I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
On Easter Sunday, 1999, the Simpsons aired an episode titled “Simpsons Bible Stories.” The conceit of the episode is that Bart and his family fall asleep in church, and Reverend Lovejoy’s dry monotone sermon seeps into their dreams, making for a few reliably subversive interpretations of some of the Bible’s greatest hits. Homer and Marge are Adam and Eve. Ned Flanders is God. Bart is David to school bully Nelson’s Goliath — that sort of thing.
In the second of the three scriptural dream sequences, Lisa’s subconscious transports us to an Ancient Egypt where Principal Skinner is Pharaoh and the students of Springfield Elementary are the enslaved Israelites. They toil away building pyramids (when it’s not recess). Milhouse is a reluctant Moses, and Old Testament Lisa cajoles him into staging a frog-related plague. This backfires terribly. As punishment, Lisa and Milhouse/Moses are unceremoniously thrown into the bowels of a pyramid by Chief Wiggum, currently incarnated as Pharaoh Skinner’s henchman. As they slide down some kind of internal tomb ramp, our Exodus-era Chief Wiggum calls after them: “Give my regards to the British Museum!” And then he laughs a mild cartoon villain laugh before sealing the kids in.
I was a high school junior when I first heard that line. Milhouse and Lisa escape about a minute later and go on to part the Red Sea and all that, but for some reason, still not completely clear to me, that single, sarcastic, weirdly anachronistic sentence deeply moved me. Like, it made me cry actual tears. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
I moved to New York City the year after the “Simpson Bible Stories” episode aired, and each and every time I descended into the subway I imagined some very distant future when our civilization is primitive and shrouded in myth, and I’d think to myself man, they’re gonna be really impressed when they excavate this one day. Then I’d hear Chief Wiggum’s line in my head and realize that’s the kind of prophecy you could really hang a religion on.
A short time later, I started keeping copies of newspapers after historic events. There’s something about the extra large font announcing, say, an election result that reminds me of Chief Wiggum’s words, and I well up anew when adding to my box of important headlines. And at more than a few funerals I’ve wondered if the dearly departed will someday be exhumed for the interest of some future anthropologists. Will their coffin, their burial clothes, and their remains provide useful insights into what we thought was important? Will our deeply-held beliefs will seem as quaint as Zeus and Ba’al? Then I think of Chief Wiggum in his man-skirt and gold wrist cuffs and a chill runs down my back.
There’s a saying that goes, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” I think it means if you burst into tears at something for seemingly no reason, it’s because some deep emotional wound has been subconsciously poked. For me, if it’s historical, I’m hysterical. Maybe it’s the terrifying thrill of time travel. Maybe it’s the reality of our own mortality. Maybe it’s the shame of how backwards we’ll seem to future generations.
In the last few years I find myself thinking about Chief Wiggum the most when I visit a particular mummy I am very fond of at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I now live. Her name is Tabes and she was “the Songstress of Amen” according to her sign. She died young — about 2,900 years ago. Unless Tabes was a secret skeptic, she expected that after her death she’d be transported to an afterlife, some strange and mysterious world. And she was: ours. I wonder what Tabes would think of being in a glass case under electric lights. Would it seem heavenly or hellish? Would she mistake the first bookish curator she saw for Osiris? I don’t know, but looking at her lovely sarcophagus with Chief Wiggum’s horrible little Edward G. Robinson–esque voice echoing in my mind hits me in some deep, primordial place.
I think it’s because it reminds me that we, the inhabitants of the present, are somebody’s distant future and somebody else’s ancient past. Or maybe it’s just that one woman’s pyramid tomb is another woman’s British Museum.