Alternate Universe



Setting out later today for North Carolina, where I will attend a celebration of this man’s 80th birthday. Jerzy Linderski advised my doctoral dissertation in classics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, from which I graduated in 1997.


If you are interested, you can read a fine appreciation of Jerzy written by a fellow student of mine, Hans-Friedrich Mueller. There is also a Wikipedia entry on him, which gives some sense of his work as a scholar and teacher. Note that the list of his articles, essays, and reviews is hardly exhaustive. I think anyone in a position to judge would say that he is one of our greatest living authorities on Roman history, religion, ritual, and law.


I explain my choice of title for this post below. Read on.


T. Corey Brennan, in his review of a book collecting some of Jerzy’s articles, and writing of course for academics, has this to say about him: “[His articles] show unusually deep learning, indefatigable curiosity, and (especially in problem solving) an insight that is sometime startling.”


Josiah Osgood I quote at greater length.


In his review of a second such collection of writings, he notes this about Jerzy’s work: “[Linderski’s overarching approach is this.] One starts with a specific question unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered, for instance a textual crux or a puzzling, even seemingly bizarre, episode. Next come gathering and study of all relevant sources literary and epigraphic … [E]verything must be examined afresh: take nothing second-hand! Linderski can show again and again even eminent scholars misusing, misunderstanding, even misquoting sources. ‘Every line’ and ‘every word’, as we saw, must be understood. No compromises are allowed: ‘before we proceed to a literary or historical study we have first to know in the analyzed text the sense of every word, in all its applications and shades’. Distressingly, standard dictionaries are shown constantly to omit important examples, provide unhelpful definitions, even misconstrue items. ‘One should not trust lexicons and lexicographers blindly’. Electronic databanks are of immense value. Also make sure to take into account the context of any quotation, and the overall value of the source; Livy, for instance, is exposed in these pages again and again as a fabulist rather than a good antiquarian. The ‘historian’s craft’ is above all ‘a painstaking analysis of the sources’, but Linderski also relies on exhaustive analysis of the secondary literature as a tool of investigation. One might find buried in older studies a vital piece of evidence or valuable perceptions; the shape of the scholarship as a whole helps one to see where a new approach to a problem might be tried. Even the negative act of putting to rest erroneous conceptions can clear the way for others. [In short, i]n Linderski’s work, the answer to a seemingly minor question is often shown to have momentous results.” (Citations omitted.)


Now, as to my title, “Alternate Universe.” I might have written “In Another Age.” What I was struck by first in 1991, when I was a student in the Livy seminar described so well by Mueller, and what strikes me again in typing this out, is the absolute wonder that someone like Jerzy Linderski can co-exist in a universe with, say, Kim Kardashian.


No, I am not here to look down my nose at popular culture. Don’t misunderstand me. What I marvel at and admire exceedingly is that Jerzy has devoted himself so entirely without reservation or scintilla of doubt to an arduous and lifelong endeavor that he knows has produced work that reaches now and will only ever reach a minuscule, infinitesimally small number of the world’s inhabitants, just a fraction even of that already tiny number of people who call themselves historians or more precisely Roman historians and classicists, most of whom (naturally I include myself in this number) are, well, dilettantes. He has not the least doubt, I suspect, that he has been privileged to be able to undertake all that research and writing.


And so, just as you may be glad to know that there are still a few places in the world that are wild and free, pristine, comparatively unaffected by “civilization,” I’m glad to know that there are still a few Jerzy Linderskis among us.


Happy birthday, Jerzy.



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