Sunday, 15 January 2017

Spartacus' Morphing Politics in Dark Times

The weather is always appropriately dank and bitter on 15th January,  the anniversary of the brutal 1919 murders, by the far-right proto-Nazi volunteer Freikorps, of the Spartacists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their Spartacus League took its name after splitting from the Social Democratic Party, which had supported imperial Germany’s declaration of war. But I’ve never been able to discover whether it was Rosa or Karl or indeed their colleague Clara Zetkin—a trained Classics teacher—who chose the identification with the ancient Thracian slave.

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Spartacus, as he is admiringly portrayed in Plutarch’s Life of Crasssus, was adopted as ancestral hero of single-issue Abolitionists when Guillaume Raynal asked in 1770,  ‘Where is this great man to be found? Where is the new Spartacus who will not find Crassus?'  His plea seemed to be answered when Toussaint Louverture, aka The Black Spartacus, successfully led the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti. British children were introduced in 1822 to the paradigmatic classical proto-Abolitionist via Spartacus: A Roman Story, by Englishwoman Susanna Strickland (later to migrate to Canada, campaign against U.S. slavery and find fame as Susanna Moodie).

But Spartacus did not mutate from campaigner against slavery into campaigner against capitalist oppression of workers until three decades later. The individual responsible seems to have been Ernest Jones, Anglo-Welsh but Berlin-born Chartist friend of Marx and Engels. He founded the short-lived weekly journal Notes to the People (1851-2). Its fiftieth edition kicked off a three-part serial The Gladiators of Rome, narrating Spartacus’ revolt but turning it into a paradigm of principled popular working-class uprising against the super-rich. 

'Mugshot' of Chartist Jones
This was a radical move, since the Chartists and other working men’s organisations had traditionally been suspicious of the anti-slavery societies whose hero was Spartacus: the British working class thought that the Abolitionists were privileged do-gooders crassly neglecting the exploitation of white workers in their own back yard.

Spartakusbund attacks 3-headed hydra of capitalism
By January 1st 1916, when the Spartakusbund became official, Spartacus had therefore been a proto-socialist for a lifetime. And 1916 was the year when Kirk Douglas was born—the actor who impersonated Stanley Kubrick’s rousing Spartacus in 1960.

Draba selflessly spares Spartacus' life
The politics of that film are stupefyingly confused: there are good reasons for interpreting it as simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Christian-Evangelical, pro-civil-liberties and homophobic, as Anti-McCarthyite but Anti-Soviet but Pro-Trade-Union.  It has one great scene for an African American actor (Woody Strode as Draba) but otherwise presents Spartacus’ fellow slaves as whiter than white. Let us not even talk about the women. 

On reflection, it seems a suitable enough film for the current bewildering political climate. Margarethe von Trotta's heartbreaking 1986 movie Rosa Luxemburg  suggests the politics of oppression are refreshingly straightforward but sadly doesn't seem to be on Netflix. So Spartacus sounds like a plan for this winter afternoon.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Can the Left Appreciate Literature? A Reply to the Alt-Right of Classics

J. Duban
I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre. Duban is an embittered person who left an apparently unsuccessful academic career for the law. He has published a volume ostensibly about Sappho so hefty that I plan to put it on the tea-towel when I am next squeezing water out of aubergines to make moussaka.

My first reaction to the proposal was to turn it down. The most painful aspect of the book is its (almost) unbelievably reactionary position on literature in general and ancient Greek poetry in particular. Duban is convinced that The Classics belong to a favoured few Very Intelligent People Like Himself and that nobody else has any right to study, translate or pollute them by any form of contact whatsoever. He particularly singles out for vilification ‘modern’ Greeks, ‘triumphalist feminists’, adult learners and ‘amateur’ classicists without expensive private educations. Yum.

My second response was to write a temperate review simply pointing out the (several) scholarly errors and (many) blind prejudices. But I felt as though I was using a nuclear warhead to destroy a hamster.

So in the end I decided to do something which I don’t usually approve of—use the space in the Times Literary Supplement to explore an issue which is of interest to me, and none at all, I suspect, to the writer of the book I was supposed to be reviewing.

The single merit of Duban’s work, it seem to me, is that he really, really, likes poetry and isn’t ashamed to say that some literature is really, really good. And it has always bothered me that the scholars most politically opposed to Dubanic elitism, those on the Left, not only in Classics but in all fields where artworks are discussed, are terrified of talking about beauty, sublimity, and artistic value.

'Freddie, I think Aeschylus is great and will tell you why after the revolution'
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels inconsiderately did not develop an aesthetic theory because they had more urgent things to do, like liberate the global working class. Subsequent Left critics have struggled to create an adequate theory of artistic excellence. Talking about literature in terms of its dialectical relationship with class and other socio-politico-economic categories (of which I’ve done a lot myself) is essential, but it’s not the whole story.

The only reason why it matters what literature says about society is that it can have an extraordinarily powerful psychological, emotional and therefore social effect. Pleasure, exaltation and excitement are political. We need to work on a Left-wing way of talking about the things which cause some art to make your hair stand on end, so we can really put the Dubans of this world in their place and not let the Devil get all the best literary-critical tunes. 

The review is published behind a pay wall but you can download the pdf from the news column of my personal website here. Duban is known for his trenchant public statements: I don’t know whether I want him to write to the TLS to complain about it or not.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Frogs v. Absolute Monarchs at Versailles

Yesterday, thanks to my French-resident big sister Nicky Nicholson, I came face-to-face with the class war in France. On a trip to Versailles, we saw the Latona fountain shooting its jets of water into the winter sunshine. Its labouring peasants are back, being turned into frogs in perpetuity. They were punished for questioning Leto/Latona’s right to demand their clean water for her children, one of whom was Apollo, the avatar of Louis XIVth, the Sun King himself.

Latona & the Frogs by David Teniers
As tasteless as everything else in Versailles’ 2,000-acre testimonial to economic exploitation of the under-classes, the fountain has recently been put back in action after a lengthy restoration. It transfixes in lead, marble and gilt this ancient parable of cosmic hierarchy told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.

Frogification in Teniers' painting
Lizards and turtles set the watery theme at ground level. Next come the peasants undergoing metamorphosis, and multiple rows of frogs. Latona, mother of the Sun King, stands on the summit, oblivious of their suffering. She gazes west towards the next massive fountain, which portrays her son in his adult glory, perpetually arising at dawn in Apollo’s magnificent chariot.

Thirsty Versailles Peasant-Frog
The don’t-get-above-your-station message of the Latona story had been a favourite of absolute monarchs with a 'divine right' to rule for centuries before Louis XIVth. It unsurprisingly fell out of favour in the Age of Revolution. But we could bring it back, with fountains in cities across the world portraying the international super-rich and their financial-‘industry’ lackeys lording it over the rest of us frog-people.

The ultimate irony is that it was lack of clean water for the lower orders, not for the aristocracy, which was one cause of the 1789 revolution. Louis-Sébastien Mercier advised his readers  at that time not to stop drinking water from the Seine: ‘Some say it loosens your bowels, but I drink it every day, and I’ve never suffered anything like that. But then I let it stand for a while. That way the filth settles at the bottom.’ I wish the same could be said of human filth in our political systems. A trenchant Greek proverb gets it right: 'It is not only ducks which float upon the water.'
In the Hall of Mirrors with sister Nicky

Sunday, 18 December 2016

'Populism' & Tyranny in Cloudcuckooland

A lecture on Aristophanes’ Birds I gave in October at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens has just gone online on youtube. It is in English and starts at 7.44 minutes in. The lecture preceded both the U.S. election and the latest wave of repressions in Turkey. But Birds is eerily relevant to our times.

The comedy that gave us the idea of Cloudcuckooland is often viewed as a joyous, lyrical utopian fantasy, or a comment on the Athenians’ doomed expedition to Sicily. But in my view it is a bitter satire on faux-'friends of the people’ who use allegedly democratic processes to increase their personal power and fill up their private moneybags.

Thracian in Greek Imagination
The protagonist Peisthetairos, ‘Chum-Persuader’, goes to the Balkans to use Bird-Jingoism to persuade the gullible, under-educated feathered natives of Thrace to ‘elect’ him tyrant. He becomes Master of the Universe. My lecture argues that he is the comic counterpart of the Athenians who made personal fortunes from colonial properties and commercial operations (mines and slave markets) they owned in Thrace, especially those who set themselves up as tyrants of Hellespontine semi-barbarian communities.

Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz
Peisthetairos is usually said to be the charming counterpart of Dr Dolittle, talking to the animals. But he is much closer to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, the brutal ivory trader in the Belgian Congo who commands a trading post and persuades the natives he is a demigod. Or to his descendant the AWOL Colonel Kurtz, Despot in Cambodia,  in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

The Real Cloudcuckooland?
Under the Cloudcuckooland regime, rebel birds are secretly arrested, executed, and eaten by their own species. The obedient birds willingly concede all decision-making and executive power to their human exploiter. He uses a pharmaceutical to grow wings, in order to appear to be 'one of them', although really remaining human.

In August I visited Pistiros, an ancient Greek entrepot in Bulgaria with an enormous wall which I think may even have been the original Cloudcuckooland, or at least a place like Cloudcuckooland, where cynical Greeks colonisers and merchants exploited local labour and resources.

I would love to stage a production of the Birds amongst the ruins of Pistiros. The only problem would be deciding the face of which ‘populist’ dictator-manqué currently hogging the international headlines to feature on the 'hero's' mask.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Is Every Classically Educated Female a Virago?

‘Must we suppose that if a woman knows a little Greek and Latin she must be a drunkard, and virago?’ Thus wrote Anne Donnellan in 1762. She was outraged that in Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia, the only woman with a classical education is immoral and dissipated.

In the 19th century, women classicists were held to be physically repellent and borderline insane, as demonstrated by this cartoon instructing male students at Glasgow which women to avoid. Reading Sophocles and Aristotle (right) was a sure sign that the woman was a witch; go for the one who studied sketching and music instead.

It was to rescue some of the real foremothers of female experts on ancient Greece and Rome that with Rosie Wyles I have just published Women Classical Scholars. It contains twenty essays, by an erudite, committed team, on just some of the remarkable philologists, who happened to be female, born between the Renaissance and  WWI, and working in lands from Russia to post-bellum USA.

Sarah Parker Remond, Abolitionist Latin Scholar

The appendix to the Introduction points to many others, from New Zealand to Romania, who came to our attention too late to include. We hope they will now receive the attention they deserve: potential PhD students, please take note! They were identified through an outstandingly successful exercise in crowd-sourcing, via the Facebook Group Classics International—global collective research at its most exciting.
Prof. Dorothy Tarrant

And the book’s publication coincides with other exciting signs that the long-overdue feminist reappraisal of the history of classics is about to enter overdrive:

·    The unflagging UK Women’s Classical Committee is offering training you can sign up for to encourage better coverage of women scholars on WIKIPEDIA.
·        The lifelong supporter of women now directing the Institute of Classical Studies, Professor Greg Woolf, is systematically reviewing the under-representation of women in for example the named ICS fellowships—I’m delighted that Dorothy Tarrant (1885-1973), the first ever UK female Professor of Greek, is finally to be honoured.  
·        I was interviewed by Yung In Chae for the online magazine Eidolon and we discussed how the history of women scholars could illuminate the still far from satisfactory position of women in academia.
 ·        The research trend is expanding internationally; Rosie and I were invited to talk about our work at an excellent conference in Pisa this week exploring the way women scholars in the late 19th and 20th centuries broke down boundaries between classics and philosophy, anthropology, literature and above all between the Ivory Tower and the public. Inspirational. So was the hospitality and especially the free beer and wine ON TAP in the staff refectory.

Pisa friends including Rosie, Massimo Stella & Alessandro Grilli
And our book changes the visual associations of classics as a discipline. It contains portraits of most of our subjects, our personal response to the endless Old White Male Clerics who gazed down at us coldly in the college dining halls and libraries we inhabited as students. We want our smiling foremothers to hang alongside them in our collective memory, not in a different building. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

DEAD FUNNY: Comic Underworlds Ancient & Modern

Fidel, Rejuvenated, Snapped crossing the Styx Yesterday
As Fidel Castro sails off on Charon’s ferry to the Underworld, perhaps he will be greeted by a chorale from the musicians who have arrived there during 2016—David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. He may want to have words with Nancy Reagan, who died last March, since the Cuban Security Service calculates that the CIA tried to assassinate him during her husband Ronald’s presidency no fewer than 197 times.

Castro’s death coincides with my quest for comedies set in the Underworld subsequent to Aristophanes’ dazzling Frogs, which features the world’s first deceased ‘sit-up’ comedian in the form of a mordantly witty corpse. There are surprisingly few Hades comedies (despite its title, Dante’s Hell epic The Divine Comedy  isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs).
Corpse Centre Stage-cast of Toronto Uni Frogs (1902)

In Frogs, Dionysus gets the idea for the trip to Hades from Heracles, who once did the downward journey (technically known as a katabasis) and knows the ropes. Aristophanes’ greatest ancient admirer, Lucian, was inspired by Frogs in several amusing dialogues between travellers on Charon’s ferry or longstanding incumbents of Hades.

The Underworld was also visited in Greek myth by Orpheus and Odysseus. In Orpheus’ case I have the final scene of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), where the gods hold a riotous party in Hades. They are so bored  by Zeus's old-fashioned taste in dance that they invent the ‘infernal gallop’, better known as the can-can. For the Odyssey,  there are hilarious passages in Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novel The Penelopiad, in which Penelope muses on life in Hades alongside Helen and the hanged slave women.

All-Male Boardroom of Patriarchal Hell in Your Pretty Face
An American friend recommended Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, which has been showing on Cartoon Network since 2013; the rather plodding humour results from transferring the familiar idea of ‘workplace comedy’ to Hell, adding morbid piquancy to office-situational jokes.

I can also talk about the side-splitting BBC radio comedy series Old Harry's Game, written by Andy Hamilton, who starred as Satan.  The best episode featured a Jihadi suicide bomber, furious that he had not been awarded his promised thousand virgins, getting into a scrap with an evangelical Christian fanatic. But I have always been worried that a leading character was an academic historian called Edith, a murder victim, who thought she knew a lot about the ancient Greeks.

Surely there must be other comic plays, novels and movies set in Hell or Hades which have embarrassingly slipped my notice? I genuinely believe in crowd sourcing for this kind of thing, so all suggestions gratefully acknowledged when I give the lecture at Warwick Uni. And if you have nothing better to do, you can enjoy composing that comic script in which Fidel finally tackles Nancy.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Why Greek Tragedy and Christianity Don't Mix

I’m pleased that a review I had almost forgotten writing is featured as one of the ‘free-on-line’ essays in the current edition of the august Prospect magazine. If you’re interested you can read the  full 2,000-word version here. The book is The Tragic Imagination and it will cause a stir because it is by Rowan Williams, the controversial and uber-intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The Brainiest Archbishop Ever
There have of course been historical attempts to subject Greek tragedy to cosmetic surgery which reduces its ferocity to force it into conformity with a Christian outlook. Neoclassical tragedy regularly made Medea kill herself at the end of her play or turned suffering virgins like Iphigenia and Antigone into proto-Christian nuns and martyrs. In one spectacular Christian reading,  Lee Breuer’s 1988 Broadway musical Gospel at Colonus, Oedipus  was indeed implausibly ‘redeemed’ by a  rousing African-American Pentecostal singalong.

Sophocles' Oedipus Gets Christian Redemption at Colonus
Williams’ awkward marriage of Christianity to tragedy emphasises Greek plays and more recent ones based on them, such as Anouilh’s Antigone and Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. So keen is Williams to show that Anglicans with a penchant for German Idealist philosophy (Kant, Hegel etc.) have a special understanding of tragedy that he needs to water down the potency of both pagan theatre scripts and Christian doctrine.

His analysis can never do justice to the Greeks’ uncompromising honesty about (1) the unfairness of a life in which good people suffer and evil people die comfortably in expensive beds, (2) the excruciating pain endured by so many humans during their brief years of consciousness alive, and (3) the pleasure as well as the moral education bestowed by watching beautiful theatre in which suffering is talked about in exquisite poetry.

Astyanax dragged to Trojan Wall. Can Christianity Explain it?
As Aristotle saw in his Poetics, humans suffer inside and outside tragedy because they make mistakes. They may be mistakes of fact (Oedipus does not know his wife is his mother) or of moral judgement (Creon in Antigone is the worst leader and decision-maker in mythology and wrecks his family and civic unity as a result). To these human causes Aristotle adds the factor of chance or luck. Philoctetes was a good man unlucky enough to step on a snake and get a gangrenous infection which tortured him for years.

Often the good or bad luck in the plays (not in Aristotle) is caused by the partisanship of a childish god. Phaedra was the unwitting victim of collateral damage caused by her stepson's irreverence towards Aphrodite. But Greek tragedy is littered with innocents who suffer and die with no god intervening to help, just like human history.

Helen Faucit as a Christian Victorian Antigone
I have always thought that the great advantage of Christianity, besides making some believers very kind, is that it offers hope. Hope that there may be some providential meaning in suffering; hope of redemption, salvation, the punishment of unrepentant malefactors and of a blissful afterlife. But Williams’ writing repeatedly stresses that human life is consistently crap while advocating Christian worship. He wants to have his classical Greek cake (while never acknowledging its beauty) and eat it at a Christian tea party. That’s what the Professor-ess said this week, with some trepidation, to the ex-Archbishop.