A Novel Excerptby Robert Olen Butler
Darla parks in front of the nineteenth-century brick opera house just off Monticello’s traffic circle. In the center sits the Jefferson County courthouse, in the Classic Revival style of the town’s namesake. She crosses the street and turns to her left to circle the building, her eyes on the monument for the Confederate dead at the north side. From this approach, only its eight-foot base is visible beyond the waxy, evergreen crown of a century-old magnolia.
She has come here to fight against her mind. The semiotician part—studying signs, signifiers—is prone to jargon-driven incomprehensibility; the art scholar part—studying created objects—can easily be stricken aesthetically blind. Both parts constantly threaten to cut her off from fundamental human life as it is lived, first and foremost: in the moment, through the senses. Not that she doesn’t love her mind. It is always quick, for instance, to see a good irony, such as this very distrust of her mind having itself begun as an idea. And it was her analytical self that challenged her to look more deeply at these monuments, issuing the challenge in this very town after she and Robert came here with friends for roadhouse food and antiques and found this relic of Old South, lost-cause passion and laughed at its excesses and, yes, at its unintended semiotics.
To give voice to this monument’s signified meaning, both in its own era—the last years of the nineteenth century—and in this era, she needs time to stand and meditate on the thing. She is convinced that at the deepest level its meaning is essentially a meaning of the body. Of the bodies of this monument’s creators. The bodies of the women of the Ladies Memorial Association of Jefferson County, Florida, and of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.