A friend takes joy in the heroic – finding it near home (her father-in-law’s willingness to volunteer his medical service to cities beset by polio in the fifties and in a Viet Nam hospital twenty years later) and farther. She cheers me. Her take is stoic, but toughness nurtures unsentimental appreciation – foregrounding the half-full glass amidst chaos. For instance, last week she described admiration for the curator and archivist Khaled al-Asaad http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/18/isis-beheads-archaeologist-syria, who, at 82, withstood a month’s interrogation by ISIS, ending in his beheading.
Palmyra also stirred personal memories. Trained as an art historian/curator, she chose the domestic – a husband, five children. Still, she retains an intense identification with the craft of her youthful apprenticeship: proud of the profession al-Asaad exemplified. Early works of art – both their beauty and the resonance of their voice from another time – first attracted her. The “art instinct” is essential to being human, apparently arising before language. Being an artist challenges – costing much in time and effort in societies that didn’t have an extravagant amount of either. But millennia ago they made those choices – as expressions of self? As acts of beauty giving pleasure? To leave a mark embedded with meaning and history defying time? Curators link us to them. She remembered a respect implied in lectures and careful technical instruction. His embodied that duty and so made an unimaginable choice.
Given that modern art is often, indeed, intends to be, temporary, make-shift, nihilistic, his is a traditionalist voice, an argument that it is right to honor and protect art. It sees meaning in the human, in humans. We can feel something ennobling, a sympathy and pride in our human heritage when we read of this man, faced with torture and death, remaining in Palmyra, trying to the end to protect artifacts of a world long gone, art worth contemplating. He was trying to give us – all of us and those that come after – that heritage.
Tragedy enlarges our sense of man. In these acts we see man’s evil, but Khaled al-Asaad’s choices also asserted man’s worth. His were the acts of those who went up the stairs rather than down fourteen years ago and stayed on the roof three years ago. The pleasure we have in man’s grandeur, in his choices, may enlarge our sense of man’s worth, but doesn’t diminish each horrific and personal tragedy. These terrorists want to flatten the world, burying those that went before deep in the sand.
The great tragedy is that such heroism is necessary. And that nihilism can be so profound that it so thoroughly denies the worth of man and man’s artifacts.