It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings; there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

I can remember arguing this point once in one of the few serious conversations that I ever had with Housman. Housman, in his Leslie Stephen lecture The Name and Nature of Poetry, had denied very emphatically that he was a ‘critic’; but he had denied it in what seemed to me a singularly perverse way, and had expressed an admiration for literary criticism which startled and scandalized me.

He had begun with a quotation from his inaugural lecture, delivered twenty-two years before—

Whether the faculty of literary criticism is the best gift that Heaven has in its treasures, I cannot say; but Heaven seems to think so, for assuredly it is the gift most charily bestowed. Orators and poets..., if rare in comparison with blackberries, are commoner than returns of Halley's comet: literary critics are less common... .

And he had continued—

In these twenty-two years I have improved in some respects and deteriorated in others, but I have not so much improved as to become a literary critic, nor so much deteriorated as to fancy that I have become one.

It had seemed to me deplorable that a great scholar and a fine poet should write like this, and, finding myself next to him in Hall a few weeks later, I plunged in and said so. Did he really mean what he had said to be taken very seriously? Would the life of the best of critics really have seemed to him comparable with that of a scholar and a poet? We argued these questions all through dinner, and I think that finally he agreed with me. I must not seem to claim a dialectical triumph over a man who can no longer contradict me; but ‘Perhaps not entirely’ was, in the end, his reply to the first question, and ‘Probably no’ to the second.

There may have been some doubt about Housman's feelings, and I do not wish to claim him as on my side; but there is no doubt at all about the feelings of men of science, and I share them fully. If then I find myself writing, not mathematics but ‘about’ mathematics, it is a confession of weakness, for which I may rightly be scorned or pitied by younger and more vigorous mathematicians. I write about mathematics because, like any other mathematician who has passed sixty, I have no longer the freshness of mind, the energy, or the patience to carry on effectively with my proper job.



我记得,在和豪斯曼 1 为数不多的几次认真谈话里,就有一次对这个话题展开过辩论。豪斯曼在他的莱斯利 • 斯蒂芬 2 讲座《诗歌的名与实》上,坚决不承认自己是一个“批评家”。在我看来,他表达的方式很荒谬,其对文学批评表示的赞赏,也让我非常震惊。

1Alfred Edward Housman(1859.03.26—1936.04.30),英国古典文化学者、诗人。

2Leslie Stephen(1832.11.28—1904.02.22),英国作家。

他以 22 年前就职演说中的一段话作为开头:



在这 22 年里,我在某些方面有所进步,不过在另一些方面退步了。但我还没有进步到足以成为一名文学批评家;同样,我也没有退步到幻想自己已经是一名文学批评家。

一位伟大的学者和优秀的诗人竟然这样认为,在我看来是很可悲的。几个星期后,当我在大厅里发现旁边坐的是豪斯曼时,便单刀直入地和他聊起了以下话题:他的话当真吗?在他看来,最好的评论家真的能与学者和诗人相提并论吗?整个晚餐,我们都在辩论这些问题,我想他最终同意了我的观点。对一个再也无法反驳我的人 3,我似乎并不能宣布这次辩论取得了胜利。不过,最终他对第一个问题的回答是“也许不能完全当真”,对第二个问题的回答是“或许不能相提并论”。

3本文写于 1940 年,而豪斯曼在 1936 年就去世了。