Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.06

Gonda Van Steen, Liberating Hellenism from the Ottoman Empire: Comte de Marcellus and the Last of the Classics.   New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.  Pp. x, 251.  ISBN 9780230100237.  $85.00.  



Reviewed by Amy Muse, University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) (ammuse@stthomas.edu)

Comte de Marcellus (1795-1865), traveler and secretary to the French embassy in Constantinople, had a gift for being in the right place at the right time. Over the course of just two short months—April-May 1820—he found himself on the island of Melos where a beautiful if armless statue of a woman had been unearthed; he wasted no time purchasing and having it transported to the Louvre, where it is now well-known to us, of course, as the Venus de Milo. A few weeks earlier he had found himself the only Western spectator to a clandestine staged reading of Aeschylus’ Persians performed for a select circle of Greeks on the verge of their revolution; he was the only one who lived to tell the tale. Gonda Van Steen’s immensely learned and engaging Liberating Hellenism from the Ottoman Empire uses these traveler’s tales of Marcellus as a platform to reinvestigate age-old and newly urgent West-East conflicts. The book moves from case studies on these “mutually illuminating” (155) events of the spring of 1820—the seizure of the Venus de Milo and the secret reading of Persians—to an extended analysis of literary and theatrical responses to the Persian Wars and the relationship between prerevolutionary Greek theatre and the Greek War of Independence. It closes with an epilogue situating her discoveries in present-day debates over the role classical texts and scholarship have played in the development and promulgation of Orientalism. She is aiming to write for a wide audience, which works very well in the first two narrative chapters, somewhat less so in the last half of the book, which has a more narrowly academic focus. In her investigation of the interrelatedness of philhellenism and Orientalism she extends arguments made in Stathis Gougouris’ groundbreaking Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford UP, 1996), both exposing and complicating collusions between classical scholarship and imperialism. What BMCR readers might find particularly useful, and inspiring, is that in so doing, she demonstrates how vital the study of Classics is to education in art, politics, history, theatre, literature, and cultural theory.

The introduction, “Enter the Intrepid Traveler,” announces that “this is a book about learning and unlearning about Greece and the Orient, about travels and travel writing, with the intrepid Marcellus as our guide” (1). The book’s narrative doesn’t, strictly speaking, proceed chronologically—the reading of Persians takes place before the incidents on Melos—but understandably the negotiation for the Venus de Milo is given top billing, as it is the more dramatic and better known of the two case studies. This ordering also serves Van Steen’s purpose to introduce the tangled web of philhellenism and Orientalism as she narrates how “the Frenchman’s acts [of appropriating the Venus] form the kaleidoscopic microcosm of what was happening on the grand geopolitical and ideological scale of the first decades of the nineteenth century” (65).

As the first chapter’s title, “The Venus de Milo: The Abduction from the Imbroglio and Tales of Turkish Nights,” indicates, Van Steen reads the account in Marcellus’ popular travelogue Souvenirs de l’Orient as an abduction tale filled with the Orientalist intrigue of the tales from the seraglio that were all the rage. She reminds us that “when the Venus was found in 1820, she came to the modern era wholly undocumented” (47); there were no ancient written sources, apparently no previous knowledge of the existence of this statue. Marcellus, then, could name her and claim her for his own. Van Steen examines how Marcellus transforms the “banal hostility” (38) of power negotiations into an exotic tale of rescuing the vulnerable beauty Venus from the barbarian hordes (ignorant and superstitious Greeks and fanatical Muslim Turks alike) and transporting her to the safety and civilization of Paris, where she would allow the French to compete with their English foes, who had smugly led the race for ownership and representation of antiquity with the Elgin Marbles.

The second chapter, “Rehearsing Revolution: Aeschylus’ Persians on the Eve of the Greek War of Independence,” introduces us to a previously unknown event, a staged reading of Persians that took place for an elite audience of Greek intelligentsia in a mansion on the Bosphorus owned by the prominent Manos family. The invitation depicted the event as being of merely linguistic interest, an opportunity to hear ancient Greek verse recited using modern Greek pronunciation, but Marcellus sees political implications in gathering to witness this particular play, and describes the occasion in an 1859 memoir (re-released in 1861 as a “scène orientale”). Since none of the others produced their own versions of the evening there’s no other evidence to corroborate Marcellus’ narrative, and Van Steen combs through it with an appropriately critical eye—even questioning, at one point, whether the reading ever happened at all. Alternatively, she suggests. it might be a fabrication by Marcellus that utilizes the familiar trope of the Greek “secret school” and features of Platonic dialogue, Plutarch, and popular philhellenic literature to construct a dramatic moment when Greece was poised between its past and future. Since from this point on, interpretations of and responses to Persians shape the rest of the book, Van Steen is careful to remind us that “at the start of its new lease on life in the emerging nation-state of Greece, this tragedy was not the disquieting play that modern scholars have uncovered, but the exemplum of a soothing genre of patriotic (self-)assurance and moral confirmation” (68). Marcellus presents the 1820 staged reading as a rehearsal for the revolution that would take place eleven months later. He crafts a tale of the rebirth of Greek consciousness taking place through a rebirth of classical tragedy, a moment in which the Greeks recognize that antiquity is their key to liberation, a moment, in other words, in which we see the fusing of ancient heritage to modern patriotism that will be so essential to the (Western) representations of the Greek War of Independence.

The third chapter, “Remaking Persian War Heroes,” is the most jam-packed. Van Steen uses a thematic focus on responses to the Persian Wars to cover huge swaths of scholarly ground. This ranges from a discussion of the literary philhellenism of Shelley and Byron, who saw the Greek Revolution as a restaging of the events at Salamis and a reclaiming of ancient Greek glory, to a close textual analysis of the paean taken from Persians and transformed into revolutionary battle cries, to what may be her most substantial contribution to new scholarship: an extended history of the prerevolutionary Greek theatre that took place in Jassy, Bucharest, and especially Odessa, birthplace of the revolutionary organization Philike Hetaireia (Society of Friends). This theatre was heavily influenced by the Greek intelligentsia in the West and therefore partook of the narrative that education in the ancient Greek heritage—in other words, the Classics—would breed patriotism and the foundation for a successful revolution. From the same source, the theatre assimilated the East-West binary, which meant that Greek national consciousness was from the start embedded in the West’s construction of the East, or in Orientalism. Van Steen’s discoveries are gained from deep forays into previously unknown or underused archives; she has managed not just to excavate and interpret the nineteenth-century sources in French and Modern Greek but to introduce readers to a whole realm of recent scholarship being conducted in Modern Greek that hasn’t yet entered English-language conversations on philhellenism, Orientalism, and theatre.

The ambitious Epilogue has the quality of a lecture that pulls together with impressive control the various strands of narrative and argument in the preceding pages. It is here that Van Steen, who in earlier chapters fruitfully used Said’s Orientalism in her analyses, cautions readers about the limitations of his conclusions for studying Greece, which has always held a unique position between the West and the East, and has a complicated colonial history with the Ottoman Empire that, to date, has not been fully addressed in postcolonial studies. She addresses Said’s provocative claim that Persians launched the Orientalizing attitude of the West toward the East but argues, in working to qualify the debate that has raged since then, that the ambiguity of Aeschylus’ own views and the complexities of the reception history of the play lead her to conclude that “in my view, the realization of the play’s meaning in antiquity did not overlap with the process of making western Orientalism” (163-4). Marcellus’ description of the 1820 reading of Persians, however, might have offered Said his “best proof yet” for how classical scholarship and philhellenism are bound up with Orientalism (164).

This final section demonstrates Liberating Hellenism from the Ottoman Empire’s far-reaching implications for the study of Classics and the so-called clash of civilizations. Van Steen’s interdisciplinary methods of analysis are, in large part, what give the book its range. She deftly works with Romanticism, art and theatre history, performance studies, political science, literary and cultural theory, and travel and tourism; throughout, she figuratively picks up an artifact, analyzes it from one perspective, arguing persuasively for the view captured in that perspective, then turns the object and analyzes it yet again, from a different disciplinary perspective. This layered analysis gives the study its satisfying feeling of thoroughness while it illustrates the complications involved in trying to understand a text or event and the potential blindnesses of staying rigidly within our disciplinary boundaries.

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