Sunday, May 31, 2009

From Ancient Scripts & the Voynich Manuscript to Borges & Marx

There is a nice article in The New Scientist about eight ancient scripts that have not been deciphered. Decoding antiquity: Eight scripts that still can't be read.

There is a notable aspect of Borges writings that involves lost, forgotten, unread, fragmentary, or even imagined manuscripts. I always think of texts such as these or of disputed works such as the disputed Voynich Manuscript at the Yale Library.
It has been the object of dispute ever since it came on the scene in the late 1800s and the script/code has never been deciphered, though the work on it continues. It is in many ways the epitome of a Borgesian work. There are many works that we are accustom to thinking are complete, but are really fragments. One of the most famous, in some circles, being The German Ideology by Marx and Engels. The latter once wrote--- and this contributes to its fame--- that finding no luck with publishing the manuscript, and having worked out certain problems in it that necessitated that they move on to other topics and styles of exposition: “We consigned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice.”

The critical marks of the mice are visible in these pictures of two pages from the manuscript of The German Ideology. (Click on them to get the full image.)
One of the things that becomes important when teaching Marx is getting students to understand that much of his work was not completed (the German Ideology, Capital, vols. 2 and 3), or subject to frequent revision (Capital, Vol.1,), never published (the Dissertation On the Difference Between Epicurean and Democritean Philosophy of Nature), or published under censorship restrictions (much of his work, actually). So the disputes around the interpretation of Marx and the party struggles to define Marxism are rooted not only in the later politics of the revolutionary period, but in the huge archive of manuscript fragments that Marx left behind.
And of course, no one seems to notice the elaborate drawings in the margin, just as they ignore Marx's love of Shakespeare and Aeschylus.