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Monday
Apr302012

The Ring of Thoth

There is undoubtedly no more romantic vocation than that of the Egyptologist.  Every young soul fascinated with the greatest civilization that ever was will at one time or another have fancied himself a decipherer of ancient riddles and symbols.  After years in splendid scholarly isolation, he will see the fruits of his labor as another gilded tomb is unearthed and another series of mystic rituals uncovered.  Whatever you may think of Ancient Egypt, it owns permanent property in our imagination precisely because so much of it has yet to be explained, the technology of the Pharaohs and their peons being so remarkably advanced (such as the embalming methods, which have never been duplicated) as to make many believe it the achievement of extraterrestrials.  And some elements of the otherworldly surely inform this well-known tale

We begin with a brief if cluttered review of the accomplishments of a young British academic by the name of John Vansittart Smith.  Our man may make some claim to lofty provenance, yet the bookends of his nomenclature could not be any more common.  Smith was once an up-and-coming zoologist, a "second Darwin" according to those compulsive labelers we find indigenous to all societies at all times, who eventually turned his attention to chemistry and garnered equal acclaim.  He dabbled in metals – he is very much an alchemist in his relentless self-aggrandizement – before shifting specializations once more and joining the Oriental Society.  Soon thereafter he was deemed a full-fledged expert on Ancient Egypt, as if that job description could ever really apply to the subject matter.  It is in this role, then, that our burgeoning academic finds his way to that most enchanting of European metropolises, the City of Lights:

He set himself to collect materials for a work which should unite the research of Lepsius and the ingenuity of Champollion.  The preparation of his magnum opus entailed many hurried visits to the magnificent Egyptian collections of the Louvre, upon the last of which, no longer ago than the middle of last October, he became involved in a most strange and noteworthy adventure.  The trains had been slow and the Channel had been rough, so that the student arrived in Paris in a somewhat befogged and feverish condition.  On reaching the Hotel de France, in the Rue Laffitte, he had thrown himself upon a sofa for a couple of hours, but finding that he was unable to sleep, he determined, in spite of his fatigue, to make his way to the Louvre, settle the point which he had come to decide, and take the evening train back to Dieppe.  Having come to his conclusion, he donned his greatcoat, for it was a raw rainy day, and made his way across the Boulevard des Italiens and down the Avenue de l'Opera.  Once in the Louvre he was on familiar ground, and he speedily made his way to the collection of papyri which it was his intention to consult.

A rainy Paris in October would be heaven enough for anyone with the faintest romantic streak, but we stand at merely the threshold of our discoveries.  Smith proceeds into the museum where our noticeably ornithic scholar ("His high-beaked nose and prominent chin had something of the same acute and incisive character which distinguished his intellect") overhears a snatch of conversation between two Englishmen punctuated by the observation, "What a queer-looking mortal!"  Further comments imply that they may be talking about Smith, whose birdlike features, odd "pecking motion with which, in conversation he threw out his objections and retorts," and general fineness of feature all suggest a resemblance to our titular god.  He turns to find out, "to his surprise and relief," that he was mistaken: the subject of discussion was "one of the Louvre attendants":

He moved his position slightly in order to catch a glimpse of the man's face.  He started as his eyes fell upon it.  It was indeed the very face with which his studies had made him familiar.  The regular statuesque features, broad brow, well-rounded chin, and dusky complexion were the exact counterpart of the innumerable statues, mummy-cases, and pictures which adorned the walls of the apartment.  The thing was beyond all coincidence.  The man must be an Egyptian.  The national angularity of the shoulders and narrowness of the hips were alone sufficient to identify him.

Who this alleged descendant of the pharaohs may be and what secrets he may possess need no further mention on these pages.  What we can say is Smith is such an exemplary student that he retreats to a dark corner of the world's most famous museum to edit his notes on those papyri and watch the soporific twilight limit his ambitions – and that will do.

Our author is still read with avidity in dozens of languages, but almost exclusively thanks to the immortal glory of perhaps the most recognizable literary figure of all time (elsewhere I bestowed this honor upon this character but may have to retract that comment).  Such is the price of renown: even those of discernible public influence during their lifetimes such as Conan Doyle cannot possibly tame the vicissitudes of taste.  For better or worse Holmes and Conan Doyle will be bound together for all eternity, like Melville and his whale or Nabokov and his mermaid or nymphet or whatever that poor girl was in the end.  The creation outgrows the creator and assumes an uneven proportion of the laurels.  Laurels that (usually posthumously) adorn the brow of the literary genius whom all know by reputation, but not, sadly, by word and deed.  For that reason alone would the judicious reader be wise to explore the other works of Holmes's designer, if only to find passages as soft and menacing as this:

The complete silence was impressive.  Neither outside nor inside was there a creak or a murmur.  He was alone with the dead men of a dead civilisation.  What though the outer city reeked of the garish nineteenth century!  In all this chamber there was scarce an article, from the shrivelled ear of wheat to the pigment-box of the painter, which had not held its own against four thousand years.  Here was the flotsam and jetsam washed up by the great ocean of time from that far-off empire.  From stately Thebes, from lordly Luxor, from the great temples of Heliopolis, from a hundred rifled tombs, these relics had been brought.  The student glanced around at the long-silent figures who flickered vaguely up through the gloom, at the busy toilers who were now so restful, and he fell into a reverent and thoughtful mood.  An unwonted sense of his own youth and insignificance came over him. 

So great is the power of Egypt that it can render even an insufferable egomaniac like Smith helpless and unripe before its magnificent legacy, but I think that was evident from the very beginning.  Four thousand years ago never felt so palpable, so immediately accessible, as when they leapt from the papyrus to the naked, barely trained eye.  Even to an evolutionary Renaissance man like Smith. 

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