Pardon a slight ellipsis. This is just a little beyond where I left off quoting from the Preface of my new book on Amazon, The Traditional Mind in Greco-Roman Antiquity and Gaelic Ireland.
Readers not fully indoctrinated into the academic brotherhood will not grasp how outrageously anathematic are the comments just written. The first scholarly article I ever succeeded in placing with a “respectable” journal sought to elucidate a cryptic metaphor in the poetry of Sappho by juxtaposing to it the same metaphor—duplicated unwittingly about two millennia later—from the tongue of the Hebridean Gaelic singer Mary MacLeod. Soon after, I saw my little gem cited in the copious footnotes of a legendary scholar writing for Transactions of the American Philological Association. He had singled out my piece as representative of “all that has gone wrong” in contemporary classical studies. His own oracular pronouncement on Sappho’s image, ironically, reached precisely the same conclusion as had my vile comparative method: His Nibs has apparently read no further than my title!
I offer this anecdote as a way of embarking upon my concluding remarks. Yes, the synthesizing of the classical essay with two shorter essays about Irish Gaelic was convenient in that, without that stratagem, I should not have had sufficient volume to fill out a book; and I have already explained that I have no further plans of researching the Greco-Roman proverb, so the inaugural essay was destined to grow no larger. Yet I will also underscore now the high probability that none of these essays would ever have been accepted for publication in any form unless I had spent years rewriting and resubmitting them, one by one, to “respected” scholarly journals. Even the shortest of the three is likely too long for such venues. More to the point, however, one cannot find a home for scholarly writing if one does not come to the door dressed suitably for admission. Classicists, for instance, will have nothing to do with the proposition that Homer uses triadic structuring as a mnemonic device in assembling his great epics; to Celticists, the same proposition has been acknowledged of their traditional texts for decades. Classicists will not entertain the argument that a skeletal myth disguised superficially might be intended to evoke a subliminal response—not unless one can point to scribal marginalia that aver, “Priam’s journey to retrieve Hector’s body is an allegory of the passage to Hades.” Of course, proof of such a nature rarely exists… so the speculation must not be entertained by serious minds.
I know these charges against the scholarly establishment to be justified. I have the letters of rejection to prove them, one of which implied—not very coyly—that I was out of my mind!
In my three decades of teaching at the college level, I have grown invincibly weary of such “insider politics”. The process of peer review has degenerated into a sort of Old Boys’ Club where the referees, “established scholars” all, denigrate submissions mildly contradicting their own magna opera and give the nod only to research confirming the results of their own illustrious monographs (copies of which they will rain—with uncharacteristic generosity—upon any graduate student who strays into originality). No doubt, human nature leaves such disappointing evidence of egotism in all areas of endeavor. One hears ad nauseam from this same scholarly class, for example, about how the auto industry and oil companies have bought up innovative patents just to keep grinding out their unimproved and wasteful products on creaky old assembly lines.
Yet presently we are witnessing more than garden-variety egotism. Ideological warfare is afoot. The very notion of human nature has come under direct attack at least since Darwin, as I have suggested (for one cannot mold the race’s glorious destiny if basic nature stands in the way); but especially during the years that have overlapped my adult participation in the academy, the assault has been stepped up. One may not so much as hint that we humans have any characteristics that culture has not grafted upon us (the sin of “essentialism”), unless these be our most rudimentary biological drives. An implicit moral nihilism has locked its fatal grasp upon college humanities programs, in my humble opinion; for when right and wrong are mere cultural constructs, and since no two cultures are minutely alike, no such thing as absolute goodness or evil can exist. We have, instead, a jungle of lusts, impulses, and defense mechanisms as we await the strongest of apes to declare himself—or herself—“peerless leader”.
This insistent relativism, of course, underlies the great scholar’s sneer at my comparing Sappho with Mary MacLeod. No two cultures must ever be compared without a final and heavy stress of their differences, for to do otherwise would suggest that human beings share meaningful characteristics beneath their cultural conditioning. Such non-empirical, quasi-spiritual suppositions must not be allowed to leak into the discipline—into any discipline that would preserve its claim as such.
Yet if literature may not be studied except through material data and as a material artifact, why do the “humanities” exist; and in what sense might their cultivation credibly be said to make us better, inasmuch as “better” implies a moral judgment, and moral judgments have been ruled off limits by our “humanitarian” elite?