A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"Look on My Works, Ye Mighty..."

Some time ago my grandmother gave me a complete 1823 edition of Samuel Johnson’s works in twelve volumes. In their day they were beautifully bound, but unfortunately the leather had become brittle, so the set needed to be rebound. I decided upon an interesting project: I would rebind the entire set, but on condition that I read each volume after binding. Thus, by the end I would not only have an attractive set of books, but I will be able to pat myself on the back for having read Dr. Johnson’s entire life’s work. This is no small feat. For one thing, it’s a lot of reading. For another, Johnson is very much an acquired taste (one which I hope to explore further in a future posting). In any case, I press on.

At present, I am reading the second volume, and binding a third. The volume I’m currently reading contains Johnson’s novel Rasselas (1759), which he wrote in order to defray the expenses of his mother’s funeral. It is a wonderful little novel, far deeper and more serious than the smarmy Voltaire’s Candide. I was particularly struck by chapter 32, in which Rasselas and his party explore the Egyptian pyramids. The philosopher Imlac expounds upon these wonders as follows:

“No reason has ever been given adequate to the cost and labour of the work. The narrowness of the chambers proves that it could afford no retreat from enemies, and treasures might have been reposited at far less expense with equal security.” A large part of the wonder such an edifice evokes comes from its very uselessness. Its very lack of functional utility points like a chorus toward some hidden truth about human nature.

Imlac continues, “I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments. A king, whose power is unlimited, and whose treasures surmount all real and imaginary wants, is compelled to solace, by the erection of a pyramid…. Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!” A story wouldn’t be Johnson’s if it didn’t come with a moral. The moral of this one is that human desiring is without limit, and as such, is futile. Vanitas vanitatum...

One thing that I noticed about this passage is its similarity in theme to one in the book Le pain et le cirque, by the French historian Paul Veyne. In reflecting on the nature of the power of the Roman emperors, Veyne considers Trajan’s column. For those unfamiliar with it, this is a tall phallic symbol, still standing in Rome, with a continuous bas-relief sculpture of the emperor Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia winding up the entire length of the column. The carving is exquisite. But again, like the pyramids, we are struck by its utter uselessness as an object. It was not made to do anything except to aggrandize the emperor.

And yet, as Veyne remarks, in a sense, it fails to even do this: the column is so tall that much of the carving is not visible to a spectator looking up — as she must needs have done — from the ground. Now, we could, as Imlac did, ascribe this shortcoming simply to Trajan’s boredom with his power and his desire simply to see a great number of workers labour on his behalf. But Veyne has a different take on the matter.

For Veyne, the column is designed to impress, but not in a straightforward way. Rather, we are meant to be impressed by the column’s obvious attempt not to impress us. Think about it. The column was presumably carved with the intention of impressing someone, otherwise so much money and labour would not have been expended on it. And yet, it seems that it was not intended to impress us, for we cannot even see most of it. In other words, it was a grand example of what Thorstein Veblen famously dubbed “conspicuous consumption”. Note that its ability to impress depends upon a kind of doublethink on the part of its audience: we are supposed to think that the emperor is not trying to impress us by building a very impressive work.

There is another possibility, not considered by Veyne. Perhaps Trajan was emphasizing the divine nature of the office of emperor, by making a studied show of not communicating with us, but with the very gods themselves? It would be interesting to find out if he was successful at whatever he was intending, and to find out what the Roman plebs themselves made of it.

Such works ought to put us in mind of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias (1818), which I cannot refrain from reproducing here for the edification (pardon the pun) of my readers:

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 shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd 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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