Saturday, March 19, 2016


In my personal journal yesterday, I tried something borrowed in halting fashion from some of the medieval literature I have read. It appears again in this post: the highlighting of paragraph beginnings and notable points in red. In my personal journals, I have decided not to continue the practice; it is more difficult to carry out consistently than it needs to be, and I find myself running towards an overuse of the red ink as I move through composing the text. In the venue of a blog, however, as with any kind of electronic composition, it may work better than in manuscript for me. I have the advantage in electronic composition of being able to write the text fully before going back and altering what needs to be altered. It allows for more deliberate and reflective paratextual compositional choices, which seems to me to be a good thing--as well as a commendation of my medieval forebears, who had to plan things out more effectively ahead of time (although there is no shortage of scribal error to be found among the peers of Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenforde). If I could but figure out how to do drop-caps in this webspace...

It is a commonplace that current compositional--and working, more generally--circumstances are more tolerant of "error" than are older forms. Conventional "wisdom" is that those who went before, having less, had to be more careful with its use; moderns, having much, are prodigal, and in being so lose the attention to detail that marks the masterworks of days gone by. It is a myopic view, however, and one that reflects a limited conception of how things used to be. There was a lot of crap produced in earlier times, as high a percentage of "error" then as now, and just as eagerly consumed. (Indeed, is it not also a commonplace that those who went before had bad ideas about how things worked?) And even in the "masterworks," there are errors and inconsistencies, oddities that require substantial explanation that still does not suffice, matters excused or ignored but still present and no more "right" than the things condemned today as the marks of modern laziness and inattention. It is possible that plenty corrupts, but penury does not itself for purity make. Even Homer nods, after all, and how much of what was no longer is, so that its errors are hidden?

That there are things to celebrate in older forms I do not contest. I am, by training, a medievalist; how could I be so and do so? But that same study, spurred initially by the love of the thing, has shown me that the thing is not perfect. What we study of the old--and of the new--is the work of human hands and human interpretations of things that are not such works. Being of humanity, they are flawed, subject to review and revision. This is not to say that they are bad. It is to say, however, that we neglect the whole person when we do not note the flaws and errors; they are as much a part of the person as the successes, and they have value. Setting them aside blinds us to that value, and we already see too little.

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