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The Role of Literature

The poems of the high tradition of the Middle Kingdom were conceived as ‘monuments to unageing intellect’,13 W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, l. 8. and many show the direct influence of funerary inscriptions and official texts. They teach, meditate on, and relate the ‘nature of mankind’ and the ‘nature of eternity’.14 The Teaching for Kagemni, 2.3–4 (see pp. 291); The ‘Loyalist’ Teaching, 1. 6. Literature was already aere perennius, and aimed at eternal renown beyond the endurance of physical monuments.15 This is most explicit in a passage of the Late New Kingdom P. Chester Beatty IV, quoted below, see n. 24. The wisdom texts, in particular, demonstrated what the Egyptians termed Maat, ‘Truth’. This was the order of society and, by extension, of the cosmos, ethical and moral righteousness, and Truth as an abstract ideal. According to one late Middle Kingdom inscription:

The reward of the man who does is what is done to him:in the heart of God, this is Maat.16 Stela of King Neferhotep, l. 40; text: W. Helck, Historisch-Biographische Texte der 2. Zwischenzeit und neue Texte der 18. Dynastie2 (Wiesbaden, 1983), 29, ll. 14–15.

Maat is a loyalistic virtue, and an expression of society's solidarity that reflects the solidarity of the cosmos in time and space, a principle that operates through laws of reciprocity and retribution. In the Teachings there are frequent injunctions to ‘do’ and ‘say’ Truth in public and private contexts. This enacting of Truth is also described in a general manner, on a cosmic level, and with examples from specific situations.

Like representational art and cultural artefacts, literature was dominated by inherent rules of decorum. Egyptian ideology, as formulated in official documents and inscriptions, presents an ordered coherent view of life, a paradigmatic construction of reality that ignored the untoward events of life and concealed contradictions. The poetry that was produced by and for office-holders naturally voiced a similar self-definition of the culture. Its themes are, for the most part, state themes, just as the diction is usually formal and courtly. The Teachings, for example, are almost always addressed by a member of the élite, to the élite, and concern their ethical behaviour. One exception is the comparatively peripheral Teaching of Khety, where satirical vignettes of low life make the didactic point that scribedom is best; eternal virtue is reduced to the enduring quality of writing. The modern lack of any comparable ‘state’ literature makes a response to this element of cultural self-presentation rather difficult: at least for his own time, the modern poet has become a rebel rather than a laureate. This aspect led some scholars, most notably Georges Posener, to consider the poems ‘propaganda’, but recent studies have recognized that this is too reductive a term for these complex works. While they have a strong tendency to affirm loyalistic values, and many of them are didactic ‘cultural texts’, they do not affirm cultural values in a simple or propagandistic manner. They formulate and examine basic principles of the Egyptian world-view, and central political concerns, such as the relationship between power and culture, rather than particular political events. In addition, literature was concerned with, and was composed by, individuals; it was about individual wisdom and experience, not that of undifferentiated ‘aristocratic’ representatives of the state. It belonged to the relative privacy of official life, not to the unremittingly universal world of religious and monumental achievements. The founding of the Twelfth Dynasty, amid considerable opposition and an increase in cultural individualism, seems to have provided the impetus to compose and circulate written literature, as a vehicle for transmitting and examining intellectual culture, and for exploring man's interpretation of an everproblematic reality.

Literature's fictionality and its use of historical settings gave it a freedom to discuss aspects of life, such as unashamed frivolity, that were excluded from more ideologically constrained modes of discourse. Since literature was a culturally central artefact in the Middle Kingdom, it is not surprising that it has a generally serious tendency, diverging from the official normative order usually towards the darker, rather than the lighter, side. Even the generally positive Teachings warn of the dangers and difficulties facing the wise in a complex world. The most extreme example of this high pessimism is in the wisdom discourses. In The Words of Neferti, for example, when the king demands literary entertainment, he is presented with a grim vision of chaos that eventually resolves in a prophecy. The discourses are not prescriptive but reflective, and they are addressed to specific members of the élite or to an indefinite audience, often by lowly people. They express a complaint about the imperfection of individuals, society, and the very cosmos; against Maat they set falsehood, wrong, disorder, and chaos. They raise questions about the existence of imperfection and of suffering—themes seen most fully in a later religious text that expounds the Egyptians’ belief in a negative cosmology, by which the universe has a tendency towards chaos and decay.17 E. Hornung, Der ägyptische Mythos von der Himmelskuh: Eine Ätiologie des Unvollkommenen (Orbus Biblicus et Orientalis, 46; Fribourg, 1982). These poems explore that problem and question the justice of the gods. They express this theodic question more forcefully than any religious texts, which voice the problem only by presenting the answer of the creator-god, that imperfection was allowed into the created world by mankind's own heart, against his will, and that mankind's flawed nature cannot be held against its creator.18 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 reflective poems are characteristic of the Middle Kingdom and have no direct successors in the subsequent period. Their descriptions of agony were intended to be a source of aesthetic pleasure, presumably in a manner similar to the sufferings enacted in western tragedy.

The Tales of the great tradition reflect these questioning concerns in both form and motif. The concerns underlie, for example, The Tale of Sinuhe and The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, and are explicit even in the apparently simple Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Narratives are more specific in their treatment of these issues, and they allow grand themes to be mingled with more everyday aspects of life, such as humour: mankind's imperfection can be a source of laughter, as well as despair.

This untoward tone permeates literature, and is one of its most distinctive features. Royal inscriptions never mention the fallibility of a king, but the fictional Teachings present it in a most intimate manner; tomb Autobiographies present unqualified, absolute selfdeclarations of the culture's virtues and the tomb-owners conformity to them, whereas the ‘Autobiography’ of Sinuhe is in part a catalogue of fallibility. Homosexual desire had no place in the Egyptian ideal society, and all signs of it are lacking in the mortuary, religious, and commemorative texts, but it features prominently in several literary works. The contradictions between the ideal extolled by the ideology and the imperfect actuality of the present life are not articulated in official texts, whereas literature addresses these contradictions, mediating between the ideal and the actual.19 Cf. the remarks of B. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago, 1991), 22.

The questioning poems, however, always reach a reconciliation—at least wherever the ending is extant—and they do not end by undermining cultural values. Nowhere is there any trace of intellectual rebellion or dissent; any socially peripheral characters are judged by élite standards and values, and there is a lack of any alternative voice speaking independently, despite the undercurrents of potential dissent.20 A more familiar parallel is Vergil's Aeneid, where the alternative values of Dido and Turnus are accommodated within the affirmation of state values presented by the whole. Potential dissent seems to be articulated almost in order to be accommodated, contained, and constrained by the poetry. A combination of factors at the start of the Middle Kingdom may have allowed the creation of the distinctive questioning voice of literature; factors such as expanding literacy may have created a potential for dissent to be formulated, and literature may be seen as a response, which allowed this to be articulated and contained within the status quo of the court and its officials. Such a presentation of the untoward could programmatically validate the harsh measures imposed by the state to enforce its ideal, but literature's presentation is not made in a programmatic fashion, or in order to entrap the untoward. Instead, the poetry revels in and creates sympathy for the untoward, the individual, and the unideal. Although there is always a positive resolution to the most pessimistic texts, questions such as the justice of the gods are posed forcefully, and never answered glibly. The poems’ eventual resolutions are achieved in a complex and subtle manner. In The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, the audience's attitude is suspended between sympathy and ironic detachment for over 600 lines; the energies of the discourse of ideas are not exhausted by the resolution, and the issues remain problematic. In their ambiguity, these compositions embody a profound awareness of the ‘dark side to perfection’.21 M. Piper, libretto for Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice (1973), I. v.

Through its acknowledgement of life's anomalies, randomness, and complexities, Middle Kingdom literature allowed its privileged audience to explore or enact various possible complementary realities, as the poets taught, meditated on, or narrated their interpretations of the nature both of humanity and of the divine. As the audience listened to the poetry of imagined princes and peasants, they playfully expanded their own experiences and lived out the experiences of different individuals from different worlds. The ‘travesties’ of these fictional individuals—both peasants and princes were very different from the actual audience's rank—will have distanced the audience from the experiences that were narrated to it. The audience will thus have both experienced and stepped away from difficulties of life, and have gained ‘relief’, a sense of transcending them in something that was ‘perfect to their hearts’, as several poems phrase it. Monumental commemorative inscriptions address a discourse of permanent perfection to eternity; literature seeks eternity through humanity, and creates a space for entertainment as well as wisdom. In the hands of the poets, the knotty difficulties and choices of life become a sort of enchantment, and the nightmares of troubled experience become for the audience an entertaining reverie or revelation of grace, without losing their untoward, disturbing qualities. Poetry transforms an imperfect world into ‘perfect speech’.

Notes:

13 W. B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, l. 8.

14 The Teaching for Kagemni, 2.3–4 (see pp. 291); The ‘Loyalist’ Teaching, 1. 6.

15 This is most explicit in a passage of the Late New Kingdom P. Chester Beatty IV, quoted below, see n. 24.

16 Stela of King Neferhotep, l. 40; text: W. Helck, Historisch-Biographische Texte der 2. Zwischenzeit und neue Texte der 18. Dynastie2 (Wiesbaden, 1983), 29, ll. 14–15.

17 E. Hornung, Der ägyptische Mythos von der Himmelskuh: Eine Ätiologie des Unvollkommenen (Orbus Biblicus et Orientalis, 46; Fribourg, 1982).

18 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.

19 Cf. the remarks of B. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago, 1991), 22.

20 A more familiar parallel is Vergil's Aeneid, where the alternative values of Dido and Turnus are accommodated within the affirmation of state values presented by the whole.

21 M. Piper, libretto for Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice (1973), I. v.

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