Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

A Real Phantasmagoria: The Great Belzoni’s Show: The Mummy, Revealed

The Mummy, Revealed

Even more than concealed tombs and cryptic hieroglyphs, the mummy fired the Western imagination. That the bodies of the actual inhabitants of ancient Egypt had survived to the present to be gazed at by the curious seemed almost incredible. Here, however, lay a dilemma. Though the mummies could be taken out of their tombs and placed in the bright light of museums, they remained inscrutable inside their wrappings.
– Constance Classen92

Though the mummy of Seti was absent from The Tomb, other mummies were displayed at Egyptian Hall. On May 1, 1821, the day of the exhibit’s inauguration, Belzoni and the famous physician Thomas Pettigrew, who unrolled and autopsied mummies for the entertainment of his guests at private parties, held a public unwrapping of one of the mummies brought back by Belzoni.93 Belzoni himself, with the help of his wife, Sarah, staged several unwrappings in various places.94 As Constance Classen has eloquently written, the mummy embodies for the Western mind the “lure of the unseen”: “Both the voyeur and the scientist demanded that the mummy be unwrapped for a more thorough viewing.”95 Indeed, the voyeuristic dimension that—as Lady Blessington duly reported—was part of The Tomb’s attraction, is condensed in the allure of, and repulsion for, the Egyptian mummy. It was a relic of an ancient civilization displayed as both a scientific specimen and an uncanny object of aesthetic contemplation.

To be sure, not only the reality show at Egyptian Hall but also the sublimated aesthetic experience offered by the highbrow display at the British Museum provoked conflicting emotions in the public. Take, for example, the colossal bust of Memnon (Ozymandias), perhaps the most impressive of the relics retrieved by Belzoni for Henry Salt, immortalized by Shelley in the eponymous sonnet.96 In his Guide to the Beauties of the British Museum, published in 1826, Peter Patmore describes the countenance of the Memnon as that of a “different” human race—perhaps, judging from the size of its achievements, a race of “giants” (fig. 30). His description combines this perception of Otherness with a sort of oneiric effect emanating from the sculpture, two elements of a peculiar Orientalist gaze reacting to both the physical “presence” of the sculpture and the aura radiating from its representation of a “different” human form. Because of its dimensions (and perhaps also because it is “decapitated” from its body), the statue lacks “a direct reference to the human form in its natural state” but resembles rather the shapes we see “in feverish dreams, and which haunt us in that nervous affection called the night-mare [sic].”97 Contrasted with the familiar, harmonic forms of classical art, these “barbaric” figures, albeit aesthetically fascinating, seem (in Patmore’s words) “not like imitations of anything real, but like shadows,” lifeless stone, empty masks: “We do not feel the least degree of human sympathy with this face because there is nothing individualized about it; the impression is therefore merely shadowy—like that of an outline”— a description eerily reminiscent of Belzoni’s Le Brunesque delineations.98 Compare these words with what Belzoni himself writes about the young Memnon:

The singularity of this bust sculpture is a sweetness and such a tender expression in its physiognomy, that although of a colossal magnitude it gives delight to admire, made as it is to represent a God, and I don’t think the goddess of purity could be expressed with better delineation than this.99

Nothing “shadowy” in the androgynous countenance of Memnon, which instead inspires in Belzoni a genuine awe. Indeed, Belzoni’s semiliterate Italian captures the spiritual aura emanating from the colossal fragment. Perhaps it takes a giant—the Patagonian Samson—to feel empathy for such an oversized embodiment of human forms. Or perhaps this is another sign of Belzoni’s paradoxical reluctance to display the ruins of Egyptian civilization only as a pretext for a kind of cheap phantasmagoria, like the one staged by Robertson in the Parisian Catacombs. As a perfect counterpart to the Somatascopia staged in his early career, Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria is a bodily display, albeit one that evokes ancient shadows and provides insights into our deepest emotions. With its ambivalent physical and virtual presence, the mummy also embodies the aura emanating from the facsimile of The Tomb. Indeed, the mummy is a peculiar kind of body, the corporeal equivalent of a ghost. Inseparable from its casing, hidden inside its wrappings and its sarcophagus, it is a perfect embodiment of what we may call the optical uncanny.100 Visible yet invisible, organic yet inorganic, material yet immaterial, the mummy in its diaphanous sarcophagus perfectly embodies the virtual presence at the center of Belzoni’s exhibit: a bodily phantasmagoria, without visible ghosts. An embodiment of death, an inanimate relic, it nevertheless threatens to come alive.

However, the facsimile of The Tomb effectively overturns the epistemological principle on which the Phantasmagoria was based. Belzoni’s show at Egyptian Hall was not an optical illusion orchestrated by a technical apparatus in order to make “darkness visible,” as Brewster put it. Rather, The Tomb was a “mystery” exhibited as real, in the dimly lit rooms of a Wunderkammer in which original relics and perfect copies were mixed together. Indeed, there is more to be said about this aesthetic of the simulated or virtual real in connection with, or opposition to, the ghostly Phantasmagoria. The impression that the figures on The Tomb’s walls make on visitors is entirely based on their “perfect” facsimile nature, the result of the technique used for their reproduction, about which we are duly informed by Thornton, who diligently reports what Belzoni wrote in his Narrative: “The figures are casts in plaster-of-Paris impressions taken on the spot, and painted with the greatest exactness and fidelity, from drawings made at the same time...a laborious task, that occupied me more than twelve months.”101 As argued earlier, the “impressions” that Belzoni had painstakingly taken of the real tomb, with the help of Alessandro Ricci, capture and preserve, along with its delineations, the aura of the original in a way evocative of modern imaging technology.

We need to dig further into this analogy between the physical and the virtual facsimile. Translated into Marxist terms, Belzoni’s facsimile is the phantasmagorical form that his Herculean labors take, embodied in the Egyptian relics displayed as commodities at the down-market Egyptian Hall (a purpose of the show was also to sell the artifacts).102 In its hyperrealism, the Great Belzoni show prefigures what, following Marx, Walter Benjamin described as the phantasmagoria of the World's Fair or Universal Exposition.103 It also foreshadows what contemporary technology claims it can do for the preservation of history (a virtual copy as close as possible to the original object).104 Yet, the secret of the peculiar “reality effect” produced by Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria is linked to time rather than space. As stated earlier, the aura of the exhibit was tied to the emotion of traveling back in time to the Age of Pharaohs. Another temporal dislocation makes this possible: The Tomb appears to encapsulate the instant, and the emotion, of its first discovery by Belzoni. As Thornton writes: “On the day the Tomb was opened, the colours were found as fresh and vivid as they are here represented.”105 In other words, Belzoni invited those who entered The Tomb to relive his emotions when he “unveiled” it—“fresh as when first painted, and unseen by human eye for perhaps three thousand years.” 106 As contemporary reviews of the exhibit reveal: “We may well conceive the deep emotions with which he [Belzoni] must have been impressed, not only from their antiquity, but from the historical, religious, and sepulchral character of the objects.” And these emotions, as the article continues, “must indeed, on these occasions, be of grand and poetical nature; fed as the imagination is by the strangeness and stillness of the scene, and the partly ascertained, and partly unknown nature of the objects.”107

However, another emotional response is indelibly impressed in Belzoni’s facsimiles, one duly registered in his own account of The Tomb’s actual discovery, in a page of the Narrative in which he describes his fateful descent into the mummy pit:

After getting through these passages, some of them two or three hundred yards long, you generally find a more commodious place, perhaps high enough to sit. But what a place of rest! surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror.108

Noting how Belzoni “hardly ever resorts to a contemporary language of the Gothic,” Roger Luckhurst observes how, in this page, Belzoni, “toying with the abject,” lets the reader know that “mummified not smell, but ‘the dust was rather unpleasant to swallow,’” thus maintaining a “jocular tone” that makes clear how for him “mummies themselves carr[ied] little import.”109 The issue, however, is not Belzoni’s jocular tone, perhaps best fitting his authorial persona as the undaunted explorer; the real issue is what Belzoni’s dismissal—or repression—of the “horrific” in his account actually reveals. Illuminated by torches, the strange figures depicted on the walls come to life before the eyes of their discoverer, reminding us of the ghosts summoned in Robertson’s Salle de Fantasmagorie.110 Here, however, living and dead bodies uncannily exchange places. As Belzoni describes:

The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surrounded me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described.111

As in a macabre Somatascopia, the “living mummies” reveal their true identity: they are the shadows of the Arab workmen hired by Belzoni to help him in his Herculean labors. Projected onto The Tomb’s walls, the silhouettes are the actual ghosts of colonialism that uncannily inhabit the mummy pit as well as the exhibit at Egyptian Hall, disguised behind the perfect facsimiles reproducing, in all their glorious colors, the last dwelling of Pharaoh Seti I. Finally, the mummy, unwrapped, reveals its true countenance (fig. 31). Belzoni’s “discovery” is also a desecration and what comes to light—what is hidden behind the phantasmagoric beauties of The Tomb are the real roots of its proverbial curse, the haunting that will persecute the Western colonial imagination for two centuries: the “discovery” is actually a theft, the shadowy residue that the aura of the facsimile cannot dispel.112


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