This essay, and essays in the coming weeks, were part of a panel at the Society of Biblical Literature 2018 Annual Meeting titled, “Textual Objects and Material Philology,” inspired in part by the publication of Snapshots of Evolving Traditions (eds. Lied and Lundhaug).
The two codices I wrote my book about are from the Tura Papyri, found in an abandoned limestone quarry near Cairo in connection with military engineering works in 1941. The same effort to clear the mines in order to store ammunition during the war turned up a tagged section of limestone, already on rollers and ready to go, left over from the construction of the pyramids at Memphis. In that space, in 1941, the codices bulged into our world out of the timeline they had been removed from when they were dumped, into a timeline of war meant to turn the tide of history, and directly adjacent to an already-truncated timeline meant to show the glory of the Egyptian empire. The lunacy of this fact, this bulging and converging of timelines, was quickly erased when the codices were neatly categorized as Christian biblical commentaries and tacked into their plot-point in a timeline leading from the Mediterranean basin to western Europe.
Even in this tiny fragment of the story of these codices, we have themes of chronography, displacement and patrimony which are part of the theoretical house we live in when we talk about manuscripts. Manuscripts and the way we engage with them are part of how we mark time, find our place, and belong to somebody. Working with these objects meant thinking about all the things that enclose them: archives, knowledge, readers, and time.
Harriet Bradley writes that “in the archive, there lingers an assurance of concreteness, objectivity, recovery and wholeness.” Which is to say, the archive has the same problem that Hayden White considered narratives to have. Both narratives and archives are the bodies which are the object of desire in the Western episteme, which can only satisfy its appetite for knowledge upon total, fixed, unimpeachable and properly resolved entities arranged in a likewise total, fixed, and unimpeachable order. Such lubriciously restricted systems of desire, when they appear a little closer to the body than books, are called fetishes.
A link to the 'Archive' in digital space means access to previous instances of the same thing: previous blogposts, previous newsletters, previous announcements of institutional events, filed in an orderly fashion under evenly-spaced dates. That reveals very tellingly how we imagine the archive, but is very different from the archive that we actually have. In the case of the Tura papyri, for example, the editors numbered the pages sequentially, even though they knew that entire quires were missing. The new edition of one of those quires, about to be published this year, had to submit itself to this illusion of completeness and be numbered as 120a, 120b, and so on. More importantly, my two codices from the Tura papyri were mis-catalogued as commentaries, because a Christian doing something with the Bible was assumed to be a previous instance of the thing we see Christians doing with the Bible later on or elsewhere or often. There was an erasure of difference which prevented very obvious facts, like the presence of three hundred student questions, from taking on weight. Even though the earliest discussions of the find noted the difference between the Psalms and Ecclesiastes and the commentaries, the series in which they were published started naming each work as commentary and, by the logic of publishing in series, could not name these two different works something different. This little corner of the archive was built around the unwillingness of scholars to fight with committees or complicate relations with publishers, around the desire to avoid revealing gaps in the archive in the way that pages are numbered.
But I want to stay close to the body and to specific places and objects, so I am going to tell you a story about sitting in the German National Library and finishing my book about these codices earlier this year.
The north side of the reading room has a row of long slender windows, showing the modernist passion for clarity, a self-monumentalization which fell short of the universal and is now only a quaint feature of local architecture. I am an immigrant from the US, the wrong person for these slender windows to look down on. But if they turn away from me, they look out at a world they were never intended to see, their gaze displaced from the future for which they were built. This is the right place to write a book about defining and shaping the world through reading, a book about fragmented pasts. And perhaps I, as an immigrant, a reader, a displaced person, a writer with a fractured past, am the right person to write a book about reading as a way to do the work of time, space and attachment.
On the south side of the reading room are the tall swinging doors where you enter, the wooden grips worn down by decades of hands grabbing and pressing, ready to get to work. When I come through these doors, I press against the long wooden handles with my left shoulder, because I am carrying twenty-four pounds of blue-covered editions and translations of the Tura Papyri. My biceps bulge out as I choose my seat for the day, taut like the biceps of the women in my village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. In the very moment I am doing a thing so far away from the things I did as a little girl tagging along with those women, my body reaches back into time and recites my childish wonder at the strong arms I saw around me as a kid, a witness to the real past, even as the books which weigh down those muscles now ask me to participate in a different, Christian, European, scholarly past, to be the heir of the German editors of those volumes. Their weight splits my past and drags at my heart for just a second, before I find a table and put my books down, re-materializing in the present as a woman in a library trying not to bother those already at work, quietly taking her seat somewhere she can see the clock.
There are four marble busts arrayed between the doors, ancestors I don't recognize. This might be the right room in which to finish a book on rearranging one's patrimony. I might be the right person to tell you what it means to read yourself into an inheritance.
Sitting in this library is a quotidian fragment of the history of reading. I am reading and writing in a space which was built to archive the entire German past. After the war, its canon was purged of fascist or militaristic writings so that it might act as the foundation for the socialism which was to come. This library, from time to time, attached those who worked in these rooms to shifting visions of the past. In 1916 when it was built, during the first world war, the past was a national past which must be hoarded as a bulwark against political humiliation. Twenty years later, in 1936, nationalism governed the archive and suspended its commission to house each and every book written in Germany. The Nazis removed certain books, especially those written by Jews, so that the revised past would seem to lead more cleanly toward the fascist present. After reunification, the comprehensiveness of the archive was restored and currently every single book published in Germany is housed here, along with all books published or translated into German abroad. Each revision of the archive has asked the textual past to anoint the particular present as inevitable and correct.
This room, in 2018, is not attached to the same timeline as it was in 1949. And in this room of chronographic displacement, loosened attachments and latent patrimonies, I am writing about another scholar who, in Alexandria in the late Roman Empire, rearranged the archive and the march of time in order to attach his students to an honored patrimony, to equip them for a Christian future. He taught his students to read books from the Bible as books where one could find the principles governing words and texts, social life and the inner life, the physical and cosmic order of things.
What is happening when I sit in the German National Library and write about these early Christian readers and the books they read? When we write, we do the work of our species in honoring the ancestors and guarding our patrimony. This is only natural, and I have nothing but compassion for the desire to be part of a story and belong to a place. But we need to know that we are writing about the past in order to feed ourselves, we need to know our own loves and desires, to know which camp around the river we have pitched our tent in.
Nothing has surprised me more in being re-displaced to the west than the blitheness with which the western world hoards its epistemic talismans and fetishes, but fails to see itself as at all superstitious. These ideas make sense to me in the same way that in my village it made sense to me that women must not touch weapons or they will deprive said weapons of their force. It is both plausible and entirely ridiculous. I want to suggest to you that you re-imagine the Western episteme as a tribal fetish and the narrative of progress towards rationality and control as a savage mythology. When we do textual scholarship we sit around fires and tell ourselves stories about how the world is orderly and naturally amenable to our supremacy, we sing songs about fixed taxonomies and circumscribed entities, about eternal unchanging natures of things.
Knowledge, like the love that drives it, has to be traced from body to body. Knowledge-as-reading is never separate from the body. The archive is a bodily organ, whose function, like the pads on a gecko’s toes, is to connect us to the sheer face of the world, as if it were our home.
Blossom Stefaniw is Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation and author of Christian Reading: language, ethics and the order of things (2019) and Mind, Text and Commentary: noetic exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Ponticus (2010).
Harriet Bradley, “The Seductions of the Archive: Voices Lost and Found,” History of the Human Sciences 12.2 (1999): 117 quoted in Marlene Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.1 (2004): 17.
Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory” History and Theory 23.1(1984):1-33.
Lincoln H. Blumell, Didymus the Blind’s Commentary on Psalms 26:10-29:2 and 36:1-3. P. BYU1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018.
Helmut Rötzsch und Hans-Martin Pleßke: Die Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig. Ein Abriß der Geschichte des Gesamtarchivs des deutschsprachigen Schrifttums 1912 bis 1987. Aus Anlass der 75-Jahr-Feier. Vorabdruck aus: Jahrbuch der Deutschen Bücherei. Jg. 23 (1987). Leipzig: Deutsche Bücherei, 1987.
This sentence and the section on the German National Library above are excerpted from my forthcoming book, Christian Reading: Language, Ethics and the Order of Things. University of California Press, 2019.