Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Our Trip to London, Part the Fourth

The British Museum, if you have not had the good fortune to have been there, is a gloriously gigantic stone building filled nearly to the brim with stolen goods from the British Empire. Of course, they’re not really stolen; they’re just artifacts that happened to have come into the possession of certain influential individuals and then wound up in a giant stone building in London. Stolen would imply some sort of cultural ownership, and that would be frankly absurd. All of that said, there is something amazing about being able to wander in and out of the same building which possesses the Rosetta Stone and, essentially right next door, entire walls from ancient Assyrian temples. Then, there are the revolving exhibitions, usually of artifacts on loan from private collectors or foreign governments. Then, of course, there are the special exhibitions that cost money to see. I did not go to a special exhibition, nor did my companions. On the matter, The Student said, “Rarity of objects be damned! I’m not paying my money to see some hunks of rock.”
At any rate, this dogu thing The Student was talking about was one of the free revolving exhibits on loan, I believe, from the Japanese government. According to The Student, the dogu were the earliest artifacts of Japanese society that showed a tendency towards abstraction of humanity’s perception of the world. I, however, took a different view of the figures when we saw them: They were prototypes of Pokémon. I did not tell The Student this, for fear that he would have then forced me to go into a cultural sensitivity training session.
When we walked into the British Museum, into its black-tiled foyer right after walking in the mammoth front doors, I found myself looking into the Great Hall with a dropped-open mouth. The Student may have found himself in an almost religious awe while being at The Globe, and I finally understood it. On each wing in front of me were bits and pieces of history—and the interesting kind that you can look at and see chisel marks from sculptors, or brush strokes from potters, not the boring critical and analytical stuff we encounter in history classes. “Guh,” I said.
The Student shrugged, “Yeah, I guess it’s awe-worthy in a sense.”
“In a sense?!” I shouted. A security guard looked in my direction, shrugged and returned to reading a newspaper.
“Yeah. I mean, really, this is all bits of rock. Stolen rock. Memories of the brutality of Empire.”
“But—” I said. “But—Mummies! The Rosetta Stone! Cleo-fucking-patra! There’s Rome in here, Student! Can’t you under—”
“Hold your horses, hopalong,” said The Drunkard. “The Student’s right, it’s no big deal.”
“Student,” I said, “this is my Globe. Drunkard, we’ll take you to a distillery, and then maybe you’ll understand what The Student and I have experienced today.”
 “Once," The Drunkard responded, "I was lost in the Jack Daniels distillery. Not that much fun, really. They keep the whiskey under pretty secure conditions. As for history—which you clearly love—well, I prefer the here and now, thank you very much.”
I stammered for a few moments and my companions walked on. I followed suit, and we made our way up the staircase in the middle of the Great Hall, reaching eye level with some of the top figures on a couple of totems from the Pacific Northwest that had been plopped down into the Hall, and walked into the entrance to the Egyptian collection. Right in front of me was a mummified body of a prince. Or maybe a king. Someone important. I walked up to the glass and didn’t notice that my friends had walked on.
“Hey,” said The Drunkard, who had returned to fetch me, “come on.”
“But, the mummies.”
“They won’t be moving. The Student’s dog-men things are in the room across the hall.”
We weaved our way through gaggles of children on field trips. (“You little bastards,” I thought, “you get to go to the British Museum on a field trip. I went to the Grand Old Opry.”) I said, “You’re not as apathetic as you may try to act, Drunkard. How can you not care about these things around us? This is the story of humanity. In the mummies, we see the importance of death and the afterlife, the eternal question that has terrified humanity for eons, that—”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. And you’re right, it is a pretty cool feeling being right in the midst of all of this. But you, man, you are really into it, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know how you can’t feel just as floored as I am. Are we that jaded as a culture to not be awestruck in thought about seeing three thousand year-old artifacts two feet in front of us? In fact, look:” I brushed my fingertips on a statue of a black cat; the plaque said that the cat had been found in a gravesite and was an indication that the individual buried within was a devotee of Bast. “I just touched a dead person’s statue.”
A passing security guard said, “Please don’t touch the artifacts, sir.”
“Ah, sorry.”
“Hmm,” remarked The Drunkard, “we might be that jaded, true. However, what are your feelings on paintings?”
“Unless they’re surrealist, then they're overvalued, ground-up plants smeared over canvas and gawked at by easily-duped people with too much free time.”
The Drunkard nodded and smiled. “That’s what I thought. Everyone’s got their own little thing that leaves them ‘floored,’ as you put it. Mine just happens to be the overvalued, ground-up plants. I suspect that if we go to the National Gallery, you’ll have a peek at what I look like when I get really excited about something. Now,” he said, holding open a door, “I believe this is the room in which The Student’s dog-men reside.”
We walked into a black room. The walls were covered with white pencil drawings. The Student sat on a bench in the middle of the room with his head buried in his hands. His shoulders quaked a little bit and I think I heard a couple of sniffles. The Drunkard walked up to the first drawing he came to and said, “Dear sweet God.”
I walked to where he was and saw an illustration of a man being disemboweled on a rock. The black and white of the picture rendered it palatable; I’m fairly certain that if the black splotches had shown up on the page with all of their red bloody glory, then I would have found myself in the same position as The Student. The entrails flopped out like snakes, and a group of men stood around the rock in togas, looking on in studious amazement.
“What in the fuck is wrong with this country?” asked The Drunkard.
I went to the next picture, which detailed Death standing over a group of medical students as they performed an autopsy in a crowded auditorium room. I caught sight of one of the students pulling out a rib and moved on. The next one was titled “Torture Devices and Their Uses,” and I decided to skip the rest. I joined The Student on the bench and said, “You okay, buddy?”
He looked up. His eyes were bloodshot. “I just wanted to see the dogu, not this torture porn.”
I nodded. I went up to the security guard standing watch in the corner and asked where we could find the special exhibition. He gave me the directions—incredibly complex ones, at that, and I returned to The Student. We collected The Drunkard, who was still starting in awe at the disembowelment picture, and made our way to the dogu exhibition.
Once there, The Student was back to his normal self and went along the walls studying the various statues and statuettes. They ranged from fertility dolls to depictions of the elderly with canes. Though my initial thought of them being proto-Pokémon flitted across my mind form time to time, I had to admit that it was amazing to see these ancient figurines in such good condition—one placard said that the earliest of the dogu figures was from around 3,000 B.C. One that caught my attention—from the later period of the dogu collection—was a figure that looked like it was dancing like a performer in a rap video. “No,” said The Student, “the placard says that it is most likely positioned in a sort of war dance and could have been made for a child.”
“But,” I said, “it could also be backing that shit up.”
At this point, The Student walked away from me.
After a while, we had our fill of the exhibit and walked out of the museum to find that dusk had fallen and the temperature dropped what felt like fifteen degrees. We had dinner at a cheap buffet near the Museum and debated whether or not we should stay in town for a couple of pints. We eventually arrived at the conclusion that it would be best if we made our return to Canterbury. As it turned out, The Student was in dire straits with finances: While the rest of us went with a bank that had a logical approach to international transactions (namely, settling everything electronically and in the matter of a few days), The Student’s bank decided that depositing money would be best done if an institution took a month to clear a check.
“I admit,” said The Student, when we were all on the train, “I should have gone with a bank that wasn’t named You’re A Schmuck If You Bank With Us, but I thought they were being ironic.”
And so, we made our way back to Charing Cross and boarded the next train back to Canterbury (this time, without making any puns).

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