A fanfare of strumpets for a magical mystery whore

December 20, 2002

Nigel Barley invites you to enter the Whore of Babylon Experience, a fictional museum tour. Patchouli squirts, orgasmic commentary and multiple virgins await, not to mention your fellow visitors - vivid Americans, querulous smart-asses and loutish youths. Are you ready?

The Victorian facade of the museum looked well in the winter light and the sun glinted alike on the gilded statues and the greasy bags of chips, dropped by drunks to explode like flowers on the cobbles. Pigeons picked through them, the more epicurean favouring those that had been swallowed, marinated in stomach ale and regurgitated. Above hung a large banner, classically lettered on a silky purple cloth. The letters had been sewn on in bright contrasting yellow, and their weight made the banner dip in two great swags like a pair of wetted drawers. It read: "The Whore of Babylon Experience". Professor Pombal stood in front of the visitors who had come for their gallery talk in the full curatorial authority of a charcoal-grey suit and half-moon glasses. They were dowdy women, undistinguished men, a couple of obviously dollar-laden black Americans in vivid colours. At the back, a loutish youth in a ponytail was industriously picking his nose and tapping one foot to the rhythm of his Walkman. At the front was one of the regular attendees of the museum's free lectures, the harmlessly mad woman from Sunbury-on-Thames who believed herself to be the reincarnation of Queen Nefertiti. But such leaden material had often come before Pombal. Without doubt it could be enflamed and transmuted, in the furnace of eloquence, into purest gold. The distant past would be brought forth, reanimated, made relevant. It was what was demanded in the age of flickering attention conditioned by the TV screen.

Pombal was no lover of mere sensationalism in titles. There had been that dreadful book by a colleague last year, Rubber, Bondage and Violence . On closer examination it had revealed itself to be a perfectly conventional study of trade unionism on the latex plantations of Malaya. Then there had been Women in Heat , a heart-warming study of colonial wives produced by the African section.

Pombal sighed and kicked off with the obligatory mission statement.

"Welcome to the Museum of Intercultural Personhood. In the past, museums were elitist constructs of social exclusion, to the world of material culture what banks are to the capitalist system. All that has changed. Art no longer serves a minority, just as everyone today has a bank account. Through your entry fees you are the new patrons of the arts. We now dedicate ourselves humbly to your personal consumer satisfaction. Our product today is the Whore of Babylon Experience."

The audience stared back sullenly, damp powder that would not fire. Pombal led them towards the mouth of an Assyrian gate showing bearded profiles engaged in some ill-defined activity involving chariots. As they approached, lights tripped by a pressure switch, glowed and swelled in the darkness.

"Assyria," murmured a honeyed female voice through concealed speakers, "is rightly termed the cradle of civilisation." They had argued long and hard about calling it "Iraq". The tone was breathy and heavy with saliva, a voice ripe for the gasping of orgasms. Research had shown that female audial input was perceived as less confrontational even by women. Pombal smiled indulgently at the audience. "A necessary simplification. 'Civilisation' is a manifestation of the will to measurement that constitutes an outmoded episteme, a purely western construct, a flawed attempt to arrange cultures according to a misconceived yardstick of relative value." Such simplifications, the tone implied, were not for them. They were big enough to take the truth.

A voice called out challengingly from the audience. "It ain't western, brothers and sisters. The Assyrians were black. The Ancient Egyptians were black. The Greeks were black. Civilisation is blaaack. How come you don't know that?"

That bloody American. Pombal looked on him with distaste. You could see the teeth and eyes flashing in the back row in the dim ultraviolet-free light. Two of the teeth had been capped and shone a different colour.

This wasn't at all how Pombal liked an audience.

"That wasn't quite my point. It was the very concept of civilisation that is questionable..."

"You mean," twanged a Kentucky-fried female, the blasted man's frizzy wife, "if a thing ain't white, it don't exist?"

"Certainly not." Pombal set a firm smile on both lips like congealed lard. Behind it, the stampeding panic settled back under control.

"My point was merely that all cultures are worthy of respect when judged in their own terms." Deny that at your peril, you bastards. Unheeded, the robot speaker continued to gasp and breathe her background text.

"...Like most great cultures, Assyria was based ultimately on the exploitation of slaves or at least the unfree."

"You will note..." Pombal's too-swift resumption sounded curiously rasping and shrill, "the fact that the flanking figures have not four but five legs since they were made to be seen either from the front or at an angle. From neither perspective is the curious supplementary leg obvious. It is only when both are studied out of context that the anomaly appears - a model for all cultural studies."

From this point of safety, the Americans could receive a smile. "The reliefs that cover the walls here are from the palace of Sennacherib probably from the 7th century BC. The defacement of the royal image apparent in some of the panels was probably carried out by Persian troops who ransacked it in 612BC."

"The Persians were, like, white. Imperialism is white."

Pombal pretended not to hear. They looked glumly at the series of bleak white - therefore imperialist - walls, set with low relief carvings in the style of giant children's comics. The carvings were grubby at the corners where generations of clutching hands and prodding fingers had soiled them. Lines of expressionless men with simple tunics but bare, muscular knees of fiendish complexity trudged from left to right. Occasionally, they engaged in listless slaughter. They looked like strangely energetic corpses, leaping around and spontaneously auto-destructing before merely pointed swords. Scarcely less depressed lines of captives trudged back again from right to left in tedious symmetry.

"Excuse me." It was a grey, paperish man in glasses. "But I have been coming to this museum for at least half a century now. Am I not correct in thinking that what is here termed 'The Whore of Babylon Experience' is identical to what used to be known - in earlier times - as 'The Assyrian sculpture room'?"

Pombal popped a top button. "Er... There have been changes. A new approach. Scholarship has abandoned its stance of spurious omniscience to engage in a new demotic polyphony of many voices, such as we are enjoying here today. A multimedia interactionist perspective encourages visitors to construct their own interpretations."

"You mean there are no labels?"

Pombal's forehead was now unpleasantly damp. "Not quite so. You will note that in accordance with the wishes of our customers..." The articulation was icy: "...we now attach labels to the pieces estimating their value at auction in most of the major currencies, a measure of value to replace the discarded notions of civilisation and aesthetic value."

Hiss! A miasma of patchouli engulfed them, automatically released every three minutes through nozzles at chest height.

"Smell," choked Pombal, "being the sense least subjected to the tyranny of language is easily the most evocative and is used by our designers to summon up the courtly setting of the murals in a way refreshingly free from cultural structuring."

Triggered by another pressure pad, a projector whirred into life and cast a biblical text upon a bare patch in the mural. Click! Through stereophonic speakers, it was simultaneously declaimed in the echoing Old Testament Scottish brogue of Cecil B. De Mille divinity. "Son of Man, therrre werrre two women, daughterrrs of the same motherrr..." "A point of particular importance," interposed Pombal, "in the Book of Ezekiel, since connection with both would clearly flout Jewish notions of the incest taboo..."

"...In Egypt their brrreasts werrre fondled and their virrrgin bosoms carrressed... and Oholah lusted after her loverrrs, the Assyrrrians - warrriorrrs clothed in blue..." "Traditional western scholarship has imposed a classical white vision on the past..." "Right on, yeah."

"...That is to say, these reliefs were originally a coloured representation..."

"Right on."

Tiresome wretch. "...That is to say painted depiction of Assyrian historicities. A small section over on the left has had the painted overlay restored to show the polychrome splendour that once was the royal palace."

"...She saw men portrrrayed on a wall, figurrres of Chaldeans porrrtrayed in rrred, with belts rrround their waists and flowing turrrbans on their heads; all of them looked like Babylonian charrriot officerrrs, natives of Chaldea. As soon as she saw them, she lusted afterrr them and sent messengerrrs to them... She lusted after her loverrrs whose genitals werrre like those of donkeys and whose emissions were like those of horrrses..." A woman went over and silently appraised the horses, painted in Mickey Mouse tones, bending low and adjusting her glasses over the horses.

The black American elbowed to the front. "But see here, man. We paid good money for the whore of Babylon and not only ain't her picture here, far as I can see there ain't no pictures of women at all. This is a scam, like a fraternity party where the stripper don't show. You go to Walt Disney you get, like, the full experience - know what I mean."

Pombal's glasses flashed fire. "The Assyrians were a rather prim people despite the way in which the Old Testament uses them to symbolise the exotic vice of the Other - rather..." a rougish tone crept into the voice "...as the British see the French."

"Seems to me that's kinda a elitist thing to say."

"Elitism," snapped Pombal, "is only the word the hard of thinking use for 'quality'. The point of the Whore of Babylon Experience is that it consciously seeks to deconstruct male chauvinist techniques of visual domination. Chauvinist male art is reglossed as female pornography so that the arousal of expectation is decentring of desire."

A silence. "Excuse my mentioning it..." It was the donnish man again. He raised his hand tentatively like a querulous schoolboy "...but I clearly recall from my theology lectures that the whore of Babylon was a purely metaphorical figure. She never really existed, I'm afraid, being merely a way of talking about Jerusalem's faithlessly opening itself to foreign gods. Her elder sister is to be metaphorically equated with Samaria - so it's really a plurality of whores... a... a fanfare of strumpets. But since she never existed, it doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about her here."

Hiss! The patchouli again. Pombal felt a wave of fatigue and resentment sweep up with the whorish smell, a hangover from simulated debauchery. This was not how things were supposed to be. Pombal's voice crackled with static electricity.

"Let me put this simply. Post-structuralism has taught us that problematicity is to be located not within the semantic space of the metaphorical, since all knowledge is metaphorically structured, but rather within the fiction of literalness. The whore of Babylon is a representation of the exotic Other located within the threatened concept of the normative Self. That the Other can be viewed as supine female sexuality inscribed within the ongoing narrative of colonialist discourse is a strategy of domination hiding the truism that the meanings it uncovers are there to conceal their own lack of primariness and the closure of textuality to women. If the whore of Babylon had not been a fiction, she could only have been made real, incarnated, in a logically prior intertextuality of cultural resistance."

There was a gratifying silence. Their mouths hung gummily open like those of Muppets. The donnish man raised his hand. "The point is surely rather one of artistic responsibility... Purely supposing that the young lady of Babylon - actually as we know hailing from Jerusalem and merely a temporary resident of Babylon - had been depraved and corrupted - as we should say - by the images we see about us, at whose door would the responsibility be laid? Would it be Sennacherib who commissioned them? The anonymous artist - or artists - who executed them? What fault could be imputed to Oholah herself or the corrupting presence of her elder sister? Does not all artistic creation arrogate the prerogative of divine creation as the Muslims pretend, or should one rather assume that exposure to a wider range of artistic stimulation would have reduced her vulnerability to the inflaming of her senses and so been a better preparation for life?"

Pombal sighed wearily, stifling a yawn and imagined chattering Kalashnikovs mowing them down, bodies leaping about in more modern but equally pleasing athletic dismemberment. A look at the watch, a sly scratch of the armpit. They had had more than their 12 minutes' worth. Time to wrap it up. Pombal's voice switched to automatic pilot. "So we see that even such an arcane topic as this still engages vital issues... Not resolved but perhaps the enduring fascination derives precisely from... Gratifying multiplicity of perspectives... Thank you all again... Book and accompanying video on sale in shop just beyond main collecting box... Tea-towels bearing the motif of..." Pombal turned elegantly on one heel and stalked blindly past the waving arm of Queen Nefertiti. The rhythmic stride seemed to entice out some lines buzzing about in the back of the brain.

"In Babylon once were two whores,

So busy they never wore drawers,

Their breasts were caressed

By men in blue vests

But their dreams were of horses galore."

Hmmm. It needed more work. Perhaps it would fall into place and might even go up on the staff loo wall.

Pombal moved with determination towards the tea room where, with British illogicality, most people drank their coffee. After half a cup, the irritation of the lecture began to slip away. The problem was, Pombal realised, that the whore of Babylon was really no more than any parent's idea of what a daughter got up to when she spent too much time looking at exotic images, refusing sensible marriage with a solicitor and working in "art". Within the parental mind, her sex life engulfed all other occupation, becoming a succession of ever more doubtful foreigners, pouring vile abominations on to the pure, scrubbed canvas of her flesh. Here, as elsewhere, the ultimate contextualisation of art reduced to mere biography.

There was a paper in it. Pombal sighed, crossed her elegant legs and ran her fingers deep through her long auburn hair. She grinned wryly. Chance would be a fine thing.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper of ethnography, British Museum.

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