Back to school

With school starting on August 6th, the University buildings are deserted but for those who have kids in school age like I do. You can even recognized the bikes, not only because they are parked from 8:20 on, but also because they have old child seats on them that are discoloured by their exposure to sun and rain during the pre-school era. Real work has begun again, but in a somewhat soft atmosphere.

I spent the major part of my vacation working on a letter edition that is aimed at being printed only. I am back to the analog world!  Working on a much less precise scale (e.g. not on the scale of the single line) makes things move forward much faster. I have also given up rendering all corrections and additions by other hands. This correspondence – between Johann Heinrich Voß (the son) and Solger – has already been edited in part (to be precise, one could even say in bits) and is hence a real mess, with various hands interferring on the manuscript. This is due to the Goethe effect. In the time when he was in Weimar and Jena (the years 1804-1805), Voß was helping Schiller and Goethe out with translations and metric tasks. His letters consist in pages long acclamations and praises of Goethe (Schiller gets the due load mostly after his death). As a contribution to the Goethe cult – which Voß himself intended them to be -, they circulated very early and were partly printed in diverse editions. Although it was well known that Voß tended to exagerate (even his buddy Abeken underlines this in the book he himself wrote as a contribution to the Goethe cult a few years later), those text bits have been mostly taken at face value. Needless to say that I enjoy the myth-deconstruction part of this editorial work. The commenting might take me a while, since I am not so much into Goethe philology, but if there is an author you can find information about, it is surely Goethe. In comparison with all the unknown people I am ususally working on, it will be refreshing to find  the references to his publications without sweating and swearing and blaming google.

This leaves little time for digital stuff, alas! Still, things have moved on (without me doing much about it) in the meantime. The students’ encodings of the letters from Chamisso to de La Foye have come in numerous. Sabine, Anna and I will discuss the harmonization of those soon and we will have them online by Mid-October. Also, Janin has been working on the transcription of an unpublished text by Adelheid Reinbold on Ludwig Tieck which should be online before the end of the year: there, it is not only the strategies developed by this woman writer to assert herself that are of interest, but also the intertextuality inherent to the way she puts Tieck in a general literary perspective. Henrike has been transcribing the letters by Chamisso and his wife Antonie in the time of his travel to Greifswald and Rügen in 1823 for her BA – I find her letters fascinating. The first OCRs of Boeckh’s books have come in, we will check the quality next week. I have been contacted by the Golkonda Verlag, which plans an edition of Tieck’s works. Anna has reviewed the whole Sandmann encoding and moved on with Schlehmihl. With so many things going on, it feels good to come back to work.

Although I am not sure that I will be able to encode as many letters as I had planned until our official launch, I can see that the next winter will be productive and am looking forward to it. (I still plan to finish the older things too: the Voß volume, the Solger volume, the dissertation. So: back to Voß now!)

Why letters? Because letters!

I have always sworn by letters.

It started when I was 12. First, I loved receiving them. Then, writing them. In those lucky times when, like most people, I had no idea what an e-mail is, I found everything about postality enjoyable. Checking on the mailbox again and again, opening the envelope, unfolding the letter, reading it and wondering at what time of day the sender wrote it, from where, with what pen, expecting what from me reading it. I was 17 and ripping out an envelope was some sort of telepathic moment that repeated the closeness of two writing souls who just would not call one another on the phone. Pure magic.

This experience was obviously bound to be disappointed by reality itself. But by the time I had realized that, I had reached a point of no return in my love to letters – which had revealed themselves to me as texts too, and texts that are no less interesting than novels, dramas or poetry. It even seemed to me that correspondence is  the literary genre that allows to ask the most accurate questions as to whom a text is written for: Who is a letter written for? How can it be addressed to several persons? Could it be that a correspondence, in the very moment when it is put on the paper and somehow preserved, simply ceases to be a private matter? This was the main point of my paper “Ein Versuch, die ‘Berliner Klassik’ zu zähmen – zur Erforschung von Schriftstellerbriefwechseln” (in:  Tableau de Berlin. Beiträge zur „Berliner Klassik“, ed. by Iwan d’Aprile, Martin Disselkamp and Claudia Sedlarz, Hannover-Laatzen, 2005).

I think it is one of my best papers because it is the one in which a new thesis of mine emerged. This one does not deal so much with letters as texts than with the question of making them a reference corpus likely to be interpreted in different ways. In what order are letters supposed to be read? This concerned specifically a constellation in which more than 2 persons exchanged letters. Two triangular constellations and one with about 6 persons involved were the corpora on which I developed what was more of an unanswered question at the time. First triangle: Solger, Heinrich Voss and Rudolf Abeken; second one: Solger, Tieck and Raumer. Those exchanges resulted in several configurations: one addressing the 2 others in one letter or writing 2 letters to each of them the same day, 2 writing to 1, the whole construction getting even more complex as there were crossed discussions going on and live meetings taking place in between letters. Then I started considering the letters of the whole Freitag-Gesellschaft: Solger, Raumer, von der Hagen, Abeken, Krause, and a few others, who got acquainted while they studied together in Halle and remained in contact for 50 years (for those who lived long enough). Their literary and political analyses shed light on half a century of Prussian intellectuality. But what should be the order in which to read those letters?

The best order is, of course, the digital one. Because it is open enough to allow the user to chose, from a whole series of sorting options, the one that is more relevant to him or her. This is what Solenne Coutagne writes in her report on her work as an intern in my group in the last summer. But as much as it can be satisfying to be able to shape and reshape a text for the sake of analysis, as much as it multiplies the text, though, I still feel it reduces it to a source of information. It is as if it were not a text for a human being to read any more, but a text for a machine to read. Somehow the digital edition of letters is asking the question of the addressing of the letter as a text in a completely different way. Also, how can you mark the absence in such a format – all the letters that are missing and are part of the text insofar as they are missing – where do they belong?

If I may quote some Derrida to put this all in a not so deconstructive perspective (La Carte Postale, p. 190-191, dating February 1979):

Je réfléchis à un principe assez rigoureux de destruction. Que brûlerons-nous, que garderons-nous (pour mieux le griller encore)? (…)

Nous sommes la carte, si tu veux, et comme telle, comptables, mais ils auront beau chercher ils ne nous y trouveront jamais. Par endroits, je laisserai toute sorte de repères, des noms de personnes et des noms de lieux, des dates authentifiables, des événements identifiables, ils se précipiteront les yeux fermés, croyant enfin y être et nous y trouver quand d’un coup d’aiguillage je les enverrai ailleurs voir si nous y sommes, d’un coup de plume ou de grattoir je ferai tout dérailler…