(HOST) Recently, the cover of an old New Yorker inspired commentator Peter Gilbert to think about impermanence.
(GILBERT) So I’m going through a stack of papers that I hadn’t yet gotten around to reading. In the stack, I confess, is an old New Yorker magazine. (I know I’m not the only person who doesn’t always read them the week they arrive.) And I’m struck by the magazine’s cover. The playful drawing shows three people on the beach building exact replicas of New York City buildings out of sand. She’s working on the top of the Chrysler Building, he’s sculpting, perhaps, the Citibank building. And there’s the top of the Empire State Building, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. All made of sand.
I’m stunned. And then I notice the date of the magazine: August 6, 2001 – just five weeks before September 11th.
I think of the poem “Ozymandias” by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s a poem about how the great manmade monuments (that in our pride look so indestructible) inevitably crumble. Even the massive Bamiyan buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan survived 1500 years only to be dynamited into rubble by the ideology, ignorance, intolerance and insecurity of the Taliban.
Here’s Shelley’s sonnet “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 upon 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.
I think of the countless statues of Saddam Hussein lying discarded in Iraqi junk heaps. And I think of the Shakespeare sonnet that begins:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…
He may have been right: while statues and buildings rise and fall, here we are, reading his poem four centuries later.
The devastation caused by the recent tsunami made a friend of ours think of the sand castles her kids used to build at the beach when they were young. They “always built in the face of disaster,” but seldom stayed at the beach long enough to actually see the waves wash the castles away.
On September 11th and December 26th – with videos of the Twin Towers crashing to the ground and the tsunami crashing ashore – we saw it happen: humanity and its works destroyed in an instant and not in the slow, inevitable creep of time.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.