Iwent to see the King Tut exhibit, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until Nov. 15, then traveling to museums in Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and Philadelphia through 2007. Like all such huge and hyped exhibits, this involved as much standing in line and jostling for a view as examining the antiquities on display. Still, there’s always some object that stops you cold at these things, and for me it was the staff whose crook was a human figure bent gracefully backward, like an acrobat or gymnast.
Except, on closer examination, it wasn’t. The figure was actually a Nubian captive, bent backward and upside down, to illustrate that the Nubians were slaves of Egypt. And just in case anyone needed reminding who were the masters and who were the slaves in this society, King Tut (so the display card informed us) was in the habit of wearing sandals with pictures of Nubians (and Libyans and “Asiatics”) on the soles. So that every time he took a step, he further ground Egypt’s conquered peoples into the dirt.
I always feel faintly queasy looking at art from ancient pagan civilizations, because the tacit theme of unquestioned entitlement is so pervasive. The message of these artifacts, basically, is: Of course we rich and powerful have the right to make the poor and weak work endlessly on statues and sarcophagi that will display our wonderfulness for all eternity. And of course we have a right to enslave those people we manage to enslave. (Why American blacks sometimes want to claim kinship with the Ancient Egyptians, by the way, whose ancestors so brutally oppressed their ancestors, is beyond me.)
Since the Egyptians were a death cult, much attention was given to statues that would benefit the deceased from even small annoyances in the afterlife. “You who come to pull my hair,” announces a small replica of its elaborately coiffed owner in the King Tut exhibit, “I do not allow you to pull my hair.” I see echoes of this pagan attitude now in the Islamofascists, with their concern about the 72 virgins each “martyr” gets in Paradise. And the way they march around carrying pictures of their heroes on placards seems strangely idolatrous, considering the lip service they pay to strict “There is no God but God” monotheism.
Another striking thing about the King Tut exhibit is it puts all those thou-shalt-not warnings of the Old Testament, which often seem so grim and wet-blankety, in context. You can’t covet, or worship false idols, or glorify dead bodies, or rape an attractive woman you happen upon even if you’re the king–because if you do, you’ll be just like the Egyptians. And you know how they are.
I got the same feeling watching Rome, HBO’s engrossing new series that brings all those copulating figures from ancient museum urns to lurid, full-frontal life. Some of the explicitness may seem unfortunate, because you probably don’t want your children below high-school age watching a naked Polly Walker (as Caesar’s scheming niece Atia) fornicating with horse traders or dousing herself with bull’s blood in a hideous ritual of animal sacrifice–even if it probably would make them pay more attention to ancient history in school.
But I wouldn’t say these scenes are gratuitous. As Rome’s historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp, said at the HBO press conference, the production deliberately included details that are “shocking, arresting, surprising–that remind you what a strange and alien world the Roman world was, but also really happened. We’ve gone to enormous lengths to make those kind of details authentic.”
And they do seem so, if you’re at all familiar with pagan customs. One that sticks in the mind is a bored legion of soldiers waiting while one of them finishes up having sex with a girl by the side of the road. Is it a rape or just a venal exchange? You can’t really tell, because the girl seems less traumatized than annoyed. But again, it reminds you that maybe all those thou-shalt-nots in the Bible were reactionary for a reason.
Speaking of venal exchanges, remember Hugh Hefner’s last set of multiple girlfriends? Handie, Mandie, Brandie, Randie, and Post-Priandie, I think they were called. They’ve been replaced by a new shift of just three: Holly, Bridget and Kendra, and the whole set-up seems as pagan as anything in imperial Rome or King Tut’s world. Hef’s ancient carcass is preserved here not by mummification but by what appear to be discreet and reasonably effective plastic surgery nips and tucks. Still, he’s older than his three current girlfriends put together, and although he looks pretty good, his voice is distinctly elderly.
All this is on display in the new E! reality series The Girls Next Door, which, as the E! press release informs us, is about the girls’ “playful adventures…from planning naughty birthday parties to entertaining prospective Playmates… It’s not all red carpets, limo rides and celebrity partying; the girls live by Hef’s rules, which include a strict curfew to be home by sundown, unless he’s with them, of course!”
That “strict curfew” gave me pause. Because doesn’t it sound just like living with your dad? Or grandpa, actually. A kind of crotchety, homebodyish grandpa who takes a lot of Viagra and wants to have sex with you while digesting his Early Bird Special. Especially since, as Hef put it, “the girls are on an allowance.”
So I raised my hand at the E! press conference…
“Isn’t that kind of like living with your dad, that you have to sleep with?” I asked.
“My curfew wasn’t that early, actually,” said Holly. “But we go out on the town so often, that the nights we do decide to stay in, it’s not an issue for me to be home at nine [turns out their curfew is actually later than “sundown”], because I do want to be lazy and hang around the house and watch a movie.”
“What if you want to see a guy your own age or something?” I said.
“Well, Hef’s my boyfriend!” said Holly, sounding rather indignant. “I don’t want to see a guy my own age!
Sure she doesn’t. “What about the other two?” I persisted.
“Funny questions!” responded Hef good-naturedly.
Then Holly, who’s the head girlfriend and really hopes the other two will go away at some point (or says she does), burst into “Something Wonderful,” the No. 1 Wife’s torch song from The King and I:
He has a thousand dreams
That won’t come true,
You know that he believes in them
And that’s enough for you.
Not really. But wouldn’t it have been great if she had?
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.