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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

O Felix Errorem!

Posted by Ray Davis on 06/25/05 at 07:27 PM

In whom the dear errata column
Is the best page in all the volume!
Thomas Moore

Establishing the "real meaning" is one goal of the critic's game, but no one achieves a perfect final score, even when they live in the author's time and know the author intimately. (Sociologists estimate that I misunderstand approximately 82% of what I write myself.) Although Blake wasn't referring to the Industrial Revolution, our "dark Satanic mills" still reek of coal.

Since it's unavoidable, we might as well celebrate the preservative and generative aspects of literary misinterpretation. Misreading Virgil as a Christian prophet benefitted both Virgil's work and Dante's.

But how about misattribution? What benefits do we gain from that?

Forgery's not nearly as lucrative for English majors as for art students, and so I can only think of one.

Much as Microsoft or Sony won't be content till all content is licensed from Microsoft or Sony, a canon drowns competition through sheer shelf-filling reproduction. Misattribution to a canonical author can carry a work into otherwise inaccessible environments. How likely is it that we'd have good copies of the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of St. John if they hadn't wandered into exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time?

In English, Bardolatry promotes misreadings of the Bard and ignorance of everyone else. But, at the cost of their authors' names, some lucky parasites have hitched onto the Swan's belly. I got my first access to the helpfully anonymous "Tom O'Bedlam's Song" that way.

Appropriately, those Bardolators who worship misattribution itself perform the greatest public service. "After God, the Earl of Oxford has created most" looneys distributed copies of George Gascoigne's collection long before the first widely available scholarly edition. Ronald B. McKerrow pretty much established contemporary editorial scruples with his wonderful Works of Thomas Nashe, but it was last in print in 1958, and, on the web, only the Collected DeVere takes up the slack.


And he didn’t mean James and John Stewart Mill either.

Contrary to popular opinion, the windmills in Cervantes were not quaint survivals, and Spain itself was not backward then. Only Don Quixote was backward. (Forms of the word “molinar”, “to mill”, are used several times for the act of beating someone (Sancho or Quixote—believe that Sancho actually had some molars, same root, knocked out in one milling). The mills may well be symbols of inexorable modernity.

In the same way, the cute, nostalgic little railroad trains in Currier-and-Ives prints were actually forward-looking, state-of-the-art, and modernistic at the time the prints were made.

Misattribution is a whole industry with religious texts, and was very common in medieval days, but I acn’t think of anything in Eng Lit either.

By John Emerson on 06/26/05 at 06:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s a funny thing, but it is among non-professional devotees of certain authors that you most often find the people who have the broadest and deepest exposure to their favourite author’s otherwise forgotten and obscure contemporaries.  Dressing up in Jane Austen bonnets and gowns is a sin, but some of the dresser-uppers I’ve met have read Richardson, Hannah More, Mary Hays, Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Blair, know everything there is to know about the Church of England and the Royal Navy, etc.

I wish I kept better notes, because I dimly recollect reading a review of a recent-ish book dealing with unsigned short fiction in late c19 magazine(s) like Blackwoods which the book author claimed were hitherto unrecognised very early (apprentice) Henry James.  Whether the stories really are by James or not, I guess the general point you’re making here is relevant; it’s material that, lacking the famous name to keep it in print and on the shelves, would otherwise stay buried in dusty old periodicals.

By on 06/26/05 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

O per Felicem Errorem? O Felix Error?

By on 06/27/05 at 04:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

O Felix Error I’d say; or perhaps O Felix Culpa, given the Christian-religious angle.

The Henry James book is Floyd Horowitz’s recent Uncollected Henry James (Carroll and Graf); which I havn’t seen, but concerning which several reviewers have kvetched that whether these early stories were or were not by James is less salient than the fact that they are rubbish, mostly.  but that’s not quite the creative swerve Ray is interested in, though, is it?

By on 06/27/05 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laura, that’s an interesting point: Identification with (rather than just worship of) the canonized writer can lead the worshipper to riskier and less orthodox investigations. “And justify the ways of Jane to men....” I don’t dress up to read Edgeworth and Inchbald, but the person who recommended the latter to me has been known to give tea parties. Now, if she’d gone on to claim that Austen had written A Simple Story....

Actually, I guess this is just another way of saying that fans tend to work harder than students do. Until fairly recently, most academic publications I saw on popular genres and media displayed dismayingly weak research and analysis compared to fannish publications. Love beats obligation for energy, although love can drive people to do some pretty silly looking things.

Classis and Adam, thank you for correcting my bog Latin. (The usual “culpa” seemed a little too strong.)

By Ray Davis on 06/27/05 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Love beats obligation for energy

I well remember when I took music courses in college how appalled I was that the music majors grumbled about having to study stuff that didn’t involve their instrument or was long or complicated—I literally saw them looking through alternatives for an assignment to see which was shortest.  I listened to Beethoven symphonies with awe and a sense of revelation; they rolled their eyes and complained.  Of course, later I understood that the viewpoint of a professional is very different from that of an amateur, but I still find it unsettling in that case.  Why would you major in music if you don’t love music?

By language hat on 06/27/05 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hat, while my son was studying music I had the same experience. His fellow students and teachers would think of Brahms Fourth Symphony and they would think “Major-ninth leap, bar 214. Sixteenth notes, bar 403.”

They were like technicians or athletes. Some loved music, and many didn’t. All enjoyed the technical challenge, I think.

An interesting concept: 100 musicians in a symphony, 2000 people in the audience, and how many people actually hear the symphony? (Subtext: classical music as social-climbing).

By John Emerson on 06/27/05 at 04:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tangential point: The first first edition of Franzen’s The Corrections included an errata slip covering the reversal of pages 431-2.

Also worth checking periodically:

By on 06/27/05 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I follow your point, but the direction worries me a bit. As you say, it’s possible (although not necessary) to simultaneously love listening to music and love playing music. Writing poetry helps some people gain more from reading poetry.

Nowadays aesthetic pronouncements tend to separate “appreciation” and “practice” more drastically than would, I think, have made sense before the age of mechanical consumption. But performance is also an aesthetic pleasure. What else could it be called? The bleacher bum and the catcher have very different experiences, but the name of the game’s still baseball.

I admit that some players care less about the game than others. Maintaining a high grade point average for a scholarship might be about as distracting as placing a high-stakes bet against one’s own team in the World Series.

By Ray Davis on 06/27/05 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that all musicians take some esthetic pleasure in music, but it might not be a very “musical” pleasure, but just the pleasure you get from hitting the high C or playing the 32nd notes fast and clean. Beyond that, there’s a divergence—some instrumentalists are much more involved in music than others.

Stravinsky said of Chaliapin that he was “an idiot about everything that didn’t have to do with music, and most things that did have to do with music.” Singers are especially susceptible because some people just have great voices because of the shapes of the inner chambers of their skulls.

In classical audiences I’ve also met people who didn’t really like music at all but had social reasons for going.

By John Emerson on 06/27/05 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Above, I speculate about the usefulness of misattribution to Jane Austen, and that’s H. J. Jackon’s opening gambit to get TLS readers interested in Mary Brunton:

‘The Queen had died in November 1818. Her collection included Austen’s posthumous publications, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published in December 1817 with the “biographical notice” that named Austen publicly as an author for the first time and correctly identified all her novels. Between them, then, the Queen’s librarian and Christie’s cataloguer should have known better than to add to the list the forbiddingly titled Self-Control and Discipline. But they did not.’

He later makes good points about the suppressive tendencies of a canon and the infantalization of literature. He doesn’t mention so much the narrowing of what’s considered proper for realistic fiction or the wider effects of sexism, and his hope that non-canonicity and the disdain of specialists might lead to more liberated reading by non-specialists strikes me as somewhere between forlorn and fatuous.

And then there is the matter of taste: I’m afraid Self-Control did nothing for me. Regardless, Jackson successfully piques my interest in Brunton’s later work, so: Well played, Jackson!

By Ray Davis on 04/11/06 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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