Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.
Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.
In 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.
This is why the reunion of the Old English poetic codices is so overwhelming. We have no mental equipment—or, at best, a very rusty apparatus—to process the existence of a physical original. Even our encounters with paintings in a museum are ultimately filtered through mass media and the devices with which we read the written word. It is difficult even to summon in our minds the circumstances of Benjamin’s 1936 essay; the technology has simply moved too quickly.
If we are that disconnected from 1936, but the Old English poetic codices predate Benjamin by an entire millennium, then it is no wonder that being confronted by these manuscripts leads to a feeling of numbed, startled astonishment. I’ve spent years dreaming of these books, but when all five of us finally met I couldn’t do anything but cry. I thought I knew them, through digital replicas. These books should have been a mirror, some kind of catalyst to self-recognition. But when I looked at them I saw nothing. I only saw the yawning void of everything in human history that I cannot understand, everything that has been taken from our culture by the incredible acceleration of technology over the course of my lifetime.
There are too many miracles to count inside the British Library’s exhibition. You can see the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Christian Bible in Latin. It’s enormous, weighing over 75 pounds. Here you will see the Domesday Book, the earliest public record in existence. Here is the River Erne horn, an eighth-century trumpet found in the waters of its name in the 1950s. Here is gold from the sixth century.
But as I walked out of this dazzling exhibition, I also realized the miracle that is the survival of Old English itself. If all we share with the Anglo-Saxon literature is language, then that is a remarkable consolation. The words are difficult to understand, but—miracle of miracles—we can translate them all.
Historians might care more about the singeing of the Beowulf Manuscript, the unknown pilgrim who walked through Italy. For the student of literature, however, Beowulf’s existence on the internet is as startling as the single book sitting by its sisters in a London library. If the book burned today, then the poem would still survive. The new permanence that reproduction gives us is the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge. But it might be worth putting a replica in a bunker, just in case.