It is more important to affirm the least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is

November 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.

Data precedes written literature. The first Sumerian examples of written language are recordings of beer and barley orders. But The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first story, is the story of “the man who saw the deep,” a hero who has contact with the ineffable. The very first work of surviving literature is on the subject of what can’t be processed as information, what transcends data.

The first problem is that literature is terminally incomplete. You can record every baseball statistic. You can record every trade over the course of a year. You can work out the trillions of permutations and combinations available on a chessboard. You can even establish a complete database for all of the legislation and case law in the world. But you cannot know even most of literature, even English literature. Huge swaths of the tradition are absent or in ruins. Among the first Anglo-Saxon poems, from the eighth century, is “The Ruin,” a powerful testament to the brokenness inherent in civilization. Its opening lines:

The masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
The courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.

The poem comes from the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon poetry and several key lines have been destroyed by damp. So, one of the original poems in the English lyric tradition contains, in its very physical existence, a comment on the fragility of the codex as a mode of transmission. The original poem about a ruin is itself a ruin.

Literature is haunted by such oblivion, by incipient decay. The information we have about the past is, in almost every case, fragmentary. There are always masses of data which are simply missing or which cannot be untangled. The most obvious and relevant example is Shakespeare. There are nine different versions of Richard III; there are three versions of Hamlet, each with missing sections or added sections. There are missing plays. Cardenio. Love’s Labour’s Won. They no longer exist. So even the work of Shakespeare, which has been scrupulously attended to by generations of scholars, cannot be completely described. Literature is irredeemably broken and messy.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Nicky Peacock

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