Don’t forget the primitive

Mary Beard

  • Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War by Dudley Young
    Little, Brown, 379 pp, £16.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 356 20628 9

The ‘Glory that was Greece’ has had a hard time recently. Big guns have been drawn up against our accustomed admiration of the Greek genius, our collusive Philhellenism. It is very heavy artillery indeed. First, Martin Bernal’s enormous Black Athena (two volumes already, with two more to come) – a brave piece of iconoclasm that questions not only the primacy of the Greek cultural achievement over its Near-Eastern, Semitic and African neighbours, but also the bigotry and racism sheltering under the authority of ‘traditional’ Classical scholarship. Now Dudley Young (in a more modest 350 pages) joins in the campaign – with a differently aimed, but equally impassioned, attack on ‘the Greeks’ as we think we know them.

For Young, the ‘achievements’ of Greek civilisation represent a final closure, not an inspirational beginning. Far from being the source of most things admirable in Western political and intellectual culture, Young’s Greeks bear the responsibility for effacing the deepest roots of human culture: ‘the primitive grammar of the sacred’, ‘the ecstasies of love and war’, the power of the female against male violence. Salvation for the human condition now rests entirely on our ability to look backwards to a time before the advent of Greek rationality; it relies on our collective psychic memory of those most distant, pre-Greek times – on not forgetting the primitive.

This line of argument results in some unfamiliar reversals of the standard story. The literature of fifth and fourth-century Athens, the high spot of ‘our’ Classical culture, is for Young as misleading as it is brilliant. Why, he asks, does this culture so insistently conceal from itself its roots, even its own practices? After all, we all know the blood-stained history of Greece; we all know that these ‘subtle and intelligent men’ were ‘more or less constantly at war’, that they were ‘persistently going off to butcher and die’. So ‘why did they not address the matter more forcefully in their remarkably articulate language?’ Why did ‘even the wise Aristotle fail to perceive the black hole in the story, something crucially unaccounted for?’ Because, in Young’s view, he was irremediably lost behind the veil of civilisation – a veil that for ever threatens to hide from view the inevitability of murderous sacrifice and of sacrificial warfare. Even Aristotle (or, perhaps, especially Aristotle) ‘was unable to crack the civilised code ... unable to unravel the dark secret of mutilation’.

Homer, too, is implicated – even if not so deeply – in this veiling of primitive reality. An important part of that reality lay in the conflict between the violence of the male and the lamentation of the female for the effects of that violence, ‘the conflict between the hunter-warrior and the woman who knows his folly (and must underwrite much of its cost)’. It is precisely that conflict that ought to be visible in the Odyssey, the poem not of war, but of the aftermath of war. Yet, despite the Odyssey’s ‘primitive vestiges’, despite the ‘repressed material, old and interesting’, that comes ‘struggling out’, the women are not given the voice to produce their proper lamentation. Penelope is ‘too good to be true’, with ‘tears not salty enough to find out the heart of the trouble’; Clytemnestra is the only one ‘who might be up to it’, but still ‘the poem draws back, as if sensing its inability to contain her voice, and writes her off as simply monstrous’. It is then, for Young, this Greek epic tradition that marks ‘Western man’s most decisive break with the primitive wisdom’ that Origins of the Sacred is trying to recapture.

Young does not, however, dismiss Greek culture as wholly unworthy of his, or our, attention. Quite the reverse. For all their attempted effacement of the primitive, it is to the Greeks – to the traces they did not eradicate – that we must turn if we want to understand the roots of our own humanity. Greek language, etymology, rituals, the scattered fragments of the Dionysiac tradition, may all play their part in this project of recuperation. In fact, Young laments the ‘decline’ of Hellenic studies in this country – and, with that decline, the loss of those collective dreams of the primitive past that we can experience only through the Greeks. ‘Some of our most important dreams,’ he writes, ‘are still in Greek keeping.’ But we are left in little doubt that ‘the Greek achievement’, as it is commonly understood, amounted to a dangerous rupture with human origins – that we should be directing our attention and admiration to what the Greeks did not achieve, to the primitive past that they did not succeed in obliterating.

Classicists, among others, are likely to find Bernal and Young as irritating as they are refreshing. Bernal in particular treats Classics as a discipline monolithic in its prejudices and bigotry – which is a plain insult to the many, radical scholars before him who have both recognised and distanced themselves from the ‘Aryan’ traditions of Hellenism. And both of them have a tendency to overrate their own novelty: it is the old trick of adopting some argument we know perfectly well already, pushing it a lot further than it really deserves to go, then presenting it back to us as if it were an intellectual breakthrough. Much of Young’s discussion of the effects of Greek ‘rationality’, for example, looks like a blown-up version of E.R. Dodds (The Greeks and the Irrational) – minus Dodds’s subtlety and (to be honest) intelligence. Nonetheless there is something exhilarating about the vigour with which both Bernal and Young attack that old, familiar myth of the Greeks – long overdue for dethronement.

Hellenic studies today are still for the most part underwritten by a romantic, Byronic attachment to Greek culture. That is not to say, of course, that all Classicists write with un critical admiration for their subject: ‘new wave’ Classics (as well as the best of the old) is distinguished by some decidedly unromantic treatments of Greek slavery, sexuality, cruelty and imperialism. All the same, the subject as a whole continues to find its legitimation (and its reading public) in that clear vision of Greece as our ultimate origin, as source of culture: whatever Western civilisation might be, whatever its discontents, it did after all start in Greece; to know Greece is to know ourselves and (contra Young) our own roots.

At best, this vision is a convenient half-truth – sometimes ably exploited. What country other than Greece would be able to muster such a respectable international crowd to advocate the return of its cultural treasures, for example? At worst, it is wildly misleading. Witness the current efforts of a group of distinguished Classicists, Greeks and Hellenophiles to turn the murky political reforms of the Athenian Kleisthenes (508/7 BCE) into the ‘origins’ of democracy as we know it – and then to make us ‘celebrate’ its 2500th anniversary with a series of books, conferences, television programmes, media events. A world democracy extravaganza even Eastern Europe can now join in – and it all started in Greece. It is a myth that we would probably be better without; and if Bernal and Young are playing their part in dismantling it (even at the cost of constructing a new Hellenic myth), then we should be prepared to forgive their anger, axe-grinding and exaggerations.

Young, however, has a much larger project in mind. He is not concerned (as Bernal is) simply to question the nature of ‘the Greek achievement’ and our understanding of it. For him, Greece is just one stop on the route of a much longer journey – humanity’s journey from ‘ape-hood’ to the present day, via love, hunting, violence, religion, power, shamanism, sacrifice, war. Much of the book, in fact, is set millennia before the Greeks, back in the jungle, watching the monkeys discover how to swing from tree to tree, walk upright and then painfully invent the full range of ‘human’ emotions. Here, for Young, is the real site of the primitive truth that he is attempting to recapture.

It is hard to assess the plausibility of all this, let alone its scientific accuracy. I am no more a trained physical anthropologist than Young himself, but my suspicion is that his vision of humanity’s jungle roots is ill-founded, if not completely mad. That said, he writes of our monkey forebears with such wit, self-irony and winning narrative that his whole story (however loony) makes a much better read than the sober, earnest David Attenborough-style version.

Take ‘brachiation’, for example – the ability that some monkeys acquired about 15 million years ago to swing from branch to branch by their arms. In just five pages Young persuades us not only that this must have been a crucial development (‘All the ape lines that have survived have been brachiators: i.e. all non-brachiating apes have become extinct. Very significant’), but also that it is much more complicated than it first appears. On the one hand, brachiation was a very unintelligent process (‘more like the acquisition of amazing gymnastic skills that will put off the dreadful day when we have to sit down and think about things’), but on the other, it required quite a lot of brainpower simply to carry out (‘And why is brachiation brainy? Because, as a trip to the zoo will suggest, it is very difficult accurately to assess the stability and measure the “distance off” of branches being used to support and propel four limbs moving at speed’). More to the point, though, brachiation changed the monkey’s view of the world, straightening his torso and so opening ‘a protected space in front of the eyes, where objects could be delicately presented for intimate consideration’. The end-result? ‘Brachiation may well have secured easier access to bananas, but the females also found it sexy; and so it was bound to prevail.’ Mad it may well be; embarrassingly deterministic. But Young writes with a directness that fixes brachiation (or whatever else he touches on) in the mind much better than the average television programme.

Overall the style of the book (its occasional sexual explicitness apart) is unnervingly Victorian. It is preoccupied with origins, universal explanations, with offering a compendium of all you need to know to understand man’s place in the world; and it is (probably) quite, quite wrong. All the 19th-century favourites are here – including, significantly, a long discussion of the strange practices of the sacred grove at Nemi (the starting-point of Frazer’s Golden Bough). I could not help but feel, in fact, that this is very much the kind of book that Frazer himself would have written, if only he had known more about the sexual life of chimps or the possibilities of brachiating from bough to bough. If Young has the good luck of Frazer, he may find his book suddenly in vogue; more likely, whatever its interest and qualities, the time for Origins of the Sacred is long past.