Wednesday, February 23, 2011

`Become What You Are, Having Learned It'

Helen Pinkerton dedicates Taken in Faith: Poems (2002) to Alison, “daughter and friend,” and adds a tag from Pindar (Pythian 2, 72). When we spoke again I asked for a translation of the Greek, and from memory she quoted the version made by her friend E.L “Roy” Bundy (Studica Pindarica, 1962):

“Become what you are, having learned it.”

Another translator gives:

“Learn and become who you are.”

We’re forever evolving, or should be, and our personalities, whatever is becoming essentially us, remains a work in progress, never to be finished. It’s a lovely blessing on a child, though bad news for some. Study, learning, attentiveness and growth mean work, an unhappy prospect for the lazy and arrogant. Dr. Johnson says as much in Idler #94:

“It is the great excellence of learning, that it borrows very little from time or place; it is not confined to season or to climate, to cities or to the country, but may be cultivated and enjoyed where no other pleasure can be obtained. But this quality, which constitutes much of its value, is one occasion of neglect; what may be done at all times with equal propriety, is deferred from day to day, till the mind is gradually reconciled to the omission, and the attention is turned to other objects. Thus habitual idleness gains too much power to be conquered, and the soul shrinks from the idea of intellectual labour and intenseness of meditation.”

Helen, I learned, is a great admirer of Johnson. She said of his essays, and of Montaigne’s:

“When you read them, you can’t believe someone is actually thinking the way you do, that such a connection is possible.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Elroy Bundy (1920-75) was an example of someone who became what he was, having learned it. The learning involved overcoming alcoholism and the being was cut short by a heart attack at the age of fifty-five. According to the Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (1994), he 'is remembered principally for his work on Pindar, which radically transformed the modern interpretation of ancient Greek poetry, especially choral lyric. He was a man of enormous appeal, an accomplished athlete, and an expert on California butterflies. Ruggedly handsome and an inspiring teacher, Bundy attracted a large and loyal student following. His knowledge of Greek was broad and deep, his mental discipline such that he knew all of Pindar by heart. A comparatist as well as a classicist and a poet, he was interested in the whole range of ancient literature, and in the modern traditions that take their life from it. Closely associated with Yvor Winters and the foes of romanticism, he held with increasing fervor that poetry has a moral role to play, and that it plays this best when its practitioners are conscious of their social function and of the intellectual demands of their craft.' Pindar, athletics and butterflies are a nice constellation of interests. His was a species that now seems on the brink of extinction. Negate the verbs or think of antonyms of the adjectives and you're halfway towards a portrait of the modern academic.