Friday, September 07, 2012


Aimless Incursions into Knowledge

Norman Douglas (1868-1952), South Wind (1917; rpt. London: Secker & Warburg, 1947), pp. 107-108 (Chapter XIII):
Keith was a pertinacious and omnivorous student; he sought knowledge not for a set purpose but because nothing was without interest for him. He took all learning to his province. He read for the pleasure of knowing what he did not know before; his mind was unusually receptive because, he said, he respected the laws which governed his body. Facts were his prey. He threw himself into them with a kind of piratical ardour; took them by the throat, wallowed in them, worried them like a terrier, and finally assimilated them. They gave him food for what he liked best on earth: 'disinterested thought'. They 'formed a rich loam'. He had an encyclopædic turn of mind; his head, as somebody once remarked, was a lumber-room of useless information. He could tell you how many public baths existed in Geneva in pre-Reformation days, what was the colour of Mehemet Ali's whiskers, why the manuscript of Virgil's friend Gallus had not been handed down to posterity, and in what year, and what month, the decimal system was introduced into Finland. Such aimless incursions into knowledge were a puzzle to his friends, but not to himself. They helped him to build up a harmonious scheme of life—to round himself off.
This reminds me of John Donne's phrase: "the worst voluptuousness, an hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages."

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