In a section of his Essays in Critical Dissent entitled “The Philistinism of ‘Research,'” the late F. W. Bateson laid down a challenge to bibliographers which, so far as I know, has never been taken up directly. The question he poses is roughly this: if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where are Hamlet and Lycidas? what is the essential physical basis of a literary work of art? Bateson’s answer…is that the physical basis is “human articulations”; “the literary original exists physically in a substratum of articulated sound.” A book, he claims, has the same sort of imperfect relationship to the original work as a photograph has to the man photographed… It follows from this, Bateson argues, that the bibliographer is guilty of mistaking the secondary for the primary: he busies himself preserving the author’s “accidentals,” when the author’s responsibility stops with the sounds; the bibliographer confuses the function of the author with that of his copyist.
To much of this the bibliographer will have a ready answer, but the importance of these criticisms lies in their level of generality; they call for a justification of certain bibliographical attitudes in terms of aesthetic theory and they raise, in vivid if eccentric fashion, several of the crucial issues in aesthetics today. Without presuming to speak for bibliography, I want to challenge Bateson’s conclusions on these issues and to suggest that the physical appearance of books sometimes has even greater importance than textual bibliographers are willing to allow it. I believe that leading writers on aesthetics — writers quite independent and even ignorant of the world of bibliography — are able to give solutions to Bateson’s problems which, far from diminishing the role of the written or printed word, emphasise the importance of notation.
McLaverty is the author of Pope, Print, and Meaning (Oxford UP, 2001).