Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.04


Robert Eisner, Travelers to an Antique Land. The History and Literature of Travel to Greece. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990. Pp. x, 304. ISBN 0-472-10241-9.


Reviewed by Steven Lattimore, University of California, Los Angeles.

In one extraordinary leap, Eisner has written one of the notable travel books. As far as I know, the publishers are right in calling Travelers to an Antique Land unique. There is an immense amount of material crammed into it. Eisner is familiar with a ll conceivably relevant literature (one reaches the enjoyable conviction that the book resulted from all this reading much more than the other way around) and is an excellent literary critic. His own style provides a framework for a kaleidoscope of quotat ions, not competing with them but not lacking in distinction either: crisp, opinionated, given to aphorisms (most work very well, a few are mystifying). The book's tone is avowedly romantic but unsentimental, rubbing the bloom of Philhellenism and remind ing us that both tourist and traveler, even expatriates, skim on the surface of a hard, sometimes brutal country. There is something like radical chic in the skeptical stance towards antiquarianism, archaeology, Classical studies in general (at times remi niscent of Lord Byron; Eisner's affinity for him is infectious).

But the monuments and their associations figure prominently in the first chapter, "Spiritual Landscapes," which introduces the paradox of Classical relics in a land regarded for more than half a millennium, with a full spectrum of emotions, as uncivili zed. There is an exploration of the different kinds of travel, the motives, the kinds of writing that result, and how these relate to Greece, which has represented everything from Our Western Heritage to lemon groves for Northerners. (At this point, a min or criticism. The Albanians -- whose presence in Greece is an important and interesting story -- appear frequently in the first half of the book and disappear in the second, without explanation, even in the useful glossary). Still, within this intricate c hapter, chronology begins with the heroes of legend and Odysseus as the earliest traveler we come to know: perhaps not so much "the perfect traveler" as the precursor of Eisner's complacent, can-do nineteenth-century Englishmen who stay securely and judgm entally within their own culture and enjoy describing how they have outwitted or faced down the locals. Neither for Odysseus nor for the Classical Greeks was getting there half the fun, unless in an olim meminisse iuvabit way (it is possible for some of us, however, to enjoy vicariously the microcosm of ancient travel preserved in Antiphon's Fifth Oration because we see that Euxitheos and his motley shipmates are on a caique; so we are there when a sudden squall forces this boat and others into a nowhere harbor, when some passengers switch to a covered boat to get out of the rain, when there is nothing to do while waiting except drink...). For the Romans, briefly surveyed, matters may have been more agreeable because of greater wealth and comfort, the motivation of escaping urban life, and the appeal of the Grand Tour. Such factors contributed to the idealization of Arcadia, which Eisner mentions, in contrasting the Greece of those who go there with that of travelers only through literature and fantasy, before turning to the more prosaic Pausanias. Yet something about "getting as far as Arcadia" made Pausanias himself (8.8.3) inclined to see a deeper meaning in many old legends. Eisner is a bit hard on later travelers with comparable inclinations.

The second and transitional chapter "To the East" suffers the most from the book's rapid pace, but by keeping up with the procession of pilgrims, crusaders, renaissance businessmen and antiquarians we are made aware of the West's contempt for the Greeks, an attitude reinforced both by comparison with past greatness and by assuming unbroken continuity of such ancient vices as constructing Trojan horses. Were Western travelers, however, right even for the wrong reasons about a population of wastrels and bandits? On George Sandys (ca. 1610), Eisner sounds censorious: "I detect in Sandys no love of the landscape, the people, nor even any real enthusiasm for the classics he quotes from so copiously." Yet so far we have not seen why appreciation of the first or third items should extend to the second.

In chapter 3, "Rational Travelers," we find the eighteenth-century fascination with noble savages giving a new direction to Philhellenism but only fitfully reclaiming the modern Greeks as worthy of their ancestors. Notables in this chapter include Winckelmann, Stuart and Revett, and Choiseul Gouffier, but more attention, to some purpose, is given to the engaging nonentity J. B. S. Morritt (I have not seen his A Grand Tour, but "fulsome or fawning simplicity," quoted on p. 83, cannot be right). The next chapter, "Lunatics and Philhellenes," begins with the Napoleonic wars, whose politics opened up Turkish-occupied Greece to the British while excluding them from much of Europe. An immediate result was the increased opportunity for looting antiquities. On the whole, one could say there was a reversal of the sequence resulting from the Roman conquest, which began with looting and proceeded to recording, copying, adapting, and idealizing the past. The new looters could rationalize their activities by citing the Turkish menace as well as the vandalism of less enlightened compatriots -- as did Lord Elgin, whose "theft was a case of organized crime compared to the havoc of street crime wrought by the multitude of others." The idea of saving the Greeks themselves from the Turks was ultimately related. Eisner points out how much the outbreak of the War of Independence owed to the Romantics, despite their enjoyment of unliberated Greece for its "oriental" exoticism; this enjoyment was especially pronounced in Lord Byron (and his Don Juan, in which Eisner finds "a confounded accuracy"). Clearly, had he lived, he would have been less disillusioned than other Philhellenes by the squalor of the Romantic war. Was the bloodthirstiness of the Greek rising, Eisner wonders, a survival from antiquity? While such continuity is usually a will o' the wisp, it is certainly interesting to meet prudent and prosperous Chians right out of Thucydides, again contrasting with unruly Samians; again the Chians try to avoid trouble but find it anyway. The guerrilla tactics described by Eisner, however, could hardly be more different from the card-pack formations the ancient Greeks used against one another and then the Romans. After 1827 many of the fighters continued their careers in the banditry mentioned frequently by travelers for several more generations.

On the whole, however, the Westeners who defeated the Turks had pacified Greece to such an extent that they could become "Travelers in Tweeds," the title Eisner gives to chapters 5 and 6. While many of these closely resemble their predecessors, there is a higher proportion of well-known names: Flaubert, Thackery, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe (she is icily witty about a decapitated bandit and the consequent opportunity for her to do Mycenae). Edward Lear, both as painter and as "perhaps the finest writer of the century on Greece," deserves his extended and sensitive presentation. Hans Christian Anderson might have been included, not only for chronological considerations but because his A Poet's Bazaar adds a different voice. Writing in 1841, without affectation, that "every step one treads is on ground sacred with memories," he sees the contrast: "where young, clever Athenians made their way to Plato's Academy, there rides now through the tall heath plants, dumb-witted, the poor peasant." As for continuity, his first view of the mainland inspires this: "We passed the outer point of the land of the Maniots, that Spartan race who were never conquered, a folk brave and bold, coarse and wild, but hospitable as in the days of Lycurgus" (!) (Mani is a leitmotif in Eisner's book; another is its antithesis, lush, accessible, Italianate Corfu). He laughs at the "dreadful picture" he had been given of present-day Greece, finds the Greeks "an intelligent people" who have made remarkable progress since their liberation from the Turkish rule which can excuse many of their country's shortcomings. Yet, in the end, "I do not love this race" (he prefers the Turks).

In "Travelers in Tweeds" the option of packaged and guided tours begins to enforce a distinction between travelers and tourists. It is the latter who will bring progress to Greece, transform it, take away its "sense of place," crowd out traveling and sharpen the challenge of writing about it. Ultimately, "The trouble about journeys nowadays is that they are easy to make but hard to justify" (Peter Fleming, quoted from 1936). Yet Eisner, in his introductory analysis of travel writing, had argued that the same increased comforts which would open up Greece, which "meant the increase of mediocre volumes on travel, as more and more talentless tourists thought something worth publishing had happened to them...also opened up the possibility of something finer . The writer must have the time and energy left in his day to effect a world" rather than expending these in a sort of struggle to survive. While this could be endlessly debated, there is a sense of a complex balance of factors, both for the future of travel books and for the future of Greece, behind the statement: "It would take a long time, nearly fifty years, to make Greece a touristy place."

Programmatic for what I would call the second half of the book, this occurs near the beginning of chapter 7, "When the Going was Cheap"; the starting date is 1920, the title presumably a salute to Evelyn Waugh, who is quoted here at some length and throughout the book seems to be Eisner's ideal travel writer. Also quoted is Waugh's young acquaintance Robert Byron; neither the samples nor high praise reported from Patrick Leigh Fermor persuade me that he is "one of the briefly great writers on Greece," although he is not at all bad. Here Eisner emphasizes the importance of good prose to the success of travel writing and compares most attempts, dismissively, to travel photography. This consideration is juxtaposed with the possibility that a travel book should have a "quest," but, apparently as a dire warning against "the narrator cast as hero," Eisner recoils from The Colossus of Maroussi (on the whole, I agree; this is no longer the Henry Miller whose earliest published prose electrified George Orwell but the one whose decline he predicted). Miller does receive Eisner's sympathy when he complains of the wastelands created by archaeological excavations. While I am old-timer enough to miss what once overlay much of the Athenian agora, and while I agree that Greece has "far too few lovely old neighborhoods," I am not convinced that archaeology has more often blighted than complemented the landscape.

The increasingly looming question "Why write about travel in Greece?" receives an answer in the wartime chapter "Trouble and Strife": Write about the Greeks. In the World War II resistance both Philhellenes and Greeks fought far more purposefully than in the 1820's, and the books by the former depict the latter at their best and worst. Writing about themselves, these British illustrate the disturbing truth that warfare can be exhilarating and fulfilling. Eisner brings this all out very well, along with its corollary: progress and prosperity are "detrimental also to eccentricity and genius."

Most of the wartime writers could be described by the title of the following chapter, "Expatriates All" (although an American journalist, George Weller, wrote an excellent and neglected novel about the resistance, The Crack in the Column), and their books belong with the important variant of travel literature Eisner deals with here: the "residence book," a term taken from Lawrence Durrell. Without being uncritical, Eisner does full justice to the brilliant achievements of Durrell and especially Leigh Fermor. The latter excels in capturing, as Eisner puts it, "how the people are ever ready to play, but always against a background of history and a culture which lend that play a more luminescent aura than a mere joke or party." This rather cryptically describes something much more easily illustrated (as Eisner has just done with an anecdote), a unique combination of spontaneity and humor suggestive of confidence and strength in reserve. This quality has been very late in emerging from the literature analyzed by Eisner, who reminds us that Leigh Fermor has chosen to play down a dark side, which is undeniably there and which apparently made the overriding impression on previous generations of visitors.

Do we find the "real" Greece in the (mostly) post-war expatriate writers only to lose it a few decades later? "Quo Vadis Now, Traveler?" is well informed and apocalyptic. Despite all the inroads of tourism and modern life generally, whether in fictional Clochemerle or in Vermont, the transformation of Greece recorded in this final chapter is shocking to all who have known Greece and presumably to many who have not. How do you find a way to "travel" in a context from which so much of chance and adventure have been removed? And, along with some of their poverty, have the Greeks lost "a genius for distilling dignity from labor and living conditions that have reduced other peoples to Brueghelesque cretins"? There may be some reassurance in the 1983 Hudson Review: Alice Bloom, writing (by no means ecstatically) from one of the tourist islands, observes two women walking close together without noticing one another. "The Greek woman is short and heavy, waistless, and is wearing a black dress, a black scarf pulled low around her eyes, a black sweater, thick black stockings, black shoes. She is stupendously there, black but for the walnut of her face, in the white sun, against the white space. She looks, at once, as if she could do everything she's ever done, anything needed, and also at once, she gives off an emanation of humor, powers, secrets, determinations, acts... The blond tourist, struggling along the hot pebbles in her clogs...looks as though she couldn't dress a doll without having a fit of sulks and throwing it down in a tantrum...as though she's never had enough -- goods or rights or attention or half-decent days...she is familiar to us; she is us." I don't know of a better evocation of this experience, levelling in a not unwelcome way: sensing among Greeks (not only peasants; it may be a hotel manager, a museum guard, an artist, or a schoolchild) the possibility of humor, generosity, going the extra mile for us (whether we want this or not). Again, strength in reserve.

Shortly after receiving Travelers to an Antique Land to review, I had the chance to go to Greece for five days and took Eisner's book along, contrary to all his implicit instructions: not much time to search out the unspoiled exceptions to Greece as Eisner leaves it (with the admission that he does not keep repeated resolutions against going back), but a chance to overhear and even buttonhole the backpackers on the Brindisi-Patras ferries and in my hotel. Most I met were going to or from the island beaches, some irritated that Greece, with rail travel through Yugoslavia not much of an option, takes longer to get to than other stops on what sounded like a standardized route. No one was looking for Durrell's Greece, or even Zorba's, let alone Pausanias'. What they read, apparently, was Let's Go to Greece, always up-to-date and in effect telling them, repeatedly: "This village is ruined, and you ruined it." I first encountered the book in the possession of a Belgian girl who wondered whether, after some sun-bathing and museums, she might find a village -- preferably in Crete -- where foreigners were still a novelty and simple hospitality prevailed. I thought of my first visit to Plataea, with my parents and brother: a farmer had come at a run, as fast as he could carry wine and a loaf of bread; we were on his land. A small boy and girl followed, barefoot and very shy, with flowers picked for us. That, of course, was 1952 -- and "stupid Boeotians" (a phrase Durrell used in linking past and present, the one time I had the pleasure of meeting him). Considerably later, however, and in a variety of contexts, some quite prosperous and sophisticated, I often found a comparable spirit.

My last visit, not least the part spent in Athens, convinces me that Greece has changed less than it might appear and is still like no other place. I hope that I have not been overly subjective and personal in assessing a book which, while thoroughly researched and certainly informative, consciously emphasizes atmosphere and experience over Realien, ancient and modern. I don't know what part the monuments and topography will play in the travel writing whose future possibilities Eisner suggests, but they are at the very least diverting. On the way to Chalcis to look at one particular statue, I waited impatiently during a long halt (we had to let the Athens train past on a single-track line). At the last minute, I thought to look at the name of the station: AULIDA.