70. Leonardo Olschki And Oriental Languages At Berkeley

70. Leonardo Olschki and Oriental Languages at Berkeley

A while back, a query from my younger colleague Hong Zaixin about whether I had known Senator Theodore Francis Green as a collector inspired a Reminiscence on that subject (no. 67 above). Yesterday it was another younger colleague, Professor Jennifer Purtle, who is working on a book about the city of Quanzhou, how that city “existed in the Song, and then was transformed by Mongolian rule.” She asked whether and what I remembered about Leonardo Olschki, who had emerged as an important figure in her research. I responded in my blustery, old-person’s way: “Do I remember Leonardo Olschki! Just hearing/reading his name inspires me to write one of my Reminiscences about him and his time in Berkeley.” But further and cooler recollection revealed that I hadn’t known him so well, and had little to relate about him. Still, I will use him as a springboard for more memories of my years, 1948-50, as an undergraduate in the Oriental Languages Department at U.C. Berkeley.

The central, towering figure in it, and longtime chair of Oriental Languages (yes, Oriental—in those blissfully pre-Said days the word carried no stigma of Eurocentrism, or if it did, implied respect for that great European tradition of East Asian philology), was Peter Boodberg (1903-1972).  I have written about him before, and will only repeat: those of us who studied seriously with him all recognized him as the greatest teacher we ever had; those who did not all wonder why, since he left so few writings. Boodberg had played a major role in bringing together in Berkeley a small community of distinguished scholars of East Asian history, languages, and culture, some in other departments than Oriental Languages; they included, over the years, Ferdinand Lessing in Tibetan studies, Wolfram Eberhard in Sociology, Otto Maenchen in art history (who was always careful to separate himself from the discipline of art history, thinking of himself rather as a philologist, or general sinologue), and Leonardo Olschki. Boodberg also brought into his department distinguished linguists such as Yuan-jen Chao, Denzel Carr (who was both philologist and linguist), and Mary Haas. (Boodberg told us: the way you can tell them apart is that linguists work by going out and capturing an informant, philologists by going out and capturing a text.) Boodberg’s disciple Edward Schafer (see Reminiscence no. 54 above) joined the group when he joined the faculty. (I have probably forgotten a few distinguished people, and apologize to their living students.) They came together monthly for meetings of the Colloquium Orientologicum (name from memory, maybe wrong) at which one of them would deliver a learned paper before the others. Leonardo Olschki was brought into the group (according to a biographical note on him on the web) in 1944, after he had taught more briefly at Johns Hopkins.

It must have been in 1949 when I took an undergraduate course from Olschki on “Medieval Travelers in Asia.” The material for this course was a book (Precursors of Marco Polo) he had written based on lectures first given at Johns Hopkins; and, since his spoken English was not yet fluent, his “lectures” consisted of readings from this book. He would read slowly, I recall, the long and complex sentences he had written, and near the end of each, look up triumphantly to pronounce the last few words with an air of: see what I have done! In spite of this ponderous mode of delivery, his lectures were fascinating, about such figures as John of Carpino, William of Rubruck, Huc and Gabet (again, from memory, don’t trust spellings.) He told of how the Mongols would command representatives of different religions to debate before them, and how all would speak peaceably except the Christians, who could not restrain their proselytizing zeal and would shout and rage against the others. Olschki was later to publish a book on Marco Polo (Marco Polo’s Asia, Berkeley, U.C. Press, 1960).

Olschki’s time in Berkeley came to a bad end—for the University, that is. When the infamous Loyalty Oath was imposed in 1949 by the Regents, he was one of those who refused to sign. I remember him saying something like: I have been driven out of Germany by Hitler and out of Italy by Mussolini, and I am not going to stay around and watch it happen again. (From memory.) His nephew Felix Rosenthal, another non-signer from the faculty of Architecture who has a brief essay about his experience on the web, relates that when after five years the oath was rescinded and Olschki was invited by the U.C. Chancellor to rejoin the faculty, he refused, writing back that “the situation reminded him of an old Arabic proverb, that ‘it is the washed dog that smells the worst.’”

The Oriental Languages Department decided that only one of their number would refuse to sign, representing the others but avoiding a serious weakening of the Department. It was Ed Schafer who volunteered to do this—ever the man of principle, the firm-minded and fervently dedicated scholar that he was. The rest of the Department supported him as best it could, over the years of his absence from teaching, with research assistantships and grants. This happened while I was away—I took my B.A. and left Berkeley in June, 1950, returning to teach there only in 1965.

Boodberg was still teaching when I returned, and I went sometimes to sit in on his lectures—he gave, for one, a single-unit course on East Asian literature in translation, taken by many undergrads who needed an extra unit and were attracted by the good reputation of the course. I was among those who urged him to publish more of his writings—on every visit back to Berkeley during my fifteen years of absence I had visited him, and was permitted to see and read some of them: a large study of pre-Han Chinese culture based on analyses of key terms and concepts; a series of new translations from the poet Tu Fu, begun when Boodberg found the renderings of William Hung too prosy, capturing too little of the multi-leveled meanings of the poems. (I had as an undergraduate had the great honor of bringing to Boodberg’s attention the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and seeing him adopt Hopkins’s “inscape” as a better equivalent for li, commonly rendered as “principle. Some of Boodberg’s poetry renderings published in his “Cedules from a Berkeley Workshop in Chinese Philology,” in Alvin Cohen’s Selected Works of Peter A. Boodberg, Berkeley, 1979, read like Hopkins poems, dense but inviting and rewarding the effort of puzzling-out.) Boodberg’s response to my urging that he publish more, on a day not long before his death when I visited him in his office, is as fresh in my memory as if it had happened yesterday: he looked at me with his beatific smile and said “When I am gone, friend Cahill, remember me like the Cheshire Cat, by my smile.” Boodberg had formed strong feelings about premature publication in his late years, and directed one of his disciples to burn all his papers after his death. I am glad I was not that disciple; he did the honorable thing, I might have done the dishonorable, and lived with the guilt of that ever after. (Some NYTimes article today reminds us that Nabokov’s son disobeyed his father’s final instruction and did not burn the manuscript of his last, unfinished novel, which will be published. Nabokov and Boodberg have a lot in common: both Russian expatriates, prodigiously learned and fluent in languages, both capable of thinking and writing that seems to surpass the comprehension, much less the emulation, of ordinary mortals.)

Addendum: Writing about Edward Schafer again (see Reminiscence 121 above for a long one on him) reminds me of something I left out when I wrote that one. Schafer never went to China, and it was mainly by his own choice—like Arthur Waley, who never went either, he was pessimistic about how much of the China he knew and loved (from Tang poetry and all his other literary informants) would still be there for him to see and experience. He was right, of course, there would have been very little. The Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China, which sponsored both the delegation trips I went on (the 1973 delegation led by Sherman Lee of “Archaeologists”—art history was not yet a discipline recognized in China—and the 1977 “Old Chinese Painting” delegation led by myself), would have been responsive to any workable plan for a delegation visit that he might have proposed. (Individual visits by U.S. scholars were not yet possible). But the proposal that Ed Schafer submitted to them--for a delegation led by himself, composed only of people whose company he could tolerate, and scheduled to visit only those places he chose, known from old poems, no factories, no collective farms—could never be accepted. When my delegation was in the planning stage, I proposed Ed Schafer to the Committee as our “China person”—a China specialist outside the discipline represented by the delegation, going along to fill them in on what they were seeing (it was actually a ruse to allow trips to China for specialists in fields that were not yet acceptable in China, such as History and Sociology.) And Ed was indeed invited officially to accompany us; but he turned us down. I didn’t know why until, some years later, I saw the letter he had written to the Committee explaining why he couldn’t accept our invitation—he could not imagine himself, he wrote, spending a whole month in the company of art historians, “entirely without intellectual stimulation.” Again, he was of course right, as always—our conversations would, for him, have been dreary and devoid of intellectual content.


Leonardo Olschki was born in Verona, Italy, in 1885. His higher
education was completed at Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in
1908. He became a lecturer and then professor at Heidelberg from
1909 until 1932, and taught as a visiting professor at Rome and at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore. From 1944 until quite recently he was
at the University of California. Olschki The Genius of Italy, published
in 1949, is a stimulating examination of Italian life, thought, and politics,
both past and present.

(Felix Rosenthal,Architecture, from web, 1999)
My decision not to sign was also bolstered by the fact that I was a nephew of Prof. Leonardo Olschki, and a close friend of Prof. Ernst Kantorovicz, both famous, totally apolitical scholars who eventually were among the final 18 non-signing holdouts. You will be amused by what my uncle answered to a letter from the Chancellor's Office asking him whether now that the unsavory episode was finished, he would like to teach again. He declined, citing his age--it had taken five years for the the court-ordered reversal. He added that the situation reminded him of an old Arabic proverb, that "it is the washed dog that smells the worst"!

^ Leonardo Olschki, "Asiatic Exoticism in Italian Art of the Early Renaissance" The Art Bulletin 26.2 (June 1944), pp. 95-106) p

Ernst Kantorovitch was another famous non-signer who left.

Leonardo Olschki created the idea that Renaissance science did not come fram a medieval tradition but was wholly new, springing from the vernacular tongue and from the work of technicians, artisans, engineers and artists who, as he clearly showed, were the real innovators, struggling with practical problems in the real world.

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