Here we see a tiny unmarked and unremarkable door on the exterior of Hart house – I’ve walked by it many times without ever suspecting what lay behind it. But the general design philosophy (and dynamic contrast) behind the deceptively humble portal, is very familiar to me.
When I was small, and my father couldn’t find a babysitter on a Sunday, he’d often bring my brother and I along to the church where he was the organist. (I should stop a moment to note that while he was raised Catholic, he recognized that this damaged his happiness, and never forced any faith at all on us kids – for which I remain grateful – voluntary spirituality still feels most appropriate to me).
I was always fascinated by the tiny secret door which opened in the panelling – and lead, by a narrow passage and a twisting stone staircase up to the organ-loft. Stereo? Hah! – you’ve never heard a fully dimensional sonic image until you’ve stood right in the middle of the organ-loft, while the pipes are blasting-out Bach!
In this case, while this is probably the smallest and least impressive door on the exterior of all of Hart House, all it took was a tiny little A-frame ‘we are open’ sign propped-up outside it, to lure me in.
Nowadays we’d do this entryway with garish day-glo advertising and a free giveaway draw if you leave your email address – but though the physical artefacts within would be unchanged, their impact really would be very greatly reduced. (and a crowd of eternally distracted tick-box tourists actually does not allow for solemn remembrance by those who ARE respectful, the way relative solitude most-definitely does).
Even when we don’t actually know it’s name – everyone in downtown Toronto ends up using the passage underneath Soldiers’ Tower – it is an essential pedestrian shortcut through the U of T campus – but who suspects what hides within? (aside from the splendid carrillon, they hear).
What we find upon entering, is that this gentle ascent up to Soldiers’ Tower – a monumental addition to Hart-House (also by Sproat and Rolph) to commemorate WW1 and then WW2 also, is a small art-treasure when viewed from within – filled with light.
These extraordinary commemorative stained-glass windows were created by the studio of Russell C. Goodman – and most wonderfully, his son and a creative partner Zissoff continue to operate the studio to this very day.
Now, before letting the work speak for itself awhile, I’ll leave you with the inscription on the memorial:
Their story is not graven only in stone over their
native earth, but lives on far away, without visible
symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.
And now a note about respect and mythos – and this is no trivial matter. We sometimes find it hard to understand the way so many of the ancient peoples related to their household gods and represented ancestors, day-to-day (please read Julian Jaynes for a mind-bendingly helpful insight on this). I say we shouldn’t have this difficulty of understanding at all, because our societies are still engaged in fancy variations of talking-to and ritually abstracting our own honoured-dead, down to this very time.
The question is – are we all faithfully remembering that the thing they sacrificed for was living – and the energized free-society produced by increasing diversity, range and tolerance? – or are we allowing our passionate reverence for the dead and their associated symbols, to overwhelm the sense of compassion for the precious new and growing – for which they paid so very much?
Blaming soldiers was always a crazy idea – especially when they were compelled. But blaming no one, when extraordinary harm is done, is probably even crazier. Fighting for it’s own sake – or for political or economic gain, is the definition of unjust – the worst thing we do. False-piety simply doesn’t cover up a lapse this big.
Respect for veterans isn’t a service once a year, it’s life-long health-care and pensions for the disabled, great educational programs and tons of (expensive, but in every way deserved) counselling and support, to help them cope with what no one should ever have to see, or do. Seeing them reduced to begging for charity health-care, for injuries suffered in service, is outright horrifying – no truly patriotic country would ever let that shame stand – let alone become institutionalized.
And once we do begin to understand how much we ask of them, and how much of real utility (not just pretty words) we must offer them on return, to do them any sort of fairness, let alone honour – we’ll finally realize that war is too damned expensive – financially, morally, and in real life human terms – for the thems and the us-es both. It’s not a way to solve, but only to create problems.
The proper way to pay respect remains, as it has always been, by being wise and restrained enough to solve our problems without such horrendous spasms of violence and insanity. I’m not making this up or trying to be pushy. “Thou shalt not kill” is serious stuff for humanists, as well as all the truly faithful.
We can do better – and as citizens of democracies – it’s actually our duty to find the principles and instruments of restraint ourselves, and empower only these as our true representatives. Because the families ruined, the kids who don’t come home, or only sort-of, and all the ruins corpses and orphans we try never to think of, far afield, are in fact on our hands. That too, is what it means to be ‘free’.
Probably why we keep cranking the volume ever-louder, and looking for some form of ‘retail-therapy’ escape. Our accrued defecit of responsibility as citizens is indeed frightening. Time to make a dent in it, my friends – progress – still possible even now, I swear!