Polymaths

John Latham, Five Bing Sisters, 1976
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By WALNICE NOGUEIRA GALVÃO*

The ideal of the intellectual, which encompassed as much knowledge as possible, was gradually eroded and supplanted by that of the specialist.

According to a recent book by Peter Burke, a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge, entitled The polymath (joining of very com to know), the ideal of the intellectual in the Renaissance was to cover as much knowledge, or disciplines, or subjects as possible. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, who painted, drew, imagined and built devices that were precursors to the airplane, helicopter, tank, and so on, in addition to being interested in chemistry, botany, physics, medicine and anatomy, etc. . This ideal was gradually eroded and supplanted by that of a specialist (or expert),which focuses on a single discipline. This is the ideal of Modernity.

Until then, we are in agreement. But, says Peter Burke, with the passage of centuries the polymath is showing signs of resurrection.

A modern polymath is the literary critic Edward W. Said, with his masterpiece that is orientalism, one of the pillars of postcolonial studies and decolonization. And whose reading disorganizes the universe of knowledge of those who thought they already knew. In its erudition, ambition, and scope, it recalls the German Stylistics of the 1930s and 1940s, when books of literary criticism were encyclopedic treatises or monuments of civilization.

Como mimesis, by Auerbach, which covers all Western literature, starting with the Bible and Homer, and ending with Proust and Virginia Woolf. Or else European literature and the Latin Middle Ages, by Curtius, who studies the metamorphosis of topos repeated in literary works throughout the millennia, from Latin to vernacular languages. Or even the scope of Spitzer's works, gathered in Style studies. Another example, from a tradition other than German Stylistics, is the book by the Russian Bakhtin on the humor of the public square. By studying the carnivalization that the populace operates, he recovers for literature vast panels of discursive practices based on orality.

Or, outside of literature, in the visual arts, the works of Aby Warburg and his Mnemosyne Atlas, with the classification of the main images from Antiquity to the present. And also the book by Jakob Burckhardt, The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. He is reputed to have “invented” the Renaissance with his evocations and power of synthesis. And a few others.

But there are several with similar ambition, in different fields such as Sociology, History, etc. One of them is Autumn of the Middle Ages by Huizinga, whose interpretation of the phenomenon of the macabre dance helps us to better understand the infernal hallucinations of Bosch and Brueghel. One more is The civilizing process, by Norbert Elias, analyzing, among other topics, the importance of table manners etiquette. Or that of Ernst Bloch, Hope principle, which needed 3 volumes to account for each and every messianic insurrectionary movement.

Walter Benjamin was a German and a literary critic, but nothing escaped him, from children's toys and the effects of hashish, or the role of the gallery in defining the modern city, to a heavy and graceless subject like baroque dramaturgy. 

Huizinga is Dutch, Burckhardt is Swiss... But for a long time the erudite catatau would be associated with a kind of fatality of the Germanic spirit. That is until we remember names like Michelet, who is not only the author of a History of France and a History of the French Revolution, both in dozens of volumes, as well as addressing the history of women and To bruxa, texts that are still a reference for feminism today. As a result of the secular republicanism of the Great Revolution, he insisted in his works that the people are the agents of historical transformation, and never kings or generals. Among others, he influenced Victor Hugo, who put his teachings into practice, and especially in writing the most popular of all his works, The miserable.

To Michelet we can add Foucault – whose interest ranges from Velázquez to prisons and self-care – and Lévi-Strauss. Both redeem the endangered species of the polymath from the accusation of Germanism. The latter, to analyze indigenous myths, calls upon classical music, Astronomy and the bilaterality of graphic and sculptural representation. To these two, many others can be added.

And long live the polymath!

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of reading and rereading (Sesc\Ouro over Blue). [amzn.to/3ZboOZj]


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