July 22, 2004

Prisca sapientia

Years ago, I shared an elevator with a major daily newspaper columnist on Middle Eastern affairs; this worthy was lamenting the lack of expertise of reporters on the same subject. "They have no idea," the columnist asserted, "that the Druze trace their origins back to the 1960s."

I was in my early 20s then, not nearly as aware of my ignorance as I am now (an aside: a professor once told me that the measure of a good liberal arts education is that, upon graduation, you know just how ignorant you really are), but even then I knew that the Druze were a faction of considerably earlier origins.

Nevertheless, this pundit's sentiment, if not expertise, is certainly laudable, and reporters would do well to heed the admonition. They could avoid, to cite one trifling example, lead paragraphs like this one from a recent piece in Al Ahram:

Ever since the King Tut exhibition began its foreign tours in the 1970s, Europeans have been enthralled by Egyptian history.

The tour of the Tut artefacts in the 1970s was a seminal event -- I recall waiting in line to see them as a kid -- but one might well suspect that Europe's fascination with Egypt began much earlier. After all, it was European fascination with Egyptian antiquities that led Howard Carter to the discovery of the artefacts in the first place. (An American magician, who went by the name of Carter the Great, capitalized on the common surname -- American audiences confused him with the archaeologist, and he was happy to encourage the the confusion -- it sold tickets, after all.)

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Even prior to Howard Carter's remarkable discovery, Egyptmania was a feature of American and European culture, high and low. In the latter category, regrettably, we could place the sultry Theda Bara's lost 1917 film Cleopatra; in the former, the great Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra from 1913. (It's no contest -- Shaw may have the brains, but I'd rather go with Theda Bara's looks):

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I grant you -- neither Shaw's play nor Bara's film had much to do with Egypt's actual history, but I would argue that the popularity of both entertainments was spurred in part by the fascination for the legitimate history of Egypt, about which much had been learned thanks to ongoing European efforts, spurred initially by Napoleon's campaign there in the 18th century, which led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the deciphering of hieroglyphic writing in the 19th.

And even before that, there was a fascination with Egypt. In the 17th Century, the Harry Potters of the day, the most anticipated series of books, were one Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegypticus, which promised to unravel the mysteries of Egypt, and to recover the lost language of the Pharoahs. Kircher is easy enough to lampoon -- he got quite a lot wrong, from his attempt to square the circle (which had all of Europe's mathematicians in stitches) to his epistemology (in which everything is a symbol for some other symbol) -- and Umberto Eco does an admirable job of it in Foucault's Pendulum, but wrong though he may have been, his errors inspired quite a few others, including Leibniz, to get things right.

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In any case, Kircher's work on Egypt was admirably described in Paula Findlen's introductory essay to Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything:

Kircher's Egypt was a veritable hieroglyph of the world, an ancient civilization of knowledge that contained true wisdom, prisca sapientia, even as it succumbed to the temptations of idolatry. It was the beginning of the forked path of truth and error, containing both the most sublime secrets that God had left humankind and evidence of the deep roots of human folly and arrogance in the face of the divine. Most importantly, however, the Oedipus provided a historical point of departure for understanding the history of civilizations and faiths. Jewish Kabbalah, Persian magic, Islamic alchemy, Chaldean astrology, Zoroastrian mysteries, and many other ancient sciences all crowded the pages of this dense encyclopedia. But antiquity was not Kircher's only point of reference, nor did he confine his remarks to the territory of ancient Egypt. The Oedipus traced the fate of hieroglyphic wisdom in virtually every known society. In an age when reports of Aztec temples, Mayan calendars, Brazilian cannibals, Chinese mandarins, and Japanese Buddhists inspired European curiosity about other cultures, Kircher helped his readers to see the commonalities within the overwhelming diversity of languages, faiths, and cultures. He underscored the universality of Christianity, not only by upholding the argument -- already discredited by Isaac Casaubon at the beginning of the century -- that the Hermetic Corpus anticipated the truths of Christianity, but by finding analogous evidence of Christianity in far-flung parts of the world.

Though Kircher relied by and large on misconceptions about Egypt's history, fueled in part by the bogus Corpus Hermeticum, his project, to understand civilizations and faiths by studying the past, remains central to Western history, anthropology and archaeology. The fascination that Egypt's glorious past continues to exercise over the Western imagination is longstanding.

Other than that, however, the article is fine...

Posted by Ideofact at July 22, 2004 11:29 PM
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