Most part of Kirsch's essay is about a project called the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a series of translations from Latin - the language of scholarship in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries - of the classic texts of the Renaissance. Indeed, there are some parallels between this project and another ambitious contemporary publishing venture aimed at making a section of the world's classical literature widely available in English, the Clay Sanskrit Library. I wonder why there is not so much as a word about this in the Indian press (when if Paris Hilton breaks a fingernail, then we know all about it in the Indian papers the very next day. O books page editors of the country, what are you up to?)
The only thing most teachers and students of the humanities agree on, it often seems, is that these are troubled times for their field. For a whole variety of reasons—social, intellectual, and technological—the humanities have been losing their confident position at the core of the university’s mission. This represents an important turning-point, not just for education, but for our culture as a whole. Ever since the Renaissance, the humanities have defined what it means to be an educated person. The very word comes from the Latin name of the first modern, secular curriculum, the studia humanitatis, invented in fourteenth-century Italy as a rival to traditional university subjects like theology, medicine, and law.
According to Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, one of today’s leading scholars of the Renaissance, “the studia humanitatis, the humanities....encompassed quite a specific range of subjects: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, the arts that gave a command of Latin, the language of learning, and oratory, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.” For centuries after, these disciplines were considered indispensable for any well-educated person. Still more important, they helped to define an ethical ideal: they were “forms of thought and writing,” Grafton explains, “that improved the character of the student.” To study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being. In the words of the critic George Steiner […] modern education has been defined by the principle “that the humanities humanize.”
Among the best bits in Kirsch's essay is when he harks back to the fourteenth-century poet and scholar Petrarch and his search for good books - this in the age before the world-changing invention of the printing press:
…one of the most moving things in Petrarch’s life and work is his sense of the precious rarity of good books—the opposite of our own postmodern sense of literature’s crushing abundance. [...] Before the invention of printing and the rediscovery of many ancient authors, finding good new books to read was an ordeal of a kind we can hardly conceive in the age of amazon.com. Manuscripts first had to be tracked down, often in dusty monastic libraries, and then copied by hand. The British historian Lisa Jardine, whose fascinating book Worldly Goods explores the material culture of the Renaissance, gives a telling example of the expense and labor involved in assembling a library. Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence and one of the richest men in Europe, gave his agent Vespasiano da Bisticci an unlimited budget for books: “[A]s there was no lack of money,” the latter reported, “I engaged forty-five scribes and completed two hundred volumes in twenty-two months.”Kirsch is a critic of great distinction; there are not many literary journalists I enjoy reading as much. Like all the best critics, he manages to articulate precisely what in another reader would only be an inchoate feeling. I have never liked the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its avalanche of batty Buendias, is one of the most tiresome books I've ever read), but to my knowledge no one has expressed a sense of what is wrong with Marquez's work better than Kirsch in a recent piece on Marquez's new book Memories of My Melancholy Whores:
Garcia Marquez manages to deflect moral or even psychological judgment on the acts of his characters because the "magic" of his fiction annuls the "realism" that is supposed to go along with it. He never demands for his creations the kind of sympathy that enables and necessitates judgment. Rather, he endows them with the grandiosity, and the irresponsibility, of heroes from fable and romance. They are so innocent they ascend into heaven (Remedios the Beauty in "One Hundred Years of Solitude"), so devoted they cherish an unrequited love for 50 years (Florentino Ariza in "Love in the Time of Cholera"), so evil they serve their enemies for dinner with a side dish of cauliflower (the dictator in "Autumn of the Patriarch"). But this means that they are not really innocent or devoted or evil at all, in the way we ourselves might be. Like the world they inhabit, Mr. Garcia Marquez's heroes are stupendous, and therefore stupefying; larger than life, and therefore not really alive.Here are some links to old posts on the Middle Stage on classical literature, both European and Indian: Boccaccio's Life of Dante (the first post I ever did, therefore not perhaps the best), the Rig Veda, and Dandin's Dasakumaracharita. And here's another old post, about a man from the pre-modern world just as passionate about books as Petrarch: Jahiz the bibliomaniac.
Here's a chapter from Paul Johnson's excellent book on the Renaissance, with a very good survey of the invention and spread of print technology. ("Before printing, only the very largest libraries contained as many as six hundred books, and the total number in Europe was well under one hundred thousand. By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million." Johnson's beautiful book Art: A New History, with which I've spent many pleasurable hours in the last six months, is available at Strand Bookstall for a steal at Rs.750. Buy it while you can.) And here's a good interview in the magazine Bookforum with Steve Maikowski, the press director of the Clay Sanskrit Library.
And lastly, to return to Marquez, a short piece by the critic Jonathan Bate on One Hundred Years of Solitude, in response to the question, "Which are the most overrated authors, or books, of the past 1,000 years?"