Sunday, January 17, 2010


Vistas of Intellectual Despair

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, XVI:
I have been dull to-day, haunted by the thought of how much there is that I would fain know, and how little I can hope to learn. The scope of knowledge has become so vast. I put aside nearly all physical investigation; to me it is naught, or only, at moments, a matter of idle curiosity. This would seem to be a considerable clearing of the field; but it leaves what is practically the infinite. To run over a list of only my favourite subjects, those to which, all my life long, I have more or less applied myself, studies which hold in my mind the place of hobbies, is to open vistas of intellectual despair. In an old note-book I jotted down such a list—"things I hope to know, and to know well." I was then four and twenty. Reading it with the eyes of fifty-four, I must needs laugh. There appear such modest items as "The history of the Christian Church up to the Reformation"—"all Greek poetry"—"The field of Mediaeval Romance"—"German literature from Lessing to Heine"—"Dante!" Not one of these shall I ever "know, and know well"; not any one of them. Yet here I am buying books which lead me into endless paths of new temptation. What have I to do with Egypt? Yet I have been beguiled by Flinders Petrie and by Maspero. How can I pretend to meddle with the ancient geography of Asia Minor? Yet here have I bought Prof. Ramsay's astonishing book, and have even read with a sort of troubled enjoyment a good many pages of it; troubled, because I have but to reflect a moment, and I see that all this kind of thing is mere futile effort of the intellect when the time for serious intellectual effort is over.

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