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Magnanimous is an underachieving word

December 4, 2009

…or the detrimental effect of Latinate roots on modern discourse.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

Magnanimous: very generous or forgiving, esp. toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself.

Certainly high praise, and I’d love to be called magnanimous one day. But consider that magnanimous has its origins in the Latin phrase magnus animus, or great soul. Because we don’t speak Latin, our Latinate words don’t have the same resonance they would if they had roots closer to our mother tongue. Great-soulled evokes such a different image for me than magnanimous. And I’d much rather be called the former.

It might be no accident that I am yearning for great-soulledness at this particular moment: finals season. Tomorrow I begin grinding through a set of papers I don’t care about. Specialization in preprofessional training makes me feel distinctly average-souled. As each semester passes, I feel I have closed yet another set of doors, behind which lie research interests and methodologies as intriguing as the ones I will pursue. Sometimes it seems like graduate programs exist to help us close each door but the final one, through which lies a completed dissertation.

This is not a criticism of modern academia: it is undoubtedly more conducive to knowledge production than was the Enlightenment model of independently-wealthy eccentric dilettantes. Nonetheless, I am aware that 6 year old versions of me, middle school versions of me, and high school versions of me might look on modern-me and despair: this is not the average-soul we were planning to become! ***

Fortunately, one of the many redeeming aspects of the professional academic life is winter break. I plan to reinvigorate my average soul by spending time in the company of the great-soulled. That is, I plan on reading a novel for the first time in a year. My literary weakness is for great-soulled Russian protagonists: Alyosha Karamazov, Yuri Zhivago, nearly the entire cast of War and Peace. Sometimes even Raskolnikov. This winter I plan on tackling Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Grossman was a Soviet Jew, a reporter embedded in the Red Army during the “Great Patriotic War” (Russian for World War II). He was present throughout Stalingrad, and also at the liberation of the extermination camp at Treblinka. I have read his war journals, and his description of Treblinka elicited a physiological response in me like no other written passage ever has.

Once professional-me cranks out two papers on modern sociological theory, I hope to awaken earlier-me through exposure to the great-soulled protagonists of Life and Fate.

———-

*** Nothing in this post is meant to disparage academia. I am mostly happy with academia. Academia exists in order to produce knowledge, not to help me self-actualize. In fact, I am already planning a companion post to this one, in which I blame English Lit PhD dropouts for spreading the notion that academia should help us self-actualize, but because it doesn’t, it is therefore soul-crushing. The “English Lit Dropout Theory of Academia” even has a corollary: if you figure out that academia crushes souls after it’s too late to switch careers, you should probably have an affair with an angsty graduate student.

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