Whatever curious and interesting subject strikes my fancy, be it silly or serious, gets posted for your reading pleasure.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

What Do We Do with a Bad Review?

(Post orginally published June 2012)

Nuremberg chronicles f 092v 1.png 
(Image from the Nuremburg Chronicle 1493, three suns observe a book-burning.

If you are an author, you will at one point or another be presented with a bad if not scorching review of your work. Quite possibly, you may receive an equal amount of negative criticisms and evaluations of your cherished creations in proportion to all the good reviews you receive. Hopefully, you will not receive more bad reviews than good!

How do we address the distressing reality of unjust criticism? The general rule has been to accept everyone is entitled to their opinions, be they good, bad, or incorrect, and simply ignore their bad comments. However, there are times when reviews are completely erroneous they leave us wondering if the reviewer had actually read the book and could comprehend its contents. Or, might we dare suggest, are deliberately condemning a work for some unknown ulterior motive? I have read reviews on other people's work that I had studied and the results were totally perplexing, (the reviewer reporting the author failed to address topics or issues when they had, or completely missed that author's point etc.), and now I too have fallen prey to the poison pen, or at least, a misguided one.

Must we authors stay silent, or are we entitled to defend our work and beat back the flames of unjust criticism?   In the case of an academic review, I thnink we may, since are academics are expected to be adept readers.  With your permission, I offer you an example below: a review of my work, Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1 , written by Nicholas Holland for Folklore, the Journal of the Folklore Society UK, published March / April 2012. My defence is presented in Italics.


“E.A. Bucchianeri's book, the first of a two-volume study, surveys works concerned with the famous magician Doctor Faustus from the earliest German notices to Christopher Marlowe's eponymous play. A short final section discusses seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century works before Goethe. The first chapter reviews German accounts of Faustus prior to the earliest known version of the German Faust Book, and places a particular emphasis on the search for biographical evidence about the historical Faustus. Bucchianeri surveys the various early accounts, including those of Trithemius, Melanchthon, and Weyer. The majority of the material covered will be familiar from other modern studies, but whereas the studies of Frank Baron, for example, draw out the complexities of the relationship between historical evidence and the subsequent fashioning of the legend, this study tends to place great emphasis on searching for insight into the biography of the historical Faustus; an approach that can be detrimental to the consideration of the sources surveyed in their historical context.”

(I tend to place more emphasis on the biography? Of course, we cannot see how the folklore developed without arriving at a clear picture of Faustus, this historical man of mystery. To all intents and purposes, I followed Baron's analytical example in discovering the historical Faustus, and offered additional findings / observations to the material Baron provided and discussed. The chapter dealing with Faustus' biography is only one quarter of Volume I, (125 pages) and roughly half of this chapter also examines the legend-formation process. The rest of Volume I (nearly 400 pages), features the Faust folklore / literature. Holland then declares in so many words it is 'detrimental' to piece together a biography of Faustus from the sources that exist and that I did not consider their historical context. Did Mr. Holland actually read and comprehend my work? ~ E.A.B.)

“For example, when considering the account of the famous abbot and philosopher Trithemius that Faustus declared himself the source of the necromancers, Bucchianeri's bewilderment that Faustus "would freely choose a profession that would utterly ruin his reputation" (p. 28) seemingly takes Trithemius's report at face value. Trithemius's opinions concerning Faustus surely demand more cautious consideration in the light of his own possible motivations, reputation, and interests; in particular since so little concerning the historical Faustus and his magical practices can confidently be corroborated using other sources. More generally, Bucchianeri's biographical focus in the early part of the book tends to direct the reader's attention away from what must be the most significant and astonishing aspect of the documentary legacy: the impact, durability, and openness to further interpretation of the legend of Faustus through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, first in German and later in English culture. Whereas the historical Faustus is an almost invisible footnote in early modern intellectual history, the legend of Faustus became, in the hands of a number of important writers, a means of expressing early modern interest concerning both the potential power and also the potential dangers of magic.”

(I could find no evidence presented to date to doubt Trithemius' letter written to a friend and colleague, warning him to be wary of Faustus. The letter was reprinted during Faustus' lifetime, it could not be a bogus document. Trithemius may have aggrandized Faustus' claims concerning his magic skills, but this topic is discussed in detail. Faustus was known to declare himself a "necromancer" according to well-documented historical sources, therefore, according to the historical evidence, Trithemius was accurate in describing Faustus. I have examined the content of Trithemius' letter minutely from all aspects, similar to Frank Baron. To declare oneself a 'necromancer' was a serious matter in those times, Faustus could have been tried and executed. Why take such a risk? His motives had to be questioned, and these questions hypothetically answered. I find it curious Mr. Holland believes the biographical material in Volume I detracts from the efforts to describe the "impact" and the "openness to further investigation" of the legend: as I said, three quarters of Volume I (about 400 pages) explores the rich Faustian material inspired by his legend over the centuries and how it was used to deter people from studying magic in addition to admonishing people to live good Christian lives. Holland's conclusion that I digressed from explaining the "early modern" fascination and fear of black magic is erroneous. ~ E.A.B.)

“The remainder of the volume is mostly dedicated to substantial descriptive accounts of the German and English Faust books, and of Marlowe's Doctor Fautus. Bucchianeri's major new proposition concerning the latter is that the B-text shows that "Marlowe had regained a considerable measure of the defiant 'Machiavellian' optimism", which was absent from the A-Text (p. 368). Although precisely what she means by "Machiavellian" (or "liberal Epicurean," a phrase she applies to Marlowe's Faustus in the same passage) is unclear, her reading of the play evidently belongs to the school of interpretations which considers the overarching admonitory message of the play as being in some way questioned by the manner of its presentation. However, her core interest again is in trying to establish firm connections between biography and text. Her proposal is that the B-text of the play is a revision of the A-text chiefly undertaken by Marlowe himself in the light of personal experiences and historical events that enable it to be dated to 1592. This is an unusually precise stance concerning the genesis and authorship of this text, but ultimately fails to persuade. For example, some basic textual evidence seems to conflict with such a precise and confident dating. The author argues, in particular, that the references to the Anti-Pope Bruno in the B-Text are inspired by news of the arrest of Giordano Bruno in Venice in 1592. However, if a similar method is applied to the reading of two of the most striking points of similarity between the fictional Bruno and the historical Bruno, these events have no direct connection to 1592. The fictional Bruno undergoes excommunication, a punishment which the historical Bruno stated to his interrogators in Venice he knew had been imposed on him in absentia by a hearing convened by the Dominicans in Naples prior to this period in England (1583-5). The execution by burning for heresy, pronounced on the fictional Bruno by Faustus in disguise, was visited on the historical Bruno as late as 1600, seven years after Marlowe's death. While there is a case to be made for the influence of the historical Bruno's person and thought on Marlowe via the circle of Earl of Northumberland, there is in fact nothing tangible to link the scene in Doctor Faustus more strongly to the news of 1592 than to the news of any other year of a period spanning the whole of Marlowe's writing career. Furthermore, by attempting to bind the play's genesis too tightly to Marlowe's biography, the author underestimates not only the imaginative capacities of Marlowe himself and of the other writers who most probably had a hand in the B-Text, but also the uncertainties that cloud our understanding of Marlowe's personal beliefs. Such an approach also fails to place sufficient emphasis on the need to understand the contents of Doctor Faustus in the context of the early modern performance traditions upon which it draws.”

(The terms "Machiavellian" and "Epicurean" may be on the same page, but not in the same paragraph. From the context of the study, Holland should have understood the term "machiavellian" to mean Faustus' thirst for power and his determination to acquire it by whatever means or cost. The philosophical term Epicurean was explained in the first chapter, but possibly Holland forgot: "... pleasure is the supreme goal one should aim for in life, particularly intellectual pleasures above those of sensual ones. Epicurus taught that one could only acquire true happiness and serenity by conquering one’s fear of the gods, death, and the afterlife. He also believed that humans ceased to exist after death, declaring the soul died with the body." The term was referred to in this philosophical context throughout the chapter on Marlowe, and we note Faustus in Marlowe's play begs his soul to dissolve at death. The context of Epicurean should have been clear from the beginning.

I am sorry if my argument concerning the dating of the A and B Texts "failed to persuade" Mr. Holland, but I notice he discussed only one piece of evidence I presented, and omitted to mention all other observations pertaining to the 1592 date. If it was a matter of that one detail, Bruno's arrest, then there would not be enough evidence, but a good detective should look at all the evidence presented.

I also notice Mr. Holland points out every historical detail of the the real Bruno, and how this factual information does not match the action of Marlowe's play: must everything in the drama display historical fact? Surely, Marlowe had the creativity to imagine the scene of Bruno's arrest and make artistic predictions concerning the possible outcome of that event, even if they proved incorrect in the future. In this instance, Holland has failed to follow his own conclusion and has committed the same supposed 'error' he condemns me for, that is, trying to find the historical details that correspond with Marlowe's biography and are included in the play ~ let us note that Holland's states "by attempting to bind the play's genesis too tightly to Marlowe's biography, the author underestimates not only the imaginative capacities of Marlowe himself and the other writers who most probably had a hand in the B Text". In so many words, Holland has proposed that authors, playwrights and artists are uncreative and unimaginative when they draw upon their life experiences, (and therefore, contemporary history), for their material. Interesting observation, Mr. Holland.

He also says by binding the play´s genesis too closely to Marlowe's biography, I also "underestimated the uncertainties" that cloud everyone's understanding of Marlowe's personal beliefs. Not so. It was due to these uncertainties I conducted a close reading of Doctor Faustus with Marlowe's known biography. I simply examined the claims Marlowe was an "atheist" in that he did not believe in the established Christian religions, and noted how these claims may have a basis in fact through a close reading of Doctor Faustus. I endeavoured to shed some light on the accusations levied against Marlowe, and if possible, display how close the creative soul of the writer is to his work. ~ E.A.B)

“The stated aim of this study is to provide a "comprehensive exploration" of Faustus and his legacy. It provides lengthy descriptive discussion of the contents of the texts surveyed and, to some extent, it offers a useful single point of reference for them, although it must also be noted that the author's digressive style makes it relatively hard to read. As a work of analysis, however, its most serious failing is that it does not examine more fully and in a more systematic way the complex forces that worked to shape the legend of Faustus within a wider cultural context, and instead places its primary focus on an attempt to find close relationships between biography and text. As a consequence, it fails to offer readings of the material under consideration which have the depth of insight or nuance of the most valuable works already written on the various works it surveys.”

(The aim of this study was to provide "a comprehensive exploration of Dr. Faustus, the man who sold his soul to the devil, and those who lived to tell his tale" ~ so yes, providing detailed explanations of the texts and why each author presented the Faust material as they did was the object of the work. I do not see how Holland thinks this does not present the "complex forces" that shaped the legend of Faustus, when everything from religious intolerance, the Reformation, academic competition, fear of black magic, the scientific discoveries of the day such as the Copernican / Galileo controversy, folklore and history, and how they were included in the Faustian tales, are discussed. Can the "cultural context" become any wider? If this study lacks "the depth of insight or nuance of the most valuable works" already written on the subject of Faust and Faustian literature, I shall leave it to you, the reader, to discover if this be true or not. I thank Mr. Holland for his review, albeit it took nearly four years for it to appear from the time the paperback edition was published and sent in for review. E.A.B.)


Faust  My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1 by E.A. Bucchianeri 
Faust: My Soul Be Damned for the World Volume 1

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