Monday, January 31, 2005

Christopher Ricks in the Guardian

Christopher Ricks is a critic, a punster, and a famous appreciator of Milton, Eliot, and Bob Dylan. There is an article about him in the Guardian (link courtesy of Expecting Rain) that is too good not to quote from liberally.

Interesting point:
Ricks says he has always been in favour of academics being both general practitioners and specialists. "Milton, for instance, is too important to be left to Miltonists and he is also too important to be left to non-Miltonists. Students need lectures from someone who had devoted time to Milton and also discussion with a generalist who could become involved in those questions that Miltonists would simply not raise."
In religion and biblical studies, I think this obvious (to me) truth is ignored. Many in the Society of Biblical Literature feel, I think, that they have a special expert knowledge of the Bible and the poor, benighted souls outside of the academy (and inside the church) should be happy for the enlightenment the professionals bring. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Ricks, if the Bible is too important to be left to the laity, it is also too important to be left to Biblical scholars.

Me, too:
Martin Dodsworth, a university contemporary, says [Ricks's] weakness for puns is part of what makes him such a vivid and powerful critic. "He thinks through the power of a word and its place in society. .... He is not just interested in literature, but also in the way words do things in the world."

A gentleman's protest:
Ricks smiles and says he gave up golf "when the Conservative party invaded Suez. It might not seem much of a gesture, but it mattered to me and I think it sent a pretty clear signal."
Hope my brother doesn't find out.

Ricks went up to Balliol College in 1953 to read English, and still delights in stories about eccentric Oxford figures, such as a mean tutor who sat so close to his meagre fire "that every now and then there would be a smell of burning tweed and he would have to put himself out". He is still impressed by people who are called names that seem to have no relation to their initials. "CS Lewis was Jack. Wonderful."
I've only been to Oxford in my imagination, and all I know about Balliol is that Lord Peter Wimsey went there ("We are mortified in nineteenth-century Gothic, lest in our overweening Balliolity we forget God"). As for C.S. Lewis being named Jack, Lewis tells in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy that he named himself Jack at the age of three (apparently realizing at that early age that he did not want to be addressed as Clive for the rest of his life).

On the advantages of the B.Litt. over the Ph.D.:
"I think that [writing a dissertation] is much too much to ask of someone in their mid-20s and it explains the paralysis in doctoral work. The amount of research you have to do to find out that no one has done what you have done is quite different from an apprenticeship in sources, authorities, and methods. Of course, if the apprentice comes up with an original piece of leatherwork or glassware that's good. But it is an apprenticeship."

World-class zinger:
One [book] review did prompt TS Eliot to bring in the lawyers when Ricks said Eliot's clearing Wyndham Lewis of having fascist sympathies was like the pot calling the kettle white.

So That's What I've Been Doing Wrong:
"When I was in my mid-20s someone once said to me at a party that I was 'brilliant but unsound'. I thought I should do something about that and the way to show you are sound is to edit things."
Damn, and I thought it was translating things.

Is Theory Dead?
"It does seem," says Ricks, "that a lot of people who were looking for a certain sort of salvation from literary theory - political and perhaps personal salvation - have been a little bit disappointed. There have been quite a lot of defections from the theory ranks and a lot of people have found out, to their mild surprise, that they were really liberal humanists all along."
So Ricks thinks Theory is all but dead in the UK? It looks to me (I speak as an outsider) that, here in this country, scholars are still forced to labor under its dreary hegemony. May it soon totter and fall.

Hey, good one!:
In 2003, he was awarded the $1.5 million Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award. He will devote the money to work at the institute and, perhaps predictably, describes it as "a particularly sweet slice of the Mellon".

Read the whole thing.

1 comment:

Jim Davila said...


I think you mean "Oxoniana."