I came across this poem as part of the Breaking Bad series on AMC. It applies to their plot line, but it is also a testament to grandiosity as a reaction to the existential concerns about death and meaningfulness. As I drove in to work this morning I thought about the fact that the physical monuments to people, especially the ones that are personally erected in one's own honor rarely stand the test of time. There is imagery at several levels in the poem from the archaeological to the psychological and the impact that culture has on that psychology.
Thoughts, ideas, and deeds are the best way to be remembered. And the people who are remembered in this way would not be interested in monuments in their honor. A good example is the focus on Shelley's poem nearly 200 years after it was originally published.
Ashes to ashes........
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
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.
Should existential themes be important to a psychiatrist? I answered that question for myself over 20 years ago when I picked up a copy of Yalom's Existential Psychotherapy. At that time I was working in a pediatric setting and talking with residents and staff who actually seemed interested in talking with a prospective psychiatrist. Two of the physicians in the group had the rare experience of seeing motorcycle accidents on the freeway and being first responders and saving the crash victims. We discussed Yalom's conceptualization of death anxiety and how it might apply and it made sense to both of them. Since then I have found it much easier to talk about these themes when they occur rather than trying to elicit specific symptoms since they are very important themes associated with anxiety and depression. The meaning of those symptoms is still important to most people whether that happens from a psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral or existential perspective.
And yes - I have recognized the grandiose adaptation to death anxiety and meaningfulness, many times.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Bryan Cranston's dramatic read of Ozymandias. The graphics may not mean much unless you have watched the television series.
Jim Amos, MD. Did Ozymandias Weep? The Practical Psychosomaticist Blog. Jim Amos has been thinking about this poem a lot longer than me. Read his associations to it at this link.