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09 February 2010

Chrestomathy

I can't believe I've never come across the word 'chrestomathy' before. According to the OED it's "a collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language", and the first use dates from 1832, although the adjective, 'chrestomathic', is first cited from 1819.

The term comes up in Edward Said's Orientalism, which I'm currently reading. When I looked at Said in MCT, I couldn't quite see what his discussion of a textual approach was about. A passage on p 127 - 129 makes it clearer. In this part of the book, Said is talking about the way orientalism began, and in particular the work of Silvestre de Sacy (1758 - 1838). He was part of Napoleon's Egyptian project, but more important, for the purpose of the book, as a scholar and teacher.

As a European he ransacked the Oriental archives, and he could do so without leaving France. What texts he isolated, he then brought back; he doctored them; then he annotated, codified, arranged, and commented on them. In time, the Orient as such became less important that what the Orientalist made of it; thus, drawn by Sacy into the sealed discursive place of a pedagogical tableau, the Orientalist's Orient was thereafter reluctant to emerge into reality. (p 127 -128)
In that passage there's the good and bad of Said's work. The first half is straightforward, while the second unhelpfully gives "the Orientalist's Orient" a will of its own. You know what he means, but in a strange way he's crediting "the Orient" with an actuality that the whole purpose of the book is to deny.

But then this is right back on the button:
So if the Orientalist is necessary because he fishes some useful gems out of the distant Oriental deep, and since the Orient cannot be known without his mediation, it is also true that Oriental writing itself ought not to be taken in whole. This is Sacy's introduction to his theory of fragments, a common Romantic concern. [...] The Orientalist is required to present the Orient by a series of representative fragments, fragments republished, explicated, annotated, and surrounded with still more fragments. For such a presentation a special genre is required: the chrestomathy. (p 128)
This seems like a crucial point: isolating fragments serves several functions. It passes a judgement on the value of the works, but more importantly the selection of fragments of course (it hardly needs to be said) gives a direction of how they should be read.

Maybe that's inevitable, but the particular direction given is what Said is looking at. I'm less interested in the specific case here. What's interesting me more is how this can be seen an example of how comparative literature works, with obvious relation to translation theory.

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