Monday, June 1, 2015

Humanities scholar in the jury room

I realize now that for me—a humanist, an academic, a poetaster—the primary aim of sustained thinking and talking had always been, in a way, more thinking and talking. Cycles of reading, interpreting, and discussing were always exactly that: cycles. One never "solved" a poem, one read it, and then read it again—each reading emerging from earlier efforts and preparing the mind for future readings. The same went for understanding the past, for teaching history. Whereas scientists and mathematicians might get kudos for answering questions, for resolving problems, I had always felt that my work involved the exact opposite project: keeping the questions open. They were different sorts of questions, of course. For me, being a humanist meant committing my life to a somewhat absurd task: serving full-time as the custodian of unanswerable questions (how to live? What to do? How to know? Why?); caring for them; nudging them to the fore in a crowded world; resurrecting others, now forgotten; keeping track of long-lost answers. Such questions cannot be answered, but they are not stupid.

But this, for all its beauty (and it is, I believe, beautiful, if also, yes, a bit mad), makes exceedingly lousy training for the grim duty of actually answering—closing definitively—an immensely complicated question with swift, withering, and barbed implications: a question like, "Is Monte Milcray guilty of murder?"
D. Graham Burnett, A Trial by Jury (New York: Vintage Books, 2001) pp. 157-58.

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