Ozymandias, or A Morality Play

And then he was awake; our hero, eyes redder than the sun intruding on the chamber’s darkness, slinks from the bed—there must be some coffee within stumbling distance.  Nudity is an unfortunate fact of sleeping, or at very least a level of dress inappropriate for the harsh sunlight and moral rectitude of India, so our hero begins the short-lived quest for his pants.  Successful, he rustles them and begins to lift his foot to put on the first pant le—

“Sweet JESUS!!”  In a feat of acrobatics common among Cirque du Soleil performers, and not so common among the overweight, our hero performs a running leap to atop his mussed bed while hurling the infested garment onto the nearby chair.  A dragon-esque centipede, the sort of bug that nightmares and Ann Rice novels are made of, iridescent and satanic red, footlong and as thick as a Sequoia, was glaring up at our hero with malevolence from the defiled innocence of a pant leg.

I — ahem, our hero was reminded that India is in fact a jungle.

* * *

(For the purposes of intellectual honesty, I must give a nod to Sumeet Moghe for the seed thought that became this post.)

ruin, n. (2) often plural, the remains of a building, typically an old one, that has suffered much damage or disintegration. From the Latin ruo, ruere to rush in, to fall.

I went this past weekend to the ruins of the not-so-ancient Vijayanagara empire (14c - 17c) in northern Karnataka; Hampi was achingly beautiful, if architecturally confused:  Because the Vijayanagara empire was, according to our guide Basava, rather cosmopolitan and so sought architects from every part of the not-so-ancient world, one building looked like it could be picked up and dropped next to the Trajan forum, another the Taj Mahal, and yet another the Apis at Memphis.  However, all of the temples and monuments which remained after the tide of holy war in the 16th century, for all their obviously scattered cultural inspiration, were truly beautiful.

Ruins are, to me, a source of hope, and not despair. If impermanence is the incontrovertible fact of the human condition, then Shelley’s warning in Ozymandias is irrelevant:

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.

A ruin is a reminder that a culture lived as we live today - loved as fiercely, drank as deeply, warred as foolishly. I am forced as a student of the Classics to believe in the tidal power of ancient societies, because while their amenities might not have included air conditioning, their lives, as Thomas mused, forked lightning that illuminates the looming uncertain darkness of our own future.

After hearing Basava say, “This platform/pillar/room was used for parties/government” for the umpteenth time, I murmured, “These Vijayanagara kings were sure fond of bureaucracy and parties.”  Rebecca insightfully chimed, “Just like the Senate.”

I had a moment where I realized that our culture – which God knows is mightily imperfect – will always be accessible because of technology. “I survived fiestaware. I’m like the cockroach; I persist.”  Our 24-hour news cycles, Showtime original series, and LOLcatz paint a disappointing, and unfortunately complete, picture.

If ever our century rushes in, “when Judgement Day sounds in the last trumpets / and planet and millennium both / disintegrate,” I cannot conceive of a world where America, and all the twisted events following it, don’t mold and shape the world.

I imagine the Vijayanagara kings couldn’t either.

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