(Content note: domestic violence/murder)
It is said that Archimedes was asked by the King of Syracuse to authenticate a manuscript. King Hiero had received what purported to be Alexander of Macedon’s own copy of the Iliad, brought out from the Library at Alexandria itself. He sent envoys to Egypt to ask whether Alexander’s Iliad had indeed ever been housed there, and whether it was now gone missing. In the meanwhile, he hoped that Archimedes could shorten the task by assessing the provenance of the scrolls by inspection.
The mathematician performed a perfunctory examination; the scrolls seemed old, but he suspected that the signs of age could be faked. Nor did he know whether scribes in Alexander’s time, in the part of the world where Aristotle had had it made for his pupil, used materials or techniques that he would be able to distinguish. It was an interesting puzzle.
Then the next day, as he was laboriously copying out his customary four duplicates of the notes for his latest treatise and eating a boiled fowl, Archimedes had a sudden realization. He rushed out of his house, shouting “Eὕρηκα!” and ran into Hiero’s palace with the grease of his meal still on his hands and beard.
“The fake will be too accurate, King!” said Archimedes.
“Correctors have devoted themselves to the works of Homer since at least Aristotle’s time. Compare your Iliad to a new one. If it is of recent vintage, then it will have not have had time to accumulate the inevitable transmutations wrought by the years. Alexander’s copy would have changes in all of its lines by now!”
The text of Hiero’s Iliad was examined and, indeed, it was nearly a match for the versions in the correctors’ shop in Syracuse. The giver of the bogus book was throttled, and the king gave Archimedes a gold-and-silver tiara.
November 15, 1927
I’m writing this in a hurry and I’m going to put it someplace safe. I hope to God that you’ll never have to read it, that I’ll be able to tell you in person. But I thought I’d better get it down on paper in case the worst happens.
I’m frightened that Philip wants to kill me. He threatened to do it right after the divorce, and I almost went to the police, but he never repeated the threat, and I thought I was safe.
But today I’m not so sure. A neighbor on the island who’d been down at the port said she saw a tall man with a beard and a coat that sounded just like Philip’s, and I’m afraid he’s come here to do what he said he’d do.
I’m going to try to get away right now, to hide somewhere on the other side of the island. But if, God forbid, I wind up dead, remember: it’s Philip who killed me.
I’ll put this in the inlaid wood box you love so much. It can’t be out where a stranger (or Philip) can see it, but I want it somewhere you’ll look.
Amita marched to the client meeting as if she were going to the public square to be whipped. Technically they weren’t even her clients, and she wished that were an excuse to avoid meeting them today. But she was the senior T&E partner, and so there was nothing for it.
The five of them were seated in the coziest of the conference rooms, right out of a movie about intestate succession: soft upholstered chairs with high backs and paintings of boats and rivers on the paneled walls. They looked sad but expectant. She didn’t see any indicators of hostility between them, which was a good thing under the circumstances. They’d have enough hostility for her to make up for any lack.
After her introduction to the widow, children, and children-in-law of the late Jacob Biton, she began, “I’m sorry to have to tell you that there is a problem with your father’s will.”
Ethan Biton, the son, spoke first. “What sort of problem?”
Amita took a deep breath. “We don’t appear to have a reliable original.”
“What do you have?”
“We have two originals which we can’t rely on at all.”
“How can that be?” said Leah Biton, the daughter. “I thought lawyers always kept five copies of wills.”
“We do,” said Amita, “and we have a clerk reconcile the copies every year, correcting aberrations that have arisen in any of them in the intervening months. We have a similar procedure for contracts, pleadings, client communications, and so on.”
“So, what happened?” asked Leah.
“As best as we can determine, the will was misfiled, placed in an entirely different section of the firm archives which is used for short-term, disposable documents. Three of them were destroyed. We’re not sure why the other two survived; they turned up in yet another file after an extensive search.”
There was a long pause. Then Ethan said, “So nobody has looked at them for 25 years?”
“That’s right,” said Amita. “And you know what that means.”
“Shit,” said Leah.
In his Physics, Aristotle declared that textual transmutation accelerates over time, and that its rate depends on the length of the manuscript. No one questioned this doctrine until after Gutenberg, when it was found that even moveable type metamorphosed on its racks. Galileo Galilei was the first to test Aristotle’s assertion by rigorous experiment, creating multiple copies of manuscripts of various length, as well as printed books, and examining them against correctors’ copies repeatedly over a period of a decade. He determined, first, that all texts transmute at the same rate, roughly one word out of every fifty in a year; second, that this rate does not change with time; and third, that all changes are what he called “sensible,” meaning that they fit logically within the framework of the larger document and do not betray themselves by presenting apparent gibberish. Indeed, it was his assertion that the Holy Bible would be no less prone to sensible transmutation than secular texts that eventually led to his censure and permanent house arrest.
But it was Isaac Newton who demonstrated that textual transmutation was an inherent property of writing itself, devising his three Laws of Impermanence and describing mathematically the forces that make them inevitable.
Melissa, the young widow, spoke up for the first time. “Where does that leave us?”
“It’d damned well better leave us somewhere,” said Ethan. “Because I can’t imagine a more outrageous screw-up. Mis-filed? A will? And nobody caught it for a quarter-century? How big is your malpractice insurance policy?”
Amita looked around at them. “You are perfectly right to be angry. The error was unforgivable, and I don’t expect you to forgive it. However, we do have options. Although it’s rare, unexpected transmutation of a will has occasionally happened before. Broadly, there are three routes we might pursue: first—and this is the most desirable—if all the potential heirs and devisees agree on the terms of the missing will, then the court is empowered to enforce those terms. This won’t work, however, if someone disputes the terms and presents testimony or other evidence to support their objection.”
Amita saw a look pass between Leah and Ethan; neither of them looked at Melissa, who bit her lip.
Amita continued, “Second, if it’s clear that a will existed and that it wasn’t destroyed by the testator, then the will can be reconstructed if there is clear and convincing evidence of its terms.”
“What sort of evidence?” asked Leah.
“The memories of people who were present when the will was made, witnesses who signed the originals or who were told things by the testator suggesting the contents of the will, terms that were in previous wills that were replaced by this one, terms appearing on whatever transmuted drafts exist. Obviously this is the most difficult course, although in some cases it goes smoothly.
“If neither of the previous options works, because the parties can’t agree on the terms and there’s insufficient evidence to prove them, then the deceased is treated as if he had died intestate, which means that the assets will ultimately be distributed to his heirs at law.”
“Who are his heirs at law?” asked Leah.
“Well,” said Amita. “Since Jacob was married when he died, under the laws of intestate succession, his wife, Melissa, is his heir.”
“His only heir?” asked Ethan.
“Yes,” said Amita. She did not add what they all certainly knew: that a will made 25 years ago, while Ethan’s and Leah’s mother was still alive, would contain no provision at all for Melissa. “Of course that is our last resort, since we do know that he made a will, and therefore intended his estate to be settled otherwise than by intestate succession.”
“And that we lack a will only because of your carelessness,” said Ethan. Amita decided not to respond to that remark.
Newton’s Laws of Impermanence could not account for the fact that no one had ever actually seen a textual transmutation in progress. Indeed, it was always known that an observed piece of text did not change and could be prevented from doing so by uninterrupted vigilance. Various theories were developed for why this should be true; Rutherford and Michelson conducted separate experiments in which it was shown not only that the transmutation did not take place under observation, but that the Galilean rate of transmutation commenced with the end of the latest observation, rather than the completion of the text.
It was finally Werner Heisenberg who demonstrated that no such observation was possible. He proved that, at the moment of transmutation, the original and altered states of the document exist only in terms of probabilities, and that the act of observation has the effect of reducing those probabilities to certainty. “No document,” he famously remarked. “Is ever in the process of transmutation. It is either in one state or another; transitional states are an artifact of human expectation and not borne out by the evidence.” This observation had lasting effects on both physics and popular culture.
November 15, 1927
I’m writing this note on a bad day; I’m going to put it someplace it won’t be stolen. I don’t know whether I want you to read it; I’d rather tell you in person. But things are awful, and I don’t know what may happen, so I think I’d better get it all down.
I’m very worried: this business with Philip is killing me. He’s said terrible things since the divorce; I wanted to tell someone, but what good would it do? He’s been harmless; he’s not the one I should be afraid of.
Now everything’s worse. One of my neighbors described a man who reminded me of Philip—just a few details—and my fears and self-doubt have started up all over again. I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Maybe I should get away, leave the island altogether. But if I can’t hide from the worst, if you see this after I die, then I tell you: morally, Philip is responsible for my death.
I hope you’ll find this where I put it, in the inlaid wood box.
Leah said to Amita, “I think it’s really important that we enforce Dad’s wishes, whatever they were. I mean, if we came up with our own agreement, we wouldn’t be honoring his memory.”
Ethan shook his head. “I don’t agree. Dad’s not here, and much as we might want to honor him, the most important thing is to prevent conflict between all of us.” He motioned around the room. “If he wanted something that’s going to cause strife, then under the current circumstances that could mean, well, litigation, couldn’t it?” He directed that last question to Amita, but she had the feeling it was aimed at the widow.
Amita nodded. “Unfortunately disputes over inherited or bequeathed property can be the most long-lasting and acrimonious, because—forgive me for putting it this way—the conflict is often about personal relationships as much as it is about money. And speaking of money, you’d each probably need your own counsel if there were to be such a dispute. Naturally we will enforce your father’s will if we find out what it was, subject to the limitations of law. But if we’re uncertain about that and have to piece it together, then an agreement between you all is far preferable to anything else.”
“What do you mean, ‘subject to the limitations of law?’” asked Ethan.
“Well, this state enforces the spousal forced share: if a will does not bequeath at least half of the estate to the surviving spouse, then that amount is distributed to the spouse anyway, and the remainder of the assets paid according to the terms of the will.”
Ethan’s and Leah’s eyes widened in surprise, but Melissa’s expression didn’t change. She already knew, thought Amita.
Leah persisted. “But—look: legacy and inheritance is a really important thing in our family. Our grandmother died when our father was only a child, and our grandfather Philip had to raise him alone. Dad never got to know his mother’s wishes for his life, and neither did we. Our grandfather died when we were all small children, so we didn’t really know him either. It’s like we’ve been cut off from the past our whole lives.”
“This is hardly the same thing,” said Ethan.
Melissa said quietly, “I don’t want any trouble, and I especially don’t want to argue with Jacob’s children, who have been very kind to me as a relative newcomer in the family.”
Amita said, “Let me suggest the following: it’s possible that Jacob left behind some other documents or records that might allow us to piece together what was supposed to be in the will. It’s even possible that he wrote an entirely new will, which wouldn’t be surprising after a second marriage. Why don’t you all scour the house, his place of business, anywhere else he might have stored things, to find those records?”
“But won’t they have transmuted as well?” asked Melissa.
“Certainly,” said Amita. “But if we can compare his notes to both of the existing transmuted wills, we might be able to do a parallax interpretation that would let us determine, to a much higher degree of certainty, what those intentions were. That would simplify things.”
They agreed to try.
After the Council of Nicaea, the integrity of the Gospels, the Letters and Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation of John were maintained by the Order of Saint Lucius of Athens in the Hall of Memory in Rome. The holy scriptures were laid out in great open scrolls, or in individual pages, throughout the Hall of Memory. A Lucian monk stood continually before each of these pages, maintaining vigil so that it could not mutate. The watch changed at matins, prime, sext, and vespers, daily. Over time, the monks assigned to care for each page committed it to memory, so that, in case of an interruption in the vigil (as occurred during invasions of Rome or other dislocations of the Holy See), they could correct such small transmutations as would occur during that time.
Priests and monks outside of Rome also made a practice of rereading their Bibles frequently to preserve the purity of the Word, but they could not do it frequently enough to prevent all changes. Therefore, once every five years, fresh copies of the scriptures were sent by the Holy See to the far corners of Christendom, to correct such corruptions as were naturally wrought by time. Of course, transportation of these approved Bibles would often be delayed by weather, roads, or pestilence, so that the blessed text might not reach a far diocese for a year or even two. The courier was obliged to take a Brother of Saint Lucius with him to peruse the book constantly, or else to make frequent stops in order to read the pages and retard their changes. If he failed to do so, as much as a tenth of the text would have been altered, and the congregation left with corrected Gospels that might be, in some ways, as badly corrupted as those they already had. Much consternation and spiritual torment arose when a new Consensus Version arrived in Scotland or India. Another strategy would be for one of the monks of Saint Lucius to visit a church and produce a new copy of the scriptures from memory.
It was Martin Luther who first declared that no priest had the authority to redact or correct the Gospels. Ultimately the Protestant faith and the doctrines of Sola Scriptura and the “priesthood of all believers” decreed that any three or four Christians could, from memory, at any time, correct transmutations as they occurred without the intervention of priests.
The followers of John Wesley, however, believed that the transmutations in texts were preordained by God, and so forbade the redaction or correction of the Bible. Each family thus had its own unique version of the scriptures, altered by the years and cherished as the special message of the Divine.
When the family returned to Amita’s office two weeks later, they had found new evidence of neither the original terms of Jacob’s original will nor a new one, and Amita hadn’t been able to turn up any witnesses who had records or recollections of it. But remarkably, they’d come to a consensus on how the estate should be distributed, and were willing to sign a joint petition (in quintuplicate, of course) memorializing that agreement.
Amita was surprised because of the tension she was sure she’d felt between the widow and the children from the prior marriage. But the terms were quite sensible: Melissa was to receive 60% of the estate, and Ethan and Leah would split the remainder between them. The estate was large enough that, with sufficient care in the stewardship of the assets, they could each live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
Those proportions told Amita’s experienced eye that there’d been some genuine negotiation. She knew better than to ask what had happened to put them in such happy accord, but apparently her poker face wasn’t very good today, because Ethan noticed it and smiled. “When we were looking through the attic and everything, we found a bunch of my grandparents’ old things.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Amita, not getting the point. “It’s like finding a treasure trove, isn’t it?”
Leah nodded. “We even found—well, we even found something my grandmother Shula wrote before her death. It was in this old inlaid box; it must have been up there for decades. I’m not sure it had ever been opened before, and it—” Her voice caught for a moment. “It told us things about the end of her life that we never knew before. It was this precious gift, this insight into our family’s past. And, well, it just seemed to us that we didn’t want to lose our history with each other.” She reached over and squeezed her stepmother’s hand. “There are so many families that get torn apart over money, and we just didn’t want that to happen to us.”
“I’m so glad,” said Amita. “I can have the paperwork ready for you in a week.”
In ancient times, authors took it for granted that the transmutation of their works would render them eventually unrecognizable from their original forms. Literature was regarded as a transient, momentary thing, to be savored in the brief time after which it was written. Only authors of serious philosophical, mathematical, or scientific treatises, persuaded that they were imparting significant and lasting wisdom to the world, made efforts to maintain the integrity of their originals. They would make multiple copies of each new work, then use those copies to correct each other.
Sometimes transmutations took on a canonicity of their own. Eighteenth-century productions of some of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, notably King Lear, used transmuted texts in which the endings were happier, as where Cordelia survived and married Edgar. Walt Whitman, who stacked copies of his oeuvre in a cupboard in his Camden home, released later editions of Leaves of Grass with his favorite transmutations left in, and turned to some of the more striking changes as inspirations for other works.
During the Romantic period, literary critics became fixated on the authenticity and purity of the one “true” version of a work that left the author’s pen. They held that, since the truth of the work was the truth of the author’s mind and soul, any change was a corruption, and only the first version mattered.
The Structuralists and the New Critics argued that changes in a text were irrelevant, since any literary work comprehensible by human beings would inevitably draw on the same universal icons and narratives and would consequently teach the same lessons on the human condition. Both Campbell’s theory of the “hero’s journey” and Frye’s work on the “green world” comedy stemmed from comparisons between multiple transmuted versions of particular texts and demonstrating the consistent similarities between them.
The Post-Structuralists, however, maintained that it was an error to privilege either the similarity between different versions or the primacy of any particular version. Derrida rejected the binarism between the “original” and “transmuted” texts, maintaining the pointlessness of looking for similarities between them.
By the late 20th century, some authors insisted on treating each transmuted version of their books as a separate work of authorship. In the United States, the Copyright Act of 1976 provided that an author’s original copyright in a work also pertained to transmuted versions whose text had not changed by more than 25% from the original, and that the author could claim ownership of more highly transmuted versions only by registering separate copyrights in them.
November 1, 1927
This is the worst day. I want to make sure you read this note, because I can’t bear to tell you face-to-face. Bad as things are, I know what’s going to happen, and I have to leave a record.
I haven’t been able to stand myself since the divorce with Philip. Everything he said about me was true, and there’s no one I can turn to. I ruined his life, and I’ve made a mess of my own. I haven’t told anyone; what would be the point? I’m the one I’m afraid of.
Today was the last straw. All my neighbor did was tell me something that made me think of Philip, and my self-loathing has come back with a vengeance. I can’t stand it anymore. I know what I’m going to do.
There is nowhere to run from myself, no island where I can hide. When you read this, please try to understand. Nobody is responsible for my death but me. I know how much pain this will cause you. Forgive me.
I’m sorry that you’ll have to find this and read it. I’m sorry it had to be in the beautiful inlaid box.
(Editors’ Note: Kenneth Schneyer is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2020 Kenneth Schneyer