25 February 2013

The Summum Bonum

An audio recording of Part I of "Provincialism the Enemy"(12:21) by Ezra Pound (The New Age, 12 July 1917)


Now, apart from intensive national propaganda, quite apart from German national propaganda, the 'university system' of Germany is evil.  It is evil wherever in penetrates.  Its 'universal pervasiveness' is a poisonous and most pestilent sort of pervasiveness.  The drug is insidious and attractive.

It is...the only system whereby every local nobody is able to imagine himself a somebody.  It is in essence a provincialism....

Its action in Germany was perfectly simple.  Every man of intelligence had that intelligence nicely switched on to some particular problem, some minute particular problem unconnected with life, unconnected with main principles (to use a detestable, much abused phrase).  By confining his attention...he could become at small price an 'authority', a celebrity.  I myself am an 'authority', I was limed to that extent.  It takes some time to get clean....

It is evil because it holds up an ideal of 'scholarship', not an ideal of humanity.  It says in effect: you are to acquire knowledge in order that knowledge may be acquired.  Metaphorically, you are to build up a dam'd and useless pyramid which will be no use to you or to anyone else, but which will serve as a 'monument'.  To this end you are to sacrifice your mind and vitality.

The system has fought tooth and nail against the humanist belief that a man acquires knowledge in order that he may be a more complete man, a finer individual, a fuller, more able, more interesting companion for other men.

Knowledge as the adornment of the mind, the enrichment of the personality, has been cried down in eery educational establishment where the Germano-American 'university' ideal has reached.  The student as the bondslave of his subject, the gelded ant, the compiler of data, has been preached as a summum bonum....

No one who has not been caught young and pitchforked into a 'graduate school' knows anything of the fascination of being about to 'know more than anyone else' about the sex of oysters, or the tonic accents in Aramaic.  No one who has not been one of a gang of young men all heading for 'scholastic honors' knows how easy it is to have the mind switched off all general considerations, all considerations of the values of life, and switched on to some minute, vital detail.

This has nothing whatever to do with the 'progress of modern science'.  There is no contradicting the fact that science has been advanced, greatly advanced, by a system which divides the labour of research  and gives each student a minute detail to investigate.

But this division of the subject has not been the sole means of advance, and by itself it would have been useless.  And in any case it is not the crux of the matter.

The crux of the matter is that the student, burying himself in detail, has not done so with the understanding of his act.  He has not done it as necessary sacrifice in order that he may emerge....

The student has become accustomed first to receiving his main ideas without question; then to being indifferent to them.  In this state he has accepted the Deutschland ├╝ber Alles idea, in this state he has accepted the idea that he is an ant, not a human being.  He has become impotent, and quite pliable.  This state of things has gone on long enough already.

[Reprinted in Selected Prose: 1909-1965, New Directions.)


"Summum Bonum"
by Robert Browning

ALL the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine, --wonder, wealth, and--how far above them--
        Truth that's brighter than gem,
        Trust, that's purer than pearl,--
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe--all were for me
        In the kiss of one girl.

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