The Scholar’s Gaze: A Prefatory Scratch at Classical Scholarship

You start by going to university to read Classics. At some point you become a ‘scholar,’ engaged in what I can best describe with the German word Altertumswisseschaft. Instead of enjoying and learning from the Classics as companions and teachers, you study the Classical world as a collection of interrelated objects. These exercises are not the same thing, any more than experiencing a dream, and analysing it are the same. The analytical and objectifying gaze allows you mentally to possess any material you turn it on. The ‘Wissenschaftler’ might turn his attention on anything which can enhance our understanding of the ancient world, from a papyrus of Sappho, for example, to a papyrus containing a wet nurse contract in Greek.

So what is the purpose of Classical Scholarship?

Is anything lost in terms of direct experience by pursuing this scientific project? I think it is. Being a scholar does not prevent one reading Homer, as Pope did in An Essay on Criticism:

Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight,
Read them by Day, and meditate by Night,
Thence form your Judgment, thence your Maxims bring,
And trace the Muses upward to their Spring;
Still with It self compar’d, his Text peruse;
And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse.

Pope is the critical student, both experiencing the text, and seeking to understand why the text works as great literature, rather than dissecting it as another piece of evidence for antiquity. The analytical scholar, however, betrays his sense of loss, as well as gain, when, after a laborious reconstruction of some nugatory fragment, he adds, more or, sometimes, less apologetically, ‘it is not, after all, too bad as literature.’ He might remember his enthusiasm for Homer, or Catullus, as a green Classics student, and think quietly (to use the language of contract law), non haec in foedera veni. It would be easy to point to examples. This ‘it actually has some literary merit‘ attitude was everywhere in a subject I took an interest in, the Greek novel. As the popularity of the field increased, and thus the confidence of its practitioners, the apologetic tendency in the positive evaluations weakened.

A comparable point is made with respect to English scholarship by the bookseller friend whom I described in my last post as having retired from his London shop to a leafy suburb:

Re: Starnbergersee

Dear John,

I will soon be writing those letters that English people who live in the county used to write, detailing how they purchased an ell of muslin for there wife s dress, and three ha pence worth of nails, and which OUP reprinted a Century later, to the universal applause of the critics. We should find someone who lives on a Council estate on benefits, with a pleasing style of writing and publish their emails, with scholarly annotation;- time passes so much more quickly now, even the world of our childhood would have a charming remoteness, imagine a world without mobile phones or computers, where children were beaten when they misbehaved and central heating was regarded as unusual.

The sun rising over the Austrian mouse farm, strikes me as not really poetical…

What would a scholar do with that fragment of an email? And why?

The history of scholarship has not really been written. I have read Pfeiffer, but he does not get to the post-enlightenment developments which made scholarship what it is today. I see there is a new edition of Sandys, and the original edition is downloadable. I am sure I looked there for the explanation of why scholars do what they do, and failed to find it. Perhaps I should revisit Sandys. For now, I admit this post makes a hopelessly inadequate scratch on a subject which troubled me. If anyone can illuminate for me what may be a stupid question, please do so.

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