October 6, 2010

Razors In The Clay

It was an honor to guest the other night at the radio show of my friend, gentleman-polymath Shawn Roberts. We turned over the great, heavy rock that is Captain Beefheart and you'll want to see what crawled out from under.

Podcast of Shawn's Beefheart Show

August 16, 2010

From My Jolonel

In the words of a famous colonel:
"War is infolonel."

June 6, 2010

This Is Going To Get Worse, &c.

I often think that Dijon
Is France's most beautiful rijon.

And it's nice to tour the Midi
With your swidi.

But head for Beaune
If you want to be aleaune,

Because in Bourgogne
They won't quit annogne.

April 29, 2010

Parerga and Paralipomena

A mere fragment of a sentence, yet I could criticize it for days. It's from a review of some contemporary poetry that, for all I know, may be very good. But this twelve-word clause is corrigible out of all proportion to its length!

What is uncanny about the extruded fragment is that it contrives to be patronizing toward Pliny while, at the same time, overrating him. You couldn't have done this if you knew what you were doing -- to quote a great poet.

1. Patronizing.

Why "wonderfully"? Is it matter for surprise that Pliny should be inquisitive and incisive? Is the implication that inquiry and incision are recent inventions? Or is it (rather) implied that they are traits seldom met with in classic literature? -- or seldom met with among the Romans specifically? I fear I'm being reassured that Pliny, Rome, and the ancient world aren't as boring as it is presumed I expect them to be. And hereby a man may learn that it's not only Pliny the Elder who is being patronized.

2. Overrating.

The writer actually contrives to praise Pliny for qualities he hasn't got. Pliny "inquisitive"? The Histories of Pliny the Elder are collectanea -- repositories of lore cogged out of other men's books. Pliny's importance derives from the fact that the books he copied from mostly no longer exist. I think that if Pliny had been inquisitive it would have unsettled his belief in the leucrocotta, an animal with the legs of a stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of a badger, continuous bone ridges instead of teeth, and a human voice. Pliny has charm, energy, idiosyncrasy, and he is curious, in an unruffled sort of way; but if "inquisitive" means asking questions, I doubt whether anyone less inquisitive ever held a pen.

And "incisive"? It usually connotes the quick and accurate exercise of judgment. The metaphor is medical. Matthew Arnold characterized the genius of Goethe in lines I hope are still immortal among diagnosticians, if nowhere else --

He struck his finger on the place
And said, "Thou ailest here, and here."

If that is what "incisive" means, Pliny is not your man. Pliny collects the testimony of sundry authorities and puts it all in. The exercise of judgment is not his strong point -- not his goal. And we are the richer for it; but as long as we are being Classical, we should call these things by their right names.

April 2, 2010

Moving Tales:

Narrative Drift in Oral Culture and Scripted Theatre*

Copyright © 2007 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in NEW LITERARY HISTORY, Volume 37, Issue 4 (2006): 725–38.

1. Jack

Students of British popular culture have often collected valuable evidence in North America. Broadly speaking, there are two attitudes that may be taken toward such a provenance. On the one hand, the American environment may be seen as a preservative: the Appalachian mountains, for example, are isolated enough that a transplanted folk-tale gathered there may be seen as more authentic than if it had been gathered in Britain: insulated from agents of change in its place of origin, the tale is as if sealed in a time capsule; it has not had to adapt to the altering circumstances of industrial society, mass culture, and so forth. Another line of thinking, however, would say that the American environment, be it never so “isolated,” is distant — in space and in culture — from the British Isles. Cut off from their “roots” in reality, and from the pressures of authentic tradition, the tales are changing, mutating; they are acclimatized to foreign surroundings, and consequently less authentic.

Folklorists who concern themselves with the genre called the Jack Tales may therefore take various attitudes toward folklore transmission. The term Jack Tales is used to describe traditional stories that used to circulate orally in parts of North America. It is safe to say that many of them are derived from European folk-tales, that some resemble American “tall tales,” and that a great many of them cluster about the figure of a youth named Jack. About Jack, there is debate over whether he has a “clearly defined character” or is simply a counter, a name for whoever happens to be the protagonist. One of the Jack Tales is the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” also known as “Jack and the Giants.” The various Jacks do not need to be much homogenized to display the character of a youthful trickster, amoral, and able to turn any circumstance to advantage.

The whole Jack Tales enterprise as an object of study stands in a provocative relationship to Richard Chase, the entertainer/impresario/Federal worker who collected the tales and named the genre with his book of “re-tellings” The Jack Tales (1943, endlessly reprinted), and with his aggressively marketed personal appearances as a storyteller. Scorned by the academy for his unscholarly way with the materials, Chase, after his death, still labors under a charge of popularizing (in the “bad” sense) popular culture (in the “good” sense). The thrust of recent scholarship has been directed toward undoing Chase’s work, recovering the original field transcriptions of the tales and recovering the individuality of particular performances (as opposed to Chase’s “homogenized” syntheses).1 Whatever else this may have achieved, it has effectively returned the tales to the university and the library, whereas Chase, whatever else may be said of him, was at least returning them to oral circulation and to popular culture.

What interests me most about the Jack Tales is apparently what interests folklorists the least: the mere fact of the accretion of a multiplicity of tales around this single figure of Jack. Not having been trained as a folklorist, I am not surprised that my interests differ from their own; but I am quite surprised that the coalescence of these tales, originally concerning various figures, around Jack should attract so little attention, or so little comparison to other instances of the same phenomenon. How and why does a narrative detach itself from its original protagonist and attach to some other?

Here are stories with traceable sources in Gaelic, German, Norwegian; yet we find herein a process — it seems to have begun in the British Isles — whereby Jack displaces the earlier protagonists: a process that continues in America, where all these disparate tales have become something like a “cycle” about the exploits of Jack.2 The questions this raises must be familiar to many who have never concerned themselves with folkloristics. In one episode of The Simpsons, a flashback shows us the infant Homer Simpson, having “Jack and Jill” read to him by his father and asking if this is the same Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Jack Sprat” and “Jack Be Nimble, Jack Be Quick”? “You know son, I believe it is,” says Homer’s bored and inattentive father, dosing the obstreperous questioner with NyQuil.3 Some scholars, in fact, would be glad to emulate Grandpa Simpson’s solution and be rid of questions about “Jack” altogether. Its use as a generic term is perhaps of questionable authority and can be considered an over-simplification introduced by Richard Chase. For my part, I do not expect the term Jack Tales to be displaced any time soon by “British- and Irish-American Märchen.”4 It is interesting, however, that the scholarship should repeatedly revisit this anxiety over the status of the personal name “Jack” and its referent, or referents. Some scholars have worried that the Jack of the tales does not meet standards of consistency that would let us regard him as “a character.”5 I think the concern is principally with the fact that “Jack,” even in the context of “his” tales, can be seen as remaining principally a name, one that can come off the tales, be slapped back onto the tales, be interchanged with another name, or imaginatively reified into a character; a name that can confer unity (all the tales are about the one Jack) or disintegrate it (the tales are about different Jacks).

That, it seems, is one way the phenomenon of “narrative drift” works: the shared signifier Jack enables easy transference of signifieds (so Jack who was nimble and quick is made identical with Jack who climbed the beanstalk). We have to pause before labelling such conflation as unintentional “confusion” or as intentional “assimilation.” There is something obscurely purposive in the way oral culture (for that is what we are dealing with) exploits identity and/or similarity of sounds — something that encourages us to see the process as lying in a region somewhere between confusion and assimilation. Dreams, puns and “nonsense” all make play with this same basic situation: a single signifier is exploited in order that it may stand for two different signifieds. So do the folk-tale materials under discussion here, although it never can be clear whose joke — or whose Jack — we are dealing with.

2. King

This must often happen when the names are already identical, but this does nothing to explain why narratives wander away from one name and affix themselves to another. Adventitious “confusion” of this kind is powerless to explain how David came to be the slayer of Goliath.

In the text of 1 Samuel, the giant Philistine with whom David does battle is mostly referred to simply as “the Philistine.” At three places he is called Goliath (17:4, 21:9, 22:10), which has of course remained his name in all places where he and his fight with David are referred to. Yet, awkwardly enough, a passage in 2 Samuel attributes the victory to one “Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim” (21:19). Early exegetes of the scriptures were loath to admit that any passage was simply mistaken, preferring to posit scribal corruptions; so the subsequently-composed text of 1 Chronicles, going over the same general history, does mention “Elhanan the son of Jair” but says that he killed, not Goliath himself, but “Lahmi, the brother of Goliath” (20:5). This brother of Goliath, unknown from any other source, has long been recognized as a redactor’s effort to harmonize the two traditions of Goliath’s defeat with the minimum of aspersions upon the integrity of either. My own copy of the Harper Study Bible (c. 1964), an edition whose annotations attempt with some muscularity to justify the text’s integrity and inspiration, notes that “it would appear that this tradition [favoring David as Goliath’s slayer] is to be preferred.”6 It would certainly appear so. The drive toward harmonization that begins with the Hebrew scribes continues into early modern European translations and commentaries, long after the culture at large had permanently decided that David killed Goliath and Elhanan, if you heard of him at all, was a nobody who killed a nobody giant. The earliest editions of the Authorized Version append a marginal note to 2 Samuel 21:19, the passage the caused all the trouble, the one where Elhanan is said to have slain Goliath; the Authorized note reads: “That is, Lahmi the brother of Goliah, whom Dauid slew.” At some point, as often happens in the transmission of ancient literature, the marginal note crept into the text. The vast publication history of the English Bible prevents me finding out exactly when this happened, but the widely distributed twentieth-century Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible thrusts the saving phrase into the text itself, which now reads: “Elhanan [...] slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam,” with only the italic typeface (in the original) signaling the absence of the phrase from the Hebrew text.

Early attempts to unravel this mystery were historical in approach, searching out the actual identities behind the names in the Bible, or at least the most probable identities. That approach inevitably foundered on the lack of contextual materials and the reticence of the texts. A better approach is through the principles of textual transmission, adapted to folkloric materials instead of written texts. In textual criticism, the principle of difficilior lectio, the more difficult reading, is established; it is easy to see how it would operate in criticizing these texts about Goliath. Of the two candidates for the title of Goliath’s killer, one is supremely famous, the other almost totally obscure. It is inherently likelier that oral transmission robbed Elhanan and conferred his prize on David than the other way around. Following that line of thought, most biblical scholars now assume that David’s Philistine opponent was anonymous in the original version of the story, and that “certain details of the Elhanan tradition [i.e. the name Goliath] have attached themselves artificially to an unrelated story of a duel of David’s own.”7 And the impulse to credit King David, rather than some comparative unknown, is not a feature of ancient times alone: it is perennial, turning up, as we’ve seen, in the 1964 Harper Study Bible.
There is much to be said for difficilior lectio, and it is plausible that great deeds should be wrenched away from minor figures and bestowed upon major figures, like satellites attracted into the gravitational orbit of a more massive planet. But such a theory should be refined by considering how frequently there is a conduit of linguistic similarity that can be seen to link the borrower and the lender of these wandering deeds — a principle that would lead to what we might call difficilior locutio: editorial preference for the less easily spoken word.8 But time and oral transmission only do their work of effacing difficult forms when the speakers are content to let the meaning change, and the principal circumstance under which that occurs is when they no longer understand the earlier meaning. Iona and Peter Opie record an American children’s game that included the lines

My mother gave me a nickel,

My father gave me a dime.

Having crossed the Atlantic, the rhyme is found among Salford children with “nickel” having been transformed into “necklace.”9 (The “dime” had persisted unchanged; perhaps dimes were better known than nickels in 1970s Britain, due to snatches of old song such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”). This minor but telling transformation represents an oral-culture version of something like the practice of the Bible redactors mentioned above. Once the word “nickel” had become problematic — a crux — emendation was needed. But tradition is such that the proposed emendation must do as little violence as possible to the earlier reading, even if it has come under attack; and “necklace” is a reading that combines the maximum of semantic plausibility with the maximum of respect for the received sound-pattern.

Only very cautiously do I borrow the terminology of literary editing. The editor is concerned to discover how error entered the text because it is his or her labor to root it out and return the text to an “original” condition; whereas I am (in this essay) interested in the forging of identities through time: in the changes that are wrought in transmitted materials, the identities that are thereby built up, and the desires that fasten upon and exploit the instability of the transmitted text, and that are in turn gratified by its re-making. Such work is endemic to oral culture and is at least inhibited by literacy. Literacy, in its turn, confers the advantages of records: better transmissibility to greater numbers of people, better consistency, and better availability as objects of continued contemplation. If the work of “emending” the American rhyme collected in Salford had been carried out in a literate process, the redactor(s) might have found themselves less satisfied with the consistency of the set of two gifts “necklace,” “dime”; or they might have changed the objects in both lines, to conform to the general class “pieces of money” (penny and pound, for example). They might even have had leisure and information enough to hit upon the emendation — “nickel” — recognized by the Opies as historically true.

Such, at any rate, are the implications of Jack Goody and Ian Watt in “The Consequences of Literacy.” They stress the effects of the introduction of literacy into cultures hitherto relying on speech. The authors’ political-anthropological approach disposes them to focus on transmission practices that offer to increase a culture’s power and complexity — that render it less vulnerable to criticism, and more consistent in its dealings over time. Oral culture, I think they are right to say, encourages “the unobtrusive adaptation of past tradition to present needs.”10 I have quoted the Salford singing-game specifically to suggest another perspective on the transmuting property of oral culture. For it is not just that I like the intellectual satisfaction of understanding how the thing came about; I like the “necklace” version, and prefer it to its original. Perhaps the appeal of “folk” materials is significantly involved with our appreciation for the obscurity, opacity, or asymmetry that is introduced by oral transmission. The distortion of a pedestrian original can alternatively be seen as the fantasia of the unconscious, transmuting received materials in obedience to unknown needs; a kind of unconscious creative power, a kind of flowering. In the oral setting, a crux in the text, be it the name Jack or the word nickel, is a space of potentiality, within which creative power works its will.11

3. Queen

In what sense, though, can the play I am going to write about — George Peele’s Edward I — be treated as “oral culture”? Edward I, composed (in the form in which we have it) c. 1590–93, has sometimes been suspected of being a memorially-reconstructed text, in which case its words would have been exposed not only to the transmuting properties of memorization and recollection, but also, perhaps, to those of oral transmission.12 But in 1955 Dora Jean Ashe demonstrated that the printer worked from a manuscript that was partly or wholly in the author’s hand, and that the play’s deficiencies and inanities were likelier to derive from the revised and altered condition of the text. .13 Certainly, few Elizabethan plays bear the mark of the author’s hand as literally as this one, since the text of the first quarto ends with an unusual subscription:

Yours. By George Peele Maister of

Artes in Oxenford.


The reasons for considering Edward I as inhabiting an oral setting, then, have to do not with the play’s route to the printing-house, but with its source material. Ashe — using the same techniques nineteenth-century biblical critics used to uncover phases of composition in the story of David and Goliath — demonstrated the likelihood that the text as we find it in the first quarto has been revised; that cuts were probably made to accommodate the new material; and that all this was done with less than complete thoroughness, resulting in a play-text wracked with inconsistencies. One of the areas of vacillation stands out from the rest in its pervasiveness and its power of perturbation: the character of Edward’s Queen, Eleanor. Some scenes feature an Eleanor who is no worse than rambunctious; this is the Eleanor who refers to herself as “Old Nell,” who is royally munificent in granting money to maimed soldiers, and who longs for nothing worse than to box her husband’s ears. Other scenes seem to offer a different Eleanor: a venomous harpy who is a traitor to her King and an enemy to the whole English nation. Ashe blamed the additions on a “theatrical reviser” (p. 162), but the play’s editor in the standard Yale edition decided the theatrical reviser was probably Peele.

Seven scenes (3, 6, 10, 13, 16, 20, and 22 in the Yale edition) have these characteristics in common: firstly, they purvey this wicked Queen Eleanor; secondly, they draw on a vein of source material that is completely distinct from the sources of the original scenes. The Queen Eleanor additions draw on popular ballads.

It is important to note that the addition of the scenes vilifying the Queen does not simply represent an oral incursion into the written. Ballads, of all the literary forms current in the period, crossed the oral/written boundary with the greatest of abandon. The forms we call “traditional” ballads (the Elizabethans did not clearly see them as being a separate kind) have their origin in oral composition and oral repetition. They might then be written down and set in print, commodified for distribution to the literate world; but they would then be sung aloud and listened to, and repeated — even to the point of ending up transcribed again, into, for example, a commonplace-book. Theater-plays (being, in their performance, oral) inspired ballads (written) that were published (written) and then sung (orally) only to have their refrains adopted by poets (written) or playwrights (written, then oral). The traffic between theater and ballad being what it was, it is not unexpected that the reviser, casting about for material to introduce into the play, should remember these two ballads in tandem, for both are about Queen Eleanor. What is interesting — what the reviser forgot, or chose to overlook — is that they are not both about the same Queen Eleanor. Just as the unknown story-tellers, intentionally or otherwise, created “Jack,” the play’s unknown reviser is continuing a folk-lore process in conflating the historically discrete Eleanors of the two ballads, forming “Eleanor” (who must then be further assimilated to the “Eleanor” already in the text).

One of the two ballads to which the reviser turned for his material is entitled The lamentable fall of Queene Elnor. This ballad recounts the “wicked life and sinfull pride” of Edward I’s (historical) queen, Eleanor of Castile. The historical milieu is made quite clear at the ballad’s beginning:

When Edward was in England King

the first of all that name:

Proud Elnor he made his Queene,

a stately Spanish dame.15

From this ballad the reviser derives Eleanor’s pride and luxury; her attempt to shear the long hair of all Englishmen and to cut off the right breasts of all Englishwomen; her persecution of the innocent Lady Mayoress of London; her providential sinking at Charing Cross, and her mysterious surfacing at Queenhithe. The second ballad is Queen Eleanor’s Confession (Child 156). In this traditional song, analogues of which are found throughout Europe,16 the dying Queen Eleanor sends for “two fryars of France” to hear her confession. The King — identified in later stanzas as “Henry” — forces the Earl Marshal to go with him and the two of them, disguised as friars, hear the Queen’s confession. The treacheries of which she unburdens herself are received with suppressed vexation by her pseudo-confessors: the Earl Marshal, she admits, “had [her] maidenhead” before the King married her; she poisoned the King’s lover Fair Rosamond, and tried to poison him too. When she praises her son by the Earl Marshall and admits to loathing her legitimate son, King Henry throws off his friar’s habit and appears “all in red” (in his royal glory?) to the Queen, who shrieks and wails. For the Earl Marshal some trouble is, one gathers, foreshadowed.

This ballad of Queen Eleanor’s Confession comes to us with what we may interpret as markers to its historical referents. Queen Eleanor requires French friars and so must be French; her rival in King Henry’s love is Fair Rosamond; the Queen in question is therefore Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s queen. The play, transferring the plot to Edward I and Eleanor of Castile (and transferring the role of the Earl Marshal to the King’s brother Edmund) is continuing in the oral-culture tradition of confusing and confounding the identities of kings. Oral tradition inevitably conflates identities, and kings and queens draw their names from a very small pool, recycling “great” names in an overt bid for the heir to be analogous to the predecessor, or something more than analogous. The hope is that Henry VI will “be” Henry V because they are consubstantial in the name that “is” both of them. Royalty do also have surnames, of course, and if they are regnant they have ordinal numbers, and they may have epithets such as “the Unready” or “the Bald”: but all these only come into being to ameliorate the confessed problem.

This, then, is one of the ways plots become ambulatory: a shared name facilitates confusion and the transfer of plots. What is it Edward I can show us about it?

First, that the process can continue to work in the same way as it goes from oral culture to written play-script. The amalgamation of kings in folk-culture is accidental. It is explained by the transmission process gradually wearing down historical contingencies. Left unimpeded, it will preserve only the abstract-universal.17 Passing from hand to hand, the nickel’s bas-relief face wears down, it ceases to be Thomas Jefferson, it becomes A Man or perhaps Human Head; if the process continues it becomes a geometric shape or reaches the apogee of abstraction, which is the condition of being unfigured: a lump of metal. The process is opportunistic: a shared name facilitates an unintended amalgamation. But in the literate-culture case of Edward I, the addition of the ballad plots to the play takes place under entirely different circumstances, which do not, on the face of it, call for “explanation” at all: a playwright needed material, found it and took it, made the changes that were needed to the identities. For that reason I find the case fascinating. The reviser of Peele’s play could have supplemented Queen Eleanor with historical material from the lives of queens named Mary or Catherine, it matters not a whit; as long as he was wrenching the past around he was free to pick and choose. And though one of the ballads he chose is indeed about a different person she is still named Eleanor. The literate playmaker adopted — unconsciously — a constraint that in oral culture is merely adventitious.

Second, we might compare the institutional servility of oral culture stories to the institutional servility of Peele’s theater and its handy-dandy with various queens. Where one might have expected that oral culture’s genealogical narratives, which set forth the descent and thus the authority of the rulers, would be among the least malleable of narratives, this appears not to be the case. Goody and Watt report that in the state of Gonja in Ghana, authority is understood, on the basis of traditional oral narratives, to derive from the ancestral conqueror Jakpa. This Jakpa installed his sons as divisional chiefs, whose descendents, dispersed across different territories like the sons of Noah, are thenceforward entitled to rule the entire country by turns:

At the time the British were extending their control over the area, Jakpa was said to have begotten seven sons, this corresponding to the number of divisions whose heads were eligible for the supreme office by virtue of their descent form the founder of the particular chiefdom. But at the same time as the British had arrived, two of the seven divisions disappeared [due to boundary changes and a divisional merger] Sixty years later, when the myths of state were again recorded, Jakpa was credited with only five sons and no mention was made of the founders of the two divisions which had since disappeared from the political map.18

Compare the strategy of the Elizabethan play: composed in the early 1590s, it too has political motives for its narrative elisions. Taking on ballad lore about Eleanor of Castile works to brand her, up until then a distinctly English Queen “Nell,” as a specifically Spanish and specifically Catholic tyrant in the revised version. But that is nothing in comparison to the omnivorous opportunism that lets the play incorporate ballad-slurs against the “French” Eleanor of Aquitaine for the purpose of defaming the Spanish Eleanor of Castile. That plays adapt their sources to suit their audiences’ prejudices is not news, but it is suggestive that the politically-motivated adaptation here coincides precisely with the incursion of orally transmitted materials.

Where the oral tradition takes away historical specificity, the literate culture preserves it, and if it can’t preserve it, it makes it up. The ballad of The lamentable fall apparently called for historical explanation as early as the eighteenth century: the Harvard copy (c. 1720) is headed with a paragraph of commentary, apparently by the printer: “It may here, probably, be ask’d, why I did not omit printing a Ballad which, in every Circumstance, differs so very widely from History?” But the printer does not choose to “omit” the ballad. Like a biblical text it is too familiar, too invested a possession to be expunged: “I could not in Justice do it; for there are Numbers of People who know nothing more of the Transactions of former Times, than what they meet with in Old Songs.” Yet the question remained why a balladeer would slander Edward I’s queen in this way. Behaving like a biblical redactor, the printer rescues the ballad’s signifiers by draping them over different signifieds: he found a queen who deserved, in his view, to be so vilified: Mary Tudor. Citing such evidence as the ballad-queen’s “Jealousy of a Woman who was brought to Bed; for Queen Mary never had a Child,” the printer is doing something analogous to harmonizing different traditions: retaining the maximum of ballad with the minimum of offense to history, and no change needed to the words at all.19 And even if, like good critics of our own time, we eschew the attempt to discern historical truth in the ballads, we may unconsciously project a historicizing bent onto a guiltless party. The editor of the Yale edition of Edward I did just that to Francis James Child, the editor of the ballads. Discussing a Robin Hood ballad that is drawn on in still another part of the play, the editor F. S. Hook states that Child identifies the ballad’s King Edward “as Edward I by references to statutes of that monarch’s reign” .20 — a thing which Child simply and plainly does not do.

In the ballad-derived scenes in question, the Welsh rebel Lluellen and his entourage (including a third Eleanor, nothing to do with the Queen and the Queen Mother) arrive in the wilderness and resolve to play Robin Hood to pass the time away:

Lluellen: Ile be Robin Hood thats once, cousin Rice thou shalt be little John, and heres Frier David as fit as a die for Frier Tucke, now my sweet Nel if you wil make up the messe with a good heart for Maide marian [...]

Though the play might seem to be abandoning the literate genre of chronicle history for the oral domain of the ballad, there is one thing needful:

Lluellen: weele get the next daie from Brecknocke the booke of Robin Hood [...]

Is it a joke on Lluellen that his oral lore should be fetched from books? Or is the joke against modern scholarship, that we have erected too firm a barrier between the oral and the written?

4. Joker

Here I should stop examining these conjectural mental activities. It only remains to pose the awkward question whether the reviser’s amalgamation of ballad lore and historical drama has resulted in a reading experience having anything like the kind of value I found in the children’s game that substituted “necklace” for “nickel.”

It would be asking a great deal of this approach and still more of my reader if I were to claim any special aesthetic pleasure for Edward I. Peele’s play makes for bad reading and, I expect (but will never know for sure) a bad evening in the theater. Time has given it, like the Jack Tales, utterly to the university. This pleasure, though, remains to it: under philological pressure the play, unsoundly patched together to begin with, breaks down so readily into its constituent parts, that we are able to see processes the traces of which would be invisible (or, in another metaphor, “effaced”) if it had been readied for performance. Its value as I have presented it lies in its unusual transparency to analysis, and the opportunity it offers to respond to a conglomeration of features that interest us: revision, orality and writing, politics.

What this transparency discloses to me is the troubling, always-available instability of the attempt to name things. For it is in the arena of naming that Edward I is at its most dishevelled. Textual instability, whether its source be orality, literacy, intention or inattention, has fastened with special vigor on the arena of the personal name (the names of personae). The text, especially considered in the light of comparative study, becomes a nominal phantasmagoria. As we have already seen, there are the three Eleanors and the other Eleanors they are, or were, or threaten to be. Then there is the Lady Mayoress of London who is persecuted by Queen Eleanor: her title Mayoress, in the printer’s copy, was obviously written Maris, which must have seemed enough like a personal name to someone that it led to the creation of the phantom “Mary Dutches of Lancaster” in the stage direction at line 1435. Non-meaningful similarities and parallels abound: the play has one Friar (Hugh ap David) and no fewer than three phony Friars (Hugh poses as Friar Tuck; the King and his brother pose as French friars to hear Eleanor’s confession). The dramatis personae of the Yale edition actually has a section of “Unexplained Characters”: each of them can be somewhat “explained” by reference to free-floating name contagion. In the first scene the Queen Mother, swooning, calls out to one of her sons by the wrong name (the wrong title, actually: she says “Glocester” when she ought to say “Lancaster”). A stage direction in the first scene calls for not one but two characters named “Moumfort”; the Yale editor by emending and re-punctuating just about pushes one of them into shape as “Signior Moumfort the Earle of Leicester,” extracting thereby the maximum of history but unfortunately the minimum of service to the text, since the character does not speak, is not spoken of, and never reappears. Some of the names seem to have gone off course in intertextual waters: an inexplicable reference to someone called “old Aimes of the Vies” seems to have crept in from Holinshed, where it is noted that in 1281 Edward “kept his Easter at the Vies” (line 106 and note in the Yale edn). The name “Matreveirs” has crept in, I think, by way of the nominal consubstantiality of Edward I (the present play) with Edward II (by Marlowe) which is where Matrevers actually belongs, and where I suppose he should have stayed (line 108 and note). In Scene 20, the Potter’s Wife enters with “the Potter [...] and John her man”; but the Potter, though his existence can be legitimately inferred from that of his Wife, is a phantom character, and to make matters worse some scribe or compositor thought “the Potters wife” was “called the Potters hive,” whereas Potter’s Hive is the scene of the action (line 2247 SD).

And then there is the matter of the Friar’s novice. A nimble, quick boy, the stage-directions cannot seem to keep hold of him: he appears onstage without an entry direction; he explicitly arrives at the beginning of another scene in which, as it turns out, he pretty clearly isn’t present, a situation the editor finds “awkward.”21 The quarto’s speech-prefixes style him “Novice” throughout, but his name, when other characters happen to speak it, is Jack.


*This essay is dedicated to my father. “In those two Miles he broached a thousand things — let me see if I can give you a list —” (Keats, on Coleridge).

1. See Carl Lindahl’s “Introduction” to Perspectives on the Jack Tales and Other North American Märchen, ed. Lindahl (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 7–38, and the essays therein generally; also Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales and Their Tellers, ed. William Bernard McCarthy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

2. On Jack in tales from the British Isles, see Katharine M. Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, Incorporating the F. J. Norton Collection, 2 vols in 4 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970–71), Part A: Folk Narratives. On the sources of the American tales, see Herbert Halpert’s “Appendix” to Richard Chase, The Jack Tales (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943). In general, however, it is fair to say that folklorists are not usually able to say where tales originated and whither they went, such activity having happened mostly prior to literate culture’s explicit “discovery” of oral culture.

3. “Homer Simpson in: Kidney Trouble,” The Simpsons, written by John Swartzwelder (original airdate 6 December 1998).

4. Lindahl, “Introduction,” full title.

5. See Lindahl, “Oral and Written Styles of American Mountain Märchen,” in Perspectives on the Jack Tales, 68–98 (pp. 73–74).

6. Harper Study Bible, Reference Edition, ed. Harold Lindsell (New York: Harper & Row, n.d. [annotations copyright 1964]), note to 2 Samuel 21:19.

7. Anchor Bible, 1 Samuel, trans. and ed. by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1980), note to 17:4.

8. Though there is strictly speaking no need for this neologism, as Latin lectio does not commit us to either the written or the spoken word. — The scribal error in which a word is substituted for a similar-looking (or sounding) word is called the saut du même au même; for its application to the juncture of textual criticism and psychoanalysis see Sebastiano Timpanaro, The Freudian Slip, tr. Kate Soper (London: NLB, 1976).

9. Iona and Peter Opie, The Singing Game (Oxford: Oxford University Press, repr. 1988), p. 478.

10. Jack Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” 1963; repr. in Jack Goody, ed., Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 27–68 (p. 48).

11. There is a clear difference between valuing the product of “error” and enjoying the process (consciousness of how distortion is introduced). That the latter is not the property only of a philological elite, the game of Telephone bears witness. Telephone — in which a message is relayed by successive players until the final, probably mangled result announced — is a pretty good game.

12. As Laurie E. Maguire points out, however, “aural errors” may not necessarily point to memorial reconstruction of plays: “We cannot exclude the possibility of mis-hearing by a scribe of a dictator, or by a compositor of himself” (Shakespearean Suspect Texts: The “Bad” Quartos and Their Contexts [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], p. 197). Because of oral techniques in the printing-house, or analogous activity in the scribe’s or compositor’s mind, aural error — and therefore, in some degree, orality — can be a feature even of a text whose stemma looks entirely “literate.”

13. Dora Jean Ashe, “The Text of Peele’s Edward I,” Studies in Bibliography 7 (1955), 153–70.

14. The first quarto of Edward I (1593) is STC 19535; the subscription is on L3v. Hereafter the play will be quoted from the edition by Frank S. Hook in The Life and Works of George Peele, gen. ed. C. T. Prouty, 3 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952–1970).

15. The lamentable fall is reprinted, from the copy in the Huntington Library, in Peele, Life and Works, II: 206–211. In treating this ballad as pre-dating the play I follow the Yale edition (II, 19–21).

16. Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols (1882–98; repr. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), III: 257–258.

17. For the effect on narratives of memorization and repetition see F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932).

18. Goody and Watt, “Consequences of Literacy,” p. 33.

19. The head-note to the Harvard copy is reprinted in Peele, Life and Works, II: 211.

20. Peele, Life and Works, II: 18, referring to Child, ed., English and Scottish Popular Ballads, III: 51–52.

21. Appears without entry: line 455 in the Yale edition. Arrives for no reason: line 1015, and note.

February 12, 2010

More Where This Came From

Deafness in High School:
When he explained the binomial theorem
I couldn't heorem.

Murder on Everest:
The perpetrator
Was a sherpetrator.

When they admitted me to the inner sanctum
I politely thanctum.

An Emergency Bris:
We couldn't find a mohel
So we had to use Father Dohel.

You seldom meet a Mormon
But in Utah they're simply Swormon.

Why not come over for gnocchi
Followed by karaocchi?

February 9, 2010

A Fragment on Textual Criticism

[This was brought forth by, but isn't really a response to, the very perceptive article "The Death of the Editor" by J. Stephen Murphy.]

My own feeling is that the New Criticism, reader-response theory, and deconstruction were each responding to something that is just true: that is, the fact that, whatever it is that creates a text's meaning, the author's intention just isn't it. In our experience of reading, authorial intention is a complete non-event except in unusual moments -- as when we become positively stymied ("What can the author mean?").

(Now the reasons why deconstruction arrived at this conclusion seem to me quite unnecessary -- we don't need structuralism's semiotics OR deconstruction's counter-revolution to see that authorial intention is always imputed, never actual, even when it is the author who imputes it to the author.)

The author's intention is, in all cases, properly phrased as "the intention someone imputes to the author." Even authors themselves are notoriously bad guides to their intentions and the whole idea is quite properly suspect. All this is best verified by introspection, rather than by adducing anecdotal proofs.

Literary study was once focused pretty heavily on the work of art as a thing produced by an artist. ("Here -- Shakespeare wanted you to have this. With his compliments.")

Since then of course the primary focus has shifted to the reader; and the nature of reading depends on why we are reading. E.g.: if I personally am reading Emerson, it is, frankly, to see what Melville saw and may have responded to. (I hate Emerson.) Accordingly, I'm only interested in an Emerson text that circulated c. 1850, and in the U.S.; errors, typos and all. Emendations, even good ones, even ones that were mandated by the author, are only going to impede my research. But if I were writing a biography of Emerson, or a study of his development, then I'd be interested in the contents of his mind; I'd want a text of his works that reflected his intentions: never mind that such a text never existed in Emerson's time.

The foregoing may sound like I endorse the "let a million flowers bloom" philosophy of the antinomian Newest Bibliographers, un-editing everything and preferring an archive to a text. But that won't do either. And I think I can phrase my objection to it without recourse to authorial intention. I think it can be reception-based.

My objection is that the experience of an archive is in no way the experience of a poem. As readers and as scholars, we have the right to the inherited ontology of the artwork. Author or no author, King Lear is -- on some level -- a play; I mean a (a single) play. Even if it received multiple revisions, even if it's been printed, historically, in different versions, and played on differing stages, it is a fact of our world that it is legitimate to construe it as a single play. This may be "folk-ontology"; but it is stubborn, and it is the way we really do live.

No editor (or un-editor) will ever be capable of undoing this fact. This is shown by the fact that even the most radical un-editors can be shown to ultimately respect the singleness of the work of art. For example: I have yet to see an edition of Hamlet that chooses to introduce lines from Q1 of Othello.

But why not? Well, the honest answer will be: "Well, because Othello's a different play."

And by that we come to know that Hamlet is one play, by virtue of what it is not. (For if Othello is "that play," then Hamlet must be "this play.")

So the single, eclectic text is not illegitimate -- always granting that there are differing ways of doing that text, of course.

(Can anyone read, as opposed to consult, a parallel-text edition? There are limits to our brains'

I think that critical texts do need to exist, on the grounds that the experience of an archive is in no way a substitute for the experience of reading. Critical editions are the best form of edition because they offer

  1. a readable text
  2. a guarantee that all relevant material has been consulted
  3. an apparatus that gives the other forms of the text their due by making them reconstructible.

Now it becomes necessary to say that, while I should like very much to see how a critical text is to be constructed without reference to authorial intention, I don't believe it can be done.

It seems to me that in practice, any attempt at emendation is going to be on the grounds that this is what "is meant." And any time something "is meant," that involves the (= an) author. (I forgo a discussion of E. D. Hirsch and his confutors.)

So, let's say I, as an editor, try to salvage some of my 1990s doctoral indoctrination by saying: "I think this, and not this, is what stood in the printer's copy."

This is an appeal to a document, which is a comfortable doctrine. Documents, unlike authors' intentions, definitely exist. -- But the document I am appealing to doesn't exist. How, then, have I conceived the range of its possible readings? By reference, I find, to a covert idea of what an author might have intended.

No, there is no recourse to editing "documents." It's a commonplace that even in transcribing a manuscript -- something I do every day -- even working from a nice clear hand like Clemens's, I have to decide how to render some of the pen-strokes. This inevitably means imagining an author who has intentions.

It's not exactly that the editor tries to recover authorial intention -- rather, the editor's sphere of action is simply identical with the sphere of intentionality.

If, e.g., an editor chooses to print, not "Shakespeare's" version but "the stage's" version of the text, that is still an imputed authorship. "The stage" is now our author. (That's the 1986 Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell, as Paul Werstine points out.)

The Shakespeare series that include "separate" Hamlets or Lears usually end up, in the event, emending each text from the other. To do so is obviously eclecticism and defeats the purpose; but not to do so is perverse! When Q has an impossible reading and F a reading that is orthographically similar, you're going to enshrine the haphazard work of a printer? If you insist on that, you'd better do a photofacsimile. And yet I understand the new "RSC" Shakespeare edition hews to the Folio texts and actively refrains from emending from the Quarto.

This has the air of a solemn game; and the defect, fatal to games, of not being fun.

January 16, 2010

The Faith of a Mahler Heretic

Certainly, my heresy is not that I deny Mahler. I love Mahler, but I am not sold on his entire output. Possibly these notes will encourage those who have been dismayed by some unfortunate encounter with the less rewarding parts of his output.

For declining to go absolutely ape over the entire corpus, I make no apologies; still, it can't hurt for me to adduce the testimony of Otto Klemperer, who knew Mahler, worked with him, and is one of the greatest conductors of his music. Interviewed toward the end of his life, Klemperer said of his mentor:
Today I like his Kindertotenlieder and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and some of the symphonies. But not all of them. I mean, I am not a stupid, enthusiastic boy: I don't like everything he wrote.
Another opinion from which I have drawn some support is my father's. He said long ago, when I was starting to get interested in classical music, that a good deal of it is what he called "sawing around." He meant the many passages of nineteenth-century orchestral music where the string section gets whipped up into a motoric frenzy that bores as well as irritates.

I had assumed it was merely my own philistinism that made me feel this way about supposedly great compositions, and I was relieved. (On the other hand, all these compositions have their urgent defenders, and who is to say that my father and I aren't both philistines?)

I will therefore, in Mahlerian fashion, tempt Fate: Mahler at his greatest is represented by two sublime symphonies, two very great symphonies, single movements of two others, and one song-cycle, possibly two.

Symphony No. 1:Mahler's first symphony incorporates a set of orchestral songs he had written earlier (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). As it happens, the embedded songs are the best music in the symphony, by far. The rest of it includes: a minor-key transposition of "Frere Jacques" -- rather a music-student type of idea; and a final movement that is pure bombast. And so the best I can say of Mahler 1 is this: the opening bars may remind you pleasantly of Star Trek. For anything else, you are better off listening to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which is pure gold, and represents Mahler's inspiration prior to sophistication.

Symphony No. 2:Overblown music dramatizing a thoroughly overblown idea of the "resurrection" of the symphony's hero. Always puts me in mind of Richard Strauss's comment about Mahler's theology: "I don't see what it is I'm supposed to be redeemed from."

Symphony No. 3:A very great, indeed awe-inspiring, first movement; at more than 30 minutes, it's a symphony in itself. According to Mahler, a symphony ought "to encompass the whole world"; he was deeply imbued with this kind of 19th-century gigantism, and I'm broadly sympathetic. But sometimes the claim that a work is "all-encompassing" is an excuse for its inorganic construction -- what in the context of Dickens's novels we call "a loose and baggy monster." I fear that something of the sort is true of the Third, though I will admit I haven't entirely made up my mind.

Symphony No. 4:Genuine Mahlerites belittle, not the Fourth Symphony itself, but those who rank it high -- implying that to love such a lovable symphony calls for no special powers of perception. And implying that their denigration of the Fourth points to the possession of higher, more refined powers. But if the implication is that the value of a symphony lies in the difficulty of enjoying it, well, that is false. It's a connoisseur's way of admitting, without saying as much, that the Fourth is PERFECT. The recording by Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra and Judith Raskin is also, that's right, PERFECT.

Symphony No. 5:The first movement is great. The rest of the symphony is pretty thin stuff. That includes the often-heard "Adagietto," of which Klemperer said "it comes close to salon music." What the hell happened here?

Symphony No. 6:I have more recordings of this Mahler symphony than of any other, but that is not because it's my favorite. It's because I'm still trying to find a performance that makes the symphony seem an unqualified triumph. The idea (essentially a tone poem with the composer as tragically doomed hero) is not wholly convincing, and the finale contains a lot of sawing around. If, for you, "bombastic" is a term of abuse, then the Sixth, I fear, may not suit.

Because the symphony is so obviously nearly great, it has exerted a fascination for conductors, whose talents are needed to bring out another -- and better -- symphony, imagined as lurking within. Jascha Horenstein's recording (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) is extremely successful at holding the symphony together at rather slow tempi: tragic, fascinating, and unblunted. Leonard Bernstein's first (New York) recording seems to me a very natural and richly musical performance -- easier to live with. He also has the best cowbells.

Symphony No. 7:Almost great. Subtitled "The Song of the Night," this symphony seems to be a tour of the nocturnal mind; the first movement is like falling asleep. In fact I almost always do fall asleep listening to this symphony. Not, to be sure, because it is boring, but because it actually triggers the nocturnal and narcoleptic centers of the brain. The finale is another big gamble, wherein Mahler saws around with what is almost embarrassingly recognizable as the Meistersinger Overture: some conductors can make it work. Horenstein does (Philharmonia) and so does Bernstein (New York), but you have to hear Kyrill Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is just miraculous.

Symphony No. 8:Jesus, is it awful!

Das Lied von der Erde:Surely Mahler's "song-symphony" is his greatest work. As such, it is, of course, PERFECT. Klemperer's recording, with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig, is PERFECT. Mahlerites, anxious as ever to find fault with perfection, say Klemperer is too slow in the "cantering-horses" episode. I wonder what they think cantering is? The famous recording under Bruno Walter, with Ferrier and Patzak, has bad sound, unsteady rhythms, and a trumped-up reputation.

Symphony No. 9:This seems the right place to confess that I wish Mahler had allowed his previous symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, to stand as his final farewell to Life. But his heart ailment did not kill him quite as soon as expected, and he went on to compose the Ninth and one movement of a Tenth. Both are further farewells to Life; and no one knows how many times Mahler was going to say farewell before Life finally returned the courtesy.

I guess musicologists will come along now and prove that the Ninth is pretty classy composing, but I don't care for it. Klemperer, however, daringly parts company with me here. He conducted it a lot, and he does manage to minimize its sawing-around aspect: try his live, Vienna Philharmonic recording. Still, I think it is clear that, on the subject of Death, Mahler had already shot his bolt.

I have left out of sequence the other song cycle, the Kindertotenlieder or Songs on the Deaths of Children, on texts by Ruckert. I am very doubtful about the final song, "In diesem Wetter," in which minor-key anguish over the dead children modulates to major-key bliss at the thought that they are in a better world. If you don't read German (or CD booklets), the Kindertotenlieder may well be PERFECT.

These then are the articles of my creed concerning Mahler, who is presumptively my favorite composer.