March 29, 2020

Fourteenth Anniversary

Wafers!

As we head into April, it is my pleasure to tell you that next month marks 14 years of this incredible blog, a blog like no other in the known universe. Some of you know that 14 years ago, I was not into it, but was dragged kicking and screaming by my then-editor at Norton, and my then-agent in San Fran, to set this thing up. Why would I want to spend lots of time online? was my thinking on the subject. But I caved to their pressure, and now I'm glad I did. What we Wafers have established is an oasis of sanity in the context of a country steeped in violence, stupidity, and sheer lunacy. And the data: since that time, more than 4.5 million hits. Last month alone saw more than 82,000 of them. I figure we must be doing something right.

I've been doing public lectures since 1971, and publishing books and articles since 1978, and the one thing I'm truly proud of is a repeated refrain from my reading or listening audience: "Until I read ____ [some book of mine], I thought I was crazy. Thanks to your work, I now realize I'm one of the few sane people around." Everything I've written is against the grain, because the grain is destructive of everything human. "Look! Open your eyes! Join me!"--is all I've been able to say, in my work and on this blog. And lo and behold, out of 329 million zombies, I managed to change the lives of a few thousand. Not bad for a lifetime's work, depending on your value system.

As for the haters, the trollfoons, they have pretty much been crushed, tho they do surface from time to time. It's not hard to crush them: we aren't talking about any kind of brain trust here. So they will inevitably flare up, to which I say: "Haters gonna hate," and "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on." And this caravan is moving on, amigos, as all of you well know.

O&D!

-mb

March 21, 2020

Is There Life Beyond Paradigm?

Wafers-

A few weeks ago I was asked by an anthropology institute connected with UNAM, the national university in Mexico City, to give a seminar on an anthropology topic of my choosing. Two faculty members and I had breakfast together to discuss it, and decided on May as the best time for the event. Nice guys. Then, of course, I never heard back from them, as the coronavirus descended and public gatherings were to be avoided. (The school may currently be in shutdown mode, for all I know.) In the meantime, I had written my little 'conferencita' as an introduction to the proposed seminar.

I'm posting it here, as a break from the virus, the collapse of America, the disintegration of capitalism, and all of our usual discussion material. What could be more unrelated to these topics than witchcraft? I'm guessing my colleagues won't mind, since (1)Who knows when UNAM will be back in action, and whether the seminar will still be on? (2)I was, of course, going to give this talk in Spanish; the text below is the original English version, and (3)This blog, although the greatest in the universe, remains completely off the radar screen, so very few people are going to see this post. I do hope that absolves me of 'leaking' the lecture in advance. Meanwhile, Wafers get a sneak preview. Here goes:

Most people like stories, so I thought that today I would tell you one. This story has the added advantage of being true. Many years ago, a British sociologist by the name of Max Marwick moved to Northern Rhodesia, or what we now call Zambia, whose tribal people, the Cewa, practiced a form of witchcraft. In keeping with academic criteria, Marwick didn't believe that these magical beliefs had any basis in objective physical reality. These criteria dictated that the anthropologist's job was to study these beliefs from the outside, as it were; to learn what the major beliefs or practices were and try to figure out why these tribespeople believed them. And so he rented or purchased--I can't recall exactly how it was arranged--a grass hut in the village, and settled in for a year of research, i.e., observation.

There was, however, just one particular problem with this arrangement: Marwick wasn't able to sleep. When he subsequently wrote this story up, he called it "The Case of the Dancing Owls." Every night a flock of owls would gather on the ceiling of his hut and hoot and jump around. In England, one would simply call an exterminator to remove the owls. But this was not England, and the Cewa certainly didn't have any exterminators. In addition, Marwick wanted to try a native solution, not a Western one, so he paid a visit to the local sorcerer. The suggested remedy was hardly one he expected. The sorcerer asked him if, prior to leaving England, there had been any disturbance in his family relations. It turned out that there was: Marwick had had a rather acrimonious argument with one of his uncles, which left him feeling depressed and guilty. The sorcerer recommended some medicines, to rub into his skin, and added that he should write his uncle and mend that relationship. "Then," he said, "the owls will leave you in peace." As you might imagine, Marwick did neither.

And here we come to the issue of conflicting epistemologies. Marwick regarded this advice as absurd. What possible relationship could there be, he thought, between his conflict with his uncle and the owls "dancing" on the ceiling? Rather than try the sorcerer's remedies, he chose to spend his entire time in the village living with noisy owls that wouldn't let him sleep. But if we switch out of a Western scientific epistemology, to that of African sorcery, a different picture emerges. African systems of causality place great emphasis on social relations, and the Cewa attribute negative events to disturbances in those relations. As with cats in 17th-century New England, owls are regarded as witches' "familiars"--animals with supernatural powers that do the work of sorcerers or malevolent agents. The sorcerer whom Marwick consulted believed that his uncle sent the owls to disturb his sleep, in retaliation for the bitter argument they had. Hence the logical remedy to the situation was to heal that relationship, after which the owls would depart. What was obvious to the Cewa was essentially crazy to the Western-trained sociologist.

So that's the end of the story, although it does raise some interesting questions:

1. Leaving the issue of the sorcerer's medicines aside, did Marwick not write his uncle because this suggested causal connection was ridiculous, in his view, or because it might actually work?

2. What would have happened if Marwick had written his uncle, repaired the relationship, and the owls disappeared?

3. Marwick saw himself as a social scientist, and the heart of science is empirical testing. But his reaction--a priori rejection of the theory--was hardly a demonstration of scientific experimentation. After all, he could have tested the theory, but instead he refused to do it. Not the best example of scientific procedure, or curiosity, it seems to me.

4. Note that Marwick was willing to cast an anthropological eye on the Cewa, but apparently had no interest in casting such an eye on his own culture. We Westerners have the truth, is the idea, so we observe and record the "strange" behavior of "primitive" cultures. It never occurs to us that, say, Australian aborigines probably regard white Anglo culture as weird, if not actually insane. (In fact, the deliberate ignoring of social relations might properly be regarded as toxic. Let me add that this is why I left the United States 13 years ago.) As one enlightened sociologist once quipped, "There is more sociology in a department of sociology than there is in the rest of the world."

Let me suggest that Western science, although it obviously contains much that is objectively true, also has holes in it. No paradigm is a perfect description of reality; that's just not possible. And once you insist that your own paradigm is perfect, you have entered the world of religion, i.e. of unquestioning belief. Science can be made into a religion like any other paradigm, and it was Marwick's. I suspect that if he had written his uncle and the owls then went away, he would have had a nervous breakdown. His world would no longer have made sense to him, and as a result he would have no way to orient himself in the world--and no way of knowing who he was, anymore. Mystery and miracles were just not part of his world view.

Personally, I don't find the uncle-owl connection all that mysterious, if we are willing to credit what we call "pre-science"--magic, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology, numerology, and so on--with some degree of validity. The medieval and Renaissance magical tradition was based on what was known as the Theory of Correspondences, which said that the world was interconnected: that everything was related to everything else. In fact, this theory has been resurrected in the field of holistic medicine and certain branches of environmental science, and it is also the ethical basis of Buddhism. Birds, for example, start to twitch, to behave differently just before an earthquake hits. This is well known, especially in rural communities. Similarly, they can probably detect disturbances in human beings. Marwick was emotionally miserable; he was walking around with a load of guilt because of his break with his uncle, and the owls picked up on this "vibration," this disturbed energy. I have no doubt that had he written his uncle and eased his soul, the owls would have flown away.

The Theory of Correspondences has another name: action-at-a-distance, and it is actually not that far removed from modern science. Isaac Newton's deepest intellectual attachment was to alchemy, and he wrote thousands of unpublished pages on the subject. The British economist John Maynard Keynes, who discovered these pages, declared that Sir Isaac was "the last of the magicians"; and it was alchemy that gave Newton the notion of action-at-a-distance, which became the basis of his Law of Universal Gravitation. Without alchemy, we could never have put a man on the moon. The Theory of Correspondences, like the Law of Universal Gravitation, is based on the notion of invisible influence, and this is why the sorcerer told Marwick to write his uncle. But Marwick couldn't do it, because a positive result would have blown his mental categories. Had he regarded modern science as one possible view of reality, this would not have happened. But for him, science was IT--was religion--and thus he was trapped. Better noisy owls and insomnia than a reasonable belief in invisible forces. To quote the British poet W.H. Auden, "We would rather be ruined than changed." Depressing thought.

Two points I'd like to make in conclusion, and to open the floor to a general discussion:

1. I don't know if it's true, but someone told me that the most often quoted phrase on the Internet is from my book Coming to Our Senses: "An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you." Is it not possible to cultivate some distance--say, 2 millimeters--between who we are and what we believe? This could be the beginning of world peace, when you think about it.

2. The reason that we turn ideas into ideologies, which is to say into mythologies and religions, is that we are afraid of the outside world. And there is, of course, much to be afraid of. So we latch on to various belief-systems, whether sacred or secular, to give ourselves the illusion of security. But as all paradigms--including modern science--are necessarily incomplete, this ultimately will not work. There is, however, a way out: to accept insecurity and incompleteness as inescapable; as central to the human condition.

Easier said than done.

(c)Morris Berman, 2020

March 12, 2020

Schmiden

Wafers-

The election--which doesn't amount to shit, really--is 8 months away, yet all of America is agog over this absurd nonevent. And the progs are all excited about the supposed anti-Trump, who is a senile, sclerotic goofball, a turkey of the 1st order who can't even identify the Declaration of Independence. But this is true democracy: Schmiden is comatose, and the entire nation is as well. Schmernie has been surgically removed, Tulsi is a joke, and we are left with a buffoon to tilt against Trumpola. The twilight of America, as I predicted in 2000.

Onward, into the abyss!

-mb

February 25, 2020

Schmernie

Well, folks, everything is up for grabs. What if Trumpola, or Schmernie, get the coronavirus? Or if 1/3 of the American population does? What if Schmernie gets elected, and there is a military coup, restoring Trumpi to power? What if Tulsi makes a killing in exercise tapes, and becomes a combo president/fitness guru? So many possibilities!

But in these uncertain times, Wafers know one thing for sure: at some unspecified point in time, perhaps 2040, the US will be no more. Inside the US there will be weeping and wailing. Outside, rejoicing and celebration. For some odd reason, we are not the most beloved nation on earth.

Meanwhile, on the short story front, things are progressing swiftly. Altho for the sake of sales, I'm thinking of changing the name of the book to LeBron James Confronts Harvey Weinstein. Can't lose w/that, n'est-ce pas?

As the country heads down the drain, your typical Wafer will sit next to the fireplace, new Berman book in hand, and (to quote T.S. Eliot) laugh like an irresponsible fetus. (See "Mr. Apollinax")

Exciting times, amigos-

mb

February 13, 2020

Circus Days

Wafers-

Gd news: my new collection of short stories was just accepted for publication. I'm now working with my technical staff, and hopefully the thing will be listed on Amazon in June or July. In the meantime, I wanted to provide you guys with a few samples, as I have been doing. Here's one of my favorites:

There was an annual fair that came to our town, which included circus acts, magic demonstrations, and all kinds of other shows. One year, when I was seven, my parents took me to it, and bought me a large cone of cotton candy. It was pink, and tasted of sugar. I ate the whole thing, then threw up in a nearby garbage can. When I finished, I looked around, but my parents were nowhere to be seen. You'd think that I would be afraid, start crying or whatever, but instead I had a heady sense of freedom. Ours was not a happy home; my parents were always fighting. I often dreamed of running away, and now, suddenly, the opportunity had presented itself, like a prison break.

I began making my way among all the tents and displays. In one, there was a fat lady with a moustache; in another, a man riding around on a bicycle with only one wheel. Finally, I stopped at the magician's booth. The magician was tall and handsome, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, and sporting an elegant moustache. His assistant was a very pretty lady in a bathing suit. He did things like pull a rabbit out of a hat, or "saw" his assistant in two—which she miraculously survived. I had by now pushed myself up to the front row of the crowd. Mr. Miraculo, as he was called, was holding a balloon in one hand and a long, thick needle in the other. He announced that he was going to pierce the balloon, but that the balloon wouldn't pop. He leaned over to me and asked me to touch the point of the needle with my finger.

"Is it sharp, sonny?" he asked me. I nodded. "Tell everyone here," he said. I turned to the crowd behind me. "It's sharp!" I declared. Then his assistant, who was called Miss Yvette, held the balloon in her hands, while Mr. Miraculo pushed the needle into it. The balloon didn't explode; instead, the needle went through it like butter and came out the other side. Mr. Miraculo took a bow, and the audience applauded.

I was dumbfounded. How in the world could a sharp needle not pop a balloon? Mr. Miraculo and Miss Yvette did a few more tricks with cards and coins and handkerchiefs, but I wasn't interested. All I cared about was learning the secret of the balloon trick.

It was late afternoon by now; all the stands were packing up, including Mr. Miraculo's. I approached the stage, looked up at him. "How did you do that?" I asked him. "Do what, sonny?" "Put a needle through a balloon," I answered. "Oh, that's a trade secret," he said; "a magician never gives away his secrets. But maybe someday you'll become a magician, and then you'll know all the secrets." He smiled broadly. "Why not right now?" I asked him. "You could teach me." "Shouldn't you be getting on home?" he suggested. "It's getting late." "I have no home," I told him. "My parents disappeared the other day, and I've been sleeping on the street." I faked crying. I guess that was my magic trick. "There, there, sonny." He bent down, put his arms around me. "We should probably go to the police." "No police!" I shouted; "no police! Let me live with you!" He and Yvette lived in a large covered wagon. "Let me stay in your wagon. Look how big it is."

Mr. Miraculo looked over at Yvette; she just shrugged. "Why not?" she said; "we might even be able to use him in one of our acts. Come on up here, sonny; we can fix a bed for you right below ours." And so began my apprenticeship with Mr. Miraculo—and Yvette.

The three of us toured the countryside, performing tricks in various towns. Mr. M. showed me the secret of the balloon: you coated it with oil. Then, when the needle pricked it, the oil moved in to seal the spot before any air could escape. Oil was also poured into the inside, so that the same thing happened when the needle emerged from the balloon. I was really excited by this, and Mr. M. let me practice with it until I got it right.

He and Yvette were really kind to me; I never figured out why. Mr. M. used me to "test" the needle for the audience, and gave me pocket money for this. They shared their food with me, took care of me. I was finally free from my parents, and I was in heaven. This was my idea of a real family.

As we tended to get up very early, we all usually went to sleep around 9 p.m. Every night, for some reason, he and Yvette would wrestle on their bed, and she would moan and groan. Should I say anything? I worried that he was hurting her. But the next day, she always emerged with a big smile on her face. She apparently enjoyed these wrestling matches, so I decided it was OK.

I began to pester Mr. M. to teach me some magic tricks. And slowly, he did. I learned the rabbit-in-the-hat trick, and the saw-Yvette-in-half trick. Meanwhile, Yvette introduced me to the Tarot. "These cards," she said, "tell the person for whom you are reading what is happening in his life, or her life. Sometimes, they can foretell the future. But you have to know how to read them correctly. I'll teach you, and then we'll set you up with a table next to the stage. You'll read for people, and charge them fifty cents. You get twenty-five, and Mr. M. and I get twenty-five. OK?" I nodded happily.

"People want to know that their lives are on track, that things are going well. Or if not, they want some idea as to how to fix things. Women always want to hear that they are going to meet a tall dark stranger. Men want to hear that they will soon be rich. You understand what I am saying?" Again, I nodded.

"Now take this card, for example. Death. It's part of what we call the Major Arcana. It could, of course, represent death, but it could also stand for a major change in a person's life—which could be a good thing. So when you're doing a reading, instead of telling your customer that he or she is about to die, tell them that some big change is going to occur in their life, and that they should be ready for it. Get the idea?" I said yes.

"Why do you and Mr. M. wrestle every night, when we go to bed?" I asked her. Her face turned as pink as that cone of cotton candy I had eaten long ago.

"To keep fit!" she said. "It's really good exercise."

"I was afraid he was hurting you," I said.

"Oh, no, not at all; it feels really good."

"Could I try it?" I asked her. Her eyes widened. "What, with me?" she exclaimed. I nodded.

"No, sonny. In order to wrestle properly, you need a girl your own age. You'll do it when you get older, you'll see." I was deeply disapointed, but I didn't say anything. Meanwhile, I started running "Oscar's Tarot Table" next to the stage, charging fifty cents per customer. It got easier as I got more practice with the cards. Yvette was absolutely correct: the women wanted to meet a man and fall in love, and the men wanted to make lots of money. So I tried, when I could, to steer the readings in these directions. But what my customers wanted, above all, was that things come out "all right" for them, whatever that meant. I discovered that all of them were worried about their lives; often, very worried. What they most wanted from the readings was reassurance, and I did my best to provide it. This often led to generous tips.

One evening, instead of the usual wrestling match, Mr. M. and Yvette had a big fight. I was sitting outside the wagon at the time. I wasn't sure what the fight was about, but I heard her cry, "Look at all the years I've put in! Look at all the loving I gave you! Don't you think it's about time?" She jumped out of the wagon, ran into me, put her arms around me, and cried like a baby.

"Yvette," I said; "what's wrong? Tell me."

"He won't marry me," she said, angrily. "After all these years of being together, all these years of being his faithful assistant, he says he doesn't want to get married. Jesus, what else does a girl want, anyway? I have half a mind to leave him."

"Why doesn't he want to marry you?" I asked her.

"Oh, the usual male nonsense about wanting to be free, needing space, and so on. I think he might be interested in another girl."

"No one could replace you, Yvette; no one," I told her.

"Thank you, honey; you're such a doll. Can I sleep in your bed tonight? I don't want to sleep with Guido right now."

It was kind of a strange arrangement, that night. I curled up in Yvette's arms, and smelled the fragrance of her body. She was still wearing her bathing suit, and I pressed against her. "You're such a great kid," she kept saying. "I wish I could have a kid just like you."

The fight with Guido blew over for a while. Yvette was still angry, but she wasn't ready to go off on her own. After all, what could she do? Read Tarot, probably, but that was all. She was an assistant, not a magician.

Then a dark cloud suddenly appeared. The next town we got to, there were posters with my face on them, stuck on walls and telephone poles. MISSING they said; REWARD OFFERED. "OK, Oscar, no Tarot this time around," said Guido. "You need to stay in the wagon, out of sight." At one point a cop even came by, carrying a poster. "You haven't seen this kid by any chance?" he said to Guido and Yvette. "Apparently he ran away from home."

"Sorry, officer," said Guido; "haven't seen any sign of him." The policeman laughed. "Kid probably ran off to join the circus," he said jokingly.

That night Yvette, Guido, and I had a "family meeting." "Listen, kid, we're in a bit of a bind here," Yvette explained. "If you get caught, we could go to jail for kidnapping, even though we didn't kidnap you. Do you want to go back home?"

"This is my home," I told her. Yvette shot a look at Guido. "What do you think?" she asked him. He shrugged. "Let's take the chance and keep him," he said. "He just hasta stay outta sight in those towns where the posters are up. Meanwhile, he can keep earning money from Tarot readings, and I'm going to continue to train him in the magical arts. That way, when he gets older, he'll have a craft." Talk about kindness.

So I stayed. The sleeping arrangements continued to be kind of weird. Two or three nights a week Yvette would wrestle with Guido; the other nights she slept in my bed, hugging me tightly. Guido didn't seem to mind. As for me, I loved her body, loved the smell of it, the sensation of it. "You're going to make some girl very happy some day," she told me. I was now eight years old; I had been with her and Guido for over a year, and was not to learn the joys of "wrestling" for another seven. (More on that in a moment.)

In any case, we finally got caught. Someone had identified me from a poster, and turned me in to get the reward. Guido and Yvette were arrested. At their trial, I testified that coercion had never been involved; that I was never kidnapped, and had in fact imposed myself on them. The judge accepted this, but jailed the two of them for a year for harboring a minor and failing to report it to the police. I went back to my parents, who were still fighting all the time, and pretty much suffered in silence. I was not allowed to visit Guido and Yvette in jail, but I wrote her two or three times a week (she saved all my letters). When she was released, I met her outside the jail, and we hugged and cried. I also got together with Guido, and thanked him for teaching me to do magic, which I practice to this day.

I go by the name of Mr. Fabuloso, and have a lovely assistant named Peggy. As for Yvette, she finally left Guido and married a prosperous wheat farmer. She and I kept in touch, and she also acted as my "wrestling" coach, told me what to do and how to do it. Let's just say that her instructions were very precise; clinical, really. For this, Peggy has always been her biggest fan, and we wrestle quite often.

Yvette also joined a dance troupe, and Peggy and I would go to see her when she was in town. "How is the farmer at wrestling?" I got bold enough to ask her, one time. She pinched my cheek. "Like a tractor, kid."

* * * * *

January 27, 2020

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Waferinos-

Update on short story situation: I now have 17 of them, or 175 pages, so hopefully it won't be too long b4 I can pitch it as a bk to publishers. Meanwhile, thought I'd entertain u guys with a rather short one; as follows:

Good evening, my friends. I hope I am not intruding. I promise to take only a minute of your time. My name is Jean-François Champollion. I died in Paris in 1832, at the age of forty-one, from a stroke. I am writing to you from beyond the grave. To you, who might want to listen.

Do you know me? I am the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone. Yes, the one that has been sitting in the British Museum for more than 200 years now; that one. I cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics. I made the Egyptian language, and Egyptian civilization, accessible to the West. Me, le jeune, as my friends used to call me, in contrast to my older brother, Jacques-Joseph.

But this was not some exercise in “Orientalism”—not at all. First, because I regarded Egypt as a great civilization. Not, as the British believed, some boring slave civilization centered around a death cult. Now that was Orientalism. No, I saw Egyptian civilization as a vibrant, complex, and long-lasting culture, with values and purposes different from our own, but no less superior for that.

And second, because my real goal was to demonstrate the opposite of Orientalism, which is empathic understanding. It is not difficult to see that the great curse of mankind is a failure of empathy. Everything has to be viewed through the lens of our Self; the Other is merely an (inferior) other. We can never seem to grasp that the Other is a Self all its own. We do not seek to understand or explore that other Self—not at all. All we want to do is paste labels on it. Why? I wish I knew.

So know that I am an Orientalist in the positive sense: my goal was to understand Egypt from the inside, as well as to demonstrate the principle, and the benefits, of empathy. I hope I succeeded.

There is one thing, however, that I am not proud of; it haunts me to this day. In terms of the Stone, and cracking the hieroglyphic code, I wanted all the credit—la gloire—for myself. And so rather than talking about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” I deliberately played down or ignored the contributions of those who preceded me, in particular the British doctor and physicist Thomas Young. Looking back now, I realize that this is just another form of denying the Other; which means that it too is a form of oppression. I just said that I didn’t know why we typically seek to denigrate the Other, or impose the Self on it, but maybe the phenomenon of plagiarism makes it clear: if I am insecure about my Self, then it is very tempting to try to obliterate the Other; and grabbing all the credit for one’s Self is one way to do this. Human insecurity, in short, is ultimately at the root of violence.

I confess, that really depresses me.

The content of the Stone itself is not very important. It’s just a pharaonic administrative decree, fairly banal. So the translation of this text is not my legacy. My legacy was to make translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics possible in general, which then allowed scholars to find out what Egyptian civilization was actually about. Equipped with the key in the lock, which I had provided them, they translated one carving, one papyrus, and one wall inscription after another. Thus we learned about Egyptian history, mythology, burial customs, and belief systems. We discovered that these people had a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and architecture. All of this would have been a closed book if not for me. And for me, this was the “honey in the rock,” so to speak, what Nicholas of Cusa called “the sweetness of truth.”

Shall I go on, my friends? Shall I tell you how I did it? As with Young’s formulation of the wave theory of light—mon dieu, what a genius that man was—these “aha!” experiences are a combination of sweat and spark, of deep background information plus some inexplicable click in the brain, when everything falls into place. Roughly twenty years after I died, my fellow countryman Louis Pasteur declared, “chance favors the prepared mind.”Et voilà, mesdames et messieurs! There you go.
The Stone was discovered when I was nine years old, in the course of Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt. The expedition, as is well known, touched off an “Egyptomania” among the educated classes in France, and I got caught up in it. When I was sixteen, I wrote to my parents: “Of all the peoples that I love the most, I will confess that no one equals the Egyptians in my heart.”Zut alors! You have to be an adolescent to say things like that. In fact, I didn’t get to Egypt until 1828.

My great breakthrough occurred in 1822. For starters: What, exactly, does the Rosetta Stone contain? For those of you who haven’t been to the British Museum, let me spell it out. It consists of three texts, all of which say the same thing. The upper part is written in hieroglyphics, and the bottom part in Greek. The middle text is written in what is called the demotic script of the Egyptian language, and is related to Coptic, a modern language—one which I had studied extensively (it’s the latest stage of the Egyptian language, and written in the Greek alphabet). So the trick became to match the bottom two texts against the top one, eventually yielding a translation of the latter.

My friends, I don’t wish to bore you with the technical details, but let me just summarize by saying that the point I discovered that ran through all three languages was the verb “to give birth.” This broke open the hieroglyphic text. In my own imitation of Archimedes (albeit fully clothed), I ran down the street to my brother’s office at the Institut de France, and yelled “Je tiens l’affaire!”—I’ve got it! Subsequently, I was able to establish an alphabet that applied to all epochs, and I deciphered grammatical words along with the names of kings and private persons. This opened the door to Egyptian civilization. This was my legacy. Ten years later, due to poor health, and probably the stress of unrelenting work, I was dead.

What did I do in the interim? I worked on other hieroglyphic texts, and published several books on my discoveries. I traveled to Italy, visiting collections and monuments there. I met the pope, who helped me to obtain funds for an expedition to Egypt. In 1826, the king appointed me curator of the Egyptian collections of the Louvre; in 1831 I was made chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France. The next year, I was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, a kind of national hero. I am, to this day, regarded as a major figure in modern French history, the “Father of Egyptology.” Recently I learned that a lunar crater on the far side of the moon was named after me. It all seems like a dream.

I don’t know why the Fates chose me for this purpose, this opening up of the richness of Egyptian civilization to the West. I don’t know why they gave me the gift of languages, and I don’t know why they took me from the earth at so young an age. I was married, and had a beautiful daughter, Zoraïde, whom I loved dearly. That I had to leave her prematurely was the hardest part of dying. You’d think there would be a code book somewhere, something like the Rosetta Stone, that could be deciphered to explain all of this; that could explain the workings of the human heart. But there isn’t.

Reflecting on my life now, I have to ask myself why Egypt in particular was my “laboratory” for exploring otherness. Part of it was the national “Egyptomania” already referred to. But it went deeper than that. If Egypt was the oldest human civilization (or one of them), then it promised to tell us the most basic things about human beings; or so I believed. The other factor was the sheer unfamiliarity, the opaqueness, of the script. It made Egypt the most Other of Others. What I was really exploring, I can see now, was myself. Egypt is my mirror; is me.

It has been said that we can never truly know another person, but some psychologists have added that we can never truly know ourselves, as well. I tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. That I don’t count for anything, despite all of the national tributes. What counts is a rock sitting on display in the British Museum. And yet, what is it all for, if not for human beings? What is a rock, compared to a beating heart—mybeating heart? On cold winter nights, here in the spirit world, I think about these things, and wonder.

©Morris Berman, 2019