No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Pym & The Zodiac of Paris

Pym by Mat Johnson is a satirical 'sequel' of sorts to Poe's unfinished Pym. A modern day English lecturer gets fed up with being pigeon-holed as the black literature prof and living embodiment of faculty diversity. His own Poe studies lead him to the journal of Dirk Peters, the almost white companion of Pym, which features additional information. In short, following the footsteps of Pym's adventure that ran into black savages in the Antarctic, our hero organizes an all-black expedition to follow up, and runs into white savages (i.e. snow honkies).

Quite a few funny scenes, and some good satirical pokes at the culture of academia, Poe, and race in America. Good silly fun.

The Zodiac of Paris, by Jed Z. Buchwald & Diane Greco Josefowicz

The titular zodiac is an Egyptian bas relief from the ceiling of a temple in Dendera. Its existence became widely known following Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, but only imperfectly through sketches. In 1820, an enterprising Frenchman got the proper permits and used masonry saws and gunpowder to liberate the dingus and transport it to France, where it ultimately wound up in the Louvre.

The book sets out in authoritative detail how the zodiac was an intellectual football in the scholarly and political war to determine the age of Egyptian civilization. The anticlerical faction saw Egypt as being older than Biblical flood chronology would allow (and it is, but Dupuis and other experts provided ridiculous ages, even earlier than 10,000 BCE), while the conservative faction wanted to fit Egypt safely into Biblical chronology. It's really curious how the politics of the day seem to sway the arguments back and forth. The Terror, the Republic, Napoleon's Concordat with Rome, Napoleon's disaffection with Rome, the right-wing Ultras of the restoration. Church and state relations and the age of the Zodiac swing back and forth in a weird synchrony.

It's tempting to summarize things by saying that French intellectuals on both sides said stupid things about the Zodiac for a couple decades, and then Champollion translated Egyptian and settled the matter. But this misses all of the strange detours in the story, and the book goes into it all. The political squabbling, scholarly backstabbing, and even a satirical vaudeville play about the Zodiac. Perhaps the strangest thing is the little zinger at the end; Champollion's translation depended on a drawing of a cartouche -- from a section of the Zodiac that had not been removed -- and when Champollion finally visited the temple itself in Egypt, he found that the drawing had been in error. The cartouche on the actual monument is totally blank! The artist must have substituted some other cartouche in the drawing. As it happens, it doesn't affect Champollion's dating of the temple.

Lots of interesting things in the book, though occasionally it's pretty dry. But I do have to complain about the illustrations, many of which suffer from almost ludicrous problems. Hard to describe in words, but I just can't see the things I'm supposed to be seeing. In one fairly concrete case, I think it says the feature is near the letter A, and I can't even find the letter A. Another drawback is that some of the astronomical details are not well explained; there was a fairly long discussion about the complicated interplay of precession and the heliacal rising of stars and I couldn't make head or tail out of it or the accompanying diagrams.
Tags: book, history, lovecraft, science

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