The devil, as they say, is in the details. If we want to understand what an artist was considering, conceptualizing, revising, or practically bleeding over during the arduous creative process—whether it’s a Picasso masterwork or a Lennon-McCartney standard or Melville’s Moby-Dick— it’s often helpful (if possible) to go back—into the margins, if you will—and excavate from those early drafts, side notes, manuscripts, and rough sketches, what was going on in their minds and imaginations during that precious moment of invention.
Therein lies the work of true genius, buried among the discarded fragments and shards of inspiration, amid the sweat and toil.
“The margin is the place where commentary can resume, where an earlier version can be looked at from a distance, as if framed by this latest reading, which itself immediately becomes writing, addition, the liveliness of words,” writes Jacques Neefs in his May 2012 essay titled “Margins” for Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry. “On the annotated printed page, the ‘stuff of additions’ sits on the sidelines, a text laid down and waiting for its incorporation into the typographical continuity.”
Neefs, the James M. Beall Professor in French Literature and director of the French section of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Krieger School, has dwelt within the margins for decades. Formerly a professor at the University of Paris, he has long been one of the leading lights of the French literary criticism movement known as la critique génétique, or genetic criticism. In particular, Neefs and his team of literary sleuths at the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes in Paris’ Latin Quarter spend their days and nights closely examining the manuscripts, notes, drafts, and marginalia of such 19th- and 20th-century geniuses as Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Zola, and Nietzsche.