No text please, we're British

Everyone knows that journalists and politicians are unpopular, but scholars ... don't be ridiculous. The idea of scholarship as a glamorous or even useful profession has receded so far in the public mind that the word almost invites quotation marks. These days we prefer to think in terms of things being donnish - but by this we mean only to suggest something quaint, unworldly and beside the point. It is as if we have never recovered from George Eliot's portrait of Casaubon in Middlemarch, and remain in thrall to an image of the scholar as dry-as-dust big-head. But Casaubon was not dry because of his work; on the contrary, he brought his own special dullness and conceit to bear on his studies. It is quite a serious pity that we continue to see scholarship in Casaubon-like terms, as some dimly lit and celibate process, as a task thin and drained of passion or romance.

The Italian writer Roberto Calasso has just published, in English, the third of an expanding work in progress. It is not at all the key to all mythologies; rather it is a swirling narrative about old narratives. And it seeks not to boil them all down to a single mystical "key"; on the contrary, Calasso aims to dramatise the dizzy variety of the human myth kitty. In three books, The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and now Ka, he has toured the mythological foundations of both western and eastern (in particular, Indian) culture. They are not the easiest books to read: they wear their erudition on their sleeves, and are not in any sense primers. But they are, in an important sense, new. Calasso had to learn Sanskrit in order to explore the literature of Vedic India. He has trawled up and dramatised many things few British readers will have encountered before - even Indian-born Britons. This is the simplest and best form of scholarly activity, stemming as it does from a desire to aim a torch into a dark corner.

It is probably a healthy sign that Calasso's work provokes both admiration and disgust. Indian reviewers have been quick to applaud his new work; some Anglo-Saxons have been even quicker to upbraid him. (One deemed it "unreadable, relentlessly pseudish".) And to be sure, his prose does invite criticism even in translation. It quivers with the kind of poetic abstraction not much loved in these parts: "Awakening is a vision that comes forward." But at least he is sailing into deep and rarely navigated waters.

Nor is he anyone's idea of a Casaubon. He is the dashing founder and head of a prominent Italian publishing house (Adelphi). And he is hopeful that the long British love-hate affair with India might provide fertile ground for his new, swirling narration of Vedic stories. But in these class-conscious islands we can't help seeing such interests as irredeemably upper-class, as a calling aspired to only by twits in bow ties. It's a shame, because it doesn't have to be like that. Real scholarship is - or ought to be - inspiring. It is exploration, after all, a quest (sometimes through remote and lonely tunnels) in search of the new. It is no coincidence that imperial Britain was so curious about far-flung civilisations, so happy to risk life and limb in search of ancient stones or texts - though this perhaps is another reason why scholarship has sunk: it is all too easily seen as part of a colonial history we are embarrassed by.

So we rarely emphasise that Indiana Jones, for instance, was a scholar, preferring to see him as an action-hero with a bit of implausible Hollywood nonsense thrown in. It is quite refreshing to think of serious book-bashing as an authentic form of action, as tangible in its intangible way as fishing, or digging for buried treasure.

For Calasso, the ancient world is a part-time job. He's not a monk. But whether you like his books or not he does stand for an almost forgotten level of intellectual adventure. He was drawn to the subject not, he is at pains to point out, by anything so mundane as travel. And he was excited not by the strangeness or familiarity of the 3,000-year-old ideas he was pondering, but merely by their greatness. "It is a shock. You confront a very daring way of thinking, a way which is still daring today. And so much of it has gone. It's as if you were studying classical Greece but didn't have Plato."

He is saddened too by the decline of scholarly excitement in this country. "It's a pity. You look back, and in the last part of the 19th century you had Max Muller putting together his 50-volume series Sacred Books of the East. It was published by Oxford, and it ought to be a glory of the house. But now where is it? You can only get it in Indian reprints."

This is indeed sad. We have to be grateful to him, a civilised Italian passing through London, for reminding us of something we ought not to have forgotten: that the way to pastures new often includes a visit to pastures old.

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