Parallel minds or inverted comma dropping and lifting?
History and Anthology of English Literature by Francesco Binni and Mario Domenichelli. Second revised & corrected edition (3rd reprinting), published in 1987 (1st edition 1986) by Editori Laterza, Bari, 881 pages, €20, ISBN: 88 421 0170 2.
Francesco Binni and Mario Domenichelli say that their book is aimed at providing Italian upper schools with a selection of the most significant passages of English literature placed within a historical context. The basic plan of the book, which runs from the Anglo-Saxons to the 1970s, is to provide a historical background to each era followed by short samples of mainly literary texts by the salient artists of the period. The literary texts are annotated in Italian and there are also some exercises supplied by a native English speaker who is duly credited for her work.
The chief trouble with the book is that it is not always clear just where the anthologising ends and where the joint authorial writing begins. The historical passages, which at times appear to have a familiar ring, display a highly idiosyncratic style and a command of written English not only far beyond the known capabilities of Italian academics but also beyond the reach of all but the most fluent native English writers. Since the book's preface contains no statement of any division of their work, Mr Binni and Mr Domenichelli must together be held responsible for the whole. Moreover, the volume under examination is a revised and corrected edition of an earlier work.
Compare the following two sample passages from Messrs Binni and Domenichelli with two parallel passages from the standard work by David Thomson, England in the Twentieth Century (Vol. 9 in The Pelican History of England, London). The first edition of Thomson's book appeared in 1950 and there have since been later editions. We looked at the 1981 edition but it would be very interesting to compare also the 1950 edition for possible variations and further light on the Binni-Domenichelli methodology.
It might be worth taking a closer look at this parallel, sentence by sentence, with a view to understanding the minimal differences in historical perspective of the three parallel minds at work.
Notice that for Binni & Domenichelli the suffragettes' demands are "increasingly militant" while for Thomson they were just plain demands. Could it be that Thomson missed something here that Binni & Domenichelli with a parallel but more penetrating vision managed to capture? Oddly enough, Binni & Domenichelli see fit to introduce a parenthesis at exactly the same point in the sentence as Thomson but the information contained is curiously different. Unlike Thomson, Binni & Domenichelli speak simply of "demands for women's right to vote" whereas Thomson sees the necessity to specify that the demands were "of the suffragettes". However, to compensate, Binni & Domenichelli specify the suffragettes within their parenthesis, thus evening out the balance. On Thomson's account, "the women" were simply "driven to violence and access". But Binni & Domenichelli dispense with the definite article, implying perhaps a different perspective on the nature of the riots. In fact, Binni & Domenichelli go on to stress the widespread geographical aspect of the riots with the expression "all over the country".
Sentence 2 again reveals a quite remarkable convergence, both in terms of thought and linguistic expression, between Binni & Domenichelli and Thomson. A significant difference is that Binni & Domenichelli introduce a parenthesis to spell out what exactly is meant by "Home Rule for Ireland" while Thomson appears to take this for granted. Thomson sees the issue, perhaps more objectively, as "live" whereas Binni & Domenichelli judge it to be "burning", which may reflect a greater sense of emotional involvement on their part in respect of Thomson. However, with all due respect for the parallel minds syndrome, it is surely hardly imaginable that Binni & Domenichelli could independently have hit upon the very same expression as Thomson: "drove both major parties into postures of violent intransigence".
The two versions of sentence 3 are distinguished solely by Binni & Domenichelli's phrase, "with Ireland on the verge of civil war". By now even the most ardent advocates of the parallel minds hypothesis must find it hard to believe that Mr Binni and Mr Domenichelli have independently opted once again for the very same wording as Thomson: "to coerce Ulster into submission in order to grant the Irish Home Rule".
There is obviously not a lot to say about sentence 4. Messrs Binni and Domenichelli can surely not have been expected to alter the date of the British declaration of war purely in order to avoid accusations of unwarranted convergence or worse. On the hand, it is also true that the next two sentences are also remarkably similar.
Comparison of the two versions of sentence 5 raises the question whether Messrs Binni & Domenichelli may have consciously decided to use the Thomson sentence for some reason but to alter the position of the word "formally" in the interests of greater clarity and correctness. Perhaps Binni & Domenichelli want to stress that saying that someone has done something formally is different from saying that, formally, someone has done something. The idiomatic use of the feminine pronoun "she" to refer to Britain does seem strikingly similar and is not exactly what one might have expected from an Italian speaker. One explanation is that Messrs Binni & Domenichelli were subconsciously guided by the Italian term "Gran Bretagna" (Great Britain) which is, like the suffragettes, feminine gender.
Sentence 6 marks the continued use of feminine pronouns and adjectives to refer to Britain both by Domenichelli & Binni and by Thomson with very little variation indeed. The two sentences are, in fact, so similar here that one cannot help wondering whether all the similarities in the previous five sentences, together with the remarkable similarities of ordering and sequence, may not in fact be pure coincidence after all.
Now, it might be argued in defence of Messrs Binni and Domenichelli that coincidence knows no limits and that an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of an infinite number of typewriters over an infinite period of time would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. But does this mean that a limited number of humans (who are nor monkeys) with a limited number of typewriters could, in a limited period of time, unconsciously reproduce parts of the work of a British historian? Even though Mr Binni's and Mr Domenichelli's writing may appear at times to come rather close to aping, this question seems unanswerable.
Pending a rigorous formulation of a parallel minds theory that explicitly incorporates the phenomenon of mathematical and linguistic coincidence, this regrettable dual performance seems likely to cast a dark shadow over the authenticity of other published work by Mr Binni and Mr Domenichelli as regards both their joint and individual publications.
On this performance, the question also arises whether this book should perhaps be removed from school and university syllabuses in view of its potentially harmful effects on malleable young minds which may be unaware of the universal conventions employed among bona fide academics throughout the world of correctly and honestly acknowledging all cited sources. Even if this history and anthology of English literature had been more appropriately retitled an anthology of English history and literature, it would still have required the correct insertion of inverted commas.
Francesco Binni and Mario Domenichelli hold senior posts in English literature at the University of Florence's faculty of letters and philosophy.
Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on February 29 2004.