Saturday, May 07, 2016


The Well-Read Man

D.S. Carne-Ross (1921-2010), "Scenario for a New Year," Arion 8.2 (Summer, 1969) 171-287 (at 177-178):
The "well-read man" is not much in demand (unless he is famous) and has indeed become rather a figure of fun. Professors of literature tend to regard him as a mere dilettante; scientists are likely to look down on him as a humanistic snob—for if they, by his standards, are illiterate, he is certainly innumerate by theirs. He gets even shorter shrift from activist students who incline to see a life spent in the imagined world of books as a betrayal of the real world that calls so urgently for attention.
Id., p. 178:
How much of the literature honored in college syllabuses is still really read—as distinct from being studied (and then forgotten?) in order to get a degree?
Id., pp. 178-179:
Perhaps some responsible journal should publish a questionnaire listing fifty or so authors from different times and places and invite the reader to enter in the box beside each name the appropriate symbol: A ( "I know his work well" ), B ( "I look into him now and then"), C ("I mean to read him one day"), D ("Haven't read him and don't intend to") or, all else failing, E ("Never heard of him").
Id., p. 187:
Italian (and not only Italian) suffers from the techniques of language instruction now in fashion. Unlike French and Spanish, Italian is not an international language and the ability to speak it is useful only in Italy. Its primary value is as an instrument of culture, which means that what is needed is a fluent reading knowledge. This is not best attained by the current teaching methods, with their stress on "speaking skills" and their avoidance of what used to be called grammar. Many of the Italian writers most worth attention use a formal, often archaic language far removed from the sapless koiné of the textbooks and tapes and a student can waste two years on them only to discover, when finally he comes face to face with a knotty page of Machiavelli, that he has not been taught what he needed.
Id., p. 192:
The academic belief that all disciplines are equally valuable, provided they are conducted in accordance with the rules, is of questionable merit. If one truly believes in one's subject, one ought to think it superior to other subjects. The Grecian should believe, and publicly maintain, that Greek literature is simply better than (for instance) French.
Id., p. 200:
For the scholar, value resides in the rigor and purity of the methods employed and in the objective concern for truth that governs them. What you work on does not greatly matter: provided you work in the right way. Housman's labors to establish an exemplary text of Manilius, an author he despised, is the all too "classical" monument to these beliefs. I do not want to get caught up in an argument about the irrelevance of scholarship to our time of troubles. We need some scholars and will continue to need them. They have their place. But they cannot be allowed to set the standard for the whole humanistic enterprise. Though we may honor their professed dedication to disinterested knowledge, it belongs to an age in which the sum of things was felt to be secure. To devote several years to a subject for which one does not even claim much general importance or to setting up some quite minor text—this, at a time when the future of literacy is in question, may in its way be heroic: heroic, but not serious, to adapt the Austrian mot.* If the substance of humane culture is to survive, it will not be scholarship that saves it, and if the universities survive as centers of humane learning, it will be because they come to recognize that their task is not to train scholars but to educate men.

* American scholars like on the whole to pretend that their work is serious, whatever the evidence to the contrary. I recall a young English classicist on a visiting appointment here causing mild scandal when he described his main interest as "tinkering with the text of Seneca." You are not, in this country, supposed to let the cat out of the bag so nonchalantly.
Id., p. 206:
Modern society cannot get on without scientists and technologists; the social scientists are taking care that it will not be able to do without them. But it could manage very well without us. Who would even notice that no one was any longer talking about Plato's theory of art or Baudelaire's debt to Swedenborg? And our position is weakened from the inside by the fact that we do not really believe in what we are doing or know why we are doing it. If society one day pointed an accusing finger and said, "You cost a lot of money. What use are you?" I doubt that our collective answer would convince even us.
Id., pp. 227-228:
The arts teach us to be discontent with this "world we live in"—though not of course in the sense (or the non-sense) of directing our attention to some "other world," for they are autochthonous and belong here. They remind us that we have no gods, no sanctities of place, no valid ceremonies to mark the seasons of the year and the stations of our lives, and scarcely any more the innocent realm of natural creatures and forms. We call those who have less food and less gadgets then we do "underprivileged." We ourselves are the least privileged of men; yet, but for the arts, we would not even know it.

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