The devil, as they say, is in the details. If we want to understand what an artist was considering, conceptualizing, revising, or practically bleeding over during the arduous creative process—whether it’s a Picasso masterwork or a Lennon-McCartney standard or Melville’s Moby-Dick— it’s often helpful (if possible) to go back—into the margins, if you will—and excavate from those early drafts, side notes, manuscripts, and rough sketches, what was going on in their minds and imaginations during that precious moment of invention.
Therein lies the work of true genius, buried among the discarded fragments and shards of inspiration, amid the sweat and toil.
“The margin is the place where commentary can resume, where an earlier version can be looked at from a distance, as if framed by this latest reading, which itself immediately becomes writing, addition, the liveliness of words,” writes Jacques Neefs in his May 2012 essay titled “Margins” for Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry. “On the annotated printed page, the ‘stuff of additions’ sits on the sidelines, a text laid down and waiting for its incorporation into the typographical continuity.”
Neefs, the James M. Beall Professor in French Literature and director of the French section of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Krieger School, has dwelt within the margins for decades. Formerly a professor at the University of Paris, he has long been one of the leading lights of the French literary criticism movement known as la critique génétique, or genetic criticism. In particular, Neefs and his team of literary sleuths at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes in Paris’ Latin Quarter spend their days and nights closely examining the manuscripts, notes, drafts, and marginalia of such 19th- and 20th- century geniuses as Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Zola, and Nietzsche.
Marina Rustow is also an academic searching for clues in the margins, albeit in a completely different time period, format, and section of the world. Rustow, the Charlotte Bloomberg Associate Professor in the Humanities at the Krieger School, studies the medieval Jewish communities of the Mediterranean and, more broadly, Middle Eastern history. Like Neefs, she spends much of her time living in and devoted to a different era than the 21st century; in her case, the medieval centuries in which the Cairo Geniza thrived. The Geniza was a storeroom in a medieval Egyptian synagogue that the Jewish community of the Islamic world maintained to preserve such texts as religious documents, official decrees, personal correspondences and private petitions, business and legal papers, bureaucratic directives, and other materials.
“Reading notes and drafts gives us what a critic has called the ‘fourth dimension’ of a text. That is, the complex calculations involved in its composition and their relative weight in the final result.”
Both Neefs and Rustow prefer searching in the cracks and crevices, long ignored or tucked away from the conventional and mainstream, to acquire better glimpses of their worlds of study.
Finding Flaubert’s Footnotes
If for no other reason, Jacques Neefs loves the writer Gustav Flaubert because he left so much work behind. And not just great literary works like Madame Bovary.
“Flaubert is a special case for genetic criticism because we have his revisions,” Neefs says. “It means the first notes and ideas, short sketches, a lot of scenarios and plans. And then notes on the world he is writing about, and pages of the final writing and a lot of revisions. It’s a case of what can be the writing before writing, before the final writing.”
Neefs says it’s essential for modern literary scholars to study “the writing before writing” so they can better understand the creative process and what takes form in an author’s mind and work routine, whether it be a long, painstaking exercise (i.e., Flaubert, Georges Perec, Emile Zola) or more improvisational like Stendhal. That’s why Neefs spends much of his time examining manuscripts, rough drafts, and marginalia.
“We don’t really have much draft notes [by authors] before the 18th century,” he says. “In the 18th century, we began to keep manuscripts. The first case of [an author] keeping his manuscripts was Goethe. He organized his legacy and kept his manuscripts for history and the glory of Germany. In the 19th century, most of the authors started keeping manuscripts, maybe to show what a work of art is.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the first school of genetic criticism started out with an intense desire to study the structure of a form and text. That’s when Neefs began sinking his teeth into Flaubert. “We as a group wanted to conceive what it is to make a form,” he says. “In the case of Flaubert, he was absolutely sure to invent a new prose and make a modern thing. He wanted that his narrative prose should be as strict and precise as poetry.”
With Madame Bovary, scenario conceptualization took about six months, and Flaubert subsequently started writing chapters in a precise, exacting manner, Neefs says. Flaubert wrote and rewrote the same pages from six to 10 times, changing and rearranging to get the right prose. “He’s very, very aware of the sound of prose,” says Neefs.
Could the manuscripts and marginalia for literary triumphs be considered works of art themselves? Neefs takes pause. “That’s a big question,” he says, noting that Victor Hugo considered every slip of paper written in his hand to be part of his oeuvre. With James Joyce, the concept of a work-in-progress became part of modern literature.
“We see this with painting and artists, too,” Neefs says. “It’s a way to consider not that the first draft is a work of art but a way to see a work of art. There is a connection between keeping the manuscript and the idea of the work-in-progress.”
Neefs points out that when Balzac was writing La Comédie humaine, he kept all his changes in the margins and moved chapters around and added new papers to his manuscripts. Balzac died in the middle of working on the complete edition. “Because the form was not completely definite, there are some concerns about the work as to how it will move. So we can follow this in the manuscripts and try to understand it,” Neefs says.
So what if someone is only interested in the final product of a great literary work and has no interest in reading the earlier drafts or jotted-down chicken-scratch notes in the margins? Rest assured, Neefs has no beef with these folks.
“I do read some books without manuscripts,” he says with a chuckle. “For people with no interest in the manuscripts, I won’t say anything, it’s all right. It’s better to read Madame Bovary than to read the manuscripts. But if you go into the manuscript, you will read wonderful texts, too. You find great passages that prove he’s a great writer. That means a lot of sacrifice [during the self-editing process], and that also makes a great writer.”
Does the reading of manuscripts, notes, erasures, and additions offer a different understanding of a literary work?
“Reading notes and drafts gives us what a critic has called the ‘fourth dimension’ of a text,” says Neefs. “That is, the complex calculations involved in its composition and their relative weight in the final result. For example, the knowledge we gained of Flaubert’s ways of working provides us with an appreciation of him that differs greatly from the traditional interpretation whereby some of his works are viewed as ironic realism, while others are considered luxurious fantasy.”
Neefs believes contemporary literature is losing a valuable component in an age when technology often precludes and trumps the need to save manuscripts or rough drafts. But it is not something that keeps him up at night. “The modern technique of computers and everything makes [marginalia] a thing of the past,” he says. “There’s a new way of creation. Some would say it’s tragic, but something new has been invented. I don’t consider it tragic. There are still great writers who write and continue to have a way to keep the process.”
On the other hand, Neefs says, technology has made genetic criticism infinitely easier. Rather than going to libraries to read decaying manuscripts and texts, he and his colleagues can simply go online and examine Flaubert and other authors to their hearts’ content. “You have a picture of the page and the transcription on the screen, so it’s very easy,” he says. “It’s not really necessary to go to the library now, except when you need to see better the paper itself. Of course, it’s so moving and impressive to see the original manuscripts, which are sometimes incredibly fragile and on thin paper. But it’s all online, and that works. The pictures get better and better.”
Studying old texts may seem archaic and unnecessary to some modernists, but Neefs insists that spending time in the margins still tells us much about our current times and the nature of art itself. “It’s the process of creation, which says a lot about our contemporary world and the modern condition of producing art,” he says. “A poem by Baudelaire is still saying something to the modern world about terror and fear and this kind of thing. So it’s important to conceive new forms of art and new ways of thinking, between the piece of art and the world.”
When teaching literature, Neefs says he often delves into marginalia like it is “a kind of archaeology.” He says he primarily focuses on the final published texts with students, but often explores what he has found in manuscripts and rough drafts.
“It’s important for them to understand that a piece of art doesn’t come from nowhere and is not immediately a complete thing,” Neefs says. “You have to have manuscripts before the published texts, so you have to work with the manuscripts. … In the manuscripts, you can see some choices the author made. It’s a lot of work, it’s not instantaneous, and you can see in the draft the great writing. Replacing a comma can make a big difference in a sentence. So we teach the students what it means to make a form and create art.”
In Praise of Hoarders, Pack Rats, and Recyclers
“The Geniza is like an anti-archive. It was for stuff that specifically had no use anymore. And that’s the beauty of it. It gives us an unselfconscious look at what was going on in this society that we otherwise would never have had.”
Marina Rustow dismisses the notion of the Cairo Geniza—which was in intermittent use from the 9th to the 19th centuries—as a time capsule of sorts, even though she understands why people might render such a characterization. “When these guys were discarding stuff in the Geniza, they weren’t thinking, ‘Oh this will be so interesting for people to find in later centuries,’” she says.
Nor was it an archive, she says. Simply put, the Geniza was a room or attic to store worn documents that might bear God’s name in Hebrew (which, according to Jewish law, must never be destroyed). In practice, it was a place to keep virtually all used papers, official, religious, or otherwise. In other words, a hoarder or pack rat’s dream room.
“The Geniza is like an anti-archive. It was for stuff that specifically had no use anymore,” says Rustow, whose primary focus is the period of the 11th and 12th centuries of the Geniza. “And that’s the beauty of it. It gives us an unselfconscious look at what was going on in this society that we otherwise would never have had.”
Because of Cairo’s even climate, she says the Geniza adjacent to the Ben Ezra Synagogue turns out to have been an ideal place to preserve this large cache of paper and parchment fragments (more than 300,000 folios), which comes not only from the Egyptian capital but from Jewish communities all over the Islamic world during the medieval and later periods. There were other genizot, but none that survived with the wealth of materials (in classical Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic) and drawing from such a wide array of sources.
At the zenith of the Geniza’s usage, Cairo of the 11th to 13th centuries was the political and economic epicenter of the world, much like London of the late 19th century or New York of the mid-20th century, Rustow says. And the Jewish community there was in the thick of it, especially with Cairo’s centrality in the Mediterranean-based trading world. Thus, the Cairo Geniza has materials drawing from the expanse of Spain to India.
“To the average person on the street, it may seem strange to devote one’s time to studying Jews in the Islamic world. But 90 percent of Jews lived in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages and spoke Arabic as their main language,” she says.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Geniza is that some of the materials were written by Muslims and Christians. For instance, the Geniza contained a collection of Islamic folk tales and copies of the Koran, some of them in Arabic written in Hebrew script.
“You find court documents, contracts, and petitions to political authorities written by Christians and Muslims, not just by Jews,” says Rustow. “And that’s when you ask yourself, ‘Why was that kind of documentation preserved by Jews? What does that tell you about the society itself?’”
Rustow has two theories. First, the custom of geniza led Jews to preserve more than just religious Jewish texts, perhaps because they were interpreting the concept of “sacred texts” in a very broad manner to include secular materials and papers pertaining to other religions. Second, Jews learned from other religious and legal systems and appealed to non-Jewish religious and legal authorities.
All of this is particularly fascinating when considering the fact that Jews in Islamic society were dhimmis, “protected peoples,” with fewer privileges than Muslims. But Rustow suggests that modern observers must consider what that meant in context.
“It was a period when no one had equal rights,” she says. “Jews had specific privileges that in the practice of daily life weren’t that different from those of most people in general society. It was a hierarchical society, but there is not much evidence of persecution of Jews in the Islamic world in this period, and certainly less than in [Europe].”
When poring over fragments from the Geniza, Rustow says she and her colleagues are sometimes able to piece together sections from the same document. This, she says, is called a “join,” and when the connection is made, “it’s an exciting moment. I’ll never forget my first join. I was working on a farmer’s petition to a caliph’s sister that my colleague Geoffrey Khan had found at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I found another petition to the same caliph’s sister in Oxford. Both petitions were written between 1021 and 1024, and the backs of both contained Hebrew verses from the Book of Zachariah. Though the Arabic petitions looked very different, the Hebrew verses formed a continuous passage in the same handwriting. I suddenly realized they fit together, and that the person who had written the Hebrew document had glued two Arabic documents together to get a longer writing surface, but they’d later come apart again. That’s an impressive thing because you realize this thing got ripped apart in the jumble of the Geniza and wound up on two different continents.”
When talking to students and others about the Geniza, Rustow stresses the relevance of the documents found there for assumptions about the medieval Islamic world, specifically the seeming audacity with which subjects resisted or pushed back against rulers. For example, all subjects were allowed to petition the caliph, sultan, or vizier for the restitution of wrongs—especially injustices committed by government officials. Rustow says one petition from the 11th century is from a farmer, asking the Cairo government to restore sacks of grain that had been confiscated by a corrupt local official. She says the study of the Geniza must continue because it informs us not only of that era but of our own assumptions as well.
“For me, it’s relevant because we’re going through a period of massive regime change in the Middle East,” she says. “If we want to understand how Middle Eastern states operated throughout history, we’re very limited because we have few archives from before the Ottoman period. Geniza texts put to rest some modern stereotypes about people in the Middle Ages. It’s a history worth studying.”