Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reflections on John Bryant's No-Fault Philosophy of Textual Transcription

In THE FLUID TEXT does John Bryant promulgate a no-fault theory of manuscript transcription? This paragraph is Bryant’s:

In confronting the physicality of the working draft manuscript of TYPEE for the first time, I found myself as a critic having to look more deeply into textual scholarship and the principles of textuality. Wanting to quote from the manuscript, I needed to transcribe. Trying to transcribe, I had to decipher scribbles, cancellations, and insertions. Transcription is the seemingly simple conversion of handwriting into print, a presumably mechanical matter. But the manuscript text before me soon became an object that defied perception. Such a vexatious “not-me” challenges our self-satisfied assurances that text objects are definable, much less interpretable. I have gazed at Melville’s handwriting now for over ten years, and each time I return to a passage of his writing, it requires a period of retraining for me to make it readable. I read a crucial, illegible word in the TYPEE manuscript as “promotion”; whereas Hershel Parker sees it as “peroration.” The word Melville intended is one word only; the scribble we both “see” is the same; but the readings we give to it vary with our differing rhetorical agendas. I doubt that Parker and I, or anyone, will be able to resolve this issue; all we can do is engage in a discourse upon the intended text, and its intentionality is defined by that discourse.

In the paragraph I have just quoted, Bryant concludes that intentionality is defined by the discourse he and I and anyone else engage in.

No, I would say, intentionality is defined by what Melville wrote or thought he was writing, for of course we can write down letters while our attention is distracted. When I noticed that a word was wrong in a depiction of the topography of Pierre’s mind, I wrote “neather” in the margin. The word “nearer” in the text was wrong: my intention was to write “nether,” a word I already knew how to spell, but my mind was still grappling with the complex sentence and I was probably writing in the margin without peering at the action of my ball point pen. Probably my eyes were not in the margin but on the page, and obviously I was influenced by the “ea” in the wrong word, “nearer.” I intended to write “nether.”

There’s a category of outright blunders, as where you write “eastward” instead of “westward,” but there is no doubt that you wrote the wrong word and may even have at the moment have intended to write it, without thinking which way a body of water was from the land you are talking about. I shudder at my blunder in the first volume of my biography, my giving Catherine Sedgwick a book called The Lintons when Helen Melville plainly had written, correctly, Linwoods: WUTHERING HEIGHTS overruled my perception for the moment I was transcribing, and I transcribed wrongly. I could not see the right word because the Linton family was so strong in my mind. I certainly intended to write the right word, but Emily Bronte got in the way of my perceiving the right word.

Nevertheless, blunders aside, intentionality is defined by what the writer wrote, and no word should be called “illegible,” contrary to Bryant. A word dismissed as “illegible” has just not been focused on yet by the right reader. Sometimes, as in Hayford’s plucking “Timon” out of Melville’s manuscript fragment of “The River,” the result seems like divination, but divination is merely the total saturation of the alert and brilliant transcriber into the text being transcribed. Some of Robert Sandberg’s transcriptions of “The House of the Tragic Poet” are of the same order as Hayford’s best readings, and Sandberg’s comment to me when I expressed my awe at what he had achieved was what I should have expected: that for weeks he had submerged himself into the manuscript until he knew the direction of the thought in particular sentences and larger hunks of prose as well as the state in which the “whole” of the surviving parts of the piece were left. It was not a matter of glancing down at an unfamiliar page and saying “What that says is ‘after completing the transcribing and editing of the Pieces.’”

The word I transcribe as “peroration” is NOT an illegible word. Bryant can challenge my transcription, and I can argue from context that my reading is right, but the word is, finally, not illegible. It is what Melville intended it to be.
Prejudice can distort our transcriptions, certainly. I found an instance or two where the meticulous Jay Leyda put down the wrong word because he expected that something unfavorable would be revealed by the writer or revealed about someone else.

But misreading because of our expectations is a different thing from transcribing according to “our differing rhetorical agendas.” In transcribing the Melville family letters my agenda was to put down what they wrote in the order they intended it to be read. If the writer put the location down in a line (ARROWHEAD, say) and later wrote a sentence that started on that line and jumped over the location, I jumped over the location too and transcribed what the writer wanted to say and did say, despite the inadvertently self-imposed obstacle of the location that was in the way, later.

I had no rhetorical agenda. I wanted to transcribe what the author wrote.
Bryant is talking on the basis of his transcription of sixteen known leaves from the first draft of TYPEE—one leaf long known in the NYPL and fifteen that went to the NYPL as part of the “Augusta Papers” of 1983. It is unfortunate that the wording Bryant uses implies that there is a full manuscript of TYPEE. There is no such thing as “the TYPEE manuscript.” Referring to the surviving pages as “the TYPEE manuscript” instead of “the surviving leaves from the first draft of TYPEE” deflects our attention from what Bryant is actually working with—sixteen leaves, not a full draft of a book.

When I worked with Bryant’s transcription a few years ago I found what I decided (in my old-school judgmental fashion) were 2 mis-transcriptions in the first 11 lines on the first side of the first surviving leaf. In both cases, Bryant’s “rhetorical agenda” seemed to be pushing neutral words into sexually charged words. This suggested to me that his “rhetorical agenda” was a sexual agenda. This month I got enough money together to purchase Bryant’s MELVILLE UNFOLDING: SEXUALITY, POLITICS, AND THE VERSIONS OF “TYPEE”: A FLUID-TEXT ANALYSIS, WITH AN EDITION OF THE “TYPEE” MANUSCRIPT.

Again, the title startles me, and not just the “SEXUALITY” part. No, this book cannot contain an edition of “the TYPEE Manuscript” because such a thing has never been seen by a living person and presumably has not existed since 1846, when it was discarded in London after compositors set from it. There are “versions” of only a very limited number of passages of TYPEE, not “versions of TYPEE.” And if my sample from the first leaf is representative, then “Sexuality” really may reflect Bryant’s “rhetorical agenda” perhaps as much as the words Melville wrote in those surviving few leaves of the first draft.

What does the philosophy of transcribing by “rhetorical agenda” lead to? The misreadings in Tolchin’s book, one example of which I posted about? Are those not misreadings, because there is no such thing as a misreading but only the product of a varying rhetorical agenda? Anything goes? Are we in a textual kindergarten where we make every child feel equally proud of himself or herself? What Jimmy transcribes is just as good as what Suzie transcribes? Do we say, “And Debbi, what a beautiful transcription!” “Johnny, what a transcription!”?

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