The Indeterminacy of the Literary Text
(Last revised 1996)
What I am going to do in this pair of lectures is this. Firstly, I am going to look back over the lectures in this course that you have had so far, and try and fit them together for you. The main thing I want to explain is: why we think that you, who are after all here to read English literature, not to be bibliographers, nonetheless really need to know about Bibliography right at the beginning of your English course. Secondly, I will try and give you some idea as to exactly what you should do with this information: how you can apply it to your main activity, which is, I repeat, reading English literature.
The third thing is, I want to show you what it is to do Bibliography, in particular the kind of bibliography that I specialise in, which is called analytical or textual bibliography. I first started doing Bibliography nearly 30 years ago, and it has been a main interest for over 20 years. During that long time my attitude has changed, and the subject has changed. In order to understand what we've been saying in the last few lectures you need to understand a little about these changes: why Tony Davies has a different attitude to textual history than Kelsey Thornton, and why Maureen Bell has a different view of the subject than either of them. The easiest way to do this is to tell you how my own attitude has developed and grown, since I have lived through these changes, and can best talk about it from my own personal experience.
Rembrandt: the act of reading: the pleasure of the text
the act of reading
I want to start with a picture: a young man reading a book. I want to use this beautiful image as a frame for these lectures: I begin with it, and I will come back to it at the end, and I would like you to "try to hold it in your minds during the lectures, because it is what this subject, Bibliography, and this English course that we are all engaged in, is all about. It is a picture of the act of reading. It is a picture of the pleasure of the text.
So. This is a Rembrandt, painted around 1656, now in an art gallery in Vienna, and it's called: 'The artist's son, reading'. There are two things happening in this painting, it seems to me, and they are both expressed, as always in Rembrandt, with light. The first is the boy's face: the expression on his face is an extraordinary lightness, a pure delight, expressed in light. Now, that delight is the reason why we are all here. If you ask any student in the English department why they are reading English, they will say, because we like it. I doubt if you would find that in any other department in the University. And it's the same with the teachers: all my colleagues are here because, when it comes right down to it, we like reading English literature. We like what we are doing here, and we teach people who like what they are doing here. This is a nice situation to be in. We are in this fortunate situation because the books that we read in the English department are of a special kind: they were all without exception written for the purpose of giving pleasure. They are art: they are meant to delight. It seems to me that if we forget this, if we lose sight of that primary thing, the pleasure of the text, then the English department has lost its purpose.
The other thing highlighted in the painting is the text itself: the book. And what the artist conveys (it seems to me) by this is his sense of the mystery of the process that he is depicting: the essential strangeness of the act of reading. The young man's evident joy is private, silent, secret; it is in a relationship between a human being and an inanimate object. There is this intense closed circle, the young man and the book. The artist, his father, and we as onlookers, and behind us the thousands of others who have looked at this painting of a man looking at a book, are excluded from this strange communion. It is private.
We who know reading very well can imagine what the young man is doing: he is looking through a magic window, perhaps, into the mind of an author, into an imagined landscape; into the minds of characters or the intimate disclosures of a poem; or into a magic mirror, that shows him some way of seeing himself that he had never imagined. He is in some intensely personal encounter, from which we are excluded, but there is no other person present, no author, no characters, no visitable worlds; there is only a book. It is the strangeness of this, the uncanny power of this remarkable inanimate object, the book, that is the subject of the painting.
Now, in the English department we are interested in all aspects of this mystery. We begin with the subjective feeling, the pleasure of the text, but what we then do is to investigate this mystery, as well as experiencing it. What is it? How does it work? Where does it come from? So for instance we study the way the text works to get its effects: we investigate style, and genre, and rhetoric, and all those other tricks of the text. The book is written in language: literature, after all, is the language artifact; and so we study the history and mechanics of language. We are interested in the relationship between the book and the reader, the book and the author, the reader's context and the writer's context, and so we study literary theory. And, finally, we are interested in the book itself: the narrative it tells us about itself: the way it was made, distributed, and bought. This was the subject of Maureen's lectures.
What Kelsey and Tony talked about was another aspect of the book: the way in which it deceives us. The magical effects of print are a disguise, that we can penetrate. Print is so clear, linear, precise, and immaculate, but this covers up (as Kelsey showed you) the chaos and indecision in its composition: the indeterminacy of the literary text.
This whole subject is called bibliography. Bibliography uses the book as a window, not into imaginary worlds, as readers do, but into its own history. We use the book to look through the book into the way it was made. And what we have found, over the years, has had, and does have, rather radical implications for the English Department. That is what this lecture, and this lecture series, is about.
The study of handwritten or printed text as a physical object. Not necessarily literary text: you can do bibliography to any piece of writing. As we shall see, since my most important work has been done on texts that were in fact literary, acts of creative writing, but weren't supposed to be: forged confessions fabricated by members of the West Midlands Police. Allegedly.
Textual criticism is traditionally a technical term for a process whereby you compare different versions of a literary text to see if you can work out what the author actually wrote. You remember that Tony Davies gave you two versions of part of King Lear and talked about the consequences of comparing them: that is textual criticism. The person who does this work is called an editor, and the result is an edited text.
Originally textual criticism was done without much reference to bibliography, for the simple reason that bibliography hadn't been invented. Nowadays you could be crazy to do this, to compare versions of a text without a knowledge of how they were produced, the mechanics of how they were printed. So the two terms, textual criticism and bibliography, have more or less run together, and we talk about textual bibliography. And that, textual bibliography, is what I do.
Now, Birmingham English Department has a long and rich tradition of interest in Bibliography. This tradition goes right back to the early years of this century, when the head of department was a man called Churton Collins.
Churton Collins is famous for two things. One of them is: when he was a young man, he was denounced by the current Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in a rather memorable phrase: Tennyson called him 'A louse upon the locks of literature'.
The other thing he is famous for is this. Churton Collins was a textual critic, and spent much of his life producing a scholarly edition of the works of the Elizabethan author Greene, which he published in 1908. Collins used textual criticism and literary criticism to make his edition, and didn't use bibliography, which is not surprising, because bibliography hadn't been invented yet. It was in fact just in the process of coming into existence, and the person who was mainly responsible for this was a young man called W.W. Greg, down the road in Oxford. Greg, as it happened, was given Churton Collins' book to review. The review used the new bibliographical awareness, the deep understanding of what actually went on in printing shops, and the result was devastating: Collins's life work was revealed as worthless: it's as simple as that.
Churton Collins' reaction to this was simple and decisive. He took a holiday in the Norfolk Broads and didn't come back. He was found drowned, with what looked very like a suicide note in his pocket.
So, if you have been wondering why we in Birmingham English Department think Bibliography is so important that we teach it to you right at the beginning of the English course, just remember this sad Birmingham ghost, this sadly deflated ego.
And remember this too, from this little story: that bibliography is a threat to the English department: a potential embarrassment. Bibliography deconstructs the book. Bibliography gives you vertigo. It is awkward. It can cause a lot of trouble. In the next section of this lecture I will show you how this happens.
The Soiled Fish
There was a man at Harvard called F.O. Mathiessen. He was a great teacher (I know this, a friend of mine was taught by him) and he wrote a wonderful book called American Renaissance which more or less invented the serious study of American literature. If any of you are interested in American literature you should read this book, it is a set text on any American literature course, and on every reading list.
One of the chapters is about Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick; one of the Melville novels that Mathiessen discusses is called White-Jacket, a story of life in the American navy in the days of sail. At one point Mathiessen refers to an extraordinary passage in that book where Melville describes an incident that actually happened to him: he was out on the main yard-arm of this enormous sailing ship, and lost his footing and fell all the way down into the sea. Mathiessen beautifully describes, and praises, the strange trance-like moods that the narrator depicts as he is falling; then he quotes this passage from the text, which describes the experience of being actually under water.
I wondered whether I was yet dead or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side--some inert, soiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled in my nerves, and the strong shunning of death shocked me through.
Mathiessen says of this
But then this second trance is shattered by a twist of imagery of the sort that was to become peculiarly Melville's. He is startled back into the sense of being alive by grazing an inert form; hardly anyone but Melville could have created the shudder that results from calling this frightening vagueness some "soiled fish of the sea." The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.
Here is my first practical piece of advice for students of literary criticism. In your literary critical essays never, under any circumstances, say 'Only the author of this text could have written this passage.' Never say that. If you do, a bibliographer might come along and make you look peculiarly foolish. Here Mathiessen says it no less than three times. And, along came a bibliographer. He pointed out that the word 'soiled' does indeed occur in the edition that Mathiessen used: the standard, reliable edition of Melville's text, the Collected Works of Herman Melville, published by Constable in 1922. But if you do the bibliographical thing and enquire into the printing history of this text, if you look through the book into its history, you will find that the first edition doesn't have 'soiled' at all: it has 'coiled': 'coiled fish of the sea'. And any bibliographer would know that the version that Mathiessen used, the Constable version, must have derived its text from that first edition, or some derivative of it, must have, as we say, used it as printer's copy. It follows from that, as night follows day, that the word 'soiled' which 'could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep' in fact sprang from a printer's mistake.
This fiasco, which Kelsey in his lecture has rather kindly called a 'pooh trap', is the classic, archetypal example of the way bibliography is an embarrassment to the English department. Can you see the implications? Not just that word in that text, but any word in any text, may not be what it seems. You can't rely on the book. It's as if you set forth to read as a literary critic, with, ever in your mind, the image of Rembrandt's son holding the beautiful solid reliable book in his hand; and someone points out to you that it's not necessarily solid at all, that in fact it's an ocean, that might for all you know be absolutely teeming with soiled fish.
So this is why Bibliography is a source of vertigo to the English Department.
The Bibliographical promise
Now bibliographers, who are on the whole as ambitious as any other academic, were quite quick to realise the implications of this. Poor Mathiessen's error got a lot of publicity, the possible pollution of our literary classics was made a big issue, and thus began the heroic age of bibliography, under the banner of what I would like to call the Bibliographical Promise. The promise was that teams of gallant and highly trained bibliographers would personally dive into the corrupted oceans of literature and remove each and every one of the soiled fishes that they would unerringly find there. All you had to do was to give them enough money, and enough academic status.
This was, I have to say, largely an American phenomenon; it flourished in the late fifties through to the late seventies, and its main protagonist a man called Fredson Bowers. During this time Bowers and his colleagues were given large sums of money and produced a number of editions, done with meticulous care, and a small army of researchers. I wi ll say nothing more about Bowers, who was, in his way, a great man, except a minor personal anecdote. Bowers once wrote a letter to a bibliographical journal about an article that I had written. The editor of the journal refused to print this letter, on the grounds that it was libelous. I feel quite honoured to have had this attention from this giant. Bibliography, I am here to tell you, is quite an exciting subject.
So: the bibliographical promise was largely American, and the English were a bit sceptical about it, also jealous: the Americans were really getting huge sums of money. But, for sure, we were infected by the bibliographical optimism: the promise that texts could be cleaned up and made perfect, if only you knew enough about the history of printing. And that is still a very prevalent attitude: the majority attitude, I would say: the view that it is possible to edit a text. I would say too that Kelsey's lecture showed him to be a believer, in part, in the bibliographical promise, although I noticed too that his doubts in it increased as the lecture progressed. Whereas I know Tony Davies has a different view, and so does Maureen Bell. And so do I. But, twenty years ago, quite a lot of me thought that a new age was dawning, full of hope and promise.
Ode to himself
What I'm going to do next is to give you two examples of textual bibliography in action. They were done by me, quite a long time ago, and are by no means and in no way great works of bibliographical analysis, but I present them to you for two reasons. One is so that you can see bibliography at work, trying to fix texts and establish true readings, just as the Promise promised; the other is that the Bibliographical principles that they embody recur, later in this lecture, in a bizarre and totally unexpected context.
I started academic life as a Renaissance specialist. Here is the title of the first article that I ever published. It is called 'Ben Jonson's Ode to Himself: an Early Version'.
Jonson's 'Ode', is a not bad, not great poem that is on the whole known only to Jonson specialists. I won't attempt to persuade you of its rather thin merits by reading it out, I'll just tell you of its textual situation. The standard text derives from the first printed edition of 1631. But poems in those days, as Maureen told you, circulated in manuscript: copies passed from hand to hand, from friend to friend, and sometimes, in fact often, this was their main form of publication, since, as Maureen also told you, authors weren't in any case likely to make much money out of publication. However, modern editors tend to trust the early printed editions over the manuscripts. Manuscripts are messy, dirty, illegible, and careless; they have frequently bizarre spelling, and contain peculiar variations on the text; and each manuscript is a one-off; unlike print, which has the apparent authority of hundreds of practically identical copies.
I spent a year of my life reading 17th century manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and the British Museum, and one thing that I realised was that these manuscripts, however carelessly copied, very often contained better versions than the printed texts, which were often themselves only printed copies of manuscript versions of the poems I was interested in. So it's as if behind the solidity of the printed book there is a whole ocean of other texts, demanding attention.
One of the outcomes of that was this article: I found in the manuscripts what I took to be an early version of the printed poem by Jonson. You could tell that it was an early version by investigating the differences between the manuscript and the print versions: there were certain variants that proved, at least to my satisfaction, that differences in the manuscript version weren't just some copyist's flight of fancy, but an authentic Ben Jonson early version of this poem, which he revised for various reasons before it became printed.
So far so good: this became my first published article, which immediately sank without trace into academic limbo.
But this was my training as a bibliographer, and from it, and from doing that kind of thing, I developed three propensities, or mental habits, or skills: you might call them the Bibliographical Attitude. One was practical: an ability to read murky and difficult manuscripts: like this, the actual early version of Ben Jonson's poem:
The second was a kind of aptitude for conjecture: for looking at the minimal evidence surviving to the present of some piece of chaos that happened in the past, and coming up with a speculation as to what might have actually taken place. And, third, I acquired a total skepticism about documents. Most people, when they pick up a book or a piece of handwriting, take for granted its authenticity: that it expresses more or less the intention of the person who wrote it. I don't. For bibliographers, because of what they do, all documents are potentially fallacious: if you like, forgeries.
Goldsmith's poem backwards
From the seventeenth century I moved, for various reasons, mostly to do with needing to earn a living, to the eighteenth century, and eventually did some work on Oliver Goldsmith. Goldsmith is best known for his famous farce She Stoops to Conquer, which is one of the most frequently produced plays in the whole of English Drama outside Shakespeare. It deserves to be: it's very funny.
In Goldsmith's own time, however, he was best known not as a playwright but as a poet, and the work that brought him to fame is now no longer read outside English Departments, and not very much inside them. It's called The Traveller: a long-ish verse meditation on the subject of wandering round Europe.
200 years after Goldsmith died I was asked to produce an edition of his plays and poems for a modern audience. This I did, and in the course of doing so I found out an odd thing about this poem. It was apparently published first in a handsome quarto, all by itself, with large type and spacious page layout.
But there exists one copy of a version that seems to be earlier in date than this apparent first edition. This early version, which only exists in loose sheets, printed, but not bound, is one of the oddest items among all of the many oddities in Goldsmith's life, because it was printed backwards. It starts with line 351, and goes forward for 41 lines to line 392, then jumps back to line 315; then it goes on until 350, and then back another leap, and so on throughout, going backwards in sets of (on average) 36 lines, until the last set, lines 73-90, after which it stops, missing out the first 72 lines altogether. The punctuation has been doctored to make a sort of sense of the joins, so the printers obviously had an intention to publish this--it wasn't just a printer's accident.
If you are producing an edition of a poem, you can't just ignore information like this: you have to explain it. So I did. My theory, briefly, was this: that Goldsmith made a fair copy for the printer, copying out his own work, and, as he wrote it he put each page down on top of the previous one, not face down, which would put the sheets in the right order, but face up. This would create, obviously, a backwards text. He then forgot to arrange them properly, and, showing his great talent for creating farce, in his life as well as in his art, sent this backwards set to the printer, who obediently printed it, trying to make the best sense he could of it as he went. By the time the printer (inadvertently working backwards) got to line 72, he realised that he was in fact making nonsense, and got in touch with Goldsmith. Or maybe Goldsmith wandered innocently into the printing house, perhaps playing a merry tune on his flute, to see how they were getting on, and found out about this bibliographical disaster. Whatever: something must have happened, because this botched edition was scrapped (it only survives in one copy) and the true first edition was created.
So: here again, the bibliographical attitude: peering into the murk of history, into a long-ago printing shop, through the window of the book; making up ingenious (or, you might say, far-fetched) stories to recreate the past, in order to make sense of the present; and skepticism, a feeling of not accepting anything at face value: that things are not as they seem.
But, note too, that all this is entirely in the service of the bibliographical promise: that the past is resurrectable, that the intentions of authors about their texts can be known, and that all you need is to have enough of the Bibliographical Attitude and bibliographical knowledge and you will be able to produce pure clear clean texts for the use of the English Department. A pure clear text of an early version of Jonson's 'Ode', for instance, or a pure clear text of The Traveller, unsullied by Goldsmith's foulups; that was the end product and aim, and that is what I produced. Or so I thought.
Disillusionment--or, you might say, wisdom-- eventually set in. This was the result of a lot of work, and a lot of discussion with intelligent students of bibliography over many years. I want to sum the whole debate up in one example: an example from Othello. Therefore I'm going to put some emphasis on this and go into it in some detail: it's very important. The conclusions that I want to draw from it are extremely radical, and I would like you to pay a lot of attention to it. Next year you will be studying Shakespeare, in fact you will inevitably be studying Othello, since it is one of his very greatest plays. Remember this analysis: I want to know if there are any holes in it. I don't think there are... And if there aren't, then in my view it follows that the standard process of literary criticism is not applicable to that play, and, by logical extension, to any play, or poem, or novel.
The plot of Othello, you will remember, is this: Othello is a great general, and black: a moor. He marries a beautiful white woman, Desdemona, against some opposition. His app arent friend, Iago, persuades him that she has been unfaithful to him. In great anguish, Othello murders her, and then, in a climactic scene, kills himself; the play ends.
This is a ridiculously bare summary, but it does show up two major critical problems about the play. One is, why does this great man, this general, so easily come to believe that his beloved wife is unfaithful to him? The other is, why does Iago take it into his head to create this mayhem? What is his motive?
When I was an undergraduate there seemed to be two critical answers to these problems. One of them I will call the Tom Brown view, after the Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, where there is an incredibly decent hero and an incredibly evil and totally motiveless villain called Flashman. The Tom Brown theory of Othello originates with the Victorian critic Bradley, and shows Othello as an essentially decent chap who had been led astray in a careless moment. The Tom Brown view naturally goes with the Flashman view of Iago: that he is pure evil, and purely motiveless. In fact in order to overcome this highly virtuous general Iago has to be extremely evil: a kind of Satan.
The more modern critic F.R.Leavis, on the other hand, who had spent the first world war in a Quaker ambulance unit, was a bit less enthusiastic about generals than the average Victorian. He completely reread Othello. In his reading, Othello is deeply flawed, almost the villain of the play; a superficial individual, obsessed with pride, the leading astray of whom was no problem at all. In this reading the problem of Iago's motive simply vanishes: what the play is about is the spectacle of this flawed greatness destroying itself, with a little help from a friend. Iago is demoted from a kind of Satan to a narrative convenience.
One of the arguments in favour of Leavis's view, which I remember finding very plausible, is centred round Othello's final soliloquy. A damaging blow to the Tom Brown theory was that Othello, having transgressed rather seriously even by the rather relaxed standards of Jacobean tragedy, doesn't appear to be particularly apologetic at the end. He has, after all, just suffocated his wife with a pillow. Only, says Leavis, a completely egotistical person would make his final suicide speech without making some reference to the fact that this was actually a bad idea, in fact a big mistake, and that he was very sorry.
When I stopped being an undergraduate and became a bibliographer, I discovered that the whole issue, Leavis versus Bradley, really rather depends on which text you read.
The crucial speech is the one that Othello makes before he kills himself. He asks the assembled company not to judge him too harshly; in fact, when they come to tell his story, to portray him as someone who loved 'not wisely, but too well'; someone who was worked upon, and confused, someone who like ... and then there is a crucial image. Immediately after this, he stabs himself to death, centre stage.
What is the image? There are two main texts of Othello: the Quarto of 1622, and the First Folio of 1623. There are a lot of differences between them. If, like a large proportion of all of the maybe millions of students who read this text every year, you happened to use the New Arden Shakespeare, you would read a text based in a crucial place on the Quarto. This is what the actual Quarto says:
Speake of them as they are; nothing extenuate,
Nor set downe ought in malice, then must you speake,
Of one that lou'd not wisely, but too well:
Of one not easily iealous; but being wrought,
Perplext in the extreame; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearle away,
Richer then all his Tribe
Here Othello is comparing himself to an Indian, and Desdemona to a pearl. The Indian, who apparently has no idea of civilised values, doesn't understand the value of the pearl he has just thrown away, however precious it might actually be; he is therefore not to blame. It is not his fault. The primary meaning of 'base', in 'base Indian' would have to be, not moral, but social: simply, low in the scheme of things: a mere Indian. Since what Othello is talking about is the brutal murder of his own entirely innocent wife, it is hard not to see this, as Leavis would say, as self-justification.
If however you happened to buy the cheap Signet Classics edition, which mainly bases its text on the First Folio of 1623, the text you would read would be different. Here is what the Folio says:
.........................................Of one, whose hand
(Like the base Iudean) threw a Pearle away
Richer then all his Tribe:
Here the situation is quite different. In this version, Othello is comparing himself to a 'the base Judean' (the I and J were interchangeable). This must be none other than Judas Iscariot, the supreme betrayer, the man who betrayed the Christian Redeemer. Judas's remorse was so great at the realisation of what he had done, and what he had lost, that he, as Othello is about to do, committed suicide. In that case 'base' now implies a very heavy self-condemnation--the heaviest possible, in fact--and Leavis's unrepentant Othello vanishes into thin air.
You will see that what this depends on is one word.
In fact, it depends on one letter in one word. Spelling was variable then, so both Indian and Judean could be spelled with an /e/ or and /i/; the crucial letter is that /n/. Or, that /u/.
What are we to do with this situation? Here we have two famous, seminal interpretations of a famous play, that affected the reading practice of generations, almost entirely dependent on the variation of one letter in one word; and each critic is completely unconscious of this fact. Just like the soiled fish: but much more momentous.
Now, look at the implication of this for literary criticism. Literary criticism can place enormous importance in a single word, or letter, or even comma, in a literary text. This is what it characteristically does: it's a distinguishing feature. As we have seen with F. O. Mathiessen, and with F. R. Leavis. And there's no predicting in advance, which word, which letter, which comma, this is going to be. In the hands of a literary critic, every single letter of the literary text suddenly, potentially, becomes golden, crucial, beyond accident, carved in stone. But along comes the bibliographer and says, no way, not at all, all of the words of every literary text have passed through the hands of fallible human beings, who, as human beings do, made mistakes. Compositors, for instance, in the hand press period, were usually bored and therefore frequently drunk. The bibliographer says the absolute opposite to the literary critic: that every letter, and every word, of the literary text is not golden, not at all beyond accident, but entirely subject to error and chance. A pooh trap. A soiled fish.
The literary critic then turns round, naturally enough, and says, OK, what about the Bibliographical Promise: use your bibliographical attitude, your three skills, get in there and sort it out for us so that we can get on with our job.
So, let us do bibliography to the Othello problem. There is, oddly enough, the exciting possibility of a solution in the bibliographical analysis. Printing, as you know, is done with type; with individual lumps of metal. Each of those lumps of metal has what's called a 'nick' on it, along the bottom, to make sure that the compositor puts them all in the composing stick the right way up. Nonetheless, that was a mistake that they often made: they got the type the wrong way up, so that the resulting printed letter was upside down. It's an error that has a name: it's called 'turned letter'.
The wonderful possibility presents itself: could the Othello problem be a turned letter? In which case, we could prove, beyond reasonable doubt, which text was right, and sort out Leavis and Bradley for all time. Because whichever version had the turned letter--a turned /u/ making the /n/ in 'Indian', or a turned /n/ making the /u/ in 'Iudean' it would be obvious to close examination, because the turned letter would be slightly raised above the base line of the rest of the letters. Could it be this? Could it? In which case, the bibliographical promise would be fulfilled, and we could go on our way rejoicing. Well, it isn't. Both the /u/ and the /n/ sit solidly and tediously on their baselines. Bibliography is defeated.
It can however say one thing, which is profoundly unhelpful. The variant is probably paleographical in origin. Which means that behind one or both of those printed texts there was handwritten text, and that handwriting was very likely in Secretary hand, as in this example
In Secretary hand, as often in modern handwriting, /u/ and /n/ are frequently totally indistinguishable. Look at the example: 'and' and 'Vsurpe'.
So in the Othello problem bibliography can tell us that the compositor misread the handwriting; that's it; but what it can't tell us which version is the result of misreading: it could be either.
From this two things follow. One is, this definitely means that Shakespeare didn't write both. He wrote one, only one, and the other is a compositor's mistake: a soiled fish. The other is, there is absolutely no way of knowing which. The bibliographical promise is a lie. It is absolutely impossible to determine which reading is true.
Othello the play, therefore, is poised in a peculiar state, absolutely and forever suspended between two completely different readings that affect the whole play; it is in both contradictory states at once, like Schrödinger's famous cat, neither dead nor alive nor neither nor both. And bibliography can't solve it. If this is so, then what is the point of bibliography? For that matter, what is the point of literary criticism? If any word, in any text, unknown to us, can be subject to this problem; how then can we invest immense importance, as literary criticism essentially does, in any word in any text? And from this, it follows that the safe stable single text as constructed by literary criticism is non-existent. The book is the product of too many hands. The text of literary criticism, I repeat, has no inherent existence. Wherever you look, it cannot be found. That is what I mean by the indeterminacy of the literary text.
Or so I said to myself, doubt and despair setting in, in 1984.
In 1985 a small ray of hope arose. I found out about computers.
The problem I'm discussing, you see, is partly a problem of access. For instance, one of the problems in Othello is that you can't read two versions at once. You have to print the text in a linear fashion, with one reading, either 'Judean' or 'Indian', in the main text, and the other in a footnote, where no-one will read it. But in a computer that's not a problem: you can, in a way, print both at once, and even if there is a vast number of different states of the text--as there often is--you can make what's called a hypertext version of the text in a computer, and the reader can surf from one to the other without pain, and without having to choose one over the other. This blissful state is actually achievable--inside a computer.
So I did it. I remember Kelsey saying, confronted with the usual chaos of an author's manuscripts, that maybe Tom Davis has devised a computer program that will help. Well, I have. Unfortunately, it doesn't help. It's called 'Emily'.
Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest of all lyric poets in English. I love her work and read it, often. Her poems have extraordinary power and passion and sensuality. She lived in the highly puritan community of Plymouth Rock in America, was extremely religious in a fairly bizarre way, and spent most of her life, by her own choice, shut up in her room not talking to anyone. Writing hundreds of short, brilliant poems. She used a system of punctuation based on dashes that is, to say the least, eccentric, and remains mysterious to this day. There was a popular theory at one time that her punctuation was rhetorical, and was intended to show the kind of breathing you should use in reciting her poetry, in an elaborate private code. This theory disintegrated when some bibliographer discovered an authentic Emily Dickinson shopping list, that used exactly the same system of punctuation.
Very few poems were published in her lifetime. Those that were were censored and rewritten by her sister. After her death a chest was found, entirely full of her poems. Nine hundred, in all. Or maybe many more than that...
There is a major problem (apart from the punctuation) about these poems. Emily Dickinson wasn't interested in final versions. She would write many different versions of the same poem, without any indication whatsoever of which was the one she preferred. She wasn't, remember, writing for publication. So, just like the seventeenth century material that I spoke about early on, here too the manuscript tradition is a formless sea of variants, but here we can't dismiss it: there is no printed tradition, no closure; it's all, every scrap of it, in Emily Dickinson's handwriting. She intended all of it.
The most extreme example is a poem called 'Those fair fictitious people'. This not only exists in more than one version, but some of the versions have footnotes, or side notes, indicating alternative readings of the words of the text. There is no indication as to which was preferred. All of them, maybe. Who knows?
There are so many of these variants that you can actually do a mathematical sum and work out the possible combinations. What this gives you is exactly how many versions of this one poem she left for us. The answer is: 7,680.
This, you might say, is the ultimate bibliographical problem. The thing is, it's not difficult to write a computer program that solves it. Here it is.
You can make it do various things--show all the variants in a side box, or underline all the words that vary; when you click on a variable word the computer justs replaces it by one of the variants on it. But the state I like best is this one: a pure plain text with a simple button at the bottom that says 'New poem'. When you click on that button the computer randomly replaces the variable words with variants, so that you get an entirely new poem by Emily Dickinson.
It's quite nice to see it in action: the text shuffles and shimmers for a moment, and then--ping! there's a new poem. You can do this 7,680 times, and never read the same poem twice. And the vast majority of times you would be reading poems that no-one in the world had ever before read.
So: I created this thing, and played with it for about three minutes, and then put it away and forgot about it. Why? Because it's completely useless. I like reading Emily Dickinson; but what I want is a nice unitary text. I can't deal with this chaos: chaos is boring, inevitably. Even if it's the truth. I don't want to read 7,680 versions of the same poem. I want to read one poem.
So, I decided to retreat from Bibliography.
Why? Well, if you have felt any discomfort or puzzlement about this course you will have experienced the reason at first hand. Tony Davies tells us that the book is a process, not a fixed product, and that we should be conscious of the many versions of for instance King Lear. He is absolutely right; but how can we be conscious of all of the versions of the text? How can we read a process? What should we actually do? Maureen Bell tells us to be aware of the first edition of Pilgrim's Progress, of what a great difference in reading experience that actual physical text, with its side notes and illustrations, conveys, and she too is absolutely right, I have no doubt at all. But how can we be aware of all the texts of all the books we read--of all those aspects of the process of a text? What should we actually do? And, finally, Kelsey Thornton tells us of the traps in the text, the betrayals, discovered by bibliography, of the reader's trust in the text: the soiled fish. Of course he is right. Be aware, he says, but how can we be aware, when any word in the text might betray us? What, for the third time, do we do?
Bibliography seems to offer problems, but no solutions: its promise is false. All it does is to completely undermine the act of reading, the pleasure of the text.
Prompted by these considerations, some time in 1986 or so, I gave up on textual bibliography. I published some articles expressing this rather radical position, one of which was turned down, on the grounds that it was flippant. I was quite pleased about that. I felt I must have got the tone absolutely right. I made my main interest what had for a long time been my other interest, the analysis of handwriting for evidence of authenticity. The study of forgery. I wrote on and researched the subject of handwriting, and played around with computers, and left bibliography, and literary criticism, to solve their own problems.
The story of Mr Lewis
In the meantime, a man called George Glen Lewis was having a lot of trouble from a body of men known as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.
George Glen Lewis
By trouble, I mean terrible trouble: the outcome was that he went to prison on two concurrent sentences, amounting to ten years, for three robberies, all on the basis of two confessions. There was essentially no other evidence against him. What he didn't know, because no-one knew it--and, if they had been told, they wouldn't have believed it--was that the one thing that would help him was textual bibliography. What now follows is the story of Mr Lewis.
Mr Lewis lived in Wolverhampton, a small town in the Black Country near Birmingham.
Mr Lewis was not a criminal: he had had some previous convictions for a minor offences; to put him in a context, his sister was training to be a barrister. He is, however, black.
In January 1987 his car, he said, was stolen, and he reported this theft to the local Police. They told him that the car had been found, and he went down to the Police Station to pick it up. There he found out that his car had been used in a robbery, and that he was the prime suspect. He was arrested, protesting vigorously, and taken to another Wolverhampton Police Station, Red Lion Street, for questioning. He refused point blank to answer any questions without his solicitor being present, and in general contested the whole business with some force: there seems to have been a fight at one part of the proceedings. This is how he described it:
When his solicitor arrived Mr Lewis made a statement denying any involvement with the burglary, and was released on bail without charge, with an undertaking to return at a later date.
The following Wednesday two members of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad found him in a friend's flat and arrested him again. In the car he was, he says, 'verbally and physically abused': in other words, they hit him, terrorised him, and called him racist names. 'Black enamelled bastard' is a phrase that sticks in the mind. By the time he got to the Police Station, in his account, he was thoroughly frightened and humiliated. In the interview room, he said, one of the arresting officers
The Police officers then, he claims, in front of him, quite openly wrote out, on the pages that he had already signed, two entirely false confessions to three separate robberies.
This is Mr Lewis's story. What the Police said at his trial was of course quite different. The documents referred to in his story--the blank sheets that he says he signed--are what is known as contemporaneous notes of an interview. The idea was that the police would interview a suspect in pairs: one of them did the talking, the other wrote down everything that was said, and every page was then read by the suspect and signed by everyone there; it then became evidence. This is the procedure laid down very strictly by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, which came into operation in 1986. Contemporaneous Notes look like this: here is the first page of one of the disputed interviews.
a Contemporaneous Note
Mr Lewis was saying that he was forced to sign a blank set of forms, and the interview notes were then written out, as a kind of creative writing, on pre-signed forms.
In the interviews, as recorded in the Notes, Mr Lewis decides from the beginning to confess everything. Given the fact that a week earlier he had adamantly refused to say anything without a lawyer being present, the officers ask him why:
DS Firstly let's talk about the burglary that happened last week at Tettenhall.
A The Police have already interviewed me about it. I did it.
DS Well tell me why are you admitting this to us when you denied it previously.
A Look you're in the Serious Crime Squad. I don't want to fall out with you lot but I will tell you about everything.
DS What do you mean everything
A Look I'll tell you what you want to know.
DS We are interested in the robbery at the Quicksave that occurred 12 months ago at the Three Tuns
A Look man I did it but let me take it on my own please man.
Please note: the praise of the serious crime squad. This is actually typical of the contested confessions; a suggestion is that it's there to give a reason for the confession, which is otherwise inexplicable.
When the Notes were complete Mr Lewis was allowed (in his account) to call his lawyer. This is the lawyer's story:
I requested to see my client but I was kept waiting for a period of approximately 10 minutes. When I was admitted through to the charge area the officers involved in the case were just scuttling out of the back entrance [Mr Lewis] was tearful and his first words to me were Mr Dawson they've fitted me up with burglaries and robberies which I didn't commit. I immediately asked him why he had not sent for me immediately when he was arrested. I assumed from his experience the previous week at Red Lion Street he would know to do this. He said that he had wanted to send for me and that when he was deleting the line "I do not want a solicitor" his hand had been knocked aside so that he was unable to complete the deletion. I immediately left the room and went to examine the prisoner in custody sheet and saw that what he had told me was true.
Here is the custody sheet, also known as the Person in Custody Record or PIC sheet.
As you can see, at the horizontal arrow, it has a line drawn through the first three words of the printed sentence 'I do not want a solicitor at this time', as if to begin to erase them; the line then angles sharply downwards for about 1 cm. Elsewhere on the sheet , in the same ink, there are dashes and scratches made by the pen as if in the course of a struggle: you can see one of them right by the downward stroke. I point out in passing that if you notice those things, and draw a conclusion from them, you are being a bibliographer.
This evidence--the PIC sheet and the lawyer's testimony--was used in Mr Lewis's trial, and in a complaint that was made to the Police Complaints Authority. The complaint was unsuccessful, and so was Mr Lewis's defence at the trial: he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, almost entirely on the basis of these confessions. He tried to appeal; he was not given leave to appeal.
It now seems hard to believe that such good evidence as the bent line on the PIC sheet couldn't be used to cast doubt on the confession evidence. What you have to understand is how dramatically the climate has changed since then. Before 1987, almost no-one believed that the Police were capable of perjuring themselves: no-one, that is, except for the entire criminal community, who were ipso facto liars, and some police officers, presumably, who weren't saying. So it was a very bad idea to mount offer the defence that the police had set you up; you were adding to the charge against you a further, invisible, charge: insulting the police. Your sentence was likely to be worse as a consequence, and defence lawyers routinely advised their clients not to try this defence. Nowadays, in contrast, there is no-one who believes that the police have not been capable of perjuring themselves.
In 1991, four years into his sentence, Mr Lewis phoned me from prison, asking for my help to get him out. He now knew that the only thing that would get him out of his predicament was textual bibliography, though, like most of the rest of the world, he had (and still has) no idea what textual bibliography is. What made this difference? Two items: a machine and a person.
I'll deal with the person first.
The story of Mr Dandy
His name is Paul Dandy. In 1987 he was in deep trouble, just like Mr Lewis: he was in Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, on remand, waiting trial for armed robbery. In fact he was a Category A prisoner, which means that he was put in a special section along with the rapists and supergrasses. This is not a nice place to be. Other prisoners make the food, and, according to Dandy, you could smell the urine in the tea in the morning. After ten months in Category A he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists.
The reason why he was in prison was because he had been interviewed by the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, three times; the reason why he was in Category A was because (according to his account) he had offended them by exhibiting considerable attitude, so they decided to punish him by putting him in Category A. The sole grounds (almost) for the charge against him, of armed robbery, were two things that he is alleged to have said in the course of three police interviews.
The first happens in the contemporaneous notes of the third interview
The interviewer, DS McManus, says
The Anorak we recovered from your house today has been positively identified by the security guard who was shot.
Dandy then says (according to this account)
I wish I'd shot the fucker in the head then he wouldn't have identified fuck all. I wish to conclude the interview. Return me to my cell.
You might say that there's something a little implausible about this bit of dialogue. A literary critic might say that, as dialogue, it's--well, ludicrous: the stylistic change between the two sentences is absurd. This is true, but unfortunately it's not what a court would call evidence.
Here is the second piece of text that put Paul Dandy in prison.
DS: I take it from your earlier reply that you are admitting been involved in the robbery at the MEB?
R. You'se are good, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and you've caught me now you've got to prove it.
DS: Do you want to read over the Notes and caption and sign them?
Again, there are a number of things the literary critic could say about this. It has no connection with the text before or after. Nothing is made of it: they don't say 'Tell us more about the robbery', just like the previous piece of text. The police talk in laboured written English: 'I take it that' while Dandy talks like a criminal: 'You'se are good'. Which is not, as it happens, the way he speaks: that's the way they talk in Liverpool, not in Birmingham. And, note, the praise of the Serious Crime Squad: 'You'se are good'. And so on. But none of this would do Dandy any good: it's just too insubstantial.
This is where the machine comes in. Dandy had heard, on the criminal grapevine, of a magic machine that had been used to detect instances of the police fitting people up. Ten months after his arrest he asked his lawyer, Ewen Smith, to get hold of an expert with the machine and see what it could do. Ewen called me. I had the machine. This is it:
This is the gadget (the bibliographical gadget, though no other bibliographers, as far as I know, knew of its existence) that ultimately brought down the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad and changed the face of policing in this country. ESDA: the Electro-Static detection apparatus.
What it does is this. If you have two pieces of paper, one resting on top of another, and write on the top one, the one underneath will receive indentations from the top copy writing. Sometimes you can see these with the naked eye, as furrows in the paper; if there had been a sheet of carbon paper between the two, you could read the indentations. ESDA takes a kind of photocopy of the bottom sheet, but a special kind of photocopy, that ignores any actual writing th at might be on the sheet and instead shows you the indentations, often as clearly as if there had been a sheet of carbon paper there in the first place. Moreover, it's incredibly sensitive: it will pick up indentations that are completely invisible to the naked eye, sometimes as much as three or four sheets down a pile of paper. No-one has the least idea why it works.
This was invented in 1978, and became a standard bit of equipment in any forensic document laboratory. The obvious use was for anonymous letters. If you get an anonymous letter to examine, what you hope is that the writer will have used a pad; and that on the sheet above the anonymous letter he or she will have written a letter to someone else, and that letter will have had an address at the top and a signature at the bottom. All indenting invisibly through on to the next sheet, which will be used for the anonymous letter. Apply ESDA to the anonymous letter, and, magically, there's the address and the signature. The letter is no longer anonymous. This happens: I've seen it. Remember--the feeling of a magic window, through the document, into the past of that document? That is exactly what ESDA does.
So when Ewen Smith rang me up and asked me to ESDA the contemporaneous notes of Paul Dandy I said, gosh, what a good idea, and did it. And when that night I came to decipher the ESDA lifts, this is what I found. On one of the sheets of the second interview I found the following indentations.
These were not produced by any act of writing recorded in any of the interviews: they are not indentations from an extant document. But: they resemble word for word the text of the last page of the third interview.
interview 3(2) and indentations compared
The difference is that 3.8 has the damaging 'Youse are good' admission, while this version has not. The obvious inference is that the police wrote out an early version of 3.8, on paper that happened by chance to be resting on 2.5, which didn't have the incriminating bit; and then they decided they were going to fit Mr Dandy up, and so rewrote the interview and inserted the damaging admission.
You'll understand that it was a peculiar feeling, to look at this murky ESDA lift and be transported back in time to a police interview room in the previous February: to open a window on to the past: to discover a hitherto hidden, long destroyed, early version of a document. I never felt more like a bibliographer. It wasn't until some time afterwards that I noticed the strange parallel with the early version of Ben Jonson, in the first article I ever published.
Anyway, I wrote a report, and the Judge saw it, and Paul Dandy was instantly released from prison. And the world turned upside down. This wasn't the first time that ESDA had been used on contemporaneous notes, and indeed anyone could have discovered what I discovered, there's no question about that. But this was the one that got the publicity. I think this is because the evidence of the early version is so dramatic, so solid and tangible, so hard to explain away.
As a result of the publicity the dam broke, and the floodwaters were released. The news spread literally from cell to cell through her majesty's prisons that there was a man in Birmingham University who had a magic gadget who could help you if you had been fitted up, and I got a lot of letters. Some of them I could help, some of them were helped by other forensic scientists. Some of them got out of prison. One of people who got in touch with me was Mr Lewis.
In 1989 the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was disbanded, in disgrace, as a result of the revelations of ESDA, and a massive investigation was conducted into all of its disputed cases, among them that of Mr Lewis. The person who did the ESDA tests on this vast number of documents was David Baxendale, of the Birmingham Home Office Document Laboratory. He is the man who got the Birmingham Six out of prison, mostly using ESDA.
He was asked to examine the ESDA evidence of the two Lewis interviews. His conclusion was that the ESDA evidence showed nothing of any significance. He noted a number of oddities about the interview notes, but could draw no conclusion from them. He said in his report: 'The evidence as to whether or not these notes were compiled in an irregular manner is essentially inconclusive'.
That was where the matter stood when I got the notes for examination in 1991. I took fresh ESDA lifts, and examined the ones that David Baxendale had used: essentially, I agreed with his report.
So was there no more to be said? It was hard to leave it at that. Not just the vivid circumstantial detail of Mr Lewis's account, or the obvious misgivings of his lawyer, or the evidence that suggested that he had been prevented at one point in the proceedings from seeing a solicitor; there was a feeling that somewhere in the ESDA lifts was a solution, if only you could find it. Do you know, can you imagine, the feeling? The way I've described bibliographical investigation up to now has made it sound easy: as if the book obligingly opens its window on to its own history, and all you have to do is to peer through. It's not like that. What it's like is the feeling that these inert documents have a secret, inscribed inside them, and if you weren't so stupid, you could read it: you could somehow squeeze a residue of the past out of the paper scraps existing in the present. I think any textual critic, any bibliographer, knows that feeling. Imagine then if what depends on it is a man spending years in prison.
Kelsey Thornton, and Claire Marshall, who was a student in the Department of--ironically--mediaeval manuscripts, worked on some of these Serious Crime Squad cases with me; we spent many hours beating our heads against the Lewis interview notes, many hours and many days. Eventually, out of this collaboration, out of what I can only describe as sheer bloody-minded refusal to accept the obvious lack of evidence, this is what came out.
[Note: this is simplified: the situation was in fact more complicated than this. A full account is given of these matters in my article , ESDA and the analysis of contested interview notes]
diagram of indentation pattern
The crucial interview was the second one. In this, the text indented from one page to the next, in the regular fashion: each page had been lying on the next one when it was written. Nothing sinister there. But the signature of Mr Lewis on each page didn't do that. It was hard to make out the indentations: as you saw, ESDA isn't a photocopier, and that what you have is often a murky bunch of grey dots, on the edge of illegibility. But eventually I came up with a reconstruction, which meant, essentially, that the signatures had indented backwards. Page 6 was signed when it was lying on top of page 5; page 5 when it was lying on top of page 4; page 4 when it was lying on top of page 3; and so on. I got David Baxendale to accept that, which was a major step forward: he is not known for lack of caution.
OK, so what can we do with that? Well, it's incompatible with the police version of events. The rule is that if the notes are properly taken, you must sign them page by page as they are read over. And they wouldn't have been read over backwards.
But look at it from the point of view of Mr Lewis's story. What if what he says was true? He says that he was forced into signing a number of blank continuation sheets. Supposing, as he signed each one, he placed it face up on top of the previous one, which would have been quite natural. The officers then take this pile and write in their false confession, starting at the top sheet, and working downwards through the pile. Result: text indents in one direction, the signatures indent in the other.
There are several things to say about this. The first thing to say is, I love it. It's so beautiful, so purely bibliographical. The second thing is, it's now very obvious where the idea came from: from an edition of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, written 200 years ago, and a foulup in the printing shop. At the time I had no idea of this: I thought it just came out of my head. It's very strange, the way things turn out.
But how strong is theory, which I will call the Goldsmith hypothesis? What does it actually tell us about what took place in Wednesfield Police Station between 7.55 and 8.35 pm on January 21st 1987? Well, it's shaky. My instinctive feeling is it's too elegant not to be true, but unfortunately nature has no obligation to be elegant. And it's nothing like as powerful as the evidence of the early version in the Dandy case.
In my report I wrote:
This reconstruction is of course highly conjectural. It is however coherent, and it explains the evidence of the ESDA indentations, which are otherwise hard to account for.
David Baxendale was not impressed. He wrote a report commenting on my report, which said:
The pattern of the impressions of the "Lewis" signatures could also have an innocent explanation. For example, Lewis could have jumbled up the sheets while he was reading them, and then signed them without putting them back in order.
And this is true too. The question is, has the Goldsmith hypothesis created reasonable doubt about the authenticity of these interview notes? Because what was needed to get Mr Lewis out of prison was not, remember, proof of innocence, but evidence of reasonable doubt as to his guilt. It's close, it seems to me; it's a very close thing. It could go either way.
I sent my report to the solicitors acting for the defence of Mr Lewis on 21st May 1991. They sent it to the Home Secretary, who must have agreed with the Goldsmith hypothesis, because he gave Mr Lewis leave to appeal. On March 24th 1992 Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice, in the Court of Appeal, was not wholly convinced, so he ordered a retrial (which I think is a fair judgement, incidentally). This retrial took place in the week beginning July 20th 1992. On July 22nd the Judge ruled that the confession evidence was inadmissible, the prosecution offered no further evidence, and Mr Lewis was found not guilty. He had served seven years of his ten year sentence.
And I went back to the English Department, with a new view of bibliography.
From my experience of the wilder shores of the law, I think I can say that I took away three insights.
The first of these is this. Don't, for goodness sake, take the problems of the text too seriously. Compared with the problems of Mr Lewis and Mr Dandy, this is not serious. This is called a sense of perspective.
The second thing that I found out, from this extraordinary episode, was that bibliography is, after all, wonderful. The reason why I became a bibliographer in the first place came back to me and reinforced itself: the pleasure of discovery, of detective work. The extraordinary sense of using the book as a window into the past; a way of finding a truth; a way of making a document tell a truth, however conjectural, about itself.
So that's one reason for this lecture course, and for the study of bibliography: it is interesting. There will be courses that you can elect in your third year in bibliography, and there is an MA course in this department in bibliography that you can choose to do if you wish to specialise in it: this series of lectures simply introduces you to the subject so that you can pursue it later if you wish.
The third thing is the most important. I started looking again at the relationship between bibliography and literature. What I found, you may be relieved to hear, was a little more positive. It seems to me that a key feature is missing from the picture, and that is the cause of the problem. Look again at the Rembrandt. The reader is single; it is a single book: that tight close one-to-one mysterious relationship. And, by implication, behind the text is a single author, and the book is a way of reading his or her mind. One book; one reader; one author. One magical communion between them.
This is an illusion. This is not true. The book, the reader, and everything that surrounds them and goes to make up the pleasure of the text is the result of collaboration. This is what bibliography tells us.
The book that you have in your hand is a collaborative product. It was made by many hands: printers, compositors, scribes, designers, type-founders, paper-makers; it is not a stable or single product. Moreover: the author is not single. To make the book he or she collaborates with the printer, for a start: the text that we have is at that level certainly a collaboration, a compromise. Some, perhaps many, decisions are not authorial: decisions about typeface, illustration, binding, colour of cover, layout, design, punctuation, even aspects of the text. It is a collaboration. Beyond that, author collaborates with friends and family in the making of the text, taking ideas and phrases from everywhere. And then, much more important, the author collaborates with literature. Were there no other literary texts, there would be no book. Any novel, any sonnet, any limerick, is connected by collaboration with all other sonnets and novels and limericks that ever were, and thence with any other work of literature, in a world wide web. And, beyond that, the author collaborates with language. Language is collective, collaborative, in its deepest nature: you can't have a language that has a single speaker: it's a joke, an impossibility. So, as you pick up the book you pick up the ends of all of those threads, that stretch out everywhere.
That's not the end of it. The reader is not single, either. You too are part of the collaboration, as you read the book. The text comes to life as, but only as, you read it. Without the reader it is inert, lifeless: it is only a book. When you read it you bring to it the results of your own collaborations with literature, with language, with your teachers, with life, and the result is the composite created text that lasts as long as you read, and is partly preserved in your memory.
This is the real situation. This is true. The object of literary criticism, the pure communion with a pure text, error-free, is not true: it is not possible. It has no existence. It is a non-event: you might call it a dead parrot.
So what follows from this? Well, for one thing it means that any text can contain errors. Be aware of the possibility, notice them when you notice them, but don't take them too seriously. They are traps, yes, but anyone without exception can fall into them. I once reviewed an edition by Fredson Bowers, the great bibliographer, and found three textual errors in two pages. If he can get it wrong, what chance have we got? (That wasn't the article he was libelous about. That was a different article.) Textual errors are not bad; the real error is thinking they can be made not to exist. They must: and they are useful, too, because they show you the nature of the book: the collaborative nature of the book.
So, collaborate: make a compromise. After all, it's possible to get extraordinary pleasure from Othello and not be remotely aware of the Indian/Iudean problem: millions of people have done so. Don't lay yourself open to ridicule by forgetting that the text is collaborative, and will contain error, but don't take it, or literary criticism, too seriously, either. It's meant to be pleasurable. If in doubt, remember the terrible example of Churton Collins, our sad Birmingham ghost.
The moral of this series, then, is that the text is not fixed, single, or stable. As Tony said, it is a process: not a noun, but a verb. Nor is the book itself a fixed thing: as Maureen said, it is related to every other printing of that text, and, I would say, to every printing of every text. Of course you can't be aware of all of the ends of all of the threads that you hold in your hand when you hold a book. Your primary awareness should be the pleasure of the text itself, and, beyond that, the possibility of pursuing any or many of these threads, with the joy of new knowledge, as far as you wish to take it: into literature, into language, into bibliography, into the theory of the text: wherever. This is what the English department is all about.