Friday, October 30, 2015

A meditation on "Some Words with a Mummy," by Edgar Allan Poe

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Just in time for Halloween (truly one of the most-important stations on the annual cycle, as discussed in this post from last year at this time), we have the tremendous good fortune to be approaching the 170th anniversary of the publication of one of my favorite short stories from that groundbreaking pioneer of the macabre, the unworldly, and the hauntingly symbolic: Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849).

Poe's story "Some Words with a Mummy" was first published in Broadway Journal (New York) on November 01, 1845.

If you have never had the pleasure of reading it before (and even if you have), please stop whatever you're doing right now and give it a long, leisurely read, without rushing: you'll be glad you did!

The best way to enjoy any great work of literature, of course, is to read a physical text (if at all possible for your particular situation). If you do not have a copy of Poe's complete tales within easy reach, you can easily purchase a good collection here (where "Some Words with a Mummy" will be found on pages 805 - 821), or you might also try your local library.

Barring that, you can also find the complete text of this delightful tale online in various fonts and formats; if you don't mind consuming your Poe tales electronically, you can read "Some Words with a Mummy" in its entirety by following this link to a Project Gutenberg online edition.

Again, please don't go any further until you enjoy the story for yourself -- it is much better to read it first before I spoil it for you by focusing in on just a few of the many fascinating layers of this story, any one of which could lead to hours of profitable discussion and contemplation.

Also, if you have somehow arrived here because you are a student somewhere who has been given an assignment that involves your own interaction with this wonderful story, please don't interfere with your own chance to engage with the mind of Poe by clouding your view with the interpretations that I myself offer below: the observations that I offer below are simply the aspects of this rich story that resonate most strongly with what I feel like talking about at this particular moment in time, based on my own particular views and agendas. 

If someone has assigned this story to you in class, it is probably because he or she really loves "Some Words with a Mummy" and wants you to be able to have the experience of wrestling with it to try to determine what messages you think Poe was trying to send with this tale, or what messages the story itself (which does seem to take on a life of its own) is trying to convey to us, across the chasm and  the cobwebs of one hundred and seventy years. It would be a shame if you were to miss the messages that perhaps only you yourself can hear it whispering, because you let those messages be drowned-out by my own dronings on the subject!!!

All that said (and with the assurance that you have now read the story for yourself [here's that link again]), let's take just a moment to unpack some of the incredible tidbits of wisdom Poe seems to be packing into this fantastic tale -- all of which are so fresh and so relevant to our situation at this particular moment in time that it is almost unbelievable to learn that they came from Poe's pen one hundred and seventy years ago, rather than just the other day.

The reader will immediately begin to perceive that Poe is poking fun at the characters in his story, including his narrator (who exhibits some of the signs of a classic "unreliable narrator," but who also seems to have participated in the entire encounter as part of an "ecstatic dream" or shamanic vision, which tends to elevate his narrative to another plane and which adds even more layers of complexity to the question of what is really going on in the story), nearly all of whom seem to be blissfully secure in the superiority of their own intellects and in the modern civilization whose distinguished representatives they take themselves to be.

Through a series of comedic comparisons in which the assembled intellectuals try to impress the grandeur of their modern achievements upon the bemused and patient representative from the ancient world -- the charming mummy Count Allamistakeo, who at times can barely contain his laughter at the ignorance of the moderns -- Poe reveals that the current conventional storyline of human history willfully ignores and papers-over the evidence of sophisticated technology and profound wisdom left by the most ancient civilizations (including, of course, Egypt, where some of the most abundant evidence has survived, but to which we could also add some of the stone structures, art and artifacts found in the many other parts of the world, including many sites across Europe, Africa and Asia but also in the Americas and in the vast Pacific, such as in the region of Puma Punku in South America, for instance, or in the islands of Pohnpei and Temwen in the far west part of the South Pacific) in order to maintain (just barely) a complete fairy tale that supports the present societal structure.

It is very noteworthy that Poe appears to have had a very strong sense of the complete inadequacy of modern engines of construction to even begin to replicate the feats of the builders of the vast ancient temples and monuments. At one point, for instance, the narrator (in an attempt to impress the Mummy), relates:
I spoke of our gigantic mechanical forces.
He agreed that we knew something in that way, but inquired how I should have gone to work in getting up the imposts on the lintels of even the little palace at Carnac.
This question I concluded not to hear [ . . . ]. 819.
Another humorous incident takes place when Count Allamistakeo is confronted with the modern condescending opinion of his understanding of the realm of the divine. 

Having informed the assembled nineteenth-century gentlemen that he is from the family of which the Scarabaeus is the insignium -- that is to say, in the Count's way of phrasing it, "of the blood of the Scarabaeus" -- one of the two members of the party who can speak ancient Egyptian addresses the Mummy:
"I thought," said Mr. Gliddon very meekly, "that the Scarabaeus was one of the Egyptian gods."
"One of the Egyptian what?" exclaimed the Mummy, starting to its feet.
"Gods!" repeated the traveler.
"Mr. Gliddon I really am ashamed to hear you talk in this style," said the Count, resuming his chair. "No nation upon the face of the earth has ever acknowledged more than one god. The Scarabaeus, the Ibis, etc were with us (as similar creatures have been with others) the symbols, or media, through which we offered worship to a Creator too august to be more directly approached."
There was here a pause. 814 - 815.
It is really quite remarkable to note that Poe is here, in 1845 (and remembering that the Rosetta Stone was only first deciphered in 1822, after a lapse of centuries during which all understanding of ancient hieroglyphics had been forgotten) making an assertion that the spiritual understanding of ancient Egypt was substantially the same as that everywhere else on the face of the earth -- only the symbols or media varying from one climate or culture to the next.

It is also remarkable that Poe happens to have selected the Scarabaeus as the insignia of the family from which Count Allamistakeo has come -- the family whose members at times submit to mummification while still alive (in the fictional realm of this satirical story, of course) in order to "travel through time" so to speak, surfacing in various periods to correct the errors of the historians (who invariably get it all wrong, all the time, according to the Count).

Could Poe have known that the Scarabaeus was anciently (in Egypt) the symbol of the summer solstice, the top of the year, the symbolic "top of the upraised Djed column" representing our divine nature (buried alive, as it were, in our material body)? See these previous posts for extended discussion of the evidence that the ancient Egyptian scarab was associated with the "upraised arms" of Cancer the Crab, and from there to the entire theme of "raising the divine nature":

See also the extended discussion in the previous post entitled "Ambrose and Theodosius" for abundant evidence that the ancients understood this meaning of the symbol of the Scarabaeus, and that early Christian theologians even went so far as to use the term to refer to Christ upon the Cross -- which certainly throws a new light upon the significance of Poe's decision to have Count Allamistakeo declare that he himself (this representative who has come back from the dead) is "of the blood of the Scarabaeus.

In fact, that post cites a direct quotation from the ancient literalist Christian Bishop Ambrose, whose power was so great that he was able to deny access to mass by the Emperor of Rome at the time, in which Ambrose speaking of Christ describes him as: "Him, I say, who, as a scarabaeus, cried out to his Father to forgive the sins of his persecutors" (link to the entire ancient speech from AD 394 here).

It would be quite a stretch to argue that Poe simply used this phraseology of "the Scarabaeus" and the "blood of the Scarabaeus" by coincidence or by accident. In fact, as a young man of seventeen, Poe entered the University of Virginia (which had been founded by Thomas Jefferson only the year before) and earned distinction for his excellence in the study of both ancient and modern languages, according to the biographical notes included in the same volume of Poe tales and sketches linked above, on pages 1455 - 1456.

The fact that Poe is including this reference in a story which centers around the willful ignorance of history among the modern gatekeepers of academic and scientific knowledge, in a story which indeed contains the above-cited exchange in which modern chauvinistic disdain for the spiritual belief of the "pagans" is completely upended and shown to be in error, seems to indicate that Poe knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote "Some Words with a Mummy." 

The story is about willful ignorance of history because, as the story makes quite evident, the evidence is there for anyone who wants to look at it -- the men assembled around the Mummy laid out upon the dining-room table, so secure in their imagined superiority, clearly maintain their contrived narrative of history because it is essential to their maintenance of a society that treats all those deemed "below them" as mere objects to be exploited, experiments to be operated upon, prodded, cut, or electrified as necessary.

They maintain their fairy-tale view because it is useful to them -- not because they lack the evidence to discard that fairy tale.

In fact, throughout the story, the narrator and his companions are shown to grow increasingly uncomfortable as the holes in their conventional paradigm become more and more glaringly obvious, but in each case they seem to succeed in shaking off the body-blows that the Mummy deals to their smug self-confidence (even when those body-blows should be fatal to their conventional paradigm), and they continue to relentlessly "move on to the next question" until they come up with something that they think conclusively proves their superiority, and they can finally take their leave of the anxiety-producing Count Allamistakeo.

As the conversation with the Mummy takes one turn after another "for the worse" (in other words, as it becomes more and more evident that the Mummy's responses are exposing the tissue of fabrications and fictions upon which the gathered group's imagined superiority is supposedly founded), the narrator says that the assembled moderns pulled out what they think will give them the last word:
We then spoke of the great beauty and importance of Democracy, and were at much trouble in impressing the Count with a due sense of the advantages we enjoyed living where there was suffrage ad libitum, and no king. 
He listened with marked interest, and in fact seemed not a little amused. When we had done, he said that, a great while ago, there had occurred something of a very similar sort. Thirteen Egyptian provinces determined all at once to be free, and so set a magnificent example to the rest of mankind. They assembled their wise men, and concocted the most ingenious constitution that it is possible to conceive. For a while they managed remarkably well; only their habit of bragging was prodigious. The thing ended, however, in the consolidation of the thirteen states, with some fifteen or twenty others, into the most odious and insupportable despotism that ever was heard of upon the face of the Earth. 820

Keep in mind, thank goodness, that Poe was writing the above lines in the long-ago year of 1845, and thus cannot possibly have been commenting upon the state of affairs in 2015.

However, the fact that this warning seems particularly relevant to our modern times here in the twenty-first century should cause us to pay very close attention to what is going on in this story from one of the true masters of fiction from the early part of the nineteenth. 

It seems that Poe is expressing very clearly the opinion that the two seemingly-separate subjects of tyranny or despotism and false historical paradigms (and the deliberate ignoring of evidence that is basically sitting right in front of our face) are in fact very closely connected.

One apparently leads to the other (deliberately false history leads to despotism), and in fact it is possible that you cannot maintain oppression and despotism without getting people to buy into false narratives -- buy into them to the point that they refuse to look at the abundant evidence that undermines those false narratives.

It should be noted that Poe does not seem to be saying Democracy itself is necessarily a bad idea, or even that the experiment with democracy or the "ingenious constitution" he describes in the story (obviously referring to the United States of America) were doomed to failure: quite the contrary, he states that "for a while they managed remarkably well." 

Given, however, that this story's central theme clearly revolves around the pitfalls inherent in  stubbornly clinging to an erroneous and self-serving historical narrative, it might be safe to say that Poe is here arguing that our understanding of history is actually a question of critical importance, and that it may even make the difference between the ability to create a world in which everyone can enjoy the advantages of freedom, and one that collapses into "the most odious and insupportable despotism that ever was heard of upon the face of the Earth."

In fact, we can even go further and say that Poe might even be implying that our understanding of ancient history is one of the critical factors between a society that treats others with dignity and respect (as the Mummy in fact seems to do in the story) and one that does not, and ultimately between one that tends towards increasing freedom, or slides into despotism.

In the end, the narrator seems to have been shaken somewhat more than the others, and decides that he has grown heartily sick of life in the nineteenth century -- and that he'd be better off going to get embalmed himself for a couple of hundred years: "I am anxious to know who will be President in 2045," he tells us.

The fact that our own present calendar has now advanced remarkably close to 2045 should cause us to consider this amazing little story from Edgar Allan Poe with renewed interest, and to ask ourselves whether our general view of history and humanity's ancient past are any more accurate today than they were 170 years ago.