Dead From The Waist Down

Don't expect to sit down with A.D. Nuttall's Dead From The Waist Down (Yale, 2003) unless you've got a few other books handy, and, even more important, Middlemarch under your belt. You will want Horace, but not just any Horace: an edition of Horace in English that includes AE Housman's translation of "Diffugere nives." You'll want Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral" - not particularly fun to read. It will help to have seen or read Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. While Dead may be provocative reading for a student, opening up new vistas, I suspect that only middle-aged readers will be genuinely satisfied by the book. I've never read another quite like it.

Dead From The Waist Down is a meditation on the relation between sexuality and scholarship, as it is refracted in literature and biography. Professor Nuttall does not concern himself with the sex lives of his colleagues and students at Oxford; his book is innocent of sociological pretension. Almost everything that he discusses comes out of a book. Three books dominate. The first is Middlemarch, the novel in which, among many other narrative threads, George Eliot tells the almost heartbreaking story of Dorothea Brooke's marriage to dry-as-dust Edward Casaubon. The second is Isaac Casaubon, by Mark Pattison, published in 1875, a few years after Middlemarch; whether or not Eliot's Edward Casaubon was modeled on Mark Pattison has been a controversy ever since the novel appeared. The third is Isaac Casaubon's Ephemerides, which was a diary of readings, not a proper book. Isaac Casaubon was a French Protestant who lived from 1559 to 1614. If he is forgotten today, that is because his methods, much more than his work, have passed into the collective half-consciousness of scholars everywhere. Before continuing, I think it might be helpful to state clearly that the fictional Edward Casaubon was or might have been based on his author's near contemporary, Mark Pattison, and not on the object of Pattison's principal study, who merely lent his name. Professor Nuttall takes great pains to show that the two Casaubons, the one real, the other imaginary, had almost nothing in common.

The origins of modern scholarship are not widely known. A watershed moment was certainly Lorenzo Valla's tract, "Declamazione contro la donazione di Constantino," in which a document purporting to be Constantine's donation of temporal power to the bishops of Rome - never, despite Dante's fulminations against it, a very useful document to the church - was exposed as an eighth-century concoction. Valla was able to demonstrate the fraud by analyzing the Donation's language. He had had to master a very great deal of Latin literature before his ears were tuned to the differences that three or four centuries wrought on ancient diction, but I expect that most educated people today would be able to deduce that the writings of, say, Ann Coulter, if passed off as the work of a contemporary of the Founding Fathers, must be a fake. Since the fifteenth century, of course, merely linguistic analysis has been trumped by all sorts of positive evaluation, as, for example, of the paper of manuscript or the canvas of a painting.

What's important here is that no such critical methodology existed or was even dreamed of prior to Valla's day. Documents were taken on faith. Surely no one would abuse the God-given privilege of literacy to perpetrate wickedness. This isn't to say that anyone believed in a magical guarantee of truthfulness, but rather to suggest that the fact that something was written down implied that it ought to have been written down. As Thomas Aquinas could have attested from bitter personal experience, things that didn't comport with conventional ideas of the good were promptly burned. It is true that Saint Jerome, working in the twilight of ancient learning, had dedicated his life to the scrupulous redaction of a reliable Latin translation of Scripture, but the humanists of the Renaissance went much further, and questioned Scripture itself - at first deferentially, certainly; but by the end of the eighteenth century scholars were already developing the notion of a lost original gospel, much smaller than the canonical ones that drew upon it. (They called this hypothetical gospel the "Q," after the German for "source," Quelle.)

These humanists confronted a welter of manuscripts, and as a rule none of them were originals (or even close), and no two of them were in complete accord. Nor had anyone spoken classical Greek in over a millennium. How to know what Aristotle or Plutarch really wrote? It was of course a novelty of the humanist dawn that anyone was interested in what long-dead writers had really written; as Professor Nuttall points out, Plato not only failed to quote Homer correctly, he may have had no conception of correct quotation. Having enumerated Isaac Casaubon's works, Professor Nuttall gives us a succinct description of the nature of his labors:

Thus summarized, it may well be that "what Casaubon did" may instantly evaporate in the modern reader's mind. ... [T]here is no world-transforming "thesis" or line of argument to fasten on. What is there is a cumulative, simultaneous assault on a vast range of problems (linguistic, historical), each, taken separately, minute, yet as a whole - because of the quality of the work of the explainer - of incalculable historical and cultural importance. If "truth" is construed not as some underlying Platonic formula but as indefinitely, incorrigibly plural, the real merit of Casaubon is suddenly apparent. He appears, in this century torn by grand theological disputes, by myth-making and myth-breaking, as the quiet truth-teller among the clamorous liars.

In our age of Loeb Classics, such labors are no longer so extensively necessary, but that is no reason to devalue them, for we still enjoy the certainty that they made possible. The corpus of ancient writings could in no other way have been established.

By Mark Pattison's day, scholarship had grown in many directions. Now that texts had been established, they could be no less scrupulously translated into the principal European vernaculars. Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol and Pattison's contemporary, produced translations all of the Platonic dialogues that are still read today. Pattison himself, in an early flirtation with the Tractarian movement, translated Aquinas for John Henry Newman. The work nearly unhinged him, because Aquinas, like every pre-modern thinker, never thought of providing sources for his quotations. Providing sources for everything had become a modern mania. In Germany, Leopold von Ranke was developing modern historiography, which insisted on the superiority of primary, unself-conscious sources, such as administrative archives, to the secondary sources, annals and memoirs, upon which historians had previously relied. The spirit of Casaubon burned very brightly in the nineteenth century - but hardly anybody knew who he was. This ignorance Pattison set out to rectify. 

Pattison's first choice for study was Isaac Casaubon's more famous contemporary, Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609). Scaliger was a French protestant who claimed descent from the leading Milanese family, della Scala; hence his Latinized name. Among Scaliger's many scholastic triumphs was the recreation, from fragments, of a classical Greek text that was not even supposed to exist; subsequently, an ancient translation into Latin emerged in Paris, backed up by an Armenian edition of the whole that proved how right Scaliger had been to posit the text's existence. Professor Nutall closes his chapter on Pattison with a heady indication of Pattison's passion for Scaliger: Pattison wrote, "The most richly stored intellect which ever spent itself in acquiring knowledge was in the present of the omniscient," when what he meant was, "Scaliger died." But Pattison was scooped by a German, Martin Bernays, whose work, when it was published, "turned Pattison from the man who would write the  great book on Scaliger into the man who reviewed Bernays."

From this point on, Pattison receded from the world of work, gradually coming to believe that it was better to think than to write.

Very near the end [of his Memoirs] he says how follish he was in his youth to think publication important. The mere living at the higher level is enough.

Professor Nuttall has many things to say about Mark Pattison that point to an identification with Eliot's Dr Casaubon, an identification made by many contemporaries, including Pattison's wife, who saw herself as Dorothea Brooke. The question whether Eliot consciously patterned her Casaubon on the real Casaubon's biographer, however, bristles with controversy. Pattison and Eliot remained friendly after the publication of Middlemarch, for example. Professor Nuttall believes that insofar as Eliot took Pattison as a model, she did so unconsciously. He sifts through the evidence and the judgments of subsequent scholars with quite as much zeal as though, like Isaac Casaubon or Joseph Scaliger, he were establishing a vital point of textual integrity. Lovers of Middlemarch will be particularly piqued, but ultimately refreshed by Professor Nuttall's proposal that in giving her Dr Casauban the grandiose project of organizing Europe's mythologies (a job eventually done by James Frazier in The Golden Bough) was a literary miscalculation, in that it implicitly endows Casaubon with an intellectual scope that he is shown to lack. Not only could he not write a 'Key to All Mythologies,' Professor Nuttall argues; he could not have conceived such a work.

The problem with this discussion, however, is also the problem of the book's trajectory, which is resoundingly backwards. Such, at least, is my impression after a first reading. We're entertained by the argument about Dr Casaubon's real-life correlatives before we know very much about Mark Pattison, and we must contextualize Pattison's ambitions as best we can without knowing much about Isaac Casaubon. The reason for all this must be Professor Nuttall's desire to keep his presentation of Isaac Casaubon, in a chapter subtitled "The Real Thing," from being not anti- but pre-climactic. What he ends up suggesting in his three major chapters, however, is that scholarship went into decline from a bright moment in 1600 or thereabouts.

Fortunately, there is more to Dead From the Waist Down. In the "Conclusion," Professor Nuttall evaluates the formidable scholarship of A E Housman, testimony to anything but decline. He does so through a curious lens, Tom Stoppard's play, The Invention of Love. Housman combined opposites in an intriguing way. In his poetry, he suppressed his homosexuality, distorting his feelings about young men into lyric camaraderie. His life witnessed a similar suppression; he bore an unrequited love for a good-natured heterosexual. It was as a scholar that Housman knew something of freedom, which, as Professor Nuttall points out, reverses the stereotypes of poets and scholars. Housman loved scholarship, which he believed had nothing to do with taste. The scholar pursues truth, and doesn't matter what it looks like. The poet pursues beauty, and ends up pursuing himself. Hard-won knowledge is imperishable, and so long as one values knowledge at all, everything that one knows will be a prize. But it is possible to love beauty while falling out of love with a particular exemplar. So the poet's ultimate anxiety concerns the ebbing of his own feeling. The scholar, whose very different passion is reliably unswerving, simply proceeds from joy to joy.

The "Conclusion" of Dead From the Waist Down is far-ranging and elusive; at several points, it seems to approach the thesis that scholarship and heterosexual love are incompatible, but it shrinks away every time. Professor Nuttall plainly finds unrequited homosexual love, unrequitable in taking as its object the heterosexual man, unobjectionable, and possibly constructive. He also believes - and here I am in complete accord - that it is more important for students to be taught to correct their mistakes than it is to lift their self-esteem. He has woven an idiosyncratic fabric, somewhat more dazzling in detail than in design, from the many threads that, since the Renaissance, have bound serious but impassioned students to the ever-stranger brilliance of the ancient world. (August 2004)

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