The Seed of Envy
The monument occupies the singular place of honor in Malta, a massive table overlooking the bay on the highest point of the tip end of the promontory of the entire peninsula of Valleta. It is a King’s bier if ever there was one. On it reposes a noble bronze body many times the size of a natural man, draped in a funeral shroud.
The monument is, in form and position, the stuff of Mediterranean fairy tales, the idealized resting place of mythological heroes like Hercules and Gilgamesh and Odysseus.
You cannot miss it, coming or going, a pinnacular eternal flame beside a round temple belltower on top of a mountain of stone, majesty and glory written in every contour. From the top of the promontory perch where the King lies can be seen the harbor in all directions, and the blue sea expanding beyond the lighthouses to infinity under a blazing sky.
Every ship, from lowly fishing bark to enormous tanker, passes directly below in homage, both coming and going.
The monument is made of solid hewn stone, iron railings, and bronze rings, built to last as close to forever as humankind gets, meant to invoke one man through millennia.
This is what I saw while touring Valleta on the first day, and in my admiration of that monument was also a seed of envy.
Being a good communist-minded citizen of the post-Enlightenment, I suppressed that envy, but I had already named it, too. My hypocrisy pushed me through the day, wandering the rest of the city while wondering, in the corners of my imagination, what such privilege must feel like.
Et In Arcadia Ego
I think in each of us there is an ego uncontained in its natural state, a megalomania which we naturally curtail as we are socialized.
I see it frequently in my youngest students who are not yet altogether tamed. They naturally seek the center, the best, the highest point, the most pleasure. They are still motivated by selfish ego more than any obligations and responsibilities. They are each little fledgling kings and queens of their own lives, no one and nothing else superceding their own personal needs.
Since I was alone on my second day in Valletta, and already having ticked off the other major tourist sites, I decided to return to the King’s bier, to experiment and indulge the egoistic envy I had felt earlier looking up to that temple.
I resolved to treat myself to a sample of what it must be like to be a monarch of such magnitude, to let that juvenile, selfish ego max out for a while. Who would ever know but me? If ever I was going to experience being “King,” it would be in this moment, when the embarrassment imposed by others was absent, and I was free for hours in a city where no one knew me and few cared to climb up the monument to the top.
So I charged up my cell phone and I bought a big cigar. I had it clipped by a beautiful young Maltese woman at the store, ready to smoke. Then I made my way across town and up the wide stone staircase to the bell tower, to pretend I was King.
There I positioned myself at the material center of all of Malta if not the entire Mediterranean, if not the whole hemisphere, the midpoint of the belltower balcony looking out at the sea. I was completely alone, and fully indulged in my egomania, as the most important man on earth.
I arranged myself self-consciously at the center of the center of the balcony several times, adjusting, just to be sure I was taking in the full ego trip, gazing out at the blue in all directions.
The first thing I noticed was that it was mighty windy up there. It turns out that a high temple overlooking the ocean is no place to light a cigar, much less smoke one.
Descent to decent
I huddled into tight corners away from the wind and finally pulled my jacket over my head ingloriously to get the flame going. I got the thing lit at last, lopsided, which is a terrible way to start a good cigar.
Then I put both hands on the rail and leaned out into my realm, the annointed center, the unopposed, the hero of my story. That is when the wind again caught the cigar and threw ash and smoke back in my face. Sputtering, there was absolutely no way to maintain my royal cool. My eyes were watering.
So much for a cigar as a symbol of triumphant leisure. I would keep the perch instead, but I descended a little anyway, to get at least some shelter from the wind.
With less exposure came also a diminished view, but it was warmer, and I leaned back in a small nook where the bell tower foundation met the curve of the massive ballustrade. I was still positioned between the bier and the temple, at least!
I mused that a real King would have servants and staff and people pressing on his time. In fact a real King could never be alone in repose, wasting time, as I was there. A real King would be busy defending his realm and his right to rule. A real King would be busy about signing papers and avoiding assassination.
Thinking this over, I decided that maybe I am better off in some ways, able to enjoy this time alone, letting my imagination soar. I was born to be a bard, not a King, after all.
With such knowledge growing with each humbling degradation of my royal experience, the whole prospect grew ever less enviable. My tee shirt caught on some rough stone, and I noticed that I had scuffed my shoes trying to straddle the bulwark wall. At one point the wind knocked my phone out of my hands. The billowing cigar burned at a record pace, and a fat clot of redhot ash almost burned my best tactical jacket when it came off all in one piece.
Then some other tourists came, a group of rowdy Norwegian boys, who whooped and hollered drunkenly, shoving each other and attempting to ring the bell. It occurred to me that they could easily drop a beer bottle accidentally (or not) from the balcony where I had so recently stood, right onto the top of my head.
I scooted over a bit, away from the wall, so as not to risk it.
Some part of the afternoon passed like this, the dead King and I sharing a less and less comfortable promontory. My cigar burned down in 20 minutes, not two or three hours as hoped. And it was not enjoyable.
In seeking shelter from the wind, I had positioned myself in a concave magnifying glass of stone, and the bright sun began to burn my skin anywhere it was not covered. Of course it was too hot to be covered, either.
Finally I decided the ruse was up and I would go find out who the mythic King on the table really was, me a lowly storyteller ready to accept my place in singing his praises in my blog. Who would ever want to be King anyway?
Well! I found that he was not a King, nor even a real person. The monument was actually for the Everyman of Malta who died in the siege during WWII. He was indeed a hero, but not a specific one, rather the embodiment of the general heroism of his entire nation.
More bombs were dropped on Malta during the German siege than on Britain during the Blitz. Against starvation and constant bombardment and the temptation to capitulate, the island survived and fought back for the good guys. So incredible was the resistance and return fire that the entire nation was awarded the British George Cross for Bravery after the war, the only non-personal entity ever to do so.
What glory lay here was not to the credit of any one man, but an entire people – in a sense, all people. The best in all of us.
I felt ashamed to have assumed enviable privilege when in fact the bier was a monument to selfless sacrifice.
It’s hard to describe the about-face within my brain at that moment. King, indeed. I let the feeling of humility and awe grow, looking out that sea and imagining the brave Maltese facing certain death for country, rowing out to pillage the fuel from a limping tanker which they salvaged to mount their famous climactic air offense.
Since I have given my own life over to art and culture, it ended up being a kind of re-dedication to my mission and the Everyman whom I serve.
Inside my nook on my grand perch on the sea wall, I was free to indulge my illusions and vanity as I wished, to spend time lazing in the sun, well fed and well dressed, spoiled, holding a phone into which I could dictate my story effortlessly to remember this moment and this lesson.
Never before in history has anyone so common enjoyed such luxury and privilege as I do now, as we all do now in the West. I should be so lucky to be born into it, a birthright better than any Kingship before.
It is supremely humbling.
On the other hand, watching the tourists come and go that afternoon, running up the stairs to take a quick selfie with the bier and the view behind them, and then rushing off to the next attraction, we seem in danger of losing that Everyman heroism. Each one of us is increasingly de-socialized and absorbed regressively into the tiny screen of ego.
We too often run away without truly contemplating the view, nor the heroism which the monument represents, putting the selfish self back into the place that should be a monument to the common good which we have inherited, and in which we can choose to share.
The cure is to pay attention, to read our history, and to remember. Below the hero’s head on the bier is written:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.