Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Devotion to the Dead Letter

Maurice de Guérin, Journal (February 6, 1833), tr. Edward Thornton Fisher:
I have spent ten years in the colleges, and I have come out, bringing, together with some scraps of Latin and Greek, an enormous mass of weariness. That is about the result of all college education in France. They put into the hands of young men the ancient authors; that is well. But do they teach them to know, to appreciate antiquity? Have they ever developed for them the relations of those magnificent literatures with the Nature, with the religious dogmas, the systems of philosophy, the fine arts, the civilizations ot the ancient nations? Has their intelligence ever been led by those beautiful links which bind all parts of the civilization of a people, and make of it a superb whole, all whose details touch, reflect, and mutually explain each other? What professor, reading Homer or Virgil to his pupils, has developed the poetry of the Iliad or the Aeneid by the poetry of Nature under the sky of Greece or Italy? Who has dreamed of annotating reciprocally the poets by the philosophers, the philosophers by the poets, the latter by the artists, Plato by Homer, Homer by Phidias? They isolate these great geniuses, they disjoint a literature, and they fling you its scattered limbs, without taking the trouble to tell you what place they occupy, what relations they mutually sustain in the great organization whence they have been detached.

Children take a special delight in cutting out the pictures which fall into their hands; they separate with great skill the figures one from the other; their scissors follow exactly all their outlines, and the group thus divided is portioned out among the little company, because each one wants an image. The labor of our professors bears no slight resemblance to that of the children; and an author, thus cut off from his surroundings, is as difficult to understand as the figure cut out by the children and separated from the grouping and the background of the picture. After that, need we be astonished that the studies are so empty, so insufficient? What can remain from a long devotion to the dead letter, stripped, as it were, of meaning, except disgust, and an almost entire hatred of study?

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