Louis Greenberg

is a writer, editor and familyman. He writes fiction under his own name and as S.L. Grey, co-writing with Sarah Lotz. He has a keen but purely amateur interest in art, food, music, photography and travel. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with his family and dogs.

 


Find out more about Louis here.

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“A Mummy in a Modern City”

Presentation to Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture conference, University College London, 1–3 November 2013

Good afternoon. I’m Louis Greenberg, much more a fiction writer than an academic, and I’ll be reading an extract from my short story, “Akhenaten Goes to Paris” then chatting briefly about the ideas behind it.

Book of the Dead coverThe story appears in The Book of the Dead, which was published by Jurassic London and launched the other night. It’s apparently the first-ever anthology of original mummy stories and is written by a great selection of current talent, so you should get hold of a copy.

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“Akhenaten Goes to Paris”

Uncle Menny assured me that there wouldn’t be a problem getting onto the plane. ‘Just smile and act normal and they’ll wave you through,’ he said. I don’t think Uncle Menny’s travelled for a long time.
        I stood in the queue, shifting my eyes to the reflective steel on the escalators, and I thought I might make it. My djelaba covered most of my body and, as far as I could see, I looked like several other of the men lining up to board. The sight of the guards bristling with bored rage and weaponry dotted along the queue, spot-checking passports and scrutinising faces, was enough to raise a sweat and tingle the nerves of anyone with a beating heart. For my part, I concentrated on not flaking too much.
        As they made a show of examining the other passengers, I shifted my weight from foot to foot, easing my muscles gently. It’s not good for me to stand too still in one place without sufficient strapping. I was wearing one of the elasticised cotton body-stockings Tadu’s maids had prepared for me; they make travelling a lot easier, but they’re not as supportive as full funereal binding. I took a small sip of honey infusion to keep my vocal cords moist in case I needed to talk, but not enough to get my insides too dank.
        You might think I’d be used to waiting. You’d think, since I’m over three thousand years old, that forty-five minutes in a boarding queue would be as the blink of an eye. No. You reach a saturation point. I was speaking to Kiya about this the other day. She said she thinks humans have a finite amount of patience, a certain number of hours that they can put their lives on hold for the whims of others. I agreed. So many of you entirely lose your patience well before your allotted eighty-odd years, so you can imagine what it’s like for us. Or maybe you can’t. Anyhow. It’s of no consequence.
        By the time I got to the head of the queue, I had passed two spot checks. I was already looking forward to sitting back and pressing my face to the window, watching the land and the delta reel away from us. There was only the final guard remaining, one with unnaturally pale eyes and a moustache in a style that has never, to my knowledge, been fashionable. His glare was enough to send a tic through my thigh muscle.
        I’d gone through this. I’d prepared. I thought I looked fine. I had on a wig of natural hair and had slathered my face with bees’ wax to make it look less … dead.
        ‘Passport,’ the man said.
        I fished inside the robe and, allowing only my gloved fingertips to protrude from the sleeve, handed the booklet to the guard, praying that the scribes had forged the appropriate document.
        The man looked at the picture, then up at me, several times.
        I should have held my nerve – well, my sinew – but just as the man was about to hand back my passport and wave me through, Uncle Menny’s words ran through my head: Smile and act normal.
        It was the smile that did it.
        I parted my lips and hoped the man wouldn’t hear the crackling, but as I did, the honey infusion chose just that moment to equalise itself with a bubble of gas from my interior.
        The guard jerked his head away as if struck. He covered his face with his hands and staggered backwards. Eyes watering, he crossed to his colleague, fanning his face and histrionically clutching at his throat, darting me looks of revulsion. I knew I had spoiled my chances of boarding, but I couldn’t just turn and leave, knowing that in this climate I might be shot in the back if I tried. I had to wait through the humiliation of being formally interrogated and rejected before I could simply return to the terminal and call for a lift home.
        To cut a long story short, I had to be shipped to Paris in a crate.

And you’ll have to read what he does there in the book.

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So …

I promised to discuss why I took my fictional mummy into Paris, bringing the ancient, marginalised monster into the thick of contemporary Western society and imagining some aspects of the culture, both strange and familiar, he’d encounter there.

I have handled all these ideas much more thoroughly in formal work that you can link to from my website. I’ve written essays on sex and gender in modern vampire fiction and on apocalypse and post-religion in some books by Douglas Coupland.

Let’s start with some wisdom from Julia Kristeva:

On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its socio-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border […] where identities […] do not exist or only barely so – double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

For me, this sums up the functions of any fictional monster. Literary monsters are a way of processing our fears of liminality and the uncanny.

Johannesburg aerial shot

As you’ve been hearing at this conference and as you can see in The Book of the Dead and any number of mummy movies and books, the themes the mummy figure evokes are extremely wide-ranging and could fill a library. So I’ll focus on some of the more personal interests I drew on while writing “Akhenaten Goes to Paris”.

Constitutional Court Johannesburg

I was born and raised and still live in Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and dozens of unofficial and foreign and migrant languages. In this regard, the city is a lot like London or Paris.

Johannesburg also suffers its fair share of hatred, fear and xenophobia. In 2010, around the time of a particularly malicious spate of xenophobic violence, I compiled a collection of short stories called Home Away. Twenty-four writers chose one hour each in a single global day and told stories about being South African in the world... The writers were a mix of expats and immigrants, born locally or far away. I wanted to confuse and dissolve the neat categories we put ourselves in.

Why Paris?

Paris aerial

I think people often forget – in their romanticised imaginations – that Egyptians – and Egyptian mummies – are African, and they would suffer the same post-colonial stresses as foreigners in South Africa and Africans in Europe. I could have sent Akhenaten to London just as easily, I suppose – or any first-world city where a great conglomeration of people battle for space and resources – but France’s recent banning of religious headgear seemed to present the best possible dramatic conflict for my proto-Muslim mummy.

More than this, though, Paris is the ideal mirror for ancient Egypt – its monumentalist architectural swathes – wide avenues, arches and monoliths, its proud insularity would have been very familiar to this pharaoh.

But most of all, I set the story in Paris because I love the city. It’s as welcoming and beautiful and inspiring as it is complicated.

Meat dress

The Monstrous Body

In a lot of my work I’ve been interested in body politics. There is an intriguing overlap between the presentation of women’s bodies and monsters’ bodies in fiction. And there are some fascinating literary theories around the body and the deployment of sexuality that combine psychology, politics and cultural studies.

The “Queer”, as described by Sue-Ellen Case, is “the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny”. The queer figure exists in the space between polarities, in an indefinable limbo state. The mummy is a queer figure – both living and dead – whose existence challenges the polarities on which rational – hegemonic, dominant – constructions of order rest. To protect our sense of order, we define anything or anyone that challenges our sense of moral stability as monster, then shun it and try to make it invisible.

Jonathan Dollimore uses the term “proximate” for this uncanny figure. The “proximate” is the figure which cannot be classified into polarities and places itself in the dangerous indefinable area between them, and threatens to show up the false simplicity of the binary oppositions on which dominant discourses base themselves. Queers, mummies and troublesome women are all proximate figures.

Simply put, we define monsters so that we are able to quarantine them safely, keep their threat away from our certainty. But the problem is that monsters keep coming back. What we repress and find uncanny keeps returning. More than this, they show us how their monstrosity is intimately part of our order.

Stories of mummies and vampires and zombies are most terrifying when we are made to see that the monsters are ourselves, and that we cannot escape our own abjection.

Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection shows in psychoanalytical terms how we are constantly haunted by a fear that the horrifying things we have repressed – in the process of being socialised – will come back and shatter our certainty and stability.

This is precisely what happens when a mummy emerges from the crypt. It reminds us of all those pre-Oedipal, infantile urges we quashed. The emerging mummy shows us just what it looks like when our socialisation collapses and these id-driven urges return. This is a fundamental function of horror fiction – it allows us to face the return of the abject in a safe, controlled space.

God is dead

A final regular interest of mine is religion, particularly how religion changes after the notion of God is dead. I’ve studied the psychological and social functions of religion once the trappings of power have been stripped away. If we lose religion we are left with unmet psychological and social needs. We have to find something else to meet our needs for a meaningful sense of community and transcendence of our individuality.

Julia Kristeva seems to agree. In Powers of Horror she suggests that

literature is [abjection’s] privileged signifier […] far from being a minor, marginal activity in our culture, as a general consensus seems to have it [… literature] represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and serious apocalypses […] Hence […] its being seen as taking the place of the sacred. [… The fiction writer] is an undoer of narcissism and of all imaginary identity as well.

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

I think that fiction has taken the place of religion in serving our social and cathartic needs, and in keeping our horror at bay. The novel rises in societies as traditional religion falls. When we read stories, we don’t want certainties applied sternly from above; we want conflict and complexity and discovery and amazement. And this is why mummies make such good fiction.

But when writing fiction, you need to put the philosophical ideas behind a story far in the background. The story still has to be engaging, concrete, human. Sending my mummy to Paris, and eventually making him shuffle along the most fashionable, body-conscious boulevards, allowed me to play with ideas of the monstrous body, xenophobia and belief, in a light, human way.

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Now – I was planning to tell you what research I did for the story. I did study undergraduate archaeology and went to Paris to scout for locations, but I was still very worried that our hosts from the Egypt Exploration Society would find it riddled with historical holes and inaccuracies. So I undertook exhaustive studies to fill in the blanks of the story …

Oh, hang on. How did those get in here?

Remember: Wikipedia is not a legitimate source for academic essays.

Let me leave you with words of solace from one of our esteemed hosts:

Mummy fiction, whether literary or cinematic, has a long and dishonourable tradition of getting certain of its facts wrong; it’s part of the fun and facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale.

John J. Johnston, Vice-chair of the Egypt Exploration Society