Textual Criticism


Dem sterbenden Vater
Zersprang der Stahl,
Der lebende Sohn
Schuf ihn neu.
--R. Wagner

        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 intercessions contingent on culture, say nutritional theory.  The Bible has seemed such an important manual for decent living that in most modern languages its very vocabulary is regularly updated--presumably in order to preserve its true intent. Archeological and linguistic research, at the same time, continue to reveal hitherto unsuspected meanings in the very earliest formulations.  Toward the middle of the last century there arose a school of critics who felt that since the original sense of any work is probably unfathomable the literary historian should really be interested only in how a work has been received by successive readerships. Such a theory expects different epochs to discover different meanings in the same work, much as judicial science leaves the meaning of our Constitution up to interpretation, and reinterpretation in the courts.  At the end of the twentieth century, "theory" came among literary pundits to denote almost the opposite from in more traditional, scientific usage (a scheme for coping with an objective world),  Literary "theory" now contemplated a Romantic universe where the outer world is itself a subjective construct.

    This problem may apply to my understanding of the Faust Book, however much I claim it to be an objective reconstruction.   But as to the development of Faust Book research, my choice of text was determined by the grand history of the Faust theme. Literary historians and editors still focus exclusively on the Spies imprint of 1587, because all later Faust treatments eventually derive from it.  Spies has long been recognized as heavily edited in the printer's shop, in contrast to its relatively cleaner sister text, the Wolfenbüttel MS.  But since the printed book, an early example of mass production, easily submerged the manuscript, the latter remains obscure in our own day.  My efforts to recover this better version of the Faust Book may be examined in editions by the Erich Schmidt Verlag (1960) and from Carl Winter Verlag (1995).  They follow the well-known trail blazed by classics scholars, who laid down the rules for attempting to recover a presumed original, the archetype, for a text which comes down to us only through copies.  My argument would be, of course, that the old Faust Book does have some intrinsic interest, quite aside from modern treatments of it, however brilliant.  The Wolfenbüttel Manuscript permits us, at least in some measure, to approach the original work.  That is what I am offering here.

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