17 June, 2006

. . . erratic, erotic, erotetic, aretaic, oratoric

Not much has happened today, and yet things are still a little different. Mrs. Roth, for whom my love is at a zenith, told me of a long dream featuring the Tsar and Tsarina, a stately theatre, and the drowning of a bomb-wrapped pug. Old friends have been in touch. In the white noise of the fan I hear continually the indefinite roar of fans at the German stadia; they haunt me. There's no port left, and with the gas out I can't bathe, but at least there is still a little stilton to go in the tagliatelle. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.

I squabble with my elders that evaluation has no rôle in literary scholarship, and I get called a positivist. (I quote a line from a paper I wrote once, about how the Phaedrus might be described as 'Attic, erratic, erotic, erotetic, aretaic, and oratoric', which is probably the wittiest thing I'll ever come out with, and I get called 'clever in the perjorative sense'. It's not a bad description of life itself, though.) The core problem raised by the debate is: how to justify research, or even thought, in humanist subjects, ones which can't easily fit a criterion of falsifiability. John Emerson, one of those casual polymaths littering the internet, doesn't provide much in the way of argument, but you can smell the desperation in his writing. One can't help but sympathise for the poor sod. We're all in the same boat, passionately in love with culture, but deep down a little anxious, a little insecure, that it's all a waste of time and government money, perhaps even the idle luxury of an uncontributing bourgeoisie. Whatever. It's great fun!

No, we can do better. At the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant observed that in 2,000 years, despite all the advances in the natural sciences, metaphysics had barely moved an inch. There were no conclusions that everyone agreed on, because nobody was quite sure what kind of knowledge was valid. The same is true in literary studies. If we insist, as is so tempting, that the study of literature is a group effort directed towards the accumulation of knowledge—if we see scientific research as the paradigm of study—then, as John observes, we run the risk of making the humanities into a second-rate science. The fear of this outcome has led so many great critics (eg. Leavis, Frye) to scrabble desperately for some autonomy of literature in the world, some way in which literature isn't like other things. On the other hand, I prefer to see scholarship and study in the humanities not as the quest for a goal, but as a process, an aimless activity—an energeia, not an ergon, as Humboldt said of language—purely something with which to occupy oneself, a career for some, a hobby for others. It is the process of basking in the creativity of others as a means of staving off death. Thus we pray no conclusions or consensus will ever be reached, not even the glimpse of an agreement. Thank heaven for the Folio and Quarto, a deliciously insoluble and wavicular ambiguity! The activity of basking remains, as it stands, an activity like knocking footballs around in the park on a Sunday, or the activity of lovemaking, a pleasant adjunct to the daily routine. But the best we can do, I think, is to incorporate this study into the more general activity of life itself, to acquire a literature of our own. The study of creativity, with this in mind, becomes itself a creativity, a breathing and exhaling of words and of thought, sustaining light, even in the grey dark of an unremitting existence.


Richard said...

"I prefer to see scholarship and study in the humanities not as the quest for a goal, but as a process, an aimless activity—an energeia, not an ergon, as Humboldt said of language—purely something with which to occupy oneself, a career for some, a hobby for others. "

Well this was the model for literary study was hundreds of years prior to the twentieth centuey.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes; here is my perfect life, from Wikipedia's article on George Steevens:

"Leaving the university without a degree, he settled in chambers in the Inner Temple, moving later to a house on Hampstead Heath, where he collected a valuable library, rich in Elizabethan literature. He also accumulated a large collection of Hogarth prints, and his notes on the subject were incorporated in John Nichols's Genuine Works of Hogarth.

He walked from Hampstead to London every morning before seven o'clock, discussed Shakespearian questions with his friend, Isaac Reed, and, after making his daily round of the booksellers shops, returned to Hampstead."

Gawain said...

Gee, that reminds me of someone's life... I can't figure who? :)

Btw, your idea (quoted by richard above) is alright: there is no need for all sciences to be structured the same way -- in fact, i argue myself that aesthetics cannot be done like logic or ethics. but is there no need for some sort of standards for good literary study? there is so much schlock out there and the various university presses are really not doing their job keeping the garbage out of library and in the circular file where it belongs! (same is true of the evaporations of the various art departments).

Richard said...

I have always harboured an ambition to be Des Esseintes when I grow up...