A RARE — you might almost say an exquisite — unity of form, content, and meaning was achieved by BBC2’s distillation of the morning’s ceremonies in Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph (Sunday). This, we were constantly reminded, was a Remembrance Sunday like no other: the key actors, military presence, the bands, all savagely cut down in number and widely spaced; and, above all, no public participation.
But, as I watched, a realisation dawned. The wide gaps between people, the prevailing spaces, made corporeal a vital truth: this event is all about absence, about those not present, the empty spaces in the ranks where the fallen should have been standing. At its heart is a void: two minutes of silence, of nothing, a gap in time, just as the cenotaph itself is an empty memorial, containing no body.
This is, of course, territory entirely familiar to Christians. Our faith springs into life, paradoxically, with a similar void, with the empty tomb. Absence creates the strongest presence of all. Throughout the ceremony, the small numbers permitted to be there performed, laid wreaths, acted on behalf of others, stood in for those who could not be there. The social distancing was a corporate taking on of responsibility for, in the widest sense, our neighbours: a Remembrance Sunday truth never hitherto so powerfully presented.
There was more sobering material in Aung San Suu Kyi: The fall of an icon (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). This chronicled an appalling descent: how could this heroine for justice and democracy, a martyr who endured decades of house arrest by Burma’s vile military regime, and a beacon of steadfast courage and hope, not, once she was released, elected to parliament, and acknowledged to be the nation’s popular leader, put an end to the barbarous treatment of the Rohingya Muslims? It is worse than that: she even sought to minimise and justify what by the rest of the world clearly can only be classed as genocide.
The documentary’s distinguished contributors expressed the widest disagreement, from those who felt that she had betrayed every principle she stood for to those who considered that, given the absolute power still wielded by the military, she had no choice but to comply, maintaining at least some credibility with them, a chink of influence which she might widen into a force for real change.
It demonstrated the folly of treating our heroes as saints, raising expectations of perfection that can only, sooner or later, be dashed.
In The Disordered Eye (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), Richard Butchins championed the work of visually impaired fellow artists. Must good painting and drawing depend on acute sight? Monet’s cataracts freed up his use of colour and form, and we met many contemporary artists who believe that their work is liberated beyond mere focus into wider realms of sensation and impression. When it comes to vision, the brain counts far more than the eye.