Today, this blog goes bookish on the verge of geeky with this literary history of the device known as the chapter in dividing a lengthy work of prose. If each post to this blog constitutes a chapter, then this blog is made up of 4,342 chapters (counting today's post). Whew, that's a lot! Some things are better left unthought. If this is (fair & balanced) chastened musing, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Chapter: A History
By Nicholas Dames
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
On a late May morning in 735 in the Northumbrian monastery known as Jarrow, England’s preëminent historian and scriptural scholar lay dying while still hard at work. As a famous letter written by his disciple Cuthbert tells it, the Venerable Bede lay surrounded by colleagues, who took their leave in order to attend the morning’s Ascension Day service. One, however, remained by his side, a young scribe known as Wilbert. Death was clearly drawing close; anxious that Bede’s work—an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel of John—be completed yet apologetic for his insistence, Wilbert reminded Bede that “one chapter still remained.” Cuthbert tells us that Bede proclaimed himself willing and dictated the remaining chapter to Wilbert; after the final sentence was written down, Bede breathed his last, saying, “It is finished.”
The Latin word Wilbert used to prod his master to completion—capitulum—would eventually feed into a series of European languages: the Spanish capítulo, the French chapitre, the Czech kapitola, the German Kapitel, the Romanian capitol, the Italian capitolo, and the English “chapter.” For readers, the word, and the thing it describes, is inescapable. And yet few people notice it. Books have been written or arranged in chapters for over two millennia now, although that fact has never received the attention it deserves from historians of the written word. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the concept has rendered it invisible. It would not have been invisible in eighth-century Jarrow, however; Bede worked in the most important scriptorium of his era, where no small amount of scholarly labor was devoted to producing capitula—essentially, divisions of scriptural texts with headings or summaries. Bede himself produced several such works. The chapter was a tool of analysis and memory for Bede and his colleagues. Perhaps it has never ceased being so; we simply expect chapters to be there, breaking up our reading, giving us the permission to pause or stop. Prose writers work in chapters with far less self-awareness than poets work in stanzas or composers in movements. In the great novel of writer’s block, “New Grub Street,” from 1891, George Gissing perfectly evokes the routine quality of the chapter with a description of his despairing protagonist sitting down to work: “At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III,’ but that was all.”
Inevitability does not, however, imply meaninglessness. The chapter is tied intimately to our notions of literacy, as signalled by the fact that we give the name “chapter books” to the texts that offer school-age children their first mature reading experiences. More than this, the chapter has become a way of looking at the world, a way of dividing time and, therefore, of dividing experience. Its origins date back to long before the printing press or even the bound codex, back to the emergence of prose in antiquity as both an expressive and an informational medium. Literary evolution rarely seems slower than it does in the case of the chapter. What does the chapter’s beginnings reveal about the way our books and stories are still put together?
The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge, either utilitarian or speculative, who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies. Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” (“On Farming”), from the second century B.C.E., was organized in numbered units with titles; Pliny the Elder’s great compilation of Roman science, “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), from the first century B.C.E., came with a summarium of topics similar to a modern table of contents; Aulus Gellius, a collector of legal and linguistic arcana in the second century B.C.E., divided his “Noctes Atticae” (“Attic Nights”) into “capita” with long descriptive titles. These chapters, unlike the “books” of epic poetry, were what we would now call finding aids: devices for quickly locating specific material in long texts that were not meant to be read straight through.
The authors of such miscellanies were forward-thinking in their sense that some texts are consulted more than they are read; they envisioned a focussed, interested, but not immersed reader, dipping into their books by locating relevant passages. Organizing those passages often became the task of editors as much as of writers. Christian literary culture took strongly to this form of intellectual labor; at centers of book production like Caesarea, the chapter was both an intellectual tool and a style. Figures like Eusebius produced carefully segmented texts such as his “Ecclesiastical History,” and they often turned their attention to the segmenting and labelling of older texts. The chapter might have disappeared in favor of some other form had not the early Fathers of the Church made it their signature technique. Jerome, in fact, seems to have been the first to unambiguously use the term capitulum to refer to a numbered, titled segment of a text.
In their enthusiasm for chapters, however, early Christian editors and writers introduced a problem, one that cut to the heart of their own sacred texts and presaged the challenge that chapters present to writers even today. How do you segment continuous, narrative texts rather than informational ones? How, for instance, do you divide Scripture—like the Gospels—into bits, given that they were written as one continuous text, undivided and unlabelled? At first, the problem must have seemed merely technical. Eusebius solved it by devising an elaborate system of small sections cross-indexed among the different Gospels, one that remained popular well into the Middle Ages, but it was cumbersome: there were over three hundred such sections in Matthew and Luke each. The Bibles of late antiquity and early medieval culture contained a bewildering variety of chaptering systems to complement or replace Eusebius’s sections, and each system had its own sense of what counts as a significant unit of action or a significant moment deserving of its own heading. To divide, it turns out, is already to interpret.
This left Christian Europe without a standard system of reference for its central texts. It was not until the advent of the university that a solution was first found—or, at least, first promulgated—in the new university of Paris in the early decades of the thirteenth century. Here we enter the realm of scholarly legend. The story, which dates back to the fifteenth century, and which some consider apocryphal, goes as follows: A young English member of the theological faculty, Stephen Langton, was baffled in his lectures by the many different chapter systems in his students’ Bibles. (A contemporary teacher of literature, facing students who have multiple paperback and electronic editions of the assigned books, knows this difficulty well.) Langton set out to forge a simpler and more elegant chaptering of the Bible, one with fewer divisions of a more consistent size—but that might nonetheless be keyed to significant transitions in the text. By having the industrious Parisian university copyists produce his version, Langton could insure that its adoption would be as quick and as universal as possible. This approach worked—the biblical chapters devised in Paris in the first two decades of the thirteenth century are the ones we still use today.
The Langton chapters, if we can call them that, gave the Bible a particular narrative style. By trying to produce chapters of roughly equivalent lengths, Langton had to unmoor himself from a traditional understanding of scenic units. Events in texts like the Gospels do not come in equal lengths: some miracles take a sentence or two, while the Passion narrative unfolds at a much more expansive pace. Langton was flexible—he had to be, given his task—but he seems to have settled on a framework centered upon two basic ideas: time and place.
Where older chaptering systems thought about action—events with beginnings, middles, and ends—Langton thought about where or when events took place, and he clustered them into chapters accordingly. Take, for instance, the peculiar set of encounters that comprise what is now the fifth chapter of Mark. In this chapter, Jesus heals a man possessed by devils by casting them into swine, who run off a cliff, brings back from the brink of death the daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus, and inadvertently cures a woman of bleeding when she furtively touches the hem of his robe. These discrete acts are, in the systems that preëxisted Langton, also discrete chapters. The moment between Jesus and the bleeding woman sometimes even gets its own chapter, despite the fact that it occupies only a few sentences and comes as an interruption as Jesus walks to Jairus’s house. But for Langton these three incidents are all part of one chapter, for a simple reason: they happened in one place, “the country of the Gerasenes,” as the first verse of the Langton chapter tells us. When Jesus and his disciples move on to Nazareth, a new chapter begins.
From a modest but complicated task came a dramatic innovation. Langton’s chapters operate synthetically, at a curious remove from the action, as if from a consciousness hovering above those of the figures in the story, whose movements and feelings and thoughts are tethered to more local contexts, to the purposes and outcomes of actions. The chapter says something like: They may not have known it, but something had ended, and something else was about to begin.
Ancient encyclopedists, monks, theologians: the forgers of the chapter. What of novelists?
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the modern novel, as it emerged in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, often treated the chapter gingerly, as a strange oddity in need of explanation. The reason is not particularly mysterious. As a technique, designed for information-seeking or scholarly citation, the chapter is a peculiar fit with a narrative form that presumes a continuous, serial reading. When editors like William Caxton divided texts like Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” into chapters, as he did in his 1485 edition, it was largely to permit readers to choose which moments of the story could be applied to particular moral teachings. Later still, Renaissance prose romances had no need of chapters. Why should novels?
Explanations proliferated. Take “The History of Charlotte Summers” (1750), commonly attributed to Sarah Fielding, in which the languid Miss Arabella Dimple, lying half naked in bed, calls her maid Polly to fetch her “the first Volume of the Parish Girl I was reading in the Afternoon.” Polly returns, sits down with the book, and has this exchange with her mistress:
—Pray, Ma’am, where shall I begin, did your Ladyship fold down where you left off? —No, Fool, I did not; the Book is divided into Chapters on Purpose to prevent that ugly Custom of thumbing and spoiling the Leaves; and, now I think on’t, the Author bid me remember, that I left off at the End of—I think it was the 6th Chapter. Turn to the 7th Chapter, and let me hear how it begins—
Fielding’s older brother, the novelist Henry Fielding, had already, in “Joseph Andrews” (1742), explained “those little Spaces between our Chapters” as “an Inn or Resting-Place, where he may stop and take a Glass, or any other Refreshment, as it pleases him.” Chapter titles, Fielding proceeded to explain, were like the inscriptions over the doors of those inns, advertising the accommodations within.
Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.
For philosophers and theologians of the time, chapters were an example of a wider cultural dilemma. Among others, John Locke made it a habit to lament the way Bibles came so elaborately subdivided, destroying the thread of argument or narrative and producing readers who remembered sentences rather than concepts. For novelists, however, this was a boon. Like our days, chapters are rarely coherently memorable (Can even the most dedicated readers recollect a particular chapter of “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace”?), but are fractured, interrupted installments. Even in the midst of great events we stop and rest, and not necessarily after significant conclusions or turning points.
Thus the novelistic chapter: that modest, provisional kind of closure, a pause that promises more of the same later, like the fall of night. As the modern novel developed, explanations like those of the Fieldings became less necessary. Chapter titles themselves lost their overt connection to the “in which” or “concerning” syntax, virtually a plot summary, which derived from Biblical capitula. Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” could still pull off the old sort, as in “Chapter 38: Mr. Samuel Weller, Being Entrusted With a Mission of Love, Proceeds to Execute it; With What Success Will Hereinafter Appear”; by the eighteen-seventies, Anthony Trollope could title a chapter simply “Vulgarity.” As the chapter ceased seeming peculiar, it also grew in length; the average Victorian chapter was around thirty-five hundred words, roughly twice the eighteenth-century norm.
Of course, the chapter could also become a subject of play, well beyond the self-conscious mentions in eighteenth-century novels. Everyone will have different favorites; I am particularly fond of Ronald Firbank’s “Inclinations,” whose twentieth chapter reads, in its entirety:
Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!
Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!
Other writers toyed with order. A “table of instructions” prefaces Julio Cortázar’s 1966 “Hopscotch,” suggesting different sequences in which its chapters might be read; B. S. Johnson’s 1969 novel “The Unfortunates” came in a box, with twenty-seven separately bound chapters that could be read in any order (Johnson specified only a first and a last).
Like many such experiments, however, these ones tended to confirm the strength of the original protocol. The chapter is part of the musty old furniture of the novel: familiar, faintly embarrassing, so comfortable that one no longer examines it closely. Like old furniture, it shapes how we live in ways we no longer notice. This is in fact its secret power: while experimental play reminds us of the chapter’s conventionality, the conventional chapter has been marking time for us all along—you might even say that it has given us a kind of time.
A group of young people spends a night at a public garden; one of them gets a little too drunk, and in the process a possible marital engagement is spoiled. It is a brief episode, “so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all,” as W. M. Thackeray writes in “Vanity Fair.” And yet, Thackeray continues, “it is a chapter, and a very important one too. Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?” Already in the eighteen-forties, the metaphor was a common one. To “close that chapter of my life” with regret, to excitedly “start a new chapter”: these are at once experiences of reading and experiences of living. They are ways in which our lives, in fact, take on the shape of a novel.
The unassuming quality of the chapter, its way of not insisting on its importance but marking a transition nonetheless, turns out to be its most useful, if also its most vexing, quality. It is a vocabulary for noting the way we can organize our pasts into units. Some things stop; others begin. We note these shifts, in relationships or jobs or domiciles, reassured that the environing story itself—our lives—are still ongoing. But how do we know when we are starting a new chapter? How are we justified in picking a moment out of fluid passing time and declaring a pause?
This is the ambiguity that the novel learned to love. As Thomas Mann wrote in “The Magic Mountain,” “Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.” The strangeness of the Langton-era Bible chapters lingered and created an atmosphere that novelists found congenial. Those subsequently applied divisions, which seem so distant from the actions performed within the story, ironize the very act of dividing up time even while providing a model for doing so. How could anyone in those stories have known when a new chapter was beginning? How can we?
Like the momentary lifting of a pianist’s fingers while a chord still resonates, the classic novelistic chapter evokes time by dwelling in a pause rather than a strong ending. We feel time in the novel by marking it out into bits, but only bits that have no strong shape, that fade or blur into one another in the recollection. The greatest practitioners of the chapter have preferred to cast their divisions as fleeting caesuras with lingering aftereffects, scarcely memorable in their specifics but tenacious in the feeling they evoke. Situations yielding silently to new configurations, feelings fading imperceptibly or stealing upon us, shifts in the atmosphere around us: time in the novel is made up of these chromatic transitions, and the usual name for them in the history of the form is the chapter. This is the meaning the novel gave to the editorial device of antiquity, one of its more compelling reinventions. Ω
[Nicholas Dames is the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Dames is currently at work on a book, The History of the Chapter in the West, a project on the survival and metamorphosis of an editorial device first developed in classical antiquity: the chapter. He also is the author of Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870 (2001), and The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007). Dames received a BA from Washington University (MO) and a PhD from Harvard University.]
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