Genre Trouble – About the problem of using modern day literary terms on Egyptian texts

Part of working with textual data is the classification of the text in question in some way or another. Now, there are many different ways of classifying a text: epoch, school of thought or authorship are only a few examples. This article will deal with genres or rather with the questions and problems concerning them. Every day we let our reading be guided by genre classifications: We open up a book with a cover saying “Thriller” and automatically expect a more or less suspense-packed plot. Or if it says “Novel”, we hope to read a rather sweet and romantic story. But can these classifications really be trusted? (For example: An English speaking reader would expect a “novel” to be rather long. A German speaking reader on the other hand might expect a “novel” to be rather short, because the term resembles the German term “Novelle”, even though “Roman” would be the actual translation.) And what do they help us regarding ancient Egyptian texts?

The problem of using the concept of genre for the Egyptian part of the SeNeReKo project lies in the fact that most genres were constructed after ancient Egyptian texts were written. There are close to no textual classifications made by the Egyptians themselves. Only a few exceptions are known, for example lists in which certain texts are grouped together (“The Great Tebtunis Onomasticon”,1 “The book of Thot”2) or headings, which are commonly used for the same kind of text. All in all the Egyptians themselves did leave us nearly no clue how to organize their texts. But what about other sources? Generally Aristotle is regarded as the first scholar who developed a genre system – consisting of lyric, epic and drama. But these definitions were based on contemporaneous writings, which is why they can not or only partially be used to categorize Egyptian texts. Furthermore many researchers do even think that using modern or – more generally speaking – not genuine Egyptian genre terms for ancient Egyptian literature might falsify our understanding of the texts. This concern is based on the fact that with a certain genre there do come certain expectations of what a text must look like or what function or meaning it has to have. One example for this might be the autobiography. Nowadays people generally expect an autobiography to more or less true – aside from a few mistakes based on wrong memories or the like. But one can’t expect an ancient Egyptian autobiography to be truthful, because this genre was written to help the authors name live on for ever in the remembrance of the bereaved. Therefore any negative act in life would be left out, which means the text could not hold up to modern standards. Still, one can observe that Egyptian texts are usually classified by researchers into genres one way or another, which is a phenomenon that also occurs within any other literature, no matter by whom it is read. But in order to uphold scientific standards it is essential to classify texts not randomly but systematically. Which leaves us with the question: How can one achieve a genre system that does fit Egyptian texts?

But actually the problem starts even before dealing with Egyptian texts, in fact it starts with genres themselves. There is no universal definition of a single genre. This is due to the many unresolved questions concerning the concept of genres. What is a genre, and where does it come from? What was there first: text corpus (Nominal-Definition) or genre (Real-Definition)? And following that question: Do texts have to be written according to a certain genre or does the definition of a genre have to be adapted to a certain text? Even if one should find answers to these questions of what comes first, there is no end in sight. For: What characteristics of texts are constitutive and which aren’t – form, content, factuality/fictionality, figures, function, prose/verse, style or length? How does one deal with the alteration of a genre, that occurs over time? What does a researcher do if readers regard a text as for example an epic even though it isn’t in an academic point of view? As this selection of questions might exemplify it is quite difficult to use genres for academic purposes even though we use them nearly intuitively in our every day life. And if we can’t be sure how to use genre terms for literature of our own time and culture, then how is one supposed to do the same for texts that are thousands of years old?

But even though it might be difficult to create a proper genre system for Egyptian texts it is essential to do so from an emic research perspective sooner or later. For, as mentioned before, readers usually regard a text as belonging to a certain genre and treat it accordingly. However, Egyptian texts won’t fulfill the expectations of the reader who works with them based on a modern day genre system. This might falsify the interpretation as well as the evaluation of the text, which might get in the way of important findings embedded in the text.

A possible way of constructing such a system, that applies to ancient Egyptian standards, could be provided by the methods of stylometry. Using computer programs such as R or others allows to compare a huge corpora of texts regarding occurrence of words, length, structure of sentences and so on. Based on such findings it could be possible to identify different genres within the probed corpora, which share a certain style of writing. Using this method allows to look on the subject from an emic perspective enabling the texts – and therefore the cultures – to speak for themselves. This way one avoids to impose modern day genre understandings on ancient texts, which, as mentioned above, might falsify interpretations of such texts. But again there appears a problem that should not be ignored. Genres defined based on stylometry methods usually don’t cover all the aspects considered by literary approaches, but are rather to be regarded as linguistic terms. Therefore a multi-dimensional approach, also including content, themes, figures and the like, seems necessary in order to classify ancient texts into genres.

As of now there do not seem to be final answers to any of the above questions. But keeping in mind that genres might not be as fixed as they generally seem and might even be culture specific phenomena certainly is a step into the right direction.

1Osing, Jürgen: The Carlsberg Paypri 2. Hieratische Papyri aus Tebtunis I: Tafeln. Museum Tusculanum Press, Kopenhagen 1998.

2Jasnow, Richard Lewis/Zauzich, Karl-Theodor: The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thot: A Demotiv Dicourse on Knowledge and Pendant to the Classical Hermetica. Volume I: Text. Otto Harrasowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2005.



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