Top Hat

 

The French scholar and his servant are inside the temple. It is a good day for work, perhaps the scholar's first day of sketching in the ruins he has travelled months to see.

The servant has found a sun-lit corner in the cool interior, just right to sit in and stay warm. He is placed here to show that the past has little interest for him in comparison with the pleasures of tobacco, sunlight, and what might be in the container at his feet---wine? Behind him is his gun---to protect them both from bandits?

His scholar companion is dressed very oddly. From the waist down he seems to have gone native; up above his clothes are those of a "civilized" and educated Frenchman dressed in the latest turn-of-the-century style: note the cravat. A sinuous oriental curass stands to his side. He's gone native enough to sport such props but retains enough power to be confident that his body servant will use the real weapon if any trouble shows up.

As the Frenchman sketches, he has propped up his foot in a classic pose. (Compare this pose with that of the angel of history in Poussin's Biblia Sacra frontispiece, or Poussin's Michael with the angel amidst Greek ruins.) But this man is a hired scholar, a modern angel of history at the service of Napoleon.

Imposing but fragmented figures loom to his left, ghost-like, part of frieze carved in the wall. A man with his arms crossed like Osiris, god of the dead, is in the center, with a woman to his left interlinking one arm with his. To his right may be another worman, but it's hard to tell because the figure is so shrouded. She also links an arm with him, perhaps to lead him down to the world of the dead.

Our scholar ignores them all, though, and stares straight ahead, copying the carvings on a wall we can't see, a wall mostly in shadow, one darkened page in the great book of the ruin that is ancient Egypt.

At the feet of the carved dead man the scholar has propped a shiny black and immaculately fashionable top hat.

Only another, invisible artist sketches this man's sketching, takes for his subject the top hat next to the feet of the dead, the mixed clothes and weapons, the sunlight on the wall and the pleasure of a good smoke.

This mix of images is a hieroglyph too, but who will be its Champollion?

 

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