It has long been a task of great scholars to establish definitive texts of major works. The reconstruction of an Ur text, the painstaking schematization of its genealogy, and the publication of an authoritative text proceed under the assumption that, amid many variations of a text, one is to be preferred above all others. But why, Bernard Cerquiglini asks, must there be such a preference? Might such a preference distort the fundamental understanding of what texts are or could be?
In this elegant study, Bernard Cerquiglini examines the relation between philosophical studies and their texts, paying special attention to texts from the Middle Ages. He finds that the scientific reconstruction of texts is not only a recent historical phenomenon but also an anachronism that loses exactly what it seeks: a way of confronting a text in its own terms. In the medieval period, Cerquiglini observes, works were translated into French and transmitted in French copies that often varied greatly. For centuries such texts were valued, in part, precisely because each was in some manner unique. The variant was not necessarily a careless accident but a sign of precious individuality and a source of pleasure, even joy. To honor those texts, Cerquiglini prepared this engaging eulogy, In Praise of the Variant.
"Criticism is increasingly fond of whatever is unstable, multiple, and precarious, whatever temporarily goes beyond the enclosed immobility established by the machine. Note that this is happening at the very moment when the computer, the new technology, is producing floods of a writing that is mobile, various, and fluctuating. Does that mean that the written work is itself at stake?" -- from the Introduction