Ozymandias… the Memory of Decay

20006905._SX540_.jpgOzymandias is one of Shelley’s most famous poems despite, or maybe because, of its strangeness. This sonnet –a poem of fourteen lines– does not respect the conventional Petrarchan rhyme pattern usually used in sonnets. This strange format announces a strange story told by a “traveller from an antique land”.

In the middle of the desert the traveller saw what remained of a great statue of a mighty king: two legs of stone standing and by them a head half sunk in the sand shattered but preserving its frown and “sneer of cold command”. On the pedestal the name of the king of kings was inscribed with an instruction to look at his work and despair. Ironically, nothing of this work is left and around the shattered statue nothing but sand, ruins, and utter decay can be seen.

The poem has been read for years as the epitome of loss and destruction. The metaphor of the broken statue of a king of kings symbolizes the weakness and ephemerality of human power and rule. This king who inscribed his name on his statue to record the might of his civilization and the greatness of his work is now only left with grains of sand, nothing smaller or lighter. His pride and destructive hubris is mocked by time that brought his head to his feet in the most humbling if not humiliating position.

And yet, there is something triumphant about this poem. The body, if “trunckless” still has its feet planted in the land, its own land. And despite the destruction Ozymandias is still standing. The head that is shattered and cut off preserved its “frown” and its “sneer of cold command” proving that he is still a ruler despite the apparent loss. And although what is left of his civilization is nothing but void and sand it is still remembered by the people who pass by the ruins.

The story of Ozymandias defeats time and space. In the middle of the desert he is still the only ruler, the king of kings, telling his story to every traveller passing by. And like the small grains of sand, the story will travel through wind and thin air until it reaches the ears of someone like Shelley who, intentionally or unintentionally, will inscribe it in time. Ozymandias is kept alive in our memory and imagination.

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“Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed”

The Reading Owl

I was going through Twitter today and I came across one of these Orientalist paintings depicting a young woman smoking arguile. This instantly took me a few years back when I was still a student and had to take a post-colonial studies class. It was the first time I was exposed to the theories of Orientalism and was the first time I realised how misinformed and misled some Westerners were about the Orient.

800px-WomenofAlgiers

Orientalism is the study of cultures, arts, and literature of people who do not belong to the European or American civilizations. To be more accurate it is the study of the non-white cultures. Orientalist studies may include people as close to Europe, geographically speaking, as the inhabitants of North Africa or as remote as those of East Asia. This categorisation shows how much this approach is faulty because, in my opinion, a Moroccan will find more things…

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Impressionism

The Reading Owl

In the second half on the nineteenth century a new school in painting appeared in Paris rejecting the old rigid structures. Impressionism, as its name indicates, focuses more on the fleeting feelings a scene evoques in the painter creating a dream-like artwork in which boundaries between elements in a picture are quite blurred. So, it is a movement that does not seek to replicate or re-present nature, but to exteriorise the impressions it left in the mind.

340px-Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant Claude Monet, Soleil Levant

In literature, Impressionism is usually a technique that we find in short stories that deal with fewer characters. The compact size of this genre allows the writer to focus much more on the feelings and state of mind of his characters, rather than trying to establish some sort of a literary reality.

In short stories by Pope, James, Twain and others, we usually come across a character who reflects on…

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“Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed”

I was going through Twitter today and I came across one of these Orientalist paintings depicting a young woman smoking arguile. This instantly took me a few years back when I was still a student and had to take a post-colonial studies class. It was the first time I was exposed to the theories of Orientalism and was the first time I realised how misinformed and misled some Westerners were about the Orient.

800px-WomenofAlgiers

Orientalism is the study of cultures, arts, and literature of people who do not belong to the European or American civilizations. To be more accurate it is the study of the non-white cultures. Orientalist studies may include people as close to Europe, geographically speaking, as the inhabitants of North Africa or as remote as those of East Asia. This categorisation shows how much this approach is faulty because, in my opinion, a Moroccan will find more things in common with a Spanish than he would with a Chinese. Yet, this division of the world into West and East, Occident and Orient betrays that Eurocentric vision the white man had to the world.

The term Orientalism was first used by the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said in his book Orientalism in which he studied the Western attitude to cultures of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. The ultimate conclusion that we can come out with is that the West has always had a patronizing approach towards these cultures. The Westerner would see that their languages are unintelligible, their customs and laws are backward, and their civilization, if they had any, is incapable of development.

This vision of the Orient as a backward, uncivilized and completely ignorant region helped in the development of a feeling of superiority among Europeans. The Orient was a vast rich area inhabited by unfit peoples. The lands they occupied were able to feed Europe for decades if not centuries. The mines they did not know about could make average Europeans wealthier than monarchs. The people themselves could be used for the comfort of the European masters, after all what else were they good for. And soon enough ideologies about the superiority of the white race and the European right to dominate and use the lands in the east started to flourish. Here I remember verses from a poem by Rudyard Kipling in which he says:

Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace—

Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,

Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden, No tawdry rule of kings,

But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.

The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,

Go make them with your living, And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—

The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—

“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”

 

Before these miserable people of the Orient realised what was going on, they were colonised by troops of Europeans seeking wealth and power. And either by force or treaty lands in Africa and Asia turned into the hands of European occupiers in a blink of an eye. Completely unarmed natives had to submit themselves to the will of the white master who very soon started to “civilise” them.

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First things first, economic domination. Colonisers seized the most fertile lands, explored the jungles for mines and forced indigenous people into some sort of slavery or the other. Not all colonisations were militarised and not all native peoples were massacred to be fair. But then again most these native peoples did not realise that they were exploited and many of them trusted in the good will of this clean, nice smelling white gentleman who came and promised them that very soon they will be turned into masters themselves.

But then Master did not like the sound of their language. It was not as musical as his European tongue. He also did not like their ways of living, their food, their music and their religions. So, Master said we will build schools  so that their children would be as educated as his. And Master lived up to his promise and soon a school was built. But a foreign language was taught in there, Master’s language, to teach the children about HIS god, HIS history, the geography of HIS land and the superiority of HIS laws. And bit by bit the children grew estranged from their families, forgot their origins and submitted further to their Master.

Orientalism is about that process that makes weaker civilisations lose their dominance over their own land. Not because they are inherently inferior but because they have been faced by an economically and politically stronger ones. Orientalism is about the process you lose your mother tongue, your identity, and cannot recognise yourself in the mirror. Orientalism is also about the struggle and the resistance in front of hegemony.

After the independence of many colonies during the second half of the twentieth century, a movement of literary reaction started to grow in the Orient. This movement seeks to readjust the Western attitude to the East by repossessing their native heritage. Inhabitants of ex-colonies went back to reusing their native language as a form of resistance rejecting the linguistic assimilation they were forced into. They also started to revisit their folktales and myths as pieces of ancient wisdom and not as bedtime stories for children. And they repainted the native grandfather as an honest naive man who happened to be fooled by a scheming gold-digger and not as a savage cannibal.

Decades have passed since the Orient obtained its independence and thousands of books have been written about the truth behind colonisation. Many “oriental” scholars can now be found in the most prestigious European universities and yet we are still faced with some archaic visions about those who live “there”.

Edouard-Richter-Sheherazade

A Tale Told by an Idiot

Through my very humble readings of literary criticism, I came to understand that literature, as a complete body of human production, can have three major types of characters: tragic, comic and ironic. The tragic hero is generally found in ancient Greek drama and important medieval and post-renaissance plays. The comic character can be found in comedies (duh) and in some comic situations within tragedies. And finally the ironic “hero” has flourished mainly in the twentieth century as a reaction to the absurdity of the human situation.

To start with “serious” things first, tragedies are the natural realm of the tragic mode that is built throughout the play with a mixture of certain elements. First, the hero must be of noble birth, must have a noble purpose and must have noble values. So, a tragic hero cannot be a commoner, cannot be going after drugs or some shady business, and cannot be corrupt with no moral values whatsoever.

As that person does not exist in real life, not even in those “ideal” ancient Greek cities, he had to have some sort of a flaw. His flaw, nevertheless, must be noble in some ways so to maintain this elevated tone tragedies have. He will be too ambitious, too proud, and too self-confident to a point that his judgement is clouded by his hubris. Then he will commit his fatal mistake and find himself face to face with the powers of the supernatural.

oedipus_354Despite all our sympathy with his handsome, god-like and heroic young man, his fate is sealed and he dies eventually as a logical retribution of his hamartia. His death will of course create in us mixed emotions of sympathy, fear and relief and that would be all. The examples are numerous as you probably know and you must have thought of Oedipus, Achilles, Macbeth…

The second mode in literature is comedy. Here the hero is not a noble man has no quest whatsoever and although he is not necessarily the most debauched human being you may come across, yet his morality is not perfect. He is a “normal” human being like you and me has his dreams and goals in life but he usually stumbles upon reality.

His failure to achieve any kind of social recognition or at least integration makes of him a character we both feel sorry for and despise at the same time. He is someone we pity wpid-photo-oct-7-2012-449-pm.jpgand reject, someone we like but will not invite for dinner, someone we will pass by without noticing him unless he manages to put himself into some awkward situation-something he is very successful at.

Now why is such a pathetic character important for us as readers of literature? Simply because he is us. He represents our struggles, our smashed dreams, our hopes, our bitter regrets, our failures and every negative moment in our lives. We pity him, because we cannot not pity our vulnerable selves. We hate him because we can but reject our weaknesses. He is our reflection in the mirror before we put our clothes on: totally naked and exposed. A reflection that we want to keep as private as we can because if exposed to the wrong people we will feel weak, humiliated, and angry.

The comic character is the closest to ourselves and that is why we reject him so violently and we are always ready to sacrifice him. Although he brings in some laughter and wisdom to the narration we grow easily tired of him and of his “normalcy” and get excited when the fictive mob start sharpening their knives for him. Very often he ends up killed either literally by some angry fellow or metaphorically through some odd disappearance from the scene. His disappearance creates in us feelings of relief, a relief of someone who was on the verge of being exposed. We are glad that he is gone, that he will not talk about how human and ordinary he is.

Finally the ironic character is the youngest of them all, at least to my understanding. He is of course not noble in any way. He is born in a normal family and sometimes not in the most orthodox manner. He has no purpose in life neither noble nor otherwise, and does not mean to have one either. His morality is absent completely and if not he is a great doubter. He has doubts about God, religion, humanity, values and his breakfast cereals. He is usually educated, somehow, but does not want to employ his education in any fruitful business. If he works, he does so for the money and does not strife to reach any philosophical satisfaction. And you know the rest. The ironic character is an anti-hero par excellence.

He is usually born after the WWI and preferably during the second half of the twentieth century or later. He saw all human values collapse and lost any sort of faith a man could have. Completely disillusioned, he lives just because he was born. He usually stands there doing nothing and judging everyone. Sometimes he would even stop judging satisfying himself with a look of disdain. He cannot be moved by any catastrophe befalling his fellow citizens. He is not necessarily bad or evil and does not seek to destroy any life or anything. He is simply retired from life and humanity.

The ironic character allows us to face the reality not of ourselves and our nature, but the reality of our deeds. He shows us our corruption, falsehood, hypocrisy in the bluntest ways, making bitter and subtle remarks about the futility of our lives and the absurdity of our work. And most of the time he is honest in what he says.

Although we do not identify ourselves with a character like that usually, we know very well that what he says is true. He has a point and that point disturbs us deeply. He forces us to comprehend the dividedness of our human existence as we aspire to be heroes while we are only a bunch of fools very ordinary and comic who achieved nothing but utter destruction to humankind.

The problem is that death is not a problem for him. It is not a punishment and it is not something he fears. The issue is that this type of characters has no worries and no dreams so when we come enraged threatening him with death and hellfire we are met usually with an sarcastic smile reminding us, again, of the absurdity of our actions. And as he may die eventually his death produces nothing. He beats us one more time through his death for we cannot feel any relief or satisfaction at his destruction.

These three characters in literature: tragic, comic and ironic do not only reflect the progress of literature as a human production, they also reflect the maturity of the human mind that went through stages of aging. From a naive understanding of a world divided in two: black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, to a more mature understanding that sees the world as a big grey zone where borders are usually blurred.

Reading literature as a whole body will allow us to have a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves, how we came here and via which roads. And hopefully this insight would help us be better individuals and not mere players on this absurd stage of life struggling our way out of it to be heard no more.

Sisyphus: a Martyr or a Rogue

220px-Punishment_sisyphFor quite a long period of time I thought that Sisyphus was the symbol of martyrdom; a great man who was wrongfully judged by a whimsical tyrant god. I do not know if that has to do with inaccurate information I received in class, or it was because I was not paying attention to what my teacher was saying.

Anyway, I think that my understanding of the “tragedy” of Sisyphus settled well with my adolescent need for overdramatic reactions and very emotional and senseless perception of the world. I needed to blame someone else for my fault, wanted to constantly rebel against any shadow of the faintest rules I can spot from afar, and of course play the victim.

The idea that he had to constantly to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to see it fall back crashing him and his efforts seemed, to a certain extend, to symbolise my efforts to impress my “entourage” with what I was doing with my life… which was not much as a matter of fact. Anyway, I grew older and hopefully I became more mature and I started to see that Sisyphus is not a martyr and much less a hero.

Sisyphus was a king but much of his character was very far from being noble. He was a deceiver, a murderer and above all he was so “full of himself”, something we cannot tolerate in those high-born people. He was skilful but not in a way to cause a threat to the craftsmanship of the gods, he was intelligent but not as resourceful as Zeus, and he was a powerful ruler but not as dominant as the Olympians.

Sisyphus defied three major rules that can in no way be pardoned. He disobeyed rules of kinship, kingship, and nature. As a start he deceived his niece and after she bore him children she discovered that he was planning to use her offspring to kill her father who of course happens to be Sisyphus’s brother. This plan holds more transgressions than any ancient Greek mind could bear: incest –although very often overlooked-, patricide, fratricide, and eventually filicide since Sisyphus’s wife will slaughter her children to prevent them from killing her father. This is simply too much!

The second transgression is in Sisyphus’s relation not to his family but to his subjects. He was known to be the founder of Corinth and a promoter of commerce and navigation. His kingdom prospered in his time, that much is true, but he was very deceitful and quite a miser. He was also famous for killing travellers and merchants who happen to come to his city which was a blunt violation to the laws of hospitality normally shown to guests and foreigners. This transgression was very offensive to Zeus who started to grow tired of the hubristic behaviour of Sisyphus.

The final transgression was against the laws of nature when he cheated death and came back to tread among the living. In all the versions that we received about Sisyphus death and his confinement in the underworld we come to the same conclusion. Through his cunning he was able to deceive whoever was watching him. Some stories say that Hades or Thanatos (Death) were tricked and chained instead of Sisyphus leading to a disturbance in the life and death cycle.

That was the final straw and Zeus had to put an end to this unruly creature and that is how he was punished in the famous way we are all familiar with.

Now, as a more mature reader of the story of Sisyphus, and although I still recognise him as a symbol of absurd and futile work, I came to see his punishment as a regulatory procedure that had to be taken to restore nature back to its order.