Archive for January 13th, 2022

Avoiding the Dustbin

Elihu Vedder- The Questioner of the Sphinx

The Questioner of the Sphinx, Elihu Vedder, 1863

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 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 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.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

If you have ever been to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you have no doubt seen the painting above. I’ve only been there once and the image of this painting and its strong presence in the space really sticks in my mind. It was painted in 1863 by artist Elihu Vedder, an American expatriate who lived and worked in Italy for over 60 years.

Its title is The Questioner of the Sphinx and it shows a man listening intently at the lips of the ancient monument with the hope, no doubt, of hearing some eternal truth. The skull in the sand makes clear that the Sphinx will not easily relinquish its secrets. The kneeling listener is said to represent man’s futile desire to find immortality.

With the still sand covered Sphinx and the scattered toppled columns, the painting presents us with echoes from ancient history of once mighty empires that are long fallen and forgotten. It is reminiscent of Shelley’s great poem, Ozymandias, shown above, that speaks to the hubris and folly of those who think they can lord over this world.

This was painted at a time when the US was in the midst of the Civil War and there was great doubt as to whether the county would be able to endure the struggle. The US was not an empire at that point. It was still young and finding its way but we still represented a great triumph of democracy, a country ruled by its people and  not kings or dictators or despots– a rarity in the whole of history. But in that civil war we found ourselves in an existential crisis, a tipping point, that put us in peril of being consigned to the dustbin of history before we even grew into any form of our potential.

I write about this painting this morning because it feels to me that we are again at a tipping point, divided in many ways as a country. It feels like there is going to soon be some sort of revelation that is either going to set us on a course that will either allow us to continue to grow our American experiment or will cause us to plummet into a darker and much more dangerous future.

It all hinges on people who are ethical and principled standing up and doing what is right and exposing the truths of our time.

But in the meantime, I find myself feeling like that man with his ear anxiously pressed to the lips of Sphinx.

This post ran nearly four years ago in 2018. As close as I felt then that we were at the precipice of sliding into some form of autocratic or fascistic governance, I now realize that we could only see the edge back then. There was more treacherous ground to cover before we arrived at the true tipping point.

We certainly have covered much more of that ground in the past four years.

That precipice edge might be upon us at this moment. Over the next several days, as the House and Senate Democrats attempt to pass comprehensive election and voter rights legislation against the intransigence and obstruction of the GOP, we may well know the answer. 

It will not be bipartisan. It cannot be so, not when one of the two parties has set its sights solely on an anti-democratic form of minority rule. The GOP has a shrinking voter base and is determined to gain and hold power through ever increasing voter suppression and gerrymandering districts to favor their minority of voters in the Electoral College and in statewide elections.

They have no apparent policies to offer the American citizens outside of their manipulations of the electoral system and attempting to stop any legislation that threatens their plan. 

As I say, the next several days could be telling. If accomplished, it may be the most consequential act of Congress in our lifetimes or for generations to come. It may well keep us from that dark and violent slide into the dustbin of history.

Fingers crossed.

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