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Problems with the words 'text' and 'author'

Like any other word, 'text' and 'author' come with the baggage of time and place; this can become problematic, if the history and cultural embeddedness of the word are not recognised. Cerquiglini 1989 challenged the contemporary instinct to assume that all writing shares properties peculiar to modern printed text, blind to the specific histories behind its production, circulation and consumption. Cerquiglini wrote in deliberately polemical, provocative vein, and reviewers raised problems with his observations (for example Varvaro 1989). The combination of polemic and reaction is productive for the researcher and reader approaching writing from pre-print societies, including ancient Egypt.



Text and the phantom Urtext

1. the assumptions to which Cerquiglini objects

The philological tradition of editing ancient and medieval writing makes the assumption that there is an original stable text to be recovered, in the pristine form in which it appeared from the hand or mouth of the author. This is the 'Urtext' (German for 'original text'). It has to be reconstructed from the copies which are all, the philologist may feel, more or less degraded by errors made in copying. Philologists make two crucial assumptions in their editing: that the copyists tend to simplify; and that two copyists are unlikely to make the same error at the same place.


2. objections by Cerquiglini to these assumptions

The modern concept of perfectly finished and precisely replicable work is a specific historical product of the fusion of two procedures around 1800:

By contrast, in 11th-12th century French literature, the word textus (Latin for 'woven', and so 'finished') was only used for the Bible: by implication, the rest of literature was still being woven.

The modern concept of fixed text emphasises the conservatism of writing, in fixing content; however, oral tradition is arguably far more conservative, and writing can be seen as liberating and radical.

An author may produce more than one 'original version': European audiences are familiar with the different versions of Macbeth and King Lear by Shakespeare, and the different versions of operas produced by Rossini and Verdi for different audiences (sometimes in different languages).

Variations may be intentional: if a particular tradition of writing is lessed fixed, the person transmitting a composition may be expected to embellish the content.

When there are two versions of a phrase among the copies of a composition, the more difficult version may or may not be the original version: it cannot be assumed either that every 'more difficult reading' is the original, any more than that every 'more difficult reading' is a 'corruption' by a later copyist.

Two copyists could easily make the same error in the same place, because certain linguistic sequences lend themselves to the same errors by same-language writers.


3. rejoinders to the Cerquiglini objections

It is correct to search for the original context and for variations in the value placed on originality, embellishment, and faithful reproduction of any original; however, it cannot be denied that ancient and medieval copyists at least sometimes strove to reproduce at least some compositions as exactly as possible, because they record their faithfulness in copying.

It is correct to emphasise that writing is not always conservative; however, any communication - spoken or written - can be deployed either to conservative or to mould-breaking ends.

Although production of manuscript originals and copies involves variations, both intentional and by error, writing does produce a single object; even if the writing is variable until 1800, the reader experiences a single, fixed copy.


4. stabilizing the reproduction of writing in ancient Egypt

There are limited sources for the method of control of manuscript copying, all from the paratext (features at the margins of the main body of a composition):

Early example of longer end-note:

iw.f pw HAt.f r pHwy.fy mi gmyt m sS
[m] sS sS iqr n Dbaw.f imny sA imn-aA anx wDA snb

'This is its end, from beginning to end as found in writing,
[as] written by the writer excellent in his fingers, Ameny's son Amenaa, may he love, prosper and be well.'

(late Middle Kingdom papyrus, Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, Papyrus Hermitage 1115, lines 186-189)

More elaborate versions in New Kingdom funerary manuscripts assert that nothing has been added to or subtracted from the version found in writing. These demonstrate a negative consciousness of copying comparable to the negative evaluation of copying that is implicit in modern philology.


5. principles to follow in reading, studying and appreciating ancient Egyptian literary compositions.

The degree of variation in compositions is itself a variable: it cannot always be assumed that variation equates with degradation of some perfect original. In some instances it may be, as the end-notes imply. In other instances, variation may be produced for enjoyment, much as variations on well-known and well-loved themes are encouraged in some modern literary genres, in modern journalism, and in popular music. As in visual art, there may be two magnetic poles:

  1. an aesthetic of difference (where difference from other products is enjoyed - compare portraiture in figurative art)
  2. an aesthetic of similarity (where the similarity to an ideal or to other products is the source of enjoyment - compare idealism in figurative art)

Cerquiglini 1989 asserts enjoyment of variants as the essence of French medieval vernacular literature. Egyptian literary and religious compositions that may also relish variation on themes include sun hymns and the praises of writing in the New Kingdom, and, at all periods, autobiographical hieroglyphic inscription in narrative and in nominal and adjectival mode. Within religious corpora defined by the medium on which they survive, there may be different degrees of desired variation: the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead include more fixed compositions, sometimes with the end-note signifying consciousness of integrity, implying desire for less change, and the looser compositions generating ever more variations.

Variation is, in sum, an object for research. Copy errors form only one part of the picture.


Does the author exist?

1. the assumptions to which Cerquiglini objects

Common sense dictates that every text must have its author - a single person in a single time and place.


2. objections by Cerquiglini to these assumptions

For two generations the concept of 'author' has been questioned (see the English translations of the seminal essays by Barthes and Foucault: Barthes 1977, Foucault 1989)

Like 'text', the modern 'author' has emerged in specific historical places and times, from the fusing of two ideological assumptions:

  1. the fixed text (see above)
  2. the individual genius, from Romanticism

The arrival of the computer as dominant tool in producing and copying communications has destabilised the concept of author: computer screens have taken us closer to the conditions of generating and circulating writing in the world of the manuscript.

In place of the single authorial person, place and time, there may be a looser field of writing, in which the copyist is more a participant than a passive consumer.


3. rejoinders to the Cerquiglini objections

Certainly each society and period has its own concepts of communication and creativity; however, there are medieval as well as classical Greek and Latin authors - the medieval world has a self-conscious author of the rank of Petrarch, and a recurrent theme of 'access to the authors' (in the medieval Latin term accessus ad auctores: Varvaro 1989: 476)


4. finding (or making?) authors in ancient Egyptian literature

There are ancient Egyptian references to personal names in connection with compositions; these are difficult to interpret as 'authors' in the modern sense, though, because some would have lived in periods earlier than the phase of the language in which 'their' compositions are written - for example, the Teaching of Ptahhotep introduces itself as the words of a vizier Ptahhotep to the Fifth Dynasty king Isesi (about 2450 BC), but it is written in Middle Egyptian, the language of the Middle Kingdom (about 2050-1700 BC).

One damaged passage on a Ramesside manuscript sheds light on attitudes to names in compositions in at least that period of ancient Egyptian history (about 1200 BC, Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, British Museum ESA 10684, verso, column 6, line 11 to column 7, line 1). According to this literary passage, a certain Khety is said to have written the Teaching of king Amenemhat I for king Senusret I (two kings of the 20th century BC):

[wHm?] anx mAA itn n sS Xty

iw pr-xrw t Hnqt m-bAH wn-nfr

qbH irp mnxt n kA.f n ist.f

pA iqr stpw Tsw

di.i rn.f r nHH

mntf ir Sfdw m sbAyt

n nswt [bity s]-Htp-ib-ra anx wDA snb

iw.f Htp Xnm.f Hrt

aq[.f] m nbw Xrt-nTr

nA [...] di.f [...]

r-gs s-Htp-ib-ra anx wDA snb


[Repeating?] of life and seeing the sun-disk for the writer Khety,

with voice-offerings of bread and beer before Wennefer,

cool water, wine, cloth for his spirit and for his staff,

the one excelling in choice of words,

I give his name for eternity,

It is he who made a book of the teaching

of the dual [king S]ehetepibra may he live, prosper be well

when he set, joined the sky,

and entered in with the lords of the cemetery,

those [...] he gives [...]

beside Sehetepibra may he live, prosper be well


This intriguing and unparalleled ancient attribution raises a range of possibilities in literary production, notably that someone might write a Teaching which bears the name of another person. This is not evidence of an intention to deceive readers into believing that someone else wrote the teaching, any more than in modern literary examples such as the Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

Cerquiglini 1989: 49-52 cites the instance of the 'fabrication' of an author 'Marie de France' for the Lai de Lanval out of the phrasing within three separate medieval French compositions:

  1. the start of the first of twelve songs after the Lai de Lanval on one manuscript begins 'Oez, seignurs, ke dit Marie, Ki en sun tens pas ne s'oblie'
  2. the note at the end of a set of Fables records 'Me numerai pur remembrance: Marie ai num, si sui de France'
  3. a passage in the Espurgatoire saint Patrice reads 'Jo, Marie, ai mis en memoire, Le livre de l'Espurgatoire'

From these disparate references the name 'Marie de France' has been created, to fill the empty slot for author of the Lai de Lanval, along with the other compositions. The layer of speculation is easily overlooked when 'Marie de France' becomes the principal means for indexing the compositions under 'author name' in library cataloguing systems and book market distribution.

This example is curiously reminiscent of the case of Khety in recent Egyptological commentary. The following evidence has been marshalled to create a modern-style author Khety:

As a result Khety has been proposed as author for all three compositions (Derchain 1996: 83-84). Although this is one possibility, all this evidence is circumstantial:

There is no Egyptological consensus over this ascription; in general, opinion seems sceptical. Nevertheless, the case provides an interesting parallel to the medievalist conjuring of a Marie de France out of circumstantial evidence; this similarity may reveal shared underlying tendencies and attitudes across the two philological disciplines, the study of ancient and of medieval manuscripts. Are modern readers, including researchers, desperate for an author? What in modern ideology lends urgency to the quest for authors?

A single ancient Egyptian attitude to names in compositions is difficult to construct from the fragmentary evidence. In the 'hymn to writing' on Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, persons named in Teachings, such as Ptahhotep, appear alongside Khety, identified as author of the Teaching of Amenemhat I. At first glance, this seems to be a mingling of 'real' and 'fictive' writings (see the commentary by Assmann 1996: 75-76). No definitive solution can be proposed: among the range of possibilities, it might be suggested that two routes to immortality byu writing were identified:

However, this is a modern rationalisation of the evidence. Other possibilities including multiple and mutually exclusive attitudes to authorship and pseudepigraphy need to be considered.


5. principle to follow in reading, studying and appreciating ancient Egyptian literary compositions.

Researchers and readers need to be aware of the range of possible relations between named individual and written composition. These should be considered in connection with the range of possibilities from fixed to loose composition ('text'). In the absence of direct sources, strategies may be developed to explore the occasional ancient ascription of names to compositions in the context of the far more frequent absence of any such ascription. The ancient Egyptians seem to display less need for an author than modernity. Their focus may have been more on the content of the composition. Content offers a more secure object of study for modern research, than the elusive author.



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