“Isn't that a bit narrow?"

Fencing Bear 2018,
with the book that I was starting on the summer I wrote this blog post
It is difficult to describe how heart-constricting this question is for a scholar at my university. It is, in a word, the single most damning thing that someone can impute of another's work, suggesting at a stroke not only that one's material is uninteresting, but, even worse, that it is insignificant, irrelevant to the Big Questions that Real Scholars should be asking themselves.

Having struggled for eight years to transform my dissertation ("narrowly" focused on the way in which the Song of Songs was used in praise of the Virgin Mary for the better part of seven hundred years) into a Big Book (physically, at least; almost 700 pages) on the origins of the early and high medieval European devotion to the Virgin Mary and her son Christ, I had thought myself at long last immune to this question.

Naively, as it turns out.

There I was this spring at a reception for some of our graduating seniors talking to one of my colleagues about the work that I hoped to accomplish over my fellowship year, when one of his students along with his mother (the student's, that is) joined the conversation. My colleague gave a potted version of what I had been telling him about my interest in the Virgin Mary and the medieval art of prayer, at which point the mother's face closed up and the student, one of our best and brightest otherwise he would not have been attending that particular reception, uttered the dreaded words.

Even now, nearly two months later, I am afflicted with a near terminal case of l'esprit d'escalier

What might I have said? That the student clearly had never been to Europe and seen any one of the thousands of churches dedicated to Santa Maria, Our Lady, Unsere Liebe Frau, Notre Dame, not to mention the near countless images of the Virgin in churches, houses, street corners and museums? That (as Sarah Jane Boss has so aptly put it) "to understand the cult of the Virgin Mary is to understand the Christian religion [itself]"?[1] That I was not really interested in the Virgin Mary as such, but rather in the phenomenology of prayer and the experience of devotion? That without an understanding of the way in which medieval Europeans disciplined themselves through the recitation of the Marian office we cannot understand the origins of modernity and the construction of the individual self?

Okay, so I'm unlikely to ever want to make this last claim, at least not in this form, however true it might be. But would even a promise to explain the modern psyche by way of its historical engagement with a particular set of texts (the psalms and other pieces of the Marian office, repeated daily over lifetimes for hundreds of years) be BIG enough to escape from our former university president Robert Maynard Hutchins' damning charge of (gasp) scholarly specialization?[2] How Big does a Problem have to be before it counts? Perhaps if I had claimed that I hoped, through studying prayer to the Virgin, to bring about the conversion of the world to the true worship of God or, more modestly, world peace. Or to find a way to end hunger, poverty, spiritual and physical illness, not to mention, sin--all things for which Christians have prayed for the better part of two millenia, often through the intercession of the Virgin Mother of God. Would that have convinced my audience that what I had to say was worth their attention, if not their respect?

I am reminded of the male swamp dragons of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, who swell up and explode when they see their reflection in a mirror, thinking that there is another dragon challenging them. Yes, yes, none of us especially likes to read accounts of how so-and-so in some long-lost footnote made the mistake of misdating a marginal text by six years and three days—at least, not unless those three days were, for example, the time that Christ spent in the tomb. The question is on what basis we judge scholarly worth; more important, the distinction we make between knowledge (assumed to be particular, i.e. "narrow") and wisdom (ideally, universal, i.e "Big"). Historians are beset with this anxiety perhaps more than most, not because the questions that we ask do not have (we hope) universal application, but rather because the answers that we can give are not only limited, but necessarily always grounded ultimately in the particulars. 

How much, after all, is it ever possible to know about even the most circumscribed of human events? 

Corner a historian about what he or she actually knows and the conversation is likely to go something like this:
“I've never met a don before,” Moke Miller said.  “What sort of donning do you do?” 
Skelton frowned. 
“What Moke means is,” Fitz Fitzgerald explained, “what d'you teach?”.... 
“History,” he told Moke. “Modern history.”
“Really?” Pip Patterson was interested. “I've always wanted to know about history. You can tell us all about it.” 
“I wish I could. I don't know all about it.” 
“Oh, come on. You must know something.” 
“I know something about the later sixteenth century. Not much.” 
“Sixteenth...” Pip worked it out. “That was the Tudors, right? Queen Elizabeth, Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake, etcetera?” 
Skelton was shaking his head. “I'm afraid my knowledge of them is very sketchy indeed.” 
Fanny Barton asked: “What do you know about?"
Skelton removed his glasses altogether. Without them, his eyes looked worried. “I know something about the development of radical political thought in Elizabethan England,” he said. “But I can speak with confidence only about the influence of the Puritan sects in the northern counties.” 
“Well, that's something,” Fanny said.
“And with absolute confidence, only about those sects in the latter years of Elizabeth.” 
“I see.” 
“It's a very rich field, you know, very rich indeed. The source material is extremely dense. One hardly knows where to begin.”[3]
It is almost reflexive at this point to say something like, "But, of course, Skelton would not have been engaged in the research that he was if he did not have some sense of the larger narrative to which it belongs. And, indeed, it is often only in the details that we can catch a glimpse of the real significance of such overarching developments as the Protestant reform." The question is whether such an apology is necessary or even appropriate.

Skelton goes on to ask his fellow airmen whether they are at all interested in "the work of the later Elizabeth north-country Puritan sects," to which Pip, weighing politeness against honesty and having honesty win, is compelled to reply, "No." We are meant to laugh with the characters when Skelton admits, "I think you're wise. The more I study them, the less I like them. Thoroughly unattractive people, in the main. It will be refreshing to get away from them."[3] Whether Skelton actually means this (he has, after all, been called up because he was in the RAF reserve and it is September 1939), the judgment that the episode passes on "being a don" is an all too familiar one: dons study (and, perhaps worse, teach) subjects that are dry-as-dust, having very little appeal outside of their own specialized conversations. Moreover, even they, when pressed, have to admit that they find their subjects boring or unlikeable, but, after all, "the source material is extremely dense." The fallacy here is in the assumption, all too easily made even by those at my university who should know better, that the significance of knowledge or even the pursuit of knowledge lies in its popular appeal. This is--or so I learned just yesterday talking with one of my colleagues--an attitude intensified in the very years around World War II, when public opinion polls became all the rage for political reformers wanting to circumvent the conservative back-rooms of the day. To be sure, it is democratic to concern ourselves with what "the man in the street" thinks. But it is unclear why What Everyone Thinks Is Interesting should be the measure of the significance of one's life, not to mention one's research.

In An Experiment in Criticism (1961), C.S. Lewis makes a distinction between the unliterary (the many) and the literary (the few) based on the way in which they read. It is not, he argues, that the unliterary simply have "bad" taste, but rather that they read for wholly different purposes than the literary. The unliterary prefer narratives (including the news); they read without attention to phonics or style; they prefer stories that move swiftly from event to event without lots of "long-winded" description; and, above all, they never reread something that they have already read before. They read, in other words, to have read; once they have read a book, they are done with it. The literary, by contrast, read in order to reread. They return over and over again to the books that they enjoy, even stories to which they already know the ending, because they are not reading primarily for information, but for the experience of reading itself. They tend to read only certain books this way, to be sure: Scripture, the classics, works of literary merit. But the reason that these works are "literary," or so Lewis argues, is that they are the kinds of texts that can sustain rereading, every (re)reading revealing something new.

Although Lewis does not say as much, the consequence of such concentrated rereading, of course, is that one comes to know a small number of books extremely well, while the unliterary prefer to have read many books (or newspapers or blogs) only cursorily. Here is the question. Who knows more: the specialist who has spent his or her life rereading Beowulf or the Bible; or the generalist who has read every new novel (or, as it were, work in his or her larger academic field) as it has come out, but only once? What about the athlete who has practiced for years, maybe even decades in a single sport, say, fencing, as opposed to the athlete who has never practiced any given sport (bicycling, roller skating, diving, field hockey, table tennis, golf, running, swimming, basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, softball, horseback riding, archery, water skiing, hiking, fishing, yoga, tennis, square dancing, skiing, soccer, dance, taekwando)[4] for more than a few months? Yes, there is a phrase for this: "Jack of all trades, master of none." G. K. Chesterton put it somewhat more eloquently:
The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men--diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men--hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.... The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car stupidly destroys it....[5]
Chesterton would doubtless be distressed if not surprised to learn that although (according to a 2006 survey, via Wikipedia) 34% of 150 young Britons did not believe it existed and 66% thought it was "mythical," even Timbuktu now has both motor-cars and an international airport, making it, potentially, just another place. But his point is not how well integrated places like London or Chicago or Timbuktu are into the modern world, but what it means really to know something about humanity and human life. Whereas the generalist with the wide view sees only differences (we may pause here to wonder what it means that we in modern academia are so interested in exploring these differences), the specialist, that is, the one who has lived only in a single village all his life can see the whole world:
And under all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet, with its empires and its Reuter's agency, the real life of man goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest or that drinking-song.... And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban.[5]
Medieval Christians did not have that many books to read, but the ones that they read—above all, their books of Hours, including its prayers to the Virgin—they read over and over and over again. Even those for whom it was their occupation to read (monks and university scholars) typically memorized the books that they read; only thus, or so they believed, could they properly know and understand them. Of course, you will say, but they had fewer books; we need to read faster just to keep up, never mind have anything original to say. But this is an excuse that is old as the university itself, indeed, older. As Hugh of St. Victor cautioned his students in twelfth-century Paris: "There are those who wish to read everything. Don't vie with them. Leave well enough alone. It is nothing to you whether you read all the books there are or not. The number of books is infinite; don't pursue infinity! Where no end is in sight, there can be no rest. Where there is no rest, there is no peace. Where there is no peace, God cannot dwell."[6] In other words: "Specialize! It is only thus that you will discover God."

So, yes, to answer the student's question, my project is "a bit narrow," but that, I would now argue, is its very virtue, for it is in narrowness that the path to enlightenment lies. If we are only ever looking for the Big Picture, we will miss the way that opens only in the contemplation of particularity, of the same scene outside the window year after year, or the same prayer said every morning for the better part of one's life. To the many unliterary or the man in the street, this lack of variety may not be very interesting, but to the few it is the key to life itself.


[1] Mary: The Complete Resource (2007), p. 1.
[2] To be fair, I agree with Hutchins' insistence that there are books in our tradition worth reading by everyone, not just the specialists in a particular field, but this is not the same thing as saying that only those who work through the complete list of Great Books may consider themselves well-educated or even well-read. Nor can I accept the Hutchins-Adler list as somehow immune from the charge of specialization itself. Note, in particular, the almost complete absence of works from the period between Augustine and Leonardo da Vinci, not to mention the overwhelmingly secular perspective of the majority of the books.
[3] Derek Robinson, Piece of Cake (1983, 1993), pp. 62-63.
[4] Yes, I've tried all these, some for longer than others. I've only been on a horse once or twice; I loved the parallel bars and the floor, but I never could master the back-handspring; I swam competitively in high school; I've been doing yoga more or less every morning for over twenty years.
[5] Heretics (1905), pp. 22-24.
[6] Didascalicon, trans. Jerome Taylor (1961), p. 130.


  1. ocieties are super-organisms growing and surviving (or not) based on what they, collectively, learn about the world. Group selection favors societies that make wise and efficient choices, based in part on their knowledge of the past and understanding of themselves. Jarrod Diamond, in Collapse, has vividly documented the fate of groups that lack this perspective.

    This argues for the importance of specialized learning. If every member of society has the same broad and shallow knowledge (of history, of science, of politics) then our collective wisdom does not grow with our population. You just have more people thinking they know the same damn things. Every specialist, by contrast--every historian, taxonomist, and philosopher that delves into a deep and narrow field--increases the resources of the group as a whole. It is a luxury of a wealthy society that we can (and should) support such specialization, even if any given bit might seem obscure and irrelevant to many. (Though to speak up for taxonomists, you only think that knowing each and every tick in the world is unimportant up to the moment you get bit and infected by one...) If we as a society survive another few centuries, it will more likely be due to the cumulative wisdom and perspective of these scholars, than to the "useful" work of the industrialists whose short-sited greed erodes the resources on which we depend.

    "And then there is Spring, and food used for other purposes, like fruit for making brandy" --Charles Darwin

  2. Wandered in from a Google search for interesting blogs, and yours surely is that!

    My $0.02? "Narrow" seems to me a code word for "Why does it matter to me?" -- and many of the points you make in your post get to the heart of why what you're pursuing could matter to others.

    I find the role of books in medieval Europe reflects something interesting about our own images-and-words-entwined modern culture, and there are many ways in which those deep narrow dives can shed light on things for people right now.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

One-Talent Wonder

Bear's Theory of Comics*

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

The Forge of Tolkien

Draco Layer Four: The Anagogic or Mystical Sense