- The Life of Texts. Evidence in Textual Production, Transmission and Reception ed. by Carlo Caruso
This book derives from a series of public lectures sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Durham on a challenging topic: The Life of Texts. Evidence in Textual Production, Transmission and Reception. On that occasion, speakers reflected on a number of compelling theoretical and methodological issues centered around scholarly editing and textual criticism as well as on several editorial case studies, from ancient texts to modern times.
Recently edited by Carlo Caruso, The Life of Texts works from the premise that each text is inextricably linked to the historical circumstances in which it was produced and that its resultant variability is often an ontological principle at the core of the text itself. Therefore, the various authors of these essays challenge their readers to consider the history of texts as a dynamic and vital sign of their own life. Unsurprisingly, several chapters of the collection are focused on traditions of texts considered in fieri: from Leonardo da Vinci’s private writings and their variety and mobility as ‘open works’, to the different editions of the unfinished Essays by Montaigne. Texts are often the result not just of an author-inspired activity, but also of the lack of this authorship, the evolving techniques of book production, the historic vicissitudes and the act of interpretation which lies behind each [End Page 160] translation or re-reading. Indeed, as Richard Gameson said in his general introduction to this book (significantly titled: Conceiving the Life of Texts), authors have always been aware of how a work may escape their control because of the various processes of revision, rewriting and cuts, mistakes in transcription, censorship and other printing house errors. For this reason, a text could be simultaneously available through its tradition in various forms, fundamentally betraying the traditional and cultural demand for a stable and canonical work.
The audience generally experiences this intrinsic variability of texts through different forms of ‘mediation’. Throughout the book, the identity and consistency of these intermediators between texts and general public are carefully taken into account. For example, several types of mediation could be related to the material aspects of transmission (such as the Christian Bible which switches from the plurality of the Holy Scriptures to the singularity of the book known as The Bible), to the effects of the historical and social circumstances (for which a ‘text in exile’ as the Divine Comedy provides the right example) or to the personal commitment by specific mediators and their willingness, usually involved in text’s constitution and transmission (such as the alterations implemented by Shakespeare’s company on the plays with or without the author’s agreement or the role of Valerie Eliot and Ezra Pound in the revision of The Waste Land’s draft materials which inaugurate a new understanding of Eliot’s poem).
Among the various case studies presented in this volume, a fascinating point emerges: the limit between authorial revision and textual corruption is often — from the earliest evidence of literature to the latest novel published — blurred and contradictory. Despite that (or probably due to that), this relation demands to be recognized, respected and interrogated, because it affects the nature of texts themselves and influences the reading practice. The above problem becomes relevant in cases, such as Shakespeare’s and Dante’s ‘phantom’ autographs, in which the lack of authoritative textual witnesses has deeply contributed to shape and direct the textual tradition of the oeuvre. In such cases, as argued by Annalisa Cipollone, evidence shows that stemmatic procedures cannot lead to any reliable conclusion. Hence, the textual critic must work through the text comparatively considering the system of variants, adjusting his understanding of ‘authorship’ on the basis of the variable circumstances of text’s tradition.
Even though this book consists of nine independent chapters, each...