Friday, December 15, 2006

The Critical Apparatus

I did not always appreciate that mass of variants and Latin and curious symbols at the foot of the page in my Greek books. In fact, as so often happens with ignorance, I actively disliked it. But as I've learned more about the Greek language, and the precious course of transmission by which I have access to an ancient literature, and spent some time myself trying to puzzle out a particular piece of text, I've come to see what wealth lies compacted into those little word-hoards. In his book on textual criticism and editorial technique (1973) M.L. West points out that even seemingly trivial debates over variants such as δέ and τε, which might not change in the slightest the meaning of a particular passage, can be valuable in the long run for our knowledge of particles, for instance, or meter, or stylistics. And these things, in turn, may shed light on a passage where the reading of δέ or τε does indeed put the meaning at stake.

He aims his book not only at editors, but at readers like myself, who, even with some appreciation for the value of textual criticism, have been content to leave such work to the men and women we trust to have superior knowledge. In his words: "Unfortunately editors are not always people who can be trusted, and critical apparatuses are provided so that readers are not dependent upon them. Though the reader lacks the editor's long acquaintance with the text and its problems, he may nevertheless surpass him in his feeling for the language or in ordinary common sense, and he should be prepared to consider the facts presented in the apparatus and exercise his own judgment on them. He must do so in places where the text is important to him for some further purpose."

West relates Eduard Fraenkel's epiphany about the value of the critical apparatus, which was originally told in Fraenkel's introduction to Leo's Ausgewählte kleine Schriften: "I had by then read the greater part of Aristophanes, and I began to rave about it to Leo, and to wax eloquent on the magic of this poetry, the beauty of the choral odes, and so on and so forth. Leo let me have my say, perhaps ten minutes in all, without showing any sign of disapproval or impatience. When I was finished, he asked: In which edition do you read Aristophanes? I thought: has he not been listening? What has his question got to do with what I have been telling him? After a moment's ruffled hesitation I answered: The Teubner. Leo: Oh, you read Aristophanes without a critical apparatus. He said it quite calmly, without any sharpness, without a whiff of sarcasm, just sincerely taken aback that it was possible for a tolerably intelligent young man to do such a thing. I looked at the lawn nearby and had a single, overwhelming sensation: νῦν μοι χάνοι εὐρεῖα χθών. Later it seemed to me that in that moment I had understood the meaning of real scholarship."

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