Egypt’s Mubarak, Colossal Wreck

Ramesses II, aka Ozymandias

Ramesses II, aka Ozymandias

As Egypt, following the lead of Tunisia (see my post here), teeters on the verge of revolution, everyone seems to be looking to different historical pasts to predict the future. My former Carleton classmate Kai Bird fears that Barack Obama will repeat the mistakes that Jimmy Carter made with the Shaw of Iran but adds that Obama is in a unique position to get on the right side of history this time: he could back the people against Egypt dictator Hosni Mubarak. Others invoke 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall set off a domino collapse of communist regimes across the Iron Curtain. If this is the case here, will Syria or Sudan or Saudi Arabia be next?  One future that everyone fears, of course, is a fundamentalist takeover that is a repeat of Iran. If that occurs, will the U.S. become, once again, “the Great Satan”?

The image that comes to my mind—not a prediction so much as a comment on dictatorships—is Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias.” Supposedly inspired by a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses that Shelley had heard about, the poem points out that individuals who seek to impose their iron will do not provide a living legacy. Rather, their descendants look out over “lone and level sands [that] stretch far away.”

The sculptor in the poem interests me. In a sense, his is the true legacy as he has provided us a timeless glimpse into tyranny through “the frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.” His vision has survived the centuries, unlike those things that the pharaoh considered important. Shelley’s poem reminds me of a Brecht lyric about a Japanese artist capturing the face of evil in a mask.  (I write about it here.)

Let us pray for the Egyptian people and hope that their revolution is one that brings life rather than death, true freedom rather than an exchange of tyrants. If they succeed in creating a democratic society, theirs will be a monument that does not fall prey to the sands of time.

Here’s the poem:

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.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 5, 2011 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Mubarak can not resign, and if he did, there would be no reforms, it is in the Constitution that laws can only be changed when a President is in power, and if he left, an election would be held in 60 days, making the Egyptians wait longer for reforms

2 Trackbacks

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    […] any way that Hugh Hefner’s forthcoming marriage is as newsworthy as, say, Egypt’s uprising (Monday’s post) or America’s problem with guns (yesterday’s post). But we can’t be serious all the […]

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