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I’m thinking today about the grandeur that was ancient Egypt. The Valley of the Kings, the Sphinx, the Pyramids at Giza, the Temple of Hapsepshut. These structures are magnificent, many of them built and finished thousands of years before the Common Era. All glorify the Royal Families who ruled them. They are gods, not as great as Aman-Rah but gods nonetheless. All powerful. Almost all male, their wives and children are given smaller statues and smaller tombs to commemorate them.
They are beautiful and mysterious. They seem in fact impossible to construct without at least some help from supernatural forces. Huge blocks of heavy stone transported to a site from sometimes many miles away and lugged up one upon another with pulleys and ramps and ropes and especially with human labor.
They represent both the inexplicable determination and creative vision of humans like us but also the insane narcissism and greed, the entitlement and despotism of humanity.
From these great places we learn what the Ramses valued – their cats, their jewels, their ointments and especially their power. We have all the stats on the number of bricks, the objects in the royal tombs yet we know almost nothing of the all those enslaved persons, human also, who spent their lives, their short lives, building these things.
I am picturing a fictive, ahistorical person who lived long enough to lift several layers of these giant blocks and who died without ever seeing the shape itself. What faith that must have required!
It frightens me because I think I am part of a generation or two that also helped to lift a stone or two towards a vision of egalitarian democracy that we could not yet see but that we completely believed was there, one more rank of rocks, one more great tomb, one river damned, one field irrigated. One by one we were going to build a more perfect Union and it was going to include everyone. Slaves no more, we proclaimed. All men shall be free.
Lots of young men went overseas to fight for that ideal, or something like it. Many died or were deeply hurt.
The Founding Fathers were giddy with pride over the restraints they established against despotism. They couldn’t stop talking and writing about it. “Come on’, y’all” we proclaimed to dusty old Europe and everywhere else in the world. “You,too, can rule the fate of yourselves and your families. We’ll help.”
And we did help for a while. The list of people we did not include in our exaltation and our economic benefits is long, but some people did better than they would have under the various pharaohs. My family fled pogroms and shtetls. They weren’t going to ever prosper back in the Old Country, they were never going to have children that wouldn’t end up as hod carriers. I am the first woman in my family to get a B.A. True, it was from San Francisco State but I got it and I could get it because opportunity reached as far as my family, uneducated Eastern European Jews. Am I more deserving than my hod-carrying ancestors? Not likely. I wasn’t given genius and I didn’t need it because I was given opportunity and parents who helped me take that.
In what now seems like a dizzying rush to tyranny, however, I am watching people being made slaves anew, maybe not in shackles that are fastened by iron pins, but by other bonds that are just as strong. I watch people tossing aside their fundamental rights to be safe and healthy and to share and give and tolerate in favor of Pharoahs who seemingly lack the beauty, wit, inventiveness, sense and wisdom of ancient rulers in favor of Bullies who spout unbelievable, crass answers to complex problems and phenomena. I watch my fellow hod-carriers glorify them, obey them, fight for them, extol them.
Trump and Putin won’t want libraries like the glorious, civilization-defining one at Alexandria. They don’t read. They don’t want their followers to read too widely either. They will want shrines like Ramses had, shrines built by the rest of us, paid for by us, carried, cut and lifted for their supreme pleasure.
The beastly nature of despotic power seems to be that it knows no limits, human or celestial. What can satisfy this endless appetite? A pyramid, a tomb, a temple?
How many lives is it worth to them to build something that will glorify them far beyond anything they ever were or ever could hope to be?


There is a lyricism here that engages. You interplay up and down notes of human aspiration and despair. I like your ending questions, which are of course rhetorical, and rhetorically effective. I am fascinated by your use of the word “fictive,” which as i research it, has several meanings. I am wondering how exactly you meant it, and also I revel in your blending of other rich vocabulary in creating this piece. “Despotic,” “celestial,” “hod carriers,” “crass,” “iron pins,” “shtetls,” all words with rich roots and image. Thank you for sharing this piece!

Laura–I think this is brilliant–going from those ancient references to our situation.
I agree with Paul DeLong’s comments. I also want to point out (although it’s show-offy of me) that there is a Wallace Stevens poem whose first line is “Poetry is the supreme fiction, madam,” and ends with “But fictive things/
Wink as they will.”

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