M.77 “find this out; but”

I am publishing here a further excerpt from my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The commentary to the meme discusses titles of art works, classical editorial practices, and Aristotelian virtue ethics.

M.77 find this out; but


M.77 find this out; but Composed: April 20th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Comic Sans. TB1: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to…”, black. TB2: “Thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time!!!”, black.

This meme uses a well-known quotation from the poet and classicist A.E. Housman: “Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time” (Housman 1905, xi).  … [A]lthough Batman is clearly interrupting Robin, he is not hijacking the conversation to reframe Robin’s sentiment. Rather, the rhetorical effect of the entire original quotation is preserved intact.

What is not preserved intact, however, is the text of the original quotation. The artist has extracted part of the original from Batman’s and Robin’s encounter. Even with this text missing, their dialogue is entirely comprehensible but in fact, the extracted text is not entirely absent and shows up as (or in?) the meme’s title. The context from which it has been removed, in the meantime, has been slightly altered. Robin’s part of the original has had three dots added at its end. Nor, surely, are these the three dots of ellipsis, signaling that some text has gone missing. Their function is to indicate, rather, that Robin’s speech is interrupted. (This function they discharge largely by graphic means. They are like perforations along which the text is torn in two.) Batman’s segment of the original has its first letter capitalized. (It also has three exclamation marks not in Housman but that is not relevant to the title-text’s immediate surroundings.) Thus, having been extracted, the title-text can fit back properly into its original context at neither end. It is like a jigsaw piece the tabs and blanks of the neighboring pieces of which have been damaged. It has, to all intents and purposes, become an orphan, ripped from a home it can no longer return to.[1]

Turning to the content of Housman’s sentence, let us ask the obvious question: what is it, exactly, that three minutes’ thought would find out were thought not so irksome and three minutes not such a long time? The text is from the preface to his edition of the satires of Juvenal. Housman is discussing the principles of textual criticism and taking to task many of his contemporaries and predecessors. One fault many of these are alleged to have is a mechanical reliance on rules in editing. The 18th century, he says, had as its rule to go with the reading (if there is one) found in a simple majority of manuscripts. The rule of the second half of the 19th century, by contrast, is always to go with the reading of the best manuscript unless what it has is utterly impossible (by which he seems to mean principally ungrammatical or unmetrical). (He describes this as the “fashion of leaning on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor and trusting to heaven that no harm will come of it” (v).) This rule might find expression in an editor’s preface in such words as “I have made it my rule to follow a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d” (xi) (though Housman writes acerbically that no eminent scholar would state the rule thus baldly, only his “unreflecting imitators”). Housman then poses a dilemma. Either b, c, and d are derived from a, in which case they should never be preferred to it, or they do not, in which case the rule assumes what is clearly false, that all errors in a will be “impossible readings.” It is this dilemma which three minutes’ thought would find out. Instead of the mechanical application of rules, Housman thinks critics should exercise their faculty of discernment and judgment. Each textual uncertainty will be attended by any number of circumstances a critic may take into account. One cannot detect errors only on the grounds of impossibility but must pay attention, above all, to the sense of what is expressed. A manuscript reading may be judged in error because it describes something implausible or inconsistent with other parts of the text too. (Which is not to say, of course, that these should be turned into new rules and an author never allowed, on principle, to be implausible or inconsistent.) Continue reading “M.77 “find this out; but””