Relish ... The Humanities

This is the word that I to describe the book I embarked on last night, until my eyes could no longer stay open after the string of stressful days associated with end of term and the uncertainties of non-tenure. Relish has to do with pleasure - of a taste, scent, something left behind, something loosened: it comes from release and relax. If everything must really "go to pot" - to use the favoured expression of my boarding school English teacher, her Cornwallian hair tired from over-ironing, pulled back so tight, she'd given herself a facelift - then may I at least be straight in my own mind about what my aspirations and values are.
"The time has come when lovers of the humanities everywhere must join hands in the promotion of the common cause. Vive, vale: si quid novisti rectius istis, candidus imperti; si non, his utere mecum," writes Clyde Pharr in his 1920 Homeric Greek, quoting Horace (Epistles 1:6): "Farewell and live well: if you know of any precepts better than these, be do candid as to communicate them, if not, partake of these with me."
The book, so rich in literary references before it even begins, has only fortified my conviction that pedagogy itself has gone to the dogs with the ousting of an education in the classical languages. For example, he refers to Andrew Lang's "Homer and the Study of Greek" a gorgeous, studied "essay in little" (let me betray my ignorance and admit that I do not know if the genre has a precedent - please tell me if you know), which outlines the most beautiful course for learning Homeric Greek on five levels, including its"jumping into its cadence", which, "few can hear without being lured to the seas and isles of song"; translation of passages of  moving interest with explanation; studying those words that share etymologies with English. Study of ancient Greek, Lang argues, is training of the mind, even if the language itself is forgotten later in life.
More than that, though, Lang also writes, "Greek will not make a luxuriously Asiatic mind Hellenic, it is certain; but it may, at least, help to restrain effusive and rhetorical gabble." Indeed, word economy is often more apparent when learning a new language - and all the more so when these words are so often the roots of the words we use today. Heidegger writes of the "essence" of etymologies.




But it is Pharr's book that points in all these directions. It begins with the epithet: "To love Homer, as Steele said about loving a fair lady of quality, 'is a liberal education.'" The Steele reference is from a Tatler piece, "White's Chocolate House" dating 1709. The narrow context of the reference has to do with the "nature of love" being to "create an imitation of the beloved person in the lover" which produces "good conduct in her admirer". When I grew up, anyone who was anyone was in Tatler, which had its colonial editions. So I was interested to see that the early issues of the magazine took for their motto a Juvenal reference from his Satires, meaning, "Whatever things men have done ... shall form the subject of our book."
Pharr has already done for me more than all those other books of pedagogy I still have piled up in my entryway, because it is anathema for me to discard books. It is beyond me why what I shall describe as "classical" pedagogy has been discarded by others. I assigned D.G. Myer's argument in favour of a historical reading of literature to my class, and found that a small percentage of the students missed the point, despite my teaching/illustrating for them, all year long, this very thing: someone has brainwashed them into thinking that it is very important for them to be a 'clean slate' in their learning (I shall refrain from comment). I feel like I am swimming against a very strong current - and I lack the language to call up to Odysseus or Jason for them to cast me a line, to bring me onto their vessel for safety.
Yesterday, before I embarked on Pharr's book and the reason I was up so late was because I was also trying out some online German lessons, lauded by some for their novel methodology. Personally, though very grateful for the free resource, I was rather annoyed by all of the music interludes, before which, listeners were instructed to, "relax". And the plot to keep people interested? Something eccentric, flacid, far from Lang's reasons for using Homer as the plot through which to reach ancient Greek: "Homer inevitably regards life as a battle. To each man on earth comes 'the wicked day of destiny' ... and each man must face it as hardily as he may."
That line sums up the most relaxing reading I've done since my Ruskin binge at New Year's.
Postscriptum: The title of this post is a reference to Arnold's Culture and Anarchy: "it is evident, also, that it is not easy, with our style of proceeding, to get beyond the notion of an ordinary self at all, or to get the paramount authority of a commanding best self, or right reason, recognised. The learned Martinus Scriblerus well says:—"The taste of the bathos is implanted by nature itself in the soul of man; till, perverted by custom or example, he is taught, or rather compelled, to relish the sublime." [Emphasis added.] But with us everything seems directed to prevent any such perversion of us by custom or example as might compel us to relish the sublime; by all means we are encouraged to keep our natural taste for the bathos unimpaired." Arnold, like Pharr, outlines the good work we are to do.



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