The father’s hand (2)

In part one, I described the way the mineralogist Weiß constructed the fiction of a collaboration between Immanuel Hermann Fichte and his father over the latter’s dead body. One of the persons who protected Immanuel Hermann Fichte most vigorously against the accusation of plagiarism was his former teacher August Boeckh. In order to foil Weiß’ assumption that Immanuel Hermann Fichte’s not explicitely quoting his father was a sure sign that the text had been written by the father himself, Boeckh wrote in his note:

“It is very natural for the son to want to avoid giving the impression that he is resuming his father’s philosophy, Continue reading “The father’s hand (2)”

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.

A nail in the wall

I know only too well of all the corpora and features that we have still not fully realized (or even not yet begun to work on) for the edition, although they were initially conceived as primary goals. I can foresee, for instance, that we will probably not have enough project time to encode the correspondence of the Friday Society, an exchange of letters between five protagonists, sometimes one-to-one letters, sometime group-to-one or one-to-group. I have been wanting to edit this correspondence for ten years now. For seven years, I was blocked by the difficulty of choosing between presenting it in a chronological or in a person-defined order. Then came the digital edition and with it the unequaled opportunity not to choose, but to offer it all. A dream come true, really. Except that it is another dream that is coming true in the end.

For two years now, we have been more and more working on author-based corpora, which was precisely what I wanted to avoid. My idea was (and still is) that you don’t get to embrace the reality of relationships and networks through an approach based on personality cult. So as we began to focus on authors (Tieck, Boeckh, Chamisso, to name the bigger ones), I thought I had to accept the grieving over never being able to seize networks. I consoled myself thinking that I would not have been able to define said networks in a way that would have impacted my scholarly environment anyway. I said that we did not have enough entries to visualize anything. Crappy arguments, really.

I am not saying that defining relationships is an easy thing. But at the very least, it is something that does not as much resist formalization as I first dreaded. We implemented something of that sort. At first it was something fairly intuitionally conceived and consisted only in capturing  family relationships – what we later brought a theoretical step further with the concept of genealogy (meaning by that not only the family, but also the intellectual generations). We encode, so far as they are known and both persons appear in our edition, parent-child, spouse, lover, sibling relationships – the example of August Boeckh shows how long the list can be for one single person. This example also lists in which function Boeckh took an active part in major institutions. This other list is realized on the basis of  a tedious work on what we call the group index, for which we need precise entries, e.g. to know exactly, for instance, which professors were in a faculty or another in a given academic year, who directed the seminar for scholarly schools in which year, etc. In order to retrace intellectual genealogies, we want to add student-teacher relationships on the same model as we have parent-children relationships. When this will be done, August Boeckh will appear as “student of Friedrich August Wolf” and all of the students from the philological seminar listed in our database – there are a few of them – will be listed after a phrase like “Teacher of:  Immanuel Hermann Fichte, etc.”. In the end, all the things that it takes me pages to explain in my papers – that I.H. Fichte was the son of J.G. Fichte, attended his father’s classes, but was also greatly influenced by Boeckh – would be contained in two lines of a simple biographical entry.

But understanding this information supposes a great deal of background knowledge. It all comes down to being able to “read” the entries, e.g. to know what, in this very short information, matters – and what matters less. And so, after admitting that, to be honest, we have by far reached the critical mass of information needed to approach the corpus not just qualitatively, but also quantitatively, I also have to admit that defining a visualization strategy for this relationship information might, after all, actually help structuring, hierarchising, filtering it – being able to do something with it. Of course, a simple query already allows me to state that everyone seemed to have read Rousseau’s Nouvelle Hélöise between 1761 and 1860. But confirming well known hypotheses is one thing. Finding new ones is another. After running after intellectual networks for ten years, it seems to be time to nail them down properly.