Scholars and other fungi

(John Wainwright, Still Life with Mushrooms, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council)

Browsing the latest issue of the London Review of Books, I came across this, in Colin Burrow’s notice of the new Christopher Ricks book, Along Heroic Lines: ‘The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general.’[1]

I was drafting a piece the other day that took off from the word ‘scholar’ (but also the word ‘mushrooms’)’, before realising that I would be straying into areas more thoroughly covered in the next issue of Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society – so desisted. 

Still, that talk of ‘lines’ recalled the toothsome passage from Anne Carson that I’d previously turned up: ‘A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtue—who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.’[2]

I’m not sure that Dominick Medina, in John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, can be said to do that. ‘“He is a deity of les jeunes and a hardy innovator”, MacGillivray says. “Jolly good, too. The man’s a fine classical scholar.”’ But the matter in hand for Medina—‘an Irish patriot crossed with a modern poet—a modern poet who resembles a cross between A. E. Housman and T. S. Eliot rather more than he resembles W. B. Yeats’—is his role as the villain of the novel, which keeps him pretty busy.[3] Rudyard Kipling—no mean Latinist himself, with a lifelong devotion to Horace—suggested that:  ‘One learns more from a good scholar in a rage than from a score of lucid and laborious drudges’.[4]

(A few Buchan books)

Tricky word, ’scholar’ – at one time, it was often understood to mean simply someone who could read and write – which may bring to mind the famous, or infamous, lines from William Butler Yeats:

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

They’ll cough in the ink to the world’s end;
Wear out the carpet with their shoes
Earning respect; have no strange friend;
If they have sinned nobody knows.
Lord, what would they say
Should their Catullus walk that way?[5]

Others are more generous or, at least, discriminating. The narrator of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter remembers of her teenage self: ‘I could understand the whole of Middlemarch. The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr Bhaer in Little Women: you felt sick about it, but you understood.’[6]

Now that is certainly recognisable – feeling sick about things but understanding: more or less a basic requirement these days, to be sure. And it occurs to me that there are aspects of the scholarly life which are insufficiently appreciated. Reading the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, I learned that, through her acquaintance with Michel Collinet, whom she met in Rouen, she discovered that André Gide ‘was a highly skilled performer with a yo-yo. This was the current craze and extraordinarily popular. People walked down the streets yo-yo in hand, and Sartre practised from morning to night, with sombre perseverance.’[7] I found this oddly cheering. Between being and nothingness lies – the yo-yo.

(Simone de Beauvoir via the New York Times)

Ford scholars hold at arm’s length the suspicion – the conviction? – that our man would recoil in horror from our activities. They may also, of course, recall Ford’s famous remarks on Impressionism, ‘which exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you. For the whole of life is really like that; we are almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite other.’[8]

That is, we can see and take note of that – probable – unease, while also looking through it and beyond it, to the greater good, the promised land of complete and annotated Ford Madox Ford. You’ll love it when it’s finished, Fordie! You have our word. . .

In the meantime, scholars on mushrooms (and more)! See Last Post, issue 5 (due soon).

Notes

[1] Colin Burrow, ‘Ti tum ti tum ti tum”, London Review of Books, 43, 19 (7 October 2021), 10.

[2] Anne Carson, ‘The life of towns: Introduction’, in Plainwater: Essays and Poetry New York: Vintage, 2000), 93.

[3] John Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 51; Karl Miller, ‘Introduction’, x. Medina is in the western part of Saudi Arabia; its ‘Prophet’s Mosque’ is a major Islamic pilgrimage site. The word itself is Arabic for ‘town’ and often refers to the ancient native quarter in North African cities, usually a walled area with many narrow streets.

[4] Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself (1937; London: Penguin Books, 1987), 51.

[5] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Scholars’ (1915): The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1994), 190, and see notes, 563-564.

[6] Jane Gardam, Crusoe’s Daughter (1985; London: Abacus, 2012), 79.

[7] Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 120.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 41.

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