Die-casts for typical scholars

Dead from the Waist Down
May 28, 2004

In the introduction to Dead from the Waist Down , A. D. Nuttall argues that while the stereotypical scientist may be crazy, things are worse for the stereotypical humanities scholar. The title of his book, a phrase he calls "the lethal weapon in the anti-intellectual arsenal", comes from a line by Robert Browning in his poem, A Grammarian's Funeral (1855). But even if the sexually frigid stereotype of such scholars was true once, it surely no longer is. We have all read headlines about humanities professors seducing students, while David Lodge's novels have informed the world of the sexual antics of British academics.

Nuttall, who dedicates his book to Oxford, aims to uncover the origins of the stereotype. He opens by discussing Browning's poem, then moves on to study Edward Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72).

Browning's grammarian and Eliot's Casaubon appear to embody the stereotype.

But Eliot's case is more complicated, as Nuttall's next chapter on Mark Pattison (1813-84) reveals. Eliot was a friend of Pattison, the rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, and allegedly modelled Casaubon on Pattison. After offering an "anti-feminist" interpretation of Middlemarch , Nuttall describes Pattison and his world at length.

If Pattison's connection to the character Edward Casaubon is doubtful, his link to Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) is not. Pattison had intended to write a book on Joseph Scalinger, but ended up publishing on Isaac Casaubon instead. His 1875 book is still the definitive volume, according to Nuttall.

Casaubon, a "scholar's scholar", was a brilliant philologist, whose many accomplishments prompt Nuttall to write an encomium for philology. "The linguistic scholar is the man with the gun," he writes - and his argument is convincing, especially in the light of the late Edward Said's well-known admiration of Erich Auerbach.

Casaubon was the son of a Huguenot from Gascony. He grew up in the Dauphine, studied in Geneva, then worked in Montpellier and in Paris. Henry IV took him under his wing, but being a Protestant in France was difficult; when Henry was assassinated in 1610, Casaubon went to England. Nuttall paints a clear picture of the difficulties, which makes it intriguing that so many Protestants, from Casaubon to Roland Barthes, have influenced French history and intellectual life. Although Nuttall never elaborates on this aspect, he writes intelligently and brings in easily references to the ancient writers as well as to the moderns such as T. S. Eliot and E. M.

Forster. Because he thoroughly understands Casaubon and his times, Nuttall is at his best in this chapter, which presents an incredibly rich history of ideas.

But then the book somewhat loses its way. For a start, the historical Casaubon was hardly "dead from the waist down", since he and his wife produced 19 children. In the final chapter, which begins by discussing the portrayal of A. E. Housman in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love (1997), Nuttall's erudition becomes a manifesto against anti-intellectualism as he answers a question put to him in 1966: "Whatever happened to scholarship?"

For Nuttall, "scholarship" combines "completeness" with "accuracy". But if one may not make a point in an essay by quoting from Kant because one has yet to read all of his works, then in my view completeness is not a virtue.

It is also regrettable that someone who champions complete and accurate scholarship does so in a book that should have had better copy-editing and proofreading. On the other hand, Nuttall is absolutely right that "modern techniques for monitoring achievement" such as the research assessment exercise will ruin us as scholars (if filling out those absurd "transparency review" forms every term does not do so first).

As literary scholars find themselves working harder for fewer rewards, I predict that more will follow Nuttall's lead when they retire. In their swansongs, they will publicly decry the changes taking place in UK higher education. They will explain how these are harming English studies, and they will not pull their punches. The statistics may say the subject is thriving, but most people I know in the discipline are unhappy and Nuttall's book confirms that even Oxford dons feel this way.

Having said this, "scholarship" has not vanished; we simply call it "research". Some will argue that this is precisely the problem. But if Whitehall decides that scholarship is a worthless activity beyond the classroom that needs no funding, then "research" is here to stay.

Craig Hamilton is lecturer in English, Nottingham University.

Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination

Author - A. D. Nuttall
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 228
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 0 300 09840 5

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