Saturday, October 24, 2015

the Sackler wing at twilight

Some thoughts on ancient Egypt, by one who knows comparatively little about it, and whose last formal study of the society was back in middle school. Perhaps high school, but most likely middle school.

First things first: one of my current favorite mental exercises is examining how other cultures perceived things of value. This was sparked by my friend remarking how the florid language of nineteenth century France was a product, perhaps, of things that were sweetened were so rare, therefore sweetness--particularly in language--was prize. Whereas, now, we value what is rich and raw. Things that are savory and flavorful, because we live in such a pre-packaged, manufactured world. Our environments dictate such an enormity.

When I look at a row of offering-bearers in Egyptian tombs, I see a manufactured line of figures. I am not impressed, because I see manufactured facsimiles every single day. My eyes are tired at the endless lines of plastic packaging, and identical bland pre-packaged muffins in every bodega corner. I do not quiver with pleasure at seeing the same corporate logos repeated ad nauseum. I am more impressed by the quieter ingenuity of individual human effort. I find the lumps and knots of hand-crafted things more soothing to my eye. I am not impressed by similarity and uniformity, because the monotony of our factory age is not a similarity stamped with human effort, but mechanical. But imagine the craft to paint by hand the rows upon rows of figures, marching endlessly on the walls of a tomb. That is artistry indeed.

As I'm staring at these kilted figures, perpetually shuffling towards the throne, I notice all the dogs and crocodiles; the jackals, ibises, and cranes that dance between their legs. Of course, I know, thist is just an artist's representation. But, I wonder what the world was like before big game hunting. I wonder what the statistics were for death by crocodile and hippopotami. I wonder if animals had more free reign over the natural world. I wonder if wild creatures were always not such a rare sight. Of course, cities have always been cities: the domain of man and not of wild creature.

But I wonder. I look at the vibrant mural--pulsing with life, and dancing with the chaos of the living, breathing, wild cosmos. My life looks a bit more grey in comparison to this plenitude of wilderness.

Another note on Egyptian art: I have an extremely difficult time telling men and women apart. Especially for the few women pharaohs who are depicted with the ceremonial beard, and you're like: well now this is just absurd. They had a different set of signifiers, I suppose, to demarcate the difference between female and male. And perhaps there were other distinctions: like class--certainly class--that mattered more to them than gender.

One last thought on Egypt; is it just me, or the focus of our archeological studies on Egypt, but it seems to me that this whole society was very focused on preparing for death, or more accurately, for the after-life. These elaborate tombs they built took essentially their entire lives (we are speaking, of course, of kings and queens. Wonder what happened to the peasants. That would make a great Howard Zinn-type history text book: "Wonder What Happened to the Peasants: History from the Illiterates' Perspective"). Their life's work seemed to be preparing for a good death, and making sure they were taken care of in the next life. Perhaps it is just the tombs which have survived, and preserved the best relics of their culture, thus, we unfairly associate Egyptians with the accoutrements of the after-life. But the Egyptians preoccupation with the after-life seems to be a common thread in many ancient cultures: the terra cotta army in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the Taj Mahal, and the mausoleums of Mesopotamia.

In the end, the Egyptians have survived, in a way. Their preoccupation with the after-life has preserved their lives for us to glimpse into, if even through the fuzzy lens of death. Their memories, their legacies and lives, preserved on the walls of their tombs, have persevered their culture for us.

I can't help but wonder what it would be like to be a woman in ancient Egypt, who didn't have money or land--maybe a maid in the palace of the Pharaoh--and all the big-wigs around you are bugging out about how construction on their pyramid is going, and if they've amassed enough gold and jewels in their tomb to stock up for the after life. I wonder if my gorge would rise at the thought of all the riches that were being buried with the dead, while there were so many living in poverty. Or I wonder if I wouldn't have been able to know that I had a feeling called "being upset" or "being outraged", but just have wondered why my black bile was acting up, or if I'd been under the sway of Apep for the afternoon, or if someone had cast the evil eye upon me.
I wonder if I even had interesting thoughts, given my lack of education, and probably inability to read. Or maybe I did, and I didn't even bother trying to think about sharing them, because I was not someone who was supposed to have interesting thoughts.

The past is a wilderness, and the creatures that inhabited it--our ancestors--are creatures that feel, sometimes, so far beyond my ken. I also wonder what the world was like before it was touched by Resurrection. I remember how different it was before it was touched by the iPhone. So surely, Resurrection must have made a greater impact. Perhaps Resurrection is largely responsible for we--as a human race, in general-- ceasing to be so concerned about the new life waiting for us beyond the grave and became more preoccupied with the new life waiting for us here and now.

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