Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do we really want to edit the Ur-Text?

As all readers know, I am working since years on the edition and translation of Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya and I have collected several versions of my own translation. Some fifty years ago, I would have had several workbooks full of notes. As soon as one would have become too full, I would have transcribed the last version in a new one and started re-reading it again. Suppose that I were a teacher: I would have used my translation in my classes again and again. My students would have taken notes and the ones of, say, year 1960, would have ended up with a translation quite different than the ones of year 1950. Then, one of them might have re-thought about the text and added her own notes on the margins. Another might have lent her workbook to a friend, who might have copied its content and added some glosses in brackets, when she could not make sense of it. Not to speak about the new readings produced just by misreadings, or by copying further the initial text. And this all can be easily thought to happen within a lifespan!

Of course, one might say that all philologists try to reconstruct the author's final view. This can be practically impossible (because of the lack of autograph manuscripts, etc.), but theoretically possible. However, the "final view" only exists in some cases. A kāvya poem, in classical and contemporary India has probably been elaborated enough to have a final version. But what about lectures, conferences, talks, manuscripts written by authors who were trying to make sense of a problem, struggled with that, re-read a passage again and again trying to make sense of it?
Do we really want to say that the textual edition of the Ur-Text is a general rule? Even if the Ur-Text is assumed as an abstract entity, such as the author's last version?


Jayarava said...

Watching my own essays evolve I know just what you mean - ad I sometimes think that it is better that early versions disappear forever.

However, are we really trying to get to the Ur-text, or more broadly concerned with textual history as a way of understanding the history of ideas. In your example if I had all of your notebooks and your teaching notes, and those of your students and friends, then I could see how the ideas contained in those documents evolved over time. That would be interesting!

elisa freschi said...

Yes, it would be great to know how, e.g., Dharmakīrti or Kumārila developed their thought. Hence, why bother about assessing the "correct" reading? Would not it be more interesting to reconstruct the history of the transmission of a text? Of its reception? Of its stundents' notebooks? And, is the alternative viable at all? Don't we have frequently just some notebooks left (and anyway not the author's final view)?

Jayarava said...

I think most scholars I follow do tend to look at the development where possible. It's often clear that variations amongst manuscripts point to a previous version no longer extant. I suppose we're always curious about what it was like. We spend a lifetime learning about these things!

Sometimes there are aesthetic reasons for restoring a text - like the Ṛgveda with the meter restored.

I think some of the concern for correctness is down to attitudes which spill over from Protestant Christianity - this is a pervasive influence on the English speaking world, including English language academia. It says that there is one (and for some, only one) authority on God which is the Bible. A correct reading of the Bible is therefore crucial for understanding the mind of God. This is over simplifying things of course :-)

Often we do only have notebooks. I'm looking at all the variations on lokuttara paṭicca-samuppāda in the Pali Canon and it's quite clear that we have two types of text: 1. memories which are fragmentary, and 2. rather heavy handed attempts to combine some of the fragments into a single text. We do not have the "original text" - though of course I am very tempted to infer an Ur-text, so far I have restrained myself! I might do my own edition for practical purposes, but it will be clear that it's simply my edition.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, that is an interesting example and one that makes explicit the point I was trying to make. One might try to construct a text beyond the various versions of it, but it would be one's theory rather than a re-construction. In fact, a re-construction is only possible if there had been once a single construction, which was then destroyed. But this is often just a myth.
I would not agree with you about the genesis of the myth, though. The habit of critically editing started in the Humanistic Renaissance (XV c.), when one re-discovered that there were personal authors beyond the less-personal principle of Authority of the Middle Age. But you might be right in appreciating the role the critical editions of the Bible might have had: if the Bible is the word of God, one might have thought, there must be a Ur-Text. One might object that it is a human need to think that God has a single voice, but yet…

Jayarava said...

My European history is very patchy!

There's also the whole long search for the original language of God, pre the incident in the Tower of Babel. Umberto Eco's book on this very good: The Search for the Perfect Language.

PDSz said...

Did you read Ruzsa Feri's article about the sūtras being just that: multiple versions of handouts? (`Authorlessness of sūtras' or something along those lines, it's not at hand; I'm sure you have, just thought to bring it into the discussion; it has a very interesting point)

elisa freschi said...

Yes, thanks for making me think about it.
For other readers: the article is Ferenc Ruzsa's The authorlessness of the Philosophical sūtras, published in Acta Orientalia 2011.

I agree with part of the article, that is, "They [the sūtras] must have been something like our handouts (but purely oral at the beginning), with different additions, deletions and interpretations in different places and times, without any fixed order or set number of contributors. The edited form of these texts that has come down to us derives from a late collector-editor who most probably wrote some sort of commentary as well on the sūtras."
And I also think that the first part could apply also to later texts.
However, I do not buy the consequence, namely "Moreover, often there is no point in speaking about the true meaning of a given sentence or paragraph, as it may have had several ones in different historical contexts, and there is no available standard to establish which interpretation is more fundamental or original."
If this means that we should not bother looking for the *Ur-*meaning, then I cannot but agree. By contrast, I think that it is possible to reconstruct the meaning of a text "as read by…", and that this should be the explicit focus of our researches. What do you think?

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