Sunday, December 10, 2017


A Pejorative Term

Wendell Clausen (1923-2006), "Philology," Comparative Literature Studies 27.1 (1990) 13-15 (at 13-14, ellipse marks in original):
Anyone who speaks about philology today must be aware that it has become, for many, a pejorative term, even a term of abuse; at the very least, an adverse relation seems to be implied: philology and ... literary criticism or theory. Such a contrast — I am thinking especially, though not exclusively, of Greek and Latin literature — is not only futile, it is subversive; for philology is the basis of literary criticism. Too often philology has been humbled and identified with one or another of its components — with grammar (say) or textual criticism — and its original high purpose forgotten, which is, as it has been since the time of the scholars and poet-scholars of Alexandria, literary criticism — in Quintilian's phrase, poetarum enarratio, the detailed interpretation of the poets.

We are all of us natural philologists, growing up in our language, hearing, speaking, for the most part hardly even noticing it, so natural does it seem. But in Greek or Latin, in attempting to hear a "dead" language, we are deprived of the living voice; and it is the office of philology to supply our want of natural sensibility.

At the end of World War II, in 1945, a short book was published in Sweden, Unpoetische Wörter by Bertil Axelson, the importance of which, partly owing to circumstances, was only gradually recognized. Axelson undertook to answer an apparently simple question — in fact, a brilliant negative question: what words metrically available to the Latin poets did they avoid using? Unpoetic words: words unsuitable, presumably because of tone or connotation, to a certain genre of poetry, to poetry of a certain period, or altogether unsuitable. I remember still my surprise and dismay on first reading Axelson as a young scholar; for I was made to realize that I was not, after all, as I had fondly imagined, a Roman. The philologist, the classical scholar, must always be contemplating an imagined reality, an Italy of the mind, with the broken statues standing on the shore.
Related post: Term of Abuse.

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