"culture is what remains when all else is forgotten" -- an original source?
nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Fri Sep 6 06:09:05 UTC 2013
Reviewing a paper on Wordsworth submitted to the journal Representations, I ran across this: "As Ezra Pound puts it, “The domain of culture begins when one HAS ‘forgotten-what-book.’” The quote is from Pound's 1938 Guide to Kulcher, in an aphoristic section headed "Rappel A L'Ordre." The full paragraph is "Knowledge is NOT culture.The domain of culture begins when one HAS ‘forgotten-what-book.’” It's a singularly Poundian remaking of a thought that seems more continental than Anglophone (we were by then diffident about describing people as "cultured," having pressed "literate" into that service instead). But the aphorism has a lot of history elsewhere. It's a Wanderzitat, if i can call that, though I haven't been able to pin down an original source. It's not in YBQ but it deserves a place.
I was familiar with the sentiment in a slightly different French version, which I had recalled as being due to Renan, as "La culture est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié." Searching around, though, I couldn't find any mention of this. But I did find a host of other versions and attributions. For example:
Recent American Sources include the 2012 Report of the Culture Committee of the Swiss Benevolent Society of Chicago is headed "Culture is what is left when everything else has been forgotten—Françoise Sagan)" In the American Scholar, Sven Birkerts writes, "I always liked Ortega y Gasset's epigram that “'culture is what remains after we've forgotten everything we've read.”
A German site attributes it to Marx: "Die Kultur ist das was bleibt nachdem wir vergessen haben." If that were true, though, you can be sure that everyone would know about it and there wouldn't be so many other subsequent attributions. Another story has it as "Bildung ist das, was übrig bleibt, wenn man alles vergessen hat, was man gelernt hat," which has been falsely attributed to Einstein but is evidently due to Werner Heisenberg in his address on the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Maximillian Gymnasium in Munich in 1949. (Heisenberg had to have have been familiar with the version with "culture," in one or another language; you wonder if his substitution of Bildung was influenced by the Nazi cliche, often wrongly attributed to Goehring, "Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre, nehme ich meine Pistole.")
Quite a number of French sites attribute the mot to the Third Republic homme politique and académicien Edouard Herriot, sometimes as "La culture, c'est ce qui reste dans l'esprit quand on a tout oublié," which one writer describes as having been said "dans les terribles années 1930." It appears in Herriot's Notes et Maximes, published posthumously in 1961 and also available on Google Books, as follows: "La culture, déclare un pédagogue japonais, c'est ce qui demeure dans l'homme lorsqu'il a tout oublié." The mention of the Japanese pedagogue was surely a way of acknowledging that the sentence was effectively proverbial by then, though too particular in its conceit and wording to be really without an author.
Several Italians have pointed to a 1908 essay "Che cosa è la cultura" by the philosopher Gaetano Salvemini, The essay is available on Google Books, but in it, Salvemini quotes the line without attributing it: "La cultura vera — come un paradosso profondo è stata definita — è 'ciò che resta in noi dopo che abbiamo dimenticato tutto quello che avevamo imparato.'" The quotation confirms that the aphorism was a commonplace by the early 20th century, so that it couldn't have been originated or popularized by Herriot or Heisenberg. But here again it couldn't have been merely "in the air"—you'd figure there has to be a single influential source for it somewhere.
There are variants that take the aphorism in novel directions, which also testify to its status as a commonplace. Nadine de Rothschild writes, " Si la culture est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié, l'éducation est ce qui demeure quand on a tout perdu." And my favorite, the only one of them all that escapes the charge of sententiousness, is from the director Jean Vilar: "La culture, ce n'est pas ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié, mais au contraire, ce qui reste à connaître quand on ne vous a rien enseigné." That's the one you want to tell your students. Otherwise they might figure, Really? Hey, I could save myself all that trouble.
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