Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On Williram von Ebersberg's "Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum" (c.1060) as polyphonic text

The 11th century abbot Williram von Ebersberg’s renowned bilingual paraphrase and exegesis of the biblical book of the Song of Songs, “Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum” (c.1060) is notable for its use of Old High German and Latin commentary and elucidation alongside the original Latin prose of St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible. What distinguishes it as a text is its multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and the degree to which the five different elements - though usually presented in 3 columns on the page - interrelate. These five are Jerome’s Latin; the OHG prose translation; the Latin verse translation; the OHG commentary intermingled with Latin terms; and the Latin commentary. In order to determine whether the “Commentarium” is polyphonic, however, we must first turn to a Bakhtinian understanding of what polyphony is.
Polyphony was first used as a literary concept by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)[1]. The word originally stems from the musical term referring to a multiplicity of voices singing two or more independent melodies, particularly prominent in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the sense that Bakhtin meant it, however, polyphony refers to the diversity of points of view represented within one single text. Bakhtin’s predominant example in this regard was the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), and the extent to which, in his major works at least, Dostoyevsky did not limit himself to a single perspective but rather explored a multitude of different views and beliefs. Nor does Dostoyevsky present different characters’ different takes on a situation simply as a number of different angles; instead, Bakhtin argued, Dostoyevsky crafted ‘novels of ideas’, in which differing accounts of existence or differing justifications for actions, often or indeed usually irreconcilable with one another, were permitted to sit side by side, unevenly, and with no authorial proclamation as to which of many was final. Indeed, Bakhtin uses the word ‘unfinalizability’ to distinguish Dostoyevsky’s art, recognising as he did so that people are not fixed, immutable selves but are capable of fluctuating, disagreeing with themselves, and doubling-back to former ideas, and thus it follows that narratives are not fixed, immutable narratives. A person is never fully and utterly revealed to the world, never fully and utterly understood, and neither is a narrative[2]. It also follows that no one person is fully isolated either, since we are all only understood in relation with one another, and the ways in which we shape each other’s ideas or are shaped by them. In some sense, we are all polyglots -- open to a wide array of different social dialects -- though Williram, of course, takes this further in literally laying different languages down on the page.