Bracket Spotting

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend via text, trying to find a day to take a walk together, and touch base. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, although we live in the same town (entirely my fault!). Sunday, I said to her, would be best, as on all the other days of the week I “had to work in the library, looking at manuscripts”. She, ever the scholar, replied thus:

had to –> get to <3

She’s right of course. What a great privilege to play with old books! I’m currently looking at MS e.Mus.37, a copy of the Old Arcadia, not Feuillerat’s base text. Luckily not, since this one’s hardly got any brackets at all.

Poring over the beautiful secretary hand, I tried to spot the bracket. An early modern where is Waldo. Progress was slow, and the work draining. I wondered why, and then suddenly realized that the habits, that is, the script, of secretary hand makes it hard for the eye to tell when exactly the inky curves are parts of letters and when not.

Mostly, what tripped me up by posing like half a bracket is the form of the ampersand with a belly curving to the left, like so:

(This photo is from MS Jesus 150 in the Bodleian Library.)

Then the ascending hook of the spurred ‘a’, a slightly old-fashioned form, indicating that the scribe must have learnt to write in the middle of the sixteenth-century, rather than towards its end.

The infralinear lobes of ‘h’, ‘g’, and ‘y’ also routinely make me look twice, biting into the lines below them as they do.

Notice the ‘g’ of ‘grew’ on the top line, and ‘h’ of ‘hew’ below.
Notice the ‘y’ of ‘my’ on the top line, and ‘sely’ just below.

Sometimes the bracket is incredibly thin, like an eye-lash having floated onto the page, or a slender piece of fibre having swum to the surface of the paper during its production. This is owing to the angle of the quill’s nib, which could scratch the paper, and not release as much ink.

And sometimes, brackets were plainly, and simply forgotten. In this particular manuscript, there are orphaned brackets a-plenty, suggesting either a certain carelessness in copying, or haste, or lack of attention. Presumably, the first is the case, since there are not many brackets at all in this Arcadia copy (though that might be owing to its copy-text). Perhaps, an already bracket-weak text, then, was further de-bracketted by the cavalier attitude towards brackets by the scribe of e.Mus.37, resulting in a handsome and clean, but very lightly punctuated piece.

The question remains whether we should consider punctuation, and the bracket as most visible sign, most squarely present, whether we should think of it as accidental and thus negligible in terms of editing and interpreting, or whether we should give attention to what seems part of the minutiae of the work, what seems, and maybe is, vulnerable to change upon transmission. Part of my project also means doing exactly that, making a case for taking those small not-so-small elements of a text like punctuation seriously. Especially when it’s systematic. Especially when in- and exclusion might tell us something about the line of origin of manuscripts.

Punctuation does make a difference. Like Harold Pinter says, ‘you can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot form a dash a mile off.’ And the readers, too.

15 July: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

So says Chesterton, that most neglected of 20th century writers. Most neglected, and paradoxically, most prolific, having written 100  (I mean, ONE HUNDRED) books, poems, plays, novels, short stories, 4,000 newspaper essays, and decades of columns. AND he invented Father Brown. Why aren’t we hearing about this guy anymore?

I don’t know. But I do know that I love his aphorisms, and especially the one serving as title for these musings. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. A passionate plea against perfectionism, and “just doing it”.

The phrase actually comes in a somewhat politicized context, that of us nowadays outsourcing any activity to others, that is, professionals, be it sports, cooking, entertainment, childcare, porn. We prefer watching tennis rather than learning it ourselves, go to restaurants, watch Netflix, dump our children in wards at the age of six months, and visit Gentlemen’s Special Interest websites. That’s of course all related to material conditions and capitalist systems of (monetary) exchange: if you don’t earn enough, you can only watch tennis, because a club is too expensive. And anyway, you won’t have time to visit one, since you’re stupidly slaving away in a soul-crushing office. So, I’d take Chesterton’s criticism with a pinch of salt in terms of people’s proclivities, but rather find reasons in the way things are. Still, it’s true, isn’t it, that we prefer having done for us, rather than doing.

Same goes with literary criticism. We read what other people think about a poem before we read it, and have thoughts ourselves. Not always, but often. That’s to do with anxiety about the new, the uncertain, ambiguity. Something you might not understand. But that’s like eating pre-digested food rather than the fresh stuff. Of course, we need both, the poem and the critics (and the monster), but first, surely, we should always pick the delightful wonder of encountering literature itself, shiny and new. Which is not to speak against experts. Goodness, we do need experts in these our days, and we need to listen to them. But we also need to experience ourselves, however bad a job we are doing, to speak with Chesterton.

I feel like that when I start a new project. Amateurish. I’m doing it badly, and I’m producing lots of waste in the wake of my journey towards better understanding, a journey with plenty blind-alleys to be sure, and at the end of it (though it’s endless, of course), a realization that I still know so little. Everything is the snapshot of a moment, even a monograph coming out of three years intensive research. Of making many books there is no end.

Right now, I’m just reading articles about brackets, I’m reading around topics of punctuation, and typography. That’s all very well and relevant, but I’m not reading the texts themselves. I’m scared of them. I’m scared I’m missing meanings and allusions, so I don’t even start in the first place. I’m scared of not having world-changing thoughts while reading. I shouldn’t be. And I know I’m not really, once I actually open Sidney or Wroth, (re)discovering their crazy way with words. Anything worth doing – reading – is worth doing badly. With time, less so.