The Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever
THOMAS CROFTS teaches medieval literature and classical languages at East Tennessee State University. His poems have appeared in The Texas Observer, Upstart Crow, Born Magazine and the Anthology of Southern Poetry: Tennessee. He lives with Molly, Rex, Augie and Shadow.
In his three-part column Sex and Death and Beowulf: Reflections on Teaching, Thomas discusses his role as an associate professor, how he engages with his students and his ongoing efforts to communicate the importance of classical subjects in the 21st Century.
SEX, DEATH and BEOWULF Part II: The Ancient Mating Habits of Whatever
The Republican agenda for next year also includes several changes for the University of Wisconsin, according to [State Assembly Speaker Robin] Vos. He said that he wants to ensure that faculty spend more time teaching, and that research is geared toward helping the state’s economy.
“Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever,” said Vos. “So we want to try to have priorities that are focused on growing our economy.” [Wisconsin Public Radio, November 5, 2014]
Impossible as it may be for some people to believe, the ancient mating habits of whatever (as cited above, which do include those of Classics and the Arts), are dead important. Neglect of these, as the Beowulf-poet knew, but as the Danes did not, can lead to horrors. It was fun to be a Dane (in my translation),
until somebody began
to accomplish crimes an enemy from hell
the grim spirit was named Grendel
notorious march-stepper who held the moors
the fens and fastnesses dwelling place of the race of monsters
unhappy man he occupied for a while
since him the Creator had condemned
with the family of Cain he put him to death
the eternal lord, since he slew Abel
he [Cain] got no joy from that but the Lord banished him far
on account of that crime from the rest of mankind.
From thence ungrowths all were born
giants and elves and orcs
and likewise giants who strove with God
for a long time. He gave them rewards for that.
But not before Grendel, the greatest Whatever of them all, ate almost all the Danes. While the Scyldings were reveling in their mead and golden rings and I know not what other forms of bling, descendants of forgotten murderers, at no great distance away, festered like mutant cockroaches, each brood more monstrous than the last, until the pests became the exterminators. This genealogy is of course intimately related not only to the very existence of chuckleheads who don’t like ancient mating habits, but to the importance of the Liberal Arts themselves.
The subtleties of the mind, of history, of nature—not to mention those of mating—having been the continuous discovery of human beings world without end, are, at the risk of stating the obvious, the subject of the Liberal Arts and Sciences. These subjects are carefully learned, and then passed along, and so sharpened. Of course, there is much of both toil and daring in keeping learning alive, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The greatest danger is not a lack of minds: so many of my students at ETSU possess the maddest of skills in classical and medieval languages. The worst danger isn’t even that University Administrator who always wants to cancel Greek and Latin classes: he or she is utterly at the mercy of the Sphinx-like (and sphincter-like, actually) forces which control the money from the top. The intervening millennia themselves—the hundred centuries say, between the first known Greek inscriptions and our own texts and tweets—are only a minor obstacle compared to the main one, which is also the oldest one: the fact that preserving, passing down and perfecting the deep literacy which the maintenance of civilization requires, and of training one’s mind to the all-important subtleties of human behavior and human potential–and of the discipline and patience required to see these things through—doesn’t make any money.
Money, of course, lacks the discipline needed to stay civilized. Poetry does not appear on its screen. History, even quite recent history, is too tedious to mention. Money simply doesn’t have the attention-span.
Humans, with their attention spans, will know that classical learning has been under attack practically since antiquity itself: Nero (that infernal blowhard) ordered his own teacher (the awesome) Seneca to commit suicide. His nibs Giovanni Boccaccio was defending classical studies from ignorant attacks circa 1363, when he wrote:
But one should rather bear with their folly, I think, than urge reasons against it; for since they do not understand themselves, far less are they likely to understand others. Besides they are ignorant, and wanting as they do the light of truth they let themselves be carried away by sensuality. And I would tell them for charity’s sake—not that they deserve it—to mind their own business and let others alone….For money-getting is not the function and end of the speculative sciences, but of the applied sciences and finance. Indeed these last aim at nothing else…. [De genealogia deorum gentilium, XIV]
And that was in Renaissance Italy.
Classics, Literature, Philosophy, Theoretical Astrophysics…such things will never make money. Their study is an act of commitment to the long future of humanity, a commitment also found in the career of Socrates, in Diogenes’ penis-dance, in Augustine’s City of God, in the art of Hildegard of Bingen, in St. Francis’s nakedness, in Euclid’s
Not that these accomplishments were intended as time capsules: all had their application in their moment. But they remind us what kind of work gets done, and what memorable lives are led, when people work for something other than growing some economy. Of course, people are still doing that work and leading those lives right now. Greatness is everywhere. Why else would I, here in the thick of Southern Appalachia, have students whose Ancient Greek skills, after a mere two years of instruction, nearly surpass my own?
Classics, poetry, ancient papyri, duckbill platypi (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), and all Whatevers feverishly mating in the ancient swamps, have been working quietly, pushing along the slow spiral of life, virtually without pay, for many ages, keeping the memory and imagination in their habitual rough contact. We must treasure them because we are they. And the exterminators still are no great distance away.
Published: June 4th, 2015