Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.04

BMCR/BMMR Archives

A. Bierl, W.M. Calder, and R.L. Fowler, The Prussian and the Poet: The Letters of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Gilbert Murray (1894-1930). Hildesheim: Weidmann, 1991. Pp. xvi + 144. ISBN 3-615-00071-4.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

This collection of sixty-three documents (sixty letters of W. to M., one from M. to W., and two from W. to E.H. Blakeney) continues the series of Vorarbeiten to the exhaustive biography of W. that have emerged from the various avatars of the Villa Mowitz in its peregrinations through the American heartland. From numerous previous publications, the form and style will be familiar. The letters are presented in chronological order in their original language (though the one letter from W. written in Greek is provided with an English translation) and abundantly footnoted. The diligent student of the life of Wilamowitz will greet this volume enthusiastically.

How many diligent students of the life of Wilamowitz there are, or ought to be, apart from those named as participating in this edition or receiving particular thanks in its acknowledgments, is perhaps the most important question such a volume evokes. In some ways, there is nothing to be said against a project of this sort; but on the other hand, a devotee of the golden mean would be inclined to suggest that there is something deranged in the vast apparatus of erudition that has been erected around this still-unwritten biography. The laborious inconsequentiality of this whole series of publications becomes more striking with each iteration.

This volume is typical of the series. The letters contained in it are of slight interest: mainly they show a distant, formal, and somewhat prickly professional relationship. W. had no very high opinion of M., and the editors are at pains to remind us that W. was in the main correct. M. initiated the correspondence when he was still under thirty and W. was approaching fifty; the relationship never loses the senior/junior condescension, even after M.'s advancement in 1909 to the Regius chair. W. and M. corresponded for almost fifteen years before they met; they corresponded for another few years until the Great War interposed a breach that was never healed. There is one wartime letter from W. to M. and only three in the twelve years after the war from W. to M., and they display rather than heal the breach -- one of alienation rather than acrimony -- that had opened. W. gave M. detailed advice for M.'s OCT of Euripides, and some of that appears here, but more of it apparently was transmitted on proof sheets of the edition itself, so the scholarly interest of the collection is accordingly limited. There are no indiscretions here, few vignettes of the scholarly life (the anecdotes of W.'s 1908 visit to England are few and jejune), and astonishingly little material of interest about ancient literature itself: on the one occasion where I noticed W. saying something above the pedestrian (pp. 105-6), my face fell on reaching the footnote that described this page as the nucleus of something W. said later and better in his Ilias. The high Prussian austerity and self-satisfaction that pervade W.'s memoirs are on display on every page.

The conceptual framework within which the interpretation of W.'s life is set is naive in the extreme. English scholarship is dilettantish, German is professional, and the latter is destined, in the person of Eduard Fraenkel, to vanquish and discipline the former at last; the political background and the rupture in the epistolary acquaintance brought on by World War I are slighted with barely a mention; and throughout there is a pervasive atmosphere of unexamined reception of antediluvian ideas about the nature of education, culture, and classical scholarship. It is not clear whether the word "wogs" at p. 32 n. 124 is meant ironically, but the ambiguity leaves an offensive taste; and we are left wondering whether the editors perceive the contemptuous arrogance in W. implicit in their remark at p. 65 n. 274: 'That his father was an Abdecker, a collector of carcasses, in no way affected Wilamowitz' estimation of the man' (where the man in question was a Gymnasiallehrer and the author of 'a famous dissertation under Wilamowitz').

It is the unexamined assumptions of the work that are the key to understanding the Calderian obsession. The old days are over, he told us in a CW article of some years ago advising the young to join him in the nineteenth century; Euripides is exhausted, and so it is time to write the history of scholarship. Laudatores simus temporis acti. And so we get the old wine-making in a new vineyard, where the grapes run sour and small. It is an unfair parody of philological scholarship of the old school to say that it is preoccupied with textual detail and biographical inquiry after the text's authors; but it is that parody that comes unselfconsciously to life on these pages. These texts are of small significance and less interest, but they are studied here with as much energy and attention to detail as one might have brought to the Cologne Archilochus. If God is in the details, then this is a very godly book; but perhaps a more ambitious and nuanced theology is necessary to explain and justify this kind of book. Fortunately, it will find few if any readers, and so perhaps we can spare our theologians the inquiry.

The substantial cause for concern that this book and the project it represents raise is that this kind of activity will be taken by curious observers as the state of the art in the history of classical scholarship. Jejune biography of great men has had its day and may reasonably be described as the fit province of lesser talents. The larger project of understanding the organic growth and place of scholarly endeavors in the wider social and political history of European culture is a more demanding, and at the same time a more riveting, subject. But classicists grown weary of the old pastures and looking for new fodder for their ruminations are unlikely to be the ones to do the job.