The God Abandons Antony

Marc Antony on Cleopatra’s Barge

It was in the first century AD that Plutarch first mentioned the tale that, as he was to face ultimate defeat from both Octavian (later Augustus) and his love Cleopatra, that he was visited by a strange vision:

During this night, it is said, about the middle thereof, while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of the future, all at once certain harmonious sounds from all kinds of instruments were heard, and shouts of a crowd with Evoes and satyric leapings, as if some company of revellers not without noise were going out of the city; and the course of the procession seemed to be through the middle of the city to the gate leading outwards in the direction of the enemy, and at this point the tumult made its way out, being loudest there. And those who reflected on the sign were of opinion that the god to whom Antonius all along most likened himself and most claimed kinship with was deserting him.

In his play Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare makes mention of this vision in Act IV, Scene 3.

But it was the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, a citizen of Alexandria, who wrote one of his greatest poems on the subject:

Constantine P. Cavafy

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

The poem is mentioned in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and even printed there, but in Durrell’s translation. I have chosen instead to include the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Alexandria on the Pacific

The Port of Alexandria As It Is Today

Every once in a while, I re-read a book that has meant a lot to me in the past, in the hopes of somehow rediscovering myself as I was when I first encountered it. Around 1967-1968, I first delved into Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first volume of his Alexandria Quartet.

I had just reached the age of puberty in my early twenties thanks to regular injections of depo-testosterone. In September 1966, I had a pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) removed by slicing through my forehead and hinging my brain upward. As a result, I was a strange sort of late-blooming virgin who was mightily puzzled by and preoccupied with sex.

The Edition I Read

Imagine me as I lie in the sand on Santa Monica Beach by lifeguard station 12 reading the following:

Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying—I think he was quoting—that Alexandria was the great winepress of love, those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets—I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.

So there I was on the hot sands of Santa Monica, surrounded by women in bikinis, indulged in morose delectation.

Actually, Justine is pretty good, though it is quite arch at times. I am no longer the same unhappy young man on the beach. I read all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet that one summer, and I loved it—however disturbing I found it.

A Short, Unhappy Life

What King Tut Looked Like at the Age of 18, When He Died

King Tutankhamen had a short and probably not very happy life. He became pharaoh at the tender age of nine, but he was bedeviled by illnesses that caused him considerable pain and shortened his life. Tut’s father was his uncle and his mother was his father’s sister. Apparently, incest was not expressly forbidden for the pharaohs and their families.

Notice the club foot: King Tut was accompanied with a number of canes on his afterlife journey. By the end, he also had a compound leg fracture, malaria, Köhler Disease, and possibly also sickle cell anemia, Marfan syndrome, mental retardation, adiposogenital dystrophe (note the feminine hips in the above reconstruction),  Kleinfelter syndrome, androgen insensitivity syndrome, aromatase excess syndrome, in conjunction with sagittal craniosynostosis syndrome, Antley-Bixler syndrome, and temporal lobe epilepsy. Oh, and he also had buck teeth and a cleft palate.

In other words, the mighty pharaoh was an unholy mess. There are signs that his burial was conducted in haste, as the paint on the walls of his tomb did not dry properly.

 

Tut Tut

The Guardian Ka for the Afterlife of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen

There has been a major exhibit of treasures from King Tut’s tomb at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibit started in March and is ending in a few days, so I decided I had better hustle if I didn’t want to miss my second chance at one of the world’s great archeological treasures. (I missed my first opportunity some years back.)

In the end, it was not a pleasant experience. The exhibit was well mounted, but it was mobbed with family groups who were intent on SmartPhone snapshots of everything on exhibit. It was as if instead of people with minds attending the exhibition, the attendees were actually digital devices. No one understood what was being photographed: They were merely putting together a portfolio that could be used to demonstrate to friends that, yes, they had been in the presence. The children were mostly bored and acting up.

In the end, I seriously suggested that, at the entrance to the exhibit, all SmartPhones be collected and smashed to smithereens with mauls. That got a few laughs from the museum staff, but I seriously doubt they acted on my well-intentioned comments.

Although I have been interested in Pre-Columbian archeology for many years, I know very little about Egypt under the Pharaohs. I know I have Howard Carter’s book somewhere in my library about his discovery of King Tut’s tomb, as well as a few other volumes on the general subject, I have been extremely remiss. Resolved: After I return from Central America at the end of the month, I will try to catch up on the subject.

And that is my only New Year’s Resolution for 2019.

 

 

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum