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Apologies for the ancients
A review of The Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by Bernard Knox.
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If the humanities were not in crisis, threatened from within and without, they would scarcely be the humanities as we have known them since the days of Socrates’ Thinkery. This is perhaps too often forgotten in our anxious educational debates. Even so, there is a case for supposing that the late twentieth century is an exceptionally dangerous time for them, and particularly for the Greco-Roman classics that have long been at their core. A pen-stroke by a radically indoctrinated or financially strapped college administration is all that is needed to wipe out a department of classics, and in fact, within the last year, news has come in that some fifty such departments in this country are under threat of extinction. Clearly the time has come for our society to consider very carefully what classical literature is, and how its study can be justified. Neither question is easily answered; but in two new works, The Norton Book of Classical Literature and The Oldest Dead White European Males, Bernard Knox has heroically confronted both.
The Norton book presents, in translation, specimens of the Greek and Latin authors from Homer to St. Augustine; the specimens are preceded by a literary-historical introduction and are interspersed with Knox’s comments and (for the longer books) summaries of omitted matter. Between them the introduction, the specimens, and the comments give a fair idea of the general course of classical literary history. Yet how far a reader (especially a reader coming new to the subject) will be able to obtain a sense of the distinctive qualities of classical literature itself—this is another question altogether. After all, two of the most powerful reasons that the classics have been studied so lovingly for so long, through one politico-cultural crisis after another, are their overall design and their style: that still unsurpassed genius for literary architecture, coupled with that marvelously varied control of language at the level of the phrase and the sentence and a range of poetic meters that has never been matched in any language of the West.
Unfortunately this book contains no major work complete except Sophocles’ Antigone; everything else is represented only by relatively short extracts. Thus the Odyssey here occupies seventy-five pages of extracts, comment, and summary (readers should perhaps be alerted to the fact that the lengthy final extract, though attributed to Book XXIII in the title and the running page headings, is actually an amalgam of XIII and XXIII). The Aeneid is given a mere sixty pages, a feat of compression that has been accomplished partly by leaving out the second half of the epic except for the brief reconciliation between Jupiter and Juno at the end of Book XII. One cannot help wondering whether a more effective strategy might have been to include a few masterpieces in their entirety, rather than a multitude in snippets. The late-Greek joke comes to mind: an academic, seeking to sell his house, carried around a single stone from it as a sample.
In his comments on Sappho, Knox eloquently and justly characterizes the poet’s literary style, speaking of her “unforgettable lines” and of her “inimitable mastery of rhythm, of verbal melody, and of crisp freshness of expression.” Similar praise would apply in some degree to all the major classical poets and even (as any sensitive reader of Plato will confirm) to classical prose. To carry these stylistic qualities across into another language is perhaps a rarer gift than is commonly supposed, and the stylistic level of the translations in this anthology is correspondingly uneven. Knox has chosen reasonably well from the available translations of the classics, granted his apparent decision to confine himself to twentieth-century translators (I count only four exceptions to that rule). Certainly some of the translators whose work is represented here —Arrowsmith, for instance, and Fagles, Fitts, Fitzgerald, Lombardo, Martin, Parker, Rayor, and Skelton—are first-rate by the standards of any age, sharing with the reader the liveliness and grace, as well as the substance, of the original Greek or Latin. But our century should not flatter itself too highly on its achievements in this field: disaster areas remain, above all in the translation of prose, where one is reminded all too often of Max Beerbohm’s remark, after dipping into a translation of Cicero: “This translator seems to be saying to the reader, ‘Look here, this fellow Cicero is just like you and me.’ … He isn’t!”
Yet even in the poetry, even in Sappho herself, there are disappointments. The candid reader is invited to test the following samples by ear, and to judge whether they are not eminently forgettable, deficient as they are in rhythm, verse melody, or crisp freshness of expression.
From Sappho’s most famous poem, the prayer to Aphrodite, translated by Richmond Lattimore:
A fragment of Alcaeus, translated by Willis Barnstone:
The penultimate line of that example illustrates a common practice among the poorer twentieth-century translators from the classics: when the line looks long enough on the paper, end it and begin a new one, without respect for rhythm, meter, or rhetoric. A spectacular example in this book is Kenneth Rexroth’s translation from Leonidas of Tarentum, one of the great masters of that most concise and melodious of Greek verse-forms, the elegiac epigram:
So long as such chopped-up prose is purveyed to the intelligent Common Reader as representing classical poetry, or indeed as poetry at all, we must expect classical studies to be in trouble—if not literary studies in general.
There are two serious imbalances in the book’s coverage of classical literature. First, the Greek writers are given far fuller treatment than the Latin writers. Even Cicero is unrepresented, although he is certainly Rome’s greatest prose author, and arguably —in certain passages, such as the “Dream of Scipio” at the end of his Republic—her greatest prose-poet. Among the many other Latin absentees are the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the historical writings of Caesar and Sallust, the entire prose and verse output of Seneca, and the exquisite occasional poetry of Martial. (In his preface Knox says that he has included less Latin than Greek because Latin literature is less translatable than high-classical Greek, being so much more densely textured and allusive. That objection, however, if valid at all, would apply with far more force to Horace and Virgil, whom he has admitted to the book, than to most of the authors just mentioned.) Second, in both Greek and Latin, poetry is greatly preferred to prose. Even the prose writing of the Greeks is very scantily represented. There are relatively short specimens from Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato (in his descriptive, not his dialectical mode), Theophrastus’s Characters, and Marcus Aurelius. Missing entirely are the orators, Xenophon, Plutarch, Lucian, and the novelists.
Even with these qualifications, however, The Norton Book of Classical Literature has much to offer. It makes excellent browsing. Readers who know classical literature fairly well will be introduced to some unfamiliar translations that reveal novel aspects of poems they thought they knew, and will be reminded of half-forgotten splendors. Readers at every level of experience will savor the wit and wisdom of Knox’s comments, and profit from them.
The phrase “Dead White European Males,” which supplies the ironic title to the other book here under review, is remarkable in that it manages to combine, in four words, three long-recognized sins against political correctness with a fourth that is comparatively new and ill-explored. “White” in this context invites the hearer to racial prejudice, “European” to an interesting variant of patriotic chauvinism, and “Male” to straightforward sexism. Those three epithets, however, apply to mere subsets of humanity. The epithet “Dead,” inviting us to reject the work of every human being who has joined the Great Majority, is the really breathtaking one, incalculably widening the scope for late-twentieth-century ideological hatred, and adding, besides, a new horror to the grave.
An innocent might have supposed that DWEM-criticism (as this kind of expurgation may be called for short) would instantly prove self-refuting, so repugnant is it to the moral and political principles of the right, left, and center, and so contrary to common sense anyway: consider what would become of mathematics, say, or astronomy, or comparative philology, if one erased all DWEM contributions to those sciences from the collective memory. But it was of course against the traditional humanities that the criterion was chiefly devised, and it is the humanities that are most in need of a reasoned apologetic to deal with it. The title of this book promises such an apologetic, centering on the Greeks. The foreword and the first of the book’s three chapters (all three originated as lectures on various occasions) in fact confront DWEM-criticism directly; the remaining two approach it rather by indirection.
Chapter II, “The Walls of Thebes,” traces the fortunes of the humanities backward from now, through the Victorians, through Cicero’s magnificent defense of literary studies in his speech for the Greek poet Archias, to the place and time where the great humanistic dialogue began in its full force —to Athens in the time of the Sophists and the great tragedians. Knox justifies the enigmatic title of this chapter most elegantly, by reference to Euripides’ fragmentary tragedy Amphion. That play was famous in antiquity for its comparison of the strictly practical lifestyle of the farmer or soldier to the intellectual, humanistic lifestyle that had emerged in the fifth-century Athenian enlightenment. In the finale, against all the odds, it seems to have been the “humanist,” Amphion, whom the gods chose to raise up the walls of Thebes by the magic of his music. Accepting the moral evidently drawn by Euripides, Knox concludes that the most useful citizens of a democracy will be those who have been humanistically trained— those who are familiar through their studies with (here he quotes Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase) “the best that has been thought and said.”
The third chapter, “The Continuity of Greek Culture,” is a lively and charming vision of contemporary Greece through the astounded eyes of a person raised in the strict Anglo-American tradition of classical philology in the first half of the twentieth century. In that tradition, modern Greek and modern Greece alike tended to be viewed with apprehension. (This reviewer recalls a distinguished Oxford Greek scholar who throughout his life refused to visit Greece for fear that it should bedim his mental picture of the classic land; he also recalls a fellow student who, on first looking down at the panorama of medieval and modern Athens from the north wall of the Acropolis, simply remarked, “I should like to drop a bomb on this.”) With much amusing anecdote, Knox describes the process of his conversion to a deep sympathy with the contemporary Greek landscape, language, and people as natural extensions of the classical Greece on which he was brought up—and as guides to a richer understanding of it. The oldest Europeans, as they appear in this chapter, are very, very far from dead.
Chapter I, “The Oldest Dead White European Males,” takes its start from the drastic revaluation of the ancient Greeks that has taken place since mid-Victorian times, beginning with the late-nineteenth-century anthropologists and reaching its natural culmination with the civil-rights and feminist movements during the Sixties of this century. As a result of that revaluation, a culture that had been represented from the Renaissance onward as the artistic, intellectual, and even in some sense spiritual ancestor of ours is now represented as utterly alien from ours in its practices and attitudes—and therefore to be rejected from our educational curriculum. Knox’s response to that position is not, as one might perhaps have expected, to question its logicality (such logic, if pressed, would very soon have us studying nothing and no one but ourselves) but rather to modify its premise, the otherness of the ancient Greeks.
The bulk of the chapter is occupied with four real or supposed examples of that otherness. First, Knox surveys their undeniable practice of ritual sacrifice, offering in the process the most graphic and horrific reconstruction of an ancient sacrificial rite that this reviewer has ever read. Second comes an extensive section in which he refutes an idea put forward by the late Bruno Snell, to the effect that the Homeric Greeks differed profoundly from us in psychology, having no concept of the individual soul or consciousness. The refutation is effective, although one cannot help wondering how many contemporaries take Snell’s theory very seriously (it seemed improbable to many even at its first appearance forty years ago), and how many DWEM-critics are among them. Third, and very briefly, Knox acknowledges—how could one do otherwise?—the universal practice of slavery among the Greeks. In the last place, he considers the Greek treatment of women. He concedes—as, once again, who cannot?— that practically all the direct historical evidence we have indicates that most Greek women were condemned to domestic seclusion. On the other hand, however, he suggests that the poetry of the Greeks, above all their drama, implies a far deeper sympathy and respect for women than the direct evidence would allow us to suppose. This suggestion is well founded, but it may not in fact amount to a very satisfactory answer to the charge. In the first place, it is by no means clear that sympathy and respect for women was per se incompatible with their domestic seclusion, however deplorable the practice was on other grounds. In the second place, one can hardly dispute the plain fact that virtually all the epics and tragedies conclude with their female characters either dead, like Clytemnestra, or safely back in the women’s quarters, like Alcestis, or occasionally, like the Iphigenia who escaped from the Taurians, a chaste priestess in a shrine. Knox adduces Medea as an exception, and indeed she escapes all these fates in the finale of Euripides’ play—but at the cost of becoming something more resembling a demon than a woman.
The brief final section of this first chapter turns from the otherness of the Greeks to an enumeration of certain features that link them to modern humanity in Knox’s view. Their tragedies can and do arc across the centuries, miraculously, from their culture into ours. The Greeks, like us, had their vegetarians, revolted by animal slaughter; crooks and fools were abundant in their society, just as they are in ours, and were to be found as often as not in their equivalent of our shopping mall, namely the agora; and their funeral practices were, after all, scarcely less bizarre than those of us Americans. He adds that the two most blatant faults of the ancient Greeks, the suppression of women and the employment of slaves, were eliminated from Western societies only within the past two centuries.
For the already converted, this chapter can offer much pleasure and instruction, but we have to admit, regretfully, that it is not likely to make much impact on the DWEM-critics. Simply to palliate the ancient Greeks’ sins against political correctness is not enough, for it is to fight on the terrain chosen by the opponents. What the present crisis really seems to require is a reaffirmation of the continuing value of what the Greeks thought and said, through all the changes in manners wrought by two millennia. The elements of such a positive apologetic are in fact already present both in The Norton Book of Classical Literature and in the present book, notably in the foreword and in “The Walls of Thebes.” A truly effective case, however, would probably need to rest on a broader base than the poetry and drama of the Greeks. The apologist might dwell on that unique ability to reach for the basics which appears in almost everything the Greeks wrote—not merely in their poetry and their history but in their ethics, metaphysics, mathematics, and rhetoric—and which, even where their solutions in detail have been superseded, can still serve in itself as a stimulus to wider and deeper thought. He or she should not neglect, either, that eighth wonder of the world, the Greek language, taking a hint perhaps from Edward Gibbon’s marvelous characterization of it in the last volume of his Decline and Fall:
In their lowest servitude and depression, the subjects of the Byzantine throne were still possessed of a golden key that could unlock the treasures of antiquity; of a musical and prolific language that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of philosophy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 October 1993, on page 58
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The sixth in a series on “The future of the European past,”
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