Isaac Disraeli: Alterations in "The Bibliomania"
Readers will recall that I posted a blog entry yesterday on Mr. Isaac Disraeli's 'warning' in Curiosities of Literature about second and further editions betraying the truths contained in the first edition, and I quoted the passage as given by an anonymous fellow from Wales whom I first elected to call 'The Swede' -- because he lived in Sweden at the time that he was maintaining his website -- but who actually, as I've learned, is Mr. Stuart Heath. Here's that quote again:
It has frequently happened, […], that in second editions, the author omits, as well as adds, or makes alterations from prudential reasons; the displeasing truths which he corrects, as he might call them, are so many losses incurred by Truth itself. There is an advantage in comparing the first with subsequent editions; for among other things, we feel great satisfaction in tracing the variations of a work, when a man of genius has revised it. There are also other secrets, well known to the intelligent curious, who are versed in affairs relating to books.Mr. Heath mentions the many editions of Curiosities, starting with the 1791 edition. Here's one from 1824 (7th edition) that contains the above passage in question:
It has frequently happened, besides, that in second editions, the author omits, as well as adds, or makes alterations from prudential reasons; the displeasing truths which he corrects, as he might call them, are so many losses incurred by Truth itself. There is an advantage in comparing the first with subsequent editions; for among other things, we feel great satisfaction in tracing the variations of a work, when a man of genius has revised it. There are also other secrets, well known to the intelligent curious, who are versed in affairs relating to books.Mr. Heath notes that this passage occurs only in the 19th-century editions of Disraeli's book. Indeed, as he elsewhere truly observes, Disraeli's entire article on bibliomania has not only been altered from its 18th-century text, the "present article is a near-total rewrite of the equivalent piece in the earliest editions of the Curiosities." With that in mind, here is Isaac Disraeli's article on "THE BIBLIOMANIA" in the 1791 edition of Curiosities of Literature:
SHOULD ever the idea thrown out in the last article be put into practice, the learned must be careful, in their zeal, of not becoming the dupes of the artful illiterate. The present anecdote may serve as a beacon.That's the entire article, and it clearly has nothing about subsequent editions betraying the truth of the first edition. But I'm so far saying nothing new, for Mr. Heath beat me to this.
The Bibliomania, or the collecting an enormous heap of books, has long been the rage with some who would fain pass themselves upon us for men of vast erudition. Some, indulging this luxury of literature, desirous of forming an immense and curious library, have scoured all Europe, and sent out travellers to the Indies to discover ancient books, or scarce manuscripts. This has occasioned many cheats and impositions. Towards the end of the last century, some ignorant or knavish men sent to Paris a number of Arabic manuscripts, in excellent condition and clear characters. They were received with all imaginable respect by the eager collectors of books; they were rapidly purchased at a high price: but, lo! when they were examined by the connoisseurs, these manuscripts, which were held so inestimable, were discovered to be books of accounts and registers, cleanly transcribed by certain Arabian merchants.—Risum teneatis, Amici!
A similar imposition was practised on the great Peiresc. It was reported, that the Ethiopians were in possession of a book written by Enoch. Many literati in Europe had long ardently desired to inspect it, as they imagined it would contain many valuable secrets and unknown histories. Upon this, some impostor having got an Ethiopic book into his hands, he wrote for the title, 'The Prophecies and History of Enoch,' upon the front page. M. Peiresc no sooner heard of it, than he purchased it of the impostor for a considerable sum of money. Being afterwards placed in Cardinal Mazarine’s library, there Ludolf, famous for his skill in Ethiopic literature, had access to it; when, lo! this History of Enoch was discovered to be nothing more than a Gnostic Treatise upon the Mysteries of Heaven and Earth, but which did not mention one word concerning Enoch. (Isaac Disraeli, Curiosities of Literature, 1791, pages 19-21)
I might as well note in passing that the Latin phrase, Risum teneatis, Amici, comes from the opening lines of the poem Ars poetica, by the Roman poet Horace, and means something like "Can you help but laugh, friends?" Horace proffered his ridicule for a painting in which the head of a lovely woman is joined to the neck of a horse and whose body is covered with feathers and whose lower extremety is the tail of a fish. Mr. Disraeli finds equally ridiculous the existence of an extensive library with its collection of fine, expensive books joined to books written in Arabic that turn out to be nothing but business transactions, the joining of incompatible things, apparently, though our modern libraries do something very like this in their aim of universality.
What was the point of Mr. Disraeli's laughter? Let's look again at the opening remark to this article:
SHOULD ever the idea thrown out in the last article be put into practice, the learned must be careful, in their zeal, of not becoming the dupes of the artful illiterate. The present anecdote may serve as a beacon. (Isaac Disraeli, Curiosities of Literature, 1791, page 19)To understand more fully, we need to know what "the idea thrown out in the last article" was. When we look into the matter, we see that it was an idea occasioned by the voyages and travels of discovery, in which Mr. Disraeli noted the existence of books throughout the world written in other scripts that might contain new knowledge. Here is the idea:
If they [i.e., travelers] would, in their voyages, endeavour to bring some information, or some materials of this kind [i.e., writings], to Europe, a new source of knowledge would be opened to our contemplation; many books, which are now lost, might probably be recovered; Science might be enlarged, and Amusement gratified. (Isaac Disraeli, Curiosities of Literature, 1791, pages 18-19)This passage from the "last article," which clarifies Mr. Disraeli's warning about shelling out enormous sums for expensive books in exotic scripts, does not appear in the 1824 edition linked to further above, for the reason that the article itself, "Tartarian Libraries," is missing. Apparently, Mr. Disraeli felt the need to make many "alterations from prudential reasons" and to correct many "displeasing truths."
Though what, precisely, he might have wished to obscure is unclear to me, so he must have been successful . . .