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The Words of Khakheperreseneb

Introduction

The Words of Khakheperreseneb is a reflective monologue spoken by a priest to his own unresponsive heart. The sage expresses his personal despair at the world's suffering. He begins by lamenting his inability to express the catastrophe, in a rhetorically self-referential introduction about the problems of speech. The failure of communication runs through other literary laments as well as this one, and here the sage stresses the need to find fresh expressions to surpass the language of his predecessors, which was not designed to confront the unsurpassed chaos of his present time. He expresses a desire for literary invention, not innovation, and shows no signs of dissatisfaction with the established literary style, to which the poem conforms. He is a self-tortured writer, troubled by poetry's difficulties in expressing the otherwise inexpressible.

The Words is similar to Neferti's colloquy about the state of the land, but is concerned with Khakheperreseneb's personal experience of present reality, and with the alienation of a wise man in a collapsing world. The self-referential prologue introduces stanzas describing the lamentable state of the land; these are phrased in general universal terms, without particular social examples. The inability of past speech to express the sage's present agony takes on a new dimension, as he laments that evil is so pervasive that the past is no longer a model that can be imitated. The verses give an impression of introverted longing and desperation, as the sage struggles to comprehend the daily misery of life; the tortuous wordplay with ‘speak’ enacts the difficulties of speech. The style is dense, interwoven, and allusive.

Khakheperreseneb's inner suffering surpasses the suffering of the external world, and, as in The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, it remains ambiguous whether the cause of his agony is external and objectively observed or is internal and subjective. The name of the sage (see n. 1) may indicate that the words were imagined as being spoken in the settled era of the Twelfth Dynasty, when there would be little specific external cause for his despair, and his complaint is made not to an external figure of authority who could be accused of being responsible, but to his own heart. The sage moves from the difficulties of speaking to the problems of his speech's being received by his heart. He keeps returning to his heart, suggesting increasingly that it is the failure in communication between him and his innermost being that is the source of his distress. His inability to control his own emotions (his heart) is an analogue of man's inability to understand the general imperfection of the world. He laments that people cannot accept the truth, and implies that if he could communicate with his heart, despair would vanish, and it would then be possible for him to come to terms with his misery. Various Middle Kingdom texts present the heart as the source of a persons's suffering, and in a broader context mankind's hearts were the source of conflict in the world.

The sage's aim in speaking is to formulate his agony so that it will gain his heart's sympathy: poetry is a means of reconciling oneself with incomprehensible suffering and with the uncertainty of life. The principal manuscript has no trace of any response by the heart, but the man's final words seem to imply a more hopeful situation, in which the heart will sustain the sage.

The sage's name shows that the composition cannot predate Senwosret II (c.1844–1837 BC); a date has been suggested in the late Twelfth or early Thirteenth Dynasty.

The composition is principally known from a writing board from c.1500 BC (British Museum, EA 5645), which may not be a complete copy, although the extant text seems to form a coherent progression. The front of the board is a writing exercise made up of sections of four to five lines, which may represent stanzas of a complete text or excerpts from a longer one, and the back contains a single slightly longer passage. Part of the poem is also known from an ostracon. Numbers give line numbers of the recto and verso (rt. and vs.) of the writing board.

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