53 pages 1 hour read

Benedict Anderson

Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1983

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Symbols & Motifs

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

For Anderson, tombs of the Unknown Soldier are the quintessential symbol of modern nationalism, embodying the quasi-mystical significance attached to the idea of nationhood. The cultural meaning of such monuments lies in their association of personal anonymity, national destiny, mortality, and the human aspiration toward eternity. Anderson observes that the reverence they evoke requires that the tombs are empty, or the remains they contain unidentifiable: “Yet void as these tombs are of identifiable mortal remains or immortal souls, they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings” (9). Without the specificity of personal identity, monuments to the Unknown Soldier are able to symbolize abstract ideals associated with the nation.

These ‘imaginings’ demonstrate nationalism’s concern with death and immortality. Anderson traces the cultural roots of nationalism to the retreat of the medieval Christian world-view, which was undermined by the rational secularism of the Enlightenment and the age of scientific and global discovery. With the ebbing of religious belief, human suffering and the desire for meaning required a new form of metaphysical comfort and found this need met in the idea of the nation-state. Nations conceive of themselves as “loom[ing] out of an immemorial past” and uniting their members in a vision of a continually unfolding national destiny (11).