Monday, March 25, 2013

Auerbach and the Loss of the Library

I don't think I'll ever be over my scholarly identity crisis; it's necessarily a condition of working in a field that isn't really a field and doesn't really fit well into any extant disciplinary model. (At a conference this past week, a colleague I was just meeting asked me what I do, and I replied, "Well, the people who do philosophy think I do poetry, and the people who do poetry think I do philosophy, and as far as I'm concerned, that means I'm getting it right.") But I think I've gotten past the small hiccup caused a few weeks ago when I got a flat-out rejection from a journal. I'm still not happy that I'm going to have to put more time into the piece, but it's been an interesting process of thinking about academic writing.

My original plan had been to pare the piece way back and write it as a very essayistic "short note" that simply proposed an idea for the sake of having it out there in the world. I'd spoken with the editor of one of the journals in the field that encourages academic writing in slightly more unconventional forms, and he had said he would at least be willing to consider something like that once it was written. (This after submitting it to a publishing outfit that claims to want the unconventional and the unfinished, and claims it seductively, asking for "work that has either gone nowhere or will likely go nowhere, yet retains nevertheless little inkdrops of possibility and beauty and the darkling shape of a more full-bodied form and structure." This, as it turned out, was too conventional.)  But much to my surprise, as I upended the piece, changed the focus and tried to rewrite it as an essay without thinking more about the research and the archival work that still remained to be done if it were ever to look like a conventional piece of academic writing, the simple things that I would need to do to complete it as a decent research article, even preserving as unanswered the open questions that were what tanked it in the previous review, presented themselves clearly and unbidden.

The book that made Erich Auerbach's name is Mimesis, which he wrote in exile, on the run from the Nazis, in Turkey during the war, "famously, very famously, with no footnotes, no bibliography and with the inscription (on the verso of the title page of the 1953 English translation): 'Written in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945.' This, it was always implied, was the explanation for this lapse in what we call scholarship" (Writing Without Footnotes, 1-2). It's lucky for me that I learned to read — to really read — where this was not considered a lapse but rather something to be emulated, especially by medievalists, for whom the footnote is anachronism and the essayistic gloss a more organic form and that that's something I can always go back to as I work. Writing — just writing — is always an option for me in a way that I know it isn't in the minds of a lot of scholars. (And lucky for me that there are editors out there who are willing to entertain this kind of thing.)

It would be very poetic, though not hugely intellectually honest, to say that it had to be an essay because I am away from my library. I'm not that far away though and I'm not away for that long, and it's not like there aren't four excellent libraries in a half-hour walking radius of where I sit now, and — thank God! — it's not like I'm away from my library like Auerbach was away from his library. The kind of piece I conceived of this as being during this intermediate rethinking phase is impossible for me to write because it is necessarily done on condition of exile. But thinking without the library, thinking about something just as a piece of writing, was what made it possible for me to leave my temporary version of a self-imposed Auerbach's exile — affirming the canon while alienated from it (at the risk of paraphrasing Edward Said) — and take the work back into the library where I can finish it. The final product won't bear any trace of the middle, essayistic step but for the fact that it will have been completed.

Why do it, then? Why take that final step and obliterate the essayistic, vaguely Auerbachy stylistic element and write a plain research article? Academia is conservative. Academic publishing is really conservative. I don't think it's a question of not having the courage to take the risk, but rather of not wanting to throw up more barriers. Why make things complicated and potentially alienate editors and readers? If this blog post is the trace of what was or could have been, is that enough to make the point that conventional forms of academic writing shouldn't be the only forms?

In a certain respect it's all very apt because it's a piece that argues that we should stop trying to write the biography of the anonymous author and identify him with a historical figure because, really, regardless of what the impassioned partisans on all sides say, there's not enough evidence currently available to know one way or the other. Rather, this piece suggests, a biobibligoraphy might be the more fruitful way to go: the biography of the author as a reader and the biography and catalogue of his library. It's an article that, when finished, will have had a complicated relationship with the Library, both in its content and its composition. The argument is still there, between the lines and esoteric, ve-ha-meyvin yavin.

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