Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

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Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

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A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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Graveyards have humor, too. From Père Lachaise, Paris

As Laurie Gries notes on Moche burial sites, these tombs act as “rhetorical genres” with the living not only seeming to construct the sites with care, but also engaging with them after laying in the dead. Furthermore, as she notes, these sites may have stabilized the culture amid crisis or transfer lessons to the ruling class. The dead weren’t simply put there and forgotten. In some ways, they continued to speak. And furthermore, I’m impressed by Gries’ careful methodology, focused around “listening” to these artifacts and “letting them speak,” slowing down interpretation in favor of description. In this way, the rhetorical impact, circulating past time, can still reach a modern audience, though it may be felt in vastly different ways.

Similarly, as Carol Lipson describes Egyptian tombs as “more than a burial place.” As she notes, “Many studies in Egyptology present the tomb as a home for the dead, a house for the afterlife that includes all the things both valuable and necessary in this world-from jewelry and cosmetics to furniture and food” (95). They act as sites of “transference” between the world of the living and the dead, and as she shows with the “autobiographies” that depict the life of the buried, they act as sites of remembrance and identity maintenance. Much like the Islamic tombs in the “City of the Dead” I visited, many tombs in Ancient Egypt also invited the living to come and interact, praying for or offering to the dead. I remember being in one of these tombs, overwhelmed by the writing and iconography sprawled through the architecture. The moment, the structure, the visuals–everything–entwined the experience.

And as Swearingen’s work with women and lamentation and Loraux’s reflection on funeral orations shows, too, the role of ritual in the burying or mourning, traditions with their own profound politics and symbolism.

More generally, then, I’m reminded of two things. First, as Kenneth Burke famously wrote, “Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew: the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.” And while Burke tends toward the conceptual role of symbol, though not always, symbol itself can be a profoundly irrational, affective, and non-conceptual thing. Here, I’m thinking of some Zen prayers that have deliberately nonsense words; the feeling is the purpose of saying them, not the “meaning.” Or, on the the converse, concepts can influence the materiality or affective feeling of ritual, like how many monuments wield light and sound with profound sensitivity.

Second, I’m reminded the “living after” that these monuments provide. Immauel Lévinas, in particular, focuses on how one learns about death by experiencing the death of others and argues that the ultimate goal in life, beyond acting as a healer or doctor in it, is to persist as a healer beyond death, like through a trust fund or sage inheritance. I can’t help but also see how this “living beyond death” fits into public monuments and public memory, in relics, or in the rhetoric of some writers, particularly Shakespeare’s sonnets or the Epic of Gilgamesh. And, particularly in public space, monuments and artifacts–sites of ritual–can remain rhetorical, even as that engagement changes. I don’t experience the same “rhetorics” of the Bent Pyramid as its builders, but I experience something. And, as I also experienced through the Egyptian Revolution, older monuments can get re-purposed or altered by present exigencies.

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One of the many monuments to The Holocaust and collective tragedy, Paris

But a tragic paradox persists in this means or preservation–or rhetorical resurrection. Walter Ong points to it with his thinking on writing: “the written text, for all its permanence, means nothing, is not even a text, except in relationship to the spoken word. For a text to be intelligible, to deliver its message, it must be reconverted into sound, directly or indirectly, either really in the external world or in the auditory imagination” (“Writing Restructures Thought” 31). In a similar way, a monument or symbol–a ritual or public memory–“means nothing” without an audience recognizing or reading it. Gries points to this as well regarding artifacts “buried beneath the sand,” and Heidegger discusses this in regards to the “preservers” to a piece of art.

Much like Stonehenge or the mysterious monuments of Dartmoor, our engagement with these artifacts orphaned of readability remains speculative. Or perhaps even more importantly, if our collective memory remains too shallow or too clouded with denial–or if we grow too drunk on our conceptions of “progress” and the “innocence” or “maturity” it supposedly brings–we may forget the not-so-ancient blunders and horrors that these public symbols stir up, often as our own haunted frames stare and feel.

[Images by author]

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2 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

  1. A few years ago, as a lecturer for a group of people touring Egyptian antiquities, I had the amazing experience of sitting in the king’s chamber of Khufu’s pyramid, with all the lights and ventilation turned off, courtesy of the obliging caretakers. I can only describe the experience, pitch black and silent as, well, a tomb, as all the thousands of tons of rock overhead simply — disappearing. I thought I finally understood the cosmic connection between the pyramids and the stars. Was it an illusion? Of course. That didn’t diminish the experience one whit. It was probably the closest I could come to a fellow-feeling for the ancient Egyptians.

    1. That sounds like an amazing experience, Mikels! I remember going into a pyramid, and the feeling was impressive. I can’t imagine it with that level of darkness and silence, though. I love those experiences, which might trigger some sort of profound subjective experience that may be illusory but is still powerful.

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