This is a trippy little book. A biographical note in the back describes Macé’s writings as “unclassifiable texts that cross the lines between poem, essay, dream, biography, literary criticism, anthropology, and history.” This is as good a list of summary descriptors for this book that’s to be found; Macé covers all these areas. It's a unique object of curiosity.
The subject of the book, Jean-François Champollion, is described by Wikipedia as “a French classical scholar, philologist and orientalist, decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.” Macé offers a reading of Champollion’s life, focusing on what he views with fascination as a pivotal awakening point: while recovering from a bad case of gout, someone read out loud to Champollion the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, particularly The Last of the Mohicans. Macé teases out the tantalizing possibilities of how this affects the scholar’s work, mixing Champollion’s knowledge of Egyptian lore with his fascination with Cooper’s novels.
Evenson’s translation is sharply crisp, retaining the wryly distanced stance of Macé’s prose, which performs a delicate balancing act. A scholarly tone is maintained throughout. Elements of Champollion’s biography and his research interests, including the essential role his older brother played in determining the course of his life, are amply covered, yet without ever quite explicitly revealing anything specific in too blunt a fashion. The result is an enjoyable air of intrigue and excitement of what might be coming. At heart, this remains a historical mystery where much of the basis of any conclusive statement lies in pure speculation. Despite Macé’s authoritative declarations, he is very much going on nerve alone. And it’s a fascinating weaving together of Champollion’s work with hieroglyphics and his enthusiasm for Cooper’s tales. The forest full of possible dangers mirrored his absorption in the land of the Pharaohs:
Champollion too dreamed of a world in which names would not lie. Where habit and deafness wouldn’t make masks or dead flesh of them. It is thus that he again gave life to the biblical and gilt name of Pharaoh, belated and deceptive, and if he sounded the names of Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Ramses, and so many others, it was in the way one listens to an instrument whose soul is as light as those of the dead. He unwound the papyrus as one removes bandages from language, and under the starry vault of the tombs, on their walls covered in signs, he looked less for the mummified bodies of the kings and queens than for the presence of things embalmed in writing.
The French approach Native Americans through a quasi-Romanticism based on their own historical relationship. Macé’s drawing out of the correspondence between the “Indian” characters of Cooper’s Romantic tales and Champollion’s work with hieroglyphics finds a partial corollary in Jean-Luc Godard’s paralleling of Palestinians/Native Americans in scenes from his film Notre Musique. While not as pointedly political as Godard’s film, Macé is nevertheless dwelling in depths of melancholic hue. He describes a visit by a few of the last remaining members of the Osage tribe to the Louvre—a visit Champollion witnessed first-hand. One of the women, Mihanga, who is pregnant, lifts her voice in song: she “cradles her sadness by singing to herself, but at the same time that she appeases her likely nostalgia she is perhaps looking to ward off bad luck.” She’s destined to return alone with her new child to what was once her own country, all other original members of her party having passed away during their “tour.”
While Macé’s acknowledged interest in Champollion’s inherent genius is deeply engaging, there is also no end of lament to be found here for inexcusable realities of human nature. Grief lies in back of Macé’s interrogation of his subject. It’s at once universal, intimate, and quite mysterious. The reader learns a great deal about Champollion; yet he remains no less an abandoned relic, similar to those he studied, of his culture as much as of history itself. Rather than present a clear argument, Macé dangles enticing facts from out of the record and, in the end, slips away without any final condemnation or praise. It’s as if he’s inflicted a beautiful hurt which lasts without leaving any recognizable mark: that place of emotion where words fail us even as they remain our solitary companions. Knowledge which brings a gain that will always remain a loss.