Abnormal Prurient Antiquarian Interests

At the Pacific Coast Regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I heard the expression “antiquarian interests” used a couple of times as if it were a synonym for prurient interests or maybe worse. And this wasn’t the first place I heard the phrase used that way. I could be wrong about the exact nuance, but it sure wasn’t a complement to have antiquarian interests. Scholars who are also people of faith (no not all of them) used this expression while worrying about the question of secular scholarship within the SBL and worrying about those, like me, who think a secular Biblical Studies section at the SBL would be a useful counterpoint to some of the rather obvious sectarian goings on at the national meeting. I could name names, but I think the view that some of us simply have antiquarian interests in some vaguely negative sense resonates well beyond those who articulate it.
Now here’s the weird part. “Antiquarian interests” in this vaguely negative sense doesn’t apply to my abnormal interests and it doesn’t apply to the interests of any secular Biblical scholar I know. But if it did, so what? I’ll get back to the “so what” in a minute. My Hebrew Bible interests are in understanding the origins and development of one (well actually more than one) of the foundational pieces of literature that define the civilization and culture into which I was born and to which, for better or worse, I belong. In considerable measure, it is part of who I am. Having an interest in who one is and how one came to be who one is can hardly be thought of as an “antiquarian interest” in any negative way.
If you study the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Rabbinic literature, Homer, the Qur’an, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Hobbes, Kant, or the host of other formative literatures with an eye to understanding what your civilization and culture is and how it got to be what it is, your interests can not fairly be defined as antiquarian. And the same is true if your abnormal interest is the formative literatures of someone else’s civilization or culture.
I’m not claiming that literature is the only formative factor in civilization or culture. Natural environment, various economic factors, the length of periods of isolation, and much more are certainly part of any full understanding. And if everything needs a practical application, having a natural, you know “secular,” understanding of who one is and where one came from is necessary for building and continuing a love for want is best and fixing what is worse in one’s civilization and culture and also in one’s self.
But let’s assume we could find someone who just didn’t give a hoot about how founding literatures might affect his or her civilization or anyone else’s. Let’s assume such a person is interested in the life and times of, say, King Omri of Israel and that that person not only can’t articulate any reason for this interest but, instead, steadfastly denies that there is such a reason – in other words, his or her interest is indeed purely antiquarian. Let us further posit that that person pursues the interest in King Omri of Israel in such a dispassionate way that we are convinced that he or she gets neither the slightest pleasure nor the slightest pain from the endeavor. Would all this be reason to refer to their interest with a pejorative expression by proxy? I think not. We might think them perverse but we wouldn’t think their interest perverse. But maybe that’s the point. It is not our interests that are perverse but it is we who are perverse in the eyes of those who worry about our antiquarian interests.
I know someone who for several years of her life was abnormally interested in the Skolem normal form theorem which goes something like this, “For any first-order formula we can find a logically equivalent second order formula consisting of a string of universal individual variables followed by a quantifier-free formula” (I robbed this definition from Enderton’s A Mathematical Introduction to Logic.). There is hardly anything that is closer to pure mathematics than the Skolem normal form theorem. Pure mathematics has even more complicated things in its quiver. There are even third order and greater order formulae. There is even a meta-mathematics of the set of formulae orders. Would any of us use an expression like “mathematical interests” with negative implications when referring to such an abnormal interest? I really don’t think so. We might shake our heads in wonder. We might even believe that such a person is wasting a wonderful capability on something of near zero importance (except to mathematical logicians). But we just wouldn’t think of that interest as some kind of mathematical voyeurism. If we wouldn’t think a mathematical logician perverse for studying the Skolem normal form theorem, why would we think a secular study of King Omri of Israel somehow perverse?

5 thoughts on “Abnormal Prurient Antiquarian Interests”

  1. There are a million subtle ways to belittle learning and all for political reasons. Knowledge opposes power afterall.
    If treating “abnormal” interests as a kind of perversion isn’t working, nuts try to pathologize it with pseudoscience by using hazy clinical stereotypes like “Asperger’s Syndrome” and “Autistic Spectrum Disorder” out of the idle assumption that anyone who reads books must surely be compensating for social dyslexia instead of simply being well-raised by parents who gave a damn.
    On the flip side, when is apathy ever diagnosed and actively treated?

  2. Glen,
    In general, your points are well taken. In this case, it is weirder than you may think. The particularly people who, in this case, accuse the likes of me of having “antiquarian interests” are among the most learned people I know. In addition, their public, scholarly work is indistinguishable from the work of the most secular scholar you can think of.

  3. We agree and again I see a “knowledge versus power” theme. A few scholars are genuinely inspired by learning on the one hand, while many exploit the air of scholarship as a means to power because it’s the “easy” way on the other.
    I hate to quote the Bible, being atheist ‘n all, but it’s too à-propos here: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

  4. Duane– Thanks for your post. I think I may be one you’re referring to here, as I made a remark like this at the close of my presidential address (am I right?). Megan Moore and I talk about this in our forthcoming book, so you’ll have to check it out for a fuller response. For myself, however, I think it important to note that I was stressing some pretty specific things. One, I was only talking about future study of Israel’s past. Two, I think I said that such study must not be “merely” antiquarian (it might be that, but not “merely” that). And third, I wasn’t juxtaposinbg this against theological aims. That is, I wasn’t saying it had to be theological and not antiquarian. In fact, my comments were that we consider such study in order to think about how it illuminates human (some might say “secular”) life and experience in general. How does that resonate with you? Thanks again for the post! –Brad K.

  5. Brad,
    Thanks for the comment. You do hangout in abnormal places. Perhaps I am a little too sensitive in this matter. You were not the only one. I heard about “antiquarian interests” from two or three others at the meeting. One was the day after your address and there was no way that it was intended to be anything but pejorative and it drew on your admittedly more nuanced comment. You are correct, I need to read your and Moore’s book. Your final comment in the comment resonates well with me. But I do worry that some may see it as giving special place to but one of our formative literatures. Then, in the context of that meeting the Bible does have a special place even for me.

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