- Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship edited by J.P. Hallett and T. van Nortwick
Routledge, 196 pp, £42.50, November 1996, ISBN 0 415 14284 9
For more than two thousand years, classical culture – as a set of institutions and as a way of life – has been lamenting its own imminent extinction. By inventing the idea of ‘barbarity’ to be the antitype of their own ‘civilised’ values, the ancient Greeks prompted the fear that those barbarians (real or, for the most part, imaginary) would sooner or later triumph. And, eventually, the more interesting ancient intellectuals (notably the Romans) went one step further: to speculate on the inner corruption of classical civilisation as they knew it, and to play with the awful paradox that real barbarity lay in their own midst, while the savages at their margins were the true inheritors of civilised classical values. When Tacitus wrote his study of the tribes of Germany at the end of the first century CE, he was using the noble barbarians as a stick with which to beat the decadence of his fellow Romans.
Vol. 19 No. 3 · 6 February 1997
Like Mary Beard in her review of Compromising Traditions (LRB, 23 January), I have reservations about the way the distinction between the personal and the non-personal is made by some contributors to the volume (indeed this is the subject of the first part of my own essay). Nonetheless the content and tone of her piece had the effect of making me increasingly sympathetic even to the less sophisticated proponents of personal voice criticism. In the list of contributors Beard (or the editor) offers this ironised (self-) description: ‘Mary Beard is a middle-aged, middle-class, white female, who writes from one of the securest positions within the academy: Newnham College, Cambridge.’ The irony backfires, and it is all too fatally easy to see this as a precise, un-ironic characterisation of the voice that speaks (or is spoken) within the review. This voice displays a mandarin complacency about issues of hegemony, is parochially obsessed by the importance of Cambridge and one particular classicist there, and seems utterly incapable of problematising its own stance and sense of cultural superiority. Throughout Beard uses the academy and scholarship as powerful (if unexamined) signifiers with which to pour scorn on the unhip embarrassments of confessional writing. Of course she is right to say that the sexual is not necessarily the prime, or even a particularly important, site of the personal (a point made specifically both by myself and my colleague Dr Vanda Zajko). It is depressing to see women who describe themselves as feminists and who have reaped some of the benefits of feminism rubbishing the campaigns of the past that have helped make such successes possible. Beard scoffs at the (putative) application of the clitoris test by the youthful Zajko (a matter that does not feature in Zajko’s essay): but even in the enlightened West (maybe even in Cambridge) there are women for whom the clitoris is, with some reason, still an issue – so let us not be complacent about the clitoris.
University of Bristol