Straight Talk

Mary Beard

  • Marginal Comment by Kenneth Dover
    Duckworth, 271 pp, £20.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 7156 2630 2

‘All you need to do, if you want the nation’s press camped on your doorstep, is to say that you once had a wank in 1947.’ Alan Bennett’s remark is quoted with obvious feeling by Kenneth Dover in a late-inserted footnote to his autobiography, Marginal Comment. Someone, he explains, had leaked part of the typescript of his book to the Evening Standard, who, on the scent of celebrity masturbation, had splashed (under the headline ‘Oxford Don Takes Memoirs In Hand’) his account of a ‘strange occasion’ in 1944 in the Italian hills. The beauty of the day, the blue sky and the snow ‘struck directly at my penis, so I sat down on a log and masturbated; it seemed the appropriate response.’

Dover has since discovered, of course, that if you want not just the British press, but the New York Times, Washington Post and a selection of the world’s radio stations camped on your doorstep, all you need do is publicly admit to a strong sense of relief at the suicide of a troublesome academic colleague – as well as to a definite reluctance to rescue that colleague from his projected self-destruction. The story of murder in the quad – did Dover (then President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford) drive the vulnerable historian Trevor Aston to his grave? – has already become part of this book’s mythology. But, as far as I can see, Dover admits to little more than an unwillingness to strive officiously to keep the man alive – whatever has since been said. His much-quoted question (‘how to kill him without getting into trouble?’) is misleading: all he does is wonder whether he would be morally or legally obliged to take any action if Aston rang him to say that he had just taken an overdose. He would have been tempted to hang up: his lawyers advised otherwise.

Discussion of ‘the Aston affair’ has polarised opinion for and against (mostly against) Dover. The story has been told as a clash between the cold, calculating utilitarian (Dover) and the drunken, wayward, but ultimately well-meaning genius (Aston). If an excuse has been found for Dover (one of this century’s most distinguished Classical scholars), it has been in the overdeveloped rationality that Classicists are always liable to catch from their study of the Greek city state and its philosophy. But the sensationalism, and the strident defences of Aston, have tended to obscure the literary context of these ‘murderous revelations’. Almost all the discussion has neglected the extraordinary and puzzling nature of the autobiography of which ‘the Aston affair’ is only one small part.

On the other hand, the two stories (of masturbation and ‘murder’) are typical of the book as a whole. It is loaded with opinions and confessions that would be newsworthy on any account, but particularly when written by a man so influential in the British academic establishment: not only head of an Oxford college, but President of the British Academy, one time professor of Greek at St Andrews and could-have-been Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford (he was offered the post, but turned it down – leaving the job, as he tells us, to Hugh Lloyd-Jones, as second choice). A slightly maverick socialist most of his life, opponent to Thatcher (the only head of an Oxford college actually to sign the fly-sheet against her honorary degree), he nevertheless presents himself as an outspoken advocate of two unlikely political causes: the Falklands War and its conduct (‘the direction in which the bows of an enemy warship happen to be pointing at the moment of encounter cannot justify letting it go’) and capital punishment, which he would ‘be quite happy to see extended to the perpetrators of any long-planned and well-organised crime, including fraud’. (‘Hang Fraudsters, Says Top Don’ might just as well have been the headline.) He is equally outspoken in his support of ECT as treatment for depression, largely on the basis of its apparent success with his old undergraduate tutor, Russell Meiggs (‘a couple of days after each treatment he would suddenly resume a vigorous, cheerful personality, effervescing with good ideas’) and with his wife (‘ECT had a marvellous effect’), whose depressive illness he chronicles through the book.

Discussion of his own sexuality does not stop with long-ago stories of youthful masturbation in the Italian hills, nor with his even earlier attempts to learn the technique from an older boy at school, Alec, ‘a cheerful, tireless wanker’ who ‘evidently had a tough core because he won a DFC in the war’. One of the strangest passages, towards the end of the book, concerns his recent periods of impotence. Its occurrence is documented with scholarly precision, as are his reactions to what he sees as the withdrawal of his humanity along with his potency. He laments the insult apparently cast at his wife (‘Gandhi did not mind insulting his wife in that way, but I do’) and dwells on his plans for committing suicide. It all culminates in a bizarre day at the British Academy, hosting a lunch for the Minister of Higher Education: ‘I think I was pretty lively company ... but all the time I was on my own I was rehearsing in my mind a jump out of the train on the way back to Oxford.’ Actually he went to the doctor instead, and was reassured that the problem was likely to be intermittent. ‘No one, it seems ... can ever say with assurance, “That was my last fuck” ’; and, as if to prove the point, he comes out with the dates and places of recent successful erections – ‘Fresno 1990, Genoa 1993’.

In documenting these experiences Dover thinks he knows what he is doing: he is writing an explicitly experimental autobiography. In particular, he claims to be trying to explore ‘the interaction of the personal and the professional’ and to speak of those private areas (sex being only one) that are usually omitted, or glossed over, in academic autobiographies. He is laying down a direct challenge to the reader. If we are shocked or embarrassed by what we read, if we think that we would rather not know what he has to tell us, then we have already exposed the limitations of our own readiness to understand the different elements that together constitute a life such as his (or, by implication, our own). Dover’s position, in those terms, is irrefutable. Few people, after all, would deny that who you choose to go to bed with (or not) makes some difference to almost everything you think, do and write. The question is whether in Marginal Comment Dover actually manages to deliver the kind of analysis he promises.

The answer is probably not. One obvious problem is the sheer exhibitionism of the book, and the sense that even the displays of public humiliation (in the discussions of his impotence, for example) have been turned into a refined kind of boasting. Not that boasting on its own would matter too much, if it were part of an interesting analysis. But it simply is not. We never get any hint of how his feelings of sexual failure interacted with his academic projects and his wider working life (apart from being at the back of his mind during lunch with a minister). If he felt his humanity threatened, as he claims, what did that do to his writing, to his relations with his colleagues, or to his sense of the importance of his work? It is this sort of interaction that his opening chapter promises to explore. But by the end it is still disappointingly unclear how to relate most of these private revelations to any part of his academic or professional life.

This feeling of disappointment is heightened by two extraordinary omissions. First, there is almost nothing in the book about his daily working and writing practice (just a few sentences about overwork and exhaustion, and reference to a schedule for writing one book in 90 days – and actually finishing in something like half that time). Yet this is a man who has written a dozen major books, in a more than full-time teaching and administrative career, with what appears to have been only two terms of sabbatical leave. His personal and domestic life must have been centred on that time and space, hidden from the reader (and maybe, on some principle of self-censorship, from himself as well), in which he did his writing. Second, there is almost no sense of any feedback from his academic work into his private world. Dover’s career has been marked by a highly loaded choice of subjects (including major studies of Greek ethics and morality, and of Greek homosexuality), and occasionally he gives some hint as to why he chose the subjects he did. But he appears to have very little interest in the personal consequences of working for years on, say, Greek homoerotic practice, or in how any scholar might find themselves defined and changed by the subjects of their choice. It is as if, despite all the claims to a personal/professional perspective, he sees the end product of research not as a personal one at all, but as an academic job well done – whether it is on Greek sex or (as in an earlier Dover enterprise) the technicalities of Greek word order.

The real puzzle of Marginal Comment, though, lies in its rhetorical style. Dover is well known for his work on the fourth-century Greek orator Lysias, the plainest proponent of the plain style of speaking that there ever was; and it is very much a Lysian style that he adopts in this autobiography – apparently simple, clear, no nonsense (call a fuck a fuck), the straight talk of the common man. But the problem of the plain style (from Lysias on) has always been the degree of artfulness that it apparently artlessly conceals. Is it really clear and simple? Or is it using the rhetoric of simplicity to seduce, or tease, the reader yet more effectively than the flowery artifice of the high style? In this case, is the joke on the reader who takes Dover’s carefully crafted simplicity entirely without irony? Or on Dover, whose overwhelming commitment to plain, commonsensical prose turns out to be little short of crashing naivety, obscuring rather than explaining the difficult issues? Dover’s undoubted intelligence, as well as his training in Greek rhetoric, would suggest the former. The occasional trace of rigid literal-mindedness (would many people contemplating hanging up on a suicide call actually phone up their solicitor to check the legal position?) might suggest the latter.

A good test case is the opening to the chapter that deals with the faint traces of student unrest felt in Britain in 1968. It runs: ‘What with Humanae Vitae and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968 was not a good year for the world in general. For me, it was ameliorated by the publication of my commentary on Aristophanes’ Clouds and my book on Lysias, but aggravated by wear and tear on a vertebra.’ I find myself quite unable to decide whether this is a classic example of the kind of blind academic self-aggrandisement that is quite happy to put the outbreak of war into pretty much the same sentence as a bad back and a couple of new publications or an ironic parody of precisely such self-aggrandisement. I hope (though sadly doubt whether) it is the latter; and, if it is, that might encourage us to look more carefully for the irony in the story of the Aston affair, rather than take its plain-style murder narrative, unreflectively, at face value. But time and again the impossibility of ‘fixing’ the level of irony in Dover’s stories frustrates the reader, while at the same time engaging her in reflecting on the nature of his autobiographic enterprise.

Marginal Comment will almost certainly become a major source for the history of Classics, and of university life in general, in the second half of the 20th century. Dover himself recognises that role for the book, if only incidentally, and the title itself pushes us in that direction. As a comment on Dover’s own marginality it is preposterous (whatever he claims to feel, Dover has not been marginal in anything since 1932, his first term at St Paul’s, when he had to go into the class for boys with no Greek). But it inevitably evokes the title of Maurice Bowra’s On Greek Margins. Bowra, half a generation earlier than Dover (he was still around to want the Oxford chair that Dover was offered), also head of a college (Wadham), also the writer of autobiography (essentially a collection of names and conversations dropped), was a Classicist of a very different type from Dover, still in the pre-war, laid-back, Oxbridge mould. The title’s implied reference to Bowra is also an implied reference to the history of a subject whose aims, and practitioners, have changed beyond recognition over the last fifty years.

Dover makes it clear that his model for university teaching comes, in several important respects, from his wartime experience as a young officer in the artillery. It was here that he learnt (sometimes in spite of his seniors) the virtues of comradeship and co-operation across the ranks, which have in many ways been his trademark even at the very top of the academic profession: he has always been ‘one of the lads’, well (and deservedly) liked, ready to fill a gap in the teaching, go on the counselling course, help out students, teachers and college staff alike. It was also here, he suggests, that he learnt what good teaching was, and how to enjoy it. The standards of instruction in the gunnery schools were high and he found that he had the talent to explain ‘ballistics, explosives and anti-aircraft predictors to NCOs who had left school at 14 with no more than a basic knowledge of arithmetic’. By the end of the war he knew that he could explain anything to anyone who was prepared to listen.

This, of course, is Dover’s weakest spot: the confusion of university teaching and gunnery instruction. Drilling the principles of Greek grammar may be appropriate to the methods of the army classroom. But to help young people explore for themselves the strange, foreign cultures of Greece and Rome is an activity which ought to bear as little resemblance as possible to explanations of the workings of a gun. Dover’s mechanistic model (which he never stops to query) may help to account for another striking omission in the autobiography. We hardly ever hear of any pupils, beyond one or two notable undergraduates, including Bernard Williams, to whom he taught prose composition (translation from English into Greek). There is no sense whatever, in the book at least, of an intellectual descent group, of graduate students and younger colleagues, whose ways of understanding the Ancient World were owed to their interaction and debate with him. The gunnery school may have a lot to answer for.

For all Dover’s evident commitment to promoting Classics, Marginal Comment may well come to be seen as the book that finally marked their departure from the centre of the cultural stage in this country. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn not only with Bowra (whose memoirs are almost offensively scattered with the names of the poets, writers and artists of his generation), but also with E.R. Dodds (Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford between 1936 and 1960) whose autobiography Missing Persons rather outclasses Dover in subtlety, style and reticence. Dodds was a much nicer person than Bowra, but (with as little name-dropping as is feasible in an autobiography) he writes extensively of his relations with Auden, Eliot, MacNeice (whom he appointed to a lectureship in Classics at Birmingham) and Yeats. Dover, by contrast, appears to know no one outside academic life, with the exception of his own family and the odd Presbyterian minister. This may be just a personal difference; Dover may simply not have the same interests as Bowra and Dodds. But it is more likely that there is a wide change here; that the growing professionalisation of Classics has removed it decisively from its place in the wider, non-university, intellectual culture of Britain.

The clearest sign of this comes in another of Dover’s footnotes. He quotes with some disapproval a ‘scholar’ who described Greek civilisation as ‘unimaginably alien’. (Dover’s own view is that it is quite ‘similar enough to ours to be intelligible’.) He seems, significantly, to have forgotten that the person he is (slightly mis-)quoting is Dodds’s friend, Louis MacNeice:

It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.