Saturday, July 15, 2017


A Handmaiden

Siegfried Wenzel, "Reflections on (New) Philology," Speculum 65.1 (January, 1990) 11-18 (at 12):
In this wider sense, I would think of philology not so much as an academic discipline with a clearly defined object and proper methods of investigation, but rather as an attitude. It is precisely what the etymology of the word declares, "love of the word": an appreciative attraction to verbal documents that seeks to understand their meaning, starting with the surface and penetrating to whatever depths are possible, but also alert to the fact that a given text comes from and is shaped by a specific time and place that usually is significantly different from that of the observer.
Id. (at 17-18):
To these and a host of other contemporary critical questions and approaches to literature, philology continues to serve as a handmaiden, furnishing the material basis on which they must stand. Handmaidens are proverbially humble and modest; and however fascinating, even all-consuming for its practitioner, the quest for an elusive etymology or textual variant may become, in the larger scheme of humanistic scholarship and the pursuit of the examined life it certainly has its limitations. At the same time, scholarship is not an absolute monarchy but a republic, in which the handmaiden, while doing her job of preparing the necessities of life — intelligible texts and tools for their understanding — will also remain constantly watchful and critical of the nobility. To order the disciplines devoted to the understanding of literary texts hierarchically, in the shape of a pyramid with paleography at the base and semiotics at the apex, is tempting but dangerous, because such a model allows the semiotician as well as the literary critic in the middle ranges to remain above and aloof from the concerns of philology. Not just an ancillary discipline, philology is an attitude of respect for the datum, for the facts of the text and its contexts, which should be cultivated at all levels of our enterprise to understand and appraise.

Philology thus holds not only a material value, in that it provides the raw materials for understanding, but equally a disciplinary one, by continuously demanding that the intellectual systems built by interpreters or theoreticians be tested against and anchored in the realities of the subject matter.
Id. (at 18):
But as I have defined it, "love of the word" that seeks understanding is a lasting concern of the intellectual life and as such stands above the currents of fashion. This is not to denigrate the many -isms that strut for a while; not only do they play their part in the ongoing performance of intellectual exploration, but they occasionally refine and enrich the more basic work of philologists by developing new "optics," thus sharpening our sights and adding new dimensions of awareness. Yet respect for the facts, for the concrete realities of the text, is and must remain basic.

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