Saturday, March 17, 2018

Barnacles and Ships

At Kramerbooks this week, the name in the subtitle of On The Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman made it worth a look. A passage on one of the first pages I opened it to shows why I had to buy it:
... I have not yet grown used to a kind of intellectual asthenia and rooted habit with which Latinists, for example, tackle reform. The data seem plain as daylight. Latin's working vocabulary is extremely small, its irregular verbs nearly nonexistent, its grammar point for point our own (except that Latin is far more regular), and the reading-matter could hardly be more literal-minded--in short, I cannot think of an Indo-European language easier to learn. On this simple structure, there merely happens to have been raised some of the most hair-raising Wissenschaft in the history of man--imperfects of dephlogistication, subjunctives of discontinuous contingent speculation, and every  kind of ablative we can crowd on the point of a pin. But surely there is not the slightest mystery possible about what is wanted--or does someone propose we expound the nature of barnacles when our students have come to us to learn about a ship?
("The Menace to Curriculum Reform")

Perhaps; but I'm not sure that a commitment to philology has been the true weakness of Latin instruction, then or now. A couple of generations have been born and passed through school since the essay was written seventy years ago, and of such as studied Latin, many understood it as punishment or at best discipline, one more thing to be got through to get out of school. It seems likely that Spackman was one of those with the knack for instruction,  and prevented by his own gifts from understanding the common case.

How the book came to be published by Fantagraphics, which describes itself as "Publisher of the World's Greatest Cartoonists", I cannot guess. But I am grateful to Fantagraphics for making an exception for Spackman. Dalkey Archive Press seems to have let Spackman's Complete Fiction go out of print.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. I guess I was among those who regarded Latin classes at the time of my enrollment for two years as an endurance challenge rather than something positive and useful. Now, though, I consider myself fortunate. The study of Latin was an important, indispensable foundation for me. Moreover, I will always remember fondly my teacher, Thelma Brandfass. Other teachers are nothing more than blurs in my memory bank.