The Life of an Autodidact, Part One of Two

This is a revised version of a piece first published in 2014.

Once upon a time I decided to learn Japanese.  I had none of the usual practical reasons: no business interests that would take me to Japan nor even an academic project comparing Noh plays with Attic tragedy.  I knew next to nothing of Japan, though as a child my imagination had been stirred by the Mikado, and later, when a college friend persuaded me to read the Tale of Genjii, my mind was haunted by images of beautiful men and women spending languorous evenings composing allusive verses to the moon glinting through tree limbs mirrored in an azure pond.  

I would never, however, have dreamed of learning Japanese, were it not for a friend and colleague at Miami University, who had studied in Japan.  Under his influence I began poking around in the Japanese literary classics, and, when I stumbled upon an old introduction to Japanese, I began learning the characters and a few basic words.  Alas, it was not to be.  My friend went away for the Summer; I returned to South Carolina not long after; and although, every few years, I read a bit of Japanese history or literature, my mental picture, which has fewer details than a college survey course would provide, remains a compound of the Mikado and The Seven Samurai.

Had I been passionately interested, rather than merely curious, I might have persisted, but, without a friend’s support and in the absence of a Japanese community in McClellanville, my idle curiosity withered like Christ's parabolical grain that was sprung from seeds sown on stony ground.  As I look back over a life I am tempted to begin calling long, I can see that my career as autodidact has been directed both by individual friends and teachers and by entire communities.  

From my piano teacher, Professor Brewsaugh, though I was his worst student, I learned to love and respect the formal beauty of serious music and never to mistake even the best jazz or country music for the art of Bach and Haydn.  In high school I detested Latin, because we wasted time on toga parties and Latin Bingo.  The hard-bitten Latin teacher, who concealed a nasty temper under her saccharin demeanor, was positively disgusted and incredulous when I outperformed the class on a standardized test.  She concluded there was something wrong with the test.  Her classes left such a bad taste in my mouth that my Greek professor, who wanted me to resume my study of Latin, had to threaten to quit teaching me Greek.

I did learn from my merciless English teacher, Eunice Caldwell, that the rules of English grammar were as inflexible as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.  She also taught me French but only as a dead language with irregular verbs to master, so I was not surprised to learn, 20 years later when I ran into her by accident, that all along she had really been a Latin teacher.  When I told her how mean we all thought she was, I thought the dear lady was going to cry, but she brightened up when I assured her that she was the only teacher in high school who had done me any good.

Turning 17 I grew fed up with high school and decided to skip my senior year. When Harvard told me they would accept me only after graduation, I sulked and applied to the College of Charleston. Perhaps it was for the best.  I should have been lost at Harvard, but in a school the size of a small village I was able to lead a normal life.  I could not hang out with an intellectual set, because there was none, apart from a group of undesirables we rudely dubbed "the fleas" because they infested the sofa in the music room of the student center that those of us who lived on campus viewed as our private property.  Besides, none of the male "fleas" seemed to have any success except with their disheveled  female counterparts, and that was enough to give any budding intellectual second thoughts.

We did have rather highbrow discussions in French class.  From my French professor, Henry Miller, I learned that there was a way of carefully reading a modern text without succumbing to the stultifying fantasies of the “New Criticism.”  Before a class on 19th century novels, “Henri” would round up every translation in Charleston, and, when he found there were copies of Zola circulating among certain low-minded students, he assigned Flaubert’s long but unfinished (thank goodness!) Bouvard et Pécuchet, a book, which I have refused to read to this very day. 

From my Greek teachers, Kiffin Rockwell and Walton Morris, I learned not only a love for the language and literature of the Greeks but an appreciation of the purely pedantic misery that is required of anyone who wishes to grapple honestly with a text.  This was a hard lesson for a conceited young man of Romantic tendencies, more interested in “the glory that was Greece” than the uses of the dative case or the articular infinitive.  But, as the Marquis of Halifax put it in a maxim I am fond of quoting, “the knowledge that is got without pains is kept without pleasure.  The struggling for knowledge hath a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.”  Both my teachers had been the students of students of the great B.L. Gildersleeve, and they impressed upon me that I had to live up to a great tradition.  

The value of pedantry was reinforced by my last mentor Douglas Young, a very tall (6' 7") Scot, who, in addition to being a classical scholar, was a poet and Scottish nationalist.  It was Douglas who taught me not only that the philological study of text and meter is an intrinsically amusing endeavor that sheds light on every passage of Greek tragedy but also that every patch of ground on which human beings have lived and died has its own story to tell the traveler who will set himself aside to study the landscape and listen to the people.  Once, as I waited for Douglas to finish up with an undergraduate, I heard him ask about the student’s home town, and when the young man told him, adding that an “Englishman” (Like many Scots, he did not like to be taken for English.  He could speak Oxford English and "Lallans"--as he called the language of Lowland Scotland--depending on his interlocutor) would not have heard of the place, Douglas proceeded to give the young man a brief lecture on the geography, river system, and history of his native region.

I am equally in debt to little communities as to individual friends for introducing me to cultural traditions I might never have understood.  For several years I stayed with my friends Giuditta and Giuseppe Podestà in their study center (CIESLO) near Lecco and from them and their friends I began to understand the character of Lombardia and penetrate the dense and mysterious text of the greatest novel ever written, I Promessi Sposi.  It was through the Podestà that I met the late Mario Marcolla, who, though he had a firm grasp of English, took the trouble to speak clear, simple, and slow Italian with me until I could throw away the crutches he provided and walk on my own. 

The distinction I am trying to make is not between the collectivist community and the free-minded individualist.  It does not take a village to raise a child, and when the “national village” assumes the task of rearing and educating children, the result is a nation of village idiots.  On the other hand, no one really educates himself, and those who think they can end up either as followers of a guru or as slaves to one or another intellectual fashion. Libertarians, who pride themselves on being rational individuals, are less tolerant of deviation than the Inquisition, and when a libertarian does begin to think for himself, he almost immediately becomes the nucleus of a “movement” that imposes his heresy as a new orthodoxy.

As a boy, I read and reread the autobiographical novels of George Borrow. In The Romany Rye the author enjoys the hospitality of a country gentleman, who has spent 35 years studying Chinese but only the Chinese proverbs and verses written on porcelain.  His fiancée had been fond of china, and when she died, he consoled himself by studying the strange characters on the cups and bowls she collected.  It was months before he accidentally discovered they represented the Chinese language. He also discovered, to his dismay, that the only available books on Chinese were written in French. Having nothing else to do with his life, he learned French sufficient for the study of Chinese, to which he dedicated all his free time.  This story reveals two important aspects of autodidactism: first, the danger of falling into eccentricity—the poor man would never know enough Chinese to read literature or philosophy, and, second, the fundamental importance of friendship.  Whatever he learned, as a grown man, was a testimonial of his love.....

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina