02 May, 2007

Champion opening

I am loath to turn the Varieties into a stack of quotations, but this I could not resist. A while ago Steve Languagehat, citing a post at Crooked Timber, asked for readers' favourite openings to academic tomes. Nothing sprang to my mind at the time, but now. . . I have the indisputable champion. The following two sentences open Thomas Gilby's 1949 Barbara Celarent: A Description of Scholastic Dialectic
These pages were worked up in the Mediterranean between action stations in H. M. S. Renown, from rough notes all pulpy and partly indecipherable from the seas shipped when she was holed fighting but continuing to chase her two opposite numbers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in the Arctic Circle. In attempting this picture of the thomist dialectic it was not altogether a disadvantage that there was nothing else but a miniature Summa Theologica to consult and no fair certainty of ever going to press.
[Update 29/08/08: I come across this corker of snivelling modesty, opening W. R. Halliday's Greek Divination, 2nd ed. (1967): "To apologise too profoundly for the publication of a book is to insult the reader to whom it is offered, but at the same time I should like it to be clear, particularly as I have not hesitated to express my opinions with some downrightness, that no one is more conscious of the incompleteness and immaturities of this little essay than its author. The crudities which have been purged on reviewing it after two fallow years suggest the innumerable errors of judgment that may still remain."]

7 comments:

Language said...

Magnificent! It reminds me of Auerbach composing Mimesis in exile in Istanbul, far from any useful references. ("On the other hand it is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. It had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.") Perhaps all scholars should be left alone on desert islands to write; it might do them good. The internet is no substitute for a well-stocked mind.

John Cowan said...

Unfortunately, a well-stocked mind is no substitute for the Internet, either. It's amazing how many misquotations and bogus citations my well-stocked mind is stuffed with. In a few cases, I keep them, because I think they are better than the originals.

Language said...

Unfortunately, a well-stocked mind is no substitute for the Internet, either.

Well, yeah, but that hardly needs to be said these days. The danger is that people will think they don't need to actually learn anything, because they can just google it.

And the best thing I ever read about misquotations was by someone pointing out that a misquoter is someone who is actually citing from memory. Anyone can look it up in Bartlett's and get it right.

Pedro Eduardo said...

The one in M.L. West's abridgement of his Greek Metre is quite... unusual, too.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, Auerbach (and Bakhtin) sprang to my mind too. But holed up in a wartime city is one thing--holed up in an active warship is another!

"Perhaps all scholars should be left alone on desert islands to write"

It would take some of the burden off, at least...

"The danger is that people will think they don't need to actually learn anything, because they can just google it."

It is a danger, and one predicted by Plato's critique of writing in the Phaedrus--I'll bet someone's made that analogy before. The only difference is that now, written words can 'defend themselves'.

Lily Roth said...

Now, why aren't my tribulations exciting? "While I was holed up on my futon with a migraine..." just doesn't have the same ring to it...

Conrad H. Roth said...

"M. L. West's abridgement of his Greek Metre"

I just looked this up. It's not quite the first lines, and it's not quite Gilby, but:

"As a curiosity it may be mentioned that the work of abridgement was begun and finished in the sky--on the outward and return flights between London and Los Angeles, where I spent the early months of the year enjoying sunshine, seafood, and much else."