BMCR 1993.06.18

1993.06.18, From the Editor’s Disk: Horn or Ivory?

One night not long after the meeting described in a previous message, when a group of classicists met to take talk about creating a continuing conversation about how we acculturate our successors, I had a couple of curious dreams. Perhaps they bear rehearsing …

Academic Borneo

In the first, I was somehow in the mountains of Borneo, and there I came upon a proud and fiercely independent native tribe. How it was I knew they were all classics professors, I’m not sure, but I had forgotten all that I knew of the profession myself and I was like an anthropologist in the tristes tropiques. What struck me was how faithfully so many of them, and not just the elders, followed the ancient practices of their tribe, and how beautifully they spoke of the spiritual power of the ways of the Old Ones. (It seemed important to notice how faithful even the most rambunctious and fractious youth really were to the old ways.) I was concerned, for I knew that down in the lowlands, the forces of civilization, quite insensitive to the old ways, were making great plans, some of which, alas, would mean sending bulldozers through the part of the rainforest where this tribe lived. (Many of those sending the bulldozers weren’t even aware the tribe was here, but even if they were, that would not necessarily stop them. I remembered in a confused moment that back where I came from, a whole department of Religious Studies had just learned that their ancestral lands would be turned into an outlet mall, and they would all get jobs working there …)

I looked around to see if there weren’t some sturdy young people within the tribe who would challenge the elders and the old ways, and I was not disappointed. They were off to one side, sitting under a tree drinking Coca-Cola, wearing Bon Jovi T-Shirts , but when the time came for the rituals, such as the great feast devoted to venerating what they called “the Stemma” (some form of tree-worship, as best I understood it without my copy of Frazer handy), they all came crowding reluctantly round and seemed to show that they understood and appreciated what was going on as well as the next, though perhaps one could wonder if the rituals would reach to the next generation entirely unaltered. “Is that all?” I wondered. For it was perfectly clear to me that wearing Bon Jovi T-Shirts was going to be of extremely limited use when the bulldozers came, and I thought I could hear their engines roaring a little nearer …

Just then I woke with a start, disoriented and a little frightened by what I had seen. As I lay drifting half-awake in the pre-dawn hours, it came to me why I had been dreaming that way.

For at the meeting I spoke of, one of our number, new to these shores, had struck several of us by the way she spoke unassumingly as if what classicists did and said might really make a difference to the world at large, as though we might be part of a wider community of scholars and intellectuals in which we gave as much as we took. The Americans at the meeting, on the other hand, were all, elders and neophytes, traditionalist and venturesome, right and left, united in an unspoken assumption that “classics” is now an isolated community that practices its old ways and sometimes seeks to reinvigorate them by importing new ideas from outside our number. That assumption is demonstrably untrue, but there’s a real sense in which we all live as classicists in just that Borneo of the mind.

I was still restless but drowsy, and must have drifted off again …

The Guermantes Way

Reading Proust will always leave you a little unsure just who you are and just who anyone else is, so fluid and unstable are the boundaries between self and other, so blurred the lineaments we descry in others. This time I found myself in the vast drawing room of one of the Paris mansions of the Guermantes family, but whether it was the Princess or the Duchess that was our hostess, I could not make out. The society around me was glittering and justly proud of itself. With a small start, I realized that they were the classicists now, and I was only an upstart narrator from the depths of the bourgeoisie, observing and moving on.

The Guermantes could boast a lineage, of course, that allowed them justly to look down with a sneer on most of the reigning houses of European royalty from a vantage point positively Merovingian in its ancient dignity. They discerningly chose to associate only with their own kind, and they practiced the social rituals of their class with precision and elegance. Occasionally someone put a foot wrong, and perhaps a rebarbative sentiment would be voiced, but even here there were Dreyfusards to be found from time to time—it was not a deliberately obtuse society, nor utterly impervious.

They were sure it was better not to stray outside the Faubourg St. Germain much. After all, if you did venture forth, you found yourself among the likes of the Verdurins, whose faithful “little band” gathered every Wednesday to amuse itself with the painter or the pianist of the day, abhorring the company not of the ill-born but of “bores”, in whose number last week’s painter might often already be found. It would be hard to claim any fundamental superiority of the Verdurins’ ways over those of the Guermantes’, though to be sure some of the musicians and artists had real merit, and some of the nobodies who ventured into their midst went on to distinguished futures, even as courtesan-turned-hostess. It was there that Charles Swann heard the little phrase from a sonata that pierced his heart, and there that he met Odette. Of the Guermantes themselves, only the Baron de Charlus, himself both the proudest of aristocrats and at the same time a man marginalized by his way of life, found his way into the Verdurins’ world, and even, or rather especially, then kept his aristocratic hauteur firmly in place, and his adventures in that line did not come to a good end …

Here I woke again, this time more gently, and the first light was beginning to play upon the walls. Is that what we are, I wondered? Noble aristocrats condemned to extinction or pollution? Can we really believe that of ourselves? Is there no alternative?

What distinguishes the Guermantes of my second dream from the tribesmen of the first is that they are isolated only by choice, not by destiny. To escape that past is not a matter of tying on our loincloths and going down for a look at civilization, like something out of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” or “Crocodile Dundee”. The invisible fence is permeable, and a kind of academic NAFTA really could pull down the walls, let others in to share our ways, and take us abroad to a society with more fresh air and, to be sure, more risks of disasters different from the ones we assure for ourselves if we do not go abroad. I think again of Swann, the real hero of Proust’s novel, equally at home in the Jockey Club and the Guermantes mansion, but finding true love among the Verdurins, and knowing his way among the brothels of Paris as well. It was his tragedy that the Guermantes could never acknowledge his marriage in his lifetime, but his victory in the end—well, I don’t want to give away the ending of a seven-volume novel if any of you are still meaning to get to it, but if it is not Swann and Odette themselves who triumph exactly, they are nonetheless vindicated. Their ability to take people as they find them, to go abroad in the world and make a home of it, turn s out to be a far wiser way of life than that of any of the exclusive aristocrats or parvenus they pass among.

And so I got up and went to look for the page I remembered from the second volume, the apotheosis of the ex-courtesan Odette, the least reputable and perhaps the happiest soul in the whole book, utterly independent of pedigree and past:

“And there indeed was the Prince, as in some grand finale at the theatre or the circus or in an old painting, wheeling his horse round so as to face her, and doffing his hat with a sweeping theatrical and, as it were, allegorical flourish in which he display ed all the chivalrous courtesy of the great nobleman bowing in token of respect for Womanhood, even if it was embodied in a woman whom it was impossible for his mother or his sister to know…. And as the average span of life, the relative longevity of our memories of poetical sensations is much greater than that of our memories of what the heart has suffered, now that the sorrows that I once felt … have long since faded and vanished, there has survived them the pleasure that I still derive—whenever I close my eyes and read, as it were upon the face of a sundial, the minutes that are recorded between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock in the month of May—from seeing myself once again strolling and talking thus with Mme Swann, beneath her parasol, as though in the coloured shade of a wisteria bower.”

Sapere aude, the man said.