Every once in a while, I stop and consider how utterly reliant I am on the internet in general, and Google in particular. O, benevolent online overlords! Thou art the repository of so much of human thought, the cache of my own ideas, and my lady Mnemosyne. Nor dost thou scorn to stoop and serve me, so long as my ISP does not fail me and I can limit my query to 128 characters.
But sometimes even Google, mighty Google, cannot come to my aid.
Two instances of late come to mind.
Back in April, I went to Rome with a friend. Among the sights I appreciated most was the library of Pope Julius II, the Stanza della Segnatura, which Raphael decorated on all sides with frescoes. The School of Athens is there (cue flashbacks to college days), as well as La Disputa del Sacramento – The Disputation of the Sacrament.
I was struck with curiosity over the scribe girl sitting next to St. Augustine (the fellow with a miter to the right of the altar, who is gesturing toward her). Presumably she’s taking notes on the discussion of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.
I love her. My practice is the same: to write down what people are saying in conversation, whether it’s in a booklet or whatever scraps of paper I have to hand, whether it’s clever or funny or erudite or just plain ridiculous. Whoever she is, she is my representative where this picture is concerned.
Sadly, I have no idea who she is. She might not be anyone at all; she might be a figure representing all scribes in all times and in all places, or the preservation of the doctrine of the church throughout history. She might be the anthropomorphization of some concept: purity, truth, reason.
After scrolling through site after site in vain, I became convinced that all the Googling in the world could not illuminate this figure for me. I headed to the library and got out every book on Raphael they’ve got, which gave me background on the putative chronology of the frescoes, and the background for how Raphael was chosen to paint them, but not much insight on the iconography he used, beyond the fact that it was ground-breaking in its animation. Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny, bless them, shared an endnote in their 1983 Raphael that Heinrich Pfeiffer explored the question in his dissertation, Zur Ikonographie von Raffaels Disputa.
It is a testament to my curiosity that I submitted a WorldCat request to get it from Montreal, despite the fact that I will need to translate the lot to get any answers from it. Provoking!
But not, perhaps, as provoking as that other problem that plagues the internet, namely: people crediting an individual as the author of a quotation or idea or aphorism, without citing where they found it. Then other people share it, be it truth or falsehood. The thing becomes ubiquitous, a weed with no way to trace its forebears.
In this case, I found a poem credited to Rilke called “Blank Joy,” which of course appealed to me very greatly. Given that he composed in German and French but not, to my knowledge, in English, I was interested in finding and translating the original. So I checked Amazon for his titles, and took a look at their respective tables of contents. I consulted my library’s catalog, and Wikipedia, and poetic fan sites: all the usual places.
The original German…does not appear to exist. Or, rather, I’ve found it on three sites, but no one indicates what volume of his it was published in (was it published? Did someone share a poem once written in a letter?). Is it actually his? How can we know?
So far the only solution I’ve come up with…is to request Sämtliche Werke in 12 Bänden – his complete works in twelve volumes – from the library.
I’m not sure what to take from this. Maybe I should rely on Google less; perhaps I should consult the library and librarians therein first; possibly (probably) I should develop more vigorous and enterprising methods of research.
Or perhaps the real lesson is that I should learn German.