Pedro Tiago Ferreira
Paul Eggert sums up Securing the Past by stating that it “is the first book to bring the arts of restoration together to examine their linked, underlying philosophies.” (p. 9) The arts of restoration to which Eggert alludes encompass what is done in the field of Art lato sensu, which includes, as the subtitle of Securing the Past makes clear, Architecture and Literature, besides Art stricto sensu. I shall use the term “Art,” in this review, in its restricted sense to mean painting and sculpture, as these are the art forms with which Eggert is mainly concerned.
According to Eggert, there is a connection between conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature which most of the authors who deal in textual and literary criticism, and who make up the intended target of Eggert’s work, have not fully noticed so far. As Eggert argues, there are certain shared
problems, in both practice and theory, of what is involved when professional practitioners try to secure the past, whether in tangible three-dimensional form in museums, art galleries and historic houses or in the recovery by scholarly editors of the corrupted texts of literary works and historical documents from the past. (p. ix)
The book’s subject matter is thus threefold: to call the textual and literary critics’ attention to the problems of conservation and restoration shared by the fields of Art, Architecture and Literature; to expound the nature of these problems; and to propose some solutions.
As the number of problems which Eggert raises as topics of his analysis is too big for a satisfactory examination of all of them within the scope of this review, I would like to focus my attention on the topic which, in my opinion, is the main thesis of Eggert’s book, and of which it can be said that all other topics covered by Securing the Past are derivative: as soon as any act of conservation is performed, it becomes part of the history of the object in question, be it a painting, a sculpture, a building or a text. This is the reason which drives Eggert to conclude that there is a relationship between conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature, and which makes clear that securing the past is not a matter of retrieving the original, unimpaired creation of an artist or of a writer, that starts to be lost as soon as the passage of time performs its labour of decay. As the arguments offered by Eggert try to make clear, acts of conservation aimed at reducing the effects of decay are not apt to reveal the state of the work as its author intended it at the time of its completion. Both decay and the acts of conservation aimed at staving off the former’s effects render any attempt at revealing the state of a work upon completion a very difficult task, which becomes more and more difficult as time passes and further acts of conservation are performed, until there comes a time in which the original state of the work is irretrievably lost. To secure the past is therefore an activity whose main goal is to keep paintings, buildings or texts accessible to the public. According to Eggert, it is this access which is to be conserved, not the work’s original condition.
This hypothesis goes against a long tradition which holds that the purposes of conservation and restoration are not simply to allow to the public access to a given work, be it artistic, architectural or literary, but to uphold access to the work as the author intended it, when possible, and, when not, to attempt to present the author’s creation as faithfully as possible. I believe it is worthwhile to quote in full the passage in which Eggert states this position, which he strives to refute throughout the book:
(…) in editorial practice it is normally seen as essential, as far as possible, that the editor identify the parties responsible for the changes between versions so that informed decisions between competing readings can be made. The techniques of physical bibliography help the editor to reconstruct the history of the production of the work in printed form. In a somewhat parallel way restorers seek evidence of pentimenti (revisions) of earlier versions beneath the painted surface, and analyse the build-up of the layers of paint from the so-called ground coat outwards. Attribution is then more soundly based, and catalogues raisonnés, delimiting the boundaries of the artist’s oeuvre, become possible. These parallel the descriptive bibliographies employed by editors. If curators and conservators are archaeologists of the image – if they can make the surface articulate the painting’s history – then editors are archaeologists of the printed or written word, of its history of writing and production.
In both areas, it has traditionally been felt that the primary upshot of this considerable effort is to bring forth to the viewing or reading public a restored painting or a reading text of the literary work – the real thing, or as close to it as we can get. Just as, it is believed, accumulations of dirt and varnish should be removed to reveal the painting as it left the artist’s hand, so ought editors to aim at recovering the text that the author intended. Through the glass darkly, we can – with conservators’ and editors’ help – espy the thing itself: the work of literary or painterly art. (p. 16)
It is noticeable that Eggert’s theory does not concern itself primarily with method, as Eggert does not purport to advise conservators and editors on how to perform their jobs, but with the legitimacy enjoyed by these two types of curators to do what they cannot avoid doing, i.e. to modify someone else’s creation. The notion that it is immoral to tamper with texts, sculptures or paintings seems to be beyond all dispute, although as far as buildings are concerned tradition only protects constructions deemed as “historic”: modifications made to one’s own house or other private buildings are not felt as moral illegitimate acts toward the architect’s intellectual creation. Since it is necessary, however, for third parties to physically intervene over paintings, sculptures and buildings in order to prevent the effects of decay and the object’s ultimate destruction, and for editors to intellectually intervene over texts in order to prevent the extinction of all of its copies, it is inevitable that the end result of such interventions is a thing, corporeal in the case of buildings, sculptures and paintings, and incorporeal in the case of texts, somewhat different from the product originally offered by its intellectual creator, the author. This is, in fact, an important difference between texts and the plastic arts which Eggert does not fail to notice:
(…) we need to differentiate the building’s temporal continuity as physical ‘document’ from the ‘textual’ meanings it acquires and their reorganisation by curators. This literary-editorial metaphor only fails insofar as curatorial readings of buildings invariably leave physical traces. The interpretations require adaptations. The scholarly editor, too, will almost certainly change the text of the basic document that serves as copy-text, and by definition the edition will be a new book. But the originating documents from which the edition derives will be physically unaffected. (p. 37)
This means that it is useless to argue that conservation and textual criticism are activities aimed at restoring a work of art’s, or a text’s, original condition, and therefore it is advisable, for reasons of intellectual honesty, to admit unreservedly that securing the past through conservation and textual criticism is something that must be done in order to maintain the work in question accessible to those who wish to view it, read it or analyse it, openly recognizing that the work so curated is no longer the same work that was created by its author.
This does not mean, of course, that for Eggert conservators and editors are free to do what they please with someone else’s creation. It may be necessary, for safety reasons, to construct a load-bearing wall in an ancient edifice in order to prevent it from collapsing, thus maintaining the structure open for public visitation. This act of conservation blatantly transforms the architect’s original creation, but can hardly be deemed as arbitrary and therefore illegitimate; this kind of transformation is, in fact, vital to keep the building in existence, since it would collapse without it. Something analogous can be said regarding texts, which may be truncated due to the fact that all copies of certain of its passages have been lost, and thus the editor has to supply some of what is missing in order to present an intelligible piece of writing, as it happens, for example, in the Diels-Kranz edition of The Fragments of the Presocratics (1), where the editors supply text of their own making between brackets in order to render otherwise unintelligible portions of text into intelligible passages for the reader. Analogous operations may be necessary in order to preserve paintings and sculptures. It is, however, inadmissible to alter the configuration of a historic building for reasons beyond safety, or for a conservator or a textual critic to wilfully change a painting or a text according to their own personal taste. All modifications to a work of Art, Architecture or Literature are certainly bound to its author’s intentions when they are discernible and can be respected without the occurrence of safety hazards. What is important, according to Eggert’s position, is that respect for the author’s original creation be not considered as unassailable dogma, as the traditional view seems to consider it. The author’s or artist’s intention is an important factor to be taken into account in textual criticism and restoration, not the only factor.
Eggert’s solution for the legitimacy problem which the traditional view raises is thus to acknowledge that a work’s history starts with its author’s creation and then continues with its curators’ interventions. The latter’s acts of conservation are, therefore, as much a part of the work’s history as its author’s original creation, as the work would not exist and endure for a considerable period of time without both these types of agency. There is no legitimacy question because modifications to a work’s original condition are unavoidable, and full and complete restoration according to the artist’s or author’s intentions is all but impossible.
Eggert’s ideas are original and offer a better understanding of what is done in conservation and textual criticism, besides the fact that they call the experts’ attention to the fact that both areas are much closer than one might suspect at first glance. Eggert does not employ too many technical terms as he does not delve too much into questions of methodology, except by way of example, which makes the book accessible to a wider public. It is a good read both for experts and for novices, as well as for people whose work does not bear directly in conservation or textual criticism, but may be in the vicinity.
Nevertheless, I would still like to point out that Eggert lost the opportunity to make an argument which seems to me the logical conclusion of the ideas in this book: if both conservators’ and textual critics’ acts become part of a work’s history, as necessary to its existence throughout time as its author’s intellectually creative acts, and if those curatorship acts are, in turn, creations whose responsibility falls on their agent, then the conservators and textual critics are co-authors of the work so curated. This co-authorship is bound to the original creation and therefore is not entirely free, not in the sense in which the term is used when describing the original author’s agency, but curatorship acts are most decidedly intellectual creations. As the modifications made to buildings for safety reasons add something which did not exist before, so the editors’ acts which are analogous to those made by Diels and Kranz modify the text as it was created by the original author. The point that these acts are not illegitimate has been taken, but the further point that these acts are autonomous intellectual creations by conservators and textual critics has equally to be made, and Eggert should have made it, as it is the natural conclusion to the argument that a work’s history, its life, is made up of a series of acts from its creation to its eventual demise.
(1) DIELS, Hermann; KRANZ, Walther. 1960. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (bilingual edition in Greek and German). Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung.
English edition: Freeman, Kathleen. 1983 . Ancilla to Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.