- Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century
There are a number of reasons why we constantly interrogate poetical texts to learn about the past, and also to better understand the societies we live in: the high symbolic value bestowed on literature by the educational system, institutional inertia, economic interests created around culture, urgent psychological and political needs to get in touch with traditions that are part of ourselves, and so forth. This [End Page 928] book by Roger Chartier—proficiently translated by Arthur Goldhammer—would add another reason to the list: namely, that any progress achieved within a humanistic discipline that crosses boundaries to neighboring fields has the potential both to find unexplored objects of study and to raise new questions.
Inscription and Erasure disputes the long-standing division between the interpretation of texts and the description of the material supports and socio-historical environments in which texts appeared and circulated. Throughout the eight chapters that constitute this book—some of them had already been published independently—Chartier examines from a middle-ground between a socio-historical study of graphic culture and the hermeneutics of the poetical text "the manifold relationship between inscription and erasure, between the durable record and the ephemeral text, by studying the way in which writing was made literature by certain works belonging to various genres and composed in various times and places" (vi). The choice of texts studied in the book has not been made following any systematic criteria, nor does Chartier claim to have exhausted his methodological approach (xi). However, the selection of texts seems fully justified by the representative character of the issues at stake.
In the first chapter (1–12), Chartier deals with an implement of written culture that was fundamental until the widespread use of paper. Between the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Benedictine abbot and later archbishop Baudri de Borgueil wrote some 250 Latin poems containing recurrent allusions to the wax tablets in which he composed his works before those works were copied onto another, more definitive support, such as parchment. When addressing Baudri's poetization of a writing tool, Chartier stresses its place in the bigger picture of contemporary mechanisms of writing, and extracts numerous references to the processes of text composition, copying, reading and memorization to which the use of wax tablets was intrinsically related.
Chapter 2 (13–27) focuses on the Sierra Morena episode in the first part of Don Quixote (1604), and on the appearance therein of a librillo de memoria. Chartier gathers all the evidence available to describe what that librillo was. Definitions from contemporary dictionaries, a reference from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the history of similar devices (like the writing tablets of Elizabethan England), and surviving examples of the librillo from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, all seem to point to a small booklet with varnished pages that allowed for writing and wiping off notes of a transient nature. Moreover, Chartier shows [End Page 929] how the functioning of such a device is analogically represented in the functioning of Sancho's memory throughout the entire episode. Chapter 3 (28–45) remains centered on Cervantes' masterpiece, discussing Don Quixote's visit to a print shop in Barcelona. Chartier underscores how the details about the printing process in this episode—notoriously affecting the very book in the incongruous episode of Sancho's stolen ass—along with the hints to Avellaneda's apocryphal second part of Don Quixote throughout the book, are another side of the constant interchange between fiction and, in this case, "the technical and literary circumstances in which the book was composed (in both senses of the word composed: aesthetic and typographical)" (42).
Chapter 4 (46–62) tackles a play by Ben Jonson—The Staple of News (staged in 1626)—which satirizes the handwritten newsletters and printed gazettes that proliferated in seventeenth-century England and disseminated unreliable news which, nevertheless, were avidly welcomed by the uncritical audiences. Chartier differentiates between the...