Every now and again an encounter with the Upper Echelons (UEs) of higher education affords them the opportunity to remind me that what I do is not somehow ‘proper’. Proper is hard to define, but usually resolves down to publishing academic articles in ‘good journals’ (preferably ones no-one ever reads), and focusing on that most important of academic activities – getting grant money. In fact I do both of these things, but as both are time-consuming, boring and usually entirely unproductive, not very often. In any case, I also do many other things which are neither boring nor unproductive, at least for me. And here I am also not ‘proper’. By mucking about with performance artists, publishing in venues that are not ‘good journals’ (not journals at all in fact!), playing around with devils, tricksters, fools, witches and the like and in general making myself very difficult to place in the increasingly paranoid disciplinary hierarchies of academia, I am not proper. And, of course, I do all these things precisely because they’re not ‘proper’. A restrictive and distorted version of ‘proper’, in my view, is partly what is currently killing British Higher Education.
Anyway, following such an encounter with the UEs I turned, as I have done before, to the wonderful Erasmus of Rotterdam for the sort of wisdom that reminds me of their irrelevance. In fact Erasmus’ generous spirit seems to have gone looking for me, because for no particular reason I wandered into a bookshop and immediately found a new translation of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, by Roger Clarke (London, Alma Classics, 2013). I’ve known and loved this text for years, but until now only had a very ancient and poor translation. This one is a vast improvement.
The book opens with a letter to the book’s dedicatee, Sir Thomas More: Erasmus’ great friend and the reason Praise of Folly was written at all. The Greek title, Encomion Morias, is a play on More’s name and the whole thing is a paradoxical play on folly and wisdom. The letter contains the following passage:
People that are upset by the flippancy and playfulness of my subject matter will bear in mind, I hope, that I’m not the first in this field: what I’m doing is identical to what was done time and again by the great authors of the past. [He provides a long list of playful and notable predecessors].
Would my critics rather imagine me to have amused myself by playing draughts from time to time, or, if they prefer, by “galloping around on a long stick”? For it really is quite unreasonable to grant every other of life’s professions its opportunities for fun, but to allow no fun at all to scholars. What if the jokes bring with them some serious ideas? What if the absurdities are handled in such a way that the not altogether undiscriminating reader gains rather more benefit from them than from some people’s forbiddingly elaborate treatises? I’m thinking of the sort that spend long hours stitching together a discourse in praise of public speaking or philosophy; or who compose a eulogy of some head of state; or a speech urging war against the Turks; or a prophecy of future events; or a discussion of every last argument about goat’s wool. Nothing’s more futile than to treat serious subjects in a frivolous way – but at the same time nothing’s more entertaining than to treat frivolities in such a way that you come across to others as the opposite of frivolous. The verdict on me is for others to deliver; nevertheless, [...] although it’s Folly we’ve praised, it’s not altogether foolishly we’ve done it.
So, dear not-altogether-undiscriminating reader, I am now going to go off and read the rest of Praise of Folly before I knuckle down properly to a multi-million pound grant bid on further arguments about goat’s wool that will be properly published in several ‘good journals’. :)