Little learnings

A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
From “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope 

There’s nothing wrong with package tours. Or with short visits to places. Of course, you aren’t going to get to know a place from just spending a few days there: to get to know a place at all adequately, you need to spend longer – you need, ideally, to live there. And even that doesn’t guarantee anything. This is not, however, to denigrate short visits, or even package tours: they have their place too. For even an impression is better than nothing. Pope’s famous dictum that one must drink deep or not at all has never quite satisfied me: if one were to apply that consistently, one would end up barely going to that Pierian spring at all, and, as a consequence, have very little breadth either of knowledge or even, I think, of understanding. A little learning can be important too, and is not a dangerous thing as long as one is at least aware that it is, indeed, little, and have the humility to acknowledge its littleness.

It is in this spirit that I recently approached Dante and Goethe. There are, of course, other works which I have lived with. The plays of Shakespeare, for instance. Or Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The works of Wordsworth and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; the plays of Ibsen; the poetry of Yeats and the prose of Joyce. And the poems of a certain Bengali writer – although I shouldn’t count him, as, given my background, I had little choice in that matter. On a lighter note – there have also been my beloved Sherlock Holmes stories; the creepy ghost stories of M. R. James and the like; and, of course, Wodehouse. And a few others as well, I guess. All of these are part of my mental furniture now, and I feel there are worse ways to furnish one’s mind. Not to everyone’s taste, no doubt, but these are places I’ve lived in, as it were, rather than merely visited on package tours. Dante and Goethe will never enjoy such a status with me, which is, I have no doubt, entirely my loss, but one can’t win ‘em all. There’s too much out there of great value. But on the whole, I think I’m happy with what has penetrated through to the inside of my thick skull. And I am not averse to the occasional package tour, to at least get to know something of what I have so far missed out on.

In a few weeks’ time, I shall be embarking for the first time upon one of the undisputed masterpieces of world literature – The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, and I’m feeling a bit intimidated by it in a way I wasn’t when I had first dived into War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov almost fifty years ago now. For, back then, I was confident that if I didn’t get it all, I could always return to it. Maybe I could do the same with Tale of Genji. Maybe I could be so taken by it that that I could return to it often, and take up residence in it, so to speak, so it becomes as important a novel to me as Anna Karenina is. But I can’t spend the greater part of my life on it (as I have with many other works) for the simple reason that I no longer have the greater part of my life ahead of me.

Or, maybe, I could be persuaded to take another package tour to some other great literary domain I haven’t yet visited. But you get to a point where you begin to wonder if it is worth it. The pursuit of literary excellence is surely more than ticking titles off a list: one needs to give oneself time – in my case, many, many years – to absorb at all adequately works of such stature.  And also, while I am still happy to take these package tours from time to time, I find myself more inclined to revisit those lands I’ve been to before, but don’t feel I’ve explored adequately. To The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example.

This is not to say I’m not looking forward to The Tale of Genji. Of course, it is the product of a culture completely unknown to me, and, no doubt, I will need to adjust my very Eurocentric aesthetic values. But one needs to do that kind of thing too from time to time if one is not to get stale.

So, in short, to hell with Pope! – I’m off to medieval Japan to have have a wee taste of that particular Pierian spring. Will report back later on what little learning I may have gained.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Di on July 26, 2021 at 10:28 pm

    Stop asking yourself silly questions and just read The Tale of Genji, Himadri!


  2. Posted by Guy Wells on November 3, 2021 at 3:36 am

    A worthy endeavour. Could I suggest that as you go through (if you haven’t already), that you supplement it by interspersing some of the reflections in miniature from The Pillow Book, by another author from the same world, known as Sei Shonagon. (They apparently were not friends.) Genji often refers to or assumes nighttime visits between various characters; Pillow Book hints at how “inelegant” some of these could be. Genji speaks of key communications in the form of poems being written and passed around the screens separating visitors; Pillow Book is full of wisps that suggest how powerful and beautiful these could be.


    • Hello, and thank you for that. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon has been recommended to me too by those who know Japanese literature better than I do, and I’m sure I’ll be reading it some day.
      I’m currently reading The Tale of Genji in the translation by Royall Tyler. (There’s a very interesting survey of the existing translations by Tony Malone here: I am reading it very slowly, and I don’t expect to finish it this year. The cultural background is quite new to me, and I find myself having to focus very hard. But it is engrossing, though!


      • Posted by Di (Yee) on November 6, 2021 at 7:50 pm

        I do think it would be good to pair The Tale of Genji with The Pillow Book. Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon had very different temperament and sensibilities, it’s interesting to see how differently they viewed the same world.
        Sei Shonagon has none of Murasaki’s depth though, I have to say.

  3. Posted by Guy Wells on November 3, 2021 at 3:38 am

    Afterthought to previous. There are now several worthy translations. My favourite was the Seidenstecker.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: