Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Abstract: "Prophets, Profits, and Paratexts" (or Chapter Two: Prophets in Print)

Following one of the sessions on German literature before 1700 at MLA in Philadelphia last year, Elio Brancaforte asked me if I might have something that would fit the topic of a session he was organizing for 2011 on "Inventing Lives."

As it turned out, the topic perfectly matched a section of of Printing and Prophecy that I had just revised. For a long time, chapter two was a long, disordered amalgamation of interesting material that didn't really add up to anything. But after several false starts and partial revisions, I finally recognized that the chapter was at its core the story of Johannes Lichtenberger's Prognosticatio transformed the author from a high-flying astrological consultant into a prophetic forest hermit.

So when Elio asked, I had something nearly ready to go, over a year in advance. I worked up an abstract, which has since been accepted, and I'll be giving the paper at MLA in Los Angeles in January.

Abstract: “Prophets, Profits, and Paratexts”

The fifteenth-century German astrologer Johannes Lichtenberger’s primary work, the Prognosticatio first published in 1488, soon became the most popular and influential prophetic compilation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the vehicle by which medieval prophecies were transmitted to the seventeenth and later centuries. But where Lichtenberger had been the fifteenth century’s equivalent of a high-society astrological consultant, later centuries remembered him as a prophetic forest hermit. The transformation of the author from an expert astrologer into a hermit crying in the wilderness began already in the first Latin and German editions. The woodcut images and title page, as well as the image captions, colophon and other paratexts (to use Gérard Genette’s term) helped invent an authorial biography substantially different from that found in the text. All of these extra-textual elements were determined not by the author but by the printer, and they served the printer’s interests. Primary among these interests was forestalling censorship by allaying the concerns of ruling authorities, while also meeting popular demand for prophetic insight. While research over the last 50 years has helped restore Lichtenberger’s biography, the current scholarly view of the author is still distorted by regarding the printed Prognosticatio as the expression of a single author’s thoughts. But to understand literature as preserved in the medium of print, we have to understand books as products of a rational division of labor in which multiple authorial biographies compete and conflict with each other.

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