The persistence of Ozymandias
My recent post about Ted Jenner's translations of Greek burial-poems stirred the ire of one commenter, who asked, presumably rhetorically, why he or she should care about 'OLD stuff'.
History may been 'bunk' to Henry Ford, and classical history, at least, may be bunk to our anonymous commenter, but participants in this year's most newsworthy event appear to have a considerable interest in the distant past. The protesters who have ejected Hosni Mubarak from office in Egypt and the rebels who have liberated the eastern half of Libya from the whimsical and ferocious Moammar Gadhafi have frequently drawn parallels between their struggles and those of oppressed groups in the medieval and classical ages.
Protesters and their supporters have repeatedly compared both Mubarak and Gadhafi to the pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt. Some cartoonists in the Arab press have depicted Mubarak as a walking mummy, who needs to be laid to rest in a deep tomb; others have grafted his pockmarked face onto the Sphinx, or onto one of the statues of the pharaohs.
A number of opponents of Mubarak and Gadhafi have alluded to Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias', which used what Keith Douglas has called 'time's wrong-way telescope' to mock the hurbis of an ancient despot:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In recent weeks a couple of Arab bloggers have taken to calling Egypt's strongman 'Ozymandias Mubarak', and the popular South African cartoonist Zapiro has given Mubarak his own melancholy monument in the desert.
Shelley wrote his sonnet in 1818, at about the same time a huge statue of a pharaoh named Ramesses II was acquired and placed on permanent exhibition by the British Museum. By 1818 Britain had won the Napoleonic Wars and established itself as the pre-eminent power in Europe and in the world. Britain's navy dominated the high seas, and as the industrial revolution gained momentum British imperialists would get the tools - fast-action rifles, long-range accurate cannon, armoured steamships - that would enable the extension of their power up rivers like the Nile and the Yangtze and into the hearts of the world's most barbarous and profitable regions.
At a time when Britain seemed more powerful than ever before, some visitors to the empire's greatest museum were disturbed by the statue of the once-mighty Ramesses. This fragment of the ancient world might be compared to the fossils of dinosaurs and trilobites which were discovered in the nineteenth century cliffs of Dorset and patiently excavated and catalogued by gentleman scholars. Like the visage of the long-dead pharaoh, Dorset's dinosaurs were reminders of the age of the earth, and of the insecure tenure that even the mightiest creatures have on earth. Was it possible, some viewers of the statue of Ramesses II wondered, that the British Empire might one day share the fate of the ancient Egyptian civilisation the pharaohs and their monuments exemplified? And might the whole human species eventually follow the trilobites of Dorset's coast into extinction?
In a poem he also called 'Ozymandias', Shelley's friend Horace Smith made the fantasy of British decline explicit:
some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Shelley was a political and cultural radical, who would have been happy to see the power of imperial Britain broken. He looked for both poetic and political inspiration back to the 1790s, when a circle of young British writers and thinkers had declared intellectual war on their country's establishment, and offered their solidarity to the revolution unfolding in France. By 1818 the French revolution had been discredited, in many quarters, by Napoleon's dictatorship, and the dream of an English revolution seemed quixotic. Young rebels of the '90s like Wordsworth and Coleridge had become middle-aged conservatives, ready to praise the monarchy and the Church of England in verse and in prose.
Perhaps there is a trace of curiously optimistic fatalism in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'. Perhaps, unable to imagine a credible threat to the political and cultural order he opposes, Shelley comforts himself by insinuating the inevitability of that order's collapse.
Have Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi read Shelley's poem? The possibility is not as remote as it might seem: Mubarak married the daughter of a British nurse, and is reportedly something of an Anglophile; Gadhafi fancies himself as a man of letters, and has published several novels. In a speech he made in 2009, Gadhafi seemed to quote Shelley's poem, declaring himself 'leader of the Arab leaders, king of kings'. Is there a part of Gadhafi's disintegrating brain which recognises the absurdity he has become, and which puts the words of 'Ozymandias' onto his tongue?
It must have taken decades, or even centuries, for a pharaoh like Ramesses II to be forgotten. A religion built around his bloodline and a body of officially-sanctioned legends would have kept the dead monarch's name on the tongues of the descendants of his subjects. Even after the end of pharaonic rule, memories of the old order and its ways persisted. After the Roman conquest of Egypt a new syncretic religion honoured Gods of the old order like Thoth and Isis as well as new deities from the Roman and Greek world.
Today, a leader and an official culture can disappear from popular memory with unprecedented ease. Our twenty-four hour news cycle creates an obsession with the present and a forgetfulness about even the very recent past. For the last week or so of January and the first eleven days of February, Hosni Mubarak was the almost-continual focus of the global media and of the news-oriented parts of the blogosphere. When he emerged from one of his bunker-palaces to make a speech, not only his words but the movements of his facial muscles, the half-conscious flexing and twitching of his hands, and the pallor of his forehead were analysed for hours by commentators.
Since he resigned on February the 11th, though, Mubarak has been almost wholly forgotten by both the mainstream media and the blogosphere. One of the few journalists to make enquiries discovered that the ex-President is suffering a deep depression in the seclusion of his palace on the Red Sea. Ozymandias Mubarak is reportedly refusing to eat and to take medication, and has declared that he wants to die.
Is the oblivion into which Mubarak has fallen today any less total than the oblivion which Shelley's 'Ozymandias' suffers?
We might go further, and wonder whether a leader like Mubarak suffered a kind of oblivion even while he occupied the office of President. Humans have a tendency to hold what Tolstoy contemptuously called 'the Great Man theory of history' - to believe that battles are won by generals rather than by armies, and that the fate of nations is determined by Kings or Presidents rather than by more abstract forces like flows of capital or rates of production. Marx, who excelled in the analysis of abstract, erratic forces, warned against the danger of confusing systems with individuals. Capitalism and capitalists are not the same thing, he insisted; the state is not the same thing as its leader.
Circumscribed by the deal with Israel and the US his assassinated precedessor signed, dependent upon the Americans for cash and on his armed forces for muscle, beholden to the International Monetary Fund's neo-liberal prescriptions and yet unable to raise the price of bread without provoking riots, how much power did President Mubarak hold? Was he always, in a curious and rather grotesque way, a prisoner of his palaces?
This is a poem I've submitted (a little late, I think) for the next issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief:
Ozymandias At His Desk (for Hosni Mubarak)
A mother writes to ask
why her son will die.
He will die because
a stone wants to be thrown,
because two hands want to clasp each other,
because a skull wants
to split: he will die
because there is no just word
in this room,
where hands sore from prayer
stack and sort paper,
laying diplomats’ letters over harvest estimates,
appeals for clemency with mispelt threats,
under invoices for tar.
In the corridor the boy drops his bucket,
curses, picks it up again,
and hurries on his way
to slop out the royal tiger’s cage.
I want a wind to appear on the plain,
to gather force there,
the way a pretender prince
gathers an army,
to leap the capital’s walls
like an Arab stallion,
to push its way into this palace,
past the sabres of the guardhouse,
then pour down the corridors to this room
and level the tidy piles of the clerks.
The fairest order in the world
is a mess of unread papers.