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The Dialogue of a Man and his Soul

Introduction

This lyrical composition is an internal dialogue between a living man and his own soul. ‘Soul’ is a free translation of the Egyptian ba, which is one aspect of the personality, and the manifestation of a person after death.

The Dialogue is inspired by a wise man's alienation from the world around him, a theme paralleled in other Discourses. Here, the source of his sorrow is his uncertainty about how to view death, his existential anxiety. Death was respected by the Egyptians, but also feared, and harpist's songs preserved on later tomb walls juxtapose different responses to death and seek to reconcile the audience to both its horror and its blessing, and to the uncertainty about what comes after death. The Dialogue may well draw on this type of song, as well as on pessimistic literary laments and on funerary compositions known as ‘Transfigurations’.

The poem is a poetic dialogue on a general theme, and is not a logical analytic argument about a specific aspect of belief, such as the value of funeral rites or the status of a man's soul. Its questioning approach to its subject has a theodic aspect, since the existence of death implicitly calls the justice of the creator-god into question. The Dialogue takes its theme and moves forward through transformations of literary form, imagery, and tone to reconcile its protagonist and its audience with the prospect of death in all its aspects.

In the Dialogue the anonymous speaker and his soul hold opposing views about death. The man is eager to enter the otherworld that is represented by the funeral ceremonies; this was the generally propounded view of death, familiar from funerary inscriptions and other official writings. In one funerary text,1 Coffin Text spell 1130; text: A. de Buck, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, vii (Chicago, 1961), 461–71; recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 32–4. the creator-god justifies the existence of mortality as an inspiration to piety:

I made that their (mankind's) hearts should refrain from ignoring the West, in order that offerings should be made to the Gods of the districts.

The man's soul, however, disagrees and opposes him with the view that death is a painful experience, and that nothing can mitigate its agony. Strikingly, it is the soul that praises this life, while the living man extols life after death. The soul presents a less orthodox view, and is less formal in speech, but its arguments would have seemed pragmatic, valid, and vivid to the original audience.

The start of the poem is lost, but may have included a title such as ‘The Dispute of a Man with his Soul’. The man may then have described how he and his soul had a discussion as if in a court of law: grammatical details suggest that the dialogue takes place before an audience, possibly of the gods, even though the man is still alive. In the first surviving verses, his soul is speaking; it warns of the dangers of entering the otherworld, and threatens to desert the man if he persists in his attitude. This would result in the man's utter destruction, the second and final death known from other Egyptian texts.

The man urges his soul to stand by him—a wish found in contemporaneous funerary texts—and he longs to reach the beatified ‘West’; the man uses this term for the otherworld, while his soul prefers the more blunt and final word, ‘death’. His soul rejects any preparations for death, and thus would consign the man to destruction in the otherworld; it instead pursues the hedonistic ‘happy day’, as opposed to the ‘day of burial’. Their speeches also show two opposing views of the gods who judge the dead: the soul warns of their intransigence, while the man prays to them to justify him.

As the man utters his prayer, his soul interrupts with a sarcastic comment, urging him to value life instead. In an equally biting response, the man warns of the consequences of the soul's attitude. Here the language is particularly rapid and the syntax elliptical, suggestive of an intimate discussion. The man then resumes his topic and eulogizes the West in more stately language, promising his soul that it will benefit by standing by him. The speech ends with a description of funerary rites as an ultimate homecoming.

His soul, however, takes up this description of burial and echoes it point for point. The dialogue proceeds, not with logical argument, but by rhetorical means and through imagery, as the two disputants answer image with image. There are also changes in literary hierarchy, as the soul now lowers the tone to articulate the wretchedness of death. It does this by telling two parables of lowly men in wretched situations, developing the imagery that it used earlier to combat the man's vision of death. For the man, a harbour was an appropriate metaphor for death, but for his soul death is a shipwreck. The generally sordid nature of the parables undercuts the man's claims that death is a noble state, and the events related in them show the vanity of care and of impatience. Both parables are targeted at the man's urgent desire for death.

The man's response retains some of the tone of his soul's speeches, but, instead of a parable, he speaks a lyrical poem which is highly patterned with refrains lamenting his wretchedness. It presents a repetition of extravagant images, which makes it stylistically and formally different from his soul's comparatively simple narratives. Its measured cadences rise above the language of all the previous speeches, but the subject matter remains lowly. The imagery is dominated by stench, crocodiles, fishing, shores, and low life—images taken from his soul's speeches, but which now articulate not the man's folly in longing for death, but his weariness of life. There follows a second poem, which retains a personal concern, but also laments the state of all society. This is the longest and the most forceful of the poems, echoing earlier statements while also echoing itself: this degree of repetition articulates the pervasiveness of evil, and the reflexiveness may also mark a turning-point in the man's interior dialogue. The bleakness of his soul's images and parables now becomes a justification of death, since life is not worth living. The despairing refrain ‘Who can I talk to today?’ is also a direct rebuttal of his soul's conversation—there is no one for the man to talk to.

A third poem returns to the subject of death, as the man sees it; this is an answer to his soul's injunction to ‘call burial to mind’, but there is a dramatic change of tone. This intense lyric takes the preceding strands of imagery and transforms them: true life is only to be found in eternity. Immediate, vivid, and fresh imagery gives a sense of release, and a paradoxical feeling that existence can be worthwhile. A fourth lyric concludes the sequence with a description of the blessed Beyond, which moves from the egocentric ‘here’ and ‘now’ to a ‘future’ state ‘There’. It is dense in its allusions, and forms a further resonant transformation of the preceding imagery. Its succinctness contrasts sharply with the seemingly endless laments.

The man's reply, with its four lyrics, kidnaps his soul's images and reformulates them to present his own vision, transforming the conflict between their views into an interplay of opposites. His lyrics overcome his soul's speech both by outnumbering the parables and also by their being a more elevated genre. They transfigure the imagery from a lament into a celebration of the perfection of existence ‘There’.

The poem ends with a final speech, in which his soul acquiesces and the two reach an agreement. This speech is not an antagonistic ‘answer’ like the other speeches, nor is it merely a capitulation or a final attempt to persuade the man. Instead, the imagery in each verse is once again drawn from earlier speeches, and the soul now advocates a balance between the two attitudes towards death. The conflict here reaches a suspension, and the dialogue ends with the two speakers facing death together, with a final allusion to the imagery of voyaging. As the text stands, it is the first time the speakers refer to themselves as ‘we’.

Neither vision of death triumphs in isolation: the two sides of death are metaphorically interwoven, as inextricable as death and life are. The consistency of the imagery through the dispute provides a dramatic fusion of opposing views. The problem of death's existence is justified by the perfection of the Beyond, and by the imperfection of this life, which, it is implied, humanity brings upon itself. But this justification is not made in a simple manner (as in the funerary text quoted above); the horror of death is not mitigated, and both aspects of death are found acceptable in a literary resolution.

The Dialogue, with its psychological debate, lyrical style, and elegylike subject matter, has proved appealing to modern audiences, although its interpretation has been much debated. A late Twelfth Dynasty manuscript (P. Berlin 3024) is the only known copy; it was found together with three rolls containing the Tales of Sinuhe and the Eloquent Peasant. The start is lost, but the end is preserved. To judge by the language, the Dialogue was probably composed only a few decades before the manuscript was copied. Numbers give line numbers of the manuscript.

1 Coffin Text spell 1130; text: A. de Buck, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, vii (Chicago, 1961), 461–71; recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 32–4.

Notes:

1 Coffin Text spell 1130; text: A. de Buck, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, vii (Chicago, 1961), 461–71; recent translation: R. B. Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt (London, 1991), 32–4.

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