01 March, 2006


"But I have worked it, worked it out," I once heard a lass of twenty continually repeating. "If I read all the books I am supposed to read I shall be 187 years old before I. . . 187. . ." The rest of the sentence was broken.

[Footnote: "And what about Bandello?" I actually replied, with a grim smile, because we must suppose she was supposed to read the Italian Sources and the Sources of the Sources too.]
This passage, from Stephen Potter's classic One-Upmanship (1952), demonstrates the rich possibilities of academia as game-playing. Potter illuminates many specialised aspects of academic one-upmanship, including gobbetship, the judicious employment of quotations real or imaginary at appropriate times, and well-readship, or how to know a book without really reading it. Compare this, from Martin West's textbook, Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique:
I had by then read the greater part of Aristophanes, and I began to rave about it to [Friedrich] Leo, and to wax eloquent on the magic of this poetry, the beauty of the choral odes, and so on and so forth. Leo let me have my say, perhaps ten minutes in all, without showing any sign of disapproval or impatience. When I was finished, he asked: "In which edition do you read Aristophanes?" I thought: has he not been listening? What has his question got to do with what I have been telling him? After a moment's ruffled hesitation I answered: "The Teubner". Leo: "Oh, you read Aristophanes without a critical apparatus." He said it quite calmly, without any sharpness, without a whiff of sarcasm, just sincerely taken aback that it was possible for a tolerably intelligent young man to do such a thing. I looked at the lawn nearby and had a single, overwhelming sensation: νυν μοι χάνοι ευρεια χθων. Later it seemed to me that in that moment I had understood the meaning of real scholarship.
I trust the reader to understand that translating the Greek here would fundamentally violate the spirit of this post. Speaking is a young Eduard Fraenkel, a great classicist of the early twentieth century, notorious for writing a two-part review of the 'Harvard Servius' so monumentally scathing that the new edition promptly ceased production halfway through. In the present passage, Fraenkel himself has just been one-upped beautifully. See, these old folks knew the essential comedy of their situation: it was a battle of wills against wonts fiercer and funnier than any clash of spears or swords.

And the game and the battle are curiously close. Huizinga makes some suggestive comments in his fashionable history of play, Homo Ludens (1939-44), comparing the two ritual situations; he mentions diverse phenomena, from the mortal jouissance of Abner and Joab (II Samuel 2.14) to duels and challenge-exchanges among First World War airmen. We recall the soccer of boche and tommy in the Christmas trenches, too.

Precious little real violence in the journals today, alas; in a recent issue of Romance Notes, Marchand and Baldwin complain like total wimps of scholarly malfeasance by a rival philologist, Yakov Malkiel, who mocked their gaucherie. In contrast, Arthur Kennedy observes (in Hardin Craig, ed. Stanford Studies in Language and Literature) that among the Victorians, academic philology was a byword for vicious, undignified argument, red in tooth and claw—Oxbridge Anglo-Saxonists, Whig scholars infatuated with Continental linguistics, the fight for the inchoate OED, the specter of Webster's reformed spelling, the Queen's English vs. English wot is spoke, and the blood feud between Max Müller and William Dwight Whitney over Sanskrit and linguistic metaphor—these people still had a spark in their pens and hearts. No longer. There's not enough at stake!

So battle has died down, and so has the game. That word, game, meant the coming together of men (ga-, together + man), and to play was to pledge, to invest oneself in a situation; no wonder the mid-century socialist avant-garde became so enamoured of the idea, from Huizinga's study to the Surrealist 'exquisite corpse' to Bakhtin's 'carnivalesque' to Derrida's 'free play with signs' to Wittgenstein's language-games to Hesse's Glass Bead Game (1931-45). For these writers, the notion of play was a means to transcend political, social, linguistic tyranny, an escape from the dictatorship of Enlightenment Reason, where each man remains an island. Our humanists are no longer so invested in their situation, I think. It is now de rigueur to praise a scholar's erudition and generosity of wisdom; but without the smart snide correctives of play and battle, without the threat of being one-upped, without the contest, that joyous and accepting refusal which might align the academic enterprise with the heroism of engaged life, such erudition amounts to very little.


John Cowan said...

Your etymology for game is formally correct, but it's worth bearing in mind that mann means primarily 'person' in Old English, and if it also means 'man', that is because the personhood of women tended to be disregarded as a matter of culture rather than language as such.

I simply don't believe, though, despite the formal identity, that PGmc *plegan unified 'play, enjoy' and 'take responsibility for' into a single sense. I think what we have here is plain old homonymy. (The difference in form is because pledge made its way into Modern English through French, whereas play is a direct descendant.)

Conrad H. Roth said...

We occultists don't believe in plain old homonymy, John.