Questions of Character

An ancient literary genre meets modern academe: Scott McLemee considers a recent "typology of scholars."

November 26, 2014

The Greek philosopher and scientist Theophrastus would probably have remained forever in the shadow of Aristotle, his teacher and benefactor (a very big shadow, admittedly) if not for a little volume of personality sketches called Characters he wrote at the age of 99. At least that’s what he claims in the preface. The first character type he portrays is called “The Ironical Man,” so it’s possible he was just putting everyone on.

After long years of people-watching, Theophrastus says, he resolved to depict “the good and the worthless among men,” although what we actually have from his pen is a rogues’ gallery of shady, annoying, or ridiculous characters – 30 in all – including the Boor, the Garrulous Man, the Superstitious Man, and the Man of Petty Ambition. It could be there was a second volume, depicting virtuous and noble personality types, which has been lost. Or maybe he intended to write one but never got started, or did but quit from boredom. When he focuses on weaknesses and foibles it is with relish. The Offensive Man “will use rancid oil to anoint himself at the bath; and will go forth into the market-place wearing a thick tunic, and a very light cloak, covered with stains.” The Patron of Rascals “will throw himself into the company of those who have lost lawsuits and have been found guilty in criminal causes; conceiving that, if he associates with such persons, he will become more a man of the world, and will inspire the greater awe.” And so forth.

It’s not hilarious, but the humor works, and the types all remain familiar. The adjustments a reader has to make between Theophrastus’s references to clothing and institutions in ancient Greece and everyday life today are pretty slight. It’s not hard to understand why Characters became a fairly popular work in antiquity and then again in the 17th century, when imitations of it became a literary fashion and an influenced early novelists.

The character sketch seems to have died off as a genre some while back, apart from for the occasional homage such as George Eliot’s The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, her last work of fiction. But I recently came across a sort of revival in the form of a series of sketches called “Typology of scholars” by Roland Boer, an associate professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Newcastle, in Australia.

A couple of weeks ago Boer won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize (sort of an equivalent of the Pulitzer for Marxist scholarship) for Criticism of Heaven and Earth, a study of the ongoing interaction of Marxism with theology and the Bible – the fifth volume of which just appeared from the European scholarly publisher Brill, with previous installment issued in paperback from Haymarket Press. I would be glad to write about it except for being stuck in volume two. The news that volume five brings the series to a close is somewhat encouraging, but in the shorter term it only inspired me to look around at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. (Anyone attempting to extract ideological significance from that title does so at his or her own peril. Boer himself indicates that it was inspired by General Tito’s remark “Stalin is known the world over for his moustache, but not for his wisdom.”)

In the inaugural post Boer explains that “Typology of scholars” was inspired by a single question: “ ‘What is a university like?’ someone asked me who fortunately had no experience whatsoever with these weird places.” Originally announced as a series that would run for a few days in December 2011, it actually continued for six months, though the last few character sketches are lacking in the piss and vinegar of the first several. 

Like Theophrastus, Boer, too, has assembled a rogue’s gallery. Whatever the particularities of Australian academic culture, “Typology” depicts varieties of Homo academicus probably found everywhere.

So here’s a sampler. (I have imposed American spelling and punctuation norms.)

The Lord: “[T]he high-handed professor distributes funds, hands out favors, relies on a servile court of aspiring scholars to reinforce his own sense of superiority. And the Lord deems that the only people really worth talking to are other lords, visiting them in their domains, perhaps lecturing the local serfs.…

"[N]otice how the lord refers to ‘my’ doctoral students, ‘my’ postdocs, ‘my’ center, or even ‘my’ university. Our worthy lord may treat her or his serfs in many different ways, with benevolence, with disdain, as a source of new ideas that can then be ‘recycled’ as the lord’s own. So the serfs respond accordingly, although usually it is a mix of resentment and slavish subservience. On the one hand, the lord is a tired old hack who is really not so interesting, who may be derided in the earshot of the other serfs, and whose demise cannot come quickly enough. On the other hand, the serfs will come to the defense of their lord should an enemy appear, for they owe their livelihood and future prospects to the Lord.

“Of course, as soon as a serf manages to crawl into a coveted lordship, she acts in exactly the same manner.”

The Overlooked Genius: “The way the star system has developed in academia means that few of us are happy to remain incognito, quietly walking in the mountains and jotting in a small notebook, sending books off to a press and selling maybe four or five – like Nietzsche (although he was also pondering the advanced effects of syphilis).... In order to make it through the long apprenticeship, at the end of which someone who is forty is still regarded as ‘youthful,’ an intellectual needs to develop some survival skills, especially a belief that what he or she is doing is important, so crucial that the future of the human race depends upon it...... Our unnoticed genius spends his or her whole time asserting that everyone around him or her, in whatever context if not the discipline as a whole, is as dumb as an inbred village.”

The Borrower: “The Borrower may seize upon the papers of a colleague who has resigned in disgust and use them, unrevised, in a scintillating paper. Or the Borrower may ask a newly made ‘friend’ for a copy of his latest research paper, only to pump out something on the same topic and publishing it quickly – using established networks. Possibly the best example is a very creative head honcho at an unnamed university. Dreading solitary space, a blank piece of paper, and an empty mind, he would gather a group at his place, ply them with food and grog, and ask, ‘Now what about this question?’ After a couple of hours talk, he would say to Bill: ‘Why don’t you write a draft paper on this and then pass it around?’ Bill would do so, the others would add their revisions and he would ensure his name was on the piece.”

The Politician: “It can truly be said that the politician is one who has never had a thought without reading or hearing it somewhere else. What really sets the juices going, however, is the thought of wielding ‘power.’

“So she or he salivates at the thought of a committee, leaps at the chance for a heavy administrative role in which power can be lorded over others, sleeps with this one or that higher up the rung in order to gain crucial insights that may come in handy, who spends long hours pondering his next move to gain access to the powers that be.

"With their feudal-like structures, universities lend themselves to labyrinthine intrigue, favors done, gaining the ear of a heavyweight, eliminations carried out through humiliation and whispers, the bending of rules in order to edge ever upward.… The Politician is probably one of the saddest of all types, since the power you can accrue in a university is bugger-all.”

The Big Fish in a Slimy Pond: “A great temptation for some of us in that attractive life of academia: this is, obviously, the situation in which one may be a big shot in one’s own little circle. ... [able to] hold forth on any topic with absolute abandon…. “

The moment of truth for the Big Fish comes when faced with “a big conference, or perhaps a new and larger circle of scholars who actually know something, or a situation slightly more than a group of fresh-faced, worshipful students. … [O]n the one visit to the big arena, our knowledgeable scholar opines that no-one knows what they are talking about, since all those hundreds of papers from around the world are worthless, so it’s not worth going again. Or they are too traditional and I’m just too much of a radical for them all, so I’ll give that a miss….

“Instead, the apparently big fish can return to the small, stagnant pond, getting fat on pond slime and the perceived authority that comes from being the person with one eye among the blind.”

(It's worth mentioning that he example of the Big Fish that Boer gives is "the theologian who becomes an expert in, say, feminism, or cultural criticism, or Marxism, but stays purely within theology where she or he is a real 'authority.' God forbid that you should actually spend some time with real gender critics, or Marxists, or psychoanalysts." His character sketch is a self-portrait, or at least piece of a self-satire.)

As noted earlier, imitations of the character sketches of Theophrastus became popular in the 17th century, when (maybe not so coincidentally) the novel was starting to take shape as a distinct literary form. Plot was, in effect, the boiling water into which authors dissolved the little packets of crystallized personal psychology found in Characters and its knock-offs.

It occurs to me that Boer’s “Typologies of the scholar” reverses the process: It’s an academic novel, except in freeze-dried form. That’s not a problem, since plot is rarely an academic novel’s strong point. What the reader enjoys, typically, is character as caricature -- and Boer’s approach is arguably a lot more efficient.


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