Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Absence of Editors

In his introduction to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translator Stephen Kalberg says that Germany held its professors in such esteem during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they didn’t deem it proper to submit a professor’s work to an editor. Well, that explains a lot. I’ve read quite a bit of impenetrable prose by German professors in the last year, and now I see an explanation for the trend. Oswald Spengler wins the prize for the highest wha?!-to-word ratio of my reading last year (see my posts here and here), and Weber apparently had just as little guidance from a professional editor. But the difference is, Weber had an idea that made sense and explained it successfully, if a little haphazardly.

I’ve had many editors critique, correct, and reshape my academic writing over the last couple of decades, and I’ve been the editor of one collection of essays. But I recently turned in my third book to a publisher and found out about a week ago that I will apparently have no editor to guide me to the final version. The publisher’s representative I’ve been talking to simply said that everything looked fine and that I should send him a pdf. So I guess I’m author, editor, and layout artist on this one.

The book presents my verse translation of a rhymed, metrical treatise on music theory by Guido of Arezzo, an eleventh-century monk who changed the course of music education for at least a thousand years with his inventions of staff notation and sight-singing syllables (like Sister Maria’s DO, RE, MI). Guido invented these tools to help boys in monasteries and cathedral schools learn more quickly and easily the thousands of melodies that Benedictine monks sang in their offices. But the older monks didn’t like his newfangled methods making things easier for the youth, and they expelled him. After Pope John XIX heard about the controversy and invited the ostracized monk to demonstrate his innovations, Guido taught John to sight-sing in three days. (At least, Guido claims to have taught John to sight-sing in three days.) Reinstated, Guido continued to teach, and his methods continue to help us teach even today.

Everything about the treatise – the Regulae ritmice, or Poetic Rules – seems designed to appeal to the adolescent male student of the Middle Ages. The lilting accents and rhymes themselves, of course, make school a little less like drudgery, just as they do with the alphabet song or Schoolhouse Rock. Guido encourages his readers to work hard and to pay attention, and even makes an occasional case for the value of other studies the boys are engaged in. At one point he argues that if a loud voice is what makes a musician, then we have to recognize the braying ass a better singer than the nightingale. Then he points out in an aside the value of logic. “See boys?” he says in essence. “Pay attention to your logic studies, and you’ll be able to call people asses.” Oh, Guido knew how to work with thirteen-year-old boys.

For most of the treatise, Guido himself seems not to have had an editor: very occasionally a grammatical error slips in. But I believe the last forty lines or so of the work come from the pen of another author, probably one of those frustrated rivals who thought Guido’s ways were too easy. The whole tone of the work changes. The breezy accented meter gives way to classical, length-based meter, and the level of the vocabulary rises. Gone are the appeals to a boy’s sensibilities. Gone are the explanations of the Greek words used. Gone is any sense of fun and wide-eyed discovery. In its place is a dour, error-ridden rehash of some of the material from the first part of the poem with the meaning sometimes convoluted beyond all recognition. So you can compare the effect, here are Guido’s most famous lines:
Twixt musicians and mere singers, distance is not minimal.
The latter say, the former grasp, the knowledge that is seminal.
For one who does what he can't fathom, we define an animal.
And here are five lines from the last portion of the treatise:
However, in these the relation is just a bit different,
Because if perhaps you might wish to write two to one voice,
Four will hold delta supreme in the midst of the rest.
An argument hems in and designates sounds drawn asunder.
When added they, bending, agree as a bound diatessaron.
Trust me, it doesn’t make any more sense if you know what a diatessaron is.

I just looked up Spengler and found out that he never taught in a university since he actually failed his doctoral dissertation because of an insufficiency of references. So I guess he did have editors at one time and just didn’t heed their warning.

1 comment:

  1. This caused me to laugh out loud, the diatessaron line. I'm forwarding to friends right now.