Monthly Archives: December 2014
It’s the holidays. People travel on the holidays. I’ll be traveling during the holidays.
Recently, we made a day trip to London, which, aside from the semi-required visit to a museum, was taken up in large part by meandering throughout town. My brother-in-law is an architect trained, and, taking the advantage of being in a World-class city the likes of The City, he understandably photographed a number of the more famous architectural colossi that accumulate in that place.
We intend to spend either side of New Year’s in Paris, where we will meet with a few of our friends, one of whom is also an architect. I assume that the same affair will play itself out – much like the heaping up of architectonic silt we see coagulating, periodically dredged from the Thames, the Seine has its own piled banks of engineered effluent, ossifying in sedimentary bands. There is an abundance to ogle.
Of course, for those of us not schooled in design, while touring a city, taking the time to view constructions modern and antique, while still an enjoyable experience, we don’t have enough purchase to really come to grips with what it is we see. In anticipation, to make more of the trip – there isn’t really any one thing I have to see, having already done the standard-run of the tourist there – I’ve been reading up on my Situationist literature. Rather than, say, really being set on seeing this exhibit, or that grave, I hope to grab hold of the experience of the city itself. I’ll go, and tour (despite the approbations Debord might heap) alongside the others, but, while they take photographs of instances of built interest, I’ll try to capture something else with the lens.
Reading about the genesis of the dérive, I began to wonder what the analogous experience would be, what the differences are between my life, as a 21st century West Chestertonian, and those of a Parisian in 1950s. Of course, it’s a silly question to ask, the gulf is immense, and yet, in a certain sense, it is easy to encapsulate. What is the primary mode that sets me, one of those most opprobrious Millenials, apart from them, those of the “Lucky Few”?
It is, of course, the fact that we, my colleagues and I, and our younger brothers and sisters, we lead dual lives the likes of which have not been seen before. How many of us, we comparatively affluent, spend the majority of our waking moments focused on the digital? It needn’t even be optically sewn to a screen – how many people, amongst the privileged, don’t possess a device that links them to the internet about them, all day, every day? It changes the way we interact with the world, it changes the way we associate with each other, it redefines our value systems. Standing apart from any other technological differences, any instances of cultural diversion, it is what most separates us from the ranks of our forebears. “Cyberculture” itself is in the midst of coming of age – it has become an “academically worthy” area of study.
So then, what of the drift on cyberspace, what is left for the flâneur of the future present? How does the dérive in the modern experience differ from that of yesteryear?
Unsurprisingly, my initial answer to the question was a negative one. While it is true that more and more of our time, creative and otherwise, is spent on the Web, how could it play the same vital role, how could it possess the same physical presence, as the “real world” of the embodied senses? The paths we blaze online, while they can be novel, and, truly, our experiences at this point are hindered only by lack of imagination and a distaste for application – at the heart of it, the fundaments of the Internet are limited, and policed in a way more thorough than ever the “real world” could be, despite any conception of “net neutrality,” however much of that is left to us in years to come. The building blocks of Web 2.0 are delineated in laws much stricter than those of physics, which can, after all, be fudged if you know what you’re about. No amount of novelty in terms of photons (and, it must be granted, sometimes soundwaves) can compare with the richness of the smells, the tastes, the textures we encounter in life. The dangers, as well.
Look, I’ve covered it before, but it ought to be stated again – I’m no Luddite. The fact that you’re reading this here should be proof enough! No, if we are to survive the coming ecological devastations on the horizon, if ever we are to achieve a life more worth living, if we do get off this singular rock and claim what is owed to us, our cosmic birthright, it will be through technology.
So, no, I’m not ideologically oriented against the online world, I’m not out to run a hatchet job on the possibility of deeper experience simply because I find it distasteful. Quite the contrary. No, what I am worried about is getting over-excited about it. Overstepping ourselves and overselling it, wrapped up in the zeitgeist. Despite the time of year, the Singularity has not come early. While the Internet is a great tool, we should always remember that that is still what it is. It is not a second space. Not yet.
Of course, I did just say that that was my initial answer. My stance, as of now, is a bit more complicated, if not necessarily any more nuanced. I’ve continued to look into the subject, and there do seem to be some fruitful uses of internet-as-tool. People have been able to harness its group-building properties to develop societies for real-world dérives, the most prominent being those of the London Psychogeographical Association and the New York Conflux. Furthermore, there have been tools set up, in part by groups such as the aforementioned, to use the mobile devices we so often have with us engage the physical world in a different way, using GPS to develop routes and the like.
There is also work being done on the knife edge between Spectacle and détournement proper – using the Internet, limits and all, for the kind of work described by the Situationists. This article does a good job at detailing some of the manifestations, in a more in-depth analysis than this post has time for (seriously, read it, it’s worth the while). While I disagree with the cautiously forwarded conclusion, that “if the Situationist International was correct, and the triumph of the spectacle in material space is inevitable, it may be that détournement, derive, and psychogeography in cyberspace—the conjoining of humanity, art, and cosmopolitan space within the completely artificial and algorithmic “space” of virtual reality—may, ironically, be our last means to glimpse the authentic life,” I’ll agree that “Contemporary avant-gardes cannot ignore a technologized space of performance simultaneously more visible and more invisible than any that has gone before.” The Internet is here to stay, and we need to develop the methodology to use the new tool-set appropriately and to our benefit.
Bringing a rather rambling post to a close – I’ll perform a dérive, or several, while in Paris. There will be photos. My route will be determined not by a preset map or set of instructions, but by the whims of my companions and the lay-out of the “sights” in the city. Look for it to come.
Towards a new Authenticity!
Early January, 187-
It’s only now that I realise that Christmas has passed, that it must be the New Year, now, born into such confused times as these. I suspect that, had we made our proper landfall, had we not met with disaster those precious few weeks ago, still my letters to you would not have arrived by now. I am gladdened by this – at least, at that time of the year so reserved for joy, my circumstances, the lack of any communication, will not have cast a pall over you.
Which makes the apprehension of the soon-to-be failure of arrival, the absent word, all the worse for me. What consternation it will be for you! What anxiety it will cause, the likes of which is only the worse for me, stranded here with no way of alleviating it for you. The thought of it, its imminence, has already began to cause palpitations in my own breast – or it would, if it was not already beset by the abominable climate, the constant danger, the stagnation that fills the nose with its jungle rot.
We’ve had to leave the shores of the river and make out across the uncharted wilderness these last few days. We had come to a cataract of great height, such that, burdened as we are, there was no hope of scaling it. Thus, our natural way forward blocked to us, we set about a discussion in many languages, to try to determine our next direction. The former crew of the ill-fated dhow were in favour, somewhat unanimously, of retracing our steps and, at great risk from the vapours of that swampy country, returning to the shores of the sea.
Against this position was stacked the wisdom of Herr Anhalt, who, it pleases me to say, has proved to be an excellent companion in the dire straits we’ve found ourselves in. He has proven to be one of the few things to buoy my spirit in the darkest hours, his ebullient outlook has rubbed off on all of us, I imagine.
Anhalt had argued that, especially given the growing signs of civilization we’ve stumbled across in our journey up-river, our best chances lay in finding the heart of this unknown society. Unlike the earlier vestiges I have recorded, the nearly over-taken embankments and the vegetation-choked edifices, the later examples look to have seen more modern maintenance – the aim of which remains a mystery to all of us. In one of his more fantastical moods, Herr Anhalt has theorised that we might be seeing the handiwork of a reduced caste of people, a degenerate group who, in veneration for a lost past, go through the motions of their ancestors, cleaning and repairing things that they have no use for nor understanding of, in a religious-like behaviour.
Thus, like the civilised, democratic men we all are, our future course was to be decided by vote. This was, of course, the only fair way of proceeding! We spent an afternoon rigging up a voting booth, of sorts, from a spare blanket and some stakes driven into the red, African earth. Given that we had two choices ahead of us, we set up two separate receptacles in the impromptu booth, using pots that we had carried with us from the marooned ship. The rightmost designated a return to the sea-shore, while the left spoke for continuing on into the bush. Stones were to be placed into each of the pots, one stone, one vote.
Upon making sure all of our polyglot group understood the process, we each dutifully filed in, one at a time, to cast our earthy ballot. As arguably the most dispassionate amongst us, it was decided that Mbubu would be the one to tally the votes, despite some reservations from the Arabs. Seven for the return to the ocean, and, winning by a wide margin, nine for Herr Anhalt’s plan!
Ah, yes. Looking over my notes, I see that I hadn’t yet treated upon the passing of Klaus, nor the demise of the three Arabs sailors. Much as I had expected, I regret to say, poor Klaus didn’t hold up much past the third day since my recounting his condition. By the time the Lord took him into His embrace, the blighted man was a shell of himself – if not for the morbidity of the subject, I would say that I was struck by how quickly the man shed his weight. I hadn’t dreamed it was possible to shrink so!
Alas, none of us being ordained in any denomination, we did what little we could to provide the poor man a proper, Christian burial. I can only pray that the Lord doesn’t look darkly upon us for delivering Klaus to Him unshriven.
Hafiz, the Arab I had mentioned before, recovered from his illness. The Lord works in mysterious ways. However, another of his brethren took ill just as he was on the upswing. It seemed as if, as Hafiz regained his strength, as he salvaged his colour, his comrade Amarion was struck, that he began to waste. A very queer affair, to be sure. When he eventually succumbed to whatever this strange affliction was, we, that is, we Europeans, left his last rites to his Mohammedan confederates. Their ways are not ours, and, who be we to intrude in their moment of solemn grief?
Whatever reason the Almighty had in sparing Hafiz from sickness, indiscernible to us, it did not keep Him from retrieving the man to His breast. The day after Amarion was laid to rest, Hafiz met his doom. We were walking along the river, just as we had for the previous days. Hafiz, I imagine he was unsteady on his feet, over-eager to show his vitality, keen to reassert himself in the land of the living, which he was so newly returned to. As I said, it is likely he shouldn’t yet have been left walking under his own power.
He was nearest the bank of the river, when, due perhaps to the general moistness of this clime, the earthen projection he was standing on collapsed beneath him, depositing him into the ostensibly calm waters. Several nearby logs, or, what we, in our naivety, had taken to be logs, came to life. Crocodiles! What then occurred is truly terrible to recount – the ill-fated man, already dazed by his fall, was set upon by the reptilian leviathans, with a great hue and cry. As he struggled with his scaly assailants, Hans and the other Germans in possession of guns strove to even the odds. Alas, despite their heroic efforts, it was too late for luckless Hafiz. He had already succumbed to the roiling, thrashing assault.
The strength of the Elephant guns, robust though they are, proved to be over-matched by the tough hide of those antediluvian beasts. One, it is true, was wounded severely, and would likely not live to see the end of that dark day. However, their numbers were so great, and the amount of ammunition left to us so precious, that it was quickly decided a full extermination of these devils was beyond our present abilities. Much to the dissatisfaction of the other Moslems, it was determined that we should leave the frame of poor Hafiz where it lay, in the clutches of the Crocodiles. He had already left it, and it would have been tempting fate to further try to retrieve it.
We carried on, all of us struggling to come to terms with what we had borne witness to. Unfortunately, it would be that event which proved to be the source of our next loss. Another of the Arabs, a man called Faisal, had always been close with Hafiz. It was he that had cared for Hafiz during the latter’s convalescence, he that had protested most stridently in his alien tongue at the abandonment of the dead man’s body.
The first day since Hafiz’s death, Faisal was seen to withdraw into himself. The man didn’t communicate with any of the other mariners, only took food when it was forced on him. Though I could not with honesty say, I do believe that he failed to sleep that night, nor any night thereafter. After three days of this behaviour, the man began to, well, to come apart. He would burst out laughing at inappropriate moments, would caper about as one mad, would carry on conversations with unknown, absent interlocutors. It was quite a disconcerting sight to see a man, erstwhile decidedly taciturn, so completely unhinged. This went on for some two more days. Come the dawn of the third, the soft-pated Faisal was no-where to be seen. After some deliberation, it was determined that no one had seen him since the night previous, and, we assumed, that he had slipped away at some point in the night. It is true, the benighted man may yet live, but I do not hold high hopes for him, given our wild and violent surroundings.
Thus, with their numbers so reduced, even voting as a bloc, the Arabians were unable to overturn the vote! These last days have been strenuous ones, as our going, away from the natural avenue of the river, is much belaboured and hindered. However, each mile seems to bring new wonders. When we crested that hill yesterday, we could see in front of us, at what precise distance it is difficult to fathom, great pyramidal edifices, climbing out of the jungle! It is likely there that we shall meet with whatever tribe or rabble call this hell home. I trust that Mbubu will be able to communicate with them, and that they will be able to direct us to more hospitable climes. Perhaps, they may even know a safe route back to civilisation!
You ask me to ‘tell it like it is’, but how can I explain it to you, when the language itself lacks the words, when your very mind cannot form the experience?
How can I tell you of the wonders of seeing a flush of pleasure, a real, physical change, at the meeting of a friend or loved one?
How can I relate the wonders I see when I look at what you call mundane: a blast furnace; a steel girder in winter?
You think the aurorae are beautiful? What know you of the beauty I see, whenever I look to the sky? I can see the photons of the sun, the sub-atomic particles of the solar wind, propelled faster than sound to annihilate themselves in the ozone layer. I can see the interactions of the magnetosphere, the vast currents that dwarf this planet.
I will ‘tell it like it is’ – your weak, fleshy body, sum of a thousand million accidents, its day is over. You are anemic, and you are old. Beauty is not for you, for it has surpassed you. Sight itself outstrips you. What are your measly 310 nanometers, your “visible spectrum,” compared with all the wavelengths I can comprehend? You’ve not even the words to call it by, not even the concepts to think it by.
‘Tell it like it is?’ Your model is too old for the future.
Erin and I were both Egyptophiles. We used to joke that we had been born too late, and in the wrong country. That we ought to have been born French, back in the Napoleonic era. So, it made perfect sense that, for our honeymoon, we should travel to Egypt, to tour the Antiquities. We were so foolish.
We flew into Cairo right after our wedding, and were immediately staggered by the heat – which we were so unused to given our temperate home climate and sheltered city-living. Luckily, we got into our hotel pretty quickly – we were staying the night there, and heading up-country come the morning. As you can understand, we were both eager for the next day, and got hardly a wink of sleep. Rather than spending the first night of our married lives as most couples, well, as they usually do, we re-read for the hundredth time our manuals, the memoirs of Champollion, the reports of Carter’s expedition, the somewhat off-the-wall musings of Freud. Suffice to say, we were whipped into a feverish pitch!
Instead of starting our explorations at Giza, we elected to travel to Thebes and work our way back down the Nile. The Valley of the Kings did not disappoint! While we could have, with our broad knowledge, conducted our own expedition, the newly opened tourist centre was an effective jumping-off point. We found another group of Americans there, much less learned than we, but still, it’s nice to have company and to be able to share your eagerness and enjoyment with others, isn’t it? Jim and Tara, their names were. We became fast friends. Things were off to a good start.
Hussein, our guide for the Royal Necropolis, began by explaining some of the basic elements of the Ancient Egyptian religious customs to Jim and Tara. I can only assume that he was new to the job, because he stated that the Ancient Egyptians were entirely polytheistic. When Erin called him on it, pointing out Akhenaten and the state shift to the worship of Aten, the man dug in heels. I guess, from his perspective, it makes sense – here he is, a native Egyptian, being told by a bunch of white Americans that he doesn’t know his own history! All the same, Erin didn’t let up, and, fortunately, we had on us a copy of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. That shut him up pretty quickly! Furthermore, we also had a new manuscript, by a professor friend of ours at the College, indicating by way of the archaeological record, that Akhenaten’s monotheism pre-dated, by a good few centuries, the advent of the Abrahamic faiths. Jim and Tara were quite impressed! Hussein spent the rest of the day in a rather sullen mood, only providing us the bare-minimum in commentary and guiding duties. Fortunately, we could have done without him anyways!
Following our rather abortive day at the Royal Necropolis, we elected to forego the guide services on hand for the remainder of our time in Thebes. Jim and Tara, impressed by our show of independent scholarship, decided to travel with the two of us, rather than rely on the demonstratedly shoddy services from the tourist centre. By a stroke of what we’d later know for ill-luck, Jim had a connection with the American embassy, and we were able to secure the use of a car and the clearances to travel the country-side ourselves. We set out in great eagerness, to hunt down the mysteries of yesteryear.
It was at this time, as you’ll no doubt recall, that the Lost Temple complex of Gar-Sutekh was said to have been rediscovered. It made international news, there’s no way you could have missed it if you were paying attention. At any rate, you can imagine our excitement – here we were, in Egypt, during a period of new discovery! It was our dream come true. No need to travel back to the 19th century – discovery was still possible in the 21st!
The location of the complex was, at that time, still being kept as a secret – academics wanted first crack at it, and it was a matter of some national security to set up the appropriate measures to handle the inevitable tourists. Jim got in touch with his contacts once again – I never did find out how it was that he so well-connected – and, glory of glories, we learned of the location!
Seemingly, the regulation of the Nile, since the building of the dam at Aswan back in the ‘60’s, has dried out the surrounding areas in ways that no-one anticipated. Much like Abu Simbel, also tied inextricably to the dam, the complex had been caught in the shifting sands, and, slowly, inch by inch, lost to history. The periodic floodings kept the sand wet enough to not blow off, but, after several decades of relative dryness, it had done just that, and the statuary, the temples, the pillars had been restored to the land of the living. No one alive at the time knew to save the complex from the shifting sands, and it was lost to us – until now.
You can, I assume, imagine the excitement which gripped Erin and myself – a newly re-discovered city, unexplored for at least several hundred years, if not more! We had to get there, no matter the barriers, no matter the impediments. Were we not the match of any University-funded Antiquarian? Were we not the equal, in learning, of any living Egyptologist? We certainly thought we were. And we set out to prove it.
Alongside the rental of the car came a GPS unit, a properly bulky affair, probably a decade old, but with enough kick to zero in on the location. Following a stint on the highway, it was off-road for a number of miles – to be expected. Thankfully, or so we thought at the time, Gar-Sutekh was seemingly abandoned. After driving some four hours to get from Luxor to the complex, the sun was setting.
Much like Abu Simbel, Gar-Sutekh was built into a cliff of sandstone. By the time we arrived, a gibbous moon was rising behind the escarpment, and, at our backs, the Sun was laying itself to sleep in desert sands. Its last rays painted the complex in ruddy, warm tones. Jim parked our Jeep on the periphery of the compound, and we busied ourselves with getting our flashlights and the like ready. By the time we were set, the scene had changed dramatically – the flushed, broad-strokes cast by the setting Sun had been replaced by austere, cool blues and whites of the Moon, now a hands breadth above the monolithic rock, black now against the backdrop of the night sky. The temperature began to drop precipitously, though the hot sand and worked stone still radiated.
I remember feeling a sense of reservation grow, an unexpected desire to pack up and head back to the city. So out of place – the whole trip, Erin and I had been, I’ll confess, near-giddy at the prospect of what awaited us. But, standing there, flashlight in hand, looking into the gathering chill, I could’ve given it all up. I was just about to say something when Tara made some off-hand comment about not bringing a jacket, not thinking it’d be so cold in the desert. That snapped me out of it – here we were, about to explore buildings that hadn’t been properly seen in millennia, and I wanted to just give it up over nothing? A niggling doubt? What would it look like to Jim and Tara, especially after the good show we had made at the Necropolis days before? I strode purposefully towards the ruins.
The complex itself was designed in a T-format, a central avenue that lead towards, and eventually inside of, the sandstone escarpment, while two others branched out before the front of the mound and lead each into secondary temples. Flanking the sides of the central avenue were, at regular intervals, statues of some 15 feet or so. The first two, though the head was missing off one, must have been Pharaoh Tjesh III and his prime consort, the reigning monarchs of the period, and those that must have ordered the building of the mighty compound. Or so say the scanty sources remaining.
Erin, shining her flashlight onto the oversize head of Pharaoh Tjesh, revealed a startling scene: his features had been chiseled away, clearly the work of human hands – no desert winds, no matter how rough, could have left such brutal gouges. The historic vandal had paid particular attention to the eyes of the Pharaoh, leaving the stony sockets deeply gashed.
“Oh!” exclaimed a startled Tara. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Well,” Erin said, sounding as surprised as I felt, “defacing the memorials of a person, their statues and,” she directed her light to the cartouche on the plinth of the statue, it too had been attacked, “their names, it was seen as a way of scrubbing them out of history. Of removing them from both this life and the next. It was only done to criminals, and then only rarely, for really heinous offences.”
“What’d he do, then, to get this?” Jim inquired. A puzzled Erin turned to me.
“I dunno,” she said. “The sources on Tjesh III have always been patchy. He’s rarely mentioned. I guess this is why. It’s also likely why Gar-Sutekh hasn’t ever really been looked for before.”
“Looks creepy,” Tara said, “eyes all gouged out like that.” She shivered, though it was still at least 70 degrees.
We carried on down the avenue, its paving stones fitted tightly in some places, swamped with desert sand in others. It made the going somewhat treacherous – you’d take a step and come down on hard stone at one point, and the next you’d be tripped up by an unseen dune, stumbling in the thick drift of it. Of course, we had our flashlights, but they were directed up to the statues for the most part.
“Who’s this guy, the one with the weird head?” Jim said, indicating another weather-beaten statue, which had a snake winding across the torso.
“From the looks of it, I’d say it’s the god Set,” I answered. “Set was meant to be god of storms and disorder, and later became an enemy of Osiris and his son, Ra, who were thought of as Pharoahs of the gods. I’m not sure what that snake is all about, though – Set was supposed to have fought Apophis, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, that’s what I recall,” answered Erin. To the other two, who were looking on confusedly: “Apophis was the embodiment of Chaos, and Set was said to have defeated it, working with Ra, to prevent the sun from being consumed by the snake. Look at that the way Set is shown holding Apophis here – doesn’t really look as if they’re in the grips of combat, does it?”
“If this is what it looks like, there was definitely something weird going on here,” I said. “It runs against hundreds of years of received mythos to have these two depicted as comrades. It’s an aberration as large as Akhenaten’s.”
“If this is so weird, this presentation of these gods,” asked Tara, “then why weren’t they attacked the way the Pharaoh was, y’know, with a defacing and stuff?”
“While many Pharaohs were considered to be gods after they passed into the next life, gods with the stature of Set were held to be ‘above’ them, sort of. It really wasn’t until the Old Kingdom that the Pharaohs were thought to be reincarnations of Horus. Until that point, they were just men, if kings. So, while Tjesh may have been punished for whatever sort of sins he committed, Set was still considered above the justice of mere mortals,” Erin responded.
The moon was well and truly above us when we had gotten to the end of the avenue, blanketing the area in a cold white light. As it had ascended, the temperature had fallen. Our breath puffed out in clouds as we exhaled. More of the strange statues of Set and Apophis had awaited us as we travelled towards the temple buildings, depicting the unusually close relationship between the two in various ways. Unlike the memorial to Pharaoh Tjesh, there had been no cartouche or any other hieroglyphs to dissipate the mystery.
I feel like I should stress, at this point, that we didn’t notice anything odd –well, beyond the bizarre and unsettling statuary, and the total absence of any other living person – when we went into that main temple. It’s true, it was getting colder, to the point where I regretted not having brought my coat, but the moon was still high and, aside from the glare of the flashlights, you could make out the surroundings pretty easily.
So, we went in, me first, followed by Erin and Tara, and Jim taking up the rear. The gate, whether of stone or something less permanent, had been lost at some point over the millennia, and the doorway, flanked by two more of the strange statues of Set, yawned open before us. Once inside, casting our flashlight beams about, we saw that this main room was the majority of the temple building that we could see from outside, at least above ground. A double line of pillars ran down the length of the hall towards the back of the room. Unlike the delicate pillars you’d find in and around Grecian temples, or even the more ornate, fluted variety that cropped up in later Egyptian works, these were bulky, and solid. Rather than a single piece of carved stone, or several pieces joined seamlessly, these were formed by broad cylinders, a good arm span in diameter, stacked one atop the other. The effect they granted the room was one of great gravity, as if this hall were located fathoms below ground, rather than at surface level.
Because the main doorway stood open to the elements, small drifts of sand accumulated every few feet for the first dozen yards. The room smelled dry, as if it were as much a part of the desert as the miles of trackless waste. That was the first thing that seemed a bit off – it was Tara that noticed it.
“It feels…I dunno, old in here,” she said. “Like, I get that it’s, y’know, old, that it’s ancient, but it feels really old.”
“Yeah,” Erin says from beside her, inspecting some of the hieroglyphs on the first set of pillars, “I get what you mean. But I don’t really know how to express it, either. It’s almost as if it feels older than it should be, if that makes any sense.”
“Are you able to read any of those?” Jim said, indicating the hieroglyphs. “Whadda they say about this place? Sure gives me the creeps.” He swept his flashlight about, scenes of bare rock and ossified brick appearing and fading in its arc, till it came to rest on another of the pillar.
“Well, the problem with this, of course,” started Erin, “is that we’ve never had a direct translation of hieroglyphs, and these, well, if I’m not mistaken, these are really quite ancient. You guys know about the Rosetta Stone, right? Well, that only got us a rough translation of the language, from the Greek to the Demotic, a sort of Egyptian in cursive form, and then to the more formal hieroglyphs,” she said, poring over the graven symbols. “When the French found it, only Ancient Greek was still known, so, at each stage of the translation, meaning was lost. It’s been the work of Egyptologists ever since to try and get the semantics back, the turns of phrase. It’s like trying to read Old English if modern English was your second language, reading this stuff.”
At this point, I noticed that my breathing had become labored – not as if there weren’t enough air, but rather as it had a heaviness to it, as if the gas had become syrupy, almost. Once I had realized what was going on, I looked over at the others and noticed that they too were having a tough time, every breath a subconscious struggle. I put my hand out, to steady myself against the nearest column. I could feel the rough-hewn symbols under my palm, their primordial edges still jagged to the touch.
And then, as suddenly as it had descended, it was gone. Letting out a breath of palpable relief, I asked the others, “Did anyone else feel that?” Though I had seen them struggling, they eyed me with a quizzical expression.
“Feel what?” asked Jim.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, got a bit light-headed for a moment, I guess,” I responded sheepishly.
Erin was still trying to read the initial pillar – she had always been better with the hieroglyphics than me – while Jim and Tara had fanned out deeper into the dark room.
“What’s that, down there?” Tara asked, indicating the back of the hall with her flashlight. The beam illuminated what looked to be a waist level bench, or altar. There was little else around, save for two squat pedestals, one on either side of the stone slab. Tara rushed forward.
“Hey, wait!” I cried, taking off after her.
“What, I just wanna take a look!” she said, once I had met her at the altar.
“You worried about curses of something? You don’t actually believe in that, do you?” Jim said presently. Of course, I did know better, but, well, I was still worried. This place was getting to me.
“Well, no, of course I’m not worried about any curse, but, the floor could have been damaged, or something,” I responded lamely. “This place hasn’t been checked out, like the other tourist spots, right?”
We turned our attention to the work table in front of us, we could see now that that is what it was.
“The Egyptians, they didn’t, y’know, they didn’t do human sacrifice or anything, did they?” Tara asked, looking at the depressions in the stone surface, quite reminiscent of the human form.
“No, not in any of the records we have. While the Egyptians venerated the dead, there’s no indication that they…helped anyone along. Not like that. If I’m not mistaken, this would have been a part of the materials used to create a mummy.”
“But where is everything else?” asked Erin, joining us. “And why is this here, of all places?”
“You’re right, there should be other equipment, proper beds for the submersion in naptha and the canopic jars for the organs,” I said, agreeing with her. “Really, mummification was done in a craftsman’s building, for all the respect they were accorded. To see something like this in a temple is…very strange.”
Erin, meanwhile, had been looking at the pedestals on either side of the table. From their design, they looked as if they had, at one point, acted as lamps. The flame that they gave off must have been quite impressive, given their own size. The angled faces of their pyramidal bodies were, much like the rows of columns, saturated with hieroglyphics.
“Huh,” said Erin, “I think, I think I can make this out…but that doesn’t make any sense!”
“What doesn’t make any sense?” asked Tara.
“Well, if I’m right in deciphering this, I think, I think they used this table to…to harvest the dead.” Erin responded, face grim. The heaviness of the air I had experienced before returned, and I could see from the looks on their faces that, this time, the others were aware of it as well.
“Let’s get out of here!” Tara said, gripping the sides of the macabre altar to stop from falling down. She got no argument from the rest of us, and we, feebly, slowly struggled our way out. Tara started leaning on Jim as he helped her to walk, and Erin and I, we supported one another down the main aisle between the cyclopian pillars. By the time the four of us had reached the end of that path, we were all of us on our hands and knees. We fell out of the temple under the gaze of those twinned statues of Apophis and Set. They looked down on us with what seemed a new glint in their stony eyes, as if they knew we were aware of the dark secrets they had borne witness to.
We could breathe again. We gained our feet, none of us saying anything, only thankful that we had made it out of whatever madness had descended upon us. Then, Erin looked at the sky. The way she screamed, it was as if had been ripped from her, it was as if forced against her will.
We all looked up – the moon, though we could only have been in the temple for, at most, twenty minutes, was gone. The stars, though, the stars! There we stood, amidst the statuary thrown into stark relief, and the stars, they looked a thousand thousand times closer. They dominated the sky, vast whorls of cosmic gasses, visible to the naked eye as never before.
Jung, Campbell, Leary, they talk of the ego death, the subsumption of the self in the face of the sublime. If that is not what we experienced then, I have no name for it. We were lost, lost under the weight of that alien sky.
This was not the place that we had left so short a time ago, this was not our land, the land of the living. Some change had been made, and nothing would ever be the same.
We carried it away with us, a piece of that strangeness. I don’t remember how we made it back to Luxor. All I can recall is being under that swirling, nightmare sky, and then suddenly back in our hotel room.
I’ve not heard from Tara or Jim since. Nor did I ever come across any report regarding the exploration of Gar-Sutekh, despite my fevered searching.
Erin and I, of course, separated last year. The weight was too much to bear.
And still my dreams, my waking moments, are haunted.
Oh, that must be the nurse now. I guess you have to go.
On the Recent Question Time
This was written (almost) immediately on the tail of watching a clip from the recent Question Time, the one that featured Russell Brand and Nigel Farage, inveighing in their particular way on the subject of immigration. Or, more to the form, “Is Britain really Overcrowded?”
There isn’t much to be said about Farage – he’s the leader of a petite bourgeois party, buoyed by populist rhetoric and the idiocy of that subclass. His nascent success has everything to do with Thatcherites realizing, post 2008, that the Tories don’t actually care about shop keepers.
No, what deserves discussion is Brand and his delivery. I’ll grant you, he’s got a solid platform – in the physical sense – on which to stand. He’s a charismatic fellow, with a penchant for prose. What he doesn’t have, seemingly, is the theoretical background on which to deliver. This has been the crux of it from the Paxman interview forward.
I’ll not disagree when it comes to his earnestness – he does seem to genuinely want to help. However, his methods won’t work. I’m not putting this forward as a mere nay-sayer, but rather based on historical proof. The unsystematic approach he endorses, it’s nearly the same thing we saw in the 1960’s – all righteous anger, all slogans and grandstanding, which got us nowhere fast. It’s the same utopianism we saw further back, in the 1800’s, with people like Owen or Saint-Simon. The vision is good, but the system to get us there, the nitty-gritty, the stuff that actually gets shit done, is absent.
It’s the reason why, when confronted as to why he doesn’t stand for government himself, all he could respond with was a gutless “I don’t want to become them.” As much as I might disagree with it, why not some critique of parliamentarism? Why not some description of ossification of standing power, of the way that our government quells lone voices?
Russell Brand is neither the leader, the speaker, we need, nor the one we deserve. I love that he feels motivated to speak out on these issues, more people should. However, to come at complex issues without the necessary facts, without the necessary systematic thinking, only leads to defeat. The position Russell Brand holds does a disservice to his program. Too many people will look to him, and become excited, and yet, their nervous energies, stirred, will dissipate when they realize he has no answers for them beyond the soft peddled aphorisms about collective governance and love.
Because he has no real position to speak from, Brand comes off as bad, as sly, as any careerist hack. You could see it in the discussion – he doesn’t address the actual question because it doesn’t fit with his nebulous talking points. He can’t pin-point these issues, because he doesn’t have the framework to do so. It’s no wonder that some in the audience felt preached at, felt patronized.
If this is all that people see on the scene, if this is the only leader they can point to, they will inevitably become saddened, and bereft of the will to fight. And the situation will worsen. The lack of any rigorous thought on Brand’s part is a liability. He cannot be our mouthpiece. We need someone better.
Look, this isn’t some prostration in front of the educated elite – I’m not coming after Brand because he was born working-class, or because he hasn’t been to some top university. He seems to have been able to sense some of the frustrations of the larger mass of society, without which, no amount of abstruse scholarship will get anywhere. However, having your finger on the pulse is just one part of it. You need to have a way of channeling that emotion, that anger, productively. And, from what I’ve seen, he has yet to find one.
The month, more quickly than I had anticipated, is up!
I’ve posted below a selection of some of the better things to come out of my personal challenge – in all their over-written, under-edited grandeur! I’ve kept one or two back, thinking that I can maybe make something more out of them. Watch for those to arrive at a later date.
Just as a note on reading, “Neo-Diet,” “Mid-level Resistance,” and “Clashing Currents” all share a narrative, and have been posted in a way that allows for a steady reading.
Hope you enjoy!
New hole in the watering can. Gonna have to patch that up. Tomatuh plants looking kinda scraggly. Blasted wind been shifting up the dirt something fierce these days. Gonna have ta rig up a shelter – think I ‘member seein a sheet a corrugated iron back up the road, few miles. Head out t’morruh, see if I can’t find ‘nother watering can, maybe a tarp fer some shade.
Huh. Sun’s up. Mighty fierce t’day. Seems like it’s getting hotter, day by day. Wonder what that’s all about. Must be my ‘magination. How could the Sun be gettin’ hotter than it already is? It’s already 100, 110 most days. Can’t get much hotter, can it?
No clouds in tha sky. Guess we’re not gettin’ any rain agin t’day. Been weeks since it last rained proper. Jus’ ‘tween you and me, and I knows you ain’t gonna tell no one else, seein’ as you ain’t the talkative type, I’m not so sure we’re gonna see much rain around here anymore. I heard, fellah passin’ along the road, ain’t rained over in Louisiana fer a good six month. Now when’s the las’ time you heard it not rainin’ in Louisiana? Swamps dryin’ up, he said. All sorts a nasty beasts climbin’ up outta that dryin’ muck, lookin’ fer water jus’ like us.
I don’t like it, no I don’t. Dust storms we had last summer, well, you was here, you know how bad they got. No rain, be as bad agin this year. Bad.