Finding Truth and Falsehood in a Comma: the World of Dusty Philologists

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, February 23, 2001

“Why are you going to a convention of stamp collectors?” That was the response I got from some of my friends, many of them academics, when I told them I was planning to attend a recent meeting of the American Philological Association.

Part of the reason that I had wanted to go to the meeting was to figure out what, exactly, philology is, and why anyone should care about it. The American Philological Association would more properly be called something like the Brotherhood of Classicists. It is, of course, possible to “do philology” on languages other than Greek and Latin, and, in fact, when the organization was founded in 1869, it was meant to encompass the study of what we currently call the humanities. With time, splinter groups broke off to form organizations like the Archeological Institute of America, the Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association. Eventually, after multiple secessions, all that remained were the classicists, regardless of whether or not they did philology.

The last time I attended the A.P.A. was 10 years ago. Then, I was scouting for books in classical studies as an editor at Oxford University Press. I had been working in American history and communications when the office in New York decided that it was time to build a list in classics. Oxford U.K. had long been a respected publisher of classical texts and scholarship, but, with the brain drain from Britain and the drying up of the U.K. library market, the main book-buying audience had shifted to the United States. Classicists bought books, and they didn’t seem to balk at steep prices.

So I was charged with building the list. The job of an academic editor is about making connections, finding out what the leading edge of the field is (understanding, too, the bread and butter), and being able to make decisions not only about which books to publish, but which ways to push a list. According to the powers that were at O.U.P. at the time, the fact that I’d had no formal training in classics mattered not a whit.

It did matter, however, to my prospective authors. We were not a good match, classics and me. To be a classical scholar, you must master two dead languages and read the corpus of ancient Greek and Roman literature before you dare open your mouth to speak. Classics is a degree-conscious, tradition-bound field. However, there was — and still is — a strong interest in the ancient world among the general public. (Think of the recent box-office success of Gladiator.) Finding a classicist who would — and could — write for general readers was another story.

A decade later, now out of publishing, I went to the classics meeting as an interested observer, a lurker on the academic fringes, to see what I could see. What struck me first was the abundance of natural fibers — more wool, silk, and Egyptian cotton than I’d seen at other scholarly gatherings. There were, of course, the requisite academic gray beards, but those were neatly trimmed. The women were elegantly dressed in tailored — rather than academically flowing — garb. I saw few pairs of comfortable shoes, but a lot of elegant, even hip, black ones. The shoes and the clothing were, however, the only appearance of blackness. This was the whitest group of people I’d been in for a long time.

Chatting with folks, I was reminded of the pecking order. The Hellenists were first among equals; Latinists second-class citizens. Over the centuries, Greek culture has been worshiped with fanaticism in the West — particularly in Germany and Britain. The Greeks, the argument goes, had the truest sense of the good and the beautiful. Roman culture, on the other hand, gave us the thuggish gladiator games. Ten years ago, I found that Hellenists ruled the classical roost and tended to make disparaging remarks about the primitiveness of Latin scholarship. That does not seem to have changed.

I also found the same aura of bitchiness this time around. At a cocktail party, I was introduced to a woman I had met years ago. She nodded dismissively at me and continued her tirade. Okay, so scholars in many fields can be condescending toward nonspecialists and each other. But I remembered sitting in this woman’s office, at a prestigious university with a strong department, and asking the question all academic editors ask leaders in the field: “Who is doing good work in classics?” She had sighed profoundly: “No one. There is no one in this country doing good work.”

The most aggressive nastiness I’d encountered a decade ago came from the philologists, the people whose work is to edit ancient texts and to write commentaries on them. Maybe it’s because Faulkner was right. The past isn’t even past. That creates difficulties for academics in a field with a long historiographical and scholarly tradition: the problem of belatedness. I once had a Freud-drunk professor at Yale, and now I began to see philologists as Bloomian sons suffering “anxiety of influence” and out to kill their philological forefathers. When you work on a text that has, for centuries, been pored over by other scholars, you need to kill off those prior versions to make a place for yourself. Like Mr. Casaubon, George Eliot’s philologist in Middlemarch, you must have the single-mindedness, the bravado, the arrogance to take on the history of the world. Eliot may have summed up the whole project of philology when she described her dusty scholar: “[H]ow he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with the thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed.”

Philologists seem drawn to the work because it is hard, because it is disciplined, and they have managed to convince themselves that it is a science. “What is this about?” I asked a philologist friend. A bibliophile, he gave me a book.

Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love — a reflection on the life of the great, and perhaps paradigmatic, philologist A. E. Housman — has been produced only a couple of times in the United States since its 1997 debut. (There are, I’ve heard, plans for productions in New York City and Washington this spring.) Housman was both a vituperative grammarian — known for his lacerating wit — and the author of adolescent love poetry, a sufferer of unrequited love. About his academic work, Stoppard’s Housman says, “To be a scholar, is to strike your finger on the page and say, ‘thou ailest here, and here.’ ” He explains that there is truth and falsehood in a comma. The pleasures of philology are such that, by merely changing the placement of a comma, you can make sense out of nonsense; you can claim a small victory over ignorance and error. In the play, Housman reflects on his life, correcting ancient texts and pining for his friend, Moses Jackson.

Standing in as a foil to Housman’s sterile scholarship and his sentimental, stunted poetry — and his closeted love — is the Wilde man. Stoppard gives the Divine Oscar the last word, chiding Housman: “Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light. Dante reserved a place in his Inferno for those who willfully live in sadness — sullen in the sweet air, he says. Your ‘honor’ is all shame and timidity and compliance. You are right to be a scholar. A scholar is all scruple, an artist none.”

It seemed to me as I wandered around the philology meeting that A. E. Housman is to the A.P.A. as Oscar Wilde is to the M.L.A. The M.L.A. is a lot more fun.

I talked to book editors, asked them where they thought the field was going. I got the same kinds of vague answers I, myself, had given 10 years ago. It wasn’t clear to me that they knew exactly what philology was all about. Like me, many editors aren’t schooled in classics, and it’s even harder to talk about who is doing “good work” in philology than in classical studies.

Nevertheless, a philological background is a requisite for all scholars of the classical world, if not for the people who publish them; like boot camp or equestrian dressage training, it provides a necessary base. It’s about learning to “get it right,” to correct the corruptions of copies of copies of copies. Many of the classical-studies people I spoke with at the meeting — the ancient historians, the philosophers, the Greek-tragedy crowd — said the same thing: “It’s good that someone does it, but it wouldn’t be me.” When done well, philology incorporates history, literature, philosophy, art, architecture, agriculture, natural history, and even anthropology.

What bugs me is the rigidity of the form: taking a text and creating a “critical apparatus,” making a fetish out of footnotes. It’s not that a classics meeting can’t be any fun. A boasting classicist once told me that the hotel trade loves his field: “We’re high consumption, low breakage.” It was Housman, after all, who gave us the lines, “And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man.”

Between cocktail parties I wandered, wondering about the ghost of Housman. There are more women philologists now than in Housman’s day, and certainly some men far nicer (and gentler) than he was. But the great masses of these dusty well-dressed scholars of the ancient word — I wonder, are they afraid? Do they concentrate on commas because they can tell themselves it is hard and scientific to do so — theirs the most academic of academic disciplines — without worrying about being able to think Great Thoughts?

As George Eliot said: “Poor Mr. Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs, and in an agitated dimness about the Cabeiri, or in an exposure of other mythologists’ ill-considered parallels, easily lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours. With his taper stuck before him he forgot the absence of windows, and in bitter manuscript remarks on other men’s notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight.”