Tuesday, February 24, 2009


IT took issue with what she saw as the false innocence of Alain de Botton's new book on work; ADB took issue with IT's irresponsible dilettantism (I paraphrase) in dashing off a post without solid research to back it up; on ADB's suggestion, IT published their subsequent correspondence, here.

I'm not a fan of ADB, which is to say that the couple of chapters I read of How Proust Can Save Your Life brought fast and frugal heuristics into play (didn't read the rest, have not read the rest of his oeuvre), which is to say, of course, that I am in no position to make sweeping generalizations and don't. In his commitment to dialogue, however, and to having this dialogue made available to the public, he comes out well in comparison to Wyatt Mason, who flatly declined to allow publication of private e-mails taking issue with his posts on, erm, the importance of writers' engaging in public debate with their critics.

The thing that bothered me about the bit of ADB that I read was that it reminded me too much of demoralizing experiences during my undergraduate degree at Oxford. Typical incident:

I notice that the General Books Essay Paper for Mods includes a metre question in Section B. Section A consists of questions on the 16 or so set texts, of which one had to answer 3; Section B was terrifying, a mixed bag of questions on general topics (role of women in Greek and Roman society, relevance of religion to G&R literature, use of archaeological evidence for the understanding of G&R society, in other words Huge Questions on which whole doctoral dissertations could be written, one of which the hapless Mods candidate must put to rights in 45 minutes). Along with the Huge Questions Section B included a Metre Question! A question for which technical knowledge rather than piss artistry was required! Several passages of Greek and Latin verse were to be scanned, the metre identified, and some sort of commentary on points of metrical interest provided.

Now, metre was not something that was actually taught. It was something that had to be picked up independently, by reading various seminal texts - West had not yet published his wonderful book, but there was Maas's Greek Metre, a book by A M Dale whose title I forget, and all the serious commentaries on poetry offered metrical analysis. There was just one slight problem.

A M Dale had written back in the 50s, when a sort of touchy-feely approach to metre was in vogue - one could waffle on about the emotional colour of this or that metre for however many hundred words one thought required. So even if there were no metrical anomalies in a passage, there was always plenty to say, because one could just emote away. Those were the good old days. And those were also the good old days in another way, because in those days the Metre Question on Section B of the Mods General Books Paper (the term "microhabitat" always comes to mind, somehow, when I think of this paper) had passages with actual metrical anomalies! So there were points of metrical interest on which to comment!

Sadly, times had changed. On the one hand, A M Dale emotivism was something no modern scholar actually bought. But on the other hand, the metrical anomalies in the Metre Question had dried up. The level of technical competence among undergraduates had been declining steadily over the years, and the Metre Question had been getting progressively easier, to the point where, in the early 80s, all you could really do with the passages was scan and identify the metre - there were no metrical anomalies to get your teeth into. Unless, of course, you were to write some piece of touchy-feely AMDalist drivel - but surely the examiners could not have set the passages with the idea of rewarding those ignorant of the latest developments in metrical studies? (Unless, perhaps, the examiners assumed that students incapable of spotting metrical anomalies would be doing well to be up to speed on drivel that no serious scholar had bothered with for a good three decades?)

If there had been metrical anomalies, in other words, the question would have been a gift. Instead it presented this sort of sociological morass. What did they want? If there were no metrical anomalies, what could one possibly say in the way of comment? I asked my tutor, Winifred Hicken. Miss Hicken: Oh, I wouldn't bother with that, my dear, the men have been doing it for years.

A couple of years later I went in for a classics prize that included a paper with metre questions with actual metrical anomalies, which I won; I was then told that only four women had ever won it - an Englishwoman, an Australian, a Scot, and an American (me). Presumably because the dons at the women's colleges had either not bothered to tell their students of its existence, or not helped them to prepare, or actually actively discouraged them from going in for it. (Grrrrrrrr. Grrrrrrrrrr.)

Anyway, the point is, while I do understand the impulse to make a subject accessible to a wider public, and to do so in terms the public is likely to respond to, it makes me nervous when there is something that looks like my tutor's attempt at kindness: the assumption that some very small select group can tackle the really tough stuff, and that those who haven't happened to have that training should accept their limitations, not make themselves unhappy by, I don't know, trying to read Plato in Greek, read Rawls - or, in the case of Proust, just read this lunatic in French.

Bad things are going on, so all for now.

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

Blackadder on Johnson's Dictionary: "It's the most useless book since 'How to Learn French' was translated into French."