutionary battles; instead we have the commemoration of the dehumanizing anonymity of war in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and of the brutal fact that France and much of the world had been occupied by Nazi Germany. We both thought of the many photos and newsreels we had seen over the years of the German army victoriously marching under the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Elyseés. We spoke about these phantom images as we walked down the still grand, frantically busy avenue, with all its ridiculously enticing fancy shops and restaurants and cafes.
My husband was certainly right. But the question did not yet feel settled: Was Paris—the West—now done, now completed? Was its vitality more in the past than in the present? This, we asked ourselves, as we strolled in one of the most perfect cities in the world, a monument to the energies of eighteenth and nineteenth-century neoclassical imaginings, which conjured into existence not only the Arc de Triomphe but also a Pantheon that surpassed the one in Rome in scale, mass, and grandeur, not to mention the imposing, rational order of Baron Haussmann's redesign of the city during the Second Empire. And then there were all those other breathtaking edifices—the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Sainte Chappelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. … But we had seen no architectural projects of comparable magnitude or ambition that belong to our own time. The only new structure that caught our attention was the glass pyramid addition to the Louvre, but it felt as if it had been given permission to appear in that noble company on the strictly utilitarian grounds of crowd control.
It was then that I asked my husband if he thought anything could be added to Paris. If new streets were built, what contemporary names could be found to compete with the existing street names that announce the great figures of the past—all those poets, novelists, philosophers, scientists, inventors, statesmen, kings, saints, even if there is something poignant in that the names of the scholars that grace the street signs in the area surrounding the university also have their achievement and dates in parentheses, not only now-obscure grammarians like L'Homond, but also "Jean Cauvin" (John Calvin) who is identified as a theologian.
We did not have much better luck when we tried to think of some grand political event that has happened recently in the West. The international financial swindle and its continuing devastating aftermath came to mind as did the unification of Europe under the euro. But these seemed to us to fall more in the realm of economics than in politics. We of course recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seemingly miraculous end of the Cold War were of enormous historical significance. We both recalled our admiration for those courageous men who led Poland’s Solidarity movement in its early days, but as we talked about what followed, it appeared to us that the demise of the Soviet empire turned out to be more of an economic triumph of the ideology of abundance and consumerism over the scarcity produced by a command economy than the political triumph of liberal democracy over communism that Francis Fukuyama prophesied in his End of History.
We were trying to come up with a recent event in the West that resembled the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s—those terrible, inspiring images of courageous men and women being pushed down by the force of water hoses and attacked by police dogs, being beaten and arrested as they peacefully assembled or marched for the right to vote, all those soaring, profoundly humane speeches of Martin Luther King in the fight for justice, the kind of coming together of political energies that has moved us whenever we have watched documentaries that memorialize them. After we paused to look into the window of a particularly exquisite shop and then continued our stroll, I asked my husband why this kind of mass, sustained, organized political action is nowhere to be seen in America or in Western Europe just as the periodic revolutions, restorations, and radical political reorganizations that convulsed France over its long, bloody century of nation-building only seem to occur elsewhere these days, typically in former Eastern bloc or Arab or Asian countries whose national history is still in formation. Even the murderous, criminal bombings of September 11 and the devastating wars that have been their consequence, it seemed to me, felt like they have had and will have a far larger place in the history of Iraq and of Afghanistan than in U.S. history. We both thought of the hideous pictures of the victims of suicide bombings in the streets of those places that we so often see in the back pages of The New York Times and how little is asked of us—Bush's stunning answer to the question of what we could do after September 11, "Go shopping," and the pathetic signs in our NYC subway cars, "If you see something, say something."
That we were speculating about the history of the West coming to an end amid the fantastic—decadent—luxury of the Right Bank was not lost on us. All that is left, I announced to my husband, at least to those who still have money these days, is consumption and private pleasures, leisure and tourism. This thought was long familiar to me—as a historian, I am fully aware of the historical developments that made the private sphere the locus of individual happiness—but in lovely, perfected Paris, it hit me with greater intensity. I understood better than ever before what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote about the undermining of the civic humanist idea of politics—the exercise of civic liberty by participating in self-rule among equals—by "the rise of the social": "We see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic nationwide administration of housekeeping."
This debasement of our shared public life was brought back to me with depressing force the other day when I was reading the response to a question at a staged "Town Hall" meeting by President Obama, the one political figure in recent times who had stirred so many hopes and aspirations: "There are a whole host of things we've put in place to make your life better." Then, as reported by The New York Times, “he cited his health care bill, a financial regulatory overhaul measure that imposed tough requirements on credit card companies; an education bill that increased the availability of student loans." Such programs are of course worthy; the fair distribution of our nation’s riches, especially today when this distribution has never been more obscenely skewed in favor of the wealthy, is what all right-thinking people must fight for. But, at the same time, as I recalled our walks through Paris, I couldn’t help thinking that victories in this arena will never inspire anyone to dream of erecting a triumphal arch in our capital city that will rival the great triumphal arches of ancient Rome. Such dreams, I finally understood and not without a touch both of nostalgia and relief, can only belong to those who still have grand capital cities to build.
Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.