Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Immortality of Writers

Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished;
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of its reciter
Better is a book than a well-built house...

They made heirs for themselves of books,
Of instructions they had composed... 

Death made their names forgotten
But books made them remembered.

The above is a translation by Miriam Lichtheim of excerpts from an Ancient Egyptian text usually referred to as “The Immortality of Writers”. The text appears on the verso of Papyrus Chester Beatty IV** along with several other short pieces that relate to the scribal profession. Written in hieratic (a cursive form of hieroglyphs), it dates from the 19th-20th dynasties, around 1200 BC. (Tut was a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, living around 1330BC.)

It’s quite different in its outlook on immortality from a lot of the other AE texts I’ve read with its view that tombs crumble and bodies decay, but writing lives on.

I ran across “Immortality” recently in my reading travels and thought I’d share it with you all. It seems particularly appropriate with the recent passing of writers B.K. Stevens and Frederick Ramsay (see Donis’s post on him here.)  It reminded me that whatever writers or other artists produce has the potential of living on long after we’re gone.

I think everyone wants to make their mark on the world in some way, to leave something of themselves behind. Some people do that by raising families, others by inventing or making great discoveries that change the world, others by their artistic endeavors.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe I’m writing great works of literature like Dickens or Austen. I just hope that people enjoy the stories I write, that they provide a brief respite from a sometimes troubling world. It’s quite likely that my books and stories will not last much past my own lifetime. Still, the potential is there and that’s a nice thought.

If you’re interested in reading more of “Immortality” you can go here for a different translation. Lichtheim’s comes form “Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom”

** Papyri generally bear the name of the discoverer, first owner or the institution where they are kept. In this case, it’s named after Sir Alfred Chester Beatty who owned a number of papyri. He donated this one to the British Museum in the 1930s.

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