Losing a manuscript was not a problem for the aoidoi.
Before there was writing, there were stories and songs, and stories in song. In Ancient Greece, the aoidoi were the singers of those songs. Each member of a new generation memorised those songs and stories and passed them down to the next. But each aoidos made every performance his own. At weddings, after dinners and during laments, no singer sang an exact copy of another’s song, or even the same version of a song that he (seems it was always a he) had given before. Instead, in touch with the muses, the aoidoi extemporised and improvised on the verses that we would come to know as the Iliad and Odyssey. The aoidoi were creative, in touch with the audience and the needs of the moment, ready to finesse a phrase, hold a note, or encourage audience participation.
Competitive singing was big in Ancient Greece.
It is my opinion — although Homeric scholarship is remarkably mute on this topic — that the aoidoi probably looked down on the rhapsodes who succeeded them. The rhapsodes also gave performances of epic poetry, but with a crucial difference: they had a fixed written text that they had to stick to. The aoidoi probably said (or sang) something like: “Writing it down? You’re asking for trouble, mate. You’ll only lose the words.”
The aoidoi were right. At the Panathenaic Games which were held every four years from 566 BC (these games were a bit like the Olympics but for Athenians only and included poetry as well as all the running about), there was a law that the poems should be recited “with prompting” if necessary, in their exact order.
It may be a legend that before his death, in 19 BC, the Roman poet Virgil ordered that the manuscript of the Aeneid be burned. It may also be a legend that it was the emperor Augustus himself who ordered Virgil’s literary executors to disregard the previous order (although I must say that Augustus himself comes off quite well in the poem). Whatever the workings, Virgil’s poetry survived, allowing generations of thankful schoolchildren to puzzle out that the opening lines, “Arma virumque cano…” can usefully be rendered as “I sing of arms and of a man …”
With the arrival of the rhapsodes, manuscripts were born. Manuscripts weren’t always of paper. They might be of clay and indecipherable, such as the Phaistos disc, or granite and permeable to translators such as the Rosetta Stone. They might consist of papyri (made from plants, favoured by Egyptians) or wood (Go, Rapa nui!) or stone (choice of the Olmecs). In every case, someone made a written record because someone wanted to say something, to record or remember something, or to advertise something.
A manuscript has to do with language: it is, as the etymology of the word itself suggests, WRITTEN by hand. (Sometimes via typewriter or computer keyboard, yes — but hands operate those.) I don’t consider cave paintings manuscripts, even though they are older, dating back 40,000 years, and even though they were done with the hand, because they are through-and-through visual. They are their own art.
Down the years, legions of writers have written manuscripts in languages we may or may not be able to decipher today.
Down the years, many of those manuscripts have been lost to the world. Sometimes carelessness, sometimes natural disaster, sometimes deliberation.
Down the years, legions of writers have written, then actively tried to prevent their manuscripts reaching the world. As he lay dying in Hull in 1985, one of Larkin‘s final wishes was that the 30 or so thick A4 notebooks that made up his personal diaries should be destroyed. His efficient secretary, Betty Mackereth, took them into his office in the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull at lunchtime, appropriated the university’s paper shredder, and fed the designated pages into it all afternoon. When she finished, she sent the shreds to the university boiler house, where they were incinerated.
Also incinerated, this time by the author, were the manuscript leaves that formed the second part of Nikolai Gogol’s brilliant novel “Dead Souls”. The author had spent many years working on the continuation to his book and shortly afterwards, in 1852, starved himself to death in Moscow.
Sometimes authors change their mind. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti lost his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, to an overdose of laudanum in 1862, he romantically buried most of his unpublished poems alongside her. He later regretted it. In 1869, he had Lizzie’s grave dug up, retrieving the manuscripts and publishing the resurrected leaves in 1870 as “Poems”.
Sometimes authors have their minds changed for them. Franz Kafka was most insistent: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … to be burned unread”. Had Franz’s friend Max Brod obeyed Franz’s instruction, we would never have met Josef K or been burned by “Der Process”.
So, manuscripts have fled their authors in varying ways ever since the time of the rhapsodes. This site aims to remind you of the fate of just some of those papers, and asks you to consider the fate of your own. Do you scan, save to Dropbox, archive on a hard disk, or just keep the papers in the attic?
I’ve lost manuscripts in my time. Who knows if they were the Iliad of their day? (They probably weren’t, or I might have gone a little further to save them. Some of them, I know, were simply ISP bills.)
Perhaps the wheel will turn full circle, as Ray Bradbury imagined it did in “Fahrenheit 451“. In the future world of that novel, there are no legal or legitimate books or manuscripts at all. Perhaps one day the human race will find that we have to memorise, as do Bradbury’s characters, “Moby Dick” or The Book of Ecclesiastes just to remember those words. There will be no lost manuscripts at all, as they will all be in our heads.
Maybe there will always be a place in the human script for the aoidoi.
Until that happy day, this is a blog for those who:
* didn’t press Save
* left the literary debut in the taxi
* did your damndest but the dog ate your homework.
Welcome to the world of the missing manuscript. Lost, stolen, eaten or burned, these are the words that the world will never read.
I don’t update very often, having my own manuscripts to fret over and keep safe, but when I find an interesting story, I share.