November 17, 2003

Critic: writer::zoologist:elephant

A few days ago, I quoted the aphorism "asking a linguist how many languages (s)he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases (s)he has."

This awkward little quip made me uneasy, and made some others, ... well, let's say angry. It reminded me of another mean-spirited and doubtful analogy, attributed to Roman Jakobson as a comment on a proposal to give Vladimir Nabokov a faculty position at Harvard:

“I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of Zoology?”

I always thought this was a piggish thing for Jakobson to say, if the stories are true. Aside from being a great writer, Nabokov was an insightful literary analyst, as competent a literary scholar as many academics before and since, and (ironically) a good enough lepidopterist to publish scientific papers that are still cited and to hold a position at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Another qualification for academic life was Nabokov's sense of humor, as displayed for example in this interview:

What do you want to accomplish or leave behind-- or should this be of no concern to the writer?

Well, in this matter of accomplishment, of course, I don't have a 35-year plan or program, but I have a fair inkling of my literary afterlife. I have sensed certain hints, I have felt the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups and downs, long periods of slump. With the Devil's connivance, I open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: "Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today." Awful question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?

While we're on the subject of self-appraisal, what do you regard as your principal failing as a writer-- apart from forgetability?

Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.

You're doing rather well at the moment, if we may say so.

It's an illusion.

Just as I agree (however uneasily) that an excellent linguist can perfectly well be a monoglot, I agree with the sense of Jakobson's analogy, which is that being a great writer is not in itself a sufficent qualification for an academic position in an academic language or literature department. But let's also agree that being a bad writer is not a necessary qualification for such a position, whatever some may think :-).

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 17, 2003 04:56 PM