Sunday, March 31, 2013

Journeys to New Worlds

Yes, there is a crucifix on my blog on Easter Sunday. It's not what you think.
Read on to find out why.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Translation Diary, Entry #15

Shit. Spanish distinguishes between Plague and plauge in a way that is not quite so neat to reproduce in English. I have never in my life (with the exception of my German for Reading course) thought about the capitalization of nouns as much as I am during this project.

Brochure for the Princeton M.R.S. Program

I am still having trouble creating a hierarchy of problems with the Princeton alumna and mother's letter to the Daily Princetonian advising the undergraduate women students of her alma mater that they really need to get married before they graduate because everyone knows that a woman has to marry a man who is older and smarter than she is or else she won't be happy, and she'll never find so many possible candidates all in one spot again as she will when she is a freshman at Princeton.

Really. I'm not kidding. Take a minute and read the letter. The link's just up there. I'll be here when you get back.

(Tapping fingers. Twiddling thumbs. Counting to thirty.)

Now that you've read it, would you like to sit down for a moment? Are you shocked? Sputtering?

I am at such a loss for anything critical, valuable or thoughtful to say — I just don't even know where to start! — that perhaps this means I'm dumb enough to still be marriageable at the age of PhD and almost-30 I'm just going to offer a roundup of links to some of the commentaries that have run elsewhere on the web:

Princeton Mom to Female Students: Find a Husband

Some Poor Kid's Mom Wrote a Letter... Begging Girls to Date Her Son

Mother Scolds Princeton Women for Not Marrying Her Sons

And letter-writer Susan Patton's attempt to dig herself out of the hole by digging deeper:

Princeton Mom Wishes She Married a Princeton Man

Actually, it's not that I can't think of what to say (although as I said, the question of Where to begin, even? poses a challenge); it's that there is nothing contained in this letter that actually merits a serious response. It's so transparent and so stupid and so tone-deaf. Yet I'm offended as the alumna of a peer institution, and I'm troubled as someone who teaches men and women in the target age demographic who have a whole range of personal and professional aspirations. I'm a big proponent of showing people up by the simple act of living well, so I shall spill no more ink on the matter, get back to my exciting and over-brainy existence and just back slowly away from this bizarre wormhole to 1950 before it sucks in any more feminism. Turns out we don't actually have that much to spare.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Zero-Sum Game (Not in a Helpful Way)

I didn't buy any ridiculous Brill books at the conference I attended this past weekend. Made up for lost time, though, by ordering a bunch of new books on Amazon that I'd been meaning to buy for a while. From left to right:

David Nirenberg. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: Norton, 2013.

Efraim Kanarfogel. The Intellectual History and Rabbinic Culture of Medieval Ashkenaz. Wayne State UP, 2012.

Kim Haines-Eitzen. The Gendered Palimpsest: Women, Writing and Representation in Early Christianity. Oxford: UP, 2011.

Jon D. Levenson. Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Princeton: UP, 2012.

Marvine Howe. Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia's New Muslims. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.

Aaron Hughes. Inheriting Abraham: On the Uses and Abuses of History. Oxford: UP, 2012.

Samuel Romanelli. Travails in an Arab Land, eds. Norman and Yedida Stillman. University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Jonathan Safran Foer. Tree of Codes. Visual Editions, 2010.

Vladimir Nabokov. The Original of Laura. New York: Knopf, 2009.

They're all work related. (Even the Nabokov. Really.) Some for research, some for teaching, some for more general writing; expect these titles to crop up here in the not-too-distant future.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Archive Archaeology

One of the texts I'm working on for the book project exists in one copy, on the last page of a single manuscript. More than a decade ago it was sold at auction to a private collector who donated it to a university library. The seller was another institution of higher learning, which had acquired the personal collection of its principal who, in turn, had purchased manuscripts from several sources, including a well-placed eighteenth-century European courtier. Unfortunately, this still leaves a void of over two hundred years between the first time the we can identify it being somewhere specific and when it was copied. There are two minimally-legible owners' marks that I am working to decipher. I'm close with the harder one and just starting in with the one that is a bit clearer. I'll go back and see the manuscript again this summer, look at it under UV light and rephotograph it.

In the meantime, I'm trying other avenues to try to put the manuscript in historical context.

The big news at Penn this year (well, in some circles, anyway) has been the accessioning of a private collection of manuscripts assembled by a couple, the Schoenbergs, who are, I am told, primarily interested in scientific and medical texts and the opening of a brand new manuscript and special collections center funded by these same donors. Today was the first day that the reading room was open to readers. And so I went over there to consult with two of the three manuscripts that the Schoenbergs acquired at the same auction sale where my manuscript was sold. My hope was that some of the other manuscripts that ended up in the same twentieth-century collection before it was broken up and sold off might have come, together, from another single collector.

One of the two manuscripts, a Hebrew mathematical treatise, offered some fleeting hope that it had also been owned by the individual I believe to have been the second, Ashkeanzi owner of my manuscript; but by the end of the day I was able to rule that out pretty conclusively.

The other, though, a Hebrew commentary on Aristotle, raised more questions than it answered. It, like my manuscript, was also owned by the third owner, the first one we can really identify with any kind of precision or accuracy or historical context. It has a similar pattern of water damage to the manuscript I"m mainly interested in. In and of itself it's not really that meaningful to be able to pinpoint that the water damage probably happened while it was in the hands of this Prussian collector, but it is another detail, and who knows how that might fit into a fuller picture once I've been able to put it together? However, the small victory of being able to put together a chronology for the water damage is badly overshadowed by

I would expect to find the owner's mark on the upper left-hand corner of either folio 2r or 3r, and as you can see from the photograph of the spread of 2v and 3r, that corner was completely obliterated and repaired with new paper.

And it's clear, as for example in folio 9v, pictured below, that there were diagrams and notes in the margins that were damaged and obliterated with the loss of that corner of the manuscript in its early pages.

So it's possible that this manuscript was in the collection of owner one as well as in the collection of owner three; the content of the two texts themselves also makes that not a totally implausible scenario. But there's no real answer there. This, like the Oxford long-shot was, well, also a long shot. But I'm also nowhere close to the end of this blind alley and will just keep pulling manuscripts that were in the collections of owners three (the Prussian collector) and four (the first institutional owner) until I find another one with the relevant mark. It's so elaborate that I'm very disinclined to believe that it was only used once; it's just a matter of putting in the time.


Just as a side note, the new special collections space is gorgeous, all glass and light.

This is just a quick iPhone photo of the exhibition space (which, incidentally, is where the third relevant manuscript may currently be found; I'll have a chance to look at it once the exhibition changes):

And (actually a pretty terrible one) one of the (really quite lovely even though you wouldn't know it from this picture) view from there:

The librarian with whom I had been corresponding asked me to please bear with them through the chaos of the first day. I wrote back to him to tell him that I'd never had a smooth first day in a manuscript library, even when it wasn't also the library's first day. But truth be told, this was actually the smoothest first day I've ever had in a manuscript library. The books were ready and waiting for me, they didn't inadvertently lose them, I didn't get a stern talking to for making requests based on old rather than new shelfmarks. I was just really impressed by the whole operation. 

It makes me that much sadder that I didn't have more of a manuscript focus to the project I was doing this year, and that much more set upon making sure that my next project is very organically and locally manuscript-based (not that it'll be like a hipster farm-to-table cafe or anything). Fortunately, this is close enough that I can come back semi-regularly.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

To Every Library Book, Return, Return, Return

I requested a volume from Borrow Direct, the Ivy League-plus-MIT library lending consortium, and Cornell's copy was delivered to me.

The 2009 due date for the first return? That one was mine.  So I'm sitting here in Philadelphia reading from the exact same copy of a library book I read in graduate school in Ithaca.

(And yes, this does mean that at 1:30 on a Friday-night-into-Saturday morning I have my iPhone, iPad and laptop in bed with me along with a large percentage of the contents of the Cairo Genizah.)

This still wasn't quite as special as when I went to check out a medieval lexicon at NYU and realized, on the basis of the dates (the early 80s) that my adviser, whose first job was in (a completely different and no-longer extant department at) NYU, must have been the last person to have checked it out before me.

There's some sort of doctrine of cyclical book-borrowing, no?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Not a Broblem

On the one hand, this morning's offering on Mc Sweeney's Internet Tendency, an open letter to the labial phonemes in Arabic, is taking some flak for capitalizing on the foreign-accents-as-humor trope.

On the other hand, you sort of have to be such a geek (or at least have something of geekiness buried deep in your nature, coupled with at least a passing familiarity with basic linguistics) to try to pull something like this off that it was the fellowship with others who find the IPA to be a bottomless mine of comedy gold that grabbed me and won me over.

Not to make this about the thirteenth century or anything, but there's sort of a kinship among people who have worked tirelessly to learn Arabic, especially the grammar and the phonology. Learning Arabic is the sort of of challenge that, once you've taken it on, it's very heartening to read about other people in the same boat and to hear other people expressing the same things you are thinking or have thought. One of my favorite sentences in Samuel ibn Tibbon's prologue to the Moreh comes as he is talking about his advocacy for word-for-word rather than sense-for-sense translation but makes some small concessions for grammatical correctness in the target language of Hebrew. If you've made it through first year Arabic you can identify exactly the proportions of wonder, puzzlement, bemusement and frustration in his mental tone of voice when he wrote, of the grammatical rule that dictates that non-human plurals take singular feminine agreement: "Sometimes, when we would use a a masculine plural, they use a feminine singular!"

And I know it's not exactly the same thing because this is written from the perspective of someone teaching English to Arabic-speaking students, but this odd fellowship of students of Arabic a big enough tent to include a pretty broad swath of intersection between Arabic and language learning. I didn't read the piece as him making fun of his students or of foreigners with accents as much as engaging in that same head-shaking that we all do at the complexity of the Arabic language.

I think it's okay.