Saturday, December 29, 2007

On the lameness of me and the greatness of detail-oriented scholarship

Since I mentioned earlier in the week that I probably ought to get out more, I can't help but pose the question, before I even begin writing this post: could there possibly be anything more lame than spending the late hours of a Friday night writing about a note to a Penguin Classic? No, no, no, no way. There's just not. This is the lamest.

Does it help if I avow that Rocketlass and I did go out tonight? That we spent the evening with friends? No? Okay, what if I try to justify tonight's post by reference to my longstanding appreciation of the drudge work that goes into editing, establishing, and writing the notes for authoritative texts? It's work that I, by long ago deciding against graduate school, eschewed, but that I appreciate nonetheless, and that therefore I feel should occasionally get its share of attention.

The note I'm interested in tonight is one I picked up on several weeks ago when I was reading the Penguin Classics edition of Tom Jones. Late in the novel, in the midst of some pleasantly rambling remarks introducing a chapter, Henry Fielding describes the untrustworthiness of Tom's sugar mama Lady Bellaston in the following manner:
Tho' the Reader may have long since concluded Lady Bellaston to be a Member (and no inconsiderable one) of the Great World, she was in reality a very considerable Member of the Little World; by which Appellation was distinguished a very worthy and honourable Society which not long since flourished in this Kingdom.

Among other good Principles upon which this Society was founded, there was one very remarkable: For as it was a Rule of an honourable Club of Heroes, who assembled at the close of the late War, that all the Members should every Day fight once at least; so 'twas in this, that every Member should, within the twenty-four Hours, tell at least one merry Fib, which was to be propagated by all Brethren and Sisterhood.
Editors Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely grace readers of that paragraph with the following information:
Although the War of the Austrian Succession, formally concluded in October 1748, was the most recent war to have ended, Battestin plausibly finds an allusion here to a coterie of officeers, the so-called "Derby Captains," who devoted themselves to provoking duels following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. Battestin also cites John Arbuthnot's prospectus for a mock-treatise entitled "The Art of Political Lying" (1727), a chapter of which would outline "a Project for uniting the several smaller Corporations of Lyars into one Society."
Could a note be more suggestive or fascinating? Don't both those societies sound like something right out of Robert Louis Stevenson, or perhaps G. K. Chesterton? Dumas, too, would surely have had fun with these folks. Or, at a further remove, can't you imagine Borges delivering a detailed account of a secret society dedicating to lying and dueling--which, despite its being fully annotated and crammed with references to the appropriate historical documents, you would naturally assume to be a complete fabrication?

Thank you, edition-editing, note-writing scholars. You've kept me up far too late and brought me real pleasure.

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