16.551 palimpsestic syndrome

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Mar 13 2003 - 01:56:36 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 551.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Thu, 13 Mar 2003 06:46:28 +0000
             From: "Jim Marchand" <marchand@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu>
             Subject: palimpsestic syndrome

    This was originally posted to Medtextl, which is why the examples are
    medieval. Modern ones are easy to come by.

    In a recent conversation with colleagues, the use of the word
    _palimpsest_ to mean `layering' came up, and this led me to
    remember Robert Merton's (On the Shoulders of Giants) invoking of
    the `palimpsestic syndrome', that is, the tendency to attribute a
    striking term, concept or construction to the first person you
    heard it from.

    All of us have received on the net such things as `Errors my
    students made', `cute jokes', etc. etc., almost always repeats of
    things we heard in the hoary past and would just as soon forget. I
    remember hearing last year: "We had a machine translating Russian
    into English and input: `The spirit is willing but the flesh is
    weak'; it came back: `The booze is good, but the meat has gone
    bad'." I heard this first as a grad student back in 1952.

    This sort of thing happens also in scholarship as it does in Ann
    Landers. An interesting article, "A Modern Medieval Story: `The
    Soldier's Deck of Cards'," by D. K. Wilgus and Bruce A. Rosenberg,
    Medieval Literature and Folklore Studies. Essays in Honor of
    Francis Lee Utley, edd. Jerome Mandel & Bruce A. Rosenberg (New
    Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970), 291-304, points to
    a number of `inventions' and `inventors' of Tale Type 1613, Motif
    H 603.

    Albert S. Cook, The Christ of Cynewulf, ed. with intro., notes and
    glossary (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1909), in treating the Anglo-Saxon
    theme of the leaps of Christ, says: "The ultimate source of this
    mystical interpretation of Canticles 2.8 is to be found ... in two
    passages of Ambrose," though it appears in Hippolytus at least a
    century earlier (N. Bonwetsch, Hippolyts Kommentar zum Hohenlied
    [Leipzig, 1903], 55 f.; (translation mine:): "Oh, plan (oeconomia)
    of the New Grace! Oh, great mysteries: "Behold my brother came
    leaping.' What was that leaping? The Word sprang from heaven into
    the body ofthe Virgin. It sprang from the tree into Hades, it
    sprang again onto the earth. Oh, the new arising: Again it sprang
    from the earth into heaven."

    The most careful scholars do not appear to be proof against the
    palimpsesting syndrome. Thus, D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to
    Chaucer (Princeton: PUP, 1962), cites a famous passage from
    Gregory's Moralia (English translation, 1845, vol. 2:514) as
    deriving from Hrabanus Maurus rather than Gregory (out of pietas I
    do not mention that he also gives the wrong column in Migne).

    One needs to be careful in reading or making statements such as
    "... was the first," "the ultimate source was ...", "not until",
    etc., and one needs to realize that many of our concepts are
    "layered" in their structure.

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