Attributing Authorship: An Introduction

Attributing Authorship: An Introduction

Attributing Authorship: An Introduction

Attributing Authorship: An Introduction

Synopsis

Recent literary scholarship has seen a shift of interest away from questions of attribution. This book is the first comprehensive literary survey of the field to appear in forty years. It revisits a number of famous controversies, including those concerning the authorship of the Homeric poems, books from the Old and New Testaments, and the plays of Shakespeare. Written with wit and erudition, the study makes this intriguing field accessible for students and scholars.

Excerpt

The subject of attribution studies is the uniqueness of each human being and how this is enacted in writing. One determinant of uniqueness is biological: at the moment of conception a mingling of genetic information occurs which is unprecedented and unrepeatable. This mingling is partly a rule-governed and partly a random process. The rule-governed part ensures a degree of resemblance between siblings and close relatives and of uniformity over the race and species: individuality is never absolute. But then neither is it ever absent: in the most inbred of populations there will still be immeasurable possibilities of variation. Nature's poker machine never gives the same prize twice.

Even in the brains of identical twins, formed when the zygote divides after conception, tiny irregularities in the laying down of neural pathways become magnified into differences in the ways by which the brain, as a self-organising system, coordinates its vast assemblage of centres and individual neurones in the acts of knowing, speaking and writing. Experience stocks all brains with different knowledge, perceptions and attitudes. On the other hand, since language is also a shared possession with communal as well as self-expressive functions, what nature and experience individualise will often be overwritten by socialisation.

A fable may help to clarify the roles of the individual and the communal. A wise queen in ancient times established a college of philosophers. Because her dominions covered many lands in which many different tongues were spoken, her first instruction to this college was to devise an artificial language, free from all anomalies, which would permit all the members of her far-flung dominions to converse freely with each other, and with the tax-gatherers. There were a hundred philosophers in the college—all of them, sadly, male—and each one was told to perfect a language and devise a script in which it might be written. One year was allowed for this and a handsome prize promised to the winner. Differences both of nature and nurture combined to produce a variety of . . .

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