Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kristine Louise Haugen's "Richard Bentley"

What made the classical scholar Richard Bentley deserve to be so viciously skewered by two of the literary giants of his day—Jonathan Swift in the Battle of the Books and Alexander Pope in the Dunciad? The answer, according to Kristine Haugen in her new biography, Richard Bentley: Poetry and Enlightenment: he had the temerity to bring classical study out of the scholar’s closet and into the drawing rooms of polite society.

Here Haugen shares some insights about casting the biopic adapted from her book:
Unfortunately for Bentley, his personality and persona resembled those of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007). The tone of his writings was aggressive and peremptory, not to say bullying, toward his readers. His treatment of his underlings in Cambridge University was so vile that he was repeatedly sued, eventually stripped of his degrees, and finally ejected from the mastership of Trinity College.

But it was in the actual contents of Bentley's literary scholarship that his violent disposition emerged most clearly. His greatest notoriety rests on his work as a textual critic — that is, deciding whether the traditional words in a text are correct. Here, Bentley slashed and burned gleefully, whether his target was the lyric poet Horace, the playwright Terence, or the very recently departed John Milton. Bentley attacked not only authors but the idea of authorship itself: he might accurately have said, with Day-Lewis' egregious oilman Daniel Plainview,
"I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people."
This ruthless and combative Bentley is what's revealed to us by a wide-ranging crane shot, if you will. But a close-up of Bentley in the act of working shows us a different character, less alarming but still wonderfully strange: someone like John Cusack in High Fidelity (2000). Blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, drawn like a moth to the making of lists, and openly obsessive-compulsive, Bentley loved poetry as passionately as Rob Gordon loved LPs. In fact, he couldn't stop talking about it. By common consensus, it's rare to read Bentley and believe everything he says — but it's impossible not to learn something new.

It's true that unlike the terminal cuteness of Cusack, Bentley's perverse charm carries him only so far with us. Above all, his fixation with the "right" and "wrong" words is no longer attractive. But in other respects, he was one of the most appealing literary readers of his time. Here are the top five reasons.

5. Rejecting Aristotle's stale and abstract literary theories, Bentley insisted on directly encountering and judging the words of a poem.

4. He was endlessly fascinated with poetic form, above all poetic meter.

3. Unlike many predecessors, he worked to mount systematic arguments wherever he could, drawing readers in rather than repelling them with disconnected details.

2. Nearly the most important of all, Bentley aimed to bring serious research in the humanities before a wider public — a goal that remains capitally important today.

1. In a word, Bentley is our ancestor; to a degree, even, Bentley is us.
Learn more about Richard Bentley at the Harvard University Press website.

Kristine Louise Haugen is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The California Institute of Technology.

--Marshal Zeringue