Old School

Amid a typically crazy summer, I have begun and sort of stuck with a project that I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Read Will Durant’s History of Civilization series. Volume I (there are 9 total) is about 900 pages long, and I’m about halfway through. It’s beautifully written, so it’s never been a matter of slogging through an archaic text; it’s just been a matter of committing to reading about an hour a day, something I normally do but have let lapse in last several months.

You wouldn’t have to read these sequentially, I’m sure, but I love seeing how influences begin and then get used and reinterpreted over the years – in this case, thousands of both. Even though I’ve started the book 2 times previously, I never made it past pg. 100, partly I think because I REALLY didn’t give a rat’s ass about Egypt – weird, because as a kid I loved it (I think most kids do – mummies, gold King Tut masks, sacred cats, 10 plagues – what’s not to love?).

 But this time through, not only did I find Egypt as fascinating as every place else so far, thanks to Durant’s writing skills, I’ve actually been able to appreciate it. I had shifted my attention over the years, in a bunch of trips taking Trina to the Egyptian rooms at the Met and the much less crowded and better-stocked Brooklyn Museum, to the weird, flat painting, and felt like it was kind of like Vivaldi concertos: there’s really only one, he just kept redoing it 440 times. (In the wonderful book Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys, the author argues that this assessment is unfair; Vivaldi actually wrote 2 concertos, 220 times each.) Durant points out that all along, I should have stayed focused on the sculpture, which was completed on a scale that’s tough to imagine.  One temple had 134 pillars between 50 and 70 feet tall; they’re graceful, beautiful and apparently you can still visit them. Sigh. Maybe someday.

What’s truly great about Durant is how he weaves everything together: religion, art, politics, daily life, commerce. Even though the book tends to subdivide those aspects of life into their own smaller sections, they constantly overlap and tend to feed each other. Of particular interest to me has been the evolution of religion (I can already hear calls for my head on a pike in Kansas as I type those words in the same phrase). The prehistory section has a beautiful line about the moon, which seems to generally be one of the first objects of early worship: “Even the frogs prayed to it for rain.”

From prehistory, the book progresses to a brief chapter on Sumer, the earliest civilization that we can actually apply dates to. Egypt is next, and it made a tremendous leap when it came to religion, inventing a fairly complicated system and mythology that ultimately served and preoccupied the rich (as well as the rest of us, given that a whole lot of what we know about Egypt comes from tombs). Similar to the Catholicism that Luther rebelled against, Egypt’s religion was heavily commerced-based, with all sorts of ways to buy yourself into a comfier afterlife no matter how big of a jerk you’d been during your life-life (as opposed to your before-life; the Mormons are the only ones I know preoccupied with that). But it wasn’t about being a better person. It was generally about appeasing angry, capricious gods who’d eat humans for breakfast as soon as look at them.

Anyway, more on religion later. The other thing that is so cool about Egypt is it’s incredibly old. When ancient Romans and Greeks visited the country, they were surrounded by architecture and monuments that were already 2-3000 years old. Just knowing that made me realize that the Sphinx is amazing, despite the beat-up face; of course, it’s beat up. It’s seen 5,000 years. The grandeur of that, the insignificance of everything in the face of that boggles, don’t it?

 Anyway, I’ll probably write more in order to try and work my way through all the knots to why I find all this so fascinating, and why I really don’t care if I read anything else for a while, and why I don’t really that I haven’t been able to watch a movie in a while because I’d rather be reading. It’s a nice feeling. Books rock. 

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