Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: Why Did He Go There?

Further Insights

Why Did He Go There?

In the eyes of his contemporaries, Belzoni embodied the “spirit of enterprise”—and the Herculean labor—necessary to make the material and moral benefits of archaeological “discoveries” available to a Western audience. As Thornton’s Don Juan explains:

Within the last few years... an unconquerable zeal to explore those mysterious remains of antiquity has manifested itself, and every country of Europe has sent forth learned, scientific, and enterprising men, whose perseverance has conquered every difficulty, and achieved more than the most sanguine could have expected, in the discovery and delineations of numerous Catacombs.113

The ex-Patagonian Samson seemed “destined by nature for this species of research; for in addition to the most ardent zeal and undaunted courage, he possesses prodigious personal powers, being of the amazing height of six feet seven inches, and of proportionate strength and muscular energy.”114 The fascination for Belzoni’s “unconquerable zeal” is perfectly captured in a best-selling book intended for young readers, written by the popular author Sarah Atkins.115 Like Thornton’s Don Juan, Atkins also extols the pedagogical efficacy of the exhibit.116 The book opens with one of several children engaged in “shading” a pyramid, part of a map of Egypt that he copies from a large folio volume. What follows is a sort of educational virtual journey for the benefit of the two boys, named Bernard and Owen, and two girls, named Emily and Laura. Their mother leads them in the footsteps of Belzoni, the great discoverer, as in a tour of the exhibit.117 The thrill of the Great Belzoni Show has in fact crossed the Atlantic, and “the celebrated tomb of which we hear so much, at the Egyptian Hall, in London” is also mentioned by Emily in her excitement: “Oh mamma—exclaimed Emily—tell me the name of this gentleman:—why did he go there? Was he fond of antiquities? How did he manage to enter the pyramids? And what did he find in them?”118

This is indeed the crucial question: Why did he go there? Why did he enter? Emily’s mother, Mrs. A., confirms the visual logic of the discovery: “To give you an accurate account of all Mr. Belzoni saw in this tomb, would take too long; you must visit the facsimile, as Laura calls it, in London, and then your curiosity will be gratified by seeing representations of the drawings, paintings, hieroglyphics, emblems, and ornaments which it contained.”119 Curiosity is the mother of knowledge. Indeed, Belzoni’s ultimate goal was the pursuit of knowledge, “intrinsically valuable... as it elevates the mind, and it qualifies us for higher degrees of felicity, both in the present and in a future life.” This knowledge is best embodied in the papyri that Belzoni discovered in—indeed, as Mrs. A. herself readily admits, “stole” from—the catacombs and which, along with the many other objects exhibited at Egyptian Hall, will supposedly expose the secrets of the Egyptians.120 This is the supposed “revelation” of The Tomb: the secret knowledge still shrouded in mystery, a few years before the decrypting of the hieroglyphs.121

Yet, the children’s own curiosity cannot be so easily quenched. The most exciting “explanation” provided by Mrs. A. as she guides them on her virtual tour of The Tomb, concerns the extraordinary courage it took our hero to enter “the mummy pit”—in real life and not in fiction as in the case of Thornton’s Don Juan (figs. 32–33). As a skilled guide and storyteller, Mrs. A. quotes Belzoni’s own account verbatim from his Narrative, the description of his descent into the mummies’ pit, introducing it with these words:

A traveller is generally satisfied when he has seen the large hall, the gallery, the staircase, and as far as he can conveniently go. Besides, his attention is taken up by the paintings he observes on the walls; so that, when he comes to a narrow or difficult passage, or to have to descent to the bottom of a well or cavity, he declines taking such trouble, naturally supposing that he cannot see in these abysses anything so magnificent as what he sees above, and on that account deeming it useless to proceed any farther.122

Not Belzoni. He, writes Atkins, dove right in, undeterred by the instinctive horror that the venue could inspire. In Atkins’s description, which echoes the ambivalent sentiments that Belzoni’s show at Egyptian Hall could inspire in its visitors, the aura of the facsimile is once again confirmed. In the symbolic exchange between the shadows of the Arab workmen and the mummies, the lesson that they impart on the most sensitive, virtual visitors of The Tomb is a solemn one, and suggests some kind of awe and poetic sublimation. However, the mummy’s murky residue in the then-contemporary imagination cannot be thoroughly cleansed, as the reaction of the children bears witness. As Emily, the sensitive one among Mrs. A.’s children, cries out she would rather be in “the smoky caverns” of the little Greenlanders (i.e., the indigenous Inuit population of Greenland), however “unpleasing” are their countenances and savage their manners, than in “the dismal mummy caves at Gournou”—since the Greenlanders “are not treacherous like the Arabs who attended Belzoni when he entered that melancholy mummy cave.”123

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