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Friday, December 2, 2016

What Explains Our Obsession With Ancient Egypt? - The New York Times

What Explains Our Obsession With Ancient Egypt?

A publicity still with Claudette Colbert in the 1934 film "Cleopatra."

A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy
By Ronald H. Fritze
Illustrated. 444 pp. Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press. $35.

Egypt has exerted a peculiar charm since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans deferred to it as a far older civilization, whose monuments and writing seemed both baffling and magical. Egyptian culture appeared to have emerged fully formed and to have disappeared almost as suddenly, but its 3,000-year history cast a long shadow over later centuries and is felt even today. This afterlife of ancient Egypt is the subject of Ronald H. Fritze's wide-ranging "Egyptomania."

Conventional wisdom sees the modern fascination with the land of the pharaohs taking shape from the Renaissance onward, stimulated by the trophies that had been brought to imperial Rome and later enhanced by Napoleon's short-lived Egyptian campaign, an incursion that created a vogue for decorative arts and monumental architecture of a decidedly "Oriental" flavor. Like Gothic chapels or Chinese pagodas, Egyptian art was embraced as an exotic foil to the classical style, but unlike the Gothic or Greek Revival, it lacked a coherent rationale and had little staying power. By the end of the 19th century, Egyptomania had become a branch of Orientalism.

Fritze offers a broader interpretation of the subject, going back to the Greek historian Herodotus and forward to Cecil B. DeMille and Tutankhamen, a reproduction of whose golden funerary mask adorns the book's cover. Unfortunately, Fritze tends to blur the line between Egyptomania and Egyptology, which is rather like blurring that between astrology and astronomy. The text is freighted with a history of the pharaohs and digressions on Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism that take us away from the main theme. Plots of novels and films are dutifully outlined, and the book suffers from being long on description and short on analysis. What it does convey well is the disjunction between the actuality of Egypt and later interpretations of it: Before hieroglyphics were deciphered by Champollion and other linguists in the 1820s, the reality of ancient Egypt was literally a closed book.

Fritze reminds us that what fascinated later artists and their public was not what Egyptologists considered important. Largely self-nourishing, Egyptomania was often detached from its original sources, and the stream of dime novels and films about mummies and their curses have, according to scholars, more to do with Western guilt over imperialism than with the supernatural. Even the artifacts exhumed from Tutankhamen's tomb with great fanfare beginning in 1922 did not, in fact, add much to our knowledge of ancient Egypt, although they were responsible for the museum world's first blockbuster traveling exhibition, which toured the West from 1972 to 1981.

"Egyptomania" has interesting chapters on travelers in the 19th century, when everyone from Gustave Flaubert to Ulysses S. Grant descended on the Nile. Fritze is particularly engaged with alternative Egyptology, which has embraced various wacky theories — including the notion that the pyramids were built with the help of space aliens and that the animal-headed gods so popular among the Egyptians were really human-animal hybrids created by those same industrious aliens. Here the author's earlier research into false history and pseudo-religions stands him in good stead, although whether all of this falls under the rubric of Egyptomania is debatable.

Fritze seems more comfortable with literary rather than visual sources, and the book's sparse illustrations bear that out. Above all, what's lacking here is a sense of the mystery and allure that informed Piranesi's Egyptian coffeehouse interior or the geometrical abstraction of Boullée's cenotaph honoring Newton or the majestic stage sets designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for Mozart's "Magic Flute." And yet, although more rigorous criteria would have made for a more arrestingly presented case, "Egyptomania" does document an enduring fascination with its subject, based, as the author points out, "on the fact that it is both comfortably familiar and intriguingly exotic."

--   Sent from my Linux system. 

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