Text Messages | Men with feet of clay

It is difficult to forget those moments when the cracks in men once idolised and deemed above reproach – Lenin, Ozymandias and Charles Dickens among them – are shown to the world.

Cinema has a trove of arresting images that remain unforgettable after first viewing. Among them is an early morning scene on a placid, broad river, a vessel looming out of the mist. Something blurred begins to take shape and at last is clearly seen: a pair of gigantic white feet, cast from concrete – or maybe marble, if the imagination is fanciful.

Slowly, the rest of this enormous body comes into view. The legs, then the midriff, hands and arms, and finally the head. There is nothing indistinct about this visage. The moustache, the high brows and fierce expression could belong to only one man: Vladimir Ilich Lenin. But what is a statue of Lenin, cut up into parts, doing face up on a low, wide barge? And where is it headed?

Hauled down some years before, stored somewhere and then “disassembled” for transportation, the deconstructed Lenin is making a journey, an odyssey of sorts, in the Balkans after communism has fallen there. This early-day revelation is one of scores of remarkable moments in Ulysses’ Gaze, the 1995 film by Theo Angelopoulos, one of the cinema’s greatest directors.

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In a revisioning of Homer’s Odyssey, filmmaker “A” (Harvey Keitel) scours the Balkans for three missing reels of film shot by the pioneering Manakia brothers. These Greek documentarists travelled the region in the late 1890s and captured its people, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity or religion, at work and at play. Just as Odysseus (Ulysses in the Latinised name) voyages to reach his island home of Ithaca, so “A” searches for the “home” of the three missing reels.

An updated Odyssey, the film is also a meditation on eternity and impermanence, the footage freezing and holding forever moments of the past, the chopped up statue of Lenin a reminder of the passing nature of power and eminence. Lenin is a fallen idol, just as was Ozymandias in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet of the same name. Shelley was reflecting on time as the great equaliser, on how the all-powerful pharaoh, Ramesses II (1301-1234 BCE), was reduced to a pile of dusty statuary. Ozymandias is the name the Greeks gave to Ramesses and here is how Shelley reminds readers of the evanescence of power.

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.”

There was a fallen idol moment of a deeply personal nature after the publication of the previous Text Messages column on 12 June. That had spoken of Charles Dickens as “a campaigning journalist who happened also to be among the greatest novelists and prose writers in English. A philanthropist who was the most celebrated performing act of the day. A tireless advocate for the rights of women and children and workers and the poor, who wrote about and directly helped all those.”

Tarnished halo

He remains those, but his halo was not so much tarnished as “disappeared” when the following was pointed out, from a review by the late Christopher Hitchens of the 2010 biography Charles Dickens by Michael Slater, with references to an earlier biography by Peter Ackroyd.

“But what is to excuse Dickens’ writing to Angela Burdett-Coutts, about the 1857 Indian rebellion, that if he had the power, he would use all ‘merciful swiftness of execution to exterminate [these people from] the face of the Earth’? Slater allows this an attenuated sentence, while Ackroyd quotes a fuller and even fouler version of the same letter, adding, ‘It is not often that a great novelist recommends genocide.’ Nor will it do to say that such attitudes were common in that period: when Governor Eyre put down a revolt in Jamaica with appalling cruelty in 1865, it was Dickens and Carlyle who warmly applauded his sadism, while John Stuart Mill and Thomas Huxley demanded that Eyre be brought before Parliament. Once again, Ackroyd emphasises this while Slater speeds rapidly past it.”

It felt in that moment just like the point in Graham Greene’s short story The Fallen Idol (also made into a film directed by Carol Reed) when the young boy Philip realises that Baines the butler, whom he idolises, has feet of clay – and that far, far worse is to come.

Sixty years later the elderly Philip slumps at his desk, asking his secretary: “Who is she? Who is she?” And then:

“…dropping lower and lower into death, passing on the way perhaps the image of Baines: Baines hopeless, Baines letting his head drop, Baines ‘coming clean’.”

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