No Culture Lasts For Ever

My background is in science and I often had difficulty in my English literature lessons at school.  I just didn’t get ‘real’ poetry although I loved verses, rhymes and stories.  That said, I’ve never been a ‘Philistine’ and part of my youth and early adulthood found me actively engaged in live amateur dramatics and singing in musicals.  I have always enjoyed reading Ozymandias out loud; it has a wonderful rhyme scheme and Shelley’s frugal use of language quickly creates mental images of ancient glory overtaken by the sands of time:

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.

I discovered the works of Iain (M) Banks when I was handed a copy of his first fiction work called ‘The Wasp Factory’.  The denouement is stunning and I recommend it heartily.  Banks’ science fiction has always been written with the M of his middle name and the first of these I read was called Consider Phlebas.  In this book he introduced a galactic civilisation called The Culture made up of billions of entities spread across the galaxy, some of who are Minds; complex Artificial Intelligences (AI) of enormous intellect, technological sophistication and curiosity who are, in the book, engaged in a murderous fight for survival against the Idiran race who are, in turn, intent on destroying the abomination that is AI.

The title of this book and one of the following, ‘Look to Windward,’ are taken from consecutive lines in T S Eliot’s enormously complex 20th century long poem entitled ‘The Waste Land’, published in 1922 after some editing by his friend Ezra Pound.  I was aware of this connection but had never followed up until today when I listened to a recording of T S Eliot narrating his poem in an attempt to put Banks’ choice of title in perspective and to read some analyses of what it was about.  The poem is divided into sections and makes use of a stunning array of references to classical culture, contemporary and ancient languages, authors and works as diverse as the Bible, Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad and James Joyce to name but a few.

So what has Ozymandias got to do with all this?  The two titles that Banks has used are from the fourth part of the poem entitled Death by Water (lines 312-321):

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you

What struck me was that the theme here is of a proud sailor, lost and drowned at sea, whose life will be forgotten.  The last lines are a reminder to us all that we are naught before the ravages of time and it was that that pulled to mind the story of Ozymandias.

I’m chuffed with that.  Despite my fear of not being all that cultured, I made a connection from my youth to a difficult modern poem and did that through my own love of Banks’ science fiction writings.

Perhaps I’m not caught on one side only of C P Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’.

To make it all the more poignant, The Culture lives on only in the minds of those who’ve loved and read the books; Iain M Banks died earlier this year at the age of 59, victim of cancer of the gallbladder.  The sands of time roll on, catching some before their time.

Thank you, Iain.

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