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.