Words to Live By

But perhaps the moral value of the disciplines we call the humanities actually lies in the care and self-consciousness with which the desire to understand is regulated, in finding ways to cajole it away from egoism and self-inflation so that idealism and learning, thinking and knowing, can co-operate.

It isn’t easy. When I write a commentary on a text I’m aware that I know things that have the potential to generate a toxic cloud of dullness which could obscure the poem I am supposed to be explicating. I know stuff about the practice of sonnet writing in 1609, stuff about the history of words, stuff about the history of gender and sexuality. When I set that down in the form of a commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets I also know that explication can be the most excruciating form of bardicide. Holding back on philological learning in order not to drown out the little voice inside which keeps on saying ‘the reason you are doing this is because this poem is fascinating beyond anything you could begin to create,’ and letting readers see why it might be worth knowing more in order to understand better is what I think I am doing. … [A]cademics manifest in unusually public ways the general tendency of desire to turn into something else in the course of its realisation. The caricature philologist could be regarded as a person in whom the desire to understand has suffered its final metamorphosis: the means used to pursue the end have entirely obliterated the end itself. We take the risk of becoming that person whenever we interpret more than casually. We owe it to ourselves to back off from time to time, and remind ourselves of our own ends.

—Colin Burrow, “Are You a Spenserian?”

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