in Culture, Language, Literature, Personal Stuff, Scholarship

A ramble on Latin scholarship

I’ve been away from this world for awhile. The opportunity presented itself to move 2,800 miles away, and despite a good job teaching Latin in a good school, and being a year shy of tenure (with good prospects), we decided to go for it. It was a struggle for awhile, and I learned to become very sympathetic to the truly poor.

But I digress. I was away from Latin in the wilderness for a good long while. I still am, as it happens. I’m working on the web now, or rather in a cubicle in a tower high over Seattle. I do work on the web, dealing with content, graphic design, and the like. We’re pretty well settled now and have insurance and pensions, and count ourselves lucky, which is what we are, and what you are if you have the same. There’s still something missing, though.

Through it all, and very tenuously, we’ve able to keep our several-thousand-book library in a storage unit, stacked high on two pallets and wrapped carefully in waterproof tarps. We have a few dictionaries on the mantle, but all of our grammars and commentaries, our Cambridge green & yellows and OCTs and Teubners and so on, all of these are still there in those stacks, itching to get out and be read.

I think about it from time to time, and I think about the kind of scholar I tried to be, both in graduate school, when I was paralyzed by my lifelong battle with social anxiety, and as a teacher, when I came to terms with the old saying that le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. There was a transformation there that wasn’t quite complete, even when clung to Hermann’s dictum, est quaedam etiam nesciendi ars et scientia (Opusc. ii.288).

I was too fastidious, too concerned with minutiae, and it wasn’t (as one professor blithely said) because I was a positivist. It was because I lived with constant self-doubt matched by an abiding belief that everyone else was looking to catch me out. That sounds pretty grand now that I type it, but it’s true.

I was accused of wanting to be a textual critic, and told I could never be one because I wasn’t born at the right time (the nineteenth century?) or in the right country (the UK? Germany?). But that wasn’t accurate. What I wanted to be was right, because my most vivid memories were always of being wrong, embarrassed, bullied, or a disappointment. Struggling to master everything (even the unknowable) wasn’t conscious or deliberate, but a visceral, psychological need.

I wasn’t the kind of scholar I was because I wanted to be a particular kind of scholar. I was just trying not to be wrong.

I found myself just now thinking deeply about teaching Latin, specifically oral Latin. That part of my inner monologue isn’t important now, but it led me down a path to thinking about how one reads Latin, which led me to this rambling post. While thinking about the sources of oral Latin in the classroom—poetry and prose (from all eras), legal texts, inscriptions, graffiti—I thought of how wrong it was to spend hours or sometimes days on a few poems or a dozen pages of prose, armed with grammars and dictionaries, commentaries and monographs, and buttressed by preconceived ideas and teachers’ intimations. I started to expound to an imaginary audience in my head on the ways to achieve real fluency, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever had the nerve to do with Latin and Greek.

When I uncrate those books again, I’m going to leave the grammars and the commentaries on the shelf for a while. I’m going to read the literature less closely than I ever have before, and I’m going to read more of it. I’m going to read it, and then read it again. I’ll let the volume and the variety of words say more to me than the notes of scholars or my own narrow reading. And I’m not going to let my little demons stall me on every little word and question.