Monday, January 09, 2006

Omar, Homer, and the Cobbler

I used to work at Duke's Perkins Library with a young woman who had done her undergrad at Bryn Mawr. It was she who told me that Mary Patterson McPherson was prone to tell students that the real purpose of a Liberal Arts education was "to make your head a more interesting place to live." I heartily agree.

Omar reads his namesake:

Back in March of 2004, the Washington Post had a brief article on the doings of the famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. It turns out that the septuagenarian was teaching himself Homeric Greek so that he could read the Iliad and the Odyssey in their original languages. Part of that article read:

Fluent in several languages, the elder Sharif said he has taken up the study of ancient Greek. "One of two things will happen: I will have died learning something useless but beautiful, or I shall die having read Homer in the original. It may seem stupid but you have to have a beautiful mission in life."

harvested in March 2004, link now dead

Let's hear that again: If he does not complete his task, the worst that happens is he "will have died learning something useless but beautiful.... You have to have a beautiful mission in life."

He wasn't taking up this task for it's utility, because it might be useful, rather, he took up the task for it's beauty.

Ornamental Knowledge

This marvelous quotation from Sharif put me in mind of a gem from one of the novels in Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy:

"Oho, now I know what you are. You are an advocate of Useful Knowledge."
"You say that a man's first job is to earn a living, and that the first task of education is to equip him for that job?"
"Of course."
"Well allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position."
-- Humphrey Cobbler challenging Hector Mackilwraith in chapter five of Tempest-Tost

Allow me to take this moment to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge.

Now, go learn something cool. And remember, as a very wise tiger once said, “if nobody makes you do it, it counts as fun.”

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