The hideous weakness of the modern classicist

A chance tweet by @theo_nash has had an intemperate effect on my reading as of late.[1] I naturally went straight to the inaugural lecture, which may be found here. As far as such things go it is not as entertaining as Wilamowitz’ zukunftsphilologie or as erudite as Housman’s UCL accessional, it is certainly interesting.[2]

“But we have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists…it could even be argued that Latin  gave to some parts of the classical heritage a far more living and integral status in the life of those ages [the dark ages]  than the academic studies of the specialists can claim in our own… if one were looking for a man who could not read Vergil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the 20th century than the 5th.”

The essay is not all doom and gloom. It is a sombre (if at times self-aggrandising!) narration.[3] It anticipates some of the debates we are currently having, which we have always been having, on the degeneration of skills amongst humanities specialists, the exclusion of the public, and the utility of periodisation.[4] Where it stands out against modern screeds, however, is the evident love of its subject. There is no talk of burning down here.

I thoroughly recommend you read it and, as usual, if you have limited time and the choice is between that and this blog post, click the little x in the corner and go and read Lewis.[5]

I did say it had an intemperate effect on my reading, I was inspired enough to re-read his The Discarded Image. How much more I got from it as an adult! What a beautiful book! It is passim outdated, and Lewis and I clearly come at literature from directly opposite angles,[6] but near every page oozes erudition in the best of the humanist tradition. It is also beautifully written and recently led me to ponder why so many Classics’ books are so turgidly written and to try and crowdsource a list of beautifully written ones, available here. Once again if you have any suggestions please add them. Anyway, Lewis. Having re-read The Discarded Image, I found myself moving on to his fiction.

Lewis, like Tolkien, was a member of the now famous literary discussion group the Inklings (this is as boring as it is seemingly mandatory to add in any blog, essay, or fucking tweet on these guys) and like his colleagues he wrote a mixture of fiction (whether poetry or prose – all poetry is fiction because all poets praeter Homerum are filthy liars) as well as more academically focused non-fiction. Like all the Inklings, the line between his fictive and factual literary works was a blurry one and (post/)Christian themes are liable to animate both sides of his literary production. Consider the way one can trace a direct line both from Tolkien’s interest in Germanic philology and his Catholicism all the way into his Lord of the Rings. Lewis’ fiction perhaps evinces this more evidently than that of the others, as anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia can tell you. It is common now for the chattering classes to speak disparagingly of the Christian elements of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling them obvious, lame, and preachy allegories whilst lauding whatever moronic book the NYT is hawking that happens to reaffirm their faith more fiercely than any expounder of homiletics would dare.

One of these is a thinly disguised allegory pushing a particular moral outlook. The other has a talking lion.

But why am I justifying my choice to pick up some fiction to you idiots? After all, as Lucan says:

Ὥσπερ τοῖς ἀθλητικοῖς καὶ περὶ τὴν τῶν σωμάτων ἐπιμέλειαν ἀσχολουμένοις οὐ τῆς εὐεξίας μόνον οὐδὲ τῶν γυμνασίων φροντίς ἐστιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς κατὰ καιρὸν γινομένης ἀνέσεως – μέρος γοῦν τῆς ἀσκήσεως τὸ μέγιστον αὐτὴν ὑπολαμβάνουσιν – οὕτω δὴ καὶ τοῖς περὶ τοὺς λόγους ἐσπουδακόσιν ἡγοῦμαι προσήκειν μετὰ τὴν πολλὴν τῶν σπουδαιοτέρων ἀνάγνωσιν ἀνιέναι τε τὴν διάνοιαν καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἔπειτα κάματον ἀκμαιοτέραν παρασκευάζειν.

Those who are interested in athletics and the care of their bodies are concerned not just with keeping themselves in good condition and well exercised, but with timely relaxation: indeed, they regard this as the most important part of training. In the same way, I think it does students of literature good, after hard and serious reading, to relax their minds and invigorate them further for future efforts.

Lucian True History 1.1 (trans D. Costa (2005))

Anyway. I found myself picking up his That Hideous Strength (whence the bastardised title of this piece). The book, as we shall see, has some very interesting things to say about humanistic learning and the modern academy in general. First, a general sketch. Spoilers? Probably – I am trying to avoid them but must therefore tread the line between scuppering your (potential) enjoyment and indulging in a seemingly nonsensical rant. THS reminded me very strongly of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim as both novels share a few notable elements:[7] the young, ambitious academic in a state of precarious employment whilst simultaneously grapplng with problems with the opposite sex. I think Lewis’ Tolkien Ransom is the more interesting protagonist of the two. I am not sure either book handles the female sex well. Both books contain fantastical elements. Amis’ eponymous Jim is meant to be in some manner likeable or at least sympathetic: Lewis has Merlin and extra-terrestrial magic beings.  But aside from its (perhaps prurient) use of spoken Latin, what does this book have to say about Classics and its would be guardians/parole officers? My copy is full of highlights and notes (not all of them laudatory, mind you), but I would like to use this blog to offer a small selection.

One common theme is the essential hollowness of the (then) modern man. He has no learning, he has no faith, he has no roots. I am sure that Lewis is writing from a predominantly Christian context (I am deaf to much of this), but he could basically be describing the death of any real engagement with the Classics. Look at the way the protagonist’s education is described:

“It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical-merely “Modern “. The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers), and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.”[8]

This is no mere old man yelling at clouds. Whilst, yes, nefarious forces are aligned against poor Mark, much of his difficulty is compounded by his own moral failings and the empty caverns of his unexercised synapses. He knows nothing fully but has the careerist shrewdness that characterises his profession (he is, of course, an academic). Mark is a Sociologist, a student of a made-up subject for the lesser able, but I dare say the modern Classicist is on no more stable ground. How many Classicists now possess any “exact knowledge” of their discipline? How many bachelors, masters, doctors are there who have never read through even Homer or Virgil but are full to the brim of whatever recently published nonsense is on their reading lists? i.e enough to do “well on Essays and General Papers” with little risk of being exposed to actual difficulty or the nobility (or baseness!) of their subject?

Lewis likewise seems to have anticipated the attempt to transform or deconstruct the Classics, often disguised with words like “reclaiming” or “retelling” (some would more honestly say subverting or even ruining). He uses a very striking, visual, metaphor for this. At some point Mark finds himself in the beating heart of the dreaded “institute” and takes a moment to examine some of the art on display and what follows is one of the best portraits (lol) of the modern school I have recently read.

“Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating expectation. He realised that this was another trap…

Some belonged to a school with which he was familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could feel that hair. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset.

… the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind.”[9]

The whole passage is brilliant, and I was struck forcefully enough to immediately re-read it. What is this describing but most modern scholarship? Mind withering. A half-hidden ugliness to it that is always suggesting, and very rarely out in the open. The work produced by the classicistuli is like this. Close enough to real Classics that it almost passes muster, but the little divergences that are at first unnoticeable bit by bit build up an uncanny valley effect of revulsion before they smack you in the face. Sure, perhaps you honestly think Alaric is a sympathetic figure akin to the modern refugee, perhaps you genuinely think the sexual impulse and modern gender identities were the driving force behind a millennium of Byzantium art (to name two recent examples), but such things are so divorced from the source cultures we study, so far from the evidence offered by the texts, but I cannot really believe it. Perhaps the classicistuli are like the main character, hollow chested “strawmen, glib examinees”, rather than the deliberately sinister perverters who work at the evil institute. Perhaps. It makes no difference; the effect is the same.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

We are everywhere told to be on our guard against the “appropriation” of the Classics. As if 90% of current academic work is anything but! I look at sites like, for example, Pharos Classics and though I find them more histrionic than accurate half the time it astonishes me that not one of these people ever stops to ask themselves why. Why is there this unsatisfied hunger for the Classics? Why are so many people turned off by modern secondary texts (or, indeed, the academics themselves who author them)? Perhaps there are indeed some racists, fascists, white supremacists and so on. I can credit such things. But to the extent these places are claiming? We must admit that there is some ugliness in a lot of these modern Classicists. There is something unseemly about a spindly armed gentleman damning the Spartans as losers for Thermopylae whilst comfortably drawing on a public sinecure. Something off-putting.  Is it really surprising more and more people are looking elsewhere for their classical fix?

This is indeed a problem. But the primary/secondary dichotomy should be a false one. Secondary reading should be a product 10% or so of your study.

Similarly evil too is the institute’s tendency to never really say what they mean. Words are twisted into new meanings or any straight answer hedged and buried within a wall of text. Truth can be warped by evil and neutered by bullshit, basically. Sometimes this is blatant as in the acronym naming the agency – N.I.C.E – sometimes slightly more subtle as in the set-piece speeches of the mysterious deputy director (note that, always eschewing taking real responsibility, he is the deputy director), whether in English or Latin these speeches are worth studying. Seriously, if there are any teachers or lecturers reading this, use some of these speeches in your English to Latin exercises.

The effect of these speeches on the reader is quite something, by the way. Again and again we find ourselves subjected to these long winded speeches that move between vacillation and vacuity, where words are redefined seemingly halfway through being employed. The genius is that we, at first, sympathise with poor Mark who clearly does not want to make a fuss but it quickly becomes apparent that this aberrant language use really is just an exercise of power over the protagonist and, vicariously, the reader. I was reminded not just of the kind of recent scholarship whose foundations wither away once you consult the primary texts in their own language, but the novel of a very different Lewis.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass[10]

Socrates:ἔχεις τι;
Humpty Dumpty: οὐδέν γε πλὴν ἢ τὸ πέος ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ.

“But Croc!” I hear you say “surely none of this matters? Who reads modern scholarship anyway? It’s not as if they are going to take the Classics themselves anyway…” Well first off handsome reader, I must say it very much does matter. If nobody reads any of this scholarship then why on earth are we subsiding it with tax dollars better spent on coding camps or cookery classes? I know, I know, terribly old fashioned to expect public institutions to benefit the public. The fact is accessing and understanding the ancient world is hard and good scholarship is a boon. It is why, however much I hate the moderns, I honour men like Porson and Bentley and Wilamowitz etc etc. They should be honoured. I do not think they deserve more honour than the skilled carpenter or mason, but we should be grateful for their work. The same can not be said for their self-appointed epigones.

Whenever complaints like this are brought up – that modern humanities academics are producing work that obfuscate rather than illuminate, that they tell us more about themselves than their subject matter – the usual tuiterati affect a supercilious posture and exclaim “well nobody is taking away your Classics you know!” and nod and smile to one another about how stupid we, the plebs, are. Let us not mention any of the recent articles talking about the removal of classical texts from school curricula and be real for a moment. You see, the average person does not enter school at 5 and stay there for the rest of their adult life. There is a finite window of opportunity for them to have time to learn about something that does not relate to their fiscal wellbeing. All you have to do is frustrate access a little, push people away a little, and the effect is compounded across time.

Nobody is taking away your real Classics. You just can’t teach it or talk about it

There is something to be said for the hope that even through all the distortions and perversions people will still flock to the actual ancient texts. Lewis certainly seems to think so. After all, despite his lengthy stay in that room full of demented art the protagonist begins to think of haler things.

“after an hour, this long high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose. up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight”

But of course Lewis thinks this! Of course he has this annoying optimism! For Lewis the lines between scholarship and religion are consistently elided, crossed, confounded. Here is a hilariously characteristic example. A character undergoes some sort of deeply religious experience and another remarks, apparently in all seriousness “how much better you will now understand the seventeenth-century poets!”. For Lewis it may be (going back to his inaugural) enough to be a co-religionist with Boethius to understand him, but I do not think that really offers us enough of a connection to really understand on any deep level. After all, that would mean that by his own criterion he could never hope to understand Homer, Apuleius, Virgil etc. I think sort of a thing is a major weakness in Lewis’ argument. You constantly confuses understanding with deriving benefit from. The average Silicon Valley bro has a laughable understanding of Stoicism on any deep level, but they certainly derive a benefit from it. This is no mean thing.

I suspect that this is where Lewis and I could diverge. He would damn me as a man neither Christian nor Pagan, and reprimand me that good morality not only surpasses good scholarship but encapsulates it, may even be required for it. Certainly he has argued this elsewhere, e.g in his Abolition of Man.[11] I obviously do not think this is true. There are, have been, very many great scholars of abominable personal character. Leaving aside some of the modern allegations, you only have to look back to men like Bowra and Dover – brilliant scholars, but catty and corrupt. On the bright side, producing good men is a difficult and uncertain process (what does Jesus say? οὐδεὶς ἀγαθὸς εἰ μὴ εἷς ὁ θεός.)[12] but producing good scholars is something we have centuries of success in. Lewis is right, however, about the importance of beauty when dealing with our subject matter, and that’s the main lesson of the book. For me at least.

The other lesson is to try and focus on doing. However ultimately ineffectual. Donate books to schools and local libraries, write and talk about the texts you love in as engaging a manner as you can. Make as good a case as you can, whenever you can, even if ultimately futile.

Anyway, enough of my meandering. How does this – and the novel – end? I have made reference once or twice to men of straw, to hollow men, and it is from the novel that this is pulled. Published some time in the 40’s I dare say Lewis would have been familiar with the poem by Eliot of the same name. Anyone who reads this blog will probably know how that poem ends, it is horrendously over cited, and I now join my midwit brethren and likewise cite it:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

Well, it does, and it does not in the novel’s case. There is very much a bang, both literal and metaphorical (seriously, the theology of love in this book is…odd, to say the least). But as for the Classics as a discipline? There will be no bang, no fire, no conflagration. When they have twisted all that is good and fascinating and beautiful in the texts to something mean and ugly, when they have pushed everyone away by their conduct and their impenetrable prose, when they make us think love for the past is really hatred, then we will end. Not with a bang but a whimper.


[1] I freely admit that this was supposed to February’s blogpost.

[2] Does anyone have a good link to a transcription of Housman’s lecture on accession to the Kennedy chair? You’d think those fucking tsigounides at Cambridge would put it up gratis, but…

[3] Lewis claims for himself and his generation a particular affiliation with the past (“I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours…I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”) which does not hold up to scrutiny. He has, at best, something of an affiliation with those post-scholastic humanistae (ironic!). He is a fine critic, but there is no more of the classical in him than there is in most of us. Far less than in the Italian olive farmer or the professional athlete. Calm it the fuck down Clive.

[4] Lewis seeks to re-organise our literary periodisation, especially the breach between the Medieval and Renaissance eras (which was first put in place by the followers of Petrarch themselves, to be fair). He offers instead pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian. I obviously disagree with this.

[5] I myself cannot vouch for this, but here is a lecture on the text and his book, more on which below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Zk5-gKioDc . Alright crocklings 15:26 into this video and not only have I clicked off. I remain convinced I could lecture more engagingly on any classical topic than >85% of current professionals. Yeesh.

[6] See note 4 above. More separates Lewis and me than unites us, to be frank, but I applaud and share in his sheer love of literature.

[7] At my most charitable I can agree with W. Somerset Maugham’s judgement of K. Amis, but very much suspect that the latter belonged to the kind of men against whom Lewis was taking aim in this book. For Amis’ movement see: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Angry-Young-Men

[8] Chapter 9 p118-9 in my battered old edition.

[9] Chapter 14 p206

[10] IDK I just use the freely available version of Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm

[11] Happily available here: https://archive.org/details/TheAbolitionOfMan_229 (yes, I read that too).

[12] Mark 10:18.

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