Random neuron firing, lame philosophy, literary pontificating, movies, sex, clothes & other femme stuff

Sunday, November 16, 2003

A colossal wreck
OK, so if you've been reading Mikarrhea for a while you know two things: (1) I haven't posted anything in ages that has required on my part the measliest ort of literary-critical thinking and (2) I keep saying I want to say something about Shelley's "Ozymandias." So today's post is intended to rectify this situation on both counts.

But first, let me just remark on the delicious contingency of the fact that some single ancient anatomist's erroneous belief in the linearity of the terminal section of the alimentary canal has had the consequence (for me at any rate) of eternally lending a curious taint to "rectify," "rectilinear," and their cognates.

I find myself digressing again. Which itself reminds me of one of my favorite Poe stories, "The Imp of the Perverse" (if you haven't read it, do, it's really short). The narrator purposes to tell the story of his crime and confession but cannot get around to it for several pages because he becomes caught up in elaborating at absurd length about . . . procrastination! My favorite paragraph is a beautiful piece of pre-Freudian psychological insight and really captures in a nutshell my entire existence from birth till today (and undoubtedly my future as well):
We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know
that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of
our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We
glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the
anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It
must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until
to-morrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse,
using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow
arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but
with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a
positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This
craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action
is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us,
-- of the definite with the indefinite -- of the substance with the
shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow
which prevails, -- we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the
knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note
to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies -- it disappears
-- we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it
is too late!

OK, Shelley.
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."
One day (or pentameterishly Stevens-like: "There came a day, there was a day, one day") in a post I used the phrase "lone and level sands," which moved me to reread "Ozymandias," which aroused The Houseman Syndrome (which if it isn't a Robert Ludlum title, should be) and I started thinking about why I like the poem and I had some of the following thoughts which I've been meaning and meaning and meaning to get down.

My first response was to be overwhelmed by the intensity of the ending, the dramatic contrast between, on the one hand, the hubristic confidence of Ozymandias' assertion of unmatched power (political power, of course, but also aesthetic power; his grandiose assertion draws attention after all to his spectacular physical "Works," his monuments, monuments that his political power enables him to commission [to concretize that power, as it were, to freeze politics in art]) and, on the other hand, the simple description of sublime barrenness (the "lone and level sands" stretching off into the infinite distance) that belies that assertion. This simple description not only demolishes Ozymandias' claim to power (specifically the power to freeze politics in art) but also hammers home the futility of even the most spectacular human efforts to thwart the ravaging of time. Shelley's juxtaposing the tyrant's categorical pronouncement of the immediacy of a despair-producing plenitude (not just awe-inspiring or marvellous, but so awe-inspiring and marvellous as to dash even the hope of ever matching it) against the traveler's perception of an absolute emptiness (a landscape barren not just of Ozymandias' monuments but of everything save sand--no plants, no animals, no water, not even geologic formations or undulations in the ground) in a mere two lines (11-12) is breathtaking. Is it possible for an assertion to be more wrong than Ozymandias'? For words to be at greater odds with the reality they purport to refer to, to be more ineffectual, more unintentionally ironic?

Recovering somewhat from the mind-exploding effect of this dramatic contrast, I started paying attention to the fact that the central experience of the poem, a person's reading Ozymandias' hubristic inscription surrounded by a landscape ironically at variance with it, is not the speaker's. It is the traveler's ("I met a traveller from an antique land / Who said '. . .'"). And I began to wonder about Shelley's reasons for narrating the experience in this way. Why not simply describe the situation in the desert directly to the reader, or at most have the speaker of the poem be the person who actually reads the inscription and views the landscape? Why take the trouble to insert a traveler between the speaker and the poem's central experience?

Puzzling this over, I began to notice (look, I'm really slow) that the poem has, in fact, a Chinese box (or Russian doll) structure. At the center of the poem is the mighty ruler, Ozymandias, who utters the challenge, "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" But it's not he whom we see uttering these words: it's an artist's gigantic statue of him, now broken in fragments, that we are to understand as representing him uttering them. Between us readers and the blustering Ozymandias stand, first, the artist and his statue, then the traveler and his story, and, last, the speaker and his poem. These three boxes can be read as representing three different aesthetic modes. In doing so, they establish, more or less, a kind of history of aesthetic representation: most of the earliest products of art still available to us are commissioned public works glorifying religions or political leaders; later came travel-narratives and, later still, sonnets.

This is only meant as a rough chronology: of course, the ancient Greeks wrote lyric poems not so unlike sonnets, artists today still create grand works glorifying religions or political leaders, and travel-narratives will always be popular. Nevertheless, it seems that Shelley means to set up a trajectory, a kind of aesthetic caravan route (unconsciously orientalizing, in Said's sense), from the public spaces of Ozymandias' ancient Near Eastern tyranny to the private study or library of the reader in contemporary Western democratic England.

The conditions and purposes of (the freedoms available to and the limitations circumscribing) the production and reception of art are different in each of the three cases. In the first, the artist is, presumably, commanded to create and must create only what the ruler allows him to. At most, he can subtly "mock" the "passions" of his ruler, if he does so artfully enough not to be detected by him. In the second case, the traveler produces tales of curiosities he's seen on his travels: his aesthetic freedom too is limited in a sense, not by a tyrant's whims but by the contingent circumstance of the differences between his home culture and the ones he's visited, by the appetite of his audience primarily for novelty and strangeness, and by what (he can persuade his audience) he's actually seen. In the third case, however, the poet of nineteenth-century English private society, working neither at a tyrant's pleasure outdoors with a team of others in the public arena nor gathering what material he can on far-flung voyages, is free to sit in his study (or, as was Shelley's wont, in some remarkable landscape) and send his imagination where he will, to select what material serves best for the carefully wrought, refined aesthetic structure that is his lyric.

Shelley's "Ozymandias," like so much of Shelley's writing, is viscerally political and democratic. Demonstrating the spectacular absurdity, in the long run, of this tyrant's assertion of absolute power, the poet indicts tyranny generally. The tyrant's sole remaining utterance constitutes an attempt to control his presumptive audience's aesthetic response to the art he's commissioned ("Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"). What remain from Ozymandias' self-glorifying plenitude are only enough pieces of one statue to demonstrate an aesthetic point: how well the original sculptor managed to capture in stone his ruler's savage megalomania. The artist's power over the tyrant (and over the reader-as-imaginary-viewer) outlasts the tyrant's over the artist (ditto). Tyranny is the artist's (and Shelley's) subject.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Listed on BlogShares