A visit to Language Log (where there is a lively discussion going on about the bad metadata at Google Books, in which an actual Google honcho has joined) landed me at Mark Liberman’s Joshua Whatmough and the donkey, which sent me to Steve Cotler’s Prof. Joshua Whatmough — Linguistics 120, a lively reminiscence of a hapless Harvard chemistry major in 1962 plunged into the dark and turbulent waters of Whatmough’s course on Comparative and Historical Indo-European Languages, where he found himself sadly out of his depth (“I could not even read question 1, which included words written in a character set that I had never seen before”), and Cotler in turn directed me to William Harris’s A Requiem for Philology, which is primarily what the title suggests, giving a history of the specialty that “reigned unchallenged for a hundred years as Comparative Philology, or under a more modern name as Historical Linguistics,” but which uses as its primary exemplum the selfsame Whatmough, citing an examination paper from 1947-8 that presents a barrage of detailed questions about Osco-Umbrian (“Translate the following passages, assign each to its locality and dialect, give its approximate date, indicate the character of the object, and write brief notes on matters of linguistic interest. 1) puponehe.x.orakoh.e. kupethari.s; 2) metelui maesilaui uenia metelikna asmina krasikna…”) that would have made me quail back when I was most immersed in such things; Harris asks “what kind of a teacher, working with students in what kind of a class, would be writing such an examination?” and goes on to describe the value of what the Germans used to call statarische Lektüre, in which a small quantity of text is read thoroughly (opposed to kursorische Lektüre, which scanted the details to emphasize historical context and aesthetic impact). I particularly like this eloquent paragraph:
First, the careful reading of obscure and at times inscrutable texts, done word by word and hour by hour, gives the kind of close-reading technique which is absolutely needed if one is going to read an ancient Classical author. We have learned to skim-read the vast and exponentially expanding written materials which our society has collected, especially now in the days of the Internet. We are expert at getting the ideas out of written texts while we discard the actual words, their forms, sounds and arrangements as the disposable chaff. But it is in this chaff that the art and artistry of the writing lies, that is the matrix for support of the meaning, and meaning is not complete or significant without the matrix. The slow reading craft of linguistic philology gives us the capacity to pore deeply on a text. Unless you have pored with care you are not authentic, you are not reading in the tradition in which Plato or Vergil wrote. Philology, without saying so, confers on modern readers that requisite degree of intense concentration.
Unfortunately, he rather spoils the effect by going on to say “Reaching a focused state of ‘close reading’ takes time, effort and imagination, but that is the way you have to read a classical author. If not thus, don’t read it at all.” But elitism is always a danger for those who take the difficult path, and better there should be a few elitists seeking for hard-won truths in a world of happy skimmers.
Incidentally, in an Addendum at the very end of the (long) page, Harris writes:
It was in 1955 when Whatmough was at Berkeley under the Sather Fellowship, that I came over from my office at Stanford to see him and hear his Sather Lecture on Latin Poetry. After the lecture we walked around a bit, until he inquired where the Mens Ro[o]m was, adding as he read the letters MEN over the door “unde omnes cogimur”. You would have to know your Horace well to get the full sense of this capped quotation.
I assume he’s referring to Odes II.iii, the last stanza of which begins “omnes eodem cogimur” ‘we shall all be herded/driven there [to Orcus, i.e., death],’ Whatmough’s variant with “unde” meaning ‘whence we are all herded/driven,’ but I suspect I am missing “the full sense of this capped quotation,” since all I get is a banal image of a crowd of people leaving a men’s room. And I don’t even know what a “capped quotation” is. Eheu!