The grandfather’s hand

I had intended to blog an English summary of the paper I gave on Thursday, but I will postpone the father’s hand (title of my paper) to go to the grandfather’s hand first.

In her keynote at our conference of last week, Ulrike Vedder introduced the idea that all writing is testamentary and that reading is a way of communicating with the dead, especially when it comes to manuscripts of deceased persons. How come (was one question) that touching the manuscript of a dead person causes respect, emotion, creates a connection, instead of generating disgust for dead matter? When you hold the old manuscript of a letter in your hands, the mechanisms of addressing make you feel like it was written for you. You revel in the idea that you are, beneath the actual addressee, the first one to lay eyes on a somehow virgin text – virgin of other eyes to read it and hand to touch it. Of what nature are these feelings? You can probably argue that there is something aesthetical about them. But in the end it has to do with possessing something unique and identifying with it. The manuscript and the first reader (whom the editor always is in some sense) make one. This why editing is always a fight for Deutungshoheit, why all manuscripts are not equal and why editions develop a textual canon that does not only answer to research questions, but reflect the archives’ and the families’ fears and prides.

It is obvious that there never will be enough competent manpower to edit well all the texts that would deserve it (for whatever scholarly reasons): in my eyes, the only possible consequence to draw from this situation is a coordinated and competent work that optimizes the process of making most of these texts available on the basis of a minimal, extensible scholarly standard. Every well edited text is a victory for everyone, because everyone can work with it. But this point of view is based on the assumption that everyone shares it, which is by far not the case. Last week, an archive denied us edition rights on a manuscript on the grounds that the manuscript is too good for us to be the prime editors. The edition should be done by the institution that hosts the manuscript itself.

It is a complicated situation, not solely reducible to the economical survival and the prestige of the institution feeling threatened to be robbed of one of its treasures. It is a general problem of smaller (private) institutions and their relationship with scholarly projects. Certainly, the fact that this is “just a junior research group” intending to do the edition played a role, too. But there is another interesting point. The person in my group who intended to do this edition is a descendant of one of the manuscript’s authors. What is at stake is also who is the real heir of a work of art based on a letter exchange. The archive denying any relevance to this aspect of our request is another way of enlightening how archival preservation was constituted along time and understands its mission in the 21st century. Once a manuscript has passed on to an archive, family members are no more no less users of the archive, like anyone else. The inheritor function has passed on to the archive.

I will never emphasize enough how exceptional and exemplary the cooperation between all concerned institutions and partners is in the case of Boeckh (heirs, university archive, state archive). Of course, it is the result of years of hard work, of assessing all partners’ interests. But the hard work – worked. In the small film on our Boeckh project, the interviews go from Angela Boeckh telling about the portrait in the entrance hall of her parent’s home, the passing of the books from one generation to the next and the discovery of the hugeness of the name in high school, then to Jutta Weber describing the papers as left by August Boeckh to the state (then royal) library and end with a statement by Philipp van der Eijk on the significance of Boeckh for the history of Classics. The heirs authorized the university library to scan all scholarly relevant material they had left, but retrieved them afterwards. Now we are struggling to find a stable way to archive all these scans which no library wants to host because it does not correspond to a physical object they possess (an interesting archiving question which I hope to solve rapidly and satisfyingly)

In this case, the materiality, the grandfather’s hand, goes back to the family. We, the scholars, had the manuscripts and the books in our hands and we have made sure that, were they to get lost or destroyed, their scholarly content would still be available. Also, we could consult them again for any research purpose requiring the original. But the emotionality of the contact with the manuscript is taken away from us by the (grand-grand-)grand-children: they are the ones who keep the manuscripts, who can touch them, those who know the papers were destined to them for real, those to whom they are precious to for a reason legitimated by blood and the construction of a family history. And were the papers to burn, they would have been kept in the hands of the family – it would be their natural death as manuscripts.

Scholarly and editorial work on manuscripts is awakening the dead: and not everyone wants the dead to be awaken.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *