Peter Boodberg: A Philologist’s Creed

On Language Log, one of the blogs I follow with great interest, there has been some good discussions of what is meant by “philology,” on Paul de Man’s appropriation of the term, and on its relationship to “Sinology.” Below I have reproduced a fascinating, quasi-religious manifesto written by the great Sinologist Peter Boodberg. Like all work by Boodberg (such as his translations), it is characterized by its bravado, grandiosity, and erudition, with a dash of insanity.

Youth speaks, o youth, with the tongues of angels – as yet unborn. Let me speak with the ancient tongue of the earth.

I believe in Language, chorus of numberless voices, product of myriads of minds, the universal and inclusive art, the massive and enduring monument of ages past; and in the Word, the molder of thought and bearer of truth, the great call of the shrouded dead, my begetters, and in the Light that shines from the beginning of time, through the darkness and silence of tombs unto the heart of Everyman.

I believe in Memory, mother of the Muses and consort of Hope. And this I know: seed fallen on good ground, deep in rich remembrance, will bring forth fruit an hundredfold and unto the number of generations remembered; but seed sown by sowers, self-minded and proud of spirit, and foolish of hope, fall where they have no deepness of earth and wither with the sun of the morrow.

And this I have seen: man brings forth wonders in the travail of his hands, and his goods and his many inventions are increased upon the earth, and behold, there are many new things under the sun. But this generation will pass away and another generation will come, and folly ever abides in the heart of men. And this, I believe, is good: to give heed, and seek out, and set in order the judgment of ancients, that the wisdom of man might also endure.

Then I hold fast to the Scriptures of old and the Book of the Ancients, and the parchments and scrolls, and the multiple records of my fathers I revere and honor, and their voices that speak in the Letters I heed and their signs I interpret, as I heed the voice of the living, as I read the portents of the morrow. On the wonders of my world and your world, o youth, I converse and discourse and take counsel with the ancients and bring fullness of being to them who abide in me and I in them, and on their bones I will lay the sinews of my strength and the flesh of my deeds and I will put in them the breath of my hope and your hope.

And I bless and I ever remember Zion thrice-hallowed and the tower of Nimrod in the vale of Shinar, and the sorrows of Goshen and the prides of the City Eternal, and Hellas, the fair and the wise. I mind me of all tongues, all tribes, and all nations that labored and wrought all manner of works with their hands, and their minds, and their hearts. And I cast mine eyes unto Hind, unto Sinim, and the lands of Gogs and Magogs of the earth, across wilderness, pasture, and field, over mountains, waters, and oceans, to wherever man lived, suffered, and died; to wherever he sinned, and toiled, and sang. I rejoice and I weep over his story and relics, and I praise his glory, and I share his shame.

To-day with you, o youth, I live and hope, yet who, living can stay the sun, for, lo, the night is come, and the noisy flight of today is stilled in the morrow into the silence of yesteryears. So, Janus-faced as mortals be, I gladly learned and gladly teach the truth of earthly time. And for better to serve the living, I, living, but to the past as yet unborn and to my seed a memory forgotten, I serve the living dead with faith, and hope, and charity, in humble expectation of the fulfillment of the Great Design, when time will be no more and we may, united, perceive the plan of our being and our end, our Alpha and your Omega, and may encompass understanding of the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.

-unpublished manuscript, reproduced in David B. Honey, Incense at the Altar: Pioneering Sinologists and the Development of Classical Chinese Philology (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2001), 305-306.

I’ll refrain from commenting on the skill with which Boodberg reproduces the creedal language of Christianity and the pathos this gives to his universalistic, scholarly humanism. My thoughts on David Honey’s own religious devotion to Peter Boodberg and Edward Schafer can be found in my review of Incense at the Altar.

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