When I was working on my doctoral thesis, a few of the later manuscripts I was examining were peppered with the word “scilicet.” Inevitably, this word would follow a statement and provide either another way of saying the same thing or a clarification.
“Scilicet” means, literally, “it is permitted to know.” It is a cousin of the better-known “videlicet”, or, as it has come to us in modern text, “viz” (which comes from a Latin abbreviation, vi+ a squiggly figure resembling the numeral 3, which was interpreted as the letter z), meaning “it is permitted to see.” While I was working on my thesis, I called these words “junk Latin”, thinking of the concept of “junk DNA,” where genes contain runs of DNA that is either repetitive or serves no function. For my purposes, this was true. I was attempting to produce a critical edition of my text, coming as close as possible to what the author originally wrote. These later manuscripts really didn’t help me towards that goal, as over the years more and more additional material had crept into the text that was not there in the early versions. Those copying the manuscript had felt the need to elaborate on the original text, to add to it, to clarify, to explain, to provide more context.
I have spent a decent portion of the past year grappling with a variety of existential dilemmas and engaging in some self-analysis. I am into my sixth decade and still did not feel I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I look at the trajectory of my life and always, always, I am all over the place. I want to know all the things that I want to know. I want to see the larger context, the sweep of culture, of history, of prehistory, but yet I revel in the deep dive. One does not complete a PhD if one cannot do that deep dive. To continue the metaphor, I revel in the vast, clear waters of knowledge, of seeing that huge and endless sea and reveling in this (rather than fearing it), but at the same time, I cannot resist that desire to dive deep to explore what lies beneath, so deep sometimes that I momentarily surrender to the waters and let them take me.
What do I want to be when I grow up? What about what I already am?
I think I first ran across the term polymath in reference to Polymath Park, a site in Pennsylvania not far from Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, where one can rent out a Frank Lloyd Wright house (or a couple by his apprentices) for overnight stays. Friends have done this and raved about it; we were all set for a stay a number of years ago when an emergency by the site’s management forced cancellation. At the time, I didn’t really look up the term–I assumed it had something to do with mathematics and/or architecture.
I ran across the term again while in the throes of my “must read everything about Dmitri Shostakovich” phase that began earlier this year. Not about the composer, but about his friend Ivan Sollertinsky., who besides being a lecturer and artistic director for the Leningrad Symphony, was also an expert in theatre and Romance languages (he is said to have spoken 26 of them). So a polymath is someone with well-developed knowledge in a number of areas. What makes the polymath different from a dilettante is the depth of knowledge and study. A polymath is also primarily someone concerned with knowledge and learning, although there may also be an artistic talent or skill component as well.
Well. I finally had a term for what I am, or at least what I aspire to be. I think I have a good claim to it, although the first thing anyone who’s been through it will tell you is grad school is humbling–it shows you just how little you really do know. Doctoral studies so often promote extreme specialization, as the scholar tries to find his or her niche. The thing is, I could never stay on one topic for too long, which was one of the reasons it took me longer to finish my doctoral thesis. I was a TA for Western Civilization for two years and for medieval Jewish history for one, and I found those years full of rabbit holes I wanted to go down. I also had the SCA, which took me into material culture (particularly clothing) research, as well as into cultures that had nothing to do with England or popular religion, the focus of my studies. This meant I did a decent amount of research into early Norse and Rus’ culture and history. I had already drifted from Roman history into Late Antiquity and then again into the 13th century in my academic focus.
Before that, of course, I had spent the first part of my undergraduate career studying the sciences, preparing for advanced studies in genetics. I also knew quite a lot about music, particularly music history (as I wasn’t a particularly skilled musician, either as a singer or a violinist). I loved languages, having added Latin and German to the French I learned in high school. And I seemed to always have some sort of creative project on the go, from designing and painting my own t-shirts and clothing, to making my own jewellery, to teaching myself historic costuming and learning calligraphy and illumination.
And I wrote stuff. My Laurel in the SCA was based on writing and widely disseminating articles–mostly relatively short examinations of various aspects of medieval daily life, but a few deeper research projects as well. My one academic publication outside of my thesis was an examination of a bishop’s visitation records and mentions of textiles and clothing. I knew about the records from my academic work, but it was my non-academic work in researching clothing that spurred the research paper and its subsequent publication.
Since that time, I’ve pursued personal interests in architecture, particularly Art Deco and works by Frank Lloyd Wright but also in the historical development and growth of cities, particularly Toronto, London, and Berlin. I’ve indulged my fascination for modern ruins. I’ve studied volcanic eruptions (such as Krakatoa, Tambora, Vesuvius, and, of course, Mt. St. Helens–which was the target of one of my earliest research projects, in high school), hurricanes (particularly the Galveston hurricane of 1900), tornadoes, and supercontinents. I became a volunteer at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum and suddenly I have developed knowledge about various aircraft. Musically, I renewed my high school obsession with the music of Rush, but also the works of Joy Division and New Order, music I associate with my undergraduate years. And then, about a year ago, I started the deep dive into the life and works of Shostakovich, a composer I knew very little about other than the fact I had three of his symphonies in my CD library, and that the second movement of his 10th symphony was my go-to if I were feeling stabby. Which, by the way, I’ve felt quite often since late 2016. Did I mention that since I was about five years old I’ve been a news junkie? And that I am an unashamed progressive, despite having grown up with old school Republican parents. Yeah, stabby.
All of this? It’s exhausting to just read through. I know. But I am insatiably curious. There is always a new thing to study and learn about, and if I’m obsessed enough I’ll go very deep indeed. I’d like to think I could be considered a polymath. At the very least, I think it’s a noble goal, what I’d like best to be remembered as.
And this brings me back to scilicet. “It is permitted to know.” As I considered how I wanted to approach regularly writing, I kept thinking of big, longer-form research or writing projects on a single topic or historical period–and stalling out. At the same time, I have greatly increased the pace of posting to Facebook over the past couple of years. There is a pattern to this–lots of shorter pieces (perhaps writing on or commenting on another article), and then a long one or two. Repeat. Thing is, I was discounting the shorter pieces. Thing is, that’s what I do. I do a lot of reading of longer-form articles and books. Maybe absorbing is more descriptive. And I like to talk about it, and follow the links and breadcrumbs to see where they take me next.
I am permitting myself to know. If I try to restrict my thoughts or writing to a single, fairly narrow topic, I will tire of it. That’s not how I view the world, even when I am in the absolute depths of one of my periodic obsessions. When I made the move to start this new blog today, I brought over what I wrote for my short-lived attempt around 2009 to write about ruins, and the resurrection of that moribund blog that I started earlier this year when I tired of Facebook notes. (I will be moving those over in the next couple of weeks as well). But I have a lot of writing dating back into the late 80s–mostly historical stuff, things I formerly had on a website back in the Geocities days. There is no reason why this should be discarded–people seemed to like it when I wrote it.
So, that’s what to expect.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll even try poetry.
I think that you truly are a polymath
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