Monday, June 22, 2020

'Grimly Rejoiced in the Awful Sack'

Anno 1527, when Rome was sacked by Burbonius [Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor], the common soldiers made such spoil that fair churches were turned to stables, old monuments and books, made horse-litter, or burned like straw; reliques, costly pictures defaced; altars demolished; rich hangings, carpets, &c. trampled in the dirt.”

The human urge to sack, defile, vandalize, despoil, tear down and raze has a long and ever-present history. Let’s distinguish it from a related crime, theft, which is most often motivated by greed and envy. Heaving a brick through a window in order to steal a flat-screen television is one thing; it almost makes sense. Pulling down the statue of someone about whom you know little or nothing, and that was paid for with private or public funds, is quite another. There’s a blind hatred in many humans for all that is sacred, noble and aesthetically pleasing. Such things reproach us and remind us that we are not always worthy of them. Entropy never sleeps but its slow-grinding work is accelerated by the human mania for desecration. The passage above is from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. He confirms what we already suspected -- vandals will not remain content destroying only inanimate objects:

“. . . senators and cardinals themselves dragged along the streets, and put to exquisite torments, to confess where their money was hid; the rest murdered on heaps, lay stinking in the streets; infants’ brains dashed out before their mothers’ eyes.”

Once the appetite for vandalism is whetted and goes unstanched, what’s next? Churches, synagogues, libraries and schools, and then human beings, individually and in groups. Murder is vandalism with its logic extended. Even the educated and enlightened revel in the destruction, so long as it’s undertaken by proxies. Referring to Martin Luther in The Pleasure of Ruins (1953), Rose Macaulay writes:

“Rome to him had no virtues. He was, no doubt, of those who grimly rejoiced in the awful sack and massacre by the Imperialist troops in 1527. This shattering event and its consequences, while increasing the number of Roman ruins, for some years kept visitors nervously away, as well as driving into exile and beggary hundreds of the noble families and the scholars.”

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