Antaeus

At Harvard’s Houghton Library, you can examine a telegraph Marcel Proust sent to one of his friends during the Dreyfus Affair. Dozens of words, several lines, all of it one convoluted sentence forced to a halt at the bottom right margin of the blue form. All capitals, the lines typed up crookedly, it seems to shout at you with clumsy, irate long-windedness: the perfect parody and the perfect antithesis of Proust’s easily ignited, well-worded sensitivity. A draft of Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower scribbled in a rapid, nervous hand, then overwritten with corrections. On one of the first pages, Hardy describes the novel’s eponymous tower. In the initial draft, the tower affords the protagonist a glorious view of five neighboring counties. Looking closer, we note that the first half-line has been crossed out in reconsideration—the number five replaced by a more modest three. In another one of Houghton’s indigo carrier boxes are several notebooks of drafts and sketches by E. E. Cummings, replete with joyous doodles and happy faces.

Textual artifacts writers leave behind can all too easily become unconscious parodies of the very qualities whose more controlled, artistic form we have come to admire. Proust’s unforgivingly complex syntax, Hardy’s sensory enthusiasm, Cummings’ delighted pantheism, assume a comic quality as soon as we start treating their quotidian expressions with the interpretive sincerity and high standards with which we approach their masterworks.

Though it affords some guilty pleasure, there is something wrongheaded in this deadpan parodic approach towards archival materials; not simply because it is mean to authors we want to love, but because it misrepresents the aesthetic qualities which draw us towards such drafts or sketches in the first place, the kind of artistic object they constitute. That the difference between a manuscript and a published work might be one of aesthetic category, rather than degree of perfection, was signaled in recent debates around the publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts. When they were posthumously anthologized a few years ago (as Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box), many of her critics and friends protested.  They were not appalled by the fact that the drafts were being made available to the public: many of them had already found their way into scholarly articles. It does not take away from Bishop’s talent that she wrote poems arguably inferior to the ones she published, or that her first stab at “One Art” bears little resemblance to the polished version achieved after a painstaking series of rewrites. The publication of her drafts was most shocking as a violation of the limit the poet had set between her personal space and her public image, the things that surrounded her and the voices she heralded her audience with. What the poet intended to remain a crossed-out, half-intelligible scribble on a crumpled piece of paper should not be given the communicative transparency of a clearly typeset composition. An object should not be made into a text.

 

Walter Benjamin has long alerted us to the difference in the way we respond to a reproducible and a non-reproducible work of art. We admire in a work of art which cannot be reproduced its aura of uniqueness, the fact that its beauty can only be accessed in one physical location. Disseminated widely, a work loses this aura and begins to draw its power from other sources. Transient and less intimidating in each of its many manifestations, it gains in status through the persistency with which its copies keep being spread, the rapidity with which its many versions infect the minds of societies.

Conventionally, we treat masterpieces of writing as belonging to the latter category. A writer’s canonical work is not the collection of the pieces of paper whose content she personally penned or dictated, but the nebula of multiply copied texts which she decided to release into the cycle of printing and reprinting. The effect of their works does not depend on any single, however authentically manuscripted copy.

What distinguishes writers’ drafts and sketches from their public work is the continued Antaeus-like dependence of the former on their physicality and the moment in time that first brought them to life. Seen as a part of a writer’s unique personal space, palpable like his lamp or chair, they are mysterious and instructive: a window onto the author’s private thoughts in their more fragile, momentary expression, a silent observer of one or many instants of their lives. Seen as additions to a public persona or mirrors of the author’s inner self, they appear silly and comparatively amateurish, deflations of the artistic efforts which originally made the writer into a publicly interesting figure.

Unlike their canonical cousins, drafts and sketches are therefore at their most powerful—as objects of art and as expressions of the person who wrote them—when they manage to convince us that they are physical objects rather than full-fledged texts. We appreciate them, and their connection to the authors we love, not because they accurately express their heights of genius, but because they remind us that these writers were fragile, non-reproducible individuals whose material selves we have irretrievably lost. They conjure up before our eyes not a trusty substitute of the author’s self, but a space made empty by his absence which they refuse satisfactorily to fill. Tantalizing us through their connection to works whose many reproductions we have seen, they pull us back towards an older, more idolatrous aesthetic mode, making us imagine—as printed books do far less ostentatiously—how much we are missing because their author is not there to be addressed directly.

 

Part of the mission of archivists and collectors is thus to resist the temptation of uprooting the manuscripts they are entrusted with: to make them available to the public in a way which emphasizes their uniqueness and physicality, preventing us from approaching them merely as texts. The Brontë sisters’ juvenilia, tiny books of stories about a fairy kingdom in minuscule childish handwriting, are kept in inch-by-inch compartments distributed evenly in a large case: a collection of butterflies we could imagine Emily and Charlotte finger and patiently gather. James Joyce’s galleys of Ulysses are preserved in their original, uncut form. With several pages on each giant sheet of paper, it is a map rather than typescript of Joyce’s master work, a mute account of the bodily acrobatics he must have subjected himself to in perusing and richly penciling its margins.