The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

An Errant Academic

I mentioned Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self more than a month ago and, having finally finished reading it, there are a few more comments I would like to make. To begin, though, with a summary:

errô, errare, erravi, erratus – to wander, to go astray, to err. The record of scholarship, particularly of literary criticism, is a map of the scholar’s errancy, his tendency to go astray, to make mistakes, to misread, to misremember, to quote falsely; its legend is an account of his attempts to correct the errors of others.1 From this one can conclude not only that all scholarship is subjective (i.e. entirely dependent upon the character of the scholar and his proclivities for a peculiar errancy) but also personal – that is, tending to illuminate the mind of the scholar to a degree equal or greater to the light it sheds on the ostensible subject.2 Running beneath this inquiry, below the consideration of Tolkein, Casaubon, Auerbach, et al., is the sense that scholarship is essentially a misguided endeavor, one which – if not in itself personally destructive – springs from the scholar’s hurts and fears or even – in extreme cases – the broken relics of his humanity.3

What is one to make of an author who — in a book of this description — blithely quotes ‘χρυσοζ αιδομενου πυζ’ (p. 67) and calls it Pindar, Olymp. 1.2? Even setting aside the fact that this is not actually Greek, a quick glimpse at Pindar’s first Olympian ode shows that the bit most nearly resembling that gobbledygook (χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ) occurs at Olymp. 1.1.4 I could readily pardon this, as Lerer is quoting from George Hickes’s Linguarum Vett. Septentrionalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus et Archaeologicus (1703–5) and Hickes could very well have erred in his citation;5 if that is the case, however, I would expect a big fat [SIC] from Lerer to lay the blame on the amateur philologist – that, or an equally corpulent note concerning the state of Pindar’s text in the late seventeenth century (of which I am ignorant, tho’ I do not imagine it to be as bad as that).

My guess is, however, that this has nothing to do with Hickes at all, but is first and foremost sloppy proof-reading on Lerer’s part and, secondly, a deplorable attempt to show off by quoting in the Greek he does not really know. An apologist would say the typographer’s to blame, for the transposed letters do bear a resemblance to the letters which should have been used, and the (presumably Greekless) typographer could not be expected to know the difference (!).6 This does not explain the absence of breathings and accents in each of the occasional bits of Greek Lerer dribbles throughout his text. Now I do understand it is difficult for publishers to have polytonic Greek on hand, but if that was the problem, why not just transliterate? (Especially considering there is no real need, aside from prestige, to use untransliterated Greek in a work of this kind.)7

This might seem a very great fuss about a very minor error, but when combined with some dubious translations from Latin8 and very free renderings of German it is, I think, sufficient to give one serious reservations about Lerer’s philological reliability.9 It makes me worry about the translations of Anglo-Saxon poems which he includes, for as I am ignorant of that language I depend upon him to be accurate if not euphonic. It is the duty of the reader to be critical, but it is the duty of the scholar to inspire confidence, if not in his reasoning, at least in his attention to details. Despite (and in some cases, because of) the unstransliterated ‘Greek’, Lerer’s credibility declines before it’s been established.

I am not so foolish as to ignore the possibility that these slips and errors are intentional. This is certainly possible. It would be the sort of cute self-consciousness one almost expects, even as one dreads it. One may call this many things; I, for one, cannot call it scholarship. It should not be surprising, then, that I think this book should never have been published in its current condition; I find its notions thought-provoking, but the arguments supporting them are ill-considered, ill-organized and ill-presented; on the whole, it wants condensation and clarification — for then it would be something he could read at the MLA convention, where it would stand a better chance of drawing the attention of its intended audience. In short, I found this work insufficiently dense, though it is equally possible I am over-abundantly so.

  1. I use the masculine pronoun because all of the scholars Lerer considers were/are male; although he does consider elements of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, he is more concerned with the character of the Casaubon than the character of the novel as whole. []
  2. Fair enough; one learns just as much about Fergus Millar from his Emperor in the Roman World as one does about the supposed routines of the Trajan and Claudius, but at least it is more than merely suggestive, its footnotes heavier with primary sources than secondary scholarship. This focus on source material rather than the modern cabalism serves to open the topic up for a more general discussion, an endeavor sometimes lacking in the fashionable exclusivity of some modern scholars. What good, I ask, is a book of criticism or historical inquiry if it only enlumines the idiosyncrasies of the scholar without a corresponding clarification of the topic under consideration? Reading such works, I am inclined to throw the egotistical nincompoops out the window – as this is frequently impossible, I content myself with throwing the relevant books across the room. []
  3. Lerer also includes a notion that Americans are the chosen people to further the future of scholarship. There seems no need to comment on such an absurd idea. []
  4. Transliterations: Lerer (p.67): khrusoz aidomenou puz ; Pindar, Olympia 1.1: khrusòs aithómenon pûr. []
  5. I have been unable to check this because the work lies in a section of the stacks which is shut owing to a leaky air-conditioner. []
  6. Indeed, I noticed the substitution of zeta (ζ) for the final sigma (ς) in the Penguin classics edition of Adam Bede (p. 302, 605), and nu (ν) and upsilon (υ) are dangerously similar to the, uh, uninitiated; it takes a bit more ingenuity, though, to make a delta (δ) of a theta (θ). []
  7. November 2010: this seems to me the real crux of what I intended to say; I suppose it was the unnecessary pretension I took offense to. []
  8. Lerer translates dominus … sublime caput omnium creaturaum as ‘God … the sublime head of all creatures’ (71); this is not wrong, but the pat equivalences at the cost of idiom seem to me a step on the primrose path of errancy. I’m sorry, but I do wince when a person translates sublime as sublime, which lacks (I feel) the sense of physical and emotional distance expressed in the Latin. []
  9. It is one thing to follow Müller’s reading of Wordsworth (though frankly I imagine if the poet were asked for a one word alternative to ‘orient Conqueror of gloomy Night’ he might choose ‘dawn’ rather than ‘philology’ — and if the emphasis were on the ‘orient’ it might be capitalized along with Conqueror…), it is quite another to find the etymology of ‘orient’ (from L. oriens, rising sc. sun) ‘illuminating’ (149). []


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