BMCR 2005.01.25

Love, Sex, and Tragedy. How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives

, Love, sex & tragedy : how the ancient world shapes our lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 335 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226301176. $27.50.

1 Responses

This new plea that we should attend to our classical past is written with considerable brio. It covers a huge chronological range in its short chapters with their snappy titles (‘Sex and the City’, ‘That’s Entertainment!’): of course, we have classical antiquity (mostly Athens and imperial Rome), but we also touch down on Simeon Stylites’ pillar, in Erasmus’ study, on George ‘Cincinnatus’ Washington’s farm, in Byron’s idealized Greece.

The work is divided into five sections: ‘Who do you think you are?’ — on body image and display, corporeal grooming as part of citizenship, and sexual mores (especially the homo-erotic); ‘Where do you think you are going?’ — scanning the very different notions of the body and social bonds in early Christianity and the urgent Renaissance debates around the text of the Bible; ‘What do you think should happen?’ — a rich reprise of the Athenian democratic leap and of criticism as a fundamental part of democracy; ‘What do you want to do?’ — on the abiding power of Greek tragedy, the civic function of the Athenian dramatic festivals, and the all-too-familiar savagery of the gladiatorial games (with a rather surprising excursus on the Seder as close relation of the Greek symposium); and finally, ‘Where do you think you come from?’- on the formation of both personal myths and national identities (especially those of Germany and the US) after the inspiration of classical models.

The bed on which the multifarious arguments are sprawled is not a Procrustean one. No single proposition for the relevance of classics is expounded — and this seems appropriate. Instead, we are given a range of justifications, often in the form of declarative statements: ‘To speak of culture in the modern West is to speak Greek’ (1, obviously a polemical mise-en-scene), ‘Christianity simply is a classical subject’ (98), ‘Modern drama inevitably looks back to Greece for an origin’ (216). Only on the penultimate page of the text does Goldhill invite the contextualization of such grandiose claims:

In order to understand and be part of the cultural tradition of the West, we must appreciate [the] repeated reinvention of the past through Greece and Rome. Of course, this is not all that’s necessary. But it is one essential strand of what has made the West what it is. (my emphasis)

This last statement is surely uncontroversial; not so the others. As the book has unfolded, however, we have seen that Goldhill is not endorsing a simple-minded search for origins; more often, though he doesn’t put it like this, he is promoting a salutary sense of Fremdheit — a notion of the alienness of the cultures from which we in the privileged Western world are descended and around which we build (some of) our cultural claims, in the hope of making us more reflective about our present assumptions and practices.

This is in many ways not a suitable book to review in a scholarly journal for a professional audience. Its jacket sports an enviable blurb from Zadie Smith, and she, surely, is representative of its ideal readers: cultivated, highly intelligent, but not in the business. Goldhill’s determination to increase the scope of conventional arguments about the relevance of classics is admirable; so is his obvious commitment to cultural outreach. At the same time, the book is, I think, written to provoke; and for the purposes of this review, I shall allow myself to be provoked.

Ostensibly a plea for the relevance of classics, this book is also, presumably unintentionally, a snapshot of the myopias, limitations, and inconsistencies in the discipline as practised today. Sex is in; late antiquity is in. But women and the middle ages are still beyond the pale.

The third chapter of the book (entitled unappetizingly ‘The Female Body — Soft and Spongy, Shaved and Coy’) begins, ‘This has been a very male story so far.’ It has been. And it continues to be. The masculine nature of ‘classics’ could have been addressed head-on at the beginning of the book by asking why Greco-Roman literature has earned the name of ‘classics’, and by whom, in whose interests, it has been conferred. (The only place where the issue is mentioned, I think, is late in the book: the emotional power of the literature is cited as ‘one good reason why the classics are called the classics and deserve our attention’ [298].) The ‘Female Body’ chapter itself, which sets out to rectify the omission of the female, is deeply troubling. The discussion of male beauty acknowledges its complex intersection with ideology and power. Now, the tale of the man who tried to have sex with Aphrodite’s statue prompts the question ‘when does pleasure in looking become a darker urge?’ (43) — but it is unquestionably men who are doing the looking. The unquestioned primacy of the male gaze is reiterated in the chapter on Sappho, who ‘has constantly been used to express female longing in a man’s world’. True, but the portrait by Mengin used to illustrate the argument shows a brooding woman in black draperies with her breasts bared, reified in an attitude both sexual and vulnerable to invite the longing of a male audience.1 Goldhill explores the ideals of the body beautiful — of both genders. He provides us with the data to note the extraordinary discrepancy between the consistent ideal for the male and the constantly varying ideal for the female; but he does not remark upon it or note the consequent reinscriptions of male power over the female body.

There are arenas here where the elision of women is even more consequential for our intellectual heritage. The section on democracy is particularly problematic in this respect. Goldhill writes ‘a citizen was the only thing to be in a democracy’ (184: this is in the context of democratic Athens); seven pages later, he addresses the fact that the ‘majority of the adult population’ — including all the women — were not counted as part of this demos. This matters when, at the end of the chapter, Goldhill inveighs against the ‘disempowerment of the people’ in modern democratic systems. One knows what he means; but for everyone except propertied men the mere opportunity to vote for a representative every few years — never mind the chance to run for office, or to work for affiliated political organizations — is a significant increase in empowerment.

Comparable silences are felt elsewhere in the book. The study of the Philhellenism of Byron and Shelley leaves out of account the human detritus left behind by their ‘Romantic commitment to the cause of freedom (artistic, political, sexual)’ (261) — the story so poignantly told, for example, in Howard Brenton’s 1984 play ‘Bloody Poetry’. Byron and Shelley’s suicidal lovers and abandoned children might have found Greece rather less ‘inspirational.’ We learn that nineteenth-century school curricula in Germany and England occupied up to 80% of their time with Greek and Latin, and that consequently ‘Greek and Latin provided the furniture of the Victorian mind’ (318) — once again, that of the monied male: we need only think of Virginia Woolf’s frustration at her failure to learn Greek (surely connected with her sublime ability to describe men reading Greek, for example in The Years). The learned women of the Renaissance crowd behind this image, too: highly educated in Latin and Greek, fostered, praised, encouraged to give public lectures — and, time and again, dropped when marriage threatened their relationships with their male mentors.2 Arguably the most enduring intellectual movement of the nineteenth century was not any of the versions of Hellenism so beautifully tracked by Goldhill (summary, 267), but the women’s movement: did Elizabeth Cady Stanton take her inspiration from the classics? did Rebecca West?

So much for women. What about the middle ages? Why do I even bother to point to their elision?

I try to do so on grounds which Goldhill himself proposes. These are twofold. First, if ‘Christianity simply is a classical subject’ (98), why do we stop discussing it in late antiquity and start again with Erasmus? Second, Goldhill laments that the passion of Christianity has been ‘lost to blandness’ in modern education, and urges that we apprehend the ‘full difficulty of [its] picture’ (both quotes from 159; Goldhill’s emphasis). On a superficial level, this brings Stevie Smith’s trenchant lines irresistibly to mind:

People who are always praising the past
And especially the times of faith as best
Ought to go and live in the middle ages
And be burnt at the stake as witches and sages.

But, as with the women, there are important disciplinary presuppositions at stake (sic!). The picture of Medieval Christianity is indeed very difficult — its passions, while undeniably passionate, are both salutary and devastating — but time and again it complicates the claims for the classical heritage that Goldhill is considering here. A few examples. Part 1, Chapter 2 (‘A Man’s Thing?’) is in part a celebration of the Greek propensity for displaying erect penises — including, for example, the enormous phalli on Delos. Goldhill remarks that ‘museum curators keep the penises that have been knocked off statues, along with the other objects which the Christian tradition has covered with fig-leaves’ (29). And yet these images, and the penile Roman bell-pull on the following page, recall nothing so much as the late medieval trinkets apparently in parody of pilgrimage brooches, which show both erect penises and vulvae dressed as pilgrims, vulvae carried on a litter supported by penises, and other things which might seem to beg for a fig-leaf or two.3 The general assumption that Christianity was automatically opposed to sexuality and eroticism keeps surfacing; this seems to me out of kilter with the ebullience of Medieval spirituality. Goldhill remarks, for example, on the ‘false note’ of the sexy scene between Saints Thecla and Paul in prison (119); but this foreshadows the sexualization of the spiritual throughout the middle ages. Think of what Christina of Markyate or Margery Kempe could do with bridal mysticism; think of what Agnes Blannbekin could do with the foreskin of Christ. As Christina’s biographer has it:

With immeasurable delight she held [Christ] at one moment to her virginal breast, at another she felt His presence within her even through the barrier of her flesh. Who shall describe the abounding sweetness with which the servant was filled by this condescension of her creator?4

While it is of course true that Christianity develops ‘by both rejecting and negotiating the culture of Greece and Rome’ (143), it is hard to agree wholeheartedly with the subsequent claim: ‘Christianity has continued to find it difficult to deal with classics and the classical ideal, whether it is nudity and sexuality, or philosophy and art.’ It seems to me that it is our own age, which fancies itself so bold, which finds it difficult to deal with what is brash and vivid and just plain sexy in either the classical or the medieval periods.

Whatever your investment in the subject, this book will excite you and engage you and make you want to argue with it. Of course, it is precisely because I do believe that classics matters intensely in the modern world that I take issue with these reiterations of disciplinary silences. We will never understand why classics should matter unless we leave it open to explore when and where they might not matter. Nor will we understand why classics should matter unless we join up the temporal gap of the thousand diverse and difficult years between late antiquity and the rise of Protestantism. The medieval example shows up the particular problem with the pursuit of Fremdheit: the more pressing question is, what doesn’t seem strange, because we are so used to its patterns dictating our life? Every time we bow to Greek supremacy in a certain area, we should ask why, and how, we are acculturated to do so. The compelling legacy of Greek tragedy is probably the best example of this phenomenon. Last year I team-taught a graduate seminar on the application of gender theories to the ancient world with a colleague whose specialism is the archaeology of prehistoric Arabia. One of the works we discussed was Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim (New York, 2000). My colleague was intrigued by the connections made in the work; he appreciated the choice of Antigone as a key figure against the background of the Freudian choice of Oedipus (discussed by Goldhill, 289 ff.). But, working within a cultural matrix so different, he simply could not understand why a close reading of the relationships mapped in one Greek play should have any consequences whatever in the modern world. Ultimately, I didn’t know how to answer him. I would like to.

[[For a response to this review by Anthony Alcock, please see BMCR 2005.02.05.]]


1. See Manchester City Galleries; in support of Goldhill’s reading of ‘female longing’, note the art work of choice in Curve Magazine.

2. Resumés and sample writings in Women Writing Latin volume 3, ed. Churchill, Brown, and Jeffrey (New York/London: Routledge, 2002).

3. See, for example, the images in Brian Spencer, Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, 7 (London: Stationery Office: 1998); and Denis Bruna, Musée de Cluny. Enseignes de Pèlerinage et Enseignes Profanes (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996). Thanks to Marianne Hansen for leading me to these sources.

4. Translation of C.H.Talbot, from The Life of Christina of Markyate: a Twelfth Century Recluse, paragraph 46 (Toronto: Medieval Academy of America, 1998). One might add that Christ has appeared to her ‘in forma paruuli’. Margery Kempe’s ‘Boke’ is readily available in a Penguin translation by B. A. Windeatt (1985); Agnes Blannbekin is most easily encountered in the second volume of Women Writing Latin (above, note 2).