Friday, March 04, 2011

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
and applause
stack and sort paper,
laying diplomats’ letters over harvest estimates,
appeals for clemency with mispelt threats,
heretics’ confessions
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.


Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Maps, Comrade, you just keep getting better and better.

I hope that poem wasn't too late for "Brief" - it's a cracker!

2:47 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

I have to agree with Chris - for the second time today! What's happening to me?

3:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why do you empathise with the oppressor?


10:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first bomb was dropped outside Tripoli on November 1st, 1911, during the war that the Italians started in order to win the last piece of North Africa remaining in Turkish hands. It was the Italian Lieutenant Guilio Cavotti, flying a delicate airplane that looked very much like a dragonfly, who leaned out and dropped a small bomb, a Danish “Haasen” hand grenade, on the oasis of Tagiura. On hearing the news, the public in other countries was outraged, because everyone immediately saw the implications of this new means of destruction.

2:51 am  
Anonymous Edward said...

Excellent! Where/how can I get my hands on the next copy of Brief?

10:55 am  
Blogger Liz said...

Brilliant Post Scott who said history was boring when you can read mind enhancing blog posts like this.

Hope you're staying dry it's raining cats and dogs up here in the Kaipara right now.

9:37 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Thanks for the feedback folks. I flogged the last two lines from Heraclitus, who said that 'the fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings'. Ted Jenner may not be amused.

All the subscription details for brief can be found here, along with a copy of online issues:

This neat little site, which I believe the industrious Jack Ross is responsible for maintaining, has pictures of the cover for every issue of the journal - some of them have been beauties! - and complete tables of contents:

E mail managing editor Michael Arnold at if you have questions about either either subscription or submission.

I usually have a few copies of the journal to flog off. All contributors get free copies, which is a good incentive to send in material!

Heavy rain down here as well, Liz, but my folks are happy: they say the farm needed it. It should help the mushrooms come up, too.

2:03 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

Ooops, sorry: I see I've had a sex change! Skyler = Maps tonight.

2:04 am  
Blogger Liz said...

Skyler it is a brilliant post and thanks for the info.

11:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:14 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Of course as Chris and Tiso say, great poem and a great post Scotus.

I didn't send anything to Brief.
I will try to get something together for next time.

11:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"Anonymous said...

why do you empathise with the oppressor?

odd. "

Why? If you cant feel for the so-called oppressor, and there are always rulers or "leaders" we don't like, as we are indeed, despite Marxist ideology with it's naive optimism for human and scientific "progress", just "intelligent" [but not so bright, as we destroy all around us and ultimately we WILL vanish into the Dust of Time as we deserve] animals and we are like any other animals of our type (mammals such as rats or dogs) how have very very strict hierarchical orders...

But if one cant feel for and individual, or empathize and attempt to understand any individual, you (or we) have failed - one will not be able to feel for "the people" always a far more abstract idea. (I cant say I can actually do that myself...I might care for some people (certainly certain individuals I care for deeply) by extrapolating they are like me...)

I once read a psychoanalytic study of Hitler commissioned by the OSS during the war. It was very interesting and I felt quite sad for Adolf at the end of it. He had a tragic childhood and studying that report meant I came to feel fro him more. Similarly it would be fascinating to know more about David Gray, who I see as a tragically suffering, tormented, and lonely figure: indeed, possibly, it could be argued he was the victim.

He was created by this society we live in, and he was deeply wronged and he, like Hitler, thus took revenge as once can understand.

Similarly Mubarik was a victim...

But another individual for whom I feel great pity and feeling for is Anne Frank, since I read her diaries as a teenager. One time I saw a repeat of that docu-film about her and I couldn't seared me deeply. We can focus on individuals and feel, but if we talk of "millions", if becomes hard to feel anything...

I said to one of my sisters (I think she took umbrage as they say) that I was "indifferent" to the fate of my cousins in Christchurdh as I ..well I have never met them! And if I was in an earthquake it would be greatly distressing, but reading about it way down in Christchurch, while it is quite addictive, and often quite tragic, it seems to be not very relevant to me.

I have to be honest. But if there was some one I knew there it would be quite different...

This is why Revolution or Human Progress will always fail, we cannot really think in these abstract or broad ways very successfully.

Why am I interested at all in poetics of Ozymandias etc? (I'm more interested in Ancient Egypt than modern)...the ideas fascinate, there is an almost "erotic" play of the mind..."we too love to be intrigued" (and baffled and stimulated...)....

It doesn't matter if any of these things are true or not.

12:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Ozymandias and such as Gray's ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD" as some of the great poems by The Romantics.

Shelley's "The West Wind" is another great poem.

Hazlitt kept his interest in the French Revolution whereas Wordsworth etc were worried about "terror " and violence etc (as if human history at any time, let alone that time, could avoid violence or mass terror!

12:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saudis mobilise thousands of troops to quell growing revolt

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Saudi Arabia was yesterday drafting up to 10,000 security personnel
into its north-eastern Shia Muslim provinces, clogging the highways
into Dammam and other cities with busloads of troops in fear of next
week's "day of rage" by what is now called the "Hunayn Revolution".

Saudi Arabia's worst nightmare – the arrival of the new Arab awakening
of rebellion and insurrection in the kingdom – is now casting its long
shadow over the House of Saud. Provoked by the Shia majority uprising
in the neighbouring Sunni-dominated island of Bahrain, where
protesters are calling for the overthrow of the ruling al-Khalifa
family, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is widely reported to have told
the Bahraini authorities that if they do not crush their Shia revolt,
his own forces will.

The opposition is expecting at least 20,000 Saudis to gather in Riyadh
and in the Shia Muslim provinces of the north-east of the country in
six days, to demand an end to corruption and, if necessary, the
overthrow of the House of Saud. Saudi security forces have deployed
troops and armed police across the Qatif area – where most of Saudi
Arabia's Shia Muslims live – and yesterday would-be protesters
circulated photographs of armoured vehicles and buses of the
state-security police on a highway near the port city of Dammam.
Related articles

11:58 am  
Blogger Richard said...

How much are the CIA et al behind these so called "revolutions? They are happening too easily.

The media are uncharacteristically in favour of "rebellion" and "democracy". Otherwise they would be screaming about Moslem terrorists or Communism or whatever.

I suspect that Big Money is involved in the general mix and using the fact that everyone dislikes dictators.

But Mao Tse Tung, rightly warned against "sugar coated bullets".

5:03 pm  
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