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Of the same name

You might have heard the joke that X's books were in fact not written by X, but by another man of the same name. I find it interesting because, while being entertainingly silly as a proposition, it also asks a fairly serious question about what we mean by authorship and how historical record works. But that's not what this post is about! – I'm curious to know, as your recollection serves you:

Poll #1666257 Who was X?

(For once we have checkboxes rather than radio buttons, so you can choose as many as you like.)

Someone else (in a comment)
Actually I haven't heard that joke before
Does it have to be a man? Women write stuff too, you know
I agree; it does have a deeper interest
I disagree; any 'deeper interest' is actually piffling
I have further interesting thoughts of my own (in a comment)
Where I come from we have a similar joke/expression/saying (in a comment)
You've been doing a lot of polls recently; what's that all about then?



( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
10th Jan, 2011 00:41 (UTC)
eh? who's Stephen Norton?
10th Jan, 2011 10:01 (UTC)
Actually you know who he is. You've confused him with another man of the same name whom you don't know.
(Deleted comment)
10th Jan, 2011 14:28 (UTC)
Good heavens, that sounds completely barking. I must read it! Poirot with a false moustache??!?
(Deleted comment)
9th Jan, 2011 23:36 (UTC)
I think of it as an Eric Morcambe jokke, but can't recall the subject
10th Jan, 2011 11:34 (UTC)
Oh come on. They were written by Christopher Marlowe, everyone knows that. He was the Tupac Shakur of the Reformation.
10th Jan, 2011 11:36 (UTC)
He also went on to write the works of Goethe and Tolstoy, not to mention the Haynes manual for the 1974 Ford Cortina.
10th Jan, 2011 17:06 (UTC)
It's a heart breaking work of staggering genius
11th Jan, 2011 10:19 (UTC)
Better than being the Kula Shaker of the Reformation.
10th Jan, 2011 13:02 (UTC)
Charles Dikkens! (Ethel the Aardvark goes quantity surveying). Not exactly what you're talking about - but in a similar vein: http://www.inprint.co.uk/thebookguide/bookshop-skit.htm
11th Jan, 2011 10:19 (UTC)
Ah, I've never seen the full text of that sketch. Excellent, thanks!
11th Jan, 2011 10:48 (UTC)
I hadn't seen/heard it for years but your post triggered the memory. Indeed, I now see 'Rarnaby Budge' is the book by Charles Dikkens - it was ever Ethel the Aardvark in my head.
11th Jan, 2011 10:19 (UTC)
Wonder if this is also the origin of the "with a silent Q" comic trope...
10th Jan, 2011 13:18 (UTC)
Homer, and in that case I don't think it asks a fairly serious question about what we mean by authorship. It just highlights that the authorship of the Illiad and Odyssey is unknown (or, if you like, that "Homer" is a word defined to mean, "whatever person or persons authored or contributed to those works").
10th Jan, 2011 18:41 (UTC)
I've heard this before but never quite understood why everyone is happy to assume Herodotus didn't know what he was talking about in assuming Homer was an actual person.
10th Jan, 2011 19:03 (UTC)
You don't understand why they would doubt that the Iliad and Odyssey are entirely the work of a single person, or you don't understand how they dare, even in the absence of any evidence, to doubt the authority of the mighty Herodotus regarding a person who supposedly lived 400 years previously and about whom Herodotus had no information other than oral tradition?

I'm no sadder to assume he was wrong than to assume he was right, certainly.
10th Jan, 2011 19:31 (UTC)
I don't understand why they assume the passage of more time has somehow given later commentators more authority to declare Homer not to have been the author of both works.

The phrase "entirely the work of" is your wording, not mine. Obviously that seems a little unlikely if we're speaking of the versions with which Herodotus was familiar.
10th Jan, 2011 19:44 (UTC)
Just to be clear, what statements of Herodotus' is it that everyone is accused of doubting, and what arguments did he make in support of those statements?

There's plenty of Herodotus' Histories that scholars are nowadays pretty confident is inaccurate, regardless of his proximity to events. For that matter there's plenty of Histories that his contemporaries thought was inaccurate.

I don't really see the issue - am I to assume that Jesus rose from the dead because Matthew the Gospel writer says so, and the passage of time can hardly grant me more authority to say otherwise? Is that actually how we do history?
10th Jan, 2011 22:36 (UTC)
It's not a question of how awesome of infallible Herodotus wasn't. I asked why everyone was happy to assume Herodotus was wrong. I'm no expert, but as I understand it the way we do history is to provide evidence supporting a counterclaim.
11th Jan, 2011 00:46 (UTC)
I can't really answer then, since I can't tell what you mean by "everyone" (who?) assuming that Herodotus is wrong (in saying what?).

What I've observed is that people who are even interested though to consider it, are broadly receptive to suggestions that the two works probably weren't created in the form we have them, by a single author, in the date range held during the 5th Century BC. I don't think it's about "authority", though, so much as an idea that it's more complicated than that. It's not as if modern scholars are saying, "it was actually three people in 957BC, and they finished on a Tuesday afternoon" as a concrete counter-claim demanding specific proof.

I'm not familiar with what Herodotus actually said about Homer, that you're saying everyone assumes without evidence is wrong. I understand there was at the time an attribution to Homer of essentially the entirety of heroic literature, which seems a little unlikely. But if Herodotus didn't subscribe to that, or if he did but only as a knowing conceit, then for all I know he has made no actual assertions to be "wrong" about.
11th Jan, 2011 00:50 (UTC)
Also, the Histories are blatantly a 4th century fake anyway. Probably by Plato ;-)
11th Jan, 2011 10:29 (UTC)
Certainly true in the case of Homer. But what I think is interesting is that really we apply the same pattern of thought to more well-founded authors -- ie. in effect, "Shakespeare" is also for most practical intents and purposes a word defined in a similar way, even though we know it also refers to a specific person about whom we know some life details.
11th Jan, 2011 12:10 (UTC)
Somewhat, although I think not to the same extent precisely because there is personal knowledge there too. Whether Homer was a single person or not, we know absolutely nothing about him other than that he wrote those two works, which is the point of the joke. It doesn't work so well for Shakespeare: he's not a pre-historic figure.

For another example, there are several uncertain attributions to Leonardo da Vinci, and some traditional attributions now thought incorrect. We don't carry on calling those "Leonardos" on the basis that their author is Leonardo *by definition*.

Likewise, if it somehow conclusively turned out that there were three authors handling the Shakespeare franchise, one each for the tragedies, comedies and histories, I don't think we'd seriously carry on saying "Shakespeare wrote all those works, it's just Shakespeare was three people". We'd re-attribute the words to Arthur, Jake, and Lucy Shakespeare as appropriate, wouldn't we? If it was all written by Marlowe (granted much of it posthumously), we'd probably distinguish "William Shakespeare, the guy who hung around theatres in the 16th century", and "William Shakespeare, the pen name of Kit Marlowe's corpse". Many current uses of "Shakespeare" would then in fact refer to the latter, but I think we'd find the shift disruptive.

Conversely, if it turned out that "La Morte d'Arthur" was written by a nun from Exeter, I think we *would* then say, "ah, Sir Thomas Mallory was actually a nun from Exeter". Again, that's because we have essentially no facts to hang on Mallory other than that attribution. We've added to our previous knowledge about Mallory, we haven't simultaneously contradicted anything as "wrong" (we might stop calling her "Sir"). "Another poet of the same name as Homer" doesn't add anything or contradict anything.

Alan Smithee, now there's someone who challenges the very concept of authorship.
10th Jan, 2011 21:37 (UTC)
You've done a lot of polls recently that did not offer ABWAG as an option. I may start abstaining!
11th Jan, 2011 10:37 (UTC)
I've been swaying towards the venta harsh-but-fair school of poll construction. But I dare say I'll sway back again ere long.
11th Jan, 2011 10:49 (UTC)
I second this comment.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )