11 November 2007

The Disappointments of History

The mummy of King Tutankhamun has been unwrapped at Luxor, and we are now invited to gaze upon the face — leathery, emaciated, and silent — of history. He was only 19 when he died: a reminder to stay out of the sun. Apart from his resemblance to a typical Florida retiree, King Tut doesn’t tell us much. We are free to imagine that he would enjoy a brisk round of shuffleboard about now, but that he would find butterfly ballots unduly challenging.

He will not confirm this; he will not deny it. It is all the same to him. Our speculations will not trouble his sleep.

Living in Paris, I am often struck by the continuity of history. When I stand at the intersection of the Boulevard St-Germain and the Boulevard St-Michel, I am standing at the crossroads of the original Roman settlement, some 2000 years old. It’s freaky.

But when I look at King Tut, what I feel is less the connection with prior generations, and more the disappointment that I don’t see in him the liveliness that I find reflected in the intersection of the boulevards at rush hour. I had hoped, you see, that King Tut would reach across the centuries to embrace my contemporaries; I had hoped he would look more like this: