The other day, in Henry Green’s autobiography Pack My Bag, I came across this lovely and rather Homeric metaphor for what a liberal arts education is supposed to feel like. (If you’re not familiar with Green’s style, be forewarned that it has fewer commas than most and an awfully flexible syntax.)
The experience for those who have not had it can best be described by the picture of a traveller who has come some of the way and now finds himself bewildered, suspicious and rather tired because he has not found the sort of country he has been seeking, part of his difficulty being that he is not sure quite what climate or kind of scenery is necessary to his peace of mind. He comes to a place where the winding track he follows through nettles breaks into two and there above a great number of broken bottles are a profusion of signposts obviously false, giving details of the amenities offered by following the direction indicated. The day is hot, the way has been long, flies and wasps have been troublesome, and all the time there has been a persistent knelling in the distance to work up a feeling of foreboding. Also the sense is strong that it will soon be too late. At the intersection of this track however he comes upon a tall gaunt figure dressed neatly as if for London but with something untidy about him, perhaps in the uneasy protuberance of his eyes. He appears to be resting without discomfort just off one of these paths with nettles about but it is plain that in his case they do not sting because he outstings them and there are no flies on him. He speaks first, in time he will ask the traveller to sit down, but for the present he is content to describe exactly where you want to go and just why what you want is so necessary. One is suspicious at first that he will conclude with an overpowering argument or even with proof that one is a fool to look for whatever it may be but, when the time comes for his conclusion, one finds with delight that he is in complete agreement and what is more that he has far more cogent reasons in one’s favour than one has been able to produce. Nothing of what he says is put directly, a great deal of it is fireworks let off to conceal the trend of what in two years’ time you may suspect to be towards sentiment, it is all hedged about by the steam power of this trained mind and in a rain of words. As your suspicion evaporates you discover these to be tending towards your case and in the end justifying it perhaps with a sad but wonderful story of what befell someone who took the other road.
It is most comforting, so much so that when, as will certainly happen sooner rather than later, he is to be heard brilliantly advocating exactly the reverse because what did for the one case may not do for another there is no sense of disillusionment. . . .