Tuesday 17 December 2013

Creating Narratives: Thoughts on the New Life of Disassembled Manuscripts

In a recent reading of Elaine Treharne’s blog Text Technologies, I am particularly drawn to comment upon her two most recent posts 'The Broken Book I: Getty Exhibition “Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister”' and 'The Broken Book II: From a Book of Hours to a Book of Bits,' which considers the implications of the dismantled the book and the dissemination of its pages. In these two posts Treharne aptly discusses the decontextualised nature of a deconstructed book, which, per my understanding of her posts, not only disregards the intended functionality of the folios, but also defiles the book as an object via the dispersal of its contents.

At this juncture, I shall take the opportunity to clarify that I concur with Treharne’s arguments and support her cause to maintain the integrity of manuscripts. However these posts have sparked an alternate line of inquiry for me, which I deem should be examined with regard to the fact that manuscripts are currently, and have been at certain points in history, altered or completely deconstructed for one reason or another. Hence, I posit that we as academics consider what new meaning, if any, the disseminated part of a manuscript embodies vis-à-vis its meaning in book form.

Let us consider a hypothetical example of a folio removed from a medieval Turkish manuscript on the practice of medicine. This illuminated folio, along with many others, is now sold in market places where tourists and other interested buyers congregate to purchase a piece of history to transport home. Envision the manuscript, a bound object comprised of pages that were intentionally created to fulfill a certain purpose. These pages are filled with text and image that were once used to impart knowledge to both established and aspiring physicians, but is now dismantled in order to be sold to laymen who may or may not be cognisant of the folio’s original intended purpose. Is it symbolic, insofar that it acts as representation of a unit of meaning for the new owner’s life experiences? Do these pages convey a completely new narrative, or are they now a disjointed aspect of a chronicle that is now lost? Finally, has the folio lost its ‘bookishness’?

In keeping with the example of the pages from the Turkish medical treatise, it may be suggested that in  the possession of a physician, these pages may be a textual and pictorial embodiment of a vocation that existed long before his lifetime, but at the same moment speaks of his occupation today. Within this context, the now disembodied elements of the book are redefined. They are no longer a manner in which to teach about medicine, but are now a vehicle that link time and space, insofar that these folios represent the history of the owner’s occupation through the lens of another culture at a different point in time. This representation does not alienate the physician from his place within medicine today, but instead it intertwines his practice with those of the past. This creates a new narrative for the physician about his own experiences as a doctor in light of the experiences of the medical practitioners of the past who now exist within the realm of historical narratives. With this in mind, the folios may then symbolise medical practice and perpetuate the concept of a time continuum of occupational community for the new owner. 

The example provided is meant to engender a thought process that considers the potential for new meaning. It cannot speak for each folio from a disassembled book, and in an alternate scenario, the folio may be further removed from its original intended function, but an ontological change may still occur. Even though the book that once held these pages together has now lost its primary functionality, its contents may acquire a new purpose. I will not suggest that this new purpose is more important than the book’s original intended function, nor that the act of defiling a book is in anyway appropriate. I will suggest, however, that a book that has had its pages removed from its bindings does not indicate its death, but instead it calls for a reconsideration of the ontological state of its contents. But, does this mean that the pages themselves have lost their essence of being part of a book? I would initially suggest that a page that has been physically removed from its original form cannot be stripped of its origins. However, I shall leave this for  further discussion. 


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1 comment:

  1. I had the same thoughts reading Elaine Treharne’s posts. It's terrible to find out in what a manuscript has become, but, at the same time, these unfortunate incidents start a new life for the manuscript itself. Something that is worth studying and that reflects a whole world of manuscript's use. I'm use to working with fragments of charters or even with charters in full that suffered the lactic acid on them to ease their reading. Knowing why these were selected specifically to pass through the reactive is a clear indication of their importance and meaning for readers.