[Humanist] 22.669 a recommendation, some laughter and a sigh

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Apr 4 09:25:27 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 669.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 04 Apr 2009 08:20:55 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: wisdom, knowledge, good humour etc in the Intenet Archive

In case those here do not know of the great treasures contained in the 
Internet Archive, www.archive.org/index.php, under its Texts section, 
let me point you to the site and suggest you look for anything, esp out 
of copyright but not necessarily by age, you're in need of. It's not a 
tightly edited collection, but it is massive, and there are things there 
that scholars across all the disciplines will find useful to have in 
digital form. For most of what I have seen, the pdfs need to be OCR'd 
once you've downloaded them.

Allow me to suggest, for something off-target of most research interests 
but nevertheless wonderful to read and wonderfully informative, Bertrand 
Russell's Portraits from Memory (thanks to the Kansas City Public 
Library). "How to Grow Old" is delightful. But in these late and 
degenerate times, with respect to so-called higher education at least, I 
recommend "Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties" -- Russell *is* talking 
about the 1890s. Some of the tales he tells of the odd ones are 
hilarious but would furnish just the excuse some nowadays might
be looking for.

Russell starts out with the odd ones:

> Some of the oddities, it must be said, were very odd. There was a
> Fellow who had a game leg and was known to be addicted to the amiable
> practice of putting the poker in the fire and when it became red-hot
> running after his guests with a view to murder. I discovered at last
> that he was only roused to homicidal fury when people sneezed. Owing
> to his game leg, those whom he attacked always escaped, and nobody
> minded his little peculiarities. I used to go to tea with him myself
> but I went away if I saw him put the poker into the fire. Except in
> his moments of aberration he was charming, and it never occurred to
> anyone to place him under restraint. My mathematical coach was less
> fortunate. He went mad, but none of his pupils noticed it. At last he
> had to be shut up. That, however, was exceptional.

At the end he takes up those whom one might envy for the liberties they 
had, though perhaps not for what they did with their truly free time:

> One of the characteristics of academic personages was longevity. When
> I was a freshman, the College was dominated by three elderly
> dignitaries: the Master, the Vice-Master, and the Senior Fellow. When
> I returned to the College twenty years later as a lecturer, they were
> still going strong, and seemed no older. The Master had been Head
> Master of Harrow when my father was a boy there. I breakfasted at the
> Master's Lodge on a day which happened to be his sister-inlaw's
> birthday, and when she came into the room he said, "Now, my dear, you
> have lasted just as long as the Peloponnesian War." The Vice-Master,
> who always stood as stiffly upright as a ramrod, never appeared out
> of doors except in a top hat, even when he was wakened by a fire at
> three in the morning. It was said that he never read a line of
> Tennyson after witnessing the poet putting water into the '34 port.
> Before dinner in Hall the Master and the Vice-Master used to read a
> long Latin Grace in alternate sentences. The Master adopted the
> Continental pronunciation but the Vice-Master adhered
> uncompromisingly to the old English style. The contrast was curious
> and enlivening. The Senior Fellow was the last survivor of the old
> system by which men got life Fellowships at twenty-two and had no
> further duties except to draw their dividend. This duty he performed
> punctiliously, but otherwise he was not known to have done any work
> whatever since the age of twenty-two.

But then -- and this is the point -- Russell goes on to observe,

> As the case of the Senior Fellow shows, security of tenure was
> carried very far. The result was partly good, partly bad. Very good
> men flourished, and so did some who were not so good. Incompetence,
> oddity and even insanity were tolerated, but so was real merit. In
> spite of some lunacy and some laziness, Cambridge was a good place,
> where independence of mind could exist undeterred.

I think in the balance we have perhaps lost more than we have gained. 
Yes, I know, the social conditions of that time would not have favoured 
anyone born at the stratum of society from which I originated, nor were 
women allowed at all, and so forth and so on. But surely our choices, 
unlike our computers, are not crudely binary.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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