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Egyptianism: Mummifying Dickens   Leave a comment

What is “Egyptianism”? It’s a word that Nietzsche uses in Twilight of the Idols to describe the way in which philosophers take an idea and “mummify” it by draining all the life out. He writes of philosophers:

“There is […] their hatred of even the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are doing a thing honour when they dehistoricise it, sub specie aeterni—when they make a mummy of it. All that philosophers have handled for millennia has been conceptual mummies; nothing actual has escaped their hands alive. They kill, they stuff, when they worship, these conceptual idolaters—they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship. Death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth, are for them objections—refutations even.” (p.45)

Philosophers, in other words, rework concepts so that they reflect their own values and prejudices because they cannot stand the idea that things have changed and evolved over time in ways that contradict how they think the universe ought to work. As such, they find ways to paper over those changes, to hide the twists and turns of how something came into being so that it appears, falsely, to possess a clarity and purpose of which we can make sense. Don’t like that an idea or event doesn’t fit into your system? Then rewrite it according to your own simple prejudices – that is a common operation in philosophy, according to Nietzsche.

As usual, Nietzsche’s choice of metaphor is a multi-layered one. Not only is he talking about how philosophers “mummify” ideas in a generic sense, he also clearly has in mind a particular episode in the history of Egypt: the reign of Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV. Upon ascending to the throne, Amenhotep IV undertook a project that was common for all new rulers in the ancient world: he systematically dismantled the legacies of his predecessor in order to establish his own. This revisionist process went further than any previous pharaoh had dared, abolishing the powerful state worship of Amun-Ra in favor of a new monotheistic religion. Thus, Nietzsche’s sarcastic comment: “Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger-mimicry!” (p.45)

I kept thinking about these words as I was watching the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, a book that is fresh in my mind from having taught it to my graduate class last semester. Readers are almost invariably disappointed by how books are translated onto the screen, but I have to say that I am not a purist. I don’t expect a one-to-one translation, and it is understandable that some economies are going to be necessary in the process, but what really annoys me are the repeated ways in which these adaptations overlook key ideas that the author is looking to explore in a work.

Great Expectations is a novel about class, for instance, and while the adaptation hits us over the head with the way in which money draws barriers between people, the idea of class being entangled in notions of birth and nobility is completely eschewed. Of course it is: the culture of aristocracy has been so thoroughly exterminated that we have difficulty understanding its prejudices today, and so Pip’s journey is rewritten as simply a problem of social mobility. How very curious it is that aristocratic culture is only ever presented to us in a flattened, caricatured manner, in terms that only a bourgeois audience can understand. Is it only about understanding, though? Isn’t it that there is something inherently dangerous in having people learn that, until recently, there existed a social order that represented a genuine challenge to our bourgeois values? How insecure we must be, that we still cannot even acknowledge this past. In so doing, we turn ourselves, like Pip, into frauds, mere parodies of the sophisticated beings for which we mistake ourselves.

The irony is that Dickens, in his own time, was highly critical of the contradictory way in which English society related to its own ideals. Do you remember that scene early in Great Expectations – omitted in the adaptation – when Magwitch holds Pip by the feet, so that the church tower is inverted? This symbolic moment is part of Dickens’s larger critique of the gap between Christian rhetoric and practice, showing how Pip’s willingness to help someone lower than himself is reconfigured as a criminal gesture, not a Christ-like act of virtue. A similar seam runs throughout Dickens’s work: think of the way that Oliver Twist wanders from parish to parish, unable to find a single Christian willing to help him, instead finding greater charity amongst a group of thieves than in the church. None of these religious hypocrisies appear in the adaptation either. We may be living in an outwardly secular, enlightened society, but we continue to pay lip service to a sense of Christian charity that we do not practice , just as we continue, with a strange hysteria, to proclaim the essential goodness of the bourgeoisie, even as Dickens reviles the potential vulgarity of its mindset through such characters as Pumblechook.

So it is that, in this year, the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, we are predictably doing what we always have done to our cultural heroes: in the name of false piety, we mummify them by taking the critical essence of their ideas and hollowing them out until they become crude puppets for our own prejudices.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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