Sunday, August 26, 2012

Jeremy Eichler and Judith Shulevitz talk textual theory in the Main Stream Media

 It is rare to see journalists treating textual problems seriously.

               from Jeremy Eichler’s “String Theorist” in the NEW YORKER (27 August 2012. p. 35):

            Tetzlaff began eying Ligeti's Violin Concerto in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when the first soloist's exclusive rights to the piece were about to expire. When he obtained the printed music, however, he noticed some puzzling conflicts be­tween the published solo part and Lige­ti's handwritten full score. Ligeti, a se­vere Hungarian who died in 2006, had revised the work after the first soloist in­formed him that the piece was unplay­able. But for Tetzlaff the earlier version was not only playable but more effective, so he obtained Ligeti's permission to perform the original.
            Tetzlaff came to see the piece as a Janus-faced score, shifting between an older, Bartόkian longing for homeland and an avant-gardist's fierce exploratory zeal. He expressed this view to the Ger­man press around the time of his first European performances of the piece, in 1999. Not long afterward, a plain post­card appeared in the mail:
Dear Mr. Tetzlaff, I've read your interview and feel very close to you. Not only do you play my con­certo PERFECTLY but you talk about it with so much understanding and compassion. For a living composer it is the most beautiful thing to be so understood by an interpreter. Warmly, Cyörgy Ligeti 

            Compare Judith Shulevitz’s piece in the New York Times Book Review for 6 April 2003, “The Close Reader; Get Me Rewrite.”
Shulevitz says: The most notorious, and arguably most destructive, reviser in English literary history was Wordsworth. Wordsworth never published his great epic, ''The Prelude,'' during his lifetime. Instead, he fiddled with it for more than half a century, making it on the whole more pious and less politically radical. The back-and-forth over the various editions of ''The Prelude'' has had a great deal to do with the emergence of a new scholarly movement devoted to the study of revision, known alternately as editorial theory or the New Bibliography. The New Bibliographers believe that scholars shouldn't try to decide which edition is better but instead should view all editions as part of an evolving whole.
Such synoptic neutrality, though admirable, doesn't help us much. Lay readers can't and won't struggle through page after page of variants. It is tempting to declare that original versions are always preferable, even though most editorial theorists dismiss such views as cheap romanticism -- the cult of spontaneity and all that. In a 1984 book called ''Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons,'' Hershel Parker, the great Melville scholar, explains why original versions often do seem so superior. Parker advances a theory of the creative process borrowed from the philosopher John Dewey, who believed that meaning is built into a text as it is composed, step by step. Meaning is a function of all the choices made and problems solved in the act of creation, not of prior intentions or after-the-fact conclusions. Great artists, Dewey said, ''learn by their work as they proceed, to see and feel what had not been part of their original plan and purpose.''
Emily Dickinson, in a poem quoted by Oates in her afterword, called inspiration ''the White Heat.'' For Parker this is an almost technical description of how literature is forged. Writers do what they can while the metal is hot, and should not attempt patch-up jobs after it has cooled. The virtue of this position is not just that it preserves a literary work's documentary value -- Oates's unrevised novel, with its straightforward social realism, seems more of its time than the revamped one -- but that it keeps writers focused on the future, not chewing over the past.
The problem with Parker's position, of course, is that it's much too reasonable. How do we know that some writer's neurotic need to rewrite isn't just an extension of his need to create? And who would want to deprive literature of its more memorable second thoughts -- James transforming Isabel into an effete creature not unlike himself, or Auden renouncing his own poetry? Writers revise; that's what they do. In the interest of history, however, publishers like Modern Library shouldn't issue a radically altered text unless they're also willing to bring the original back into print. [end of quotation from Shulevitz]

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