BMCR 1992.01.01

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd series, 2.1 (Winter 1992)

Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 3rd series, 2.1 (Winter 1992). Trustees of Boston University. Pp. 288.

The first new issue of Arion provoked some lukewarm reactions in these pages. The second has more to offer in the way of both strengths and weaknesses. This issue is less dominated than the first by its editorial board, who now supply only three of the contributors. It is even more Hellenic than the last, containing nothing Roman at all except in the poems (though some relief is at hand in the fall issue). Two of the objectives of the journal’s mission statement (pages 7-8 of the first new issue) are better addressed than the rest. Objective number 3 concerned the classical tradition (“the creative—even galvanic—presence of the classics in every pan-European movement from the Renaissance through modernism”), and this is served by six of eleven articles and reviews in the second issue. The reviews are all in effect review articles, which meets objective 4: “Arion reviews will often be essays in their own right” with emphasis on “the methodological implications of the works under review.” On the other hand, the main work of criticism of classical works, both literary and non-literary (objectives 1 and 2) appears somewhat marginalised, and “work on teaching” (objective 5), if this means practicalities rather than ideology, has yet to make an appearance. As many editors have discovered, it is not easy to get everything you want, and it may be that methodology and tradition will continue as Arion‘s strengths.

The one purely exegetical essay has little to do with Arion‘s program of publishing “work that needs to be done and that otherwise might not get done,” “work that refreshes the general vision not reinforces idées reçues.” “Pity and terror in Euripides’ Hecuba” is a reprint of Kenneth Reckford’s introduction to a recently published translation, making “extensive use” of a lecture delivered in 1977 and published in 1985. For the most part an elementary audience is addressed. “Much of what I have said,” says Reckford candidly, “will not seem especially new or surprising to many classical scholars, for Euripides’ Hecuba is not a problem play.” “The play is not just about Hecuba’s fall, for what she learns … is that she lives in a godforsaken world where chance and harsh necessity prevail and where no-one … is truly free.”

Three contributions address works of twentieth century poetry which respond to the classical tradition in various ways. Christopher Ricks defends Robert Lowell’s Phaedra as a response to the special difficulties of rendering the tensions of veiled sexuality and violence in Racine into English in a post-Freudian world without descending into ‘prurience’: in Lowell’s version, says Ricks (or is it Gorgias?), “Sexuality and violence are protected against prurience by a candor such as necessarily courts indignity in its overtness”. If Lowell’s explicitness in these areas “leaves less to the imagination than Racine did, that is partly because the imagination is not these days to be trusted to have as much left to it.” More censorious but not wholly unsympathetic is D.M. Hooley’s account of a version of Sophocles’ Electra done by Ezra Pound in collaboration with Rudd Fleming in 1949 and recently unearthed, performed and published. For Hooley, “That it fails as poetry is indisputable; equally evident is its failure as a just representation of the Greek. The language is usually ugly and wildly inconsistent…. And yet for a number of reasons one might not quite settle for indignation”—mainly because Pound adds a touch of madness to Electra, and an “assertion of primitive and fundamental values,” which together make for real tragic effect. Real epic effect is found—despite the poet’s expressed reservations—by Oliver Taplin in a discussion (“not written as a review”) of Derek Walcott’s Omeros. This recently published poem, book-length and of intricate design, is centered through narrative on the personal and cultural experience of Achille, a fisherman on Walcott’s home island of St Lucia. Taplin’s assessment does much to encourage engagement with the poem. Besides arguing its exceptional quality he explores an ambivalence between Walcott’s use of Homer (which he sees as more thorough than the poet admits) and his ‘denial’ of Homer which is due, Taplin suggests, to his distaste for such aspects of ancient Greece as slavery and ochlocracy and for the elitism of the classical tradition.

Three further essays address the nineteenth century. P.E. Easterling provides a useful summation of George Eliot’s response to Greek tragedy, stressing particularly the themes of ‘nemesis’ (the necessity that actions entail consequences), kinship, and women’s repression, and noting the “living meaning” that Eliot allows sympathetic and perceptive characters such as Mr. Irwine in Adam Bede to draw from Greek tragedy. In a more elaborate essay, Martha Nussbaum explores with admirable clarity how Nietzsche’s account of Apollo and Dionysus both depends upon and revolutionises Schopenhauer’s representation/will dichotomy, transforming Schopenhauer’s view of art (especially tragedy) as an escape from the will and the particularities of existence. Already implicit in The Birth of Tragedy, Nussbaum argues, is an insistence that the realms of ‘will’ and cognition are not separate (the one to be transcended for the sake of the other) but integrated. Cognition is will-full in its drive to impose (Apollonian) order on our world; the Dionysian is not merely will-full but intelligent and conducive of art. To energise both is to defeat the absurdity of existence and integrate the world by imposing on it the order of our own (tragic) artistry.

Stanley Rosen in his essay on “Suspicion, Deception and Concealment” joins Nussbaum in stressing the consistency from early in his career of Nietzsche’s view of the fictive nature of human truths. Rosen is concerned to identify similar tendencies in early Greek literature, to which he applies a determinedly geistesgeschichtlich method. It must be said that the result suffers from a degree of inexactness in R.’s argument. His contention that Pindar conveys “the insight that falsehoods are an intrinsic property of the truth” is not supported by those passages of Pindar which observe that the historical record is often distorted by (envious, etc.) lies, nor by those which note the unreliability of human elpides about the future, nor yet by Nem 7.20-24, in which Pindar opines that Odysseus’ fame has been exaggerated by Homer’s sophia—that is, by his poetic skill and not (as R. would have it) by his “wisdom … to respond to the greater power of the gods with what Socrates will later call medicinal or noble lies.” As for the Homeric poems, R. is convinced by the 1936 dissertation of Wilhelm Luther that the Odyssey‘s ethos in respect of truth and lying differs from that of the Iliad; in the Odyssey there has “emerged” an Ionian (sic) non-heroic ethos which recognises the need and right of the wise man to manipulate the truth. Yet the Iliad‘s praise of Odysseus’ deviousness (notably 3.202, which R. does not cite) is similar to the Odyssey‘s (e.g. 3.120, which he does), and there is no good reason to assume that Achilles’ condemnation of it in Iliad 9.312 conveys “the ethos” of the Iliad as a whole. In any case, the fictive purposes of an Odysseus are tactical, not metaphysical or existential—as indeed is the “noble deception” of Republic III which R. wishes to claim as the forerunner of Nietzsche’s esotericism.

The area of methodology is addressed by James Redfield’s “Classics and Anthropology” and by three of the review articles which respond to Arion‘s encouragement to turn reviews into “essays in their own right.” Not surprisingly, it is the items in this area that do most to provoke scepticism about Arion‘s program. Not that all of them should be tarred with the same brush. Robin Osborne’s discussion of A city of images, the volume of essays on Greek iconography by C. Bérard et al. now published in English translation by Princeton, is obviously written for those who have read the book and does little to describe it for those who have not. Osborne attempts politely if rather tentatively to recommend a compromise position between Beazleian “attributionism” and the book’s “Francophone readers of images” for whom “the artist is submerged under the language he employs.” The latter position blunts our opportunities for relating shifts and novelties in the treatment of key iconographic signs (such as the satyr) with the specific historical circumstances which they reflect—circumstances which include the points of view of individual people such as vase-painters. “We need to continue,” Osborne concludes, “to allow for the power of the individual observer to make a mirror of the city which is not like any other mirror, which actively alerts the citizenry to its image rather than passively reflects an image unconsciously emanated by the city.”

Norman Austin’s review of volume 1 of the Heubeck/West/Hainsworth commentary on the Odyssey is more informative at the mundane level but soon modulates into an argument (against the editors’ more orthodox view) that the Homeric ‘texts’, though essentially oral, are not improvised but on the contrary highly traditional and culturally authoritative, having originated in monumental historical oral texts in Mycenean times. This is little more than the statement of a bright idea, since Austin barely confronts the linguistic, historical and indeed generic difficulties of such a view and includes such supporting arguments as this: the monumentality of the Homeric poems does not have to be attributed to the existence of the alphabet because some subsequent written works were not monumental. Austin proceeds more fruitfully to insist that “density of cross-references” is a means for creating meaning and emotional force in (specifically) oral poetry, and to show how marriage can be seen as a theme in the Odyssey once this potential is recognised. But his contention that marriage is the theme, “as anger is the theme of the Iliad,” remains very much open to doubt.

James Redfield’s “Classics and Anthropology” surprisingly rejects inter-disciplinariness a priori and allows at best for inter-departmental approaches. Yet classics, integrated by the classical languages and their study, is inevitably interdisciplinary, comprising several disciplines within one department. R.’s view is based on a narrow definition of academic disciplines as exclusive, restrictive, self-perpetuating and hierarchical coteries. Thus, “Philosophy is what philosophers do, and anything else can be safely disregarded by philosophers because it is not part of philosophy.” It is precisely the merit of the disciplines reckoned among the humanities that they take a wider view, and this is what distinguishes them from the social sciences. Still, R.’s comparative view from the “margins” is illuminating because of the contrasts he is able to draw between classics and anthropology as two antithetical but complementary ways of looking at the same subject. The hostility between them is proportionate to their affinity. There is a strongly comparative and anthropological element in the historical study of classics, but comparatists and anthropologists, even though accepted in their time, never became models to the discipline of classics, and the theory that was involved never became part of classical education. One might add here that this could be remedied by a course in the history and theory of classical studies, a glaring lacuna in most classics programs, producing graduates with old-mannish, knee-jerk aversions to critical theory and only an anecdotal knowledge of their own discipline. R. offers a good explanation for this: whereas anthropologists typically orient themselves in relation to other theorists, classicists turn to accumulated commentaries that have already framed the questions. Anthropology involves a questioning of the canon, classicists constantly reaffirm it. Anthropologists accept an inevitable margin of error, classicists are preoccupied with standards of accuracy which, as R. rightly points out, are not necessarily identical with standards of intellectual quality. Anthropologists are concerned with interpretation, classicists with “facts”, typically the scanty data transmitted by texts. (The absence of sufficient data often turns scholarly arguments in classics into an endless card game where the same dog-eared cards are manipulated over and over again in different combinations without allowing a conclusive strike.) According to R., it is this preoccupation with accuracy that ultimately defines the discipline, rather than the texts themselves. And since these standards are declining, the discipline itself is in decline. This explanation is followed by the usual complaint against the times: “This is a permissive age, valuing creativity over accuracy.” The study of the classics in translation is seen as the ultimate collapse. This line of argument is rather familiar and not particularly useful if one is looking for new models and cross-fertilization from other disciplines. It is based ultimately on a (Freudian) view of civilization as the imposition of unpleasant standards, and of the teaching of Latin and Greek as the remnant of a form of compulsion to which a social elite used to submit its members by way of an entrance ordeal. One might respond that making the classics accessible in translation allows a much broader audience with no prior linguistic knowledge to enter into the cultural, and specifically the ethnographic background to a degree often not possible in a language-based course. Classicists are also moving away from the study of texts in terms of a fairly limited set of philological questions to the treatment of texts as cultural artifacts, a substantial contribution from anthropology and archaeology not discussed by R. His talk about “maintaining standards” as the classicist’s burden suggests a bunker mentality and an even greater alienation from other disciplines.

True, philology was typically not interested in ancient culture as a meaningful system, only in amassing (arbitrary) detail. Consequently, it could be argued, a great deal of interpretative work remains to be done. For this it is not necessary to move classics over to anthropology—a possibility raised by R. but rejected—but rather to construct interdisciplinary models such as Vernant’s successful adoption of structuralist anthropology for the study of Greek culture and society. Ironically, R.’s own Nature and Culture in the Iliad is a shining example. The application of contemporary Mediterranean anthropology (not discussed by R.) is another example. Initially, such approaches will always be controversial, but the ultimate criterion is—or should be—whether or not they shed new light. New methodologies are easier to understand and to evaluate when presented in terms of one’s own field. So it is disappointing that R. has not concentrated on the specific challenges presented by the contact between classics and anthropology. Instead, he draws the subject matter conservatively into the sphere of cultural pessimism. At the end, however, R. makes the interesting point that philology’s ultimate justification lies in its critical attitude towards the text; it prevents us from assimilating the classics to ourselves, and allows us to see their otherness and distance. This position is diametrically opposed to current critical usage, which presents an attitude of le texte, c’est moi, reconstituting the text with limitless arbitrariness in its own image.

Lastly, an egregious and one hopes exceptional case of le compte-rendu, c’est moi is provided by Camille Paglia’s review of Halperin’s One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Winkler’s Constraints of Desire, which occupies almost one-third of this issue. The review of Halperin is the mother of all hatchet jobs. P. is extremely annoyed that he did not take a psychological approach, that he followed a French model (Foucault), and that he has no eye for aesthetics. Her critique is solipsistic and perfectly circular. As in her recent book, P. sees homosexuality redeemed by art, but this dispensation clearly does not extend to homosexual American classicists. The first part of her title, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders,” alludes to the brand of self-promotion supposedly practised by present-day gay scholars. P. is not doing too badly herself in this area, and she is constantly hoist with her own neo-conservative petard when accusing Halperin of engaging in “ideology.” The anti-French views constantly and gratuitously expressed extend beyond intellectual bias to a form of cultural bigotry sported by the author like a badge of honour. The attack on Halperin is really an attack on Foucault, who is said to have made “smirky glibness an art form.” Glib indeed is the reduction of Halperin’s enlightening and elaborately argued critique of Harold Patzer’s Die griechische Knabenliebe to Patzer’s neglect of Foucault! Halperin’s useful distinction between normative ideal and actual practice with regard to inter-crural intercourse at Athens (following Dover) is summarily dismissed by P. who insists on the normative ideal as actual practice. Throughout this review, P. indulges in what can only be called cheap psychologizing, attributing nasty motives that reflect more on herself than on the persons supposed to harbour them.

In terms of methodology, P. sees the very real space explored in the interdisciplinary study of Halperin and others as “a wasteland where wolves run free,” where scholarship is turned into “yuppie entrepreneurship,” “chic and hollow.” P. constantly claims that Halperin does not know his stuff, but her criticism, even where warranted, loses all credibility because of its bias and virulence. Her own insistence throughout on a psychological approach becomes tiresome and reductive. (Does Jung’s theory of the anima, for example, really fit Diotima “perfectly”?)

P.’s estimation of Winkler as a scholar is somewhat more positive, though she prefers to ignore or suppress Winkler’s own repeated caveats with regard to the applicability of contemporary Mediterranean anthropology to antiquity (Constraints, pp. 3, 10, 98, 113, 162). Her history lessons inserted to counteract the synchronic view adopted by both Winkler and Halperin are pedantic; particular historical changes or the passage of time itself do not necessarily affect basic attitudes. The persistent role of cunning in social relations in ancient and modern Greece is a good example, as convincingly demonstrated by Winkler in his chapter on “Penelope’s Cunning” and elsewhere (see Constraints, Index, s.v. mêtis). Winkler like Halperin is accused of not knowing anthropology, which on inspection turns out to mean that he does not refer to Frazer or Jane Harrison. Surprisingly, P. does not discuss Winkler’s use of Herzfeld’s work.

Winkler’s second essay, “Laying Down the Law,” is found to be problematic because his evidence is drawn from the period 430-330 B.C., ergo from the moment when “Athens began to decline.” How and why did this decline in political power affect sexual attitudes and practices? P.’s suggestion that they were affected negatively depends on an antiquated, normative construction of the relationship between political power and morality. And clearly one has to distinguish between post-plague, war-time Athens and the bourgeois society that replaced it, as P. herself insists elsewhere. Winkler’s philological expositions of the different usages of the word phusis are applauded, but his rather plausible argument that the definitions of “nature” and “culture” are culturally determined is not.

Winkler’s third essay, on “Erotic Magical Spells”, is one from which students take away a powerful sense of sexuality as a lived reality in antiquity, but for P. it shows the “tragic waste of American talents enslaved to French masters.” His fourth, “The Education of Chloe,” sends her into a paroxysm of rage leading to the inevitable conclusion, “the rest of us can safely ignore them” ( i.e., the “born-yesterday French-besotted faddists”). P. likes to profile herself and her reactions (“Oh ship of fools, I said to myself”) and because Winkler not unreasonably considers goats rank-smelling P. is provoked to object: “I am personally offended, since my grandfather loved to shop for goats.” The practice developed by feminist scholars—present yourself, your background, your sentiments and your biases—has been hijacked and driven to a ridiculous extreme.

Winkler’s essay on “Double Consciousness in Sappho’s Lyrics”, probably the least convincing, receives only a relatively mild going-over, with references to the far superior work by the “learned men in the German and British academic tradition,” compared with whom feminist scholars are nobodies. (Have Snell, Lesky and Page really said the last word about Sappho?) As for female classicists, P. is keen on Jane Harrison and Gisela Richter precisely, as it turns out, because they were educated by male classicists.

P. criticises Winkler’s final essay, “The Laughter of the Oppressed”, for getting “bogged down” in rebutting Detienne’s The Gardens of Adonis; but in fact the rebuttal is essential—and incidentally very useful for presentation in a class. For an advanced undergraduate course, what distinguishes Winkler’s book is its clarity, and its engagement which yields the kinds of observations that could only come from a scholar like Winkler, who ‘lived’ the margin and was acutely sensitive to the ‘protocols’ operating in a given society. One can only imagine what he would have done with P.’s cant.

P.’s back-to-basics proposal for academic reform again suffers from over-statements and the now familiar obsessions but also contains some useful criticisms. The suggestion that humanities professors should teach subjects they have not taught before, although hardly new, is a good one: there is nothing like a new course to bring about a learning experience for a professor. P.’s pious contention that the teaching profession is a “vocation” and a “ministry” contrasts oddly with her merciless profession-bashing throughout this review. Her enthused accounts of her own teaching efforts in a Sikorsky factory and with minority students recall the rhetoric of socialism which she so heartily despises. Occasionally there is an interesting observation, e.g., “Even leftist professors these days lack a sense of history.” That preoccupation with theory sometimes provides a cover for the absence of historical knowledge has already been noted by Stanley Fish, surely no friend of P.’s. Her own concept of history freely mixes decline-and-fall with dialectics and eternal return. There is prophecy too in the statement that “the overall line of Western culture will never change.” Surprisingly, P. does not seem to be aware of the work of E.R. Dodds. P. regularly strikes a Nietzschean pose, offering a Dionysiac celebration of “nature” versus the repression associated especially, and predictably, with French culture.

The review concludes with a call to the new Kulturträger, the “children of the Sixties,” to awaken and “clean house.” The variety of ways in which the Sixties are invoked in this paper (e.g., pp. 178-9, 182) is a perfect correlative to the confused and self-contradictory ideas expressed in P.’s program of reactionary reform. The publication of this review suggests a great deal about the current editorial direction of Arion, moving as it does into the shadows of Leo Strauss and Harold Bloom, P.’s acknowledged master. What a spectacular reversal of Arion‘s aspirations in the Sixties!