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.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?