Gérard Macé - A beautifully rendered essay on the brief life of Jean-Francois Champollion, the man who unlocked the mysteries of hieroglyphics by deciphering the Rosetta Stone
Gérard Macé, The Last of the Egyptians. Trans. by Brian Evenson, Burning Deck, 2011.
“About Champollion I knew: that he did not go to Egypt with Napoleon, that he never saw the actual Rosetta stone, only more or less bad copies, that he suffered from gout and swollen feet like those of Oedipus, that he heard a lion’s roar in the name Cleopatra, and that he fainted in his brother’s presence when he had discovered the secret of the hieroglyphics.
“Then I learned that in the winter of 1827 he had the novels of Fenimore Cooper read to him, and in particular The Last of the Mohicans. I followed him on this novelistic path through a forest that he perhaps tried to decipher while getting interested in the manners and customs “of America’s savage nations.” I followed him to the Louvre where he had just set up the Egyptian galleries when he saw there Indians of the Osage tribe among the Greek statues and felt the sadness of the tropics in the slow cadences sung by a crouched woman.” —Gérard Macé
The Last of the Egyptians collects several variations in prose -- of a poetic-essayistic sort -- on Jean-François Champollion, famous for being to first to decipher the Rosetta Stone and figure out the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs. As the title suggests, Macé has Champollion closely identify with the works of James Fenimore Cooper; as he sees it, the Indians' ways of seeing helped inspire Champollion to decipher the written ancient Egyptian language:
In reading, signs are given, but in nature the difficulty starts with the noticing of the clues, and the Indian thus resembles the decipherer. One scrutinizes a footprint like one scrutinizes a written stone or a fragment of a tablet, with a lot of method and a little luck, passing the forest through a fine-toothed comb, raising each leaf and all branches like Hawkeye and the Mohicans
Macé's pieces are neither straightforward biography nor purely essayistic analysis; there's both poetry and invention to this prose as well. They are homages to Champollion, and readings of his life and work; they are also more generally readings, in considering language and decipherment.
The linguistic genius Champollion, who died at the relatively young age of forty-one, and his accomplishments are sufficiently interesting subjects that it's hard to imagine any account or discussion of them being boring. Macé's creative approach, while somewhat detached, offers an appealing and thoughtful overview of the man and what he did in a very limited space; if inadequate as an introduction, it nevertheless serves very well as further reading and interpretation, going beyond dry history and simple facts. A meditation (in variations) on reading and writing, too, The Last of the Egyptians is an unusual but quite appealing text. - M.A.Orthofer
Gérard Macé was born in Paris in 1946. He writes unclassifiable texts that cross the lines between poem, essay, dream, biography, literary criticism, anthropology, and history. In addition to his many books he has also translated authors like Giorgio Agamben, Umberto Saba, and Thomas De Quincey and is building a photographic oeuvre. His honors include the Prix Femina-Vacaresco (1980), Prix France Culture for our present volume, Le Dernier des Égyptiens (1989), and the Académie française’s Grand Prix de Poésie for life achievement (2008).