Sunday, December 2, 2007

Literary texts and hypertexts

An old literary chestnut: Just what is a text? Three texts to consider:

Beowulf: Often cited as the oldest extant text in the English language, this blood-soaked tale comes to us through a single manuscript dating to around the year 1000. The manuscript was damaged in a fire in 1731, and was not transcribed until 1786.

Since then it has deteriorated further, leaving the 1786 copy as the only source for some 2000 letters, though modern imaging techniques have also helped in reconstruction. The 11th-century manuscript itself is written in two different hands and appears to be a working copy. The story clearly draws on centuries of oral tradition. It is an open question to what extent the particular telling is a transcription of a spoken saga or a literary work in its own right.

The poem begins: "Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon." The language has changed a bit since then, and as a result most people read it in modern English translation (or wait for the movie to come out).

What is the text of Beowulf? Is it an old saga, as captured by a long-ago author? The words written on the old manuscript? The manuscript itself, or as accurate a reconstruction as we can manage? The story, as well as we can render it in modern language?

Hamlet: We all know at least the beginning of Hamlet's famous soliloquy: "To be, or not to be? I, there's the point/To die, to sleep, is that all? I, all ..."

Wait, that can't be right, can it? Ah ... I must have reading from the infamous "bad quarto". I should have been reading the first folio: "To be, or not to be, that is the question ..."

The first folio is generally considered the best starting point for Shakespeare's plays. Its own introduction warns of inferior editions, and indeed many of the plays, Hamlet included, exist in several different forms.

There have been attempts to harmonize the various sources into some sort of "ideal" version. Whether this works or not is a matter of opinion. Arguably, there is no one text in such cases, but unfortunately a stage production has to work from a single script, whether a harmonized one or one of the original editions.

On the other hand, if you consider the play as a play, and not just a text, whose production is definitive? The Globe theater is open for business again, but the original production company is no longer available for engagements.

Ulysses: Beowulf and Hamlet are old texts. It's no surprise that they might present problems. What about a work that was published in the 20th century by an author who lived another 19 years after its publication, producing corrections and commentary along the way? The text, of course, is James Joyce's Ulysses.

Ulysses presents a few special problems. It was originally published in serial form, until one of the installments ran afoul of US obscenity laws. It was then published as a book by Shakespeare and Company with, by most accounts, thousands of typos (just how many thousands depends on whom you ask).

The language of Ulysses is not as obscure as that of Joyce's last work, Finnegans Wake, but it is full of invented compounds like hismy and snotgreen, which traditional proofreading would tend to break up, directly against the author's wishes. Further complicating matters, the original setting relied heavily on Joyce's handwritten notes on the galleys. Many of these are now lost.

The result was a series of printings that everyone knew had significant numbers of errors, perhaps minor and perhaps not, but which no one knew exactly how to correct, particularly after Joyce's death. An attempt in 1984 drew worldwide attention but also scathing criticism.

The 1961 edition appears to be the most popular today, but further corrected editions are promised and "genetic studies" of the various versions of the text is a thriving field in its own right. You can find more here and here.

So once again, what is the text?

What does any of this have to do with the web (other than all three texts being available on the web in some form or other)? One common thread here is that a text is a deeper thing than just a series of words printed on a page. Scholarly editions have recognized this for centuries, by means of devices like footnotes, marginal comments, glossaries, bibliographies and so forth.

Some of these techniques predate printing, but all of them work even better as hypertext. It's not surprising that there are well-developed web sites available for all three works. The new technology is a natural fit for the old problems.

It's also nice that, with serious scholarship being made available on the web, the average reader can see up close the kind of dense, interlinked historical structure that used to be available only in sparsely-circulated journals. This is basically the literary equivalent of putting scientific material up on the web, and the benefits are similar as well.

No comments: