I was reading a journal article for my Latin class and was again reminded of something that I’ve been ruminating on for a while. Historiography continues to fascinate me and is something I hope to dedicate plenty of energy to. One of the most questionable activities that many historians and exegetes like to play around with is what I like to call “Magic Words Syndrome.” If you’ve ever been reading a commentary and the exegete postulates an entire literary history for a document (in time, a critical edition of the text might be produced) we don’t have, belonging to a theoretical community we don’t know about, coming from an original oral source we’re unaware of, all based on a tiny handful or even a couple of words, then you know what I mean when I say Magic Words Syndrome.
This shows up in postulating “dependence” and “allusion” as well.
What is it about the fact that a document is in Greek or Latin that makes people believe that authors didn’t actually use language in some comparable way to the way we learn and use a language? Nobody looks at three words in Joyce’s Ulysses and does this. That’s because he wrote in English, and English is familiar to us, we use it with very little thought or in general, attention to detail. Could you ever imagine someone arguing like this? –
“You see how Joyce uses “in the yard” here? Clearly he is alluding to passage X in work Y who too uses “in the yard” in similar circumstances, that is, the protagonist is in fact coming into a yard. Furthermore we know, based on person Z who is a contemporary of Joyce, that the use of work Y was “in the air” and broadly known of by crazed Irish intellectuals despite the fact that it is far from clear whether Joyce himself knew about work Y. Either way, my argument does not depend on this. My own footnoted person T wrongly asserts that here Joyce is relying on work W because W uses “into the yard,” the preposition clearly shows that her reading is foolish nonsense. Academic person H has argued, unconvincingly in my opinion, that the original form of the phrase in work W was “in the yard,” but the best sources all say “into,” thus this need not change our rendering. Furthermore it is my contention that “in the yard” needs to be understood according the neo-platonic use of the yard to signify the Elysian Fields, popular at the time in France, which surely Joyce knew about, himself being very familiar with random French neo-platonists.”
Now of course academics can often legitimately pick up an allusion. The other day I successfully recognized one to Wesley on Facebook hidden in a stack of comments. But that doesn’t change the fact that very often I think these kinds of papers and books are operating with a kind of reasoning that doesn’t take into consideration the way people actually use language. It certainly doesn’t strike me as convincingly historical. Partly this springs from the readings I did a few years back on hermeneutics. It escapes me that entire worlds can be extracted from so little. It seems like irresponsible reading to me.
All this to say, I need to read more on the writing of history. de Certeau here I come!