February 02, 2004

The Decline of Romantic Scholarship?

This week, the Boston Globe ideas section features a fun article about the Columbia sociologist Robert Merton, who died last year at the age of 92. Merton is best known for his article "Social Structure and Anomie," but his influence has extended far beyond the ivory tower; the many terms he coined include "role model," "self-fulfilling prophecy," and "focus group." Now, as The Boston Globe reports, Princeton University Press is publishing a book that Merton co-authored and then abandoned, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.

I'm much more familiar with another of Merton's books, a charming volume called On the Shoulders of Giants. That book, which describes the history of Newton's aphorism "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," is a masterpiece of what Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda calls "romantic scholarship"; Merton himself called his book a "Shandean postscript" and jokingly referred to it as an example of a genre called "otsogery" (from an acronym of the book's title.) I love the genre, whatever you want to call it, but I wonder if its days are numbered.

It's nearly impossible to describe On the Shoulders of Giants in a compelling way, since the book is so quirky, so eccentric, and so charming that you have to read it to appreciate it. Instead, it makes more sense to give Merton's definition of the word "otsog". In the postscript to his book, Merton defines an otsog as "a close-knit narrative that pays its respects to scholarship and its dues to pedantry; also an exceedingly diversified (and thoroughly parenthesized*) piece of dedicated scholarship." (The asterisk refers readers to a footnote, which reads "and heavily footnoted.") Earlier in the postscript, Merton gives a longer and more entertaining definition of the word; he then goes on to describe such words as "otsogable," "otsogamy," "otsogfidian," "otsogre," and "otogurient." The body of the book is an entertaining and digressive look at the history of a well-known phrase.

I first came across On the Shoulders of Giants in a Michael Dirda essay in the collection Readings, which introduced me to the genre that Dirda calls "romantic scholarship." The books he describes as exemplars of the genre include classics like Frazer's The Golden Bough and Graves's The White Goddess and lesser-known books like Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory; they also include such delightful volumes as The Book of Imaginary Beasts by Jorge Luis Borges and The Book of Beasts by T.H. White. Some of the books that Dirda describes sound so appealling that I don't know why I haven't rushed out to buy them:

The works of Francis [sic] Yates, especially Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) and The Art of Memory (1966), explore some of the most esoteric byways of Renaissance intellectual history. To read them is to feel as though you were looking through the secret notebooks of the Elizabethan magus John Dee or the doomed philosopher Bruno. The Art of Memory, for instance, describes how scholars in an age before printed books were able to retain seemingly incredible amounts of information: One prodigy could recite all of Vergil's Aeneid backwards. By using a "theater of memory," derived from some actual building, a student would place images of what he wanted to remember at selected locations. Then he need only stroll mentally through this imaginary building and glance at his memory-sites to have the images reappear to him in their proper order. Yates uses this intriguing system to explain aspects of Renaissance thought, even the very design of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

(This passage reminds me of Jonathan Spence's book about Matteo Ricci.) My one complaint about Dirda's description of romantic scholarship is his overly whimsical definition of the term. "The works I am thinking about," he writes, "present research as an Indiana Jones adventure, an expedition into the outback where science, history, and literature touch the marvelous." Merton's book hardly seems like "an Indiana Jones adventure," after all, and I'd prefer a definition of the genre that seems more firmly grounded in scholarship (and a little more rigorous.)

Which leads to an obvious question: why am I telling you about the fields of romantic scholarship and otsagery? The main reason, I'll admit, is that I find these genres fascinating and love to read and write about them. But another part of the answer is more speculative: I wonder whether romantic scholarship (as practiced by academics like Merton) is becoming rarer and more difficult in the present day.

I don't think it's a coincidence, after all, that none of the books Dirda mentions in his essay were written after 1980. Many of the traits that define romantic scholarship are rarely emphasized in the academy: how many books by present-day American academics move beyond narrow academic specializations, have a writing style and subject matter likely to intrigue the educated public, and are characterized by curiosity or a sense of humor? Do academics under the current tenure system have any incentive to write romantic scholarship? Is the publishing industry interested in producing scholarship that doesn't appeal to a narrow academic audience but is unlikely to become a best-seller? (I sometimes get the sense that academics in the sciences are more likely than their colleagues in the humanities to write for the public in areas outside their specialty--just think of Donald Knuth or Douglas Hofstadter--but few academics from any discipline publish nonfiction outside their field.)

In my own field (Soviet history), the only academic I can think of who might be described as a "romantic scholar" is the historical economist Alexander Gerschenkron. Gerschenkron is best known for his volume Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective and for texts like Bread and Democracy in Germany, but his interests were never limited to historical economics; he was offered chairs in three academic departments at Harvard (economics, history, and Slavic literature), and he wrote articles on everything from the best way to translate Shakespeare to the reading habits of the average American. Gerschenkron's "romantic" approach to scholarship even appears in his volume on economic backwardness, which includes chapters entitled "Notes on Doctor Zhivago" and "Reflections on Soviet Novels." Gerschenkron died in 1978, however. I can think of Russianists who write popular history (like Orlando Figes and Bruce Lincoln), but I can't think of anyone who who writes more speculative, off-beat scholarship.

I may, of course, be underestimating the longevity of romantic scholarship or over-estimating the extent to which it existed in the past. (Most of the books described by Dirda weren't written by academics, after all.) Furthermore, it may be wrong to lump the writings of Merton and Gerschenkron together. (Merton's work and Gershenkron's scholarship may have less in common than this blog entry would suggest--and someone like Yates may well be in another category altogether.) One could even make the case that the decline of otsagery is a good thing. (In his book The Fly Swatter, Nicholas Dawidoff describes Gerschenkron's confrontation with the social historian Leopold Haimson over a paper on Soviet chess that sounds quite silly. Could Haimson's paper be described as romantic scholarship? Not exactly, I think, but my definition of the term isn't exactly precise...) Finally, I don't want to sound as if I think that academic work should be touchy-feely and whimsical. Narrow academic specialization isn't an unquestionably bad thing, after all, however much it's often decried, and the vast majority of scholarship will never appeal to the public.

Nevertheless, I can't help but think that romantic scholarship is growing less common these days, and that everyone would benefit if academics wrote more books that are quirky and peripheral (like On the Shoulders of Giants), wide-rangingly intelligent (like Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective), or intriguing and interdisciplinary (like the works of Frances Yates.)

Update: Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I went to one of my bookshelves to find something to read before I went to sleep. The book I chose was The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton. The book is an excellent recent example of romantic scholarship; the back cover even features a Michael Dirda quotation praising it as "an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition,' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work."

The Footnote, of course, isn't a book for everyone. I loved reading about David Hume's criticism of Edward Gibbon's footnotes and about Pierre Bayle's plan to write a comprehensive list of all the errors in the world's reference book, but other readers might find this sort of thing insufferably dull. Had I thought of this book before writing my blog entry, however, I might well have framed the issue very differently.

Were I to rewrite this blog entry, I probably wouldn't focus on the question of whether romantic scholarship is in decline. (I suspect that certain forces in contemporary academia and publishing make it more difficult, but that's all I can say.) Instead, I'd focus on the role of "intellectual entertainment" in academia. I wish there were more "otsogs" like The Footnote (though I believe that such works are, and should be treated as, somewhat peripheral); I enjoy seeing academics with a sense of humor. (The title of another Grafton book is an allusion to Monty Python.) Moreover, I believe that a willingness to think beyond traditional boundaries can enrich less "peripheral" academic works, and that scholars should resist the urge to be too narrow in their focus. That doesn't mean that academics should spend all their time on books as eccentric as On the Shoulders of Giants, but it does mean that we should welcome academic books that move beyond the mainstream of historical scholarship. Long live the otsog!

Posted by Ed at February 2, 2004 07:03 PM
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