Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Citations from Hell

One of the things we humanities grad students spend our time doing is chasing down other people's citations. As in, you find a handy quote (by, for instance, André Breton, or René Daumal, or Karel Teige) in someone else's dissertation. You stick it in your own and make a note to track down wherever that person got it from so as to cite from the original and perhaps find something else useful there.
Usually the main problem is in finding the original without having to resort to interlibrary loan. The quote is usually perfectly good and does not have more than one or two small transcription errors. One feels dutiful about catching these. This summer I have found a gratifying number of Breton and Freud quotations that no longer need refer to anyone else's book or dissertation.
From time to time, however, Citations from Hell arise. They are often related to that bane of my existence, endnotes. (Yes, I know that typesetters far prefer endnotes to footnotes, but have you ever tried to keep your place both in the text and in the endnotes at once? or had to keep page-upping and page-downing in a PDF dissertation with endnotes? Vileness!)
The Citation from Hell is one that cannot be located in the alleged source text. I have one of these where an article airily quotes a few words (in English) of a longish (Czech) text by Teige and says some interesting analytical things about what Teige was getting at. Have I been able to locate this in Teige's text? Of course not. In this case, it is probably there, but not in a form I have recognized in my several skim-reads of Teige's standard verbosity. It would have been nice if the author of the article had provided an edition and page reference rather than merely saying it was from (if I recall correctly) "Slovo slovo slovo." Uh, yes. Words, words, words. Teige had read his Shakespeare and proceeded to write way too many words of his own. (In this respect I should feel a special kinship with him.)
I had thought that example was quite the Citation from Hell, but it has recently been far surpassed by a dissertation whose citations (endnotes, mind you, not footnotes, to compound the problem) are in a state of complete discombobulation. The author used shortened citations, which admittedly are expected, but make one wander all over the place trying to figure out the name of the full title. This is especially un-fun in a PDF file. Her shortened citations, furthermore, are inconsistent. You see something like Powrie, 77. This is all you initially put in your footnote because you are trying to move along and not lose your place too badly in the PDF file. Later you look to see what Powrie, 77 might mean. You hypothesize that it is Powrie's journal article rather than Powrie's book, but for a couple of weeks you aren't sure whether 77 is the volume, the year, or the page number. All sorts of detective work and confusion ensues before you finally locate the journal and discover that the quote is from page 177, not 77.
You then figure you have some free time to root through volume 1 of someone's correspondence in the hope that this is the volume meant in several citations (volumes 2 and 3 are at the bindery). In some cases you have, in addition to the alleged page number, a mention that X wrote this to Y in 1926. You find that in no instance does the page number in any way correspond to the quotation you seek (given in English and sought in French, just to make life more complex). You begin combing through the book for everything X wrote to Y in 1926 and find that there is no rhyme nor reason to the cited page numbers; you manage to locate nearly every quotation but one is ten pages off and another is more like 70. If you weren't finding new and useful material in the course of the search, you would be frothing at the mouth at wasting so much time. As it is, you would really like to know what sort of drugs the dissertation-writer was on when shuffling those notecards or whatever were used to compile the citations. One quotation, cited to an entirely different book, pops up in the book of correspondence. In another case, your source has left out an entire parenthetical remark without adding ellipses. You wonder what else is lurking in this dissertation, which is not admittedly crucial to your own but has been pretty useful for one of your chapter subsections. You think it is probably only sloppy, not poorly researched, but you can't be certain.
After spending much of an afternoon dealing with the volume of correspondence and the recalcitrant citations, you prepare a libation of strong spirits and hope that it will not be too hard to persuade the Spotted Adventure Rabbit to come in before dark (since she is eating fallen plums out there).
(Note: the Spotted One is not currently outdoors but having an exciting adventure that will be described later!)


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