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January 15, 1958 - Image 4

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Page Four

THE MICHIGAN DAILY MAGAZINE

Wednesday, January 15, 1958

Page Four THE MICHIGAN DAILY MAGAZINE Wednesday, January 1 5, 1958

Homage to Louis Bredvold:

'4

By THORNTON H. PARSONS
IT'S HARD to know now which
of us first called attention to
the mystic appropriateness of the
first five letters on the office door
of L I BREdvold in Haven Hall.
Books for liberation and balance.
His esteem for books was expressed
overtly in unabashed seminar ser-
mons against the graduates' casual
habit of stealing or marking vol-
umes from the library, and cov-
ertly in the affectionate, caress-
ing way he held books in his hands
or lined them up on the desk be-
fore beginning his lecture.
If a graduate student hadn't
perceived Louis Bredvold's re-
sponsible and orderly use of books
as guides to spiritual freedom, to
right thinking and living, he
might, in attending Austin War-
ren's courses, hear "my eminent
colleague Louis Bredvold" extolled
as a model for philosophical depth
of interest and unity in scholarly
and critical writing; for Brevold is
related to the 'Germans' only in
his Scandinavian ancestry. As a
scholar, he has emulated Swift's
bee and has come from his investi-
gations with greater sweetness and
light to shed upon the literature,
the history, and the philosophy of
the period, and with a surer hold
upon his own convictions.
When I heard hit refer to my
friend Ed Heinig as "a good John-
sonian," I imagined there was no
higher praise possible from him.
The philosophical stance of en-
lightened conservatism, which he
learned from his masters of ear-
lier centuries, has protected him
from the aberrations of the 20th
century. It must have been a pain-
ful moment for a 1930's campus
Marxist, orating on the library
steps, when Louis Bredvold's
socratic voice was raised to chal-
lenge a glib sophistry. And who
would not weep for the brilliant
visiting physicist who received
Bredvold's congratulations upon a

speech on nuclear fission, and
then received his question, "What
is Man?"
"A fortuitous concourse of
atoms," came the unguarded reply.
"So was your speech,"
ON DECEMBER 8, 1941, he met
the professor of International
Law on campus and inquired
what his subject matter was now
that war had been declared and
treaties were automatically void.
Without waiting for an answer, he
continued triumphantly, "You
have no subject matter. You never
should have given up the Great
Law of Nature."
Bredvold has an impressive
Johnsonian free'dom from cant.
One day a rather vain and arro-
gant student interrupted his lec-
ture with the objection that the
judgment Bredvold had been
making about a writer was invalid
because nobody could say exactly,
what words mean. Bredvold calm-
ly heard the 'philosopher' out,
then asserted the claim for - hu-
man knowledge and wisdom. "The
semanticists have talked them-
selves into the position of being
unable to say anything. .We can
say things precisely enough. We
don't have to stop making judg-
ments because somebody discovers
that we cannot be absolutely pre-
cise in our definitions or that
words are not scientifically per-
fect conveyors of meaning. We
are still able to say things."
BREDVOLD'S assurance about
his own values has not caused
him to lose empathy with 'here-
tics,' though. I have heard him
deplore the almost universal poli-
tical liberalism of the teaching
fellows who, in instructing fresh-
men, snip at the fabric that cov-
ers our "naked, shivering hu-
manity," but these young teach-
ers and learners could get no more
patience and understanding than

from Bredvold. In a Ph.D. seminar
one afternoon I watched him
teach with equanimity basic
points of composition to a 'pro-
fessing' teacher of freshmen who
had just read a bad essay of his
own to the class. No stauncher
foe of modernity has come for-
ward since Irving Babbitt. "Whose
view of man prevails in your
time?" he asks his students.
"Johnson's and Swift's, or Rous-
seau's?" But the modernists who
have found themselves in 'his
classes, immature undergraduates
or progressive teachers getting the
M.A. for economic reasons, have
been treated with gentleness and
tact. He has fulfilled Babbitt's
dictum that a man must be rigor-
ous in getting human standards to
live by, but flexible in applying
them.
In his own books and in his
teaching he has steadily pursued
philosophical and stylistic values.
"Generally," he used to say, "we
have a moral tone of medium to
low. Reading Swift increases it,
invigorates us morally as a brisk
ten-mile walk in zero weather in-
vigorates us physically." This de-
scription aptly suggests one side
of the Bredvoldian effect, too.,
His greatness, though, consists in
the masterful integration of mor-
alist and storyteller - witty, deli-
cately ironic, urbane. As he coun-
seled seminar writers to concen-
trate more on soundness than on
novelty, he would launch upon an
analysis of the difference in
subtlety between the American
and French scholars in their at-
tacks upon essays delivered at
meetings of learned societies.
Americans plunge in immediately
and bludgeon the author; where-
as the French, even when impelled
to destroy, begin with a conces-
sion to civility. "In the essay we
have just heard there is much
that is new and much that is
true. Unfortunately, the things

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that are true are not new, and great man's preference for Rich-
the things that are new are not ardson? Of course, Bredvold al-
true." ways exonerated himself and fel-
low Johnsonians from the charge
NEVER hear of Charles II or of exaggerating Johnson's power
Edmund Waller now without and wisdom. When Sidney Roberts
recalling Bredvold's story about came to the University to read a
them. Charles chided Waller for paper, Bredvold introduced him as
writing better poetry when cele- a Johnsonian and then explained,
brating Cromwell than when cele,- "A Johnsonian does not claim that
brating a newly restored king. Johnson was always right. He
With brilliant agility, Waller an- merely claims that Johnson was
swered, "My Lord, we poets al- never wrong." Johnson himself
ways succeed better: with fiction would have been pleased, I think,
than with truth." Naturally, Bred- with Bredvold's insistence that lit-
vold has treasured the choicest erature must be ultimately moral,
stories about Johnson. He was and that this judgment has to be
talking about puns one day and made, and takes precedence, fi-
made a parenthesis to tell us of nally, over the aesthetic judgment.
the time some of Johnson's rois- So Johnson did not err in prin-
tering friends decided to go by ciple. "Johnson did not under-
his house and wake him up. They stand the comic spirit," Bredvold
stood in the darkness outside his very gently interceded. "If he and
bedroom window yelling and I ever meet as shades, I will ex-
throwing pebbles until Johnson plain it to him, and I think I can
raised the window and cried, get the old fellow to understand."
"What would you have with me?" HE MIGHT gin by repeating
Somebody began,"They say you for Johnson the hilarious
can make a pun on any subject,
is that true?" reading of Meredith which he gave
"It is." as his contribution to the series
"Make a pun on the king." of readings by members of the
"The king is no subject," said English Department at the Uni-
Johnson, slamming the window. versity. He described this as his
Bredvold's sensitiveness to the "recreative" reading. The Bred-
comic spirit saves him from the voldian sense of appropriateness
rigidity of some moralists. I re- is never asleep. For the Hensy
member how I waited for the day Russell Lecture last spring he gave-
when he would discuss Johnson's us the best of Bredvold'the Schol-
strictures against Fielding, for ar, carefully distilled by many
Bredvold always staunchly as- years of study and reflection; but
serted that "The four giants of he has resources of humor and
the 18th century are Swift, John- charm to call upon when the oc-
son, Fielding, and Burke." How casion demands, and these re-
could a Johnsonian explain the (Continued on Next Page

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