Research and Writing

        The last of the self-acknowledged philologists had probably been born toward the end of the nineteenth century, and all my teachers were taught by that generation.  By this time the mainstream of literature students and teachers were already rejecting philology along with much else associated with traditional culture.  Notions from philosophy and aesthetics became suspect in the twentieth century, as did the most revered poets and cherished ideals.  Ironically, this rejection was fostered by an especially literate and sensitive group from my own American South.  In literature for example, William K. Wimsatt, Cleanthe Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and their contemporaries demonstrated how seeking out the sense of a text in terms of history or of the poet's life, was simply fallacious.  These so-called New Critics encouraged far freer reading.   Members of my own generation then went on to demand a more enlightened morality in literature.  Their views on art became suffused with politics, so that their selection and interpretation of older works sought relevance to current events.  As the literary canon was dropped, the language which its poets had used was no longer upheld as standard.  A new linguistic science shifted the focus to real-time, spoken language.  Oral traditions replaced the literate norm.  "Incorrect" ceased to apply to grammar at all, but rather to attitude, or to use the preferred, Marxian term, "ideology."

        I had written my own dissertation under the influence of the art critic Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) and the intellectual historian Günther Müller (1890-1957), on the concept "baroque."  Philippson was my adviser, because that was "his" period at Illinois.  Since my writing occurred in Germany, Professor Philippson was not around to caution me against Müller's thesis that art embodies national history.  I soon saw, on my own, that I had treated one particular work in grand overarching terms, so that my first published article was a refutation of my dissertation.  I went ahead to write another little piece evaluating some sonnets by the poet's own purpose in revising them.  That article drew attention for its by then discredited critical assumptions.  About that time my aesthetic-intellectual preoccupations were interrupted.

        I noticed how the distinguished Yale professor Hermann Weigand had opined that "Thomas Mann's Sprachgefühl is slipping," and I thought someone ought to examine that.  My effort entailed a careful reading of this most important German author, who remains to this day in disrepute among German nationals.  Thomas Mann held at least three great attractions for me.  Above all else, he is the last incomparable master of the German language, a quality to which I was vulnerable.  But also his knowledge of German history and letters, so far superior to that of the professoriate, was a valuable aid to me.  Most attractive was his demonstration, with Joseph and his Brothers and with Lotte in Weimar, that
Bible scholars were leaving much to be desired in their own vital craft of philology.  The same seemed to be true of literary critics.

        Furthermore, for a 20th-century student of German, the recent German calamity was a fascinating problem which seemed to cast all of German history into question, perhaps even all Western culture.  Thomas Mann explores the ominous crest of German philosophy and art in his novel Dr. Faustus.  This formidable work led me back to its prototype in the 16th century.  That old Faust Book no longer existed in its original form.  Recovering it challenged me to try my own hand at philology.  I applied the venerable techniques more instinctively than expertly, but did succeed in showing how the Faust Book must actually be something much different from what scholars had long assumed.  I edited the old manuscript and even tried,
with a translation, to popularize its archetype.  As usual, I got lucky.  My efforts were actually read by German professors.  I got job offers without ever applying.   This was not remarkable at the time, but I mention it because today it would constitute a violation of university regulations.

        In those days, the Faust figure was seen as pretty much central to German letters and culture.  I watched not without vanity to see when researchers would be taking my findings into account.  After about fifteen years the first evidence came in a standard book on literary history which mentioned the Faust Book in accordance with my notions (without attribution).  No one had ever questioned my work,
much less refuted it.  But even today, after half a century, it's a toss up whether "cutting edge" Faust Book research knows anything about it. The point was that publication in print had ceased to constitute a forum among researchers in the humanities.  Instead, it functioned as the necessary display of credentials which teachers had to file regularly both at their own institutions and with funding sources.  Years were to pass before I recognized this change.

        In the meantime, I was myself posing as an administrator and taking myself very seriously, indeed.  I had been chosen department head because my youth made me seem harmless enough to my old professors, who just did not want to be bothered, but I thought the position required me to prove myself as a scholar.  Where I had hitherto focused on older literature, now my exalted post required me to write on the classics.  I produced a biography of the German poet Wolfgang Goethe, then I tried a critical assessment of his major work, Faust.  I gave both manuscripts to university presses, and the second was very slow. The problem of biography continued to occupy me, as did the problems now posed by publication.  I submitted my Luther: An Experiment in Biography to a trade house, hoping that they would make a better effort to get it before the public.  I may also have feared that my method and message could not survive scholarly peer review.  As it turned out, one of the more prestigious university presses, finding itself without anything for the Luther 500th birthday, got Doubleday's permission to re-issue the book on their new, imperishable paper stock.  Perhaps encouraged, I wrote a history of German letters which, while conveying my own "larger" view of the thousand-year development, at the same time satirized scholarly presentations.  Here was a book no scholarly press could accept, and no trade press could hope to sell.

       My first reaction to this failure was to focus again on the old 16th-century Faust Book. I had now come to see it in the historical perspective of early Protestantism.  For the rest, I had reverted to what Helmut Rehder had taught in my first graduate seminar.  I was ready to confess that the study of literature--or as my colleagues  might put it, the theory of literature--as practiced in the university was quite beyond me.  I found myself baffled both by the critical views of my time and by the seeming triviality of the materials chosen for research--and teaching.  I had returned to Gottfried Herder's view that both cultural expression and comprehension are contingent on cultural experiences.  I think I must have fallen into despair at the vacuity of the academic enterprise.  Like Antaeus, I seek sense and succor in my own native soil.  Whether I look to Weimar or to Ithaka, I must be able to explain it all to my brother the horned toad.

             The body of this chapter was written toward the end of the 20th century.   It treats research as I understood that term at the middle of that same century.  While my teachers' thought went back to the 19th, all of us had been much influenced by the recent, spectacular work in the natural sciences of our own day.  Modern physics had pretty much determined the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), and was most prominently represented by the physicist, classicist and philosopher of science Carl Popper.  Popper famously recognized science to be the free play of imagination, subjected to empirical disproof.  Popper contended that genuine research sets forth propositions vulnerable to being demonstrated false.

          In truth, this was no more than Cicero had argued in Tusculans I, 14, and Popper surely knew that, but in our era Popper is given credit for the doctrine.  His argument was that all scientific progress depends upon statements formulated in a way subject to disproof.  It was with Popper in mind that the mathematician Wolfgang Pauli,
on a paper submitted to him for critique, remarked:  Das ist nicht einmal falsch--"This is not even wrong!"  I turn to that often quoted dismissal here, because Pauli could apply it today to almost all writing in the social sciences, and quite all presentations in the humanities. 

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