Friday, April 01, 2016

`A Sworn Foe to "Specialism"'

Among my steadfast teachers for more than a decade has been Michael Gilleland, proprietor of Laudator Temporis Acti and my ambassador to Western Civilization. Mike is parsimonious with his words but generous with the words of others. On Tuesday he transcribed passages from Frederic Harrison’s Among My Books  (1912), a writer and book previously unknown to me, as is often the case when Mike goes looking for something to read. I was especially taken with this sentence: “As an old man, I stand by the old Books, the old Classics, the old Style.” Mike and I might share this as our motto.

Harrison (1831-1923) seems to have been one of those impossibly industrious Victorians who mingled massive learning and energy with crackpot ideas. He found time to be a lawyer, friend to George Eliot and Auguste Comte, teacher of Latin and history, husband and father, positivist, cofounder of the Religion of Humanity and prolific author. He was the sort of man who remained charming and entertaining until he chose to ride one of his hobbyhorses, which in Harrison’s case, as with so many others, were politics and philosophy. Then he became a crashing bore. But in Among My Books he writes not of what he believes but what he loves. His tone is “old Style,” part gentlemanly dutifulness, part boyish enthusiasm. In his first paragraph he writes:

“So I rest in my library and take from its shelf now this, now that well-worn volume, dip into its pages, and turn to many an unforgotten verse or passage—and, ah me!—too often do I light upon a glorious burst of poetry, a fragrant saying, a humorous thought, which had long slipped out of memory, even indeed if it had ever reached my mind at all.”

There’s a staginess to Harrison’s words as he slips into his gentleman-of-leisure role. All that’s missing are the velvet smoking jacket and the brandy snifter, but there’s a true devotion to books in Harrison that transcends playacting. His is a working library, not a snobbish showcase:

“My library, moderate as it seems [earlier he mentions a “few thousand books”], is decidedly miscellaneous. It excludes nothing, from Lagrange on Analytic Functions to Pickwick. There is no particular study in which I pretend to be `an expert’; and, indeed, I am a sworn foe to `specialism’ of any sort. My favourite `period’ in history is that which extends from B.C. 50,000 to A.D. 1912, and I feel the thrill of supreme art in a chorus of Aeschylus as in Tom Jones.”

Harrison describes his taste in books as “somewhat promiscuous,” a quality I find extraordinarily rare among readers who tend to inhabit book-niches, as though the only choices available were sci-fi or Trollope. He spends the rest of the first chapter digressing on a lifetime of reading Greek and Latin texts, which represent not a niche but a universe. Just a century ago, people read, valued and enjoyed vast literatures without thinking themselves prodigies, and they assumed others could do the same. Listen to the assurance in Harrison’s voice:

“If twenty well-read men and women were asked to name the greatest Biography in ancient and then in modern literature, nineteen of them would reply off-hand—Why, Plutarch’s Lives and Boswell’s Johnson. Everybody has read these two books from their earliest days; and the highest authorities since Montaigne, Henry IV., Shakespeare, Macaulay, and Carlyle, have agreed that these two are the supreme masters of the fascinating and popular art of writing Lives of famous men.”

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