“It is good just by being knowledge”

Here’s a post on a familiar theme: academic papers that no one reads. Let’s take it as a given that there is too much academic publishing, that academic writing is often used to achieve or mark status rather than to add to or disseminate knowledge, and so on. Duly noted, once more. But there’s another point in the post I want to call attention to.

The author, Aaron Gordon, runs some random word searches in an academic database and lists some of the articles he finds. For instance: “Complexity of Early and Middle Successional Stages in a Rocky Intertidal Surfgrass Community,” by Teresa Turner, Oecologia, Vol. 60, No. 1 (1983), pp. 56-65. And “Darwin and Nietzsche: Selection, Evolution, and Morality,” by Catherine Wilson, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 354-370. And “Body Temperature of the Nesting Red-Footed Booby (Sula sula),” by R. J. Shallenberger, G. C. Whittow, R. M. Smith, The Condor, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1974), pp. 476-478.

Then Gordon comments, “Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things?” And later: “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric.”

But I want to say: What’s not interesting here? Darwin and Nietzsche aren’t interesting? The ecological complexities of surfgrass beaches aren’t interesting? How birds regulate their body temperature — that’s not interesting? I actually wanted to click through to many of those articles to find out more. Moral: Don’t allow your own lack of intellectual curiosity to be a guide to the value of research.

And to the claim that “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric”: no, there mustn’t, and there almost certainly isn’t. Moreover, and more important, I’m reminded of Auden’s prophecy in “Under Which Lyre” of the dangerous powers of Apollo: “And when he occupies a college, / Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge.” Thus also the speech of the old A. E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love:

A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.

Obviously my view of things — Auden’s view, Stoppard’s Housman’s view — has implications for the economics of university life. And maybe I’ll get to that in another post, soon. But for now I just wanted to register some irritation and suggest a different way of thinking about these matters than Gordon’s.

things lost and found on the march

I’m back from England and full of ideas. I was not able to do what I went to London primarily to do — let me just say that the Jesuit Archive in London is a stern and jealous guardian of the documents in its care — but I had a productive time anyway. There are different ways to be productive, and one of them involves sheer thinking — and in the past week I had many opportunities to think, many provocations of thought.For instance: I couldn’t help meditating on our recent discussion of fragility as I was visiting the great manuscript room of the British Library. I always visit that room when I’m in London, and I never cease to marvel at what it holds. My first thought is, invariably: what a miracle that these things survived. The Codex Sinaiticus — are you kidding me? The only manuscript of Beowulf? And of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other works of that magnificent unknown poet?But then I think: what is missing? What has been lost? How do we know that there aren’t poems still greater than Beowulf and Sir Gawain that didn’t make it? Thus Thomasina Coverly’s outcry in Tom Stoppard’s much-praised — and rightly soArcadia:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Artistotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle’s ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

Her tutor Septimus Hodge gives a noble answer:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, and nineteen from Euripedes, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for corkscrew?

Noble, yes, but of course completely untrue — except for the good advice to count our stock. Many things of value have indeed been lost “on the march” and cannot be recovered or re-produced. And whether future productions — especially those that take only digital form — will be more or less persistent than their predecessors remains to be seen.