Wednesday, January 28, 2015
A Phalanx of Inferior Minds
May the Muses forgive me if I seem ungrateful to that race of scholars who have given us access to the literature of Greece and Rome. When I am cross with them, the child scratches his nurse. For where should I have been without the protection and the solicitude of these great drudges who have been at work over my education for centuries? Nevertheless, there is something in a child, when he scratches his nurse, that is justified. She annoys him by her fussiness: she straightens his bib, corrects his manners, rules him in the bathtub, and bothers him with external attention. Is it not in spite of the attentions of the nurse that the inner, baffled, struggling spirit of the child comes into its own?At the risk of annoying by fussiness, I would correct Wilamouwitz Mollendorff to Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.
Literature is for our immediate happiness and for the awakening of more literature; and the life of it lies in the very seed and kernel of the grain. Footnotes and critical information attack the creative instinct. The spirit is daunted, the tongue tied by them. Many a lad has known less about Shakespeare after a college course on Shakespeare than he did when the only phrase he knew was 'Aroint thee, witch'—and he didn't know where that came from. Now he can write the etymology of the words on an examination paper; but the witch herself has vanished. Information is the enemy to poetry. If the old Greeks had known as much about Achilles as we do, the Iliad would never have been written. There was a certain professor at one of our colleges who for many years made it a practice to read aloud to his classes bits from the old English classics. In this way he gave the boys a taste for letters. Speaking of this man, William James once said to me, 'Oh, the authorities will never make X a full professor, because he doesn't know the critical stuff; yet X has done more for the cultivation of the Harvard boys than all the rest of us put together.'
The Nineteenth Century has left a hedge of critical literature about every writer of antiquity. By the time a student has bored his way through the treatises, he is old, and he is dull. He cannot taste the honey, for he has exhausted himself in cutting down the tree. Let us climb and sip. Three generations of modern scholars have befogged and begoggled their wits over Æschylus and Horace. Let us never read the learning of these investigators. Let us be ignorant, nimble, and enthusiastic. Let us never drink of that cup of delusion, critical knowledge. A scholar reads the books of other scholars, lest he shall say something that shows ignorance. Conscience and professional ambition keep him at it. He dare not miss a trick; just as the social climber dare not miss a party. Jaded and surfeited, both scholar and climber accept the servitude. They must know all these dull people, because these dull people are in the game that they are playing. Thus, one result of scholars and scholarship is to interpose a phalanx of inferior minds between the young intelligence and the great wits of the past. Must the novice read those forty pages of Wilamouwitz Mollendorff which cover each dialogue of Plato like the grease on a Strasbourg pâté?
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.