50 shades of Chinese whispers

To understand is to reconstruct. To reconstruct is to put things together. And to put things together sometimes means listening to the 50 shades of Chinese whispers.

It is not enough to study an extant species. One must move back and draw its evolution out of previous species as well as draw phylogenetic relationships between them. It’s how biologists make sense of the surviving evidence, both live and lifeless.

Philologists deal similarly with texts, especially old texts written before machines became the stewards of transmission.

To move from shadow to body when dealing with old, handwritten texts is to understand how Chinese whispers work. As we all know, messages in this game are passed around in fragile whispers, to the effect that they progressively become unrecognizable from the initial whispered message.

Old texts are less entropic, in the sense that they don’t tend to deteriorate to the same extent the more they are passed around. Nevertheless, they do get distorted with every duplication, with every scribal whisper.

Philology and the reconstruction of old texts, which is called ‘textual criticism’ is a fancy form of Chinese whispers played in a dark crowded room equipped with low-quality microphones. The challenge is to listen to all recorded whispers and decide who heard what and who whispered what to whom, without seeing their faces or recognizing the voices. The chief whisperer who starts the game has vanished and all there is are half-interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces.

To recover an old text is to play a cruel form of Chinese whispers in reverse, without hope of ever inviting the initial whisperer back in the room. It is a toilsome endeavour which requires a good ear, great dexterity and the ability to hear the faintest whisper.

It is cruel because one can never be sure they’ve got it right. There are no victors, just temporary winners – at least until a sharper ear comes along and blows everything back to puzzle pieces.

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