Ships and Fine, Aged Wine: The Awful Immortality of Ozymandias

Posted on May 17, 2011

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Fair warning: this is going to be a half-sensical, wandering, and highly subjective pseudo-intellectual post. Approach with caution:

A few years ago I had a professor named David Miles Yerkes. He was insane: he insisted on calling an Asian student in the class Tokyo Rose and a black student Grizz (after his favorite character on 30 Rock). Some days he would curl up in a yellow windbreaker, intent on not teaching anything from the syllabus, and instead would hold court on the art of folding a folio in the era of William Shakespeare. Granted this note on folios would be of great use to me a couple of years later when I took an interest in the printing and manufacturing side of publications. But it had almost nothing to do with the masterpieces of western literature and philosophy.

Not that I cared too much—I digested the course material well enough on my own and found his bouts of academic madness quite charming. And after it became apparent to him that he and I were the only individuals in the class with some knowledge of the art of building a moonshine still, he took a shining to me that made the class hours exceedingly tolerable.

One day Yerkes read aloud from the second book of the Iliad a long list of ships and their martial contents launched from the Aegean ports in service of the Achaean cause. Mid-list he closed the book and issued the following proclamation:

“Now, I know most of you punks think this shit is boring, but this is one of the greatest passages in western literature. As your literary tastes mature, you will come to find the Catalogue of Ships to be exquisite and rich. Like a fine, aged wine.”

I dismissed this as yet another Yerkesism and went on with my life unmoved.

But today I found myself combing the my family’s small but respectable library in search of a copy of the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings written around 1000 C.E. and recounting the lineages of Iranian royalty and culture from the birth of creation to the coming of Islam. I’ve unearthed my well-worn copy of The Histories  of Herodotus of Halicarnassus and am currently re-reading the more recent but still epic 500 Nations, a beautiful sweep of the saga of Native-European relations by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. I’ve not thought much of the impulse behind my current binge, but I realized today as I recalled the lineages and epithets of the Shahnameh that I have somehow come to love the dense and almost meaningless lists that the chroniclers see fit to include in these stories, and I’m trying to sort out here why that is—why have passages like the Catalogue of Ships become like a fine, aged wine to me?

I think it’s something to do with their meaninglessness to us, yet the fact that someone once deemed these lines worth memorization and immortalization. That men traveled under black sails in one fleet, or that the Meliboeans contributed seven ships and the Ormenians forty matters little to me—the names mean almost nothing. But there’s a deep sense of reality and dread in the list; the little and pointless names cast against those of Achilles and Hector drag the demi-gods into reality and hold the lesser dregs of humanity up into the light of unbelievable greatness.

To put it another way, as I ran through the lists in my mind, I suddenly recalled Percy Shelley’s short poem “Ozymandias”:

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 Might, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

On the surface, it’s a poem of great futility, of the strains and majesty of an age sinking into a sad and listless memory forgotten in the sands, of a mighty man blinded to the stunted and mortal transience of his own ambitions. Like the Shahnemah, much of Ozymandias’s proclamation smacks of nationalist dreck and the dross of narcissistic history building, and there is something vile and laughable in it all. It’s the bite of the drink.

But at the thought of Ozymandias in the sands, I shudder a bit with a surge of awe and recognition even as the bitterness sits on my tongue. In that wrinkled lip and sneer little of the context of the man or his mighty deeds remain. But that we can recognize immediately the feeling behind the face, the ambition and its recurrence into our own era, that is dread terror and power that reaches out beyond the sands of a long-rotted emperor.

Reading Sundiata, the epic of the creation of the empire of Mali and the fall of the empire of Ghana, one tastes a unique wine. The intricate struggles of Sogolan Djata against his Mandinka kin Sassouma Berete and Dankaran Toumani Keita and against the sorcerer king Soumaoro Kante of Sosso mean almost nothing to me—the lists of men and names of cities swallowed up in the sands of the ever-encroaching Sahara, the references of the griots and the descriptions of metal rods hewn under sole trees. But something in the urgency of the verse and the gradual repetition of Mansa and Kouroukan Fouga makes me feel out the humanity and reality of a dense and mysterious time, the truth within a myth fading into legend.

These lists and winding glorifications are lullabies, passages to sleep by. But in their rolling messages is the brunt of civilizations, the commonalities and modulations that have woven the warp and weft of the grounds we stand upon. There’s smallness standing in the shadows, shame at having forgotten the stories, a swelling of honor in imbibing the dreams of a nation and feeling some distant relation to these ambitions and self-perceptions. There’s a ringing sense of not who men were, but what they wanted us to know, what they felt worth preserving against the all-swallowing sands, and of who we are today and what will remain of us. There’s drunken reverie in the meandering lists, some potency left in them, for those of us narcissistic and whimsical enough to look for it.

And maybe it’s just half-mad pseudo-academics who fall into that camp, but I think that’s why I scrutinize these passages that mean nothing. It’s like being trapped in a body that recognizes its own life in the pages, but can’t quite recall where it fits in or how to return. It’s wonder and bemusement and a meditative trance wrapped up in the experience of reading.

And that is my semi-intellectual douchebaggery for the day. I’ve some thoughts on a few news items I read today that I’ll write up later.

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