Preservation through Quotation: From Q to Doctor Who

Preservation through Quotation: From Q to Doctor Who July 13, 2016

When a clickbait title says that there are 30 things I never knew about The Force Awakens, or 9 outrageously awesome Doctor Who facts, I tend to be skeptical, but may well click through nonetheless.

It was genuinely new information for me that the footage of the Beatles appearing on Top of the Pops has been lost, except for the appearance of that footage in the classic Doctor Who episode “The Chase.”

My mind immediately turned to the many ancient examples of works that have been lost, except for quotations of those works in other works. The Prayer of Joseph is one particularly fascinating example. But there are many others, and it provides important context for our consideration of other matters. For the “Q” source to have been lost except as it is quoted in Matthew and Luke, for instance, would not be at all an anomaly.

Can you think of any other examples, ancient or more modern, in which something has been lost except for its quotation by others?

Do click the links in the first paragraph of this post, and see if any of the interesting facts about Star Wars or Doctor Who actually are interesting to you.

The Beatles Doctor Who


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  • John MacDonald

    Modern philosophical scholarship reveals that Aristotle’s “lost” works stray considerably in characterization from the surviving Aristotelian corpus. Whereas the lost works appear to have been originally written with an intent for subsequent publication, the surviving works do not appear to have been so. Rather the surviving works mostly resemble lecture notes unintended for publication.

  • sbh

    One of my favorite instances of a survival through–well, not exactly quotation in this instance, but still in the ballpark maybe–is the scene from Euripides’ Andromeda in which Andromeda, chained to a rock, laments her fate and receives only words from Echo in reply. It must have been striking, because Aristophanes a year later parodied it in a scene in which a main character takes on the part of Andromeda only to have Echo come in too often until the whole thing degenerates into a shouting match between them. By sheer luck the parody survives where the original is lost.

    Another type of sideways preservation occurs when a reply is extant but not the piece being replied to, as in the case of the letter of the Corinthians to Paul (to which 1 Corinthians is in part a reply). You can infer something of the shape of the original from examining the reply, but not necessarily any of the wording or even the concerns that prompted the inquiry.

    Many years ago, when Dr. Robinson was late to a class (as was his wont) the question went round the table of which lost document we would most like to see recovered (not counting Q, which was the subject of the class). The Corinthians’ letter to Paul was a favorite, along with Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans. Hegesippus got a vote, as I recall. My choice was Papias’ five-book work collecting traditions about Jesus from people who had known his followers. The handful of fragments from that one are fascinating, and I think what the living and abiding voice had to say in the second century would be well worth knowing. However.

    At some point during the past few years I had occasion to run down an alleged Benjamin Franklin quotation to the effect that lighthouses are more useful than churches (and no, he didn’t write that–it’s a bad paraphrase). The original turned out to be a letter Franklin wrote his wife about a harrowing voyage through a storm when the passengers expected any moment to end up shipwrecked, but in fact nothing happened. That letter is lost–but a fragment survives as a footnote in an early nineteeth-century biography of Franklin.

    Also from the nineteenth century–though this may not count as quotation–I’ve heard that the letters Bernard Shaw and Lewis Carroll wrote the actress Ellen Terry are lost, except insofar as they were published in collections of their letters.

    One example that I’ve had occasion to try to run down is Oliver Applegate’s Modoc History, which appears to survive only as quotations given by the historian H. H. Bancroft. He apparently didn’t own the manuscript, as it is not in the Bancroft library today, at any rate. I have some reason to think that it may have been extant in the mid-twentieth-century, because (much to my surprise) Rachel Applegate Swan appears to quote from it (though not by that title) in an unpublished manuscript in the possession of the Oregon Historical Society. (Hers and Bancroft’s quotations overlap.) The Applegate papers are voluminous and split among several institutions, so maybe it still exists in one of them–but at least for now quotations are all we seem to have.

    I guess I should have turned this into a blog entry, but accidents of literary preservation is a favorite topic of mine. The Elizabethan play that survives only as a list of scenes and properties needed for them, for example, or Robert Green’s Orlando Furioso, which exists only as the actor’s speeches for the main character, and as a debased and corrupted script possibly published surreptitiously. The nineteenth-century road shows and lectures that exist only as quotations by reviewers. Patrick Henry’s liberty-or-death speech that was reconstructed decades later by somebody who had been there and somehow remembered it.

    And finally I would note that the Beatles radio appearances on the BBC are in many case now lost except insofar as they were recorded and preserved by fans. I don’t know whether that qualifies as quotation, exactly, but it’s a reminder of how precarious the chain of transmission can be, even in comparatively modern settings.

    • Thanks for sharing all these thoughts and anecdotes! I think I would have opted for Papias’ five volumes, too…