Best yellow jackets
BY PETER STOTHARD
On Saturday lunchtime at the Bodleian Library we were discussing the most powerful arguments for financing the humanities.
There are so many well-meant but death-guaranteeing efforts — the jobs provided by the publishing industry, the effectiveness of Latin for the training of a banker’s mind, the export potential of dictionaries.
Anyone who has read a university fund-raising prospectus in these difficult years will be able to add their own dismal examples.
But how can we do better?
One Oxford luncher mentioned Cicero’s speech Pro Archia, the locus classicus as it were.
It is one of the speeches in the new Folio Society edition for which I wrote the introduction last year.
So this remarkable document was fresh in my blog and mind.
But a Ciceronian argument for the interconnection of art and other life, while once transformational for Petrarch, will struggle in most places now.
The occasion of Saturday's lunch, for an enthusiastic band of bibliophiles and fund-raisers for books, was Thomas Bodley’s birthday, marked this year in the Divinity School.
The theme was Asian. As was the dress code.
Your blogger wore a waistcoat of cream silk elephants, the first such item of clothing he can recall around his body for many decades.
The greatest commitment to Asian dress came for Oxford’s American Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, who wore a full jacket of bright yellow silk and also made an argument for the humanities that, in my collection of arguments at least, was as fresh as the cloth on his back.
He spoke of the Bodleian’s seventy five years of collecting Chinese manuscripts in the 17th century before anyone in the library, and probably in the whole of England, could read them or had any idea what they meant.
The story of Shen Fu-Tsung (pictured above) and of the tumultuous time in 1687 when he became the first Chinese scholar to explain the Bodleian collection, is a powerful thing in itself, the subject of our pre-lunch lecture by Jonathan Spence (along the lines of this one).
But even more powerful, argued the man in the yellow jacket, himself a chemist in pre-vice-chancelloring times, was the earlier commitment of the Bodleian to the unknown, its investment in what might (but only might) turn out to matter, the money spent on humanities because a humanity was what a Chinese collection might (but would not necessarily) be.
The lunch ended with a swing in our silk-clad steps.