January 27, 2020

Sweet Honey in the Rock


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