LETTER FROM ARCHIBALD FURRAY TO STANISLAW CULP, continued…
What does the market for Art tell us about the market for everything else? There are incentives to do things that grab attention, which means fighting with your critics, or creating images that are weird or gruesome, or irritating. Art is the ficklest, most demanding, and insubstantial way to earn a living because it isn’t a real thing. Even its name means I am something fake. Maybe not originally. From Ars, in Latin, meaning skill or craft. Skill or craft to make something beautiful or powerful, but also something not what it seems, a crafty or skillful deceit. Ars soul, or arsehole. But what’s in a name? Our soul.
What was it that brought me to Egypt, of all places?
I came across a story in yellowed discarded newspaper someone had used to pack my paintings. Literally, old news. In this old newspaper article, someone had discovered ruins, a tomb, a temple, an underground city, and more. There were grainy faded photos of hieroglyphics.
Ideas started bubbling into my consciousness, but I couldn’t really express them because they were a blend of language and visuals. For a brief instance, I felt the palpable presence of someone long dead, part of me, his thought flickering into my own like a fever dream.
I felt a compulsion to go to the actual place where the image originated; to stand where the original artist stood, to achieve a deeper connection, to look at the actual engravings in the actual stone walls, rather than a poor reproduction on a piece of disposable paper, one of thousands of poor reproductions, on of thousands of pieces of paper meant to be thrown away.
I needed to see the original thing itself.
Millions are drawn this place all of the time, heeding the call of antiquity. People try to engage with the past to get in touch with their ancestors, to see evidence of what actually happened before they were born. The remnants of things that existed long ago each tell their own stories, all of them conflicting, a clash of the real and the unreal. Many of my fellow travelers are on the run, trying to escape the 20th Century, where marketing has become the meaning and message of everything. And many are drawn here by the marketing.
The need for cash forces me to compromise my standards, with every painting being a kind of humiliation, a public execution, A Poor Trait of the Artist as a Hung Man. I’ve been getting by here doing fast portraits for rich tourists, using a quasi-ancient hieroglyphical style. Appealing to vanity on a one-to-one basis, up close and personal, turns out to be vastly easier and more profitable than appealing to critics, or pleading with gallery owners. I’ve learned how to paint in ways that are more flattering to my subjects, so that it no longer looks like I’m poking fun of them, though now I really am.
I fell in with a crowd of the local craftsmen. Among them thrives a vibrant culture of folk art, with secret guilds producing these cards of healing. The locals have been producing them for generations. Who can say how far back these traditions go? After coming all this way, traveling halfway around the world, I find the work done by living artists here to be just as compelling and mystical—just as meaningful—as the work done by the long dead that everyone flocks to see and everyone values so highly.
I am still trying to puzzle out the identity of the soul I connected to when I saw the faded newspaper images of ancient hieroglyphics.
The ancient Egyptians had their own notions of personal identity, deduced through autopsies done on people trying to outfox death. There’s the Khat, or physical body—the parts that can be cut out and placed in canopic jars; the muscles, bones and tendons that can be steeped in resin and herbs, wrapped up in fine linens. Then there’s the Ka, or lifeforce that still needs food after it passes the trial of having a heart lighter than the feather of truth. Next comes the Ba, the personality, depicted as the falcon wings bearing a human head. And lastly, there’s the name. The Ren.
Can I put a name to the soul that calls out to me? There’s a debate going on between the learned professors. I hear the name “Imhotep” frequently invoked. The name “Hermes Trismegistus” gets bandied about, too, a name that sounds like a venereal disease, and some of the more Bohemian scholars, when they’re drunk, call him the V.D.; the Vacuous Dynamite, or the Vagrant Demolition. Name calling.
So, whose grave are we plundering today? Who are we going to call names? Whose name is calling?
The current excavations began with the discovery of a tomb entrance under an ancient cairn. It stood across from a historic church that dated back to biblical times. Two competing theologies had faced off against each other for so long, succeeding generations forgot how the history of the conflict lay beneath them.
The Cross vs a Pile of Rocks.
The Grecian root of Hermes’ name means stone heap. Hera accused Hermes of killing her favorite monster, the multi-eyed Argus, ever watchful guardian of a cow her husband wanted to hump. Don’t laugh. It is bad form to poke fun at other peoples’ religions. At the trial, the jury of gods cast their vote by pitching pebbles at the litigants. Hermes, being the god of trickery in communication, won by a large margin, even though he was guilty as hell. He ended up buried in pebbles. His association with crossing boundaries and travelers led people to mark roads with cairns. Piles of rocks.
As they sort through the layers of the excavation, there is wildly conflicting evidence of what these ruins used to be. A tomb? A temple? It looks like an early Christian church and/or a Hebrew Temple and/or a Mercurial tabernacle and/or a Hermetic shrine and/or a Temple to Thoth and/or a Temple to V.D. Also, the Cross vs a cross between gods representing the ability to cross boundaries. A cross between Grecian Hermes and Egyptian Thoth. The V.D.’s name joins the two, and maybe they’re the same deity, using aliases. Maybe just one deity, when you’re not calling him names. Or maybe a mixture. Some of the drunken professors view him as a symbol for competing philosophies, the universe formed in your head, and the universe that formed your head; the world explained by spiritual insight and the world explained by scientific examination. A job for a trickster expert at crossing boundaries. Like the old Certs commercial. It is two, two, two mints in one.
The union of Thoth and Hermes laid the intellectual foundations for all of the Arts and Sciences, so say the intellectuals who don’t believe in Gods. According to the professors, these foundations were laid subversively, in secrecy, invisibly, by avoiding attention rather than seeking it—the opposite of marketing. The Romans, as an act of piety, used to sacrifice severed human tongues in Temples to Mercury. You can’t get a more telling expression of both being eloquent and struck dumb.
As they clear away debris, as they dig deeper and deeper into the excavation, finding more corridors and passageways underground, they discover ancient connections between the Church and the Cairn. Battles were fought in the tunnels, sometimes with arms, sometimes with debate. There are signs of victories and defeats on both sides, barricades erected, then broken down. Armistice, then attack, retreat, resurgence. Peaceful coexistence for centuries, then violent upheavals.