Not at all. If I give the impression of being depressed in those posts, it’s a problem with my writing. I had thought I was keeping their seriousness level to about a 5 (on a scale of 1-10), half-serious, half fun & frolic; evidently they came across as maybe 70%-75% serious.
Yes, I feel like an exile. But it is what it is: a fact of life. It’s sad, of course, but also a wee picturesque. It doesn’t depress me. (Sure, there are things that do depress me, but I’m not going to post them on the internet.
In my previous post, I coined a word, hypocomiphorism (accent on the 4th syllable); a joke in the form of an aphorism in the form of a question:.
Here is another delightful hypocomiphorism. Unlike the one in my previous post*, it passes 21st century rules about what is funny and what is definitely not funny.
A French scientist: Yes, it works in practice. But the question is: will it work in theory? (Oui, cela fonctionne dans la pratique. Mais la question est: cela fonctionnera-t-il en théorie?)
I wonder why making fun of the French is allowed, while Irish jokes, Polish jokes, and jokes about other groups who must not be named, are forbidden? I suppose it has something to do with whether or not the group appears in the official registry of victimized minorities. This ever-expanding compilation is treated in today’s Globalized culture with the same lachrymose reverence with which Western culture (now defunct) regarded “The Lives of the Saints” and other inventories of martyrs to consecrated doctrines, religious and secular.**
*If a man says something, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?
**This seems to be that rare case in which the Globalized culture is an improvement (judging by moldy 20th century standards) on the culture it replaced. Isn’t a reverence for groups of living victims superior, morally and rationally, to “enlightened” old Western culture’s reverence for groups of dead victims?
Matthew Arnold—a Francophile, but a rather conflicted one. I get the feeling* that Arnold’s esteem for France, the French, and French literature, which went so far as approving of Buonaparte, whom he refers to as “the Emperor,” was simply singing with the choir—a coterie of forward-looking liberal scholars and writers with whom he explicitly identified and among whom he played a leading role. A dark thread of deep-seated aversion to the French twines through Arnold’s dutiful declarations of admiration; the Revolution, despite the mitigating effect of the intervening seventy-five years of very interesting history, still dismayed and alarmed him.
*I am allowed to make intuitive assertions like this without a shred of proof, since I am not an academic or professional intellectual.
**Unfortunately, when it comes to reading Arnold’s essay (and probably for many other reasons) the word “criticism” now carries a negative connotation which it did not in Arnold’s time. In modern dictionaries the primary definition of "criticism” is “the act of expressing disapproval” (Oxford). In Arnold’s time, “criticism” meant “judging well” (Johnson), “judging with propriety” (Webster, 1828), a definition now relegated to a secondary position.
Arnold defines it, in this essay, as “[attempting] to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever.”
Pointing out how English criticism has fallen short of ideal, Arnold says, "Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is."
Theoretically, the word “critique” pretty much covers the older meaning of “criticism.” “The Function of Critique at the Present Time”? Hmm. Doesn’t work in practice, I’m afraid.
***Comparison between Arnold’s title and that of Eliot’s famous essay, “The Function of Criticism”—period—points to Arnold’s greatest strength as a writer: his objectivity. Arnold was aware that his function of criticism was not “the” general function of criticism, universal, once and for all, but a description of what criticism’s function should be in his time. He was not prepared to rank his idea of criticism’s function as more valid than what the scholastics of 1,000 years previously had considered the function of criticism or than what another venerated poet-essayist might consider it to be 50 years on.
The French Revolution, however,— that object of so much blind love and so much blind hatred,— found undoubtedly its motive-power in the intelligence of men, and not in their practical sense; this is what distinguishes it from the English Revolution of Charles the First's time. This is what makes it a more spiritual event than our Revolution, an event of much more powerful and world-wide interest, though practically less successful; it appeals to an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent. 1789 asked of a thing, Is it rational? 1642 asked of a thing, Is it legal?
I first read it almost 70 years when it was an assigned reading in Columbia College’s mandatory course for Freshmen and Sophomores, Contemporary Civilization. It made no impression on me then. Like half the readings in Contemporary Civilization (the other half was a source of one revelation after another) the essay had the aura of no longer relevant old-fogeyism; besides, I considered myself a relatively sophisticated literary 18-year-old based on a thimbleful of random reading—Stendhal, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Dylan Thomas, “Prufrock”, and other odds and ends.
Now, 65 years later, I find Arnold’s quirks of taste, politics, religion and language and the reasoning with which he supports of them fascinating. Just look at the cerebral acrobatics in the paragraph quoted above.
An open question, which I remain too ignorant to answer: To what extent were Arnold’s opinions idiosyncratic and to what extent were they typical of the liberal early Victorian?
I had assumed that, as in most collections of shorter works, Arnold’s essays were printed in loosely chronological order. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” may have come first because it is the best-known of his essays, but I figured it still was an earlyish piece. It just goes to show: with all the care I take in reading, trying not to miss a single juicy word or combination of words, I must have skimmed over the essay’s first sentence: “Many objections have been made to a proposition which, in some remarks of mine on translating Homer, I ventured to put forth; a proposition about criticism, and its importance at the present day. I said: "Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general...”
*Cardinal Newman’s younger brother, if that is of any significance.
*By “Arnold’s real voice” I don’t mean the 21st century tell-all voice, confessional, psychoterapeutic voice, but the voice of Matthew Arnold as he entertained colleagues in the common room or pontificated over the remnants of dessert at a dinner party jauntily following his train of thought wherever it took him, full of asides and flashes of wit
The contempt Arnold feels for Newman’s translation is clear from the relish with which Arnold scoffs at it. Here are some examples:
Mr. Newman joins to a bad rhythm so bad a diction that it is difficult to distinguish exactly whether in any given passage it is his words or his measure which produces a total impression of such an unpleasant kind.
Mr. Newman says that in fixing on a style for suitably rendering Homer, as he conceives him, he “alights on the delicate line which separates the quaint from the grotesque.” ‘I ought to be quaint’, he says, ‘I ought not to be grotesque’. This is a most unfortunate sentence. Mr. Newman is grotesque, which he himself says he ought not to be; and he ought not to be quaint, which he himself says he ought to be.
Nor does Arnold refrain from snidely patronizing Newman as a non-Oxbridgian.
Mr. Newman is a writer of considerable and deserved reputation; he is also a Professor of the University of London, an institution which by its position and by its merits acquires every year greater importance. It would be a very grave thing if the authority of so eminent a Professor led his students to misconceive entirely the chief work of the Greek world.
“On Translating Homer” is followed by a reply by Newman, “Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice”, followed by a reply to that by Arnold, “Last Words on Translating Homer”.
It’s all so much fun.
Most readers, I know, do not approach stuff like this in search of fun; but try it, you’ll like it: Arnold holding forth from his Ivory Tower; Newman, from a radicals’ nest in London, lobbing scholarly grenades out of the non-U smog (not all of them fizzling out before they reach their target); the competitive showing-off: erudition as one-upmanship, an intense name-dropping contest; the challenge they face of following a perilously intricate line of logic without slipping off into casuistry. For me, there is no sport so much fun to watch as the wrangling of intellectuals. (I approach the letters section of each NYRB with expectation.)
And then there is the intriguing design of academic weaponry itself, disregarding whatever explosive charge it carries: the careful arrangement, for maximum effect, of words, clauses, sentences, punctuation, supporting a point hopefully so sharp that no opposing idea can resist it. It’s a delight to follow; the same kind of delight you can find listening to a Haydn sonata.
Incidentally, while posterity has unanimously awarded the prize in this contest to Arnold, Newman scores some points over a fumble of Arnold’s. It is a misstep too immoderate to be classed with Arnold’s habitual stumbles, when a principle somehow gets in the way of his rational line of thought, and which make Arnold such an endearing literary character.
Clearly compelled by his nervous Francophilia, Arnold tacks onto his harangue against Newman in “On Translating Homer” a second section to devoted to supporting his "opinion that for translating Homer into English verse the hexameter should be used.” This is just the kind of presumptuous, over-reaching, blusteringly English, groundless assumption that Arnold warns against, rails against, in “The Function of Criticism”. Arnold does not suggest that the hexameter (the favored meter of French poets) might be the most useful form for translating Homer; Arnold declares, as a fact, that only hexameters can fully convey Homer’s “general effect”—which, he says, is “the translator’s indispensable business.”
More than one logical fallacy lurks in Arnold’s argument for the indispensability of the hexameter for translating Homer. But Newman, being only a university professor of Greek and not, like Arnold, an Oxford professor of poetry and a poet and philosopher, attacks hexameters instead of pouncing on Arnold’s faulty reasoning. An attack on the latter would have made Arnold sweat a bit while framing his response.
As you can see (can you?) this is all a lot of fun—fun sufficient unto the day. I certainly did not expect to frolic as well while reading Arnold. But I laughed out loud (and if laughing out loud is not frolicking, then what is?) when I came across this, in a footnote, regarding Newman's anglicization of some names in the Iliad, like renaming the immortal horse Xanthus, "Chestnut."
I see Mr. Newman’s critic in the National Review urges our generation to bear with the unnatural effect of these rewritten Greek names, in the hope that by this means the effect of them may have to the next generation become natural. For my part, I feel no disposition to pass all my own life in the wilderness of pedantry, in order that a posterity which I shall never see may one day enter an orthographical Canaan;
I wonder: does anyone else out there think that second sentence is ha-ha funny, or is it just me?