Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.08

David Wills, The Mirror of Antiquity: 20th Century British Travellers in Greece.   Newcastle:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.  Pp. xii, 162.  ISBN 1-84718-267-4.  £29.99.  



Reviewed by Peter Green, University of Iowa (peter-green-1@uiowa.edu)
Word count: 2728 words

It was, I suppose, inevitable that post-colonialism and Rezeptionsgeschichte should, sooner rather than later, combine to tackle so juicily rewarding a topic for their special brand of moral one-upmanship as British Hellenophiles' accounts of their reactions to first-hand experience of Greece. As an easy target it has everything: an exclusionary faith in Hellas generally, and Athens in particular, as the fons et origo of Western culture; an elitist educational system that privileged ancient Greek language and literature over all other disciplines except philosophy and mathematics; and the kind of all-pervasive in-built cheerful xenophobia (Hellenes vs. barbaroi, comic Eastern natives who jabbered ba-ba-ba instead of talking proper Greek) that led Edward Saïd to characterize Aeschylus's Persians, in Orientalism (1978), as a foundation text of racism. In David Wills, who peppers non-PC instances of "he", "his", "him" (and, once, even "England") with the righteously incredulous "[sic]" comment, presumably to advertise his feminist and anti-nationalist credentials, the theme has found an impeccably post-colonial investigator, who backs up his arguments with tabulated statistics (based on fieldwork-derived methods) of travellers' attitudes to monumental aesthetics and Greek personal characteristics.

In his first chapter Wills--picking up where Terence Spencer left off in Fair Greece, Sad Relic (1954), and covering much the same ground as David Roessel's In Byron's Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination (2002)--sketches the development of travel-writing about Greece from the decades immediately prior to the Greek War of Independence (1821-30) to the collapse of the colonels' junta in 1974. Several recurrent themes are here stressed: the restoration of Greek freedom viewed as payment for the civilization that Hellas had given the world; the disconcerting contrast alleged between modern Greeks and their glorious ancestors, between the Parthenon and contemporary Athens (described by one visitor as an "ugly and bungaloid hole")--a contrast offset by the alleged survival of old pagan beliefs; the excavation of key sites (Knossos, Mycenae, Troy) and the myths generated by their excavators; vigorous governmental propaganda in both world wars, aimed at an audience that knew more about classical than post-independence Hellas, to prove that the modern Greek was every bit as brave, honorable, friendly and (of course) democratic as his ancient ancestors. Wills also notes the war-weary escapism (and climatic attractions) that impelled a good many British writers from about 1950 to seek the Aegean and stay there, and the slow change, with the spread of tourism, of what had once been a cultural pilgrimage into a generalized quest for sun, sea, and sex, or, at best, Shirley Valentine's transformational discovery of a happy island world with wider horizons than the Liverpool suburbs.

Wills' second chapter further explores the tangled relationship of British and Greeks, and British perceptions of Greece: partly by way of British public school education and the wartime media blitz propagating Greek heroism as part of a pro-British slant on Greek political allegiances, but in the first instance through Greece's own widespread nationalist use of the past, after independence was won, as, Wills argues, it "sought to establish its credentials as a 'European' country" (p. 32). This involved, we are told, "losing" the four centuries of the Tourkokratia and resorting to ancient achievements as a guarantee of acceptance into "the mainstream of European culture" (p. 35). The transposition of Athenian democracy into a modern context was particularly tricky, not least during Metaxas's dictatorship in the 1930s, when Spartan militarism officially replaced it as the ancient model. But by and large this new Western self-image was promoted with considerable success, and found a natural seedbed among the British upper and professional classes, already acclimatized by prolonged youthful exposure to regard ancient Greece as "a world of unreal perfection" (Hilda Hughes, The Glory that is Greece, 1944, p. 135).

As Wills points out, the abolition of Greek for Oxbridge entrance, the growth of science in school curricula, and the inevitable shrinkage of candidates for an old-style classical education that these innovations produced--plus, undoubtedly, the cynical nihilism engendered by trench warfare, which made dulce et decorum est pro patria mori sound like a joke in the worst possible taste--between them ensured that this supposed perfection lost much of its mesmeric force. Classics as a discipline was now advocated less as a moral and civic exemplum, and more for the mental and logical discipline it was held to instill (a view doubtless encouraged by the known advantage it offered to candidates for entry to the British Foreign Office or higher Civil Service). But though progressively fewer people could claim familiarity with the ancient world as part of their cultural heritage, the essential credo remained, and was given an unexpected boost by Second World War propaganda. In 1941, with the swastika flying over the Acropolis, Gilbert Murray compared the conflict to the Peloponnesian War, with "England of course playing the role of liberal and democratic Athens" (Elizabeth Rawson, The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, 1969, pp. 365-6). Considering that Athens lost, this was perhaps a little unfortunate; but then no one had forgotten the Nazis' jackbooted appropriation of Spartan militarism (not to mention a good deal from Plato's Republic), which set up the dichotomy Athens (good, liberal, democratic) / Sparta (bad, repressive, totalitarian) for years to come. The Greek campaign in Albania, like the savage Cretan resistance to German paratroopers, made the propagandists' task an easy one. Comparisons with the heroes of Marathon and Thermopylae abounded. The struggle for freedom, justice, independence was seen as eternal. The political divisions and in-fighting between conservatives and communists (often fighting each other rather than the Germans), which gave guerilla leaders like C.M. Woodhouse and N.G.L. Hammond such headaches--by 1944 the RAF was actually strafing coup-minded resistance forces in Athens--were tactfully brushed over. From the civil war of 1946-49, through the Cyprus conflict of the mid-Fifties to the emergence of the colonels in 1967, a Cold War right-wing attitude steadily hardened.

In his third chapter Will deals with the post-war lure of famous sites and monuments, taking as his text a remark of W.J.R. Curtis in Modern Architecture, Mythical Landscapes and Ancient Ruins (London 1997, p. 2), to the effect that "looking at a ruin is not a neutral exercise . . . One sees, to a degree, what one wants to see." This unexceptionable, if platitudinous, observation is dutifully applied to the topographic, mythical, historic, and aesthetic associations of some ten major sites: the Acropolis, Aegina, Bassae, Corinth, Crete (mainly Knossos), Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia, Sounion and Sparta. (Marathon, Thermopylae, and Vergina don't make the cut.) The reactions of travellers are fairly predictable. Sites gain from a beautiful natural context (Delphi, Sounion), from their historical or mythic associations (Crete, Mycenae, Olympia), from their architecture (Aegina, Bassae), or from all of the above (the Acropolis), with the Parthenon "as a visible guarantee of the virtues of democracy" (Mary Beard, The Parthenon, 2002, p. 144). This chapter also tracks the increasing retreat, during the last two or three decades, of visitors from what might be termed the Pilgrimage Mode, with authors advisedly supplying less and less ancient background for readers unversed in the Greek past, whose interests now lie elsewhere, and who are resolutely culture-proof. But Wills' last word here (p. 80) is that "[t]he legacy of Greece may no longer have been universally venerated as it once had been, but the status and representation of its monuments remained remarkably consistent." The reasons for this, and whether it is to be regarded as a good or a bad thing, are not discussed.

In his fourth chapter, Wills looks for common features of contemporary Greeks (viewed, astonishingly, en bloc) as presented by twentieth century writers, drawing on the positive/negative reactions he tabulates in Tables 5-7 ("friendly/curious about others", "generous/hospitable", "attempt to take advantage of travellers", "brave/heroic", "interested in politics/a democratic people", "sociable/garrulous/noisy", "religious/superstitious", "simple or pastoral way of life/timelessness", "images of a classical nature related", "explicit statement about ethnic link to ancient people"), culled from (by my count) over ninety travel-books. The main conclusions he presents are as follows: (i) whether consciously or unconsciously (and indeed, in some cases, where the ancient world is ignored), writers, he finds, tend to see the people they meet through the inherited lens focused on their ancient ancestors, or endow them with attributes (e.g. a democratic instinct) "commonly associated with the ancient world" (p. 81). (ii) Despite the rapid growth, and industrialization, of urban Greece, Athens in particular, he notes a tendency to depict the country as, in essence, primitive, peasant-rural, and timeless, thus enabling writers "to portray the Greeks as relics of a bygone age, as a people untainted by progress, but who would also benefit from Western tutelage." (iii) This last consideration leads some, especially long-term residents, into the kind of criticism that Wills (like many others) labels "Orientalism": e.g. accusations of laziness, misogyny, unpunctuality, bureaucratic Byzantinism or all-pervasive official and political corruption. In these cases the tendency is to blame four centuries of Turkish occupation rather than the peerless heroes of antiquity.

Will's final chapter takes a quick look at the rapid evolution of Greece between the collapse of the Junta (1974) and today, and tries to estimate the ways in which travel-writing has accommodated itself to a radically changing social scene. Long-term residency became increasingly popular at the same time as the traditional "Glory that was Greece" attitude rapidly withered. Cheap air fares meant that retirees were joined by those well-heeled professionals able to spend a week-end in their Greek retreat and be back at work in London or Manchester by Monday (a deal Americans could, and can, only view with wistful envy). While a minority still hunted for increasingly rare quiet and unspoilt enclaves of the "old Greece", hordes of package tourists began to treat the country as just another interchangeable chunk, like the Costa del Sol, of sunny Mediterranean la-la-land. The consequences of this new invasion, not touched on by Wills, have been something less than idealistic. In the New York Times (23 Aug. 2008) Sarah Lyall quotes the mayor of Malia, on the north-east coast of Crete, on their habits: "They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit." He added, emphatically: "It is only the British people--not the Germans or the French." By contrast, a quest for Hellenic temps perdu might seem relatively harmless, indeed admirable. Even Wills admits that shepherds now use cell-phones, and that "real Greeks" are as likely to patronize a global fast food outlet as a traditional taverna; but the overall impact of the modern social revolution in travel seems to have escaped his notice.

His general conclusions are what one might expect. He reiterates the general acceptance of the truism that a travel-writer reveals more about himself than he does about the place visited, and complains, once more, that this insight seems not to have occurred to writers about Greece. He claims (p. 117) to have established "an archive of attitudes" from the books he has studied, and this, in an inevitably selective way, he has certainly done. The "other discourses -- historical and sociological, as well as literary" that he claims to have examined seem to have had no more than a random effect on him. In his study, the past is virtually always there as a mirror for the present. Escapees from the rat-race are in pursuit of a changeless world. Thus (p. 119) " 'modern' Greece could be regarded both as the birthplace of European culture and as a primitive backwater." The monuments in particular, Wills insists, not only gathered a nexus of powerful historical associations but were seen, in their ruined longevity, as a testament immune from the vulgar present. He concedes that this Hellenic myth is fading, yet ends with the assertion (p. 121) that "[f]or British observers and participants, Greece was--and is--a fantasy land, in which notions of past and present, civilization and culture, timelessness and change, could be played out."

As should by now be apparent, this study manages, in an often repetitive and disjunctive fashion, to pinpoint, and document, several fairly obvious truisms about the evolution of British literary reactions to Greece: in particular the impact of antiquity filtered through a classical education, the myths generated by uncertain acquaintance with modern Greeks and their history, the legacy of World War II propaganda, and the stunting effect on knowledge and communication of the past promoted by the recent classless revolution in overseas travel. The subject overall is one of immense cultural interest, which makes this book's shortcomings all the more regrettable. Unlike Roessel's In Byron's Shadow, a far more subtle, nuanced, and socially acute investigation, Wills does not analyze in depth any of the many books he studies: they are simply there to be quarried for quotations. More than once he states that he is not concerned in the first instance with the literary quality of the writers he studies, but is equally "interested in the ones with small budgets and lots of dreams",1 an apples-and-oranges comparison which also ignores the fact that the description precisely fits many that he claims not to be concerned with (e.g. the young Patrick Leigh Fermor).

Wills also, throughout, has an academic trick of citing, without comment, but in such a way that leaves a residue of fashionable doubt in the reader's mind, the claims of authors regarding instances of conventional wisdom that do not really suit his thesis. "It was widely believed that in ancient Greece lay the origins of contemporary literature, architecture, political systems, and civic values" (p. 8). 2 Similarly at p. 51: ". . . during the twentieth century ancient Greece was regularly asserted to be the origin of Western culture", etc. Of Olympia: "Writers continued to insist upon the importance of the surrounding landscape" (p. 14). The actual, rather than the romantic-imaginary, survival of the ancient past, especially the pagan past, in the present gets the same treatment. On "uncritical assumptions about the continuity of traditions in Greece" Wills reports (p. 34): "[I]n their 1970 study of Greek rural beliefs . . . Richard and Eva Blum argued that 'there was much in the nineteenth century in Greece that would have been familiar to Pausanias and to Hesiod before him'".3 It is only "[f]or historian Alan Clark, writing in 1962" that "the reaction of the Cretans to the Axis invasion of 1941 was based on 'a whole tradition of mountain valour, of guerilla banditry, of rock and field craft and marksmanship that ran in the blood' " (A. Clark, The Fall of Crete, London (2000), p. 79). Sparta's military totalitarianism is presented (p. 79) as the opinion of a travel-writer (John Pollard Journey to the Styx, London 1955, pp. 99-100), and "a view of history" that "provided models, precedents, and justification, for the British Empire".

An overwhelming preponderance of evidence, both ancient and modern, suggests that every one of these statements, presented by Wills as arguable assertions, is in fact substantially true, and Wills does not help his genuine perceptions of starry-eyed romanticism by implying that the whole ancient model was fantasy, which it quite clearly was not. This attitude, I suspect, is what brought about the most remarkable omission in The Mirror of Antiquity: any discussion of the Greek language, central to communication between host and visitor, personal relationships, literature, social and class nuances, and the entire fabric of Greek history: not least to the period before and immediately following the War of Independence, when the pursuit of antiquity was challenged by the vernacular, Orthodox-based tradition of resistance symbolized by the Memoirs of General Ioannis Makriyiannis, and led to the linguistic split between katharevousa (an attempt to revive something like ancient Attic, here only alluded to in an unexplained quotation, p. 33) and dêmotikê (the current spoken language). Unwary readers of Wills might suppose the Greek Hellenizers had it all their own way. Not so. And the whole problem of coping with a minority language, not least when behind it lies that language's famous ancestor, is simply shelved.4 This is a pity. There is enough excellent material assembled in this ex-dissertation to warrant a revised and expanded second edition, which stops trying, by implication, to demonstrate untenable theories, is more rigorous in distinguishing between fact and fantasy, and, above all, integrates the linguistic question into its analysis of the evidence. For all this, David Roessel would not be a bad model.5


Notes:


1.   The quotation is taken by Wills from J. D. Ragan, "French Women Travellers in Egypt: A Discourse Marginal to Orientalism?", in Travellers in Egypt, ed. P. and J. Starkey, London (2001), p. 228.
2.   Cf. also [p. 44]: "Francis Noel-Baker maintained in his children's book Looking at Greece that 'Europe's politics, philosophy, architecture, mathematics, science, and even her music originated in Greece'".
3.   Richard and Eva Blum, The Dangerous Hour: The Lore and Culture of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece, London (1970), p. 6. Wills ignores the Blums' earlier, and considerably more significant, study Health and Healing in Rural Greece, Stanford 1965, not to mention that remarkable, and well-documented, classic, J. C. Lawson's Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, Cambridge (1910).
4.   The nearest Wills comes to this is citing (p. 20) the famous anecdote about Virginia Woolf, who complained that the Greeks "do not understand the Greek of the age of Pericles--when I speak it." Considering that she probably used, not even Erasmian pronunciation, but the Anglicizing phonetic style affected by English Victorians, this is hardly surprising. Too many classicists, even today, draw a very firm, and contemptuous, line between Plato's Greek and its linear descendant, which has not only lost the infinitive, but commits solecisms such as making apo govern the accusative: Wills missed a great opportunity here.
5.   I list here one or two minor points for consideration in any future edition. p. 10: "limb-shaped votive offerings", far from being a dubious claim of Theodore Bent's, are still found in Catholic and Orthodox churches worldwide, not least in the Mediterranean. p. 70: Linear B was not, strictly speaking, "the writing of ancient Crete", this being Linear A, but A's (somewhat awkward) adaptation by the Mycenaean conquerors. p. 71: Wills' apparent agreement with Payne that there was "little record in history" about the island of Aegina should go: the statement is demonstrably false. p.73: The claim that the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens was "largely a Roman edifice" is highly misleading. p. 78: Doubt cast on the poor quality and quantity of Spartan remains has to fudge Thucydides' clear statement to this effect in his comparison (1.10) of Sparta with Athens. p. 120: "The history of Greece was written as going straight from the Roman Empire to nineteenth century independence": this is to ignore, most notably, George Finlay's seven-volume History of Greece from its Conquest by the Romans to the Present Time, BC 146 to AD 1864, Oxford 1877, and W. Miller's Latins in the Levant: A History of Frankish Greece (1204-1566), New York 1908.

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