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Sunday, July 02, 2017

the mummy's curse

Classical scholars have a name for the fictional device of the “discovered manuscript: pseudo-documentarism. It is a device that goes back quite a ways in the Greek world, with hints in, say, Plato’s dialogues, but that really comes into its own, according to Karen Ni Mheallaigh, in the first and second centuries A.D. Mheallaigh emphasizes the way the discovered manuscript both addresses the materiality of the text and blurs the line between fictional and historical truth.
“Pseudo documentarism in its various manifestations raises the stakes sharply in the game of make-believe, because it asks readers not only to concede the text's fictional truth but also to enter into the fantasy of historical truthfulness as well: in other words, it fictionalizes the issue of historical truth – an ethically worrying thing to do – and in doing so, it tests the limits of the reader's grasp of the rules that govern make-believe. The finer the line distinguishing fact from fiction, it seems, the keener the frisson of readerly pleasure becomes.” (Pseudo-Documentarism and the Limits of Ancient Fiction: Karen Ní Mheallaigh,  The American Journal of Philology 2008)

Good as far as it goes, but I think that there is another aspect – the productive dimension of the document – that gets pushed a little to the side here. After all, the exchange that happens is not only covered by the ‘contract’ with the reader, but by the contract between discoverer and author. The fiction after all creates an interesting editorial relationship where the author (who, we think, “really” composed the text) is transformed from the producer to the publisher, from the laborer to the manager, or administrator.
Like discovery in general in the West (an ideological unity that could be defined in terms of ‘discovery’ and “invention”, since discovery, as we know, signifies the erasure of the discovered peoples, or at least their subordination as subjects who can be discovered, but aren’t themselves discoverers, while invention is accorded to the discovering nation as the sign of its intellectual superiority), the discovery of the manuscript, the document, comes with a history of why it had to be discovered – why its producers either lost it, or chose to hide it, or – in more catastrophic stories – why the culture in which it was produced was buried. Discovery turns a use object into a treasure, with its very special terms of exchange.  If the relationship between the writer and reader is a “contract”, the publication of the discovered document points to a more primary broken contract. One of those Derridian paradoxes that, in our flat age, we are forgetting about.

In a colloquy on the motif of the manuscrit trouvé  held in the Louvain in 1999, one of the participants, Jan Herman, quotes a passage from Vivant-Denon’s Travels to Lower Egypt that gives us a wonderful  dialectical image of the discovered manuscript. The passage comes just after Vivant-Denon, who was one of the scholars enlisted by Napoleon for his attempt to conquer Egypt, is speculating about Egyptian writing and the possibility of Egyptian books, after having uncovered a stele on a dig:

I couldn’t help but flatter myself in thinking that I was the first who had made a discovery of such importance; but I congratulated myself even more when, some hours afterwards, I was blessed with the proof of my discovery by coming into possession of a manuscript that I even discovered in the hand of a superb mummy that had been carried to me. You have to be a true collector, amateur and voyager to appreciate the total scale of my joy. I felt myself almost faint: I wanted to argue with those who, in spite of my pleading, had violated the integrity of this mummy, when I saw clutched in his right hand and under his left arm the manuscript of a papyrus scroll, which I would never have seen without this violation: I couldn’t speak; I blessed the avarice of the Arabs, and above all the chance that had offered me this good fortune; I didn’t know what to do with my treasure, having so much fear of destroying it. I didn’t dare touch this book, the most ancient of all books known until this day, and I dared not confide it to anyone, or put it anywhere. All of my bedding cotton did not seem to me sufficient to softly wrap it up. Was this the history of some personage? The epoch of his life? Was the  reign of a sovereign under whom he had served inscribed there?  Was it some theological dogma, some prayers, or the consecration of some discovery?”

Note that even before Vivant-Denon begins to read it (which, if it were in Egyptian, he didn’t have the capacity to decypher), the discovery itself is the result of broken contracts, of violations of the most sacred sort. It is the underside, perhaps, of the history of pillage that calls itself the civilizing mission that violation is followed by contract, by care – the torn sheets of the mummy replaced by the sheets of bedding of the French savant. Only a truly contracting culture could pillage with such a clear conscience.  But the contract at some point doesn’t work to mollify worry. At this point, the dead come back. At this point, the gothic takes over. At this point, the editor/finder has a hard time convincing himself that he is not the stealer/robber, and that the avarice of the “arabs” is amplified ten times, a hundred times in his case. 

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