To the crows!

James Davidson

  • The Oldest Dead White European Males, and Other Reflections on the Classics by Bernard Knox
    Norton, 144 pp, £12.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 393 03492 5

A student of Classical literature who first learnt his principal parts and ablatives absolute in the classrooms of an undistinguished grammar school in London in the late Twenties finds himself over sixty years later an American citizen, described by Robert Fagles as ‘arguably the finest Classicist of our day’, by Peter Green as one his nation ‘ought to bronze’, and by Jasper Griffin as a man ‘one would like to have as a friend’. In his long career he has written on many subjects: scholarly articles on the heroes of Attic drama in its golden age, unsentimental reminiscences of the Spanish Civil War, accounts of sabotage behind the lines in Occupied France, and English poetry. Invited to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in Washington DC, he chose to speak about something of more immediate concern – campus politics. Taking as his title ‘The Oldest Dead White European Males’, Bernard Knox addressed the impact made on a conservative discipline of new methods and concerns: the anthropology-influenced work of the Paris circle of Pierre Vidal-Naquet and J.-P. Vernant, ‘militant feminists’ and political correctness.

On this side of the Atlantic the whole PC controversy is something of a phoney war, an attempt by right-wing bulls (the Sunday Times, for example) to reanimate the red rags that got them so worked up in the Eighties. The courses which have provided the main focus for debate in America have never really had a foothold in Britain: the so-called Great Books courses, which go under titles like ‘An Introduction to Western Civilisation’ or ‘Litterae Humaniores’, and are often compulsory for first-year university students. At their best they can be imaginative tours d’ horizon from Homer to Nietzsche, by way of Dante and Tolstoy, a critical genealogy of the ideas and assumptions which construct the Present. More usually, they represent a brisk exercise in joining up the geniuses.

The reason these courses have not hitherto gained much ground in Britain may well be our specialist and amateur traditions, which supposed, on the one hand, that no one could properly understand a text of Plato until he had mastered Denniston’s Greek Particles, and on the other, that the kind of general knowledge of Plato that a non-Classicist might need could be taken for granted. It is one of the ironies of the current debate that the existence of the Great Books in the curriculum of American universities derives precisely from the democratising ideology of the great educators of the early part of the century, determined that the upper slopes of Western culture should not be the privilege of a tiny few.

Suddenly, as the Mother of All Canons, Classics has become a controversial subject in itself. In The Oldest Dead White European Males (published here with two other lectures on the Classical tradition, composed for similarly grand occasions) Knox addresses the complaints of the reformers: it is hard to think of anyone better qualified to talk about the state of the Humanities. He is not only a scholar and essayist, but also an energetic proselytiser, heavily involved in the kind of mighty summary tomes whose position on university curricula has been causing such bother. At the same time, he enjoys the radical credentials of one who fought against the Fascist Right in the Thirties and Forties. Reading this latest volume, I thought of the occasion, recounted in his superb collection of Essays Ancient and Modern (1989), when, newly arrived in Madrid as part of an International Brigades, he was posted to defend the City University from Franco’s troops and found himself with a machine-gun of First World War vintage, standing in front of a building inscribed Filosofía y Letras. ‘No one in modern America is a more effective defender of humane studies and humane values,’ intones the dust-jacket.

The image is seductive but not really appropriate. Knox is not a reactionary defending the citadel of learning from the barbarians at the gate, but an unstuffy fan of Greek writers. His tone is conciliatory as well as combative. He objects strongly to the way the Classics have been forced into the role of ‘emblems of reactionary conservatism’. The Greeks are movers and shakers, a source of inspiration to innovators, radicals and revolutionaries. The theme is enlarged in another lecture reprinted here, in which Knox argues that the ancient origin of the kind of education that used to be called liberal, with its texts and canons, its exchanges of ideas, its scepticism, its Sophists, Rhetors and Academies, is inextricably bound up with the needs of citizenship in a great radical democracy such as Athens.

The case is well-argued, but I doubt it will satisfy either the Classicists or the multiculturalists. The Classicists will point out that the Sophists were not designing an education for a democracy but were themselves itinerant players, stopping off occasionally in Athens to divert the idle sons of the rich, en route to the more sumptuous table of a Thessalian princeling. Again, rhetoric may have been born in a democracy (in Sicily, however, not Athens) but it quickly adapted to other roles. The founders and early pioneers, Gorgias, Antiphon, Lysias and Isocrates, were speechwriters or exhibitionists, who at best took no part in democracy and at worst actively campaigned for its overthrow. It is paradoxical but undeniable that although Athens was an astonishingly democratic city, many of the authors whose works form the corpus of Classical literature were openly contemptuous of that city’s form of government, some were overtly hostile, and all manifest a fear, which scarcely falls short of terror, of innovation and upheaval. Revolutionaries they are not. For the multiculturalists, on the other hand, Knox’s characterisation of the Greeks looks too much like myth-making for a free-market view of the Western tradition, in which competition, democracy and innovation form a Holy and Undivided Trinity presiding over European civilisation. Contrasting the Greeks with the civilisations of the East (‘magnificent but static’), Knox comes within spitting distance of the Oldest White European Prejudice, the myth of the indolent Oriental languishing in slavishness, a construction put in its place some time ago by Edward Said.

Knox is on much stronger ground in dealing with the intellectual reappraisal of the ancient world which goes hand in hand with the multicultural perspective. He is generous in his praise of the Paris School, but warns against taking the anthropological approach too far. His admonitions are justified. To open a recent book on the ancient world is sometimes like sharing in the exhilaration of a lunar landing. The scholars approach the Greeks like visitors from space, moon-walking through strange and unfamiliar environments, occasionally distracted by something which seems recognisable, only to find on examination that it, too, is in fact peculiarly alien. This Martian perspective exhibits both the influence of anthropology, attempting to replicate in Classical Studies the distant gaze long turned on the peoples of Papua New Guinea, and the inspiration of Foucault, with his still potent concept of human intellectual history as a succession of discrete epistemes, constructing out of discourse their own impeccable worlds separated from each other by gulfs of what can and cannot be said.

An assumption of differences has, to be fair, produced some great advances in understanding many aspects of the ancient world. For too long Classicists, by relying on their own intuition and personal experience to unravel the texts and images that found their way into their museums and libraries, produced distinctly anachronistic conclusions. In the case of Greek religion, for instance, the result of jettisoning Christianising concepts of belief and sacrifice has led to a revolution in our appreciation of ancient rituals and piety.

The effort required to look afresh at the ancient world each time you find yourself confronted by its artefacts in many cases proves too great, however, and the differentness of another culture is caricatured as its Otherness. Antiquity is constructed as a looking-glass world, a mirror-image of the present, its profile reversed, its features hollowed, its vacuums filled, as if it were a Rachel Whiteread sculpture. Often this is achieved by means of a rhetoric of wonder and astonishment which, as Stephen Greenblatt has observed of travellers in the New World, is invoked at precisely those occasions when things begin to look uncomfortably familiar. Knox cites and dismisses an example which tries to prove that there is no concept of ‘the mind’ in Homer, but the most spectacular instance of this process of Otherising has occurred in recent studies of Greek sexuality. When the phenomenon of homosexuality was first commonly recognised and talked about in the 19th century, the Greek example was crucial in framing the terms of discussion. In the last few years, however, there has been a race to put as much distance as possible between the Greeks and the modern ‘homosexuality’ they helped to construct. ‘There is no such thing as Greek homosexuality,’ says one authority. ‘There is no such thing as Greek sexuality,’ trumps another. What they had instead, apparently, was ‘a more generalised ethos of penetration and domination’, a conclusion which reflects the authors’ own very 20th-century ideas and anxieties about the nature of sexual intercourse, rather than anything to be found in the ancient world. After all, the Greeks’ equivalent of ‘Fuck you!’ is ‘To the crows!’

It is one of the paradoxes of modern studies of antiquity that despite all the new methods and perspectives available to Classicists, the overall view of the ancient world and its peoples is often less nuanced than it was a few decades ago. The Martian perspective oversimplifies not only ancient culture but our own, so that comparison turns into polarisation, the gap unbridgeable and unimaginable. If strangeness is pushed too far, the salutary jolt of seeing familiar things done differently produces only a gasp of incomprehension. The effect of alienation, as Knox points out, is to purify us of complicity in ancient vices, as if we are aeons away from its oppressive practices instead of only a few days or decades.

The controversy over the canon should perhaps be seen as a sign of vigour rather than as a portent of cultural crisis. The canon has certainly been with us for a long time, ever since Homer became ‘the poet’, at least. No literature since then has been written outside its shadow. Far from stifling innovation, it stimulates change. The history of culture does not resemble a stream of emanations from an unchallenged canonical centre, but a series of movements to occupy that centre from those confined to the margin. We have all been, in our time, beyond the Pale. Even Greek tragedy can be seen as an attempt by Athenian dramatists to write Athens into the heroic world from which Homer and the pan-Hellenic epic cycles had conspicuously omitted them. This is why so many Athenian plays work rather like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, turning exits into entrances and entrances into exits. In the Oresteia and Oedipus at Colonus we see off-stage become centre-stage, long-running dynastic sagas of Mycenae and Thebes brought to resolution in tranquil Attica far from their royal capitals. With all its action out of sight and in the messenger’s speech, Athenian drama enacts and re-enacts the absence of Athens from the scene of epic and at the same time earns a place for the city alongside epic in the canon. Canons evolve. The current controversy over the curriculum is part of that evolution. It is only when the canon is unchallenged that it becomes an impediment.

As for the Western tradition itself, do we have to choose between seeing the Greeks as our ancestral founders, on the one hand, or as aliens, on the other? Can we not find resonances in the ancient world without having to ascribe them to the continuity of a great tradition or to human universals? Another episode from Knox’s biography comes to mind. The war is almost over. He is stationed in the mountains with the Italian partisans. Taking shelter from gunfire in a ruined house, he comes across a gilt-edged volume of Virgil among the broken bricks and mortar. The inscription states that it was issued by the Royal Italian Academy ‘On the orders of Mussolini’. He remembers that in the Middle Ages Virgil was considered to have been a great magician, and used to foretell the future – Virgil’s lottery, the Sors Virgiliana. He opens the book at random and lets his finger fall haphazardly on the page. It finds the last lines of the First Georgic, a grim sketch of the world turned upside down by war. It speaks to him not of the future but of the present, with an immediacy that startles him. He resolves to resume his studies as soon as the war is over.

The artefacts of the ancient world stumble upon different meanings in new locations. In the hands of a medieval bibliomancer Virgil’s Opera Omnia can be a window on the future; in Mussolini’s schools it is a monument to a glorious imperial past. Many different voices from the ancient world survive haphazardly and incompletely into the present. Here, haphazardly and incompletely, they find resonances: in the universities of the West, perhaps; in the theatres of the West End, possibly; or even in the religious festivals of South India. Sometimes these fragments can be joined with other fragments to make what looks like a coherent conversation. We imagine we can pick out the dominant arguments. We can sense a particular theme. But very often the structures we apprehend aren’t really there at all. The ‘Classical tradition’ is a Sors Virgiliana; sometimes its magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.