Sunday, June 21, 2020

Naguib Mahfouz and the truths of the Novel

Akhenaten, an Egyptian pharaoh, also called the 'Sun King' or the 'heretic', ruled briefly in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Akhenaten's peculiar appearance, as if part man and part woman, his inscrutable ways, and the wrenching changes he ushered into the life of his kingdom – shortly after coming to the throne, he overthrew Egypt's traditional polytheism and decreed the worship of a single god, the sun god Aten – brought him a notoriety that secured his place in history, where he still floats untethered to a line of interpretation, a ghostly figure now perennially shrouded in ambiguity. 

Akhenaten's story nevertheless carries a certain resonance for all who hear it, because it serves as an archetype of a conflict that is one of the threads running through the history of civilization: the conflict between religion and freedom. It is a story remote in time that links the present to our past. Further, "truth" is one of the keywords of human language and consciousness and is at the centre of every human quest; a narrator who in the very title of his story declares that his protagonist is a "dweller in truth" suggests to us that, whether he is being ironic or sincere, there will be much to learn in the story about what truth is and how we may arrive at it (or the impossibility of ever achieving it). The legend of Akhenaten is explored, and indeed enriched (because presented in a way that brings into being before our very eyes the mystery that was Akhenaten, and also given a thematic direction, a focus on one or two repeated words that is one of the ways in which novels are most truly novelistic), by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his slender, glancing novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.

Mahfouz's story is narrated from a vantage point relatively close in time to Akhenaten, through the eyes of a character who grew up in Akhenaten's Egypt, Meriamun, who becomes a second protagonist. We are not told Meriamun's exact age, but his thoughts and his language suggest he is in his early twenties, somewhat unformed, and hungry for experience. On a journey down the Nile with his father, himself a venerable man with 'a passion for knowledge and for recording the truth', Meriamun espies on the river a gloomy and deserted city which he learns is Akhetaten, the dead pharaoh's capital, where his wife and consort Nefertiti still lives in isolation. "It all began with a glance, a glance that grew into desire, as the ship pushed its way through the calm, strong current at the end of the flood season." 

Meriamun's father calls Akhenaten 'the heretic,' but Meriamun is struck by the pharaoh's story, and senses a suffocating narrowness in the verdict that history has passed upon him. He quotes to his father a saying by Qaqimna, a sage they both respect: "Pass no judgment upon a matter until you have heard all testimonies." Many of Akhenaten's friends, family members, and followers are still alive, and Meriamun's father is an influential man and can get them to open their doors to him. With his father's approval ("Your forefathers sought war, politics, or trade, but you, Meriamun, you seek the truth instead"), Meriamun sets out to meet all those who knew Akhenaten, and, as Qaqimna instructed, hear all testimonies.

Akhenaten is dead; each person that Meriamun meets tells him about the Akhenaten they knew. A basic framework of facts is established. Akhenaten's mother, Tiye, came from a commoner's family. Having married the pharaoh Amenhotep III, she then exerted great influence over the royal household. Akhenaten's name at birth was Amenhotep, like his father; it was only later, whe he came to the throne, that he changed it to Akhenaten. He was frail and feeble from birth, but when he and his healthier brother, Tuthmosis, contracted the same illness, it was Tuthmosis who succumbed to it and Akhenaten who survived. While he was growing up Akhenaten, although the heir-in-waiting, showed no interest in matters of government. Rather, his interest lay in spiritual matters: Ay, his tutor in his youth, recalls that it seemed to him that he was born 'with some otherworldly wisdom.' Before Akhenaten came to the throne Queen Tiye had already declared her veneration of Aten, the Sun God, in preference to Amun, the master of all the deities in Egypt. As he grew mature, Akhenaten too began to believe in the preeminence of Aten. One morning, while watching the sun rise, he had a religious vision that affected him profoundly, and became convinced that the truth had been revealed to him – the truth that there was only one God, Aten. He resolved thereafter only to 'dwell in truth,' and walk the path of love and non-violence, and though the pharaoh tried his best to draw him away from these beliefs, he remained stubborn.

One of Ay's two daughters, Nefertiti, was drawn to the prince and his beliefs, and they fell in love and were married. When the pharaoh passed away suddenly, his son came to the throne, upon which he changed his name to Akhenaten, and immediately set about purging Egypt of its plural religious traditions by decree, declaring that there was only one god, Aten. He toured his empire preaching the new religion and proclaiming the message of love, and set up a new capital, Akhetaten, where he lived with Nefertiti and his closest followers and gave himself over to devotion. But there remained a disenchanted faction in the country, followers of the old beliefs and the old order. At the same time the country's enemies pressed in at its borders, sensing an opportunity to invade it. But Akhenaten refused to send an army to the country's borders, saying he would confront the intruders himself with his message of peace. Finally Akhenaten's chief of security, Haremhab, rebelled and declared his allegiance to a new pharaoh, Akhenaten's half-brother,Tutankhamun. Akhentaten was deposed and put under house arrest, his capital was emptied of his followers, and the country successfully defended by the new regime. Egypt returned to its old traditions, and Akhenaten passed away soon after. The official reason for his death, a sudden illness, was contested by his wife, who continued to reside in the deserted capital, and his followers. The aberrant monotheistic religion dedicated to the sun god Aten died a swift death after the pharaoh's passing away, and Akhenaten became established as a heretic in public memory.

These are the facts: now what is the truth? As Meriamun covers the territory of Akhenaten's life over and over again with the people he meets, he encounters a swarm of different narratives of Akhenaten's life, each with its own particular emphasis: psychological explanations of his behaviour, speculations that he was a puppet in the hands of his mother or his wife, providential readings of history, accounts in which he seems remote and otherworldly contrasting with those in which he seems all too human, assertions that he was foolishly or tragically deluded milling with those that he was in possession of a higher truth and hence a martyr.

Although the characters, who between them comprised the milieu in which Akhenaten walked, variously express anger, love, warmth, sadness, or bitterness, few, if any, speak complacently, as if confident of possession of the whole truth: they are aware that what they express is an account of a relationship, not a one-way stream of knowledge about the life of a man. The novel suggests that when we seek to establish something definite about human beings, we must resign ourselves to approaching only the threshold of truth, and not totally comprehending it: firstly, because we ourselves are implicated in the search, and bring to it either beliefs or perspectives that are our own and that we cannot quite lay by, and secondly because, even if we have had an opportunity to know the person closely or even intimately, and feel confident of a wide understanding and therefore a kind of objectivity, there is nevertheless still something about that person that we do not know about or is hidden from us – several people make some individual observation about Akhenaten that we could consider of importance, but that others close to him seem not to know.

Nevertheless, the novel is not pessimistic about our desire to know the truth, our belief that we can ascend to the truth through effort. It does not regard Meriamun's 'desire to know the truth' cynically, but rather shows him arriving a more complex conception of it. In fact, something of what Meriamun will eventually understand is hinted at early in the novel in his words to his father asking for letters of introduction to all those who knew Akhenaten and have something of importance to say about him: "Then I could see the many facets of truth before it perishes like this city." Truth here is not seen as something easily achieved or formulated; it has many facets, each of which must be discovered, after which it may not be further reducible. Also, it is significant that Meriamun speaks of the many facets of truth before 'it perishes' and not 'they perish': it is as if when even one facet of the truth is lost then the truth itself stands imperilled. Meriamun wants to take advantage of his historical proximity to the dead pharaoh to grasp the many faces of the truth before they begin to ebb away one by one, leaving behind a thinner, a more famished 'truth' – for instance, the current understanding of Akhenaten as a heretic.

But it is not Meriamun only, in this novel, who is preoccupied with the idea of the truth. For that word was also the most important word in the whole world for Akhenaten, who believed he was a ‘dweller in truth.'  The novel achieves its charge through the interplay and contrast of these two conceptions of truth, which we might call the truth of reason and the truth of religion or faith, a truth that prizes skepticism and one that resides in belief. We note the differing ways in which the two protagonists speak of the subject: Meriamun is a seeker of truth; Akhenaten, a dweller in truth. And through this contrast Mahfouz thrusts us onto rocky ground: is it possible to make some judgment of the truth about Akhenaten without first making a judgment of Akhenaten's 'truth' – the vision that came to him and which he codified into a religious system and propagated as the only true way of knowing God? From what standpoint can one make such a judgment?

The novel form, which is itself a product of the waning of religious belief in the world, has sometimes found this judgment easy; it is a form skeptical of absolutes, and for believers religion is an absolute. But the great beauty of Mahfouz's novel is that it allows us to enter and inhabit not just the universe of Meriamun's worldly truth but also that of Akhenaten's otherworldly truth. For Akhenaten's opponents his religion was a sham religion, the result of his hallucinations or else a piece of deliberate trickery; Toto, the chief epistoler in Akhenaten's chamber, thinks it 'the shrewdness of a man humiliated by his own weakness.' But these judgments are destabilised by the tutor Ay, who noticed the young Akhenaten's religious bent; by his wife Nefertiti, who confesses she was drawn to his beliefs 'as a butterfly is drawn to light,' and by the pharaoh's aged physician Bento, who was skeptical of his vision at first but then became a believer, and helped set up his capital at Akhenaten. Akhenaten's followers convincingly describe the ecstasy, the paradoxical wholeness of being that arrives from surrendering before the divine that, if at all we admit of the authority of religion, we know as being one of the authentic experiences of faith. "Every morning I compared what I heard in the temple of the One God to the liturgy of the old gods," recounts Bento. "I became certain beyond doubt that a stream of divine light was filling us with pure happiness. [...] Today, Akhenaten is known only as 'the heretic.' But despite all that was said about him, my heart still fills with love at the mention of his name. What a life he created for himself! Did he really devote his life to love?"

There is a polyphony, then, in Mahfouz's novel similar to the one we find in The Brothers Karamazov. Difficult matters are not resolved but addressed so compellingly from different angles as to give us a true sense of their difficulty. (It could be said that the novel's striking last paragraph is indeed a kind of resolution, but it is a private one, not to be generally applied.) Since no final judgment is passed on Akhenaten from the evidence Meriamun has compiled, one attitude towards Mahfouz's novel might be that Mahfouz has left it to us to make a judgment about Akhenaten. But this is to flatter ourselves. The novel is complete without the reader – complete with respect to the complexity and elusiveness of its subject, and also complete in the manner in which it is all-seeing, in the way in which it manages a omniscient, magisterial presence through nothing more than juxtapositions: of narrator and subject, and of different testimonies. Mahfouz’s narrative method reminds us of “the calm, strong current” with which the book began; he does not press a reductive idea of the truth upon us, and in doing so reveals the truths that only novels can show us.

A lovely essay by Peter Hessler on Akhenaten is here on National Geographic. Mahfouz's Nobel lecture is here ("One day the great Pyramid will disappear too. But Truth and Justice will remain for as long as Mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience.").