Monday, February 09, 2009

The fox’s apology

Few are those who, having been introduced to Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, are not anxious to proclaim themselves a hedgehog. Who would wish to know many small tricks when he could know one great one? Not intellectuals, that’s for sure. “Virtually by definition,” Theodore Dalrymple writes in the current issue of the City Journal, “they like to address themselves to large and general questions, not small and particular ones. . . .” An intellectual congratulates himself upon being centripetal, not meandering; he does not “come across” or “happen upon” something, he goes looking for it. A good part of being a hedgehog involves feeling superior to foxes.

I have been a fox all my life. I sweat the small stuff. I get hung up on details. I’m all over the place. I know the Arcadia and Moll Flanders, but I can’t explain why the novel or the concept of the individual emerged when they did. I know that literature is good writing where “good” by definition has no fixed definition, but I don’t know what makes writing good in every instance. I know Derrida holds that the endless deferral of meaning constitutes the essence of life, and Foucault that truth is a function of power, without knowing either to be the case, or how to apply these theories in advance to texts I haven’t read. I know there are writers, like the young J. V. Cunningham when he was first starting out, who are sure that their thought forms a system—what holes in it they are sure can be worked out—but I am resigned to being more like the the older Cunningham, who found himself “left with limited insights, the plain implications of experience but restricted in generality, and cold assumptions whose systematic development unfolds as one lives them.”

Perhaps something more impersonal can be said for the fox. How many are there in literary history! Erasmus and Montaigne are the ideal types; the Renaissance humanist, with his motto humani nil a me alienum puto, belongs to the species almost by birthright—More, Castiglione, Vives, Reuchlin, Sidney. Except for some early hedgehogs like Milton and Bacon, English literature is very nearly a literature of foxes until the Romantics arrive to push them out—Donne, Jonson, Burton, Hobbes, Herrick, Browne, Dryden, Locke, Pepys, Rochester, Johnson, Swift, Addison and Steele, Pope. And while the fox does indeed treasure happenstance as a principle of discovery, figuring the world of learning will never bend to his will, he is not entirely without method. His method, though, is eclectic.

I don’t mean that the fox is merely various. The word for his method is not accidental. It comes from the Greek eklektikos, “selective.” In the history of philosophy, it refers to the practice of sifting the schools and doctrines to separate the valuable from worthless. It is what Donald R. Kelley, editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas and chief proponent of eclecticism at the moment, calls a Higher Plagiarism. It borrows what is true and rejects what is false, and assembles the truths into a temporary dwelling. It looks with suspicion and disgust upon the sort of education in which a pupil submits to the authority of a recognized master, replacing it with a kind of serial discipleship—sitting at the feet of this one and that one. It licks the icing off books.

Such foxy eclecticism has strengths and weaknesses. Its weaknesses are well-known, since the hedgehogs are forever pointing them out. It is not sufficiently exercised, they grunt and snuffle, about context or redundancy or even error or irrelevance. Their objection has The Anatomy of Melancholy and the Journal to Stella dead to rights, but the fox would prefer to do without the objection than do without the books. The strengths of his eclecticism are less obvious, but no less real. Easily familiar with human ignorance, it is not easily taken in by intellectual giants who turn out to be Egyptian pretenders or Nazi collaborators. Although there has been tension between them, it makes common cause with skepticism—for both are equally suspicious of dogma and claims to knowledge before the fact. Its habits are, in Kelley’s phrase, inadvertantly comparative and necessarily historical. Its method of critical selection enables the eclectic fox to skirt the trap of sectarian disputes. And while it does not gaily dismiss contradictions with allusions to bulk and multitudinousness, it is able to subscribe to opposing views—the belief, for example, that the Hebrew bible is both divinely inspired and compiled by human hands—and still get business done. For it is not a confession, but a life.

When I started this blog—ironically late, if Bianca Steele is correct—I selected its title with care. For nearly four decades I have kept commonplace books. They have spilled over into volumes; they clutter my desk. Whatever I have seen into print can be traced back to them; they are ultrasonographs of my published offspring. But they contain much else besides, and serve additional purposes. They are everything that hedgehogs dislike—they are fragmentary, merely dredged up and raked in, a slow stumble through literature—but they suit my native abilities, such as they are. And what is more, they provide literary precedent for book blogging, as I realized when I finally started this project sixteen weeks ago. Not every book blog is written on the model of the commonplace book; perhaps not even the best are written on the model of it; but it is a traditional model, a convenient and useful model, and one that once enjoyed a greater prestige than it does today.

As Ann Blair wrote in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Strictly speaking, the commonplace book was a humanist innovation, but like most Renaissance practices it adapted a concept with a glorious ancient pedigree to suit contemporary . . . needs.” It became the “crucial tool for storing and retrieving the increasingly unwieldy quantity of textual and personal knowledge that guaranteed copiousness in speech and writing.” As such it was perfectly suited to “the Erasmian ideal of eloquence through copia rerum or abundance of material.”[1]

Book blogging on the model of the commonplace book has attracted some of the most interesting foxes now writing about books—Patrick Kurp, Bill Peschel, Elif Batuman, Nige, Perry Middlemiss, Michael Gilleland, Ron Slate, Nigel Beale. These are writers united not by doctrine or ideological commitment, but by an ambition to copiousness and eloquence—and the secret handshake that passes between those who have spent a life among books. They are proud to be foxes. They don’t avoid hedgehogs; they just don’t want to be one. They are happy knowing many small tricks. Or, rather, such knowledge brings them great happiness. And besides, they know that David Garnett’s little novel would not have been nearly so charming if it had been called Lady into Hedgehog.

[1] Ann Blair, “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53 (1992): 541–551.


Buce said...

humani nil a me alienum puto

Uh, Terence? But I guess your point is that Erasmus believed it.

D. G. Myers said...

Montaigne adapts the Terentian line in the essay “Of Drunkenness,” changing it to the third person.

D. G. Myers said...

Erasmus similarly adapts the line in the Praise of Folly. In John Wilson’s translation (1668): “Nay, who had not rather have one of the middle sort of fools, who, being a fool himself, may the better know how to command or obey fools; and who though he please his like, 'tis yet the greater number; one that is kind to his wife, merry among his friends, a boon companion, and easy to be lived with; and lastly one that thinks nothing of humanity should be a stranger to him?”

Ian Wolcott said...

I return to this post again and again and I wanted to thank you for it. I'd print it out and nail it to the door of my library, if only I had a library with a door!