The Colonization of Old Books

by Bryce Rogers (June 2012)

Marginalia are, on occasion, interesting. In the campus novel Pnin, Nabokov writes of “earnest freshmen” who adorn the pages of their books with “such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature’ or ‘Irony’.” When not utterly banal, however, marginalia can provide a roadmap into the reader’s subjectivity through the symbols that litter the empty margins like street signs—exclamation points, question marks, stars. Stop here, turn there, go on.

In addition to the annotator, there is also, of course, the obsessive highlighter, who stoops over the page, pen in hand, tracing with a bright pastel—yellow or pink—the lateral movements of his eyes as if he were crossing out text he no longer needed. I often think of them as the descendants of farmers—the same patient toil that enabled their forefathers to plow furrows manifesting itself in the line-by-line expurgation of print. Their discarded books comprise the only category of text I refuse to buy used. Whenever I flip through one of these tilled fields, I always imagine finding its lost owner—a slow, sheep-eyed boy of nineteen—and asking him what was important about this text. “Everything” would be his reply.

Underliners form their own unique genus: there’s the novice whose too thick ballpoint pen blots out words, the veteran whose lines are almost ruler straight, and on occasion, the anal who has actually opted for the straight rule. I picture her reading a text, ruler fast in hand as if clutching a tool: she comes to a point, and then spreads the pages with that strip of plastic as if to measure the intake of her mind.

Library books provide another notable class of marginalia, for there, as in no other text, exists a confluence of annotations—different hands, different ink—that interweave along the edge of the page like the interchanging parts in an opera. Recently, I copied an article from one such library book; three different hands, I think, had marked in various ways its twenty pages, though I’m no paleographer. Two were prominent—and prosaic. The last, however, made only one comment in a smooth cursive towards the end of the piece: “this is a more insidious kind of sexism” was the remark—the only remark. Here, at last, was something interesting, I thought. The trace of a mind with whom to discuss the text.

The article, it should be mentioned, was a critical essay on Milton and women; it was written by a female academic—and one of the great Miltonists of the twentieth century, a professor emerita at Harvard. She was describing Milton’s hierarchical conception of reality—a view of the world that dominated the Renaissance.

This Weltanschauung, though radically different from our implicit ontology, is, in a certain respect, beautiful: all of creation, for Milton, exists in an order of degree that increases in value the higher it rises. Thus, in Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael describes to Adam the upward process of all nature:

                            So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More airy, last the bright consummate flower
Spirits odorous breathes; flowers and their fruit,
Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed,
To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual… (5.479-485)

The lower in nature, on such a view, actually yearns to become the higher—and often does so. Raphael explains that this is why he—although a celestial being—can partake of their earthly repast, what he calls “corporal nutriments” (line 496). Plants grow from the humble earth, are consumed by animals, and these in turn are eaten by men. Thus the very lowly rises by becoming a beast—is actually taken into the very nature of these animals—and then in turn consumed by humans, it participates not only in what Milton would call a rational nature—but one that’s spiritual as well. From earth to eternal spirit—and so all nature strives “[t]ill body up to spirit works in bounds / Proportioned to each kind” (lines 478-9).

This hierarchical conception, quite common in pre- and early modern societies, has a further corollary: it necessitates the dominion of the higher over the lower. For reality to maintain its harmonious order, that which is higher must rule over the orders beneath it. Humans themselves are composed of orders, and most early modernists would say—and Milton is certainly among them—that reason, the highest principle in man, must dominate our lives. They would even recognize in our very anatomy an instantiation of this principle: just as the genitals are lower on the human body, so too they must be ruled by the mind—by reason and will—which is quite literally above them. The head is the highest part of man, so it must rule the body.

There is something aesthetically delightful about this view of reality; it provides a meaningful framework for many of the distinctions we intuitively make: we cry over the death of a dog, grieve over that of a child, but feel not the slightest pang for the extermination of ants. And this is the case, I think, even if the dog or son were not our own.

Unfortunately for Milton, he—and most early modernists—applied this view to the distinction between the sexes. That is, they believed that men were ontologically superior to women—that they were higher in the ordo essendi—and that, consequently, men should rule women. Or in the words of St. Paul, “the husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5.23). All of these writers would have pointed out that we accept the subordination of children to their parents, and that this uxorial subordination is just an extension of this principle.

No one, however, would endorse such a view in our democratic, pluralistic culture today; but it is indeed what the vast majority of humankind, at least in the West, believed. The author of the article—the one criticized—was merely pointing that out; moreover, she was clearly unperturbed by this historical fact, for she went on to assert “the capacity of great art to transcend these lesser categories of human experience and speak to our common humanity.” A not unworthy view for a literary critic to hold, I think.

Obviously, her view, based on the marginalia, has been in turn marginalized—even if, in this case, it provides the body of the text. Readers of books—the critics with their pointed pens—no longer accept the otherness of these cultures—the older, historical cultures from which our own emerged. And, to be honest, I find their resistance a bit odd in light of their ideological insistence on multiculturalism.

After all, if, as they maintain, all societies are worthy of respect, why doesn’t this apply to the great European tradition that formed the modern world? Why is diversity of opinion valued only if it’s today’s opinion? What could be more undemocratic, in fact, than to deny to the greatest mass of humanity—the dead—a say in how we should live our lives? And why, moreover, are liberal pluralists so insistent on extirpating divergent opinions?—even if it means blotting out their past.

This latter question seems to me the real issue. For a group of intellectuals who plume themselves on their supposed open-mindedness, they seem remarkably hostile to anyone whose opinion differs from their own—especially in cases like Milton’s where there is virtually no possibility of such an opinion being revived. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a student reading an epic poem about a busted myth and taking it as a model for sexual relations. It’s possible, however, to imagine such a student recognizing Milton’s achievement—recognizing the beauty and greatness of his work. But even that possibility is undercut—is marginalized—by the political doctrines we inscribe onto the work.

Marginalia provide a means to make a work one’s own—to annotate, criticize, and internalize it. They make a foreign world—a thick old book—one’s home, a familiar place where one has lived. The ideology of political correctness does just the opposite—and the opposite of what it claims. It colonizes the past, reinterpreting historical fact in light of contemporary ideology. It writes not in the margins, but across the page. It bowdlerizes and expurgates without excuse. It reshapes the canon—in the name of liberal ideals—by constructing a new index librorum prohibitorum. And Milton, though one of the greatest defenders of the freedom of the press, can no longer be read, it seems.

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