Friday, September 18, 2015
M. L. West's new book on the ODYSSEY and Parker's FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS
In the 11 September 2015 TLS that arrived yesterday Peter Green reviews THE LATE M. L. West’s THE MAKING OF THE “ODYSSEY.”In the 11 September 2015I Green begins by quoting West: “CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON HOMER SEEM . . . TO HAVE READ LITTLE THAT IS MORE THAN THIRTY OR FORTY YEARS OLD.” West ignores these critics “in favour of earlier criticism, much of it by nineteenth-century scholars, mostly German,” notable among whom is Freidrich August Wolf, the scholar of the Iliad. In a disdainful tour for the rest of his paragraph Green describes recent critics as seizing on textual inconsistencies and revamping them “as positive evidence for deliberate indeterminacy.” These modern critics believe in “Homeric intertextuality, not only insisting that no clear proof exists of the Iliad’s genesis having been prior to that of the Odyssey, but also allowing in as the equivalent of ‘texts’—given a notable shortage of these in the strict sense—such entities as social or political ‘codes.’”
This business of taking such entities as social or political “codes” as the equivalent of “texts” makes perfect sense to me because of what I encountered in writing MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE. This is from the foreword:
The fact is that despite its immense popularity literary biography is under attack from subversive interlopers, and not only theorists of biography and theorists disguised as biographers. Archival research proving arduous, would-be biographers have begun redefining archives, expanding any narrow conception of archives to include geographical location as archive and abandoning objectivist standards of truth. Instead of aiming to recover what someone wrote, one theorist now suggests transcribing manuscripts according to the critic’s rhetorical agenda. Even the use of historical records is now challenged. Many critics and would-be biographers seem determined to theorize the genre of biography out of existence.
Here is a longer passage:
In this chapter I have assumed that [critics] . . . all intended to transcribe what the letter writers wrote, but I acknowledge that it is no longer safe to assume that people working with Melville’s manuscripts are determined to recover precisely what he wrote. In The Fluid Text (2002) one of the 1990 Pittsfield panelists, John Bryant, recalled that where I read a word in the double handful of draft pages of Typee as “peroration” he read “promotion.” He then announced a new policy on the transcription of Melville’s handwriting: “The scribble we both ‘see’ is the same” but the “readings we give to it vary with our differing rhetorical agendas” (19). I would have thought the readings varied with our familiarity with Melville’s hand and vocabulary, with the acuity of vision (however assisted by jewelers’ loupes and flex-armed lighted magnifiers), and, when necessary, by prolonged and repeated inspections, in different moods and different lights, but not so. Bryant’s goal no longer was absolute determination to capture what Melville wrote but in cases of any doubt to pick a reading that fit a rhetorical agenda. I had recognized even in my hero, Jay Leyda, instances where a word was inadvertently mistranscribed because it fit a prejudice against someone in Melville’s family, so I knew that our expectations could make us inadvertently see a word wrong. Naively, as a transcriber of manuscripts I had wanted to find the right reading, whatever it was. Are we in a new place where textual Sganarelles will boast that they have discarded all the old aims and methods of scholarship? Where there is no such thing as a misreading?
Still worse, we are in fact witnessing the emergence of a new biographical terrain where life-writers are beginning to redefine the idea of “archives” out of existence, so that they can boldly go beyond traditional documentary evidence, not even pausing there. In Archivaria 23 (Winter 1986–87), Pamela Banting was ahead of her time, as her title shows: “The Archive as a Literary Genre: Some Theoretical Speculations.” Vinay Lal in Biography (Summer 2004) offered no opposition at all to Antoinette Burton’s earlier Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home, and History in Late Colonial India (2003). Indeed, Emory Elliott’s throwing-out-the-baby introduction to the Columbia History is recalled in Lal’s phrasing: “At one time the notion of archives brought to mind political history, state documents, property ownership deeds, and tax records, but Burton suggests that the archive can be rendered, if one may use a term that evokes its own sexual politics, infinitely more fecund as a site of other histories. It is commonly imagined that archives yield public and political histories, and that such archives have little room for private memories; but Burton’s intent is to fragment the opposition of public and private, of history and memory, and in particular, of history as the site of masculinist thinking and grand narratives, and of memory as the site of feminine desire and domesticated ruminations” (673). Burton asks, says Lal, “What histories do domestic interiors yield? What are the architectural idioms of history? How can a home be the foundation of history? Why do the metaphors of home and house occupy such a prominent place in history and memory? What is the relationship of women to the archive?” (673–74). Perhaps we should be grateful that none of the Melville critics mentioned in this chapter has followed contributors to Burton’s Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History (2005) to the extreme of redefining “archive.” No critics of Melville have yet followed Wendy M. Duff and Verne Harris (in a 2002 piece in Archival Science) toward what sounds almost like archive as Facebook: “We need descriptive architectures that allow our users to speak to and in them. Architectures, for instance, which invite genealogists, historians, students, and other users to annotate the finding aids or to add their own descriptions would encourage the leaking of power,” since those of us “who are on the inside of the information structures must create holes in our structures through which the power can leak” (279).
Mark Allen Greene set forth his position in his abstract for the 2002 “The Power of Meaning: The Archival Mission in the Postmodern Age”: “Some archivists at the forefront of writing about the complexities of electronic materials have challenged the traditional U.S. definitions of ‘records,’ ‘archives,’ and ‘archivists.’ Where once those terms were broad enough to encompass virtually all forms of documentary material, these writers, exemplified by Richard Cox and Luciana Duranti, have urged on our profession a narrower conception of records and archives. This challenge threatens to undermine the important socio-cultural meaning of archives and archival material. It is vital that archivists reclaim and reaffirm a broad conception of their professional purpose and an equally broad definition of what constitutes archival material. To do otherwise is to accept a truncated and sterile vision of our profession” (42).
To do otherwise than as Greene says is to risk the loss of irreplaceable human records, the stuff of biography. During the early triumph of the New Criticism some of its practitioners made no move to resist the destruction of old bound volumes of American newspapers. Who would want to read newspapers when all that was needed was a literary text? Now the postmodern conquest of libraries is undermining the archival bases of traditional biography. When anything is an archive, who needs to go to the library? Who needs what we used to call an archive? Not an archivophobic, certainly, but not even a bold Little Jack Horner. If writers like Burton succeed, it looks as if the New Historicist game of dipping for decorative embellishments into really old books (1930s books, say, and some of them in faraway libraries and in bound volumes which are not always “previewed” in Google Books) and dipping daringly into manuscript collections for a vivid phrase or a quaint name to use as a one-of-a-kind garnish—it looks as if this game will lose its cachet once the old definition of archive is redefined out of existence. Meanwhile, who teaches transcription of nineteenth-century American handwriting? What’s happening is not pretty.
End of quotation from MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE! You see that what postmodernists are doing to libraries is just what Green was talking about: allowing in as the equivalent of ‘texts’—given a notable shortage of these in the strict sense—such entities as social or political ‘codes.’”
The modern critics M. L. West ignored are more empowered every year, it seems to me. What is it to be a very old old fogy? Here is Lee Patterson, now dead like West, on philogists in his 2006 TEMPORAL CIRCUMSTANCES:
FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS was much-maligned (I might just say savaged) in the 1980s by New Critics and New Bibliographers alike but starting in the 1990s one by one biblical, classical, medieval scholars, and critics of British poetry and the modern British novel have seized on it for its arguments which clarified problems they were encountering in their periods. Ironically, given my subtitle, critics of the American novel were slow to acknowledging its significance. “Hershel Parker is right,” Gavin Jones said flatly in 2014, perhaps not realizing how daring that statement was. It is soothing to have Lee Patterson in Temporal Circumstances link me with Lorenzo Valla, Friedrich August Wolf, Joseph Scaliger, and Richard Bentley as scholars who showed that “philology at its most relentlessly skeptical forces us to reconsider received truths that may not be so true after all.”