Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Horned Moses, The Twilight of the Gods, and the Spoiled Eel
Or, can an error improve a text? And if so, who owns it?

Part of the discussion that's been going on here, on Scott Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard, and on The One Ring circles around (without, I think, actually mentioning it, the idea of "author intent." Now "author intent" is a phrase very out of favor in contemporary literary criticism. The loci classici for its discussion are essays by Roland Barthes ("The Death of the Author") and Michel Foucaul ("What is an Author?"), which are mainstays of introductory theory classes. (I discuss these two essays in regard to Tolkien in my essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," which is in this book that is supposed to be out soon, so I won't rehearse the whole argument here).

There are a lot of reasons why many (not all, by any means) scholars are wary of author intent: you can't ever be sure you've found it, and the text may have effects that the author did not intend but which nevertheless manifest themselves in the minds of some non-trivial subset of readers. For instance, Tolkien asserted that the name "Galadriel" had nothing to do with the root "galadh" (meaning "tree"), but it's not unreasonable to discuss what effects might be created in the minds of many readers when they notice the similarity (in, for example, the place-name Caras Galadhon or the name for the people of Lothlorien, the Galadhrim). Similarly (but not exactly the same), Tolkien took great exception to a critic's linking "Moria" with the biblical "Moriah," noting that in his invented languages the root "mor" = "black" was sufficient to explain the various "mor-" compound names.

But figuring out what Tolkien meant can't be the end of criticism. Whether or not he intended Moria to be like Moriah (or for readers to perceive an association between Mordor and Murder), in the minds of some readers there will be an association and hence some kind of effect while reading. These may be "mis-readings" or "misprisions" to use Harold Bloom's terms, but if criticism is going to describe what it's like to read The Lord of the Rings, then it has to take these associations and effects into account, regardless of what the author said he wanted.

Now the two instances I've given above a pretty trivial in that they might create some kind of literary resonance for the reader but they don't really change the interpretation of the text significantly, and they are not really significant "errors" for the reader who adopts them. But what about when something goes really wrong? For example, what if you translate a Hebrew word that means "beams" or "rays" of light as Latin "cornu," horns? And then you start a tradition of depicting Moses with Horns (Michelangelo obviously followed this tradition). As I noted in this post, I am not a fan of the hand-waving school of criticism ("Oooh, this is great!! You know why? Because of its essential greatness!! Ooh, look, more greatness!!") that is a somewhat (only somewhat) unfair exaggeration of "conservative" art and literary criticism (the quote from Roger Kemble in the link above illustrates this phenomenon, and Harold's Bloom's introduction to the second edition of his The Anxiety of Influence is almost entirely handwaving about Shakespeare's greatness without ever offering any analysis), but I think Kemble may be on to something in this quote:
What we see in Moses here--Moses the law-giver, Moses the chap who has just had an awful (in the old sense) encounter with God--is the results of an artist's effort to represent visually something that exceeds the boundaries of the representable: the horns are a sort of objective correlative of that overwhelming moral awesomeness: forbidding, grotesque, yet commanding.

I think he's on to the idea that the Moses with horns is better (that is, creating stronger emotional and intellectual responses in viewers) than the same Moses without horns would be. So in this case a translation error has led to an improvement in the quality of the art.

Likewise look at the phrase "Twilight of the Gods" used most famously, obviously, in Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung. This is a mis-translation of Old Norse "ragna-røkr" (it shows up in Snorri's Edda), which actually means "the doom of the Gods" [philology: røk = destined end; røkr = twilight. The "r" on the compound is a nominative ending in ON, but it caused early German scholars mistranslate the word]. Now there's nothing particularly wrong with "Doom of the Gods," but (here I will hand-wave a little due to lack of time) it's not nearly as poetic, beautiful and unexpected as "Twilight of the Gods. " A scholar's error has ramified through the culture to help produce a work of great beauty in Wagner's opera (and it would be impossible, I think, to tease out how much of the opera and the cycle as a whole--musically as well as in terms of plot--is due to Wagner's thinking of the final piece as a "twilight" rather than as just a "doom.").

Finally, the spoiled ell. This is a famous, famous line (or it was, early in the 20th century) from Melville's Moby Dick: a net drops a load of fish on the deck, and there lies a "spoiled eel." Articles were written about the spoiled eel; great existentialist meanings were ascribed to it: had man "spoiled" the eel by wresting it from the sea? Was it "spoiled" intrinsically, the horror of nature apart from humanity? Didn't it show Melville's great poetic genius.

It was a printer's error for "coiled eel," a phrase that would attract just about zero attention because it is so conventional.*

So, is Moby Dick better if it contains "spoiled eel"? Early critical consensus would seem to so indicate. Yet "spoiled eel" was not the author's intent for the passage. So the printer's error is "better" than the author's intent?

What if Melville had noted the error in reading the proofs but had decided to let it stand because he thought it was better than his original? Who gets credit for the poetry of the line?

I could go on raising various questions, but this entry is getting too long, and I actually want to propose some kind of possible solution.

If my theory is correct in describing how traditions evolve (that they involve the accumulation of small differences over time), then an "error" like the horned Moses, the Twilight of the Gods or the spoiled eel provides a saltation, a jump from one portion of the adaptive landscape into another. The vast majority of these kinds of errors are going to be harmful, in that they'll make the text less "adaptive" (that is, aesthetically appealing to the reader): they will add mis-spellings or confusion. But some very small set of these errors will be "better" than the original, and they then may start their own, new, traditions, opening up new areas of adaptive space.

I think this theory might be right because it comes around from an entirely different directon (meme theory, evolutionary biology) and ends up at a place similar to Bloom's Anxiety of Influence, that "strong misreading" drives literary improvement and evolution.

And that's an awful lot of half-argued points to leave off in two paragraphs, but I have a few lectures to write. I'll look forward to further discussion and debate in the comments or on other blogs.

*I think I got the spoiled eel example from Donald Foster's Author Unknown, a book which would be much more interesting if Foster gave more methodology (and which also points to a serious crime that might have been committed by the White House during the Lewinski hearings but which the special prosecutor was too sex-focused to notice).


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And close readers will muse, "I wonder what Drout meant by refering to Michel Foucault as 'Michel Foucaul'? Did he mean for us to read 'fou' and 'caul' -- as in crazy, or maybe drunk, but destined from birth for greatness?"

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Jason Fisher said...

Hey Mike. Interesting post!

In it, you said: “For instance, Tolkien asserted that the name “Galadriel” had nothing to do with the root “galadh” (meaning “tree”), but it's not unreasonable to discuss what effects might be created in the minds of many readers when they notice the similarity (in, for example, the place-name Caras Galadhon or the name for the people of Lothlorien, the Galadhrim).”

This is not to undermine the point of your post, with which I concur fully, but I thought it worth pointing out that Tolkien originally did intend Galadriel to reflect the root galadh “tree”—although he clearly changed his mind later on. In The Treason of Isengard, among Tolkien’s notes and emendations on the drafts of the Lothlórien chapters, we find an explanation of [earlier forms of] Celeborn and Galadriel: “Galathir = Galað-hir tree-lord / Galadhrien = Galað-rhien tree-lady.”

So, though in the end he decided against an overtly “tree-ish” direct etymology, the connotation certainly makes sense and was actually there, even for Tolkien himself, in the beginning.

Seth Wilson said...

Is there any scholarship on the "spoiled eel" affair? It just so happens I'm presently studying textual error in a graduate course, and came across the anecdote in your Modern Scholar course, and I'd like to use the story as an example. However, I can't seem to find any reference to the misprint, though admittedly I haven't looked too hard as yet.