Two kinds of scholarship

Thursday, November 12, 2015
F: 4:10 a.m. Okay, Papa, you said we’d go somewhere different today. At your service.
EH: You listen in to conversations among Hemingway scholars [a discussion about trivial details in Hotchner’s latest book, on a Hemingway Society mailing list] and you think, “no, you’re missing the point,” and you are right in your way but they are right in theirs. The difference is a difference in function, and although this is only one of the ways we could enter into this topic, it is a good entry-point.
Scholars at their best establish facts, and interpret patterns. They pin down rumors, sift contradictory evidence, in general try to improve our understanding of the picture for everyone else. The purpose of a history or a biography is not to merely entertain – though it should interest – but to illuminate with a clear and steady light. A prerequisite of functioning in such an environment, under such understood rules, is very careful guarding of flanks, and very careful truncation of facts and speculation to acceptable – that is, defensible – limits. The upside of this is that they can provide a solid place for themselves and others to stand. But the defects of their qualities are what you could call false precision. There is such a thing as being very sure of what you know – because it has been carefully and systematically established – and being wrong because it did not take into account other facts and whole categories of fact that were disregarded because they could not be established by academically acceptable procedures.

F: I know where you’re going with that. The kind of facts Bob Friedman would like us to produce wouldn’t count as evidence among scholars because of a lack of provenance, call it.
EH: That’s true, but that isn’t quite where I’m going. Oppose to the scholar’s function something for which we don’t even quite have a name, and that is what you are doing and are encouraging others to do. What this is can be established better by looking at what it is not, and that is what I hope we will be able to do.
Your approach to things is to feel for what seems right – what “resonates,” as you say. Not a bad word, in its suggestion of musical vibration. Sway to a fact and the fact that you sway is your evidence.
F: I can see that scholars can’t quite follow that procedure, when you put it that way.
EH: But I am not finished. You accumulate facts that resonate, and you compare them to known facts when you can, and weight the contradictory, or complementary, or confirming evidence that results. Thus far you are acting as a scholar, only more like a literary than a biographical scholar, let’s say.
Other people using the same means of obtaining direct first-hand evidence (what “resonates”) do not compare and contrast, but follow the resonance more than the additional evidence that results from comparison. This allows them to work on shakier ground, and much faster than you can, but leaves them open to greater error either though lack of caution or lack of familiarity with what we could call 3D facts (as opposed to facts not established by senses but still established).
So, you see, in a sense you could be considered to be approaching non-academic subject material – what I thought, what I think now – in an academic manner to a degree. You still rely far more heavily upon your nose sniffing out a trail than scientists would be comfortable with, but this is not because you proceed this way – they do too – but that you do not go back over the trail methodically establishing evidence for what you concluded. You fly over the terrain, but you bring back photos – sketches, really – rather than coordinates.
F: Can this be helped, really?
EH: It is a setting-out of your next manner of proceeding, rather.
F: Okay, I get it. No more “this is how to explore” books, but at least one “here is a report of an expedition.”
EH: You are always thinking in terms of books, and it needn’t be that, but that is the direction indicated, yes. You have done what you set out to do (aware of it [consciously, ahead of time] or not, and, pretty clearly, not). You could stop or you could move in another direction, but there isn’t much point in continuing to do what you have already done. How many more times is it necessary to demonstrate that the possible is possible, that the procedure is the procedure, that the possibilities are at least what you have found to date? Anybody who wants to know has it in front of them, and so – as far as you, working the material, are concerned, what is left of that path would be repetition rather than exploring.
But there is a different path and although the two have been one, here they split. Go ahead.
F: I know where you’re drawing the line. Muddy Tracks was both a record of a search and implicitly a description of how one could go about it. Then several books followed the how-to path – Chasing Smallwood, Sphere and Hologram, A Place to Stand, the Cosmic Internet (half of it) and Afterlife Conversations with Hemingway (half). The chase-the-data path was more Rita’s World, the other half of The Cosmic Internet, Afterlife Conversations, and, I can see, now we’re coming to a parting of the ways.
EH: You don’t need to. But otherwise it is merely repetition, of less value, and less interest to you.
F: When you put it that way, I can see that my work isn’t very valuable beyond encouraging people, because it hangs in the air, so to speak.
EH: That’s like saying a truck isn’t much use except as a truck, but all right. It has its limits.
F: And do I get that the rest of my life – or my writing life, anyway – is careful writing about Hemingway?
EH: You’re forgetting the rest of the preparation you have been doing all your life, thinking about them in a different category, so forgetting about them.
F: Hmm. It’s true, I wrote my history-looking-backwards quite a way before abandoning it.
EH: You have intimate familiarity with various people – Thoreau, Emerson, Lincoln, Yeats, Wilbur Wright, Joseph and John Kennedy, and more than a nodding familiarity with a whole lot more. Think about the possibility of taking a scholar’s approach to inaccessible facts, just as we have been doing here.
F: Inverting Taylor Caldwell’s career, in other words.
EH: You could look at it that way. More like Yeats, who became more comprehensible as he aged, at least to you and people who think and perceive as you do.
F: I don’t know. I think maybe an “imagined” life of Papa Hemingway might be as good as I can do, if that.
Also, I’m not sure it is worthwhile to put this out to the list. Sort of career inside-baseball.
EH: No, the discussion of scholarship in an unfamiliar context will be of interest to some.
F: If you say so.
Looking back, I see that you said this would be a convenient entry-point to a discussion of difference of function. Has it provided that?
EH: Sometimes all people need is a nudge, an overheard word. This will do. And yes, we can stop a little early; this is a natural pause. Next time we can go back to the main thread we are pursuing, though you may wonder if I have lost sight of it.
F: I trust your navigation. Very well, Papa, till next time.

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