06 February, 2007


I am in an elevator, contemplating its algorithms, full of thoughts, like an internet crammed with wet poems and fishy analysis. I'm clutching books: a history of agnosticism, Gabriel Naudé's Advice on Establishing a Library, an Italian book on Plutarch that I can hardly read, and a modern paperback of Justus Lipsius' De Constantia, in the Stradling translation. There is a black man with me in the elevator, sharply dressed and boyish, with a wicked afro, in fact the spit and image of that guy from Veronica Mars, which my wife watches.

William Shakespeare? he asks hopefully.

— Er, what?

— The dude on the book, that's Shakespeare, right?

I tell him it's Justus Lipsius, a Flemish scholar. He tuts despondently. I feel like an ass. I want to tell him, Good guess, though. It was a good guess. Right period. Lipsius has a ruff and everything. And it might as well be Shakespeare, for all we know of the Bard's features.

Thus, worlds collide.


A few years ago I was sitting on the Tube on the way back from shopping. I'd just bought some new shoes, and I was going home to bed. This was at around ten in the morning. As usual, I was reading. In this case it was an Edwardian edition of Reynard the Fox, in Caxton's version, with Kaulbach's illustrations, printed with the Stallybrass' translation of the Physiologus. I remember enjoying it. I kept waiting for the annoying moral to spoil the old-fashioned sadistic fun, but it never came. The moral of the book seemed to be, Screw everyone over and you'll succeed. That's my kind of moral.

Anyway, I was reading this arcane edition of this rather arcane mediaeval book, and I looked up, and suddenly I realised that the literary world in which I was immersed bore no relation to the one around me. It wasn't just that it was old. If I'd been reading Hamlet there might have been one or two people in the carriage who could relate. Sometimes you see pretty UCL or Goldsmith's girls reading Eliot and the like. Vergil, Beowulf, Chaucer, fine. But Reynard the Fox? At that moment I felt trapped, as if in a bubble or cocoon. I was overcome with the utter irrelevance of my intellectual life. I think this feeling accounts for the popularity of writers like Baudrillard and Žižek, who make theory of the real world, and who make irrelevant books seem like part of it. So many intellectuals need some assurance that it matters.

My friend M. has quit academia, at least for now, because he 'can't justify it'. He wants to make a real-world difference. I suggested he join MSF, but apparently he doesn't want to get killed for it. I tell him that I have resigned myself to a career of glittering uselessness. We joke about Blair interrupting Commons proceedings to announce the completion of my Plutarch thesis.

On good days I am at peace with all this.


Simon Holloway said...

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine not so long ago: she is presently doing a PhD in Egyptology but, unlike me, does not wish to become an academic. She feels (perhaps much like your friend) that scholars live in an ivory tower of sorts and that she is much better off working in "the real world", doing something "that counts".

I could not disagree more.

There are definately days on which I feel that my studies serve no purpose but to perpetuate themselves (after all, there is little that I can do with my learning other than make more of it for others to learn), but I tend to view things more hopefully than that. If you like, think of the fellow who makes funny T-shirts for a living.

It might sound like a banal example, but what good are funny T-shirts? I don't wear them, and neither do most of my friends. They don't make a positive difference in my world, or even any real difference at all. But that doesn't change the fact that they provide some people with entertainment and those people will provide the money that will support our clothing designer while he continues doing something that he enjoys.

This comment is already a bit long but I think that it all boils down to one simple question: do you enjoy (within yourself, and irrespective of what other people think) what you do? I think that we both know the answer to that, and I don't see any reason as to why somebody should ever feel guilty for having the extreme good fortune of being able to do something so very enjoyable.

Robert said...

I made a great friend at the Royal Armouries back in the 70's. An American, an expert on firearms “ancient” and an Academic if ever I have met one.

As part of the instruction of our young soldiers it was necessary to follow my Squadron Leader's command and do much of the donkey work for a big presentation of the Battle of Waterloo. This included the firing of the Brown Bess standard issue to Wellington's Army. My Academic American was a gem both in character and as a walking reference library. Wish I had kept up with him despite his merriment on seeing me wearing my “Mess Kit”.

Many of us have moments of self doubt, don't let them last too long. Your post of “My fair Lady” below is a gem. I will now read some more.


Siganus Sutor said...

Conrad, maybe you should take the stairs instead of the lift?

John Cowan said...

The last word on both you and the T-shirt man has already been written, thus:

I presumed to animadvert on his eulogy on Garrick, in his Lives of the Poets. 'You say, Sir, his death eclipsed the gaiety of nations.'

JOHNSON. 'I could not have said more nor less. It is the truth; Eclipsed, not extinguished; and his death did eclipse; it was like a storm.'

BOSWELL. 'But why nations? Did his gaiety extend farther than his own nation?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, some exaggeration must be allowed. Besides, nations may be said -- if we allow the Scotch to be a nation, and to have gaiety, -- which they have not. You are an exception, though. Come, gentlemen, let us candidly admit that there is one Scotchman who is cheerful.'

BEAUCLERK. 'But he is a very unnatural Scotchman.'

I, however, continued to think the compliment to Garrick hyperbolically untrue. His acting had ceased some time before his death; at any rate he had acted in Ireland but a short time, at an early period of his life, and never in Scotland. I objected also to what appears an anticlimax of praise, when contrasted with the preceding panegyrick, -- 'and diminished the public stock of harmless pleasure!' -- 'Is not harmless pleasure very tame?'

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, harmless pleasure is the highest praise. Pleasure is a word of dubious import; pleasure is in general dangerous, and pernicious to virtue; to be able therefore to furnish pleasure that is harmless, pleasure pure and unalloyed, is as great a power as man can possess.'

This was, perhaps, as ingenious a defence as could be made; still, however, I was not satisfied.

--Life of Johnson, XXX

Proserpine said...

"I have resigned myself to a career of glittering uselessness ..."

How glorious! Long may you glitter, Conrad!

Or would you contemplate a career in civil engineering or social work? To quote an un-unreligious example "They also serve, who only stand and wait . . ."

language said...

I came to terms decades ago with the fact that I was attracted almost entirely to the useless. When I was in Japan, I studied Latin and French; when in Argentina, Russian; when in Taiwan, where they speak Mandarin and Fukienese, Cantonese. When I was a math major I was interested only in the varieties of mathematics with no real-world applications; I left the department because they kept wanting me to take more calculus. I went to grad school to study Indo-European historical linguistics, than which there is nothing more useless. And I wrote poetry. O reason not the need!

Siganus Sutor said...

Languagehat: When I was a math major...

A math major? You mean that you were the best student in the math class? Wow! if it's the case I'd be left flabbergasted.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sutor, what LH means is that he had been recently promoted from math captain.

Anyway, thanks, friends. Good fortune, like it or not, does make lesser souls feel guilty, and they call it 'privilege', sheepishly; I try to avoid the compunction. I fear my talents would only be wasted at civil engineering, etc. Now advertising on the other hand...!

Robert, welcome. Thank you for your kind comments, and I hope you stick around.

Raminagrobis said...

The only advice I can offer is this: fay ce que vouldras, be a good pantagruelist (which is to say vivre en paix, joye, santé, faisans tousjours grande chere), and above all else ne vous fiez jamais en gens qui regardent par un pertuys.

Pedro Eduardo said...

This blog has more montaignean qualities than you might suspect. There is not a post here on the ''life of reading'' that has not plucked a string of sympathy here. And that doesn't happen very often, if at all.

p.s.: i belive i forgot to answer your answer to the questions about athenaze, reading greek etc. thanks for the advice, i'm going to plato by the middle of the year (hardcore drills)

Herr Ziffer said...

Albert Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man made a virtue out of doing useless work, and I was always very impressed with it. I personally wish I had more worthless things to do. Instead I have a job where I build software that people use in hospitals. It is useful, in a sense, but I still find it somewhat dull. My time is rarely my own; I come to work on a schedule; put in my time in front of a computer monitor; wait for performance reviews at the end of the year. The one bright point is that the work is a bit like coming in each day and solving various puzzles -- thus ressembling a useless and self-indulgent task, and making me happy.

I'm not sure there are really many jobs out there that really "count". I've never particularly understood the sexual revolution and the desire of women to go out into the world and do "real" things. Why would anyone want to do what I do for a living? Though equality, of course, is a good thing -- I just don't understand that particular justification involving "real" work.

The two elements that may make a certain job seem real, and that make academia seem quite the opposite, are public recognition and money. Think of all those French philosophers who made their reputations and then came to do a few semesters at schools like UC Irvine for the money. I wonder if they felt somehow that they didn't count until they were finally able to cash in.

Or maybe they came for the Southern California weather. It is rather pleasant.

The only other kind of job that I know of which I consider "real" is being a Pennsylvania coal miner. Apparently there is a shortage of them now, and they are taking applications. But that seems like just too too much reality for me.

Lily Roth said...

Ah, but my dearest Conrad, at least you will be glittering.

Siganus Sutor said...

I fear my talents would only be wasted at civil engineering, etc.

I suppose it's the (major*) type of humour some call “British”...

And I'm left wondering whether this piece is also part of the joke: “wet poems and fishy analysis”...
* further up I should probably have put major in italic, since it was also an allusion to what is called a “major de promo”, the student ranked number one in a given “promotion” (i.e. all those who are in the same academic year in a so-called Grande École).

Erik said...

Nice to hear about two products from the Netherlands: a book by Lipsius and the fable "Vanden Vos Reynaerde" allegedly stemming from Flemish soil.
Less nice to hear that this fox has nothing to do with the world around us. His morals are applied everywhere. Maybe it was more the mood you were in, the conditions around your reading activity (not a quiet armchair), that gave you after reading a kind of shock, like awakening from a dream. Maybe you could also have told the man in the lift about Lipsius. You noticed despondency, but wasn’t it rather a feeling of shame that he didn’t recognise him as the famous Lipsius? I don’t see how Livius or Vergil have more to do with our world. No, people like Walt Disney, they are the real disguisers of reality. And don’t forget all those videogames and online games that distract our children from what they are ought to do to keep in touch with the world.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm delighted at the chord this seems to have struck with people. Thanks for all the comments; needless to say, much in agreement.

Erik, you are quite right that Renardian morals are everywhere in evidence; still, the book's very history seemed (and still seems) quite otherworldly.