Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ozymandias vs. New York

Here is an evocative article about the New York State Pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair.

"Once there were elevators gliding up the sides of the towers to reveal a city unfolding; now they are rusted in mid-rise. Once there were stairwells winding within those towers; now they are rotted through. The call for a better tomorrow, for “Peace Through Understanding,” is answered by the flutter and coo of its hidden inhabitants."

Apparently the 1960s future is rusting as fast as the Gernsback Continuum did before it. I've visited plenty of space-age ruins in my time, but not this one. I've put it on the list.

Having said that, it has literally never occurred to me that a traveler would look upon Ozymandias' colossal wreck and despair because it was broken. At least, I assume that's what the writer means here when he says: "But the more years that go by, the more the structure becomes New York’s own “colossal wreck,” begging, as Shelley wrote in “Ozymandias,” that we look upon it and despair."

Here's the sonnet to which he is referring:

I met a traveler 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.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

I've always thought that the power generated by the poem comes from the fact that time, the great leveler, has freed us from any need to despair. Ozymandias, with his frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, and his granite stand-in of same have together gone the way of all flesh, and apparently of all stone too. Hooray, good riddance, happy days are here again, etc.

But others are apparently despairing at the decay, at the hand of time itself. I feel as though I've been caught out in a blatant lack of imagination. Call myself a writer? I clearly don't understand how other people think at all. And I've even been to the Ramesseum, looked on the colossal wrecks, and, if not actually despaired, at least felt a little tinge of regret and a whimper of existential angst that such strong statues were broken and scattered over the ground.


donnernblitzen said...

I had never seen any version but the Shelley one.
I always thought "look on my works and despair" was to point out how silly it is for humans to make much of themselves. Ozymandias can't make anybody despair now... because he was just like the rest of us, a vapor that appeareth for a little time, then vanisheth away.

Peromyscus said...

I agree. (I can't think of anything cleverer than a me too post at the moment.)


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