Monday, February 7, 2011

The Weight of Empire

Gray, gray days. The Flaming Redhead has started her tenure at SOAS, the School for Oriental and African Studies, not far from Russell Square. This is how our life goes. I follow in her academic footpaths and then take my own detours, fill my days with my own curiosities or negotiations. I walk with her to the student teeming inner courtyard of the University, students from all over the world, buzzing with their ideas, their languages, their sense of what must be talked about--I watch her disappear into the old building, myself an old teacher, but one who never reached such heights, myself always and still loving the swirling courage of young people to think in questions, refusals while their body styles announce their love of new territories. I leave my love in young hands and cane in hand and my constant companion Mousey--another story--tucked away in my Australian student bag, face my first day alone on London streets. I tick tick my way past the Square, having decided to pay a visit to the British Museum, a place I have never visited before. Being able to walk there is a great plus for me. I am building up to mounting the other Red ones.

I just follow the old iron rails and around a corner, there she sits, set far back from the footpath, a huge monument to imperial culture or plunder, which is another way to see it. Across from the Scottish shop where pink tartans wink from the windows, and a little street filled with places selling bottled water and postcards, the massive classical edifice announces its hold on other's histories with traditional stone certainty. Again, many people speaking many languages join me as I walk under the banners announcing the Afghanistan Exhibit: Crossroads of the World and right behind it, the more adventuresome of us can take in the "The Egyptian Book of the Dead" exhibit but at an extra cost. I wonder at how prophetic these displays of captured or seduced goods are--one country we--America and Britain for now--are raining bombs down on whatever treasures may be left--as simple as children in a village and the other, where we may extol their imaginative journeys in the after world, while in this real one, we cannot decide which freedoms of life we should allow the Egyptians since we have for so many years, been very clear on which freedoms we will not. I wonder--what kind of exhibits would the old worlds put on of the artifacts of the new ones--here a banner, "The Treasures of War Machines" with carefully preserved tear gas canisters made quaintly in that Quaker territory called Pennsylvania. Enough, when one walks through the lovingly collected cultural bones of so often despised until death peoples, rant comes too easily to the lips.

I leave the fray day behind me, the simple measurements of the footpaths and cafes, and enter a monumental space much more like the great railroad terminals of the past. Modern structures within the old call for our attention but I make my way to one of the original reading and display halls, filled with the collecting imagination of the good Doctor who in 1753 turned over to the Crown his thousands of personally amassed artifacts, divided up into natural and artificial--oh how easy it was all back then--rich wooden cases display a child's slipper from China. Tell me Doctor, natural or artificial. Object after object, huge vases from the Greeks with intertwining swan necks making living garlands for the rim, Roman statues with their crumpled noses and gentle phallusses gaze down on the rest, book cases with treasured works on the history of old India and on and on. I join a tour group for a while until my legs ache too much and then I just sit and think. I too gathered, all my work for the Lesbian Herstory Archives when it was in my apartment, I understand the need to save artifacts but in our own name, in our own time, without armies or national philosophies of the right to cultural and political enslavement of the others. We came close, I have to say, with that regrettable slogan of the 70s, an army of lovers cannot fail.

Along the side of the reading room, there was a replica of the Rosetta Stone with the sign, please touch. And I did. The original is on level four--another day--but I felt wonder as my fingers moved over the inscribed shapes of language. How to see these collected moments of natural and unnatural culture without armies and banners, without ownership and robbery, with out invasion and death to the child who wore those slippers? Here in the vast library of the greed and heartless power of Empire, I listen for the sounds of those who lived in these objects, of those who fell in love with the young man with the crumpled nose, of those who gathered in squares for new freedoms and wrote their dreams on stone.

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