Bryn Mawr Classical Review 3.5.3

From the Editor's Disk:

Some news from the net, and then a divagatious memoir.

The CLASSICS list that I spoke of a month or so ago has come abruptly to life, with an ontogeny that recapitulates the phylogeny of e-lists. Many participants are neophytes to list-world and keep reinventing the old faux pas, and have the predictable trouble finding their right tone of voice. There have been lively discussions of the nature of 'character' in the Odyssey and of oral poetry generally, supplemented by useful and frank discussion of the plight of language teaching in the schools, the job market, and personal styles of using libraries. A few people (and this is typical list behavior as well) have been seen running for the e-egress, not quite sure what they would rather see but needing to be elsewhere. Typically it takes time for these lists to settle down, rather like a semester-long seminar, and you can't be sure what will come. What I like about this one is the cheerfulness of so much of it, and the democracy: big names and little names yakking it up together for all they are worth. My kind of a party.

Now for the divagatious memoir. Something I was reading quite recently set this off; perhaps you were reading the same thing as I.

My undergraduate days were marked by a number of decisions of great and quite unmerited precocity and acuity. Leaving aside the profoundly moving story of how I dealt with the physical education (sic) requirement, or how I had botched my big chance at a Harvard job unwittingly by the time I was 19 and a half, I shall here mention only the history of my experiences with German.

I came to college, you understand, quite determined that I would take the one more semester of Latin that the language requirement insisted upon, and then never take another language again as long as I lived. I had grown up on the Mexican border quite as impervious as all my other bigoted little friends to the possibility of learning Spanish properly, and saw no reason to change my ways. Divine nemesis, in the person of the inimitable Frank Bourne, struck me down on the road to Princeton Junction (some other time for the role all-night poker games and Plautus played in my Latin education), and it's all been very complicated ever since. Even so, I cannot recall how I persuaded myself to take German 101 my junior year. I had just started Greek the year before, I was juggling a classical civ. major with a variety of medieval interests, and I was twenty years old: not a concatenation conducive to spontaneous additional philological exercise, but there I was. I only took one year of the language, but had an outstanding teacher one term, worked hard at it, and really learned something. The only outright encouragement I can recall was a teacher, now rightly well regarded for his own familiarity with certain German lines of scholarship, who told us that reading Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund in German was the thing that made all the sweat of learning that language worthwhile; many years later, awash in the soppy idealized monkishness of that novel and unable to bring myself to finish it, I couldn't imagine what this very acute and sensible man was thinking of. Perhaps he had been young once himself.

Two years passed, and I had a grad school GSFLT exam to take. Not the most arduous of exercises (I recall a sentence reading 'Er ist nicht mehr im Park', where the challenge was to multiple-guess the correct translation for nicht mehr), and I recall joking to friends at the intermission that no ETS test was a test of anything more than dexterity with a number 2 pencil combined with a familiarity with the ETS philosophy of life (milk and water liberalism). I got a 700. I was not impressed.

But I had a crazy friend. Wonderful, but crazy. Germanophile in the extreme. A mutual friend recently reminded me how he used to expand (quite unbidden) on the superiority of German nail clippers to the American model, and his pride in his accent that native German speakers always placed around Kiel, a city for which he thus acquired quite a fondness. He was insufferable, but he had been to Harvard, so no one was surprised, and he and I wound up editing a joke Festschrift for one of our teachers (I wish I had written the article, 'Alcuin: Hippo or Human', or, failing that, 'Luther and Toothpaste: a Forschungsbericht' -- from that exercise we learned in later years that the one absolutely valid predictive factor for success in the job market among our contemporaries was having the sense of humor and the energy to contribute to our Festschrift -- everybody who did has tenure someplace now, and everybody who didn't is long gone, alas, except for the one who had a really good excuse for nonparticipation, to wit a neurosurgeon husband and three kids making demands on her time; she is now a quite distinguished historian of monasticism).

Now the Germanophile friend performed the useful service for a number of us of making us quite ashamed of our lackluster skills in German. None of our faculty advisers was particularly harping on that point -- they counseled sage attention to the matter, but they counseled sage attention to a dizzying number of things, so it was hard to derive much focused energy from that. But the Germanophile friend actually harassed you and bothered you and lorded his quite considerable competence over you, and pointed out the advantages of doing a dissertation in German medieval history for a very distinguished and now deceased adviser whose German wasn't quite as good as his was: having that sort of rhetorical advantage over your adviser was something we could all appreciate very clearly, probably even envy.

All the same, the results were mixed. I made a serviceable enough working tool out of the langauge to get through the stuff I needed to get through for my dissertation (and even managed, with the help of a dictionary and a favoring tailwind, to get through a dissertation in Dutch that I absolutely had to digest). It was then too that I read an exciting doctoral dissertation on a related subject without dreaming that the author of that dissertation would be instrumental in getting me tenure less than a decade later, and that I would spend two decades on the dissertation's subject. But then things slipped, and I realize now that critical mass had not been achieved. German was still an artifically acquired thing, an alien creature in my life, ignored whenever possible. It began to slip a little more. (The Germanophile friend met with a condign fate: never mind how, for these things happen to Harvard men, but he is now a tenured full professor at a German university and has just published a three volume avatar of his Habilitationschrift.)

And so it came to pass on a raining Friday evening in Oxford, not quite nel mezzo del cammin, but pretty close to it, at the end of a tiring week-long conference, I found myself at a table with a German, an Austrian, a Frenchman, and an Irishman. We were there because the German had Augustine hog-tied and doing his bidding inside a computer, and this was a possession that I envied him more than anything in the world. I had come to the pub, where these distinguished men (the editorial board of a collaborative lexicon project) were consoling themselves after a week among the Anglophones. There were drinks on the table, and the conversation was in German. Now when the Frenchman or the Irishman spoke German, I could do pretty well. I was impressed that the Irishman said that a lecture that evening (by my old dissertation adviser as it happened) was geistreichend, and even more impressed that I got the word right on the first bounce and even knew what it meant. I managed to identify myself in Homeric style (homeland, tribe, and patrilinear information), and exchange what I sure hope were pleasantries.

Then things lagged a bit, another round of drinks came to add to the stupor, and the Irishman (my patron in this setting) remembered he had to go and call the airline about his flight the next day. Just as he left, the German remembered that he and I were supposed to talk about computers, and he proceeded to do so, in rapid-fire German. The ride suddenly got a lot bumpier for me, and a perceptible puddle of sweat began to form on the floor beneath me. Somehow I survived, and we came away with a sort of agreement in principle (that bore fruit a mere six years later) about the computer Augustine, and I slunk away into the night to my cell among the garrets at Christ Church.

Having lived to fight another day, I resolved to come back better armed next time. It was now that I finally got serious. I cannot now quite remember the sequence of the next three years, but I found Deutsche Welle on shortwave, wrote an article (never published) that went out of its way to review a substantial literature in German, and worked my way cussing, spitting, and loving every minute of it through Buddenbrooks (with a quizzical look on my face at some bits of apparently vulgar Bavarian dialect). On a leave that came up a couple of years later, I finally found my way into German literature, and went off on a bender reading Habsburg fin-de-siecle-and-after literature and history (at about the time of the MOMA Vienna 1900 show): Rilke (and letters of Rilke and memoirs of Rilke by some of his long procession of lady admirers, all of whom seemed to stop to write affectionately of him -- well, with one exception, who was a bit sharp-tongued) and Karl Kraus and Wittgenstein and a biography of Mahler and a bit of Stephan Zweig's memoirs and the libretto to Rosenkavalier, and Elias Canetti's wonderful memoirs of multilingual childhood between Bulgaria, England, Switzerland, and Austria -- Die gerettete Zunge is a book I press on the unwary at every opportunity. Goethe I tried and failed with (as I had, repeatedly, before, and again recently -- the appeal of young Werther escaped me when I was young and escapes me now): the beginning of Dichtung und Wahrheit when he was a lad in Frankfurt watching Holy Roman Emperors was fun, but the minute he got to, where was it?, Leipzig?, and university, and began talking about what he was doing and thinking, he lost me, and Italienische Reise seemed even more insufferably full of himself. But it was the encounter with the culture and not merely the language of German that finally made the language achieve critical mass for me, and now it is a regular recourse for pleasure and instruction. I'm going to Germany for the first time (well, since I was born there and left aet. 0.9) next spring and though I may well check my thirty day deodorant pad before leaving just to be sure, I don't anticipate serious problems. I will stammer and mis-speak myself to the point of mortal embarrassment, but I'll find the men's room as often as needful, eat regularly, and get through business with my German hosts without too much trouble. Oh, to be sure, if you ask me today if I know German, my reply is to ask whether you know German. If you say you don't, then I say, well, yes, I do know it rather; but if you say you do, then I make what I hope are taken as self-depreciatory and demurring noises, and slink nervously away.

I mean all this not as boasting -- indeed, it would be a sorry comment on the state of our learning if achievements so paltry as these were regarded as possible subject matter for gasconade -- but as a way of giving concrete expression to what I have come to realize is one of my deepest professional beliefs, that in language study we find the only plausibly reliable means of encounter with cultures remote from us in space and time. To be an impassioned devotee of 'multicultural' education seems to me not only possible but necessary, but when I join the chorus in that church, I often find myself dismayed not by the zealotry but by the Laodicean meekness of the other congregants.

JO'D 4 November 1992