Dem sterbenden Vater Zersprang der Stahl, Der lebende Sohn Schuf ihn neu.
Our civilization rests upon the vast bedrock, little thought of or reflected upon today, of those documents which preserve mankind's deeds and thoughts, arduously attained understandings, agreements, and commitments as old as humanity. They have a history which goes back very far beyond the earliest written form in which we possess them. Large parts of the Old Testament were known and loved and sung from one generation to the next for centuries by memory alone. Admittedly, we can never be sure whether even such revered bards and lawgivers as Homer and Moses were "real" people at all, much less how far the ancient singers of tales actually did have perfect recall of the lays they passed down. With the development of writing came a new concern with accuracy. Still, over the course of many copyings by a succession of scribes, errors do occur. Correcting them is speculative, because the original papyrus, parchment, or vellum itself seldom survives.
Therefore the advent of writing eventually produced a science of textual criticism, which quickly formed the basis of religion, law, philosophy, history, and all the other humane studies. Its goal was to recover the "intent" of an "original," where sometimes thousands of years had been bridged by scores of copyings and recopyings. Preservation and critical reading of texts has flourished in all the major civilizations, from Babylon, Athens, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Pergamum, and Byzantium, to the court of Charlemagne; it characterized the modern revival of learning which we call Renaissance; and it reached a culmination in Europe's great scientific epoch, the 19th century. Methods first developed on classical texts and in the ancient languages were at that time applied to other and modern traditions.
Fidelity in preserving the documents has seemed fundamental since time out of mind. But there have been differences as to just what fidelity might mean. On the one hand, August Boeckh argued in the 19th century that understanding any text actually implied knowledge of the entire culture which had produced it. This meant that the preservation and critical reading of a document must comprise many different disciplines. On the other hand, 20th-century New Critics reminded us that not even the author himself always knows his own mind, and that any who in later times speak of his "intention" are really committing a logical fallacy. Hope of remaining true to a revered poet might now seem vain. But even holding to that ideal, how might one approach fidelity?
For example, cross-cultural transmission might
require adaptation, as a cook book might give meaurements by volume
or by weight, or other
contingent on culture, say nutritional theory. The Bible has
an important manual for decent living that in most modern languages its
very vocabulary is regularly updated--presumably in order to preserve
intent. Archeological and linguistic research, at the same time,
to reveal hitherto unsuspected meanings in the very earliest
formulations. Toward the middle of the last century there arose a
who felt that since the original sense of any work is probably
the literary historian should
be interested only in how a work has been received by successive
readerships. Such a theory expects different epochs to discover
the same work, much as judicial science leaves the meaning of our
up to interpretation, and reinterpretation in the courts. At the
end of the twentieth century, "theory" came among literary pundits to
almost the opposite
from in more traditional, scientific usage (a scheme for coping
objective world), Literary "theory" now contemplated a Romantic
universe where the outer world is itself a subjective construct.