Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.42

Maurizio Bettini, Classical Indiscretions: a millennial enquiry into the state of the Classics.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. 160.  ISBN 0-7156-2970-0.  

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1020 words

In 1998, Pierre Bayard demonstrated in his Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? (English: Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, 2000) that Poirot got it wrong in what is perhaps his most celebrated case. In a detailed and subtle demonstration, Bayard makes a conclusive case that Poirot fingered the wrong man. Unfortunately, when Bayard proceeds to reveal the identity of the true killer, his touch is not so sure. The present writer has the immense satisfaction of knowing that he is the only person on the planet to know who really killed Roger Ackroyd.

Now the spirit of the paragraph I have just written is very much that of Bettini's erudite little book--whimsical, self-satisfied, carrying learning with what one might call easy ostentation. In fact, Bettini unknowingly follows Bayard when he observes here, "In recent times the search for the meaning of literary works has increasingly taken on the guise of a manhunt" (102). The clever satisfactions of unmasking stand at one pole of the behaviors captured here with the flair of a sidewalk caricaturist. At the other pole are the banal satisfactions of the memorializers--the ones who wanted to know Achilles' name when he went among the women or the name of Euryalus' mother or whether Augustine was "black" or if the wreckage of Noah's ark has really been found by itinerant American astronauts in Turkey. A fleeting glimpse of Ezra Pound impersonating Latin and Chinese poets is too insubstantial to support systematic reflection, but delightfully done. But is that all there is to "classics"?

Behind the merry style is a serious argument, or at least part of one--or perhaps, better, an argument that addresses part, but only part, of what the ancient classics are and have been. The argument runs roughly that the "bipolar disorder", if you will, that I have just described is inherent in the time in which we live. The Italian original is I classici nell' età dell'indiscrezione and thus forecasts what emerges late in the book as the theme of the resistance of "classics" to those cultural practices of our own time that surround the artistic object with scandalous revelations as a condition of knowing them. But the "classics stubbornly refuse to enter the age of indiscretion." They offer too little to the banal, and the machinations of the clever leave them undisturbed. Behind this, unenunciated but present, is an implicit argument, that one can assume a high but unspecified value to the classics.

The want of specification becomes frustrating. Too many concessions are made to the times. "In and of themselves the classics are not very exciting" (51). (At this point I recalled a long bygone day when the author of the then-scandalously titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask appeared on the Johnny Carson show, exclaiming in wide-eyed enthusiasm that sex was the most all-absorbing, the most enthralling, the most exciting of human experiences. At that moment the old ham Tony Randall leaned over from the Carson couch to interject, "I take it then, Doctor, that you are not a devotee of opera?") Or later, "For the classics can weigh us down like a bad dream: it takes a great deal of energy perpetually to confront their otherness" (75). These observations have a marginal truth value for at least some readers, but when they come to the reader unbalanced by explicit assertions of where the author thinks the value of the classics lies, the effect on the non-specialist will be off-putting. I think it fair to say that while this book conveys some of the "buzz" that might make classics superficially attractive (and an entertaining few pages on current Italian slang thus translated), nothing in it suggests how one might indeed find the classics exciting and absorbing in some sense more than trivial and diverting. Instead, one is left with a sense of the classics as a huge weight in the middle of our culture, something to be dealt with of necessity rather than by choice, and something moreover whose presence is increasingly obscured by the overload of information that threatens all with distraction. The last sentence of the book thus merited an exclamation point in my margin: "And now, in the vast archive that we have slowly built up over the course of centuries, the body of our culture is enclosed" (143). For a work in the style of Horace's sermons, the apparent overture to a requiem is a jarring way to end.

The least successful pages of the book stylistically, where the sprezzatura fades for a few pages is the serious philological discussion (111-117) of definitions of "the classic", going back to Gellius. The effort is earnest but memorable only for the surprising, apt in an oblique way, and at the same time finally irrelevant observation, "But the classic is like a big friendly dog--eventually it just gives a shake and goes off to play with the children" (116). That is perhaps the most positive thing Bettini finds to say about the cultural artifacts to which he has devoted the book (and his career).

For the professional classicist, the book is mildly troubling but entertaining and provocative. I cannot transcend, however, the horizon of my own expectations sufficiently to imagine the impact on a non-specialist other than as apotropaic. This is not to say that every book by a classicist must perform a loyal protreptic function, but this one seems to want to perform that function, but it performs at best superficially and in the end in a way likely to have more negative than positive effect. It does not even make the case one half-expects to see, a purely frivolous justification for the pleasures that a suitably post-modern reader might find in the classics. Bettini highlights, to be sure, the set of unexamined expectations that hover over us like a cloud, obsess our deans, muddle our debates, and leave us unfree to define ourselves or our future, but he does not materially clarify them or offer strategies to release us from their spell. In the end, the book is not so much incorrect as ineffective.

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