I am writing my statement of purpose for a second school, realizing that it must be altered each time more than I had originally thought. What is my purpose? Depends where I am applying. They want to know who I want to work with at their institution and what I want to work on. So I look through the faculty pages, find what everyone specializes in, and research the ones closest to my own interests. At the school I am writing my current statement for there is only one professor even moderately close to what I am considering.
My interests in medieval manuscripts may have been relevant sixty years ago. Such studies were huge in the 40’s and 50’s, with entire five, eight and ten volume sets being written and poured over in all corners of academia. The professor who had originally gotten me into this had himself written his dissertation on the topic in the late 50’s at the height of manuscript frenzy. I was at an institution that was still at the residual end of these studies. It still is, but less so. When applying to them again I didn’t have to alter much. My interests are the same now as they were then, simply with more finesse and better honed, and this school still has the faculty and resources to properly help me develop it further.
The other schools however require a little more finagling on my part. So at School B, after having read some of this professor’s works and skimming others I realize that the closest I will get to a medieval manuscript while working with him is by looking at the object itself.
My fascination with manuscripts is odd in that it relies on a very narrow take of manuscript studies. I am more concerned with the building aspect, the logistics of manuscript creation, than anything else. So why not extrapolate it further? This professor works with literature as a commodity fetish. The physical book, as a personal possession for private use becomes an object of interest in and of itself, independent of the actual text it contains. Isn’t that what my whole obsession with manuscripts is? A niche fetish concerned with the object itself? Sort of.
I had always thought it was a rather bizarre fascination, especially since so few others share it, and looking at it this way made the most sense. I had never thought of manuscripts or books as commodities, but if you consider their origin and the purposes for which they were written, and later pressed, and sold and disseminated, it goes far beyond the sharing of ideas via text. The work’s relevance becomes interwoven and oscillates between the actual text contained and the fetishism of the physical object with enjoyment derived from its personal possession and use.
About eight months ago I wrote this post. I didn’t know it then, but I essentially outlined this very theory in my own relationship with literature.
Maybe I am more tactile than others, but when I love a book, I don’t just love what it says, but the way it feels, and smells, how it becomes worn, my marginalia sometimes faded and reapplied, the way I highlight sections, and the cover. For me reading is a physical experience. Even after I got my Kindle I rarely if ever use it, and when I do it has more to do with not wanting to carry a book around, but I probably still have a copy of it at home. So if I have this kind of experience with mass produced paperbacks, how can it not be argued that a similar fetishism didn’t exist with medieval manuscripts that were far more elaborate and meticulously crafted? The process of creating the manuscripts as taken on by different scribes (most manuscripts were created by a series of scribes, each with their own specialty, such as letter writing, head letter writing, illuminating, coloring, etc.) was a process in which each one took pride, and the ownership of such works harbored a similar pride. However, despite the length it took to create these pieces, manuscripts then were not treated as they are now. For us they are rare and must be kept in certain conditions, but then they were simply a part of the household, written in, played with, and (some might argue) defaced in a similar fashion as what I do to my own books when scrawling notes across pages or otherwise altering them. I don’t do these things because I don’t believe my books have value, but simply because that is how I enjoy them most. Just like others six and seven hundred years ago interacted with their manuscripts, writing across gold-leaf illuminations, and scribbling on the edges of nearly perfectly penned text. In fact you can trace ownership of some manuscripts simply by tracing who had written in them over the years (e.g. Lansdowne MS of the Canterbury Tales).
And since I apparently really like working my way into a corner, I will narrow the argument down even further to solely look at the ways in which this fetishism moved from manuscript to novel. Not that other texts weren’t being similarly commodified, but I think the relationship between owner and manuscript is most closely paralleled between owner and novel (taking into account that most manuscripts were not in fact stories, or thought to be fictitious in the least). This latter part relies on the amount of enjoyment derived from the work in consuming it, and also possessing it. The novel is a form of entertainment, and sometimes, depending on the point in time you are looking into, it was a secret pleasure to be delighted in behind closed doors. The mere possession of a book, much less a novel, contains a rich history, and as private libraries became public, acquired by historians and museums, the commodification of books becomes of central importance.So I guess I am not really altering my interests as much as repositioning them to be looked at from a different angle. Interesting.