Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard

The Invention of Love Tom StoppardCatching up from a couple of weeks ago:

One of the other counselors at the book camp I just finished work at is, for reasons which should become clear in a moment, a fan of the work of A.E. Housman. I gave him a hard time about this last year mostly because I remembered Orwell savaging Housman in his magnificent essay "Inside the Whale." But this year, I ran across the review by Frank Kermode which I posted on here, and found new reasons to appreciate Housman.

Furthering that, and explaining what drew my friend to Housman in the first place, my friend lent me a copy of Tom Stoppard's play "The Invention of Love," which focuses on Housman's life and peers/professors (including Pater, Wilde, and Ruskin). The play is magnificent—as imaginative as any Stoppard has written, and far more moving (I think). Rather than go into detail, I would just like to quote a few passages in which Housman, one of the greatest scholars of Latin of his day, propounds a certain view of scholarship. Essentially, these are quotes which I want to keep for further consideration, but you get the benefit of being able to read them too:
"By taking out a comma and putting it back in a different place, sense is made out of nonsense in a poem that has been read continuously since it was first misprinted four hundred years ago. A small victory over ignorance and error. A scrap of knowledge to add to our stock. what does this remind you of? Science, of course. Textual criticism is a science whose subject is literature, as botany is the science of flowers and zoology of animals and geology of rocks. Flowers, animals and rocks being the work of nature, their sciences are exact sciences, and must answer to the authority of what can be seen and measured. Literature, however, being the work of the human mind with all its frailty and aberration, and human fingers which make mistakes, the science of textual criticism must aim for degrees of likelihood, and the only authority it might answer to is an author who has been dead for hundreds or thousands of years. But it is a science none the less, not a sacred mystery. Reason and common sense, a congenial intimacy with the author, a comprehensive familiarity with the language, a knowledge of ancient script for those fallible fingers, concentration, integrity, mother wit and repression of self-will--these are a good start for the textual critic. In other words, almost anybody can be a botanist or a zoologist. Textual criticism is the crown and summit of scholarship."
What a strange thing is a young man. You had better be a poet. Literary enthusiasm never made a scholar, and unmade many. Taste is not knowledge. A scholar's business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can't have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.
Poetical feelings are a peril to scholarship. There are always poetical people ready to protest that a corrrupt [sic] line is exquisite. Exquisite to whom? The Romans were foreigners writing for foreigners two millenniums ago; and for people whose gods we find quaint, whose savagery we abominate, whose private habits we don't like to talk about, but whose idea of what is exquisite is, we flatter ourselves, mysteriously identical with ours.
I love the fact that the word "corrupt" is misspelled in the text—I would not put it past Stoppard to have done that intentionally, and in so doing neatly strengthening Housman's point. There are indeed persons who will look at the "corrrupt" line and pronounce it poetical; others will see it merely as a typo. I would say that I fall in with the former group, but I'm afraid Housman might chastise me for doing so.

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