Wednesday, June 30, 2010

David Renaker, Robert Burton's Tricks of Memory

David Renaker, Robert Burton’s Tricks of Memory, PMLA, May 1972, Volume 87, Number 3, pp. 391-396.

Burton, as a glance at his sources will show, depended for his quotations either on his memory or on notes so sketchy that memory played a great part in the interpretation and misinterpretation of them. He was aware of the resulting inaccuracies, but disinclined to do anything about them: ‘although this be a sixth Edition, in which I should have been more accurate, corrected all those former escapes, yet it was magni laboris opus, so difficult and tedious, that as Carpenters do finde out of experience, tis much better build anew sometimes, then repair an old house; I could as soon write as much more, as alter that which is written. (P. xiii: I, 32). (391)

‘The matter is their most part, and yet mine, apparet unde sumptum sit (which Seneca approves) aliud tamen quam unde sumptum sit apparet, which nature doth with the aliment of our bodies incorporate, digest, assimulate, I do conquoquere quod hausi, dispose of what I take. (p. viii: I, 23). (391)

The perpetual exaggeration of the Anatomy, from the hyperbolical account of the things we do for money (“turne parasites and slaves, prostitute our selves, sweare and lye, damne our bodies and soules, forsake God, abjure Religion, steale, rob, murder”, p. 154,: I, 399) to the 102 epithets lavished on the ugly woman (“a dowdy, a slut, a scold, a nasty, ranke, rammy, filthy, beastly queane” and so on and on, p. 519: III, 179) extends also to matters of fact and figure which can be quite easily checked. To do so is to discover that Burton was more impressed by big numbers than concerned about their authenticity. (391)

Whatever may be concluded from all this, we cannot say that Burton had a bad memory. On the contrary, he never forgot anyting. Nor did the changes which the facts underwent in his well-stored mind ever lead to any important distortions of meaning. … The supporting evidence becomes rather less marvelous, but the conclusion is unchanged. (392)

These are mere misspellings; more remarkable, there is evidence that Burton could fuse two remembered names into a third. This figment could then take on sufficient autonomy to be mentioned repeatedly in series with more authentic names, including those from which it had been formed. (393)

It went through five editions in his lifetime, and he added material to each, as well as to the posthumous sixth; but he practically never deleted or altered anything. “I have not revised the copy” (p. xi: I, 29). One must conclude that he did not consider accuracy essential; and he may have sensed a positive value in the transformations wrought by his memory. (395)


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