Power is temporary


One thing history teaches is the transience and futility of power, and the ultimate impotence of those who exercise it.

That is the lesson of the current King Tut exhibition. No group of sovereigns ever enjoyed the illusion of power more than the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, especially those of the 18th and 19th dynasties. Rameses II spent much of his 66 years on the throne having immense images of himself displayed everywhere from Luxor to Abu Simbel, and many remain, chipped and crumbling. Nothing else. The point is admirably made in Shelley’s sonnet about him, ‘Ozymandias’. I once wished to recite it on a TV books programme. The celebrity in charge, a Rameses of his day, tried to stop me. But the show was live, and I have a firm voice, so I had my way. Now he, like the pharaohs, is toppled from his studio throne, and I have forgotten his name.

Sometimes, when I wake in the middle of the night, I hear the endless tramp, tramp, tramp of humanity crossing the arches of the years, each rank enjoying the spotlight of prominence, then passing into oblivion. How pathetically incapable we are of keeping our brief candle alight one second beyond its term! How fragile is the grip on authority even the most ruthlessly successful contrive to assert, after so much striving! I often think of Bonaparte, in the summer of 1812, at the head of a million men, kings and princes at his feet, poised to conquer Russia; then the miserable fugitive, three years later, climbing stiffly up the side of HMS Bellerophon, and writing his futile letter to the Prince Regent, soliciting in vain an honourable asylum.

Or there is the image of Adolf Hitler, first in 1940, triumphant on every side, adored by the entire German nation, the fearsome master of continental Europe, planning his postwar garden cities. And then, five years later, shaking and prematurely aged, sitting bitterly in his dusty bunker, already entombed, and complaining: ‘Only Eva Braun and my dog have remained faithful to me.’ Did Stalin, more cautious, less adventurous, fare much better? We have a picture of him in death, stretched on the sofa where he had taken to sleeping, his right fist raised, in admonition, apprehension or despair — who can say? As with our Henry VIII, the ‘English Stalin’, underlings crept in and out, not sure he was extinct, fearful he might revive, spot them rejoicing and have them murdered.

There is a memorable description of Mao Tse-Tung’s death bed in Jung Chang’s marvellous book about him — gushing copious tears of self-pity (his predominant emotion towards the end), which poured down his face ‘like a fountain’, according to one eyewitness. He evidently thought hard about other once-omnipotent men whose authority had slipped from their grasp. But there was no trace of remorse about the 70 million of his countrymen for whose deaths he was responsible. His last words: ‘Send for the doctor!’ He wanted, evidently, to prolong his by now miserable existence by a few more days, hours, even seconds. Would we had a video of his end, to show to the strutting petty dictators scattered through the world, still vigorously alive and killing, torturing and incarcerating, especially those, like the evil Fidel Castro, who have been many decades in power but are now nearing the inexorable end.

from The English Dance of Death
Thomas Rowlandson

I like the ancient, early mediaeval personification of Death as a skeleton with a fearsome dart in his hands, scanning the human panorama around him, searching for his next victim. There is brilliant evocation of this figure, by Rowlandson, in the celebratory exhibition, in the Royal Academy, of three centuries of the Society of Antiquaries. The drawing shows a group of antiquaries gazing rapt at the newly opened coffin of a mediaeval king, which has just been raised from its sepulchre in Westminster Abbey. So absorbed are these learned gents by the embalmed royal corpse — one pulls off a finger, another takes a ring — that the awesome skeleton, standing on a nearby tomb, is unnoticed as he creeps up to plunge his spear into the back of a leading savant. This comes from The English Dance of Death, which Rowlandson published 1814-16, with a verse-text by William Combe. Have we not a skilled satirical artist today who could produce a similar, updated book, to be circulated among the world’s great and powerful ones by way of warning?

Not all potentates require admonishment, happily. I applaud Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, America’s two richest men, for planning schemes to dispose of their billions this side of the grave. But much older men plod on, seeking ever greater riches and power. The deaths of media emperors are not notably heroic. There was Northcliffe, a pistol under his pillow, starting up in fear as a nurse came through the door. Or the infamous Maxwell, executing a billionaire’s Dance of Death. First the ascent by his private lift from his flat in the Daily Mirror building to the roof. Then the helicopter, which took him to the waiting private jet at Heathrow airport. Then the swift flight to Gibraltar, and a brisk car taking him to the dockside, where he boarded his immense yacht, the Ghislaine. The captain awaited his instructions. ‘Where to, Mr Maxwell, sir?’ The words were not spoken, but thought: ‘Just a watery grave.’


Paul Johnson. "Power is temporary." The Spectator (November 28, 2007).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Johnson

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