Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Shocking internet searches, hagiographic biographies and inspiring teachers. All linked

Beware the internet search: it can sometimes shock and sadden.

And another fundamental truth: out and out partisanship for the subject can make for the most exciting teaching.

Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed “there is properly no history, only biography.” I’ve always been interested in history, so I’ve very properly turned my attention to biographies in recent years – reading them or listening to them, a great way to enhance such experiences as walking a dog, or even more fulfilling, washing floors.

My interest in American history (it’s good, because there isn’t too much of it) inevitably led me to consume biographies of such extraordinary figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. My sympathies have tended to be with the Jeffersonians, with their passionate commitment to democracy and human rights. My son Michael, on the other hand, has a soft spot for the man who became and remained their nemesis during his lifetime: Alexander Hamilton.

Eventually I felt that I really had to turn my attention a biography of Hamilton too, and chose one by Ron Chernow, who wrote so masterfully about Hamilton’s mentor, George Washington. I’m enjoying the imaginatively titled Alexander Hamilton.

How massively have I had to change my viewpoint. I knew, of course, that Jefferson and Madison (Washington too, as it happens) were slaveowners, but I was unaware that Hamilton, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist throughout his life. Who then, as Chernow asks, was truly committed to human rights?

It’s always good to have your presumptions challenged. On the other hand, there were times when I began to despair of Chernow’s tone. Jefferson and Madison, as well as being denounced as hypocrites, also come across as conniving, cowardly and backstabbing. This began to feel over the top, so I dug out my copy of Lynne Cheney’s James Madison, a life reconsidered, if only so I could contrast accounts of the same events from the two points of view. Cheney, of course, is as hagiographic towards her subject as Chernow is to his. In fact, I had to smile when I came across her description of Jefferson and Madison as “the two greatest minds of the eighteenth century.”

So we’re setting aside men such as Hamilton, are we? To say nothing of Newton, Locke, Leibniz or Voltaire among so many others?

It’s interesting how biographers tend to become partisans of their subjects. You don’t have to. My PhD thesis turned into Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis: an intellectual biography and I have to say, the more I found out about Maupertuis, the less I liked the man – prickly, self-aggrandising, paranoid and not above being a bully – so I felt no need to canonise him. Equally, I recently enjoyed A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert Merry, who doesn’t pull his punches concerning the faults of the eleventh US President (he was prickly, paranoid and not above being a bully, though perhaps less inclined to self-aggrandisement.)

Still, one has to admire teachers who become so enthusiastic about their subject that they identify personally with it. A man I greatly admired did just that in lectures about the French Renaissance writers, at what was then called Bedford College, University of London, which he allowed me to attend although I was a student at another college.

He gave a series of classes about Michel de Montaigne during which he gave marks of extreme humility. Most striking was his comment that he only felt qualified to teach the course by his profound sense of inadequacy to the task. Now, Montaigne wrote a series of pieces he called “Essays”, the first time the word was used for such writing – so he’s responsible for that bane of schoolchildren’s lives from his days to ours. But at his time, an “essay” was a trial, in the sense of a trying out – “these are the trials of my natural faculties” he says of his book. So everything he wrote was tentative. Indeed, I know of no author who used expressions equivalent to “on the other hand” more than he did.

Montaigne: the inventor of the essay
Ushering in centuries of pain for schoolkids everywhere
When the lecturer finished the classes on Montaigne, he switched his attention to the poetry of Pierre de Ronsard and introduced the subject by informing us that we should immediately forget everything we had ever read or heard about Ronsard, because everyone else had got him entirely wrong. Ronsard, as it happens, believed that no one had written anything that could be properly called French poetry before him. He saw himself as the greatest poet since Classical Antiquity, and probably superior to the Greeks and Romans too.

It was a privilege to be taught by a man who was so entirely adopted the personalities of his subjects.

It occurred to me that I ought to look him up to see what had become of him. I could only remember his first name, Malcolm. But google is unbeatable. “Malcolm Bedford Ronsard” immediately gave me a series of hits. Sadly, the first of these was a 1994 article from the Independent headlined Obituary: Professor Malcolm Smith.

Another giant of Renaissance studies, Professor Screech, had written the tribute. It ended:

His Oeuvres Complètes de La Boétie for the Editions de la Pléïade was submitted last December when he already knew that his cancer was terminal.

His edition of 
Du Bellay's Antiquitez de Rome with Edmund Spenser's Ruines of Rome was printed and bound in America days before he died.

He’d died at only 53. But right to the end he’d maintained his fiery enthusiasm for his subject. The enthusiasm that I’d found so inspirational when he taught me.

In all likelihood, you wouldn’t remember me, Professor Smith, if you were still around. But I remember you, with admiration undimmed. Thanks for all you did. And thanks for the passion you communicated in doing it.

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