Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Just checking in after a hiatus. Greg, I'll be sending you my nearly finished article about electronic archiving. Anyhow, yes, I looked at the Pepys Diary, and found it very good--the thing that would make this kind of approach fly would be high-powered contributors who were really "into" Pepys as scholars or general interest people. Pepys is the perfect example of a good subject for online approaches because, of course, his diary offers us a look at otherwise unavailable ways of living and perceiving -- social history at its best. Another example might be Henry Mayhew, who compiled the massive study "London Labour and the London Poor," in which one finds an incredible amount of first-hand info by and about the "poorer classes" of British people in the mid-Victorian period -- what they did each day, what they thought about what they did, insofar as they had time to think, etc., how the intellectuals and middle class conceived of what they did. What I find interesting about the approach can be put in rather Baconian terms: Bacon was a patient inductivist and insisted continually in his writings that it was necessary first to gather one's data at length before leaping up to grand statements about how the world is. Bacon saw that move as the fundamental error of the scholastic philosophers he meant to supplant with his ideas about scientific method. Humility is the key term here. So the Pepys blog would be a way to gather all sorts of basic data and interesting ideas (via debate, hyperlink, whatever) before moving towards middle and semi-final claims about the period in which Pepys lived. I think we still need to make those claims, for the sake of simplicity if not spotless innocence, but the process whereby we arrive at them is of vital importance and indeed affects what we do with the statements we have arrived at. There's much more to be said about the textbook and the standard literary edition as a means of institutional passing on / constructing of "knowledge," but that would take a long time, so I'll leave it at this presently.

On a personal note, the reason I like the Pepys blog is that I can relate it to some thinking I am doing about an article on Carlyle's enlistment of the once prominent but now somewhat obscure Scottish physician Dr. William Pulteney Alison, who wrote about the Poor Laws of 1834 and about health issues in general, especially epidemiology. Well, as a devotee of Carlyle's magnificent prose (though one must be careful not to claim that Carlyle's thinking is actually representative of what other Victorians thought...many thought him a madman, and after the Second Reform Bill of 1867 I believe he stopped writing about politics because fewer people took him seriously by then; he was opposed to a profound current of the times: democracy and reform.) Anyhow, just you try and find out anything about Dr. Alison beyond that he was a fine Scottish physician whose works you may be able to get hold of on microfilm. There is much in Carlyle's work the significance of which has not been dealt with -- chance references of this sort are often glossed to demonstrate one's knowledge of the primary subject (Mr. Carlyle and the particular work under consideration), but the glossing is itself little more than a repetition of what some earlier glosser-over already scribbled in a footnote. This sort of thing can go on for centuries -- for another instance, I am unaware that a truly annotated edition of Pater's Marius the Epicurean has ever been done. Why? Because few have the classicist skills or the interest in Pater to find out about the obscure Latin references Pater makes. I've done some annotating, but am not worthy to fasten the shoelaces of some great Annotator To Come, the Paterian Messiah of textual scholarship. On barren repetition as a model of scholarship, my friend Barbara has a great anecdote: when at UC Broccoli, she was studying Ben Franklin's Autobiography, and found that nearly every critical study she read repeated, either verbatim or in close paraphrase, the admonishment that "of course, one must not forget the emblematic roll-eating scene." The comment only made one want to forget the emblematic roll-eating scene, and was in fact a way of destroying its signficance.