Friday, May 25, 2012

Marvelous ghosts

I'm fascinated by the craftsmanship of the bright fellows who earn their living writing speeches for leading figures such as heads of state. For the last five years in France, everybody has known that, whenever Nicolas Sarkozy happened to be expressing himself in an exceptionally brilliant style in a speech, he was simply repeating words written for him by Henri Guaino, often referred to as Sarkozy's "plume" (quill).

Henri Guaino

In the case of François Hollande, his excellent speech-writer Aquilino Morelle is the son of a Spanish immigrant who worked on Citroën's assembly line at Nanterre.

 Aquilino Morelle

Once upon a time, a writer who produced words that were then attributed officially to another author or speaker was referred to as a "nègre" (Negro)... but this term, in such a context, is no longer politically correct. In English, we speak of ghostwriters.

Many years ago, just after my marriage, I worked briefly as the ghostwriter for a distinguished French industrial leader, Maurice Ponte, head of the CSF (Compagnie générale de la télégraphie sans fil), later to become Thomson–CSF. He had been called upon to deliver a speech in London, and he asked me to invent a style of English expression that was sufficiently rickety (my adjective, not his) to give his audience the impression that he had indeed written his speech. I even got around to including explicit apologies for Ponte's allegedly less-than-perfect English. Truly, in earning my living like that, I felt like a male prostitute.

Here's an interesting mental experiment. Imagine that you're a ghostwriter and that you've been hired to write a speech for the head of the Australian delegation at the forthcoming Olympic Games in London. At the last minute, the person who was supposed to deliver your carefully-written speech informs you that he has changed his mind, in that he has decided to write his own speech. At the same time, since he doesn't want you to waste your efforts, he puts you in contact with the head of the delegation from Papua New Guinea, because they are prepared to pay you for the use of your speech. Now, would this arrangement work out? Probably not, since the words you propose in the case of one nation can't normally be "put into the mouth" of another quite different nation. In the same way, a political ghostwriter couldn't simply create a brilliant speech and sell it to the highest bidder. Obviously, a ghostwriter has to choose his words in accordance with what he believes his employer would normally say.

It's a funny situation. If a ghostwriter named Fred were hired to write a speech for a great lady of politics named Julia, say, then he has to invent in his imagination, as it were, a kind of ethereal Julia, and he then has to try to think and talk in the style of this virtual creature. Finally, the words of the speech belong, neither to the real Julia, nor to the ghostwriter, but to this imaginary creature in-between. The term "ghostwriter" is therefore well chosen, because the word craftsman is indeed setting down the words of a ghost, who does not really exist.

Ghostwriting has long been recognized as quite a challenge in the ancient domain known as rhetoric, which is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. And if ghostwriters were seeking a patron saint, it would surely be the Roman rhetorician Quintilian.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus [35-100]

He referred to this branch of rhetoric by the Greek term prosopoeia, which suggests that a fictitious "face" (that of the ghost) has been created, and made to speak. Consequently, one might say that the craftsman who writes words for the ghost is practicing the art of prosopography.

Now, let us jump into a domain that doesn't appear, at first sight, to have much to do with the art of ghostwriting. Let us look at history. In a historical text describing the words, actions and presence of a long-dead individual, who exactly is expressing himself? Is it the historical personage, or is it rather the living historian? In fact, it is neither... but rather a ghost that appears between them, between the inferred events of the past, and the present-day discourse that is supposed to describe those events. In other words, the historian is practicing a creative art that is not all that far removed from ghostwriting.

Over the last couple of decades, an entirely new branch of so-called prosopographical history has come into existence in the great English universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead of pretending to explain what happened in the past, the prosopographical historian collects every imaginable item of data concerning the past events with which he is concerned, and organizes them in the form of a vast structured database, enabling modern researchers to stick their inquisitive noses into the piles of data—as it were—and make up their own minds about what might or might not have been the case. In other words, it is the database that becomes the ghost, and modern researchers can listen to fragments of the discourse of this ghost in any way they please.

Concerning the history of families named Skeffington (or something of the kind), it is quite possible that a prosopographic approach would be ideal. We dispose of quite a lot of fragments of data concerning events and individuals that appeared on the scene in the wake of the Norman Conquest, then through the Tudor period and beyond, right up to my personal ancestors in Dorset. But the earlier individuals remain ghosts, and we must respect them as such. The most mysterious ghost of all is of course the original patriarch who called himself Skeffington.

Recently, I got led away into imagining, for a moment, that this patriarch might have been a member of the de Verdun family, but that idea is almost certainly false, for the simple reason that people named de Verdun and Skeffington coexisted in parallel for ages.

There is another possible explanation of the identity of the Skeffington patriarch that should not be ignored. Most often, we talk as if the Normans simply killed or chased away all the Saxons and took over their settlements and lands. And that is how Normans came to settle in Sceaftinga tûn: the place of Sceaft. But is it thinkable that the Normans might have spared Sceaft and his people, and allowed them to carry on living in Leicestershire? If that were the case, then my earliest ancestors would indeed have been Saxons, not Normans.

In that spirit, let us listen for a moment to the voices of the Saxon ghosts. That is not difficult, thanks to the excellent database of prosopographic historians from King's College London, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Centre for Computing in the Humanities and the University of Cambridge. Click here.

 If anybody could get the ghost of Sceaft's place to say a few words, then it's surely this prestigious group of experts. When I browsed through their long list of Saxon personalities, looking for my possible patriarch Sceaft, I was in for a huge surprise. He's quite possibly there, but as Sceaf, without the final "t". That doesn't worry me. What's a missing "t" between me and a Saxon ghost! In fact, the database offers me two choices. One is relatively realistic. This Sceaf would have been the father of Cerdic and an ancestor of Æthelwulf. Fair enough. But I prefer by far the other choice in this fabulous database.

Wow, a Saxon Sceaf who was "born in the Ark; father of Beadwig and son of Noah". I'm convinced that's him, the Saxon patriarch I've been searching for!

Prosopography is truly a great approach to digging up possible facts about the past. Back in Grafton, when I was a child, there were many disastrous floods. Ah, if only I had been able to boast at the time to my schoolmates that maybe my most ancient ancestor was born in the Ark... and a son of Noah!

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