Elli Bleeker: Mapping invention in writing (ESR 3)

In the French animation movie Le Tableau (2011), three groups of characters co-exist within the painting of a castle: the Toupins (“tout peints”; completely finished), the Pafinis (“pas finis”; not entirely finished) and the Reufs (who are only roughly sketched). The Toupins rule the castle and consider themselves superior. After all, they are the only ones the painter completed, and he must have had his reasons for that. They consider the Pafinis and the Reufs not interesting or even unworthy of existence. In their turn, the Pafinis and the Reufs long for the painter to return and finish his work: surely it could not have been his intention to leave them like that?

In the history of textual scholarship, there was a time when the views of the Toupins were widely accepted. The latest or final version of a text was considered to represent the author’s intention; his draft manuscripts were of little to no interest. Scholars studied the available textual Toupins and selected the best one, or created a new one themselves.


More recently, and especially in the case of modern manuscripts, textual scholars started to appreciate the rough sketches, first outlines, or partly finished texts. These brouillons contain valuable information about the creation and shaping of a text and illustrate the wanderings of the author’s mind. They offer an understanding of writing as a spontaneous and fluid process, continually subject to change. Scholarly editors looked further, into marginalia and reading notes. They scrutinized pages, documenting all erasures, deletions and additions. They tracked every textual trail the author left behind, thus reconstructing the genesis of a literary work. The study of this is a way to bring the author closer, to “see thought during its functioning” (Cardona, 1988), to see the shaping of ideas.

Yet, how to convey this knowledge to the reader? Historian Robert Darnton describes these frustrations accurately: “Any historian who has done long stints of research knows the frustration over his or her inability to communicate the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past. If only my reader could have a look inside this box, you say to yourself, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could follow that trail in my text just as I pursued it through the dossiers, when I felt free to take detours leading away from my main subject. If only I could show how themes criss-cross outside my narrative and extend far beyond the boundaries of my book…” (Darnton, 2012)

Translated to scholarly editing: imagine a citation that an author marked in a book, then scribbled down in his notebook and finally incorporates it in the actual text of a literary work. Following the trail of this citation would provide insight how textual genesis takes place on several levels: how text is formed both by exterior influences (exogenesis) as well as from the ‘inside’, by crossed-out words or altered phrases (endogenesis).

However, the strict editorial practices for the making of print editions are shaped by the confined lay out of the page and the limits of printing technology. As a consequence, the ‘textual trails’ that illustrate the writing process are often tucked away in a synoptic apparatus, annotation and/or described in complicated diacritical signs (Van Hulle, 2009). In short, textual scholars and editors have difficulties communicating their fascinating findings to the reader in print.

The digital scholarly edition has often been hailed as the solution for these communication problems. For instance, digital technology permits an editor to create a bottomless archive containing every available piece of information on a work. By encoding and structuring this information, the user of such an archive would be able to live Darnton’s dream: following the trail of the author, taking detours, ravishing in the wealth of textual information. In practice however, such a vast digital infrastructure would “overburden the reader with a mass of texts” (Van Hulle, 2006).

It is clear that the possibilities of digital technology come with concrete challenges. The editor is confronted with the task of communicating both the available material as well as his insider’s knowledge to the reader. In order to do so, he needs to develop a digital architecture in which that material is integrated and all intertextual relations made explicit. Subsequently, the edition must be designed is such a way that the reader/user is aware of the available information, yet not overwhelmed by it. The reader should be able to ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’ of the text, according to his interest. He could either be given a complete overview of the textual dynamics or choose to concentrate on the genesis of a specific phrase. For the latter, XML offers the possibility to encode the dynamic writing process in great detail. Less research has been done into the encoding and structuring of the exogenesis of a literary work.

In my research I concentrate on two digital scholarly editions that deal to a great extent with above-mentioned issues: the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscripts (SBDM) project and the Anne Frank Manuscripts project (under construction). Since both editions provide detailed transcriptions of the writing process and aim to include the extant library of the authors in the edition, they provide excellent case studies of the endo- and exogenesis of a literary work. Thanks to my previous work as junior researcher at the Anne Frank project and my current position at the Centre of Manuscript Genetics, I have the rare opportunity of doing an in-depth study of the complete process of preparing these publications.


1 Response

  1. 23/05/2016

    […] of Antwerp where I conducted my doctoral research is one of DiXiT’s full partners, which made Elli and Aodhàn my colleagues at the Centre for Manuscript Genetics. And of course, I already knew some […]

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