Monday, 9 August 2010

Come Back Ozymandias, All Is Forgiven

What is one to learn from Shelley's "Ozymandias" but of the futility of attempts to transcend the finitude of human existence: Ozymandias, king of kings, would have his stone carved legs made massive and planted wide apart in the centre of his kingdom; but his land is now desert and his legs two trunkless stumps whose faded stridency is mocked by the cold sneer of his wrinkled mouth, which will erode no faster than the legs from which it has fallen. It is, to our modern ears, a by now familiar lesson. We are not made for lasting; we are human, all too human.

But what, then, of the contemporary mania for recording ourselves, for producing image after image in a manner that increasingly takes the place of experience? Are we Ozymandias, over again, destined to have our soft-toned smiles made a mockery of by the inevitable brevity of our lives? Curiously, no, and that is our tragedy. Ozymandias was of an age in which the contingency of human existence was regarded as the merely human reflection of inhuman, of infinite, truths; human demise was, then, to be overcome by a reaching toward the inhuman, finitude by a striving for the infinite. A hopeless pursuit, we might now think, with our modern wisdom that knows there's nothing but humans and lies; and yet the yearning for something transcendent, the grasping at something beyond, did at least tend to elevate, to educate, to enlighten, to broaden the horizon of our minds. What is characteristic of the modern Ozymandias - the child, aged but eight, whose image is posted worldwide and weekly, and who knows more of how to perform her childhood than she does of anything childish - is that her image is not any striving but rather a rooting in the basest of human possibilities: our drive to capture ourselves, instead of being an effort to overcome death with Truth and Beauty, with Right and Good, is a defiant bedding down in the moment, as if we are not only incapable of reaching beyond ourselves to something greater but are entirely described by cliched smiles, on Hallmark occasions spent in standardised relation. This is all we are, our images say of ourselves: as wrongheaded a view as that of Ozymandias, but worse, so much worse, in its reduction of human existence to a stock of pre-packaged experiences and consequent removal of the possibility of our being taken out of ourselves to something different, and, yes, maybe better.

Two massive legs in the desert tell of a man who got far too above himself; but better that than a constant picturing of ourselves out of the experiences that might, just might, make us learn something new. We may well be human; but must we be all too human?

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