A genome biologist, Gregory Petsko, has gone to bat for the humanities, in an open letter to the State University of New York at Albany president who recently (and underhandedly) announced significant cuts. (For those who haven’t been paying attention: the departments of theater, Italian, Russian, classics, and French at SUNY-Albany are all going to be eliminated).
If you are in academia, and Petsko’s missive (which appeared on this site Monday) hasn’t appeared on your Facebook wall, it will soon. And here’s the passage that everyone seizes on, evidence that Petsko understands us and has our back (that is, we in the humanities): "The real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained."
He's right. And if scientists want to speak up for the humanities, I’m all for it. But Petsko understands us differently than we understand ourselves. Why fund the humanities, even if they don’t bring in grant money or produce patents? Petsko points out "universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment."
How many us willingly embrace that interpretation of what we do? "My interest is not merely antiquarian...." is how we frame the justification for our cutting edge research. Even as we express our dismay when crucial texts go out of print, any sacred flame that we were tending was blown out when the canon wars were fought to a draw. Why should we resurrect it? Because, says Petsko, "what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future." His examples are virology and Middle Eastern studies. Mine is 18th-century literature — and with all the imaginative vigor at my disposal, I have trouble discerning the variation on the AIDS scare or 9/11 that would revive interest in my field. That’s OK, though: Petsko has other reasons why the humanities matter:
"Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including -- especially including -- the humanities and arts... If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future."
Well, that would be great. I have no confidence, though, that we in the humanities are positioned to take advantage of this dawning world, even if our departments escape SUNY-style cost-cutting. How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to "the question of just what it means to be human" without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?
Petsko is not necessarily right in his perception of what the humanities are good for, nor are professionals in the humanities necessarily wrong to pursue another vision of what our fields are about. But there is a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves (and how our work is valued and remunerated in the university and how we organize our professional lives to respond to those expectations) and how others see us. If we're going to take comfort in the affirmations of Petsko and those outside of the humanities whom he speaks for, perhaps we need to take seriously how he understands what we do. Perhaps the future is asking something of us that we are not providing — or perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining why anyone other than us should care about what we do.
Kirstin Wilcox is senior lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Everyone must know the famous statement attributed to Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961) during a debate over bilingual education in the 1920s: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”
Alas, there is no solid evidence that she actually said it. Variations on the formula go back at least to the 1880s. Both the sentiment and the urge to lampoon it were probably around well before that. The remark is, in any case, a tribute to the aura of authority surrounding the King James Version of the Bible. This year marks the 400th anniversary of its publication. Some people regard the translation as almost divinely inspired; and I can see the point, at least at the level of style. (A few fundamentalists do reject it, objecting to the lifestyle of King James, which was sodomitical.)
Now, it has been some while since my shadow darkened a church door. I regard the existence of the Almighty with curious skepticism, and suspect He would return the favor. But when it is necessary to consult the Bible, there is simply no question of whether or not to use the KJV. It is the only one with any flavor; the rest are as appetizing as a sawdust sandwich.
Belief is not a prerequisite for celebrating the KJV. The critic and essayist Dwight Macdonald put it best: “The King James Bible came at the end of the Elizabethan age, between Shakespeare and Milton, when Englishmen were using words more passionately, richly, vigorously, wittily, and sublimely than ever before or since. Although none of the divines and scholars who made it were literary men, their language was touched with genius -- the genius of a period when style was the common property of educated men rather than an individual achievement.”
The quadricentennial has inspired a flood of monographs on the history and literary intertextuality of the Authorized Version, as the translation is also known. It would be steady work just to keep up with these publications. “Of making many books,” sayeth the Preacher, “there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But one recent volume, David Crystal’s Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford University Press), is both scholarly and diverting -- something the reader can dip into, when and where the mood strikes. On this anniversary it reminds us just how ubiquitous the KJV's influence is.
The dust jacket describes David Crystal as “the world’s greatest authority on the English language.” I pass this statement along without necessarily endorsing it. If someone else feels they have claim to the heavyweight title, take it up with Oxford UP. He has certainly recognized and assembled an enormous number of examples of how turns of phrase found in the KJV still echo in literature, politics, journalism, popular culture, and everyday speech. Only after finishing this column did it occur to me that Crystal also compiled an interesting volume on how text-messaging affects language, which I wrote about here. The man is a consummate word nerd, by any standard, and his books merit a place on the nightstand of anyone with that disposition.
It is sometimes said that the Authorized Version contains thousands of expressions that have passed into common usage. By Crystal’s reckoning, this is pushing it. He identifies 257 idiomatic English expressions that can be traced to the KJV. That’s plenty: “No other single source,” he writes, “has provided the language with so many idiomatic expressions. Shakespeare is the nearest, but the number of idioms we can confidently attribute to him (such as to the manner born) is under a hundred.”
The expressions he catalogs are words or phrases that have come to circulate without necessarily carrying a religious connotation. In Genesis, for example, we read: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” The latter phrase echoes in a song by Dolly Parton, various fashion-magazine articles (“When looking for outerwear this cold-weather season, think coats of many colors”), and a joking reference to guys in a carnival parade (“float of many bubbas”).
A line from Isaiah, and alluded to by St. Paul, reads: “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose attitude is expressed as “take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Somewhere along the way, the expressions fused into a common saying which now inspires headlines such as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we devalue the pound.” It is also used by people who are going on a diet, though not just yet.
The idiom "fly in the ointment" -- meaning a problem or distracting irritation -- is both very common and somewhat peculiar. Its source is a passage in Ecclesiastes: “Dead flies caused the appointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.” Cut loose from the original context, the image loses the quality of moral warning it had in the original proverb.
Crystal notes that many turns of phrase appearing in the KJV were taken from earlier English translations of the Bible, including “Let there be light.” The Douai-Rheims version (a Roman Catholic translation coeval with the one James commissioned for the Church of England) renders this as “Be light made.” But, Crystal writes, “that never stood a chance of competing in the popular mind with ‘Let there be light,’ whose Beethovenesque ‘te-te-te-tum’ stress pattern reflected more naturally the language’s rhythmical norms.” By contrast, one comedian imagined how Genesis 1:3 would be released by the White House: “The Supreme Being mandated the illumination of the Universe and this directive was enforced forthwith.”
The last time I gave much thought to the KJV's force-field was while reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book James Agee wrote to accompany photographs of sharecroppers taken by Walker Evans during the Depression. The cadences of his prose and the quality of moral anguish (clearly Agee felt that making art out of other people’s misery was a dubious undertaking, perhaps a sin) revealed the hold that the Bible had on him as a writer. So did his book’s title, drawn from Ecclesiasticus, which the King James translators included in the Apocrypha now often left out of that edition: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begot us.”
Begat charts another sort of cultural power the translation has radiated over the past four centuries. Threads of it have become woven into everyday life, in conversation and countless utterly secular usages. Some of this is a matter of allusion: the long shadow of remembered texts. But it also an effect of the literary qualities of the translation -- in particular, its phonetic properties, as Crystal spells out: "especially iambic rhythms (from strength to strength), alliteration (many mansions), assonance (from the cradle to the grave), euphony (still small voice), [and] monosyllabicity (you know not what you do)."
There are passages in the King James Version that have become touchstones of high eloquence ("for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness"). But it's in the small points of phrasing that, as Dwight Macdonald said, the translators were touched with genius, if not by some higher power.
WASHINGTON -- C.P. Snow’s depiction of a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” separating scientists from humanists may date to 1959, but it’s still relevant – and cited -- in discussions of the humanities in 2009. Panelists speaking Monday on “The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society” cited Snow in describing a need to better bridge that gulf -- with the consequences of failing to do so exacting a real and human price, argued Patty Stonesifer, chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution and senior adviser to the trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
WASHINGTON -- Shakespeare famously affirmed that his words would live “[s]o long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” but he never promised that they’d keep his acolytes employed. At the Shakespeare Association of America’s 37th Annual Conference last week, attendees related the familiar stories of budget cuts and fruitless job searches that now seem to emanate from every corner of academe (and elsewhere).
For over three decades, Robert Burns Stepto has been writing about and teaching African American literature. His book From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (University of Illinois Press), which focuses on several autobiographies of and novels about young black men growing up in America, was first published in 1979.