Practice v Theory; or tempering the traumatic tediousness of theoretical tenuousness

by Anna Blanch on February 24, 2010

I’m still reading. It’s my life really. That, and writing, and teaching, and planning, and thinking. But really alot of reading.

I write. But do i write?   

In his book, The Lantern, and the Looking-glass: Literature and Christian Belief, Nigel Forde sets out a distinction between Scholars and Practitioners that indicate that rarely do the two meet. He quotes William Morris too, who seems to agree with him. So is the divide really that stark? Do i really only want to be writing about things rather than actually writing. 

Forde begins with this quote from William Morris:

It seems to me that the practice of any art rather than narrows the artist in regard to the theory of it, and I think I come more than most men under the condemnation, so that though I have read a good deal and have a good memory, my knowledge is limited.

What a great job refusal letter. More humble than I expected. But then again, I didn’t realise that Morris had been offered a Chair at Oxford in the first place, so what do i know?

This is where Forde makes his distinction between practitioners and scholars.

So wrote the poet, prose-writer, designer and craftsman William Morris, declining the Chair of Poetry which had been offered to him by the University of Oxford in 1877. And so write I at the beginning of this book, For I am no scholar. Scholars are men and women who have comprehended, embraced, absorbed the totality of their subject and all that bears on it. Scholars have facts at their finger-tips, bifocal glasses and billowing gowns. I am a poet and playwright; poets and playwrights are more like Keats – convinced only of the holiness of the heart’s affections. (ix)

Gosh. The very notion that I will comprehend, embrace, and absorb the totality of my subject and all that bears on it is overwhelming. Thanks for that. I don’t think being a scholar sounds like it is within the realm of possibility for me at this present time! 

But if i do think of myself as an aspiring scholar, what does it mean to comprehend, embrace, and absorb the totality of my subject and all that bears on it?

Also, I wear multi-focals. But only when i read? Do you think that matters? [smile] yep, well I think the ship has sailed long before the moment where we consider whether I carry the aesthetic stereotype. 

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  • elizabeth

    thanks so much for stopping by my blog and leaving comments on my SITS day, I love your "wall of beauty". I am pleasantly surprised to find such a serious blog. after years of teaching, the truth is I am no scholar either, and I find great relief in actually making art, rather than studying it.

  • Rose Bexar

    From one of JRRT's letters to CSL:
    "I think 'criticism'–however valid or intellectually engaging–tends to get in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say. A tightrope walker may require practice, but if he starts a theory of equilibrium he will lose grace (and probably fall off)."
    I think most of us end up leaning to one side or the other. I tend toward a kind of scholarship that results most often in creative output rather than analysis. There are academics who think themselves virtuous for writing a little weak poetry while cranking out masses of criticism on the sorts of literature they will never achieve (partly because they're bad readers; cf. An Experiment in Criticism). JRRT's theory, when he wrote it, was sound as a bell, but he was far more a practicioner than a theorist. Barfield, I think, was a stronger scholar than he was a creative writer. CSL managed to do both pretty well. So did GKC, though he wasn't officially a scholar.
    So while there may not be quite the bright line Morris drew, it seems that it's harder to really balance the two impulses the way Lewis did than most academics would like to admit. (JMO, YMMV.)

  • Goannatree
  • pgepps

    Though on one level I do believe that the best response to a poem is another poem, and though I did get involved in the academic study of English in the first place only in order to become a better writer, I have since discovered that the read-teach side of my work arouses at least as much passion as the read-write side; and that neither of these is the same as my writing of poetry, which goes on regardless. I was most productive as a poet during a couple years when I sold furniture for a living, but I wrote most of my best poetry while either studying or travelling, later.

    I think it's important to notice that the Scholar/Practitioner dilemma is not strictly the same as the Critic/Poet dilemma, and that both can be overstated, as most of us who practice both find that various projects and phases of life call for concentrated efforts in one way at a time. The notion of being perfectly "balanced" sounds to me like something one could achieve only by doing very little, indeed.

  • lastwordsmith

    There’s some merit, I think, to Morris’s distinction between the scholar and the practitioner, especially when it comes to the different ways in which each role approaches the subject. While a furniture maker and a museum curator may both know exactly how an antique chair was built, they still have different perspectives on the chair, and their roles are not necessarily interchangeable. The practitioner is allowed to be eclectic in the way he or she gathers knowledge, because the practitioner is likely to be interested in whatever knowledge is useful or pragmatic for the craft, and so can afford to ignore whatever aspects of the craft are uninteresting. The scholar, on the other hand, should have a broad knowledge of the whole field, even if that field is as narrow as eighteenth-century London chairmakers. Similarly, a contemporary novelist can afford to ignore, say, Dickens or Joyce, but a scholar of fiction had better not.

    Still, I wonder if the distinction between the scholar and the practitioner isn’t exactly what Morris thinks it is. Gowns and glasses aside, he overestimates the extent of “total” knowledge that a scholar can gain. Whether it be poetry or chairmaking, no single person could ever know “the totality of [the] subject and all that bears on it” for the simple reason that there is not enough time in even the longest human life to read every poem or look at every chair. Scholars must of necessity have strengths and weaknesses, and while scholars should know their fields well, they ought not pretend to know it totally. No scholar I know answers Morris’s description. But how would he have known better? By his own admission, he was not a scholar.

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