Archive

History

This was a disappointing read, since I had wanted more details on Patterson’s research and thoughts about the evidence supporting that Tutankhamen was killed. While I wasn’t expecting a work of historical scholarship, I did not anticipate that he was going to dramatize his interpretation of this slice of Egyptian history. This would have been fine, but I will be honest and admit that I wasn’t in the mood for it. Especially since the writing style is clipped, with a Dick and Jane cadence. I do not care for it.

There were two reasons I did not like the book. The first is that Patterson talks up his research. Due to the exposition style, it was unclear how much research he had done, compared to pure invention. I don’t mean that Patterson did not get the dates and major events right, but since drama requires a bit more flavor, there are certainly liberties he took with constructing the details of Egyptian life. The dialogue is one example; the thoughts and motivations he ascribes to the pharoah, queen, and the court functionaries are another. However, this wouldn’t be so bad if the pieces of research leading to his thesis, that King Tut was murdered, wasn’t so weak.

The weakness in the evidence and the long build-up make up the second fault. As far as I could tell, Patterson calls this a homicide based on a cranial wound (as determined from CT scans of the mummy skull), the elevation of 3 pharoahs from Tut’s court, and the small tomb and lack of hieroglyphic records of Tut. The fresh piece of evidence is in fact the head wound. The rest of the evidence had been known, and certainly the circumstances described does not rule out murder. The fact that following Tut, all three subsequent rulers came from his court is consistent with foul play. First, Tut’s wife/sister succeeded him, then his court advisor, then his general. Human ambition being what it is, one can construct all sorts of stories about Tut’s wife and the court advisor. The lack of mention in the hieroglyphic record may be due to incompleteness in the the record, although it could also be interpreted as the systematic obliteration of Tut’s legacy. Burying Tut in a small tomb also could indicate carelessness, and at least diffidence in how the pharaoh was laid to rest. But it might just mean that Tut was not liked. Or it could mean the murder was going through the motions of the burial. But then why would the murdered line the small tomb with treasure? One might think the head wound would prove crucial to Patterson’s case that tips the theory in favor of murder.

Yet Patterson, in his dramatization, documents the wound as stemming from a chariot fall. Hmm. And, during the assassination scene, the killer supposedly suffocated the pharaoh (fine, that was fiction. I suppose Patterson found it to be weird to have the killer strike the pharaoh on the exact spot injured from the fall – there was only a single wound to the head.) So the smashing new bits of insight wasn’t even used to weave a consistent story regarding the murder of Tut. That I found strange. The lead up to the supposed new piece of evidence did not pay off. That would be fine for any writer but Patterson: he is a writer of detective stories. Are his other books so poorly tied together?

Although I had been expecting something a bit more serious (it certainly makes for good copy for a detective story writer to do a bit of crime investigation), the fact that the historical tidbits were translated into a story didn’t bother me, in and of itself. Yes, there are issues concerning the provenance of each detail, but as a whole, it works as one amateur’s interpretation of how Egypt’s ruling class lived. At some point, with the difficulty in translating hieroglyphics and the length of time separating us from the pharaohs, a scholar’s educated reconstruction of how these Egyptians lived may not fair any better than what Patterson can invent based on his research.

There were also other minor problems. Patterson wove three stories together: the story of the pharaohs, Patterson’s modern day research, and Howard Carter’s excavation of Egypt and his finding Tut’s tomb. Patterson, on two occasions, wrote of Carter’s removal from active excavation, and merely alluded to Carter’s personality clashes with his superiors. But somehow, Patterson did not recount the details of the arguments that led to Carter’s removal. He simply just wrote that Carter was about to flout the wrong people… and left it at that.

So, the major problem was that Patterson played up the historical research he and his co-author performed. It may have been submerged into the background details of the pharaoh’s story. But Patterson didn’t describe in clear terms what new evidence he had, and the story he wrote differed in interpretation, but not substance, from what was already known. And given the circumstantial evidence surrounding Tut’s tomb and succession, it seems strange that no one had posited that Tut was murdered, as Patterson seems to be suggesting.

What a strange book. The whole point of being is to trash intellectuals who idealizes the pursuit of freedom (either in behavior, in intellectual pursuits, from society). Paul Johnson admitted that it was unfair to use the private lives of individuals to judge the strength of their thoughts, but nonetheless he spent the entire book documenting the deficiencies of men who talked big and lived meanly. The quality of the men never matched the beauty of their vision, prose, or poetry.

The futility of such an exercise is noted early, in the chapter about Shelley. Johnson admits that this cad was a wastrel who had no compunction about writing mean letters detailing the failures of his parents while concurrently asking for money. Shelley used people, seeing his family as nothing but a source of income and women no more than a means for physical pleasure. Naturally, he thought himself liberal, dispensing with archaic institutions of monogamy. He expected his wife to accept his mistress to share their apartment, but he graciously extended the same privilege to his wife (whom apparently complained about this arrangement.)

Regardless, all this is peripheral: Johnson thinks Shelley wrote beautifully, and his poetry moved Johnson. Johnson writes,

The truth, however, is fundamentally different and to anyone who reveres Shelley as a poet (as I do) it is deeply disturbing. It emerges from a variety of sources, one of the most important of which is Shelley’s own letters.”

Great. But why should the gap between artisanal accomplishments and the empty lives of artists be so surprising, in an age when starlets, athletes, politicians, authors, musicians, and entertainers behave as if they were competing for the favor of the Borgias? Johnson already conceded the point that he can appreciate the artistry, if not the artist.

There was one high point in the book, though. Johnson destroyed Karl Marx on both a personal and professional level. In this instance, it seems that there are elements in Marx’s personality that might have directly resulted in the shoddy intellectual quality of his work. Marx made a better short form than long form writer; the long form exposed Marx’s deficiencies as a researcher and investigator. Das Kapital contained a number of misuse of evidence. Marx did do a spectacular job of digging up dirt on his enemies, though.

In a coda, Johnson links 2oth century atrocities to both secular intellectuals ignoring atrocities committed in their name and to the social milieu they created that promoted nihilism (namely in excesses of Communist regimes.)¬† It seems to me a simpler case that these mass murderers were ambitious, ruthless, and disposed to murder even before they encountered post-modern philosophy. As much as I detest social relativism, post-modernism, and religious dogma, I can’t fault these ideas as causing mass effects. I can, however, fault the men who, upon gaining power to commit atrocities, cloak their acts in the trappings of a recognizable philosophy.¬† To suggest that terrorists or dictators¬† valued life until reading a book seems to be placing the cart before the horse.

In the end, I do agree with Johnson in that it is so disappointing that philosophers rarely reach the ideals they espouse. So what else is new?

%d bloggers like this: