Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Housman and the definition of a scholar

In his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture of 1911, published under the title The Confines of Criticism, A.E. Housman was concerned primarily with two common detriments to the true work of a scholar.

To Housman 'scholar' was really a technical term for a scientist whose provenance was literature, though he defined the term in Latin as vir bonus discendi peritus (a clever twist on Cato's definition of an orator: vir bonus dicendi peritus.)*

Scholars are afflicted by the twin serpents (not Housman's image) of emotion and method.

A scholar's emotional response to literature is no more valid than anyone else's, and he runs the risk of confusing aesthetic judgment with the pursuit of truth:

That a scholar should appreciate literature is good for his own pleasure and profit; but it is none of his business to communicate that appreciation to his audience. Appreciation of literature is just as likely to be found in his audience as in him, for it has no connection with scholarship. He has no right to presume that his own aesthetic perceptions are superior to those of anyone whom he addresses, or that in this respect he is better qualified to teach them than they to teach him.
And yet it is not only that scholars promote their own appreciation of literature, but that they are expected to while their colleagues are not:
The botanist and the astronomer have for their provinces two worlds of beauty and magnificence not inferior in their way to literature; but no one expects the botanist to throw up his hands and say 'how beautiful', nor the the astronomer to fall down flat and say 'how magnificent': no one would praise their taste if they did perform these ceremonies, and no one calls them unappreciative pedants because they do not. Why should the scholar alone indulge in public ecstasy?
It is sometimes assumed that those who try to leave the 'personal voice' out of scholarship today are pedants or worse, and that they approach too closely the maligned German philologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who are sometimes trumped up in modern publications as proto-Fascist bogeymen. And yet, though he doesn't vilify them in the same way, Housman sees in these same philologists the other chief affliction, which is a kind of mechanistic adherence to methodology.

For Housman, the 'laws' of criticism are rough guidelines meant to be challenged, broken, and reformed. They are never constant. The reason, then, why so many would-be scholars treat them instead as incontrovertible rules?
'Thinking is hard,' says Goethe, 'and acting according to thought is irksome' (Denken ist schwer, nach dem Gedachten handeln unbequem).
Housman's genius for textual criticism is still recognized and the key lies in 'the application of thought to textual criticism' (the title of a later and very instructive lecture). Not emotion. Not sets of rules akin to mathematical computations. The scholar must learn what he can of the author, the subject, the era, the dialect, and all the rest, and apart from his own feelings, and unfettered by arbitrary rules, use reason to determine the soundness of the texts we've received.

Then you're free privately to appreciate the texts that a disinterested intellect has processed in the pursuit of truth. No one can deny that the texts we appreciate today have been much improved by the work of such scholars.

* Housman apparently took the adapted phrase from Friedrich Leo who learned it from its originator, Wilamowitz. See William M. Calder III, Vir Bonus Discendi Peritus, AJP 108.1 (1987): 168-171.

No comments: