Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Book Reviews

Recovering Philology

Chad Wellmon

Rijks Museum, Michael D. Beckwith; flickr.

Even in our digital age, the vocation and disposition of the humanities remain intact.

In the not-too-distant past, whenever January came around, the New York Times could be counted on to publish a deliciously scathing account of the intellectual zaniness that unfailingly broke out at—some even would say dominated—the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. Tongue firmly in cheek, the reporter typically would list that year’s most outlandish-sounding presentation titles, “The Sodomitical Tourist” or “Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body,” then describe the incoherence and inhumanity of it all––the conference, the profession, the witless scholars arguing about nothing. To add to the fun, contemporary literature professors and their sycophantic graduate students were limned as a posturing and pathetic lot who had long ago lost any sense of the unity and purpose of the humanities.

Scholarly satire long predates the MLA and the New York Times, of course. It is a genre that has accompanied the development of the humanities for centuries, poking fun at the aspirations, conflicts, and pretensions of its leading and lesser lights. In his book On the Charlatanry of the Learned (1715), the German scholar Johann Burkhard Mencken mercilessly mocked his fellow humanists as vainglorious frauds, taking to task such sixteenth- and seventeenth-century humanists as Johann Heinrich Alsted and Giulio Bordoni for producing reference works that accumulated masses of information but “scratched only the surface” of knowledge. Mencken scoffed at the long, puffed-up titles and honorifics these “erudite compilers” flaunted—Clarrisimus, Magnificus, Consultissimus, Excellentissimus—simply to sell their books and impress fellow members of the scholarly guild. He dismissed the ridiculously bloated titles of their books, such as The Amphitheatre of the Only True Eternal Wisdom, Christian-Cabalistic, Divine-Magical, and Yet Physical-Chemical, or The Catholic Three Times Three in One, Arranged by Heinrich Khunrath. “What worthless paper!” Mencken harrumphed.

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