Saturday, 23 March 2013

Modernity: nothing so old in the world

There was a documentary on the BBC earlier today which promised to explore how it felt to be an Ancient Egyptian.

I didn’t watch it, so I don’t know what insights it offered. But one thing I’m sure of is that, however else they felt, the Ancient Egyptians didn’t feel ancient (except perhaps the very old ones). 

On the contrary, they were at the very cutting edge of modernity, my dear. So while I don’t know whether the documentary found evidence for its occurring, I’m absolutely sure that a conversation along the following lines took place somewhere in Modern Egypt, as the Ancients no doubt thought of it.

Father: Alexandria? Alexandria? What do you want to go there for? It’s just a huge commercial centre, docks – and you know the kind of riffraff you get round docks – moneylenders, people on the make, no sanctity, no religion, no soul.

Son: But Dad, Alexandria’s where it’s all happening. It’s dynamic, it’s growing, it’s the new Egypt.

Father: You mean it’s rich, right?

Son: Yeah, well, what’s wrong with being rich? Wouldn’t we like to be rich?

Father: Not at the price of selling our souls.

Son: Selling our souls? Listen, it’s a commercial centre, sure, but commerce oils wheels. You don’t become a great cultural centre without the money to pay for it. You know about the new library they’re building now? That’s going to cost a pretty penny and someone has to earn it.
Today's remains of the modern Alexandria of ancient times

Father: Library? Library? All full of Greek scrolls. Greek, Greek, Greek. That’s what I mean about selling our souls. You young people. Keep going down that road and we might just as well be Greeks.

Son: It’s a changing world. We have to adapt if we don’t want to go under.

Father: Adapt? Listen, Thebes is our capital. Been our capital for millennia. Coptic’s our language. It was good enough for Tutankhamun, it’s good enough for me.

Son: Oh, Dad, that’s just so 18th Dynasty. Just because it was good enough for them doesn’t mean it’s good enough for us. Those were the Ancient Egyptians. We need to learn new ways to live in the modern world.

My message to the BBC: if we don’t blow ourselves up or boil our brains by overheating the planet, there’ll come a time when people look back on now and wonder what it was like being an Ancient Englishman. And I want to shout down the ages to them: we’re not. We’re the height of modernity. We’ve got modern art a hundred years old to prove it. We even have post-modern novels. 

So wash your mouths out.

P.S. One of the great modern films – now getting on for 70 years old – is Les Enfants du Paradis. If you don’t know it, get hold of it and watch it without delay. The script is by one of the finest modern French poets, Jacques Prévert, and it contains the immortal line, spoken by the incomparable Arletty in the role of Garance, ‘Mais qu'est-ce que c'est la nouveauté ? La nouveauté... mais c'est vieux comme le monde, la nouveauté !’, which roughly translates as ‘But just what is novelty? Novelty... there’s nothing older in the world than novelty.’

Arletty as Garance

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