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.”
Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley
It’s saddening and humbling that all things are transitory. All our human endeavours: Architectural masterpieces, great works of art, cultures, beliefs – all of these things pass away.
Being in Europe this year has in some ways emphasised this reality to me. The beauty of medieval castles, an ancient monument or Roman ruins – They inspire a sense of awe at what has been.
But they will be gone one day. As will everything else. We see it in our modern cities now: things needing a lick of paint, cracks in the side walk, once grand office buildings of the 80’s now derelict and run down, rusty hand rails and sign posts; All things decay.
Is this something to lament? It strikes me that nature also decays but it does it in a way that replenishes itself. How is it that human beings, although a part of nature, cannot do this effectively?
In the building of monuments and amazing structures, ancient civilizations were trying to establish their primacy at the time but also, I suppose, they wanted to leave a legacy – to be remembered. And as I find inspiration in those amazing structures and breath taking pieces of art, perhaps that is the replenishment I’m talking about.
This desire to be immortalised, is it good or bad? If we detached ourselves from it, we’d be able to be present to the now and enjoy the time we have. But in some sense, in doing that we would lose much of what drives us to create. To create is, to a certain extent, to put a piece of your soul into the world and leave it there for others to see. The desire is for people to be affected by your work, and for that to happen you want to be good at what you do in order to be recognised. And “recognition” comes from the Latin root recognoscere ‘know again, recall to mind’ – To be remembered. You gain a small sliver of immortality.
We want to be remembered, to feel as though our life was worth something; the implication being that if it was worth something, we’d have had an effect on many people in a positive way. But perhaps “to be remembered” is not what we should strive for but rather to be a force for good. It would be better, in my mind, for no one to ever know who you were but to have made a positive change in the world. In a way that is true heroism, true selflessness.
All of these thoughts spawned from a rusted handrail and cracked staircase baking in the midday sun. That decay was compost for my creativity. So perhaps it is good that all things fade; It means there is always call for something new, for creativity to continue, growing from the sediment of old ideas.
And one thing is certain, although all things fade, our very presence on earth has in some way altered the outcome of the future. Every person you encounter, even for a moment, has been changed in some way, however small that change may be, it is irreversible!
Which is a little scary… and a little awesome.