On Not Reading Homer.

Joel Christensen of Sententiae Antiquae (see this LH post) has an excellent post On Not Reading Homer; I’ll just quote a few bits, but the whole thing is well written and worth clicking through for:

Over the past few weeks there has been a bit of a frenzy over Oxford University’s potential move to drop Homer and Vergil from their required curriculum for Classics. We have heard the typical cries of “O Tempora, O Mores” in articles lamenting the fall of education and the decline of the west. This news even made The Blaze!, quoting only a student who calls it “a fatal mistake” because “Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity.” […]

You know what I haven’t heard much of? People defending this proposal. Well, here I am, and that’s what I am going to do.

I am a Homerist. I have spent more than half my life reading, teaching, and writing on Homer. To say that I love the Homeric epics is such an understatement that it breaks my basic constative ability to do so. But this proposal makes sense. Let me tell you why. […]

First, the brouhaha mis-characterizes the proposal which is to make Homer and Vergil optional. From years of teaching Homer to undergraduates, I know that fewer are prepared to read something of this length and depth. They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy. And we do not have the time in class to move from understanding a sentence to its relationship to the whole to its critical engagement with cultures over time. […]

This is about the way we teach Homer as a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons. Homeric epics are dialogic, they are complex creations between audiences and the words themselves and without time, deep learning, and space, they function to advance a simplistic, but powerful policy of canon-enforcement […]

Before reading Homer, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse. We are better off by spending time teaching students a few poems by Sappho or lyric and elegiac poets, if what we want to learn about is Greek culture and poetry. […]

When one author writes “Within attempts like this to increase access to higher education lies a short-sighted philistinism as destructive as anything that emerged from the Trojan horse,” he is really decrying the collapse of a simplistic and counterfeit system of values based on the idea of Homeric poetry rather than the thing itself. […]

As a Homerist, I think I’ve found myself in part by searching for “Homer”—and I think this is indeed one of the most salubrious effects of literature. But this is not the only goal and this is not the Aristotelian end for Classical Studies. We need students to enter with the world with the ability to question and reframe the worth of the pasts we have inherited.

I wish more classicists had such nuanced opinions; circling the wagons and blasting away at anyone who doesn’t worship at the altar isn’t helping anything. (Tip of the Languagehat hat to bulbul’s Facebook feed, source of many good links and rants.)

Comments

  1. Bathrobe (in a toga) says:

    Perhaps they should substitute the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Now that would be hard.

  2. minus273 says:

    One of the less-often touted benefits of studying Classics in the modern Western context is that it still represents the best way to get intimately familiar with a non-Western culture. Someone who really know their Homer and Cicero are perhaps more culturally literate than someone who read some sensational novel about, say, China.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Before reading _____, students need to learn to read, to understand the relationship between text and audience, and the operation of literature—and especially the literary canon—as part of cultural discourse.” Who’s the Important Dead Canonical Author whose name can’t be stuck into the same blank and have the claim sound plausible? But you gotta start somewhere.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    @minus273:

    Exactly so. From our modern Western standpoint, the Greek and Latin classics reflect a profoundly alien worldview. I think that’s part of Joel C’s very point, in fact: rescuing the classics from a traditional but deeply unhistorical concept of the ancient world as a straightforward forerunner of our very own therefore-superior culture.

    On a purely linguistic level, in the days when it was actually usual to study Latin at school, it was easily the most linguistically exotic offering most people were ever exposed to. Not only in the grammatical nuts and bolts, but in a whole range of semantic and pragmatic aspects: “Yes, you could put it like that in Latin. But nobody actually ever would have done.”

    It’s parallel in some ways to my early experiences speaking English in West Africa. For the first month or so, I had a fair bit of trouble understanding what people were saying at all, until I got my ear in. I then graduated to understanding what people had said, but having no idea why they had said it in that context (something which I often really only came to understand in the process of learning the local languages.)

    A particular example of your utter rightness is the Latin word “genius”, which is really quite a good match for the Kusaal word win, and vice versa; neither word maps easily into modern Western folk-psychological or religious categories.

    You had to sacrifice to the Emperor’s genius? Say what?

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW my oldest child is this semester taking her first readings-in-the-original-classical-tongue class at the university level, and it’s Catullus. But that said: a) she has not yet acted on my heavy-handed paternal advice that the whole point of taking Latin in high school is to prepare you to switch over to Greek as soon as you get to college (very few American secondary schools these days offering the opportunity to try Greek before you get to college); and b) Homer occupies a foundational role in Greek literature that Virgil does not occupy in Latin literature just because of the time sequence — every other Greek author you might read has Homer lurking in the background of his/her own formation as a writer, whereas e.g. Cicero (not to mention Catullus) lived, spoke, wrote, and died all w/o ever knowing about the Aeneid. In fact in her high school Latin classes I think she was first introduced to Catullus in 11th grade but Virgil not until 12th grade.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    the whole point of taking Latin in high school is to prepare you to switch over to Greek

    I would add that the primary role of Classical Greek is to show you what a simple language Latin is.

    Catullus is of course not at all suitable reading for a respectable young woman. You should probably intervene.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Today’s respectable young women have already spent years listening to the lyrics of the likes of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lil_Pump (to pick a specific example I know was of interest to my first born when she was 16 or 17). So Catullus is really very posh and elevated in context, transitioning the young ladies into that unthreatening milieu where “Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines” etc.

  8. John Cowan says:

    Homer occupies a foundational role in Greek literature that Virgil does not occupy in Latin literature just because of the time sequence

    That’s like saying you shouldn’t read a word of English literature before you have plowed through every line of the Beowulf in the original and the King James Version in the original orthography, begats and all. Sub specie aeternitatis it may be true, but ars(e) longa, vita brevis.

    Catullus is of course not at all suitable reading for a respectable young woman. You should probably intervene.

    Oh no you should not. There may be another John Cowan vel sim. in the class, and you will embarrass him horribly.

    A different Nikeratos, Homer, and rhapsodes (unfortunately part 2 is above part 1, so scroll up).

    I have posted at Sententiae inviting the author here.

  9. Thanks for the feedback here. I wrote this post mostly thinking about the (largely conservative) outrage at Homer and Vergil no longer being compulsory. Some responses saw my argument as elitist–meaning that the ‘masses’ shouldn’t read Homer because they cannot understand it. This is not at all what I meant, but rather that to teach anything badly just because it is tradition is juts a waste of everyone’s time.

    I do think a lot of people teach Homer poorly because they don’t have the time to do it right. But anyone can read it. (And I think people tackling ‘difficult’ texts outside of a school curriculum would is great.)

    I think I am going to do a second post about why one should read Homer, but that might annoy people as well since “Homer” to me is the Greek.

    But my larger concern is two-fold: canon-enforcement without critical reconsideration of what canons do and any pedagogical initiative that does not consider learning goals, outcomes, etc. Homeric poetry is a product and producer of a particular type of discourse in its original context. Over time, it has been supercharged in reception. It has an effect on the world people should talk about!

    Thanks John for the invitation.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    Then it’s a good thing the author is not himself responsible for this quote, which I found pretty funny: “a short-sighted philistinism as destructive as anything that emerged from the Trojan horse”.

    Would a long-sighted philistinism be better ? I suppose “short-sighted philistinism” is a kind of pleonasm, intended to stress short-sightedness as a property of philistinism by definition. I myself expect adjectives to qualify, not add more egg. It’s a lonely life.

    Another thing: as I recall, what came out of the Trojan horse was not philistinism (I am weak on Homer).

    The whole expression sounds like Mr. Magoo crawling out of a stage prop. Of course he was not so much destructive as cack-handed.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    Beowulf languished in complete obscurity for close to a millennium before a revival of interest in the 19th century. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Pope, etc etc etc had never read it and never heard of it. If the sole surviving MS had been lost in a fire somewhere along the way we would never have heard of it either. The parallel to this story is that if a brand-name university makes it possible to receive a B.A. in English w/o having ever read Shakespeare there will be negative publicity, but making it possible to do so w/o reading Beowulf (which is probably the actual current status quo in the overwhelming majority of American universities) is no biggie.

    Chronological order is not the only way to study a topic, of course, but some authors are read most profitably with an understanding of what prior authors they themselves were self-consciously working in the shadow of. That certainly doesn’t mean everyone (or even everyone “important”) who came before them in chronological order. What is significant here is that virtually every subsequent writer in Greek (as well as many/most of those who wrote in Latin) was the product of an education that stressed how big a deal Homer was, not the mere fact of Homer’s antiquity.

    Sometimes you “naturally” learn a tradition in reverse chronological order. If you are a white American music buff of my generation you generally first heard old blues records only after you first heard plenty of records by white rock musicians who had been influenced by those blues records, for example. If there’s a sensible way to teach the corpus of Greco-Roman literature that way, I’d be open to hearing about it. Come to think of it, I think I myself read Joyce’s Ulysses a year or two before I’d read the “real” Homeric texts (as opposed to some sort of paraphrase/retelling for children) even in translation.

  12. David L says:

    I actually read the Odyssey (Robt Fagles translation) a few years ago, but that was well after I’d seen “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, so I pretty much knew the story.

  13. As it happens, a few months ago I decided to read the Iliad. Not in Greek, even though I did study ancient Greek many years ago. I inherited the Richmond Lattimore translation from my mother. (She gave me Roger Lancelyn Greene’s Tales of the Greek Heroes for Christmas when I was seven.) I would rather spend time reading other things in translation and not invest time in relearning Greek. I must admit that right now I am stuck in the middle; the plot is bogging down a bit, and I have so much other interesting reading material.

    The story of Troy is an important part of our culture, but most of it is not in the Iliad. The judgement of Paris, the rape of Helen, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the Trojan horse, etc., must be found elsewhere.

    David Eddyshaw: From our modern Western standpoint, the Greek and Latin classics reflect a profoundly alien worldview.

    You’re not kidding. Here is my brief paraphrase of how the Iliad starts:

    Why are we all getting sick and dying?
    Because the last time we went raiding for sex slaves, Agamemnon picked a priestess of Apollo, and now Apollo has sent a plague on us.
    Achilles: Agamemnon, you must give back your sex slave or we will all die.
    Agamemnon: All right, I will, but as a replacement I’m going to take your sex slave.
    Achilles: That’s not fair, you agreed I could have her when we divided up the loot.
    Agamemnon: It’s not fitting that I, the king, should not have a sex slave, but one of my subjects should have one. So I’m going to take her away by force.
    Achilles: If that’s how you’re going to be, I’m going on strike. (Thinks: Plus I will ask my mother to have Zeus give you bad strategic advice. That’ll show you.)

    Here’s another of my favourite scenes:

    Tell me your genealogy, so that I may know if you are worthy to try to kill me.
    I am X, son of Y, (of the long-maned horses, etc.)
    Why, I am M, son of N, (of the honey-filled beehives, etc.). Our fathers long ago swore eternal friendship.
    Since that is the case, let us part now and find other people to try to kill.

    I already reread Beowulf as part of my dive into old literature, and it’s a lot more action-packed. (Still a pretty alien worldview though.)

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Just to clarify a bit further re Beowulf-before-reading-another-word-of-English idea. I don’t think any university teaches ancient Greek *starting* with Homer. Homer might come first on the syllabus in a reading-the-canon-in-translation course, but that’s different. When I was an undergraduate the first “real” text we read as beginners after getting mostly through the grammar textbook was the Medea. Then you were supposed to do an “intermediate” year of a semester of Herodotus and a semester of Homer before going on to “advanced” electives. So if you were actually a classics major (and not hiding in the Latin-only option, which I believe may have been available?) you would have Homer early enough to be part of the context of whatever other authors you finished up with. Obviously other universities may have structured or sequenced things a bit differently.

    (I personally skipped the Herodotus, picked up again with the Homer, and then took a semester of New Testament, which was taught a few blocks away in the Religious Studies dep’t because the Classics faculty proper were unwilling to sully their hands with it. But I wasn’t a classics major.)

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Who’s the Important Dead Canonical Author whose name can’t be stuck into the same blank and have the claim sound plausible? But you gotta start somewhere.

    Well, in Latin, you traditionally start with Caesar (or with Cornelius Nepos before him), and the epic poets come last, because they’re the most difficult to read: poetic vocabularies, poetic metaphors, and word orders that have nothing to do with grammar at all. Caesar has long sentences and plenty of literary flourishes, but at least the action is pretty straightforward…

    Homer’s works aren’t just epic poems, they’re also in decidedly preclassical Greek, indeed the Iliad (as we have it at least) is cobbled together from several different preclassical stages and dialects. So… that’s not what I’d start with.

    profoundly alien worldview

    That was one of Spengler’s main points: the Occident does not come from Antiquity, the Faustian Soul is unrelated to the Apollinian Soul.

    But even within Classical Antiquity, Homer’s worldview was alien enough that at least two attempts to update his epics with newer values became rip-roaring successes in their own rights.

    (Warning: page uses hyphens as dashes-despite not putting spaces around them.)

  16. I don’t think any university teaches ancient Greek *starting* with Homer.

    My Greek teacher in college did, but she was also my linguistics teacher (having studied IE at Yale) and it was a one-on-one tutorial, so not the ordinary situation. I enjoyed it immensely.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    But even within Classical Antiquity, Homer’s worldview was alien enough that at least two attempts to update his epics with newer values became rip-roaring successes in their own rights.

    That was an amazing read.

    The status of ancient texts within tradition is always an area of fascination. How Confucius reinterpreted simple poems from the Book of Songs as exemplars of Confucian values, for instance.

    A not-so-startling example of updating the ancients is the retelling of the Tale of Genji for contemporary audiences in the Edo period (which Hat should be familiar with; he has the book).

  18. elessorn says:

    I’ll be honest that I completely fail to see any of the promised nuance in Christensen’s post. Intelligent and articulate to be sure, but confirmatory in every respect of the crassest and most inarticulate charges of political motives imputed to the proposed change. (Note: I don’t want to confuse Christensen with those actually responsible for the change–it’s not fair to take him as speaking for them even if he does speak in their defense.)

    Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?

    Clearly the answer is a resounding yes, to the extent that Classics departments exist as a publicly funded educational good, a resource for learning about a specific group of texts representing a specific cultural complex developed over the course of a specific cultural history, from specialists such as Christensen specifically trained to teach them. I do not understand his conscience’s numbness, as a teacher, to the reactions even the rumor of the change (at one school!) has aroused. Does one have to remind the man behind sententiae antiquae that these are all his students, these the very ones his training has prepared him to serve?

    I am not saying that we should not have students reading Homer—but that if we only have a small collection of classes, they can acquire critical language, reading, reasoning, and cultural skills in other ways. This is important both in focusing on what our undergraduate learning goals are and in thinking about what we want classical studies to become in the future.

    (And all of this sidesteps what modern program in Classical Studies is for. If we have only a small handful of credit hours to enlighten the mind and prepare it to engage fruitfully with the world it encounters, is slogging through an epic the best use of our time?)

    I’m sad to say that either as a bureaucratic strategy, or as an intellectual project, the re-presentation of “Classics Studies” as another form of “critical thinking” seems doomed to well-earned failure. But there is something far worse in this than poor judgement.

    Everything Christensen says about the post-Homeric, even largely post-Greek origins of the “Ancient Greece” people trust they can learn about in Classics departments is well-taken, and largely true, though he oversells it. But he shies away from the obvious point that it is precisely the value placed on that cultural complex that grounds Classics education. Let us grant that “Ancient Greece” is not Ancient Greece–is there any objective doubt about which Greece Classics is tasked with teaching? It does come down to “what [a] modern program in Classical Studies is for,” or more specifically, to the author’s belief that that decision rightfully flows from the ideologically ever more homogeneous micro-faction that constitutes Classics professionals like himself.

    The idea that we should put texts out of easy reach lest people read them the “wrong” way was offensive when its foremost opponents were the “conservatives” Christensen gestures at in lieu of an argument, and no less offensive when the torch has seemingly passed to their adversaries. It is depressing beyond words to find that for some, at least, the true objections to previous eras of censorious textual gating were less about keeping doors open than about the hands holding the keys.

    Christensen himself justifies the brouhaha–
    They are classics because they have been selected and handed down as such. This “tradition” (Latin for “handing down”) reinforces its own authority and aesthetics in the process of transmission and reception.

    Being uninformed, the reaction of course lacks nuance, but he clearly demonstrates that its grounding perception is accurate–namely that those most have trusted to “select[] and hand[] down” a certain tradition are, slowly, and yet in small numbers, deciding not to do so. Let those those who enjoy such things mock the reaction for its exaggeration, but it is the teacher’s job to assuage his potential students’ worries, and as far as I can tell Christensen has only confirmed them. One can only judiciously hope that he is less representative of growing trends than he seems to be.

  19. SFReader says:

    Action? You find Illiad, of all books, lacking in action?

    I’ll give you action!

    When they were got together in one place shield clashed with shield and spear with spear in the rage of battle. The bossed shields beat one upon another, and there was a tramp as of a great multitude- death-cry and shout of triumph of slain and slayers, and the earth ran red with blood.

    First Antilochus … struck at the projecting part of his helmet and drove the spear into his brow; the point of bronze pierced the bone, and darkness veiled his eyes; headlong as a tower he fell amid the press of the fight, and as he dropped King Elephenor, son of Chalcodon and captain of the proud Abantes began dragging him out of reach of the darts that were falling around him, in haste to strip him of his armour. But his purpose was not for long; Agenor saw him haling the body away, and smote him in the side with his bronze-shod spear- for as he stooped his side was left unprotected by his shield- and thus he perished. Then the fight between Trojans and Achaeans grew furious over his body, and they flew upon each other like wolves, man and man crushing one upon the other.

    …the fair youth Simoeisius, son of Anthemion … was cut off untimely by the spear of mighty Ajax, who struck him in the breast by the right nipple as he was coming on among the foremost fighters; the spear went right through his shoulder, and he fell… Thereon Antiphus of the gleaming corslet, son of Priam, hurled a spear at Ajax from amid the crowd and missed him, but he hit Leucus, the brave comrade of Ulysses, in the groin, as he was dragging the body of Simoeisius over to the other side; so he fell upon the body and loosed his hold upon it. Ulysses was furious when he saw Leucus slain, and strode in full armour through the front ranks till he was quite close; then he glared round about him and took aim, and the Trojans fell back as he did so. His dart was not sped in vain, for it struck Democoon, the bastard son of Priam… Ulysses, infuriated by the death of his comrade, hit him with his spear on one temple, and the bronze point came through on the other side of his forehead. Thereon darkness veiled his eyes, and his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground….

    Then fate fell upon Diores, son of Amarynceus, for he was struck by a jagged stone near the ancle of his right leg….the bones and both the tendons were crushed by the pitiless stone. He fell to the ground on his back, and in his death throes stretched out his hands towards his comrades. But Peirous, who had wounded him, sprang on him and thrust a spear into his belly, so that his bowels came gushing out upon the ground, and darkness veiled his eyes. As he was leaving the body, Thoas of Aetolia struck him in the chest near the nipple, and the point fixed itself in his lungs. Thoas came close up to him, pulled the spear out of his chest, and then drawing his sword, smote him in the middle of the belly so that he died…

    It goes on and on for pages and chapters in horrifying detail, showing author’s intimate knowledge of human anatomy and all the innumerable ways people can be made dead.

    Real manly stuff.

  20. elessorn: So you feel every single student should have Homer forced down their throats, so they’ll all hate him as much as I hate Dickens? I presume you’re imagining a happy world in which all teachers are full of nuance and loving care with their students, know just how to present the material to each one, and never demand blind obedience and rote repetition of What the Teacher Said. If you investigate the world we actually live in, you may have a change of heart. As you can probably tell, I strongly disagree with your position.

  21. John Cowan says:

    that was well after I’d seen “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, so I pretty much knew the story

    Well, yes, but as Tolkien says, the plot is not the story. Even so, if people have only learned about the defense of Thermopylae from a bigoted monster movie or even a highly topical and political villanelle, so much the worse: but not worse than if they had never known of it at all.

    Sure, advanced students, graduate students, professionals in the field, they should probably read Homer, but should everyone?

    Clearly the answer is a resounding yes, to the extent that Classics departments exist as a publicly funded educational good, a resource for learning about a specific group of texts representing a specific cultural complex developed over the course of a specific cultural history, from specialists such as Christensen specifically trained to teach them.

    What you write here is more nuanced than I first took it to be, but the primary weight falls on “Homer is a classic of our culture; everyone educated should read him.” But Christensen is a Homerist first and foremost, not a torch-bearer of Our Cultural Heritage (OCH). Homer is both a classic and a masterpiece. To treat him as “only” a classic for which its cultural history is the main point is like studying King Lear by putting at least half your attention on Nahum Tate’s adaptation (no Fool, Cordelia and Edgar are lovers, happy ending, etc.) which held the stage (to the exclusion of Shakespeare’s version) from 1681 to 1838.

    Note that the Hebrew Bible is every bit as much part of OCH (anglophone version) as Shakespeare or Homer, yet few would claim that it is an essential part of everyone’s education to קרא את התנ”ך בצורתו המקורית. (My apologies if GT screwed up; I am uneducated enough to have no Hebrew.)

    Let us grant that “Ancient Greece” is not Ancient Greece–is there any objective doubt about which Greece Classics is tasked with teaching?

    “Objective”? How so? A curriculum is a choice, and although choices are not “only” ideological, they are inevitably in part ideological.

  22. elessorn says:

    @Hat

    Do you really disagree that strongly? Remember the parameters here– we’re not discussing forcing all students in the UK, or all college students, or even all Oxford students, to read Homer. We’re talking about students who have already selected, self-selected (despite all advice to the contrary?), to actually major in Classics. I don’t think there’s any reasonable definition of “Classics” as a cultural complex that doesn’t reserve a central role for Homer, and students who choose Classics should trust that the curriculum hasn’t been designed conspicuously around him until students have been primed to read him in ways palatable to the political sensitivities of their teachers. Your response helps me better understand why you approved of the article, and I’m perfectly happy to be strongly disagreed with, but I think “snobs forcing their preferences on the masses” is not the frame apt to this situation, but rather “elitists betraying public trust to suit their political preferences.”

    Would you not have reacted with the scorn of a thousand suns if, let’s say as an 18-year-old English major, you were told that Ulysses (heh) was deemed better not assigned to callow undergraduate students lest it corrupt their tender morals? That’s what seems to be going on here. Consider again:

    The worst thing I see happening—and I know this happens at Oxford—is teaching Homer badly. Students don’t have the cultural frameworks, or the training to understand what they’re looking at.

    I get the feeling you’re weighing “teach Homer badly” heavily here. But look at the sequel–he’s not worried about students hating Homer, but about students not interpreting it within the narrow-banded range he feels they should. He doesn’t come out and say, “Keep foolish children away from Homer or they may even end up reading it like white supremacists,” but he’s not far from saying it either. This doesn’t bother you? These are adult students, and don’t deserve that from their teachers. If Homer was actually difficult as Greek, he might have the fig leaf of graded difficulty (saving Thucydides for the grad students has such a justification, perhaps), but I think I’m reading him right that he doesn’t want people reading Homer “wrong.”

    For me, this has nothing to do with teaching Homer well or badly. Anything taught widely will be taught badly in the “world we actually live in.” I’m precisely against setting works as important as Homer aside–for Classics majors, mind you–until they’re “ready” to read in those texts, well, exactly “What the Teacher Said”:

    Homer contains some nasty stuff. Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death.

    Is that how you’ve enjoyed being taught? Your teachers deciding–for you–whether the “lessons” certain texts give you are “terrible” or not? To my mind this is a despicable way to treat budding adults expecting the liberal education they’ve been promised, wherever on the political spectrum one’s personal matrix for judging the “terrible” may lie. Professors should be as political in class as they like, but only provided the students are given up-front the texts being talked about to judge themselves.

    (As for teaching in general, well. I may be a bad teacher of literature myself, and I’ve certainly had bad teachers! But I think you do significantly discount the democratic benefits of access that, even taught badly, a required literary curriculum can bring. I know the unhappy world of teaching all too well, sadly, but I find the prospect of literature becoming again the property of a limited moneyed caste far unhappier a prospect than the inevitable result of bad teachers reliably turning some fraction of students year upon year into haters of Homer or Dickens or whoever. But this is quite another topic than one of the world’s flagship universities deciding how they want to train their Classics(!) students what to think.)

  23. he’s not worried about students hating Homer, but about students not interpreting it within the narrow-banded range he feels they should.
    The quantity of comment may have dimmed my recollection of the original, but I had concluded the contrary: that Christensen warns the prospective reader of Homer to approach him from a broader “range” than that of our own time, at this end of the OCH.

    Julian Jaynes’s oft-rejected The Origin of Consciousness … illuminates Iliad better, to my way of thinking, as a commentary on humanity, than does any presentation of the text as an action narrative.

    Apologies for any mis-typing here: tapped out on the phone…

  24. ə de vivre says:

    I don’t think there’s any reasonable definition of “Classics” as a cultural complex that doesn’t reserve a central role for Homer
    I’m not sure that’s true. It seemed like part of Christensen’s point was that Homer’s canonicity doesn’t have that much to do with a close engagement with the texts themselves. Ancient Greeks may have had strong ideas about canonicity, but studying a culture doesn’t require us to adopt the values of the culture we study.

    Classics departments study a lot of different things, and university students arrive with less and less exposure to Greek and Latin history. From a practical point of view, making Homer optional in order to help classics majors acquire the philological skills relevant to their areas of interest seems pretty reasonable.

  25. John Cowan says:

    We’re talking about students who have already selected, self-selected (despite all advice to the contrary?), to actually major in Classics.

    Well, that’s a much more reasonable position: thank you for clarifying it. I still disagree, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

    I don’t think there’s any reasonable definition of “Classics” as a cultural complex that doesn’t reserve a central role for Homer

    For myself, I do not believe that knowledge (specific or universal) has a center other than wherever you find yourself. (Granted, you can’t read Homer if you can’t read Greek, so the learning of skills has more of an order to it.) That is why I have always been opposed to mandatory classes of any sort (and have never learned a damned thing from them): people should learn Homer when and only when they find they need to learn him. And this proposal is precisely to remove the mandatory nature of Homer and Vergil for Classics students, rather than eliminating the opportunity to study them altogether.

    One of my other heretical opinions (but I repeat myself) is that the people who study Sanskrit and Old Tamil and Old Chinese and Biblical Hebrew should also be in the Classics Department. (Added: Classical Arabic, too.)

    you were told that Ulysses (heh) was deemed better not assigned to callow undergraduate students lest it corrupt their tender morals?

    If I thought it was being taught primarily as a work of pornography like, say, 120 Days of Sodom, I would object indeed.

    If Homer was actually difficult as Greek

    Isn’t it? My understanding is that it’s much more difficult for Modern Greeks, at least, than almost any other ancient author, being on the wrong side of far too many morphological and syntactic barriers. Of course if you learn Ancient Greek through Homer, then everything else probably looks easy. Or so I suppose.

    I find the prospect of literature becoming again the property of a limited moneyed caste far unhappier a prospect than the inevitable result of bad teachers reliably turning some fraction of students year upon year into haters of Homer or Dickens or whoever.

    I don’t think any Hattic is illiberal enough to disagree with that! Conrad (the occasional Hattic and author of Vunex, not the Pole) claimed he did, but he also claimed to hate the act of reading, which I find scary and sad.

  26. J.W. Brewer says:

    I agree with much of the substance of elessorn’s points but rather than build on them further at this stage in the dialogue let me just say that I do hope Prof. Christensen does the follow-up post he suggested he might in his comment upthread. I start with a default position of considerable skepticism about the claim that the way Homer has been approached in the curriculum right up until the arrival on the scene of his uniquely enlightened new generation of scholars ought to be superseded, but getting a better sense of the affirmative approach to Homer he proposes as the enlightened alternative would allow me to better assess whether or not to move off that default position of skepticism in this particular instance.

    I would note that it would seem to flow from the John Cowen position that no one should ever be compelled to study anything in particular that the whole modern notion of “majoring in something” (including but certainly not limited to Classics) while obtaining a bachelor’s degree is likewise unsound, and all undergraduates should be given the option to major in Random Studies (as we used to call it at my undergraduate alma mater back in the day).

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’m not sure to what extent the compulsory studying of literature is to blame for lifelong dislike of the works in question. I think it may sometimes have something to do with the kind of literature that paedagogues think is suitable for children (still worse, what well-meaning adults imagine children will relate to. A plague on all novels with teenage protagonists …)

    In my own case, there is no prospect of my ever being able to enjoy Great Expectations, which I had to read for O Level; but the teacher was really excellent, and is certainly not to blame. I think the work itself actually rubs me up the wrong way for various reasons, and I’d probably feel that way anyhow. I don’t feel that way about Dickens in general by any means.

    A fortiori with Far from the Madding Crowd; with hindsight (and having read other Hardy novels voluntarily as a grown-up) I would just endorse my youthful dislike. (Widely shared. I think I may have been the only boy in my form who actually finished it.)

    I did dislike Tacitus as a schoolboy, but that’s hardly surprising. He wasn’t writing for schoolboys. I learnt better later on, fortunately not having been put off to the degree that I never tried again. Livy, now … but, there again, I was just right. There’s something unforgiveable about Livy. Objectively. OK? History as patriotic uplift. Yuck. He was writing for schoolboys …

  28. Stu Clayton says:

    Conrad (the occasional Hattic and author of Vunex, not the Pole)

    Something like 8 years ago he was writing a book, as I understood – and then there were children on their way in. So he faded out of sight here.

    No matter what that book is about, I want to read it. John, do you know anything more ? I would rather not impose my curiosity on him.

  29. As someone who never had any liberal arts education I am awfully surprised by the discussion. If you go to (Western) Classics and do not read Homer and Vergil, what exactly are you doing there? Is anyone attracted to the studies of Greek and Latin because they want to read Euclid in the original? What’s the point? I guess, if your goal is to do Biblical studies you might not care enough about these pagan authors (yes, they are relevant in various ways, but not that hugely relevant)… Another question is whether H and V should go first or after some other texts. That’s a reasonable question to ponder for people who do the teaching.

  30. John Cowan says:

    the whole modern notion of “majoring in something” (including but certainly not limited to Classics) while obtaining a bachelor’s degree is likewise unsound

    Not unsound, merely a bureaucratic convenience falsely erected into a principle. That doesn’t mean you should wander into a third-year class on the Conflict of Laws and start asking dumb questions about your traffic tickets (or whatever the medical equivalent is), but that the radically correct response to such behavior is for the teacher to point his thumb over his shoulder and wait for you to leave. (I learned what I know of Conflicts from my dad.)

    “I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge. The wise instructor accomplishes this by opening to his pupils precisely the attractions the study has for himself. The marking is a system for schools, not for the college; for boys, not for men; and it is an ungracious work to put on a professor.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

    I happen to think it’s no better for schools either, and sent my daughter and grandson to a state school that evaluates students by portfolios of their work and sends parents narrative reports (but produces letter grades on transcripts).

    all undergraduates should be given the option to major in Random Studies

    Indeed. The novelist and literary critic Samuel R. Delany graduated from CCNY (my not-quite-alma mater) with a Bachelor of Science in Esoterica, and the public speaker and liturgist Isaac Bonewitz from Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Magic (ceremonial). Both majors are unique, at least in the U.S.

    I myself majored in Communications and Mass Media, which required taking one specific English and one specific Speech course (CCNY has no school of journalism) and whatever else your advisor would approve, which in my case was more or less anything from astronomy to art history (but no zoology, alas). I didn’t quite graduate, but that was because of my mother’s death and the fact that I had already been admitted to a Ph.D. program without an undergraduate degree. I left that too after a year, so technically I have only a high-school education.

    A plague on all novels with teenage protagonists

    Not all: the first three Earthsea books and the Annals of the Western Shore come first to my mind (as expected). Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything human-made is crap) applies, of course.

    John, do you know anything more ?

    Alas, no.

    There’s something unforgiveable about Livy.

    I read books I-V in translation (the old Penguin version by Aubrey de Sélincourt) and greatly enjoyed them, but of course I knew I was reading mythology, not history or English literature, as the translator’s introduction made clear.

    If you go to (Western) Classics and do not read Homer and Vergil, what exactly are you doing there?

    Why, perhaps you care more for Horace and Catullus (in whom I took a class in college after studying Caesar and Cicero in secondary school). I find the Aeneid overall boring.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    Not all

    True enough. In fact, as soon as the editing window closed, numerous counterexamples occurred to me
    (Intruder in the Dust, Rite of Passage …)

    I bet everybody knows what I mean though.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re “primarily as a work of pornography”: surely no respectable university would award an advanced degree in French literature (perhaps it can be deferred past the B.A.?) to a student who has not read the pathbreaking prose style of Les 120 Journées de Sodome in the original?

  33. Indeed, not all novels with teenaged protagonists are terrible—but there has to be a reason why the protagonists are not adults. In the original Earthsea novels John Cowan mentioned,* the viewpoint characters are generally fairly young, but the main accomplishments that drive the plot are achieved by adult wizards. Ged as a teenager is tremendously powerful, but his callow pride makes him a disaster; he is in no way capable of defeating the dark Ged at that age. The viewpoint characters in the two later novels are adolescents again, but the main work of moving the plot along is still done by Ged; Tenar provides him with much-needed assistance, but Arren is practically useless.

    John Christopher, who like Ursula K. Le Guin wrote science fiction and fantasy both for adults and children, was also one who (sometimes) worked to give logical reasons for the protagonists in many of his books to be young.** His Tripods novels are another example of canonical children’s hard science fiction, and while he does not belabor the point, he also does not shy away from the fact that—due to the nature of the mind controlling “caps” used by the enemy aliens—the main characters are essentially child soldiers (or, with the passage of time, former child soldiers). The narrator, Will, is sometimes unsettled by what the freedom fighters’ recruiting model entails, especially as he gets older: “In return for the hospitality we were shown, we stole their boys from them.”

    However, these kinds of works are exceptions to the general rule that having underaged characters saving the day usually violates the logic of a setting. Unfortunately for narrative quality, the market wants what the market wants. The way I expressed this myself as a preteen was something like this: I don’t know which bothers me more: that TV producers think that having a child character on a science fiction show will make it more popular with kids; or that they’re right.

    Separately, on the value of Livy, I will quote something I recently sent to a friend. I don’t focus specifically on Livy in this passage, but he is a really big offender in the way I describe.

    “Every historian who wants to write or teach about legendary or semilegendary events says the same basic thing about them: These things may not have happened they way they are described, or they may not have happened at all; however, the stories themselves can tell us a great deal about the people whose cultural history they are. That’s not wrong, nor is it a new idea. Herodotus says this, as does Livy. Plutarch is very explicit about it; his goal in writing a biography of Theseus is not so much to inform his readers about the life of an ancient Attic king, but to help them understand the Greeks and their morality, through an understanding of a Greek culture hero. Modern historians, discussing ancient events—or even some as recent as the first crusade—take the same approach, ostensibly.

    The thing is, it seems like every single historian eventually forgets about this and starts trying to argue and reason from the viewpoint that some of these legendary events really happened. Every single historian.”

    * I don’t think The Farthest Shore is actually very good, and I know that I am not alone in that assessment. I only recommend reading it if you want to get the depressing and anticlimactic conclusions to Sparrowhawk’s epic adventures.

    ** One of the many things that makes When the Tripods Came a thoroughly inferior prequel is the complete absence of any justification for the story’s teen-aged focus.

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    I don’t know that I ever ventured over from here to Conrad’s own blog back in the day, but now I find in his archives this striking-if-dark paragraph, which might be relevant to why anyone would bother with classics nowadays, whatever the Homer:Sappho ratio in the syllabus might be:

    “But I do think that one argument for the support of the humanities, and for the pursuit of humanistic disciplines by those who are instinctively drawn towards them, is simply that their existence allows likeminded persons—specifically, those of a similarly anxious character—to meet and interact at a common level. I support liberal arts programs for the same reason that I support Alcoholics Anonymous, or BDSM clubs, or the Esperanto Society. It goes back to the problem of camaraderie, dismissed so lightly.”

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    I support liberal arts programs for the same reason that I support Alcoholics Anonymous, or BDSM clubs, or the Esperanto Society.

    Or any combination thereof. Seems very reasonable, though I would miss the alcohol myself.
    There must surely be an Esperanto translation of Les 120 Journées de Sodome? If not, why not?

  36. It’s kind of unfortunate that the author of Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage gave his name to “sadism,” when it was clearly sadomasochism that he was into. And he was really into the masochism part, probably just as much as the sadism. Reading the accounts of some of the prostitutes he hired, they were not infrequently unable to bring themselves to whip and beat him the way he wanted.

  37. I find it disturbing that the writer believes there’s a “right” way to teach Homer, and that the purpose of teaching classics is to teach critical.thinking so that students will go on to be useful members of society? (If there isn’t, I’m sure there should be a Platonic dialogue on whether critical thinking can be taught at all). If after a year of being taught by this writer, a student were to hand in an essay defending the canonical, violence loving, white supremacist view of Homer, would he be marked down for this, or would the writer recognise his critical ability not to be brainwashed by figures in authority? My feeling is that the writer very much prefers his own views parroted back at him.

    Very few students turn up at university with anything like sufficient knowledge of Greek to read Homer, or any Greek text, in the first place – maybe universities should teach them that. But that would no doubt be too much effort for all concerned. – Otherwise just merge classics into the English department where it belongs.

    And why Sappho? Is she not canonical? How can you possibly teach classics outside the canon? Focus on random pages of Egyptian papyrus?

  38. Well, that’s a much more reasonable position: thank you for clarifying it. I still disagree, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

    Likewise.

    My feeling is that the writer very much prefers his own views parroted back at him.

    It’s sad that some people are unable to disagree without adding ad hominem attacks.

  39. So long as you understand, when you say it’s a sad thing to see, that an ad hominem argument is specifically when you seek to refute another person’s argument by making a comment about the person rather than engaging with the argument he’s making.

    But I should have generalised my point. I don’t think it is anything specific to this teacher.

    Though educators like to believe that they are teaching critical thinking, in general they are unlikely to find favour in any views opposed to their own, as a consequence of which students will tend to produce work to match their educator’s’ views, whether these are their views or not, thus convincing their educators of the success of their teaching. Whether the student actually develops critical thinking is largely a matter personal matter to themselves, and its development is of so varied and recondite a basis that, like teaching virtue, it is unamenable to analysis or codification.

  40. David Eddyshaw says:

    An ad homines argument.

    Teachers! Leave them kids alone!

  41. Critical thinking (as I understand it, Stanford Encyclopedia throws its hands up in despair) has nothing to do with a position one advocates. It is the ability to see strong and weak points of an argument. You can argue that Homer is an example of white supremacy or that it is an example of ancient Kumbaya if you understand what makes a valid argument (and demerits for ad hominidae).

  42. Stu Clayton says:

    demerits for ad hominidae

    Parrots are hominids ? I’m confused.

  43. Not as much as I am.

  44. Maybe my critical thinking skills have started the weekend early, but the post’s argument makes no sense to me. The answer to “X is taught badly” is not “then let’s make it optional”.

    I’m currently teaching Homer for the first time (in translation) and I’m pretty sure my students are not getting a picture of “a holy, simple thing, with clear messages and heroes who can be understood in a few lessons”, nor do they think the poems are the work of a single genius. (Actually I know they don’t because I’m grading their midterms, re which I can assure obooki that some of us profs could do with a lot less of having our own views parroted back at us.) Without more evidence than the author gives, I find it hard to believe that classicists at Oxford do a worse job of teaching Homer than a first-timer like me at a school most people haven’t heard of. If things really are that bad, though, shouldn’t he be arguing for canceling Homer classes altogether?

    Also, what kind of argument is “They have read little in pre-collegiate classes of this length and intricacy”? So they shouldn’t do so in college either? (I doubt it’s true, anyway — mash the Iliad and Odyssey together and throw in the Homeric Hymns and you probably still don’t have the word count of the latest volume of The Goblet of Ice and Fire or whatever.)

    It’s hard to think about this question without knowing exactly what a BA is supposed to be for, which I don’t; if it’s just a certificate of employer competitiveness then the content is irrelevant and JC’s idea of college as a buffet becomes quite appealing. But a degree in classics from Oxford should mean something. The days when Patrick Leigh Fermor communed over Horace with his captive general aren’t coming back, but it would be dispiriting to meet someone with “BA Classics Oxon” after their name who had never heard of μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά.

  45. Stu Clayton says:

    I just wrote “BA Classics Oxon” after my name. It was dispiriting to find that even then I had never heard of μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά. But I netted it in the inter, and my Greek of 50+ years ago sufficed to figure out what up.

    That’s what you get from buffet learning. It’s like riding a bicycle – you never forget how, but that doesn’t qualify you for uphill racing.

    I agree with TR. If “BA Classics Oxon” means only that the holder won’t fall off a bike, it’s not worth working hard for. A little cachet is OK, though: So Indians of consequence would write things like “B.A. Oxon. (Failed)” on their business cards.

  46. Lars Mathiesen says:

    We are all Hominidae here, I’m sure, though the speciesism inherent in dominant materialistic discourse tends to erase even the cleverest of gorillas before her opinions are heard. But throwing “ad hominidam” into your argument could be like sowing the road with caltrops and secure you a cheap though dishonorable win.

  47. elessorn says:

    Well, that’s a much more reasonable position: thank you for clarifying it. I still disagree, but perhaps for somewhat different reasons.

    Glad that was cleared up. If we’re talking ideals, I’ll admit that I do think “Homer is a classic of our culture; everyone educated should read him,” and lament that Classics education has retreated from public education, sic transit and all that. BUT the pace of that retreat has been a gradual one, its process distributed and non-coordinated, and the result clearly reflects larger changes in society. It marks just another ebb in the long tide-history of Classics reception. I’m not happy about it, but I am at peace with it. Moreover, as Christensen would certainly hasten to accurately point out, it also represents the decline from a certain peak: the last few centuries saw Classics studied more deeply and widely by a greater share of the population than ever before, and in broader historical perspective, the early 21st century is hardly one of the darker plunging valleys. The broad appeal found by (most of) Christensen’s twitter feed alone is itself a good example of that.

    In any case, the question of classics {democratically provided to|forced down the throats of} the masses as part of OCH is nothing at all of a piece with the–a strong word but the situation seems to call for it–despicable spectacle of a specialist Classics curriculum betraying the principles of liberal education, by favoring the ideals they want to teach over the texts they are charged to teach. (Though again, to be fair, it is possible that Christensen’s defense does not reflect the department’s own motivations. There is always the hand of bureaucracy at work…)

    My heart is with John on the idea of no mandatory classes, but sadly not all students are John Cowans! And I’ve been teaching long enough to be confident that though mandatory curricula are artificial, the encounters they can–can!–facilitate for students are anything but. Surely everyone reading this has multiple experiences of being assigned to read something they ended up being just bowled over by?

    At the very least, it’s worth underlining this: the people behind the Oxford decision are in no way striking a blow against the Man for Random Studies. The plan is to keep some authors mandatory, Virgil and Homer not. This is not liberation, but engineering. This is why Christensen’s rejoinder that this will have no effect on the ability of students to study these texts is particularly insulting. The fact that it marks not a reevaluation of mandatory classes per se, but an eccentric re-selection of which authors to make mandatory, underlines that the intention of the move is to de-emphasize Virgil and Homer vis-a-vis other authors. For all the histrionics of the reaction, in this respect at least I think the intention was perceived quite accurately.

    Why Homer and (less so) Virgil should be so central is a linked question, but also a different one. In an anthropological sense, the reaction itself is something of a demonstration of their cultural centrality. I don’t think you’d get this much traction even by pulling out Sophocles or Cicero. This is what I was getting at by Homer being objectively central to the cultural complex whose felt importance is the indisputable predicate of Classics departments’ very existence.

    ə de vivre and John’s objections to the sense of this are well taken, and the lack of clarity is my own fault, but all I meant was this: I do not call it an objective fact the Homeric texts belong at the center of Classics because of their greatness. I believe this is true, but the judgement is not of the objective category. It is, however, merely an objectively observable state of affairs that Homer has been central to the reception of Classical literature for quite a long time, and remains so, especially among the general populace. It is fair to say that this centrality is not entirely free from ideological determinants, but they are clearly not crudely central to its prominence.

    I do disagree that “Homer’s canonicity doesn’t have that much to do with a close engagement with the texts themselves.” Of course you can find more appreciative non-readers of Homer than you could find of Horace, but does anyone doubt that you can also find far more readers of Homer than of Horace? Would even Christensen dispute that Homer has been an item of shared admiration among many who have otherwise implacably hated and opposed each other for ten generations at the least? I invite him to explain how the splash justly made by Emily Watson’s translation of the Odyssey is not in fact a signal indication of that text’s continued centrality, and this to the received canon, not as it shelves in the library, but as it lives and breathes among readers actual and potential.

  48. elessorn says:

    Isn’t it? My understanding is that it’s much more difficult for Modern Greeks, at least, than almost any other ancient author, being on the wrong side of far too many morphological and syntactic barriers. Of course if you learn Ancient Greek through Homer, then everything else probably looks easy. Or so I suppose.

    This makes me think. I’m not a good control case, since I did start off with Homer–Clyde Pharr’s excellent Homeric Greek. I have always bought the argument that the range of Homeric grammar, syntax, and vocabulary is narrower than most other Greek authors, though perhaps the hodge-podge of non-consistent inflections is a mark against the idea.

    One of my other heretical opinions (but I repeat myself) is that the people who study Sanskrit and Old Tamil and Old Chinese and Biblical Hebrew should also be in the Classics Department. (Added: Classical Arabic, too.)

    Music to my ears. Could not agree more with this, with the hope that you’ll allow Classical Japanese in there too. Also agree that the name should stay the same “Classics”, since all classics (thought not only classics, of course) by definition belong to us all. Labels like “World Classics” should be felt superfluous.

  49. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ele, jc
    Re expanding Classics, what is the objective? I think the British system used Classics to produce enough of a particular type of literate, clear-thinking administrator uniting militant Protestantism, realpolitik and refinement. The Chinese used their Classics in an analogous way but wanted administrators that were more submissive and less charitable. If you want to expand Classics, why not throw in the Bible, the Koran and the Hindu scriptures as well?

  50. Stu Clayton says:

    Labels like “World Classics” should be felt superfluous.

    I suppose you mean that “World” should be felt superfluous. I’m always looking for opportunities to use “supererogatory”, but the word is superfluous (outside of ethics) since we already have “superfluous”.

    I would take this in a different direction, by claiming that “World Classics” is a contradictio in adiecto. As discussed upthread, you can’t get much out of texts in Old X Language without knowing something about the “profoundly alien worldview” of which they are the residue.

    The very notion of “Classics” seems to be unavoidably linked to OCH fantasies, the substance of which is that, by definition or indefensible generalization, our CH is the only CH worth having. I expect there are similar discursive echo-chambers in China and Japan. We just don’t listen in, and if we did very few would understand what was being said.

  51. elessorn: I have always bought the argument that the range of Homeric grammar, syntax, and vocabulary is narrower than most other Greek authors

    This was also my experience as an undergraduate — Homer was one of the few authors that I was able to read, as opposed to struggle through line-by-line with the aid of dictionaries and commentaries. This is why I was particularly surprised to see Prof. Christensen proposing Sappho as an appropriate core requirement. I was fascinated by her exotic dialect and the fragmentary character of her poems, but these made her much more technically challenging to read than Homer, and I would have thought she would be better to include in a curriculum as an advanced option rather than as an intermediate-level requirement.

    On the other hand, Prof. Christensen’s departmental website indicates that he has taught both “Greek Epic” and “Greek Lyric Poetry” courses, so I assume he knows what he is talking about. I would be interested to learn why he thinks his students find Sappho a more approachable route to learning about “Greek culture and poetry” than Homer.

  52. I did start off with Homer–Clyde Pharr’s excellent Homeric Greek.

    Me too.

    the people who study Sanskrit and Old Tamil and Old Chinese and Biblical Hebrew should also be in the Classics Department. (Added: Classical Arabic, too.)

    I disagree (though I admire the heretical spirit). Why not just dump them all into Literature, or General Studies, then? By all means change the name to Western Classics or something, but it makes no sense to lump the Ramayana and Tolkāppiyam and Dao De Jing together with Homer because they’re all Old.

    On the other hand, Prof. Christensen’s departmental website indicates that he has taught both “Greek Epic” and “Greek Lyric Poetry” courses, so I assume he knows what he is talking about.

    Thank you. It does my heart good to see someone not assuming that if someone disagrees with them that person must be a fool or a villain.

  53. J.W. Brewer says:

    Going back a bit, I wonder if ə de vivre’s hard-to-dispute point that “studying a culture doesn’t require us to adopt the values of the culture we study” is a bit off-base. What’s important, it strikes me, is trying to understand that culture on its own terms rather than merely using it as a convenient prop (whether as a Good Example or Bad Example) in our own inevitably provincial discourse about our own times, which means that (though this phrasing is getting kinda meta) you need to understand its self-understanding even if you don’t endorse it. And you probably can’t understand a culture whose self-understanding was rooted in the importance of Homer without reading some Homer. Exactly where in the syllabus, in terms of sequencing, you do that seems subject to reasonable debate, but “before Oxford awards you a B.A. in Classics” still seems like a pretty strong contender.

  54. J.W. Brewer says:

    There is the irony, I suppose, that Oxford is an old enough university that once upon a time none of the students there read Homer in the original because literacy in Greek (as opposed to Latin) was still vanishingly rare in England even among the elite. I can’t in a few minutes’ googling figure out when the revival of Greek in elite education in England had gotten to the point where it was mandatory to display some proficiency in Greek as well as Latin to even be admitted to Oxford, but it was certainly not before well into the reign of Eliz. I. When the first Regius Prof. of Greek was appointed in 1541, he was only 25 years old, which strikes me as some evidence that qualified candidates for the chair from older cohorts of scholars may have been rather thin on the ground.

    Pace John Cowan, the Old Testament *in translation* is undoubtedly part of OCH, but reading it *in the original* never, for good or for ill, became more than a niche pursuit. Even among New England Puritans, who ought to have been an especially receptive audience, the then-President of Yale (Ezra Stiles) found himself obligated to write circa 1780 that “From my first accession to the Presidency [NB: two years earlier] … I have obliged all the Freshmen to study Hebrew. This has proved very disagreeable to a Number of the Students. This year I have determined to instruct only those who offer themselves voluntarily.”

  55. John Cowan says:

    Ged as a teenager is tremendously powerful, but his callow pride makes him a disaster; he is in no way capable of defeating the dark Ged at that age.

    Or at any age. That’s the point of the ending.

    Arren is practically useless.

    On the contrary: he is essential to the accomplishing of Ged’s purposes.

    Every single historian.

    Does this really apply to Livy? Not my recollection (but again I have not read past book V).

    depressing and anticlimactic conclusions

    Whaaat? Every single one of the Earthsea books and stories ends with a healing, a unification, a tikkun olam (“The Rule of Names” only ironically so, but it is lighthearted, quickworded, and soon over). Of course there are casualties: but if the end of TFS is depressing, by the same token so is the end of the L.R., because Frodo has to lose (and be lost by) the Shire and go over Sea to be healed (if possible) before he dies. Indeed the similarities between the two are striking.

    Le Guin is a pretty good critic of her own work (unlike, say, Wordsworth or Ibsen), and says that while AWoE and TToA are about masculine and feminine coming of age, something you are expected to survive, TFS is about what we are not expected to survive. As such it is inherently less closed, and what closure there is is mostly offstage, though surfacing in Tehanu and especially The Other Wind (“Mr. Wizard, tear down this wall!”).

    I think we must have read very different books indeed.

    latest volume of The Goblet of Ice and Fire

    I think the key phrase is “in classes”. Reading is one thing and studying another, and (to repeat myself yet again) more or less coerced study is altogether different from truly voluntary study.

    How can you possibly teach classics outside the canon? Focus on random pages of Egyptian papyrus?

    Sappho is part of the ideal canon, but in practice just as fragmentary as those papyri. (Some of the traditional “fragments” aren’t Sappho at all but something made up to illustrate her meter.)

    It is no accident that fragment can mean either a quotation from a later author or a partial inscription of some sort. (Oscan makes the convenient distinction that inscriptions are set in bold and quotations in italics in modern times, but this practice has not spread.)

    Very few students turn up at university with anything like sufficient knowledge of Greek to read Homer, or any Greek text, in the first place – maybe universities should teach them that.

    Oxford in fact does intensive training in Latin or Greek or both, and encourages people to attend one of a group of even more intensive summer schools just before first year. The Faculty of Classics is quite committed to teaching students who have not been grounded in the language in secondary school, as indeed they must be.

    But a degree in classics from Oxford should mean something.

    Yes, but what it means varies with time. In the 18C it just meant you had paid your fees and gotten a “pass” degree, something not entirely extinct in the 20C if not later. Certainly I would expect some experience not only with Latin and Greek but with textual and wider literary analysis.

    The days when Patrick Leigh Fermor communed over Horace with his captive general aren’t coming back

    I suppose an American Muslim soldier might have a discussion, if not quite communion, with a captured Taliban prisoner.

    erase even the cleverest of gorillas before her opinions are heard

    From what I can tell, gorillas don’t do opinions: they express their feelings and make demands, activities they do about as well as hominin toddlers. None have been able to ask the even the simplest question about fruit, never mind Parmenides, and none have ever told even the most absurd story about why their people build a new nest every evening.

    not all students are John Cowans

    And a Good Thing Too. My teachers’ attitude toward me throughout my schooling can be summed up by a remark my 12th-grade physics teacher made to my parents (both college professors): “He’s taught me everything I know.”

    urely everyone reading this has multiple experiences of being assigned to read something they ended up being just bowled over by?

    I don’t think so, though establishing such a negative is hard. I definitely have been bowled over by things teachers said, either to the class or to me in particular. But that is dwarfed by the effects of all I have read.

    eccentric re-selection of which authors to make mandatory

    Everything new looks eccentric at the beginning, and the notion of what is mandatory inevitably shifts over time. It was very eccentric for the founders of the School of English at Oxford to claim that Anglo-Saxon could give all the moral oomph and intellectual training of the Humaner Letters, but eventually they made their point not only for Old but for MIddle and Modern English too.

    I disagree (though I admire the heretical spirit).

    My point is that all classical works and their languages have more in common than otherwise: to study them is both to study them and study what later generations have made of them. The Beowulf is not a classic in this sense, though undoubtedly a masterpiece (see link above).

    I note that Oxford (them again) offers a degree in Classical and Oriental Studies, where “oriental” can definitely include either a classical Indian language or Arabic. I see no reason to think that Japanese is ruled out either, subject to having people available to teach it.

    It does my heart good to see someone not assuming that if someone disagrees with them that person must be a fool or a villain.

    Quoted for truth. I would add that it is one of the best features of this place.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    the whole modern notion of “majoring in something”

    Even that is only found in the US anymore, AFAIK. Over here, you don’t merely major in one subject (or two), you study one subject (or two or three), because you already got your general education before you turned 18. You can put your own field of study together (from courses offered for established fields), but almost nobody does.

    That’s also why the degree of bachelor used not to exist. In Austria it was only introduced 15 years ago. (“The economy”, whoever that is, openly and explicitly wanted it so they could employ people with a degree sooner and cheaper. A few years later “the economy” reportedly started whining that bachelors don’t have enough knowledge or experience.)

    On the other hand, attendance at lecture-type courses is strictly optional. That goes both ways: you can wander into any lecture in any field if you can find a seat. You don’t even need to be a student.

    I don’t know which bothers me more: that TV producers think that having a child character on a science fiction show will make it more popular with kids; or that they’re right.

    …There used to be video on YouTube that contained all the instances of “Shut up, Wesley!” – but it seems to have disappeared.

    Surely everyone reading this has multiple experiences of being assigned to read something they ended up being just bowled over by?

    Whole works? No. Probably a few passages, though I can’t think of any concrete examples right now.

    Oscan makes the convenient distinction that inscriptions are set in bold and quotations in italics in modern times

    I thought it’s bold if the original is in Oscan script (so always an inscription) and italics if the original is in Latin script (which includes late inscriptions). Likewise for the other Old Italic languages – and Germanic (bold if the original is in runes).

  57. I thought it’s bold if the original is in Oscan script (so always an inscription) and italics if the original is in Latin script (which includes late inscriptions)
    That’s the convention I know as well.

  58. John Cowan says:

    My mistake: apparently there no quotations from Oscan in any Latin author. I note that l e t t e r s p a c i n g, similar to “Fraktur italics”, is an alternative to bold used on typewriters, and that Greek inscriptions can either be in Greek (augmented by Ϝ, which could be either the common /w~v/ or the rare /f/) or in Latin italics.

  59. Allan from Iowa says:

    I would be interested to learn why he thinks his students find Sappho a more approachable route to learning about “Greek culture and poetry” than Homer.

    Well, for one thing, Sappho’s fragments are a lot shorter than the Iliad, so there’s more time for line-by-line analysis.

  60. ə de vivre says:

    My point is that all classical works and their languages have more in common than otherwise: to study them is both to study them and study what later generations have made of them.

    That’s the thing though, “classics” is itself a kind of strange agglomeration of a discipline born of Europe’s ideology about itself. It’s not history (woe upon any historian of Ancient Greece applying for a job in a classics department), but it looks at historical contexts. It studies texts, but not in the same way as a literature department. And philosophers like Plato and Aristotle get separated into philosophy departments. But the person who studies Confucius in the same way a classicist studies Homer would probably be either in a Chinese language department or an area studies East Asian or Chinese studies department along with people who study contemporary Chinese literature.

    I think equating all prestigious dead languages to The Classics makes an unneeded implication that the relationship between every culture and its prestige language(s) is equivalent to the relationship between Greek and Latin civilization with traditional European culture. I suspect, though, that we agree more than we disagree. I’d just prefer to see things sort out in the other direction: with Classics being one of many regional cultural studies departments.

  61. Yes, what schwa said.

  62. ə de vivre says:

    Also, I hate hate hate letter spacing as a way to differentiate between different things being transcribed, and I blame… someone, probably typewriters or word processors, for the decline of small caps. This, and not Homer’s centrality to the classics, is the hill I have chosen to die on.

    In transcribing cuneiform, Akkadian gets italics because it got there first (inūma Marduk ana šutēšur…) sign names get regular caps (E2xBAD), and Sumerian gets letterspacing, which is ugly and often hard to distinguish in automatically justified text. Small caps is right there for the taking, but few, if any, fonts have small caps versions of ‘š’ or ‘ŋ.’

  63. John Cowan says:

    But the person who studies Confucius in the same way a classicist studies Homer would probably be either in a Chinese language department or an area studies East Asian or Chinese studies department along with people who study contemporary Chinese literature.

    True, but is this a Good Thing? In the present period, specialists talk primarily to other specialists worldwide without much regard for their so-called colleagues, from all I can see. So in practice departmental grouping is mostly for administrators, to some extent for students (to organize the buffet a bit) and least of all for teachers.

    Small caps is right there for the taking, but few, if any, fonts have small caps versions of ‘š’ or ‘ŋ.’

    True. But now that there are no technical limitations on setting a single line of type with multiple font sizes, there is no reason not to use <small>CAPS</small>, which though not perfect are quite reasonable.

  64. Bathrobe says:

    I note that Oxford (them again) offers a degree in Classical and Oriental Studies, where “oriental” can definitely include either a classical Indian language or Arabic.

    Does Gilgamesh fit in here?

    you can wander into any lecture in any field if you can find a seat

    Isn’t that what Steve Jobs did?

  65. @ə de vivre: The decline of small caps is indeed due to the computerized democratization of publishing, through the rise of WYSISWG word processors and the desktop publishing revolution in the 1980s. In the old days, when documents were sent to the publishers typewritten, with hand markup indicating the fonts, there was no effective different in difficulty between prescribing bold, italics, or small caps; each of them required different physical forms for the letters. However, when dealing with electronic fonts, bolding or italicizing can be done purely algorithmically, by thickening or tilting the characters. If you wanted small caps, you could, of course, decrease the font size and type in capitals, but this was awkward, and it often did not look quite right; to get the appearance of traditional small caps, you might actually need a whole new set of glyphs, which it was initially not considered economical, in terms of effort or disk space, to provide. By the time it became standard for publication fonts to have multiple masters in the 1990s (with a whole separate set of bold or italic glyphs stored, rather than generating those shapes procedurally), it had become usual not to expect the presence of small caps. (In another contingent development, underlined text, which was not traditionally an important component of publishable output, became a standard feature of word processing.)

    Then again, small caps were always used weirdly, and I cannot say that I miss them too much. For instance, there was the practice of some novel publishers of printing the first few words of each chapter in small caps. I always found this mystifying and distracting; I wondered at one point, the publishers were trying to get some of the grandeur of drop caps while being too cheap to actually provide them.

  66. Bathrobe says:

    Small caps is available in html/css, as far as I know.

    https://www.w3schools.com/cssref/pr_font_font-variant.asp

    (from the much maligned w3schools)

  67. David Marjanović says:

    Isn’t that what Steve Jobs did?

    No idea.

  68. John Cowan says:

    Small caps is available

    That will trigger the use of a small caps font if there is one on the browser, but otherwise falls back to capital letters and ensmallens them, as in the version I gave.

    I’ve often seen the first word with a drop cap and small caps for the rest of the word.

    Unicode also provides a number of small-caps letters for plain-text use when the small caps form is semantic rather than typographical: mostly IPA extensions and UPA. Here’s a list:

    ᴀ A
    ᴁ AE
    ʙ B
    ᴃ BARRED B (centered horizontal line)
    ᴄ C
    ᴅ D
    ᴆ ETH
    ᴇ E
    ⱻ TURNED E (rotated 90 degrees)
    ꜰ F
    ɢ G
    ʛ G WITH HOOK
    ʜ H
    ɪ I
    ᵻ I WITH STROKE
    ᴊ J
    ᴋ K
    ʟ L
    ᴌ L WITH STROKE
    ᴍ M
    ꟺ TURNED M
    ɴ N
    ᴎ REVERSED N (flipped left and right)
    ᴏ O
    ɶ OE
    ᴐ OPEN O
    ᴕ OU (like 8 with an open top)
    ᴘ P
    ꞯ Q
    ʀ R
    ꭆ R WITH RIGHT LEG
    ʁ INVERTED R (flipped top and bottom)
    ᴙ REVERSED R
    ᴚ TURNED R
    ꝶ RUM (an R with a long right leg and a short line crossing it, much like ℞)
    ꜱ S
    ᴛ T
    ᴜ U
    ᵾ U WITH STROKE (centered horizontal line)
    ᴠ V
    ᴡ W
    ʏ Y
    ᴢ Z
    ᴣ EZH

    ᴦ GAMMA
    ᴧ LAMDA (Unicode uses the Modern Greek spelling)
    ᴩ RHO
    ᴨ PI
    ᴪ PSI
    ꭥ OMEGA

    ᴫ CYRILLIC EL

    Finally there is Ɪ, the curious LATIN CAPITAL SMALL CAPITAL I, which looks like a T and inverted T superimposed.

  69. Allan from Iowa: Well, for one thing, Sappho’s fragments are a lot shorter than the Iliad, so there’s more time for line-by-line analysis.

    If you want your students to to do a close reading of ~30 lines of verse, you could assign Sappho’s hymn to Aphrodite or you could choose a passage from the Iliad or the Odyssey of appropriate length. For beginning or advanced students, there probably isn’t much difference: beginning students will struggle through the text one line at a time, while advanced students have the experience to approach either text in a more sophisticated way.

    The big difference is for intermediate students, who can also read much larger chunks of Homer and acquire linguistic intuitions that will allow them to develop their own interpretations of those 30 lines. I don’t think this is possible for intermediate students studying Sappho, because there is so much less material to read and because it is linguistically more difficult. (But again, this is speaking only from my experience as a student, and someone who has actually taught these classes would be able to explain how they approach it.)

    David Marjanović is right to point out that the principles of undergraduate curriculum design in the UK are very different from those in the US. Prof Christensen’s blog post seemed to be written very much from a US perspective, with little consideration of UK or Oxonian peculiarities beyond the claim that he knows Oxford is “teaching [Homer] badly in that the canonized, western culture view is primary.” (This knowledge is apparently based on “the publications of Hellenists lecturing at Oxford on Homer and on some trained at Oxford elsewhere” rather than direct familiarity with Oxford’s teaching practices.)

  70. Bathrobe: Does Gilgamesh fit in here?

    Akkadian is one of the options on the “Oriental” side, so presumably yes. No Chinese or Japanese, though.

  71. John Cowan says:

    The Faculty of Oriental Studies lists the languages it teaches as Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Avestan, Bengali, Chinese, Coptic, Egyptian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hittite, Japanese, Korean, Old Persian, Pali, Persian, Prakrit[s], Sanskrit, Sumerian, Syriac, Tibetan, Turkish, Urdu, Yiddish. While the monuments of the last language may be too recent to be relevant to Classics & Oriental (and one suspects that it is only there because of the script), the rest are obviously to the purpose.

  72. Not all of those languages can be studied as part of the combined Classics and Oriental Studies degree. For that degree, students can choose either “Classics with Oriental Studies” (Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Egyptian, Hebrew, Early Iranian, Pali, Sanskrit, Turkish) or “Oriental Studies with Classics” (Akkadian, Arabic, Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish).

  73. Bathrobe says:

    Isn’t that what Steve Jobs did?

    No idea.

    Indeed he did. Steve’s time at Reed College, where he continued to sit in on calligraphy classes after dropping out:

    https://www.reed.edu/reed-magazine/in-memoriam/obituaries/december2011/steve-jobs-1976.html

    He later applied this to the development of beautiful fonts on the Mac. Actually a well known story.

  74. That Christensen teaches Homer the way he does annoys me.

    “Taught in the wrong way, it glorifies violence, perpetuates misogyny, oversimplifies “heroes”, their faults, and gives terrible lessons on life and death.”

    It does glorify violence. It does perpetuate misogyny (according to our 21st century sensibilities). Ernst Jünger glorifies violence as well. Nobody reads him anymore, either. The culture has changed. This stuff isn’t relevant anymore. At least not to the culture we’ve got. If you’re a professor of Classics, though, you’ve got to pretend your subject *is* relevant. We’ll see a lot of that before it goes the way of the Dodo. Intersectionalism, feminism, modern democratic ideals: it’ll all get crowbarred in.

    Universalizing Homer is just another event in the long train of dissipation. Ours is a tired culture. If Homer has universal themes (those beyond the most base, the pre-civilizational), they are those that can be found in the major production of any other culture. If he’s everything, he’s nothing.

    Homer isn’t meant to be enjoyed by the people who become successful professors in the 21st century. Those people necessarily treat their subject in accordance with the mores and pressures of the time, and our society isn’t interested in having a Western civilization anymore. We want everything gray, “equal”, “diverse”, and mediocre.

    It hardly matters at all that the choice of Homer was contingent. It was the choice, so much as it was made, to hold cultural values together. If you’re an internationalist, you believe–quite wrongly–that this stuff will work for Indians and Chinese, and that classics departments can remain relevant that way. They can’t. Homer stands for one thing and one civilization, or he doesn’t stand at all. We hold the same devotional together or we don’t.

  75. If you’re an internationalist, you believe–quite wrongly–that this stuff will work for Indians and Chinese, and that classics departments can remain relevant that way. They can’t. Homer stands for one thing and one civilization, or he doesn’t stand at all. We hold the same devotional together or we don’t.

    Ah yes, so those Indians and Chinese who claim to love Homer are fooling themselves or us, as are those Westerners who claim to love Indian and Chinese classics. We’re all stuck in our little devotional cubbies sharing our tightly clutched personalized treasures.

    Ours is a tired culture.

    No, it’s your essentialism and laus temporis acti that’s tired.

  76. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hc
    Your argument appears to me to unduly pessimistic. Classing Homer with Stahlgewitter (why not throw in Celine☺) and saying because one is no longer read (I don’t know if it was on many university syllabuses) that the other will not be read because THEY won’t give you anything to read that does not reflect THEIR values. After all, Shakespeare survived Bowdlerisation and other attempted mutilations and disapprobation over the last few centuries.

  77. @LH

    I occasionally meet Chinese who love Homer. I never meet one for whom Homer is more meaningful than the poets of the Southern Song, or of Li Bai or Du Fu. Quite right. Inasmuch as he makes that leap, he isn’t Chinese. Essentialism and laus temporis acti are perenially fresh. After a hegemon exhausts itself, le déluge.

    @PP

    My point, perhaps poorly made, was that an argument can be made in favor of certain forms of violence as manly virtue; we don’t live in a society that accepts that anymore. We find it impossible to understand the mind of Jünger or of the Greeks. History is a foreign country and all that.

  78. John Cowan says:

    Half Carlyle

    Well, I suppose so: that’s only half a rant.

    It does glorify violence. It does perpetuate misogyny

    I don’t think so. It takes them for granted, which is very different. And it is the Iliad which first teaches us (as far as I know) that the death of an enemy is a tragedy, a lesson that civilization always needs to re-learn.

    Ours is a tired culture.

    Spenglerian pre-1918 claptrap, long since superseded by the facts.

    our society isn’t interested in having a Western civilization anymore

    Which Western civilization? The Roman Empire? You can have it.

    one thing and one civilization

    Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fūhrer, is it? No thanks

    Essentialism and laus temporis acti are perenially fresh.

    Only because they are perennial nonsense, like astrology. I stand with Gilbert: “The idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone / All centuries but this, and every country but his own.” Not that most of the people in that verse of Ko-Ko’s little list don’t belong there any more with the advance of civility.

    an argument can be made in favor of certain forms of violence as manly virtue; we don’t live in a society that accepts that anymore

    An argument can be made that the earth is flat, and I can certainly understand the people who believed it: it’s quite plausible on the face of things. In any case the rate of violent death (along with associated things like cruelty to animals and children) has been dropping for five centuries, almost the whole time in which Homer has been known to “the West” as more than a name.

  79. Stu Clayton says:

    In any case the rate of violent death (along with associated things like cruelty to animals and children) has been dropping for five centuries, almost the whole time in which Homer has been known to “the West” as more than a name.

    Homer takes credit for all that ? You make him sound like Trump.

  80. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well said, JC.

    Homer stands for one thing and one civilization, or he doesn’t stand at all. We hold the same devotional together or we don’t

    So, to the terrible creativity-destroying advice to the young writer “write what you know”, we are to append the mind-numbing codicil “read what you know.” (With regard to our entire culture.)

    In point of fact, neither proposition is true, not even remotely; moreover, the assumption that Homer “stands” (in some way) for our own civilisation is also manifestly false. Indeed it is precisely the falsehood of the assumption that makes the study of Homer interesting and valuable.

    This argument reminds me rather of the hardcore Chomskyan notion that study of diverse languages is a mere bagatelle, to be ditched in favour of sustained navel-gazing about one’s own language, which will assuredly lead to the One True Grammar because all languages are basically the same.

  81. David Eddyshaw says:

    Homer takes credit for all that ? You make him sound like Trump.

    I am fairly confident that nobody in the history of the world has ever made this comparison before. Let the record show that it was made here first …

  82. Rodger C says:

    I was away for the day or so when this was really an appropriate contribution, but when I was an undergrad I thought that it’d be cool for everybody in the world with the required language skills to learn Classical Greek, C. Arabic, C. Sanskrit, and C. Chinese. Latin, Tamil, Persian, and Japanese were the languages of derivative civilizations and could be dispensed with by people from elsewhere. As for Hebrew, I thought at the time that everything worth reading in it had been translated into Greek. (In the event, I learned basic Greek and picked up a bit of each of the others.)

  83. J.W. Brewer says:

    Surely the values presupposed by the Homeric corpus are rather different from those in vogue on most 21st century college campuses, however complex nuanced an account of the Homeric worldview you may think justifiable. But what are we to do with that? One theory about the purpose of a liberal arts education is that engagement with texts from other times and places is useful in part because it may jolt students out of provincialism and the smug self-assurance that the time and place in which they happen to have been born has the Only Right Answers to all of the perennial questions that have puzzled and/or divided mankind over the millennia. But that then leads to the question of whether smug self-assurance that the conventional wisdom of the 21st century college-town worldview is the Only Right Answer is viewed by faculty and/or the students themselves as a problem to be overcome or instead as an achievement that must be defended against the Forces of Reaction.

  84. The desire to question (or, as they say, problematize) one’s own worldview has always been a minority one.

  85. Stu Clayton says:

    And as soon as those minorities make such questioning the basis of a new worldview, as they all do eventually, their library subscriptions will be cancelled.

  86. J.W. Brewer says:

    A nice little paragraph about the impulse to read arcane books to extricate oneself from an unsatisfactory status quo (although in the event it led to a journey in what many might consider a crackpottish direction), from John Szwed’s bio of Sun Ra (pp. 62-63):

    The more he read the more he understood his mission. The confusion and sadness he saw all around him focused his efforts, and a terrible urgency gripped him. He had to know more, to become a scholar, to go to the limits of knowledge. He would have to increase his reading, find the books he needed, maybe read everything. If necessary, he would rebuild the Library of Alexandria on the South Side [of Chicago].

  87. I don’t think that insisting that the study of Classics (aka Homer and Co) has to have a definite higher purpose. They are just an interesting subject. Everything else can be picked up by studying something else. If you want to know about other cultures, anthropology is a better choice. We do have several great literary civilizations of the past about as rich as Greeks and Romans, but not too many. And probably it’s OK to say that they are all about equally interesting, just pick up whatever is your heart’s desire.

  88. David Marjanović says:

    and our society isn’t interested in having a Western civilization anymore. We want everything gray, “equal”, “diverse”, and mediocre.

    Sounds like you do read Jünger.

    Homer stands for one thing and one civilization, or he doesn’t stand at all.

    That civilization is manifestly not ours, though; I’ve already mentioned Spengler in this context.

    Spenglerian pre-1918 claptrap, long since superseded by the facts.

    The funny thing about reading Spengler (even in the abridged version that I’ve read) is how he thought the Faustian Soul had run its course and was dying – and yet, by his own criteria, it was starting over right in front of his eyes! That time in a young culture, when a soul has only just found its style and you can date a work of art (music included where available) to the decade? That’s what the 20th century has been, and no end in sight. Better yet, the Faustian Soul has become personified more blatantly than ever before: that’s Superman. Better yet, the notion of progress so characteristic of the Faustian Soul manifests itself in his history: at first he could only “leap a tall building in a single bound”; then he could fly by technobabble about our supposedly yellow sun; finally he overcame gravity by sheer force of will and learned to zoom off by symbolically stretching his fist onward and upward. Agreeing with old Anselm’s distinctly Faustian mindset that reality is greater than fiction, this second youth of our culture has shot people to the fucking moon, and in theoretical physics actual work is being done on the Alcubierre drive.

    Oh, and, smallpox is extinct, slavery is in hiding, and the death penalty is once again abolished in the land of Hatti. We may not have slain our gods, as Nietzsche – Spengler’s distinctly Faustian nihilist – thought and as we tell about the Klingons; but, left and right, we’re slaying our devils as if we were playing Doom.

    I don’t think that insisting that the study of Classics (aka Homer and Co) has to have a definite higher purpose.

    As much as I agree, I can offer one anyway: “everything is the way it is because it got that way”; “the present is not the key to the past; the past is the key to the present, and to the future”.

  89. John Cowan says:

    the impulse to read arcane books to extricate oneself from an unsatisfactory status quo

    They need not be arcane either: I have just been rereading When Books Went to War, the story of how librarians, publishers, and the U.S. armed forces distributed (and in most cases published in special editions for which the U.S. paid the publishers just their costs) upwards of 120 million books for the use of soldiers and sailors everywhere in the world, and how much it mattered to those doing the fighting to have an escape. The books were of all sorts: contemporary fiction, mysteries, westerns, poetry, and (in base and shipboard libraries) technical books and textbooks. Several million more books were distributed in English and in translation to postwar Europe.

    they are all about equally interesting, just pick up whatever is your heart’s desire

    Well said.

    And, as I keep saying, every bit of knowledge is the center of knowledge, so start where you please; eventually (if you live forever) you will reach it all. This is a world that is so fragmented and yet so connected that I, even I, can drop a bit of untranslated Classical Chinese into a post about Martin Haspelmath in the assurance that some of us will know it, some will google it and say “Yes, of course”, and some willl google it and say “What an interesting idea!” This is one of only three places on the Internet where I don’t have to dumb it down, and one of the others is my own blog.

  90. J.W. Brewer says:

    JC: I’m guessing the WW2 military wasn’t handing out free copies of titles like (to pick a few found in the pages that come after that bit I quoted) “God wills the Negro : an anthropological and geographical restoration of the lost history of the American Negro people : being in part a theological interpretation of Egyptian and Ethiopian backgrounds : compiled from ancient and modern sources” or “The two Babylons, or, The papal worship proved to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife.”

  91. John Cowan says:

    True. But they did publish several books banned in Boston for sexual content (“raciness”), notably Strange Fruit (nothing to do with the poem and song of that title). The first book published in an Armed Services Edition The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. Probably the single most popular book was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The modern stature of The Great Gatsby, considered a failure at Fitzgerald’s death, has much to do with the number of people who read it during the war. There were 1322 titles in all between September 1943 and June 1947: My Life and Hard Times (twice), Plato’s Republic, Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria,Jane Eyre, The Time Machine, The Grapes of Wrath, The Postman Always Rings Twice, H. Rider Haggard’s She, The Love Poems of Robert Herrick, right up to Home Country by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent.

    The 120 million books were passed from hand to hand: they were designed to survive six readings but often went on to many more. Physically, they were about the size of a Readers Digest cut in half horizontally, and were printed in landscape.

    As for the mere 10 million books donated in 1942-44 by libraries, publishers, and individuals, they were categorized as follows: Decrepit books were sold to the waste paper drive and the money used to buy technical books that were rarely donated. Children’s books were sent to Save The Children. Books thought unsuitable for the troops like How To Knit and Theology in 1870 were sent to libraries in towns where war industries had been established and libraries were overloaded. Rare and expensive books were sold and the proceeds used to buy books frequently requested by training camp libraries. And the remaining 2/3, as I said, were used in shipboard and base libraries.

  92. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I don’t dumb down for the internet, but then I only post here and edit a little math stuff on WP.

  93. Bathrobe says:

    drop a bit of untranslated Classical Chinese into a post about Martin Haspelmath

    I seem to have missed it.

  94. AJP Crown says:

    This is one of only three places on the Internet where I don’t have to dumb it down, and one of the others is my own blog.
    John, what’s the third? I welcome an occasional downdumbing btw, though thanks to our host’s skill as a writer (and many others too) I’ve never felt one was required here.

  95. Yes, I’m curious too.

  96. Rodger C says:

    I owned for many years my father’s special edition of Walter Lord’s Genghis Khan.

    The two Babylons, or, The papal worship proved to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife

    I was exposed to this book as a youth by my church librarian, a woman of the type who, in another time and place, would be for banning Homer as sexist.

  97. John Cowan says:

    John, what’s the third?

    A general-interest IRC channel, #swhack on the Freenode network. Just pick a nick, enter the channel as “#swhack”, and tell them John Cowan sent you.

    I welcome an occasional downdumbing

    Well, the same do I. The way mathematics articles are written in Wikipedia is an utter violation of WP:TECHNICAL.

    I must have missed it.

    Here you go.

  98. Trond Engen says:

    I thought the Chinese quote would turn out as yu ji.

    I never have to dumb anything down, but that’s just how I am.

  99. Stu Clayton says:

    I never have to dumb anything down, but that’s just how I am.

    That remark is a giant rogue wave of ambiguousness. My thoughts are rushing back and forth on the deck like the dog when it wants to go out, but there is no escape.

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