Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s character, Lazarus Long, said that modern man must not only be a jack of all trades but he must also be a master of everything. A human being, Long said, should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. “Specialisation is for insects,” the man had said.
But the other day, when I was having a scholarly chat with a friend about the need for the world to have scholars who would spend a lifetime searching for a microscopic area of knowledge — be it the history of the potato or the fertility cult of Amazonian women etc — we agreed on one point: that the world would have been duller without scholars who take interest in one single aspect of study. My friend, however, added that it takes an incredibly boring single-minded person to be a scholar.
I tell him that the grand old scholar-writer, Nirad C Chaudhuri, was prodigiously knowledgeable about women, wine and music besides other things. “But he was a generalist-scholar,” my friend cut in, elaborating that throughout history, there have been people who have excelled in multiple fields. They were, like Nirad-babu, polymaths. “Such men are rare these days,” he rued.
“So, can we name some pure scholar-extraordinaires?” I asked. Pat came my friend’s reply. Edward Gibbon (who chronicled the decline and fall of the Roman Empire); Jadunath Sarkar (who spent a lifetime researching Mughal history); Arnold Bogomul Ehrlich (a scholar of the Bible endowed with a power of perfect recall and knowledgeable in 39 languages). Some others? Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Ramachandra Guha… “In fact,” my friend added speaking from an imaginary pulpit, “with ‘interdisciplinarity’ being the mantra of the day, it doesn’t pay to be a scholar with a limited area of focus. An expert on water-borne diseases, rather than a water expert, won’t get to speak on water-salinity these days,” he said thoughtfully.
In order to lift the pall of heaviness looming over our discussion, I told my friend that only journalists understand everything on earth and yet find time for the fun and frolic. The ease with which they counter-balance nuclear science with wardrobe malfunction takes my breath away. “Maybe it takes a know-all editor to achieve that feat,” my friend said. “But editors are the most Brahmanical of the lot, always seeking specialists as opinion writers. I’d advise you to learn to be eclectic and keep yourself open to your Newton, Jagdish Bose and Hawking as much as to your Beethoven, Souza and Pamuk. We have got only one life and it has too many good things to offer.” But what about contributing something to the world? Before I could quiz my friend further on this, his wife stepped in, prodding him on to take a digestive medicine.
Which is when I smelt the hint of hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans in the air.
( Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal