Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Mr. Fiske

George Santayana, Persons and Places (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944), chapter X (The Latin School):
I was an unprofitable though not unappreciative pupil to Mr. Fiske, because I didn't learn my Greek properly. That was not his fault. If I could have had him for a private tutor I should have become a good Grecian; it would have added immensely to my life and to my philosophy. But I was only one of forty; I was expected to study dryly, mechanically, without the side-lights and the stimulus of non-verbal interest attached to the words .... I didn't study enough. I learned and remembered well what I could learn from Mr. Fiske without studying. He was an exceedingly nervous, shy man; evidently suffered at having to address any one, or having to find words in which to express his feelings. His whole body would become tense, he would stand almost on tiptoe, with two or three fingers in the side pocket of his trousers, and the other two or three moving outside, as if reaching for the next word. These extreme mannerisms occasioned no ridicule; the boys all knew that there was a clear mind and a goodwill behind them; and Mr. Fiske was universally liked and admired. This, although his language was as contorted as his gestures. He always seemed to be translating literally and laboriously from the Greek or the German. When he wished to fix in our minds the meaning of a Greek word he would say, for instance: "χαράδρα, a ravine, from which our word character, the deeply graven result of long-continued habit." Or "καταρρέω, to flow down, whence our word catarrh, copious down-flowings from the upper regions of the head." We didn't laugh, and we remembered.
Who was Mr. Fiske? According to the index of Persons and Places, he was George Alfred Fiske. But Santayana says he later became headmaster, and a history of Boston Latin School on the World Wide Web says:
Arthur Irving Fiske became Head Master in 1902. One of the ablest scholars in Massachusetts, he was loved and respected by his pupils.
Mr. Fiske's remark on χαράδρα (or Santayana's recollection of it) is a little misleading, because χαρακτήρ doesn't come from χαράδρα. Both have a common origin in χαράσσω, to cut into furrows, to furrow, scratch.

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