I found such a fantastic section in today’s reading of OUMEM, on page 44. It says: “Now, paleological dating is not an exact science: one can be fooled by, for instance, an older scribe who has not kept up to date with changes in script, or a young scribe trained by an older one in some remote area, or a scribe who is simply albeit awkwardly imitating an older hand.”
The principle that really grabbed me here is that writers (primary media of their day) represent a huge range of experiences and situations. One of the worst things we can do when we look at a text is to say “This is the way writing was done during ___ time period” or “This is how people thought back then.” While it does represent at least someone, applying these impressions to an entire culture impedes us from a fuller understanding of its people. I loved the idea that in some places certain literary traditions lasted longer than in others, the idea that the world at this time was full of a huge variety of people doing things in all sorts of different ways.
I thought about putting this up as my regular blog post, but I wanted a little more freedom to voice my personal opinion. I often find myself annoyed at the arrogance experts, especially when it comes to history, science, and religion. When something is presented to me as a concrete fact with no room for alternative explanations, I am skeptical. In my mind there is always room for more to any given story or fact. That’s not to say I don’t find these areas useful, or that they do not offer valuable insights to us, it’s just that I haven’t found life to consist of definite explanations. Take our views of “winning” a war, for example. If one side makes another side return home, or wipes out an enemy, we say that side “won.” But the people involved may not experience any sense of accomplishment or even benefited from this victory. Did the people who died fighting for the winning side win? Did their families? What if they didn’t even believe in the cause they fought for?
What I’m getting at here is that there is a whole approach to research that wants to slap labels on everything, and that can really lead to some misinformation. Going back to the OUMEM quote, we can see the potential for misunderstanding the time period in which something was written. A researcher could very easily look at something written by “an older scribe who has not kept up to date with changes in script” and date it much earlier than it really was. Why is this important? Off the top of my head I can think of several reasons:
- The idea that all writing of a time period held to the same conventions distances us from the diversity present during that time. It bars us from a closer shared experience with the text and its original readers.
- Further study could reveal motives for continuing certain literary traditions, such as an affinity for (or repulsion to) change or another language.
- The more quickly we come to a judgment about a text, the less time we spend with it and the less we can learn from it.