Recovering the text

I have remembered the third kind of tree: the stemma of a manuscript tradition. Apart from odd scraps of papyrus preserved in their many thousands at a rubbish dump in Oxyrhinchus and other Egyptian sites, all of classical literature has come down to us in copies of copies. The mediaeval scribes made mistakes — slips of the pen — which cumulatively made the text unintelligible in places; they then might hazard a guess as to the true reading (conjecture). Humanist scholars made a science of trying to reconstruct the Urtext by constructing a family tree of manuscripts. The tension between fidelity to the reading and trying to make sense of it is just as much present in these more rigorous approaches. Later scholars had the advantage of access to manuscripts preserved throughout Europe, whereas a monastic scribe could at best correct a poor text against a better one. As with the search for the Ursprache behind its descendent languages, the prize was to regain past glories since marred by decay and corruption. The Bible itself was a text with a tradition, and therein lay a can of worms that wreaked havoc in the end.

In the case of Darwin’s tree of life, the ideological pull, which those with any sense resist, is to favour the leaves rather than the root of the tree.

I have been trying to read Lao Zi through the dark mirror of translations. The gnomic original is apparently very obscure, even by the standards of classical Chinese. I don’t know the subject well enough to comment on the manuscript tradition, but my impression is there is not really scope to construct stemmata. There are a lot of woolly and fanciful versions that barely deserve to be called translations, and it’s hard to choose. I have been using two, Ursula LeGuin’s version, which is a distillation of many others, and Arther Waley’s, which is less readable, but takes a philological approach reassuring to any classicist. In particular, he sees Lao Zi engaging with philosophical debates of his time, and will enclose a line or phrase in quotation marks; what follows is the comment. Here is a snatch of XX:

The saying 'what others avoid I too must avoid'
How false and superficial it is!

And here is LeGuin’s version:

What the people fear
Must be feared
Oh desolation!
Not yet, not yet has it reached its limit!

Waley explains the maxim as a sort of “when in Rome” principle, that the Taoist cannot go along with. This seems illuminating — it gives one something to hold on to, trying to make sense of the text; though he does point out that “the sense of these lines is very doubtful”.

However, there is a twist. Between the publication of the two versions, a very old text (‘Ma Wang Tui’) of the Tao Te Ching was discovered. This is perhaps as remarkable a discovery as if Heraclitus’s book were to turn up at Oxyrhinchus. It is older, but that doesn’t mean it is the ancestor of today’s text; it must be an uncle rather than a parent. The Ma Wang Tui’s reading here is “A person whom everyone fears ought to be feared”; and this tells against Waley’s interpretation.

Just as with cruxes in classical texts, there’s a strange dance between the feeling of not having got to the bottom of the matter, and the riddling nature of the original, whatever it said, that each reader must puzzle out. Nonetheless, you feel you know the text better for grappling with it.

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