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Reading Egyptian Literature

Literature's playful and untoward nature provides a unique record from Ancient Egypt of man's (self)-consciousness and his exploration of the problematic reality that faced him. This is not its only aspect, but it is the one to which the modern reader can most easily relate. Cultures change, but many of life's problems remain universal experiences that defy comprehension. In their treatment of these themes, the poems reveal a complex sensibility which we recognize as a sign of artistic value. The first duty of the critic is to publish and analyse these texts. They are sources for a cultural poetics of Ancient Egypt, rather than for the more empirical history of the ‘old historicist’ scholars. Such interpretation requires great objectivity, involving a suspension of modern attitudes; attempts at absolute objectivity, however, run the danger of leaving the poetry lifeless. Literature was a powerful medium of cultural self-definition, which was designed to be an eternal memorial: ‘every poem an epitaph’.22 T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, l. 225. Literature was, in the words of The Teaching of the Vizier Ptahhotep, composed in order to ‘speak to the future’, and it was also a very personal medium. The poems were written for individual enjoyment and self-exploration, and not to be scholarly exercises—although they had partially become this by the New Kingdom—or historical curiosities.

In view of this, we should remember to read the poems for pleasure, while appreciating the conventions of their different world. We should aim not only at a critical reading—a distancing process—but also at a creative act of reconstructing, and appreciating the ‘perfect speech’ of these poems. This beauty demands not only scholarship but also responsive love. The reader needs the same quality that Marguerite Yourcenar required for her fictional recreation of the emperor Hadrian, whose love transfigured Antinous into an Egyptian god, and who is thus a particularly appropriate figure to invoke here. For Yourcenar, such work needs ‘un pied dans l’érudition, l'autre dans la magie, ou plus exactement, et sans métaphore, dans cette magie sympathique qui consiste à se transporter en pensée à l’intérieur de quelqu’un’.23 Carnets de notes de “Mémoires d’Hadrien” in Oeuvres romanesques (Paris, 1982), 526. Her concern with summoning up the voices of the beloved dead captures the spirit of the Egyptians’ own attitude to their authors, as expressed in a eulogy to dead writers from c.1190 BC. In this, the Middle Kingdom writers are described as dispensing with funeral preparations in favour of the more potent magic of their art:

These sage scribes … their names endure for eternity, although they are gone, although they have completed their lifetimes, and all their people are forgotten. They did not make for themselves pyramids of bronze with stelae of iron … they made heirs for themselves as the writings and Teachings that they begat … Departing life has made their names forgotten; writings alone make them remembered.24 P. Chester Beatty IV, verso 3.7–11; text: A. H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum: 3rd ser., Chester Beatty Gift, ii, pls. 18–19; recent translation: Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt, 148–50.

Notes:

22 T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, l. 225.

23 Carnets de notes de “Mémoires d’Hadrien” in Oeuvres romanesques (Paris, 1982), 526.

24 P. Chester Beatty IV, verso 3.7–11; text: A. H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum: 3rd ser., Chester Beatty Gift, ii, pls. 18–19; recent translation: Parkinson, Voices from Ancient Egypt, 148–50.

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