Not You

Mary Beard

  • 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.

These arguments set the pattern for the future. Classicists ever since – from medieval monks, through Renaissance humanists, to the present day – have simultaneously struggled to rescue the traditions of Greco-Roman culture from oblivion, lamented their own inadequacy to the task and wondered whether the whole business was really worth it. (If there was something admirable in ancient civilisation, was it not to be found – to follow Tacitus – in richer measure among us barbarians?) They have also wallowed in high-minded nostalgia. For, ever since the Romans (who somewhat ambivalently took over the guardianship of classical Greek culture when they conquered the country), it has been an underlying tenet of most classical scholarship that the present generation is strikingly less capable than its predecessors at the job of preserving and passing on the great tradition: that ‘we’, unlike our illustrious forebears, are simply not up to it.

Various contemporary British versions of these claims are well known: fewer people now study Latin or Greek at school; those who do are so inadequately trained that they are, in practice, incapable of reading even the simplest ancient texts without a crib; and the classical ‘profession’ itself – its teachers and writers – has lost the direction, purpose and consensus that defined (say) its Victorian ancestor. In fact, of course, similar laments about ‘standards’ can be found in the academic politics of the late 19th century, when the translations set in examinations for the élite minority that were Cambridge undergraduates hardly suggest the kind of widespread superfluency in reading Latin and Greek that our modern mythology imagines. As for consensus within the Victorian profession, you need only dip into the decades of controversy over whether Greek was to remain a compulsory requirement for a Cambridge degree, to glimpse a group no less divided than ourselves on all the central issues: who should learn dead languages? What is the point of doing so? How is the classical tradition to be ranked against other claims on our cultural and educational time? Does it, after all, deserve to survive?

The essays collected in Compromising Traditions reflect some of the conventional nostalgia for a lost consensus and for a profession that once upon a time knew where it was going, and (crucially) why it was going there. But the contributors are also engaged, and more obviously, in a different kind of lamentation about recent trends in classical scholarship, focusing particularly on what they see as the appropriation of the tradition by a dominant school of élitist and conservative scholars (to be found, for the most part, in Oxbridge and its German equivalents), and on the effect of that appropriation on how we write and think about the ancient world. The best-known version of this approach is Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, his sometimes brilliant, more often wilfully obtuse, exploration of the various forms of racism embedded within classics as a discipline. In Compromising Traditions (a collection of essays deriving from major – now notorious – panels at classical conferences in both the US and the UK), the target is more specifically the rhetoric of classical scholarship, and the politics of how (as much as what) we write about antiquity and its literature. In a distinctively late 20th-century gloss on the routine pessimism of the profession, ‘we’ are judged to fail in our obligations to the great tradition simply because of the way ‘we’ write.

Underlying most of the essays are three very simple claims. First, in everything they write as professionals, classicists are taught to efface their individuality and to adopt the single ‘impersonal voice authorised by the academy’ (no ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘you’, the doctoral supervisor insists). Second, career advancement goes hand in hand with suppressing autobiography, with spurious pledges of objectivity and with silencing any hint of a first-person response to the ancient literature they read and teach (no personal anecdotes and plenty of opaque footnotes cross-referencing a lot of other literature you’ve probably never read – otherwise you won’t get a job). Third, the effect of this obsessive depersonalisation is not only to impoverish contemporary interpretations of ancient texts but also to marginalise the discordant voices (of women, gays, blacks, the working class), whose autobiographical ‘I’ is rarely heard and even more rarely published. In the UK, according to Susanna Morton Braund, this whole orthodoxy is held in place by the dominant traditions of Oxbridge, ‘a pair of archaic institutions which continue to show themselves lamentably incapable of even beginning to diversify the sorts of voices heard’. In the United States the villains, if I follow Judith Hallett correctly, are the immigrants from classical departments in Europe, whose stranglehold on prestigious jobs, and so also on the definition of ‘standards’, has largely prevented the development of an authoritatively American voice in classics.

None of this is quite so silly as it first appears. As the editors stress, discussion of the role of the ‘personal voice’ has been part of the critical repertoire of other literary disciplines for several years: Nancy Miller’s Getting Personal (1991) is cited repeatedly throughout the book and there is plenty of new material of this kind in H. Aram Veeser’s collection, Confessions of the Critics (which also, broadmindedly, includes a spirited attack on this whole critical trend – ‘re-enacting the hubris of the Romantics’ – by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese). It may well indeed be high time that classical scholarship, too, thought harder about the kinds of voice it chooses to hear (or to speak with). When Braund, for example, chooses to admit that she would rather read A.S. Byatt than the American Journal of Philology, or Charles Rowan Beye claims ‘that articles in classical journals are more often than not dreary’, it is hard not to agree with them (even though some classicists might not unreasonably object that to be boring is not necessarily bad). Nor are the contributors, as a group, naively committed to some party line of autobiographical criticism. In fact, Beye’s neatly sceptical essay effectively pulls the plug on the first article in the book – in which Thomas van Nortwick offers a touching, but nugatory, reading of the character of Odysseus against his own background as the son of an alcoholic mother. (‘If you cannot keep your parent from drinking, at least you can try to keep yourself safe ... In short, you can become a little Odysseus, lying, disguising your true self.’) And some of the more interesting contributions (by Charles Martindale, for example, and Vanda Zajko) take the time to reflect on the perils of writing about oneself, and on how far the written self must inevitably be a rhetorical construct, no matter how many first-person verbs or direct invocations to the reader you choose to throw around.

There are, in other words, virtues in some of the arguments raised here; and most classicists could well take note. But at the same time there is so much special pleading, and so many historical misreadings of classics as a discipline, that, for all their best intentions, the contributors consistently lose sight of the real issues: what is to count as a ‘personal voice’? How do you recognise it when you read it? And what of the ‘personal voice’ that you would rather not hear?

Let me start (from home) with the role of Oxbridge classics as the dominant force in sustaining, as Braund depicts it, the impersonal voice of the academy, and at the same time excluding ‘the previously unheard voices, e.g. women or people of colour’. A plausible enough claim, maybe, if you focus solely (as she does) on the employment patterns in each of the two universities (three and a half women out of nearly thirty on the faculty at Cambridge; not very many more at Oxford); and plausible enough, too, if you resolutely refuse to mention the countless heterodox marginals and radicals – from Erasmus to Moses Finley – that Oxbridge classics has always found the space to listen to and promote.

But Braund has a problem even within the limited terms of her own argument. For ‘the single most striking challenge to the orthodoxy’ of classical writing in this country has come, so she claims, from John Henderson – an Oxbridge man, in one way or another, for most of the last thirty years. Helpfully (‘in case you are not familiar with John Henderson’s approach’), both she and Martindale quote extensive passages of ‘the Hendersonian voice’ (Martindale’s phrase) – to reveal its obscenities, its conversational style, its questions and exclamations, its puns. Is this, then, a personal voice of the kind we are supposed to be looking for? No, concludes Braund, ‘his voice is as much a construct as is the depersonalised voice validated by the academy.’ And besides, she continues, it comes ‘from a white, middle-aged, middle-class male who writes from one of the securest positions ... from King’s College, Cambridge’. Never mind that other contributors to the volume come close to admitting that any written voice is a ‘construct’. Never mind that, by my calculations, Henderson wrote both the articles quoted in Compromising Traditions in his thirties (which I, at any rate, have long ceased to count as ‘middle-aged’). More important is the covert closure underpinning the definition of ‘personal voice’ that is revealed in Braund’s aside. Would Henderson’s voice have been more personal if he had been writing in his twenties? Would it have counted if he had not been in Cambridge? Or if he were a female? On Braund’s definition could anyone in Oxbridge ever get ‘personal’? Who decides what counts as ‘personal’ anyway? (These are questions unwittingly faced by Hallett, too, when she tells the story of being insultingly introduced to a graduate student by a senior colleague as ‘Judy Hallett, a prominent hostess’. She appears to treat this as an example of generic sexism within the profession; it might well, of course, be an example of a highly ‘personal voice’ – of well-targeted rudeness.)

Throughout Compromising Traditions there is a strong sense that (Oxbridge apart) what is supposed to characterise personal writing is the use of the autobiographical ‘I’, combined with a strong emphasis on sexuality and on certain sorts of life history and its traumas. As described, it also seems regularly to involve a degree of heroism in challenging the conventions of depersonalisation: for Vando Zajko (according to Braund) it was being ‘a junior, untenured lecturer ... standing up there in front of them and talking about her clitoris’; for Charles Martindale it was giving a seminar (and writing an article) on Virgil which made direct reference to his own ‘mental collapse’. In taking this line of argument, many of the contributors are seriously guilty of undervaluing the distinctive individuality of much of their own writing (no one else could possibly have written the essay by Martindale in this volume, and it doesn’t need the autobiographical tale to tell the careful reader so). And at the same time they are committed to leaving out of their picture any classical or other academic writing before the present decade – none of which can possibly compete in these particular autobiographical terms. Of course, it may be convenient to ascribe the origin of the personal voice in academic prose to the early Nineties; but it makes for a strangely impoverished reading of a great deal of the most notable classical scholarship both of this century and before.

Studies of ancient history as well as ancient literature have regularly been distinguished by a peculiarly strong sense of personal engagement. True, there are all kinds of generic ‘constraints’ at work. The point about genre, however, is not that it inevitably submerges the individual voice, but that it can offer different frames for ‘getting personal’ outside the single (and ultimately generic) mode of the first-person pronoun. It is hard to read almost anything written by Ronald Syme, for example, from The Roman Revolution to History in Ovid, without recognising its intensely personal and sometimes political charge; the same could also be said of Finley on slavery or democracy, of Geoffrey de Ste Croix on The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World or even of the triumphant, subversive and witty index (sic) of Keith Hopkins’s Death and Renewal. The simple fact that none of these (not even Hopkins) passes the clitoris test does not deny them a recognisably ‘personal voice’.

‘Part of the trouble,’ concludes Martindale (à propos some rather coy remarks by a distinguished modern commentator on Horace’s love poetry), ‘may be that scholarship and sex make uneasy bedfellows.’ After reading Compromising Traditions it is hard to resist the conclusion that sex and scholarship go together much too easily; and that by identifying the ‘personal’ in classical scholarship so closely with the ‘sexual’, the contributors have occluded all kinds of other ways of understanding the operation of the ‘self’ in the day-to-day business of ‘being a classicist’. For the vast majority of us, after all, the most intimate, personal moments which define how we think and feel about ourselves, all defences down, are not bedroom moments at all (where there is, at least, someone else to share – however inadequately – what is going on); they are those much more intensely private moments that we spend alone, moments in front of a computer screen, moments of writing that are not remotely shareable, and whose processes strain any kind of understanding we have of ourselves and our ability even to begin to describe what is happening to us as we produce the words.

For all their stress on the rhetoric of the self, not one of the contributors to Compromising Traditions ends up with anything of interest to say about how we read or write. This is partly because they have seen the problem of the personal voice largely in the terms set by such critics as Nancy Miller and Jane Gallop (one of whose books depicts its author giving birth on the front cover – as an advertisement for its personal credentials). It could have been a different story if they had turned instead to someone like Marcel Bénabou, a professor of ancient history at the University of Paris VII and Definitively Provisional Secretary of the OuLiPo. His wonderfully self-ironising Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books turns precisely on the writer’s construction of his private experience, of his struggles with his syllables, of his waste paper, even of his dreams; a self-defined (non-) book made all the funnier and more pointed for any classicist by the knowledge that Bénabou himself is in fact the author of a very long book indeed, on North African resistance to Roman Imperialism. The question remains – not to fall into the obvious trap – which of these is Bénabou’s more ‘personal voice’.

But suppose the shifting playfulness of the OuLiPien proves far too shifting to take. Then even the apparently depersonalised voice of the traditional academy may bring more insights into the personal practice of reading and writing than the fashionably customised voice extolled in Compromising Traditions.