Short Note: Classics and Languages

For the first time in weeks I’ve found the time to do a little writing. I’m in the midst of writing a series of posts on Classics and the East and so naturally this means I need to check Twitter, where I came across an interesting conversation on an article by Paul Lay. The article may be found here. It concerns the lamentable poverty of our language learning here in the UK and the affect that this has on history as a discipline.

Do languages help the would be historian? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes’ but I’m having a little trouble seeing that they do. Even as my fingers hit the keys, I know that to be a heretical statement but I can’t help but feel its one leaden with reality. There is a far cry between the prescriptive and descriptive reality of that statement!

My take on this is slightly tongue in cheek, completely ensconced with Classics as a discipline (hence the ancient focus), and a little bit of this:

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On one hand, of course languages ought to be a serious boon to any would be historian. From a research perspective they magnify what you’re able to access. I really could not imagine studying Homer without German or French. That’s not to say the English material isn’t absolutely wonderful but German, for example, has opened up a wealth of technical resources (such as the LfgrE) and differing point of views (I quite like the stronger neo-analytical tint to German scholarship. Sshh! don’t tell anyone!).

There’s also the human element to additional languages. Since graduating, some of the more memorable classical conversations I’ve had have been in Greek (Spartan law and culture) and French (the formation of the aorist). Think back to the second world war and the refugee scholars flocking to the UK from Germany. How much poorer scholarship would be without that commingling of different linguistic traditions. (Incidentally, these scholars are the subject of a wonderful edited volume).

In any historical discipline, it’s important to be aware of one’s biases and social conditioning and being able to draw on resources in other languages helps with that. (Note: there are caveats, we’re not discussing these here though).

What about primary sources? Familiar ground for those defending language as part of historical study. After all how can you study a period if you don’t at least know its language? Interpretation of a foreign culture is hard enough as it is, why add another layer of imperceptibility between you and your sources?

Classicists, however, shudder at the simple primary/secondary dichotomy (I’ll leave to what degree we might call Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor, for example, primary sources to some Historical Crocodile) and even the idea of an ‘original’ text can cause consternation. Reading ‘original’ texts is tied up with specialist directors, grammars, classes on palaeography and editorial technique.

I’m going to, in a move that would infuriate textual critics, quote West quoting Fraenkel who was writing an introduction to Leo to illustrate this:

West comment for blog

As West surmises ‘textual criticism is not the be-all and end-all of classical scholarship….But it is an indefensible part of it’. When we pour through manuscripts and try to find out whether someone wrote δε or τε, or which line is an interpolation, or whether the o in subito keeps its natural length in this instance what we’re really asking is “what did x really write?” which is actually a separate issue altogether from “what did x want his audience to hear” and “how was this received?”.

Readers, all three of them, will have noticed that nothing I’ve said so far supports the idea that languages aren’t important to Classicists. If anything, all I’ve done is give some mean preview to just how important languages are to the discipline. After all Classics is essentially Classical Philology which by its very nature is focused on language and its usage. Epigraphy, palaeography, textual emendation etc, all these stem from the same vital skills which begin when learning how to conjugate amare. If anything, language is much more important to us than other disciplines.

Well, whip out your handbooks of classical rhetoric if you can’t see what’s coming. I did say there is a difference between the reality of the statement ‘language is important to history’ and its actual, pragmatic, reality.

 

What if you wish to become an historian? (in this case pro historian lege classicist) how useful are languages then? There’s a social dictum against speaking like this about academe, at least amongst the middle classes: Academic jobs are meant to be seen as callings, not subject to the same criteria as others. On the other hand, I’m a working class lad and work in a brusque no nonsense sector. I’m hardly above such questions.

Moreover, ‘historian’ is more or less an academic position nowadays unless you possess a near wondrous mix of skill and luck. Seriously, find a friend in publishing and ask them about the Nielsen ratings for the vast majority of history books….ouch….

Simply reviewing the products of the last handful of generations of scholars shows a serious reduction in the breadth of languages engaged with. Hebrew was the first casualty as the bible has lost its previous vaunted position amongst us. One would think that languages of areal importance (e.g Akkadian, Aramaic etc) or genetic affiliation (Sanskrit stands out) wield some impact in the Classics but…not really. Sure, there was a brief flourishing of interest but nowadays outside of UCLA or, to some degree Harvard, Classicists have moved away from Indo-European studies.

This isn’t all bad, a lot of comparative work was pretty outrageously general and tepid in its applicability. The focus of the Classics department must absolutely remain on Greek and Latin. We’re not a world philology department. Such a goal is unattainable and undesirable (though you should watch this regardless).

We’re long past the days of Classicists glibly commenting on the Mahabharata or how thinly drawn characters are in Akkadian literature. That’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the ability to use these comparanda to better understand the context of what we study. One would hope that this reduction in scope would bring with it a renewed, tighter, focus on Greek and Latin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If you look at recent monographs, articles, or theses recently submitted or in progress, work requiring a broad variety of ancient languages is out. Work requiring detailed mastery of Latin and Greek is also, by and large, out. You’re much better off focusing on something with ‘reception’, ‘environment’ or ‘feminist’ in the title. A ‘plea for polyglots’? That hardly seems to be the case. The trend has been a steady reduction in philological rigour towards more theoretical projects.

Whether this trend is something good or ill I leave to you to decide, I’m not willing to comment. Perhaps its too early to tell. By some ironic twist of fate it’s the more linguistically dexterous Classicists I know who ended up outside the academy. It’s an intellectually fulfilling past time and helps one engage with the ancient world. It’s just not very likely to help you become an historian…

 

Which Leftist Killed Homer and Stole Sappho?

I recently came across two intriguing posts within the space of a few hours. One on Eidolon by Eric Adler on classicism and the classics, and another by Edith Hall in response to a recent publication. Hence the title – an arguably shoddy attempt at stitching these issues together. In the former, Adler brings up an infamous book published way back in the 90’s called Who Killed Homer and the question of whether that book is worth anything has caused a bit of a flurry on twitter.

Note the use of past tenses rather than present continuous. I’d originally meant to write this blog post when I first saw the posts in question but I’ve been slow off the mark. I’m sure the time where this would be read has passed but never mind. You see, that’s the great irony of the Classics: We study texts produced thousands of years ago but a blog post a week ago or a book from a few decades past? With the obvious exception of classic treatises, old news – hence way back in the 90’s…

I’d like to take a second and think about the infamous Who Killed Homer? and some of its political accouterments. I’m not particularly interested in discussions about the ‘fall’ of the discipline – as Mary Beard says every generation has thought that to be the case since the 2nd century A.D – but whether or not I can rehabilitate my view of the book a tiny bit.

So, what about Who Killed Homer? (WKH?). In (at least) two real senses I’ve no way of evaluating this book: It’s an American book in an American context, written back when I was a child, but I think the arguments it makes are, rightly or wrongly, still being made and its an interesting snap shot of times past. Second, I’ve no intention of going through my storage boxes and re-reading it. In an ideal world I’d carefully re-read the book and all the pertinent reviews and chase up some of the more interesting bibliography and so on. In present circumstances, that means I’ll never get around to writing anything on it. Sorry, but don’t worry, I think I have an excellent memory (or is it terrible? I forget).

I recall that when I first encountered the book I was singularly unimpressed. It made a few claims that either rang untrue or plain silly. Claims which even now stick out in my memory. For example, one of the central themes is that teachers themselves are too unlike the Greeks for their subject to be truly successful. Another section attacks Menander and Polybius (and, I think, Callimachus), another derides British philologists as ‘butlers’, another makes the impossible claim about someone (Eugene Vanderpool?) speaking better (modern) Greek than the (modern) Greeks – an impossibility that basically showcases the odd way in which modern Greek is treated in the Classics (and I’ll post on that later).

Despite all that, even though I still massively disagree with the book and side firmly with e.g Peter Green’s Arion review, I think my attitude to the book has softened slightly. At least in one or two areas.

Back then, I wondered how anybody could recommend we read Virgil, Livy, Euripides or whatever and yet denigrate Menander, Polybius, Apollonius and Callimachus. How can anyone possibly understand Virgil without his Hellenistic predecessors? Or Roman historiographical practice without recourse to Polybius? I felt the authors were fetishising the classics, simplifying them, transforming the variegated complexity of the classical world into little cultural badges.

But what I failed to grasp back then was how different the American context is. Over there modules on Greek and Latin have to fight against a dozen different credit options. I hated, hated, most of the archaeology I had to take…but I had to take it, there was no option to throw it in for intermediate Biology or whatever. I guess in a context like the book describes it might be somewhat fair to emphasise Virgil and Homer. I don’t agree with it, I understand it a little better.

Elsewhere, the claims of politicisation of education also rang hollow. Now, it could be my being on the left had inoculated me towards noticing the obvious. It could be that leftist political culture ran rampant in the 90’s and I obviously wouldn’t have known. It’s possible…but unlikely. So that was another strike against the book.

Except that now with all the debate about pronouns, appropriation, trigger warnings and so on it seems that the book might have been a bit right all along. There is a definite tendency to assume that conservatives misappropriate, distort and abuse whereas what we do is just scholarship. Plain, unmarked, scholarship. Yet under the shade of objectivity all sorts of biases flicker. Look at this tweet for example:

Yes, what the TLS is advocating for here are political positions and in the world of modern classical studies things are hardly different. Studies on the ancient world and, say, diversity, multiculturalism, gender representation and identity are similarly political. Think about it. A careful study of the languages of ancient Italy or social distinctions within a single language is quite different from trying to fit the ancient world into a distinctly modern political framework, though both talk in some way about the multiplicity of cultures. I recently read an interesting article on the discovery of a new Mycenaean tomb . It was fascinating, but cue odd comments about the origins of European culture and something about Donald Trump. What?

That’s not to say these are always failed heuristic models. Take De Ste Croix’s study of class in archaic Greece. This work clearly depends on modern, Marxist historiography but its not less useful for that The point is be honest. Like the tweeter above, people notice and when you simultaneously call for a discipline to be more feminist, intersectional or to include more social justice while decrying the conservative equivalent? People notice that as well. It’s hypocritical and self defeating to only call out the opposite side, I dare say it’s partly what leads to books like WKH? in the first place.

There’s a little book written contra WKH? that I don’t recall ever seeing mentioned. It’s called Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives by Page duBois. duBois is a good classicist, I heartily recommend her book on polytheism, and I wanted to like this book too but its emblematic of commingling the scholarly with the political in the way I’m talking about.

The book starts strongly; duBois outlines the way in which Greek culture is simplified and appropriated by conservative writers and attempts to show the actual complexity of the ancient world. It’s erudite and much more contemporary on topics such as sex, labour differentiation, slavery and a welter of issues. But look at the discussion of Afrocentrism, where DuBois spends more time calling out writers like Lefkowitz for her apparent racism in debunking Afrocentrists than highlighting that the Afrocentrists are, in fact, grossly wrong.

What DuBois gets wrong is that it was never the job of people like Lefkowitz to do anything but point out the truth (Sokrates wasn’t black, philosophy was not ‘stolen’ from Egypt etc). The particularly nasty treatments African Americans have traditionally received from mainstream American society of yore is, frankly, shamefaced and reprehensible but the Classics aren’t some form of grievance counselling. In acting this way, she’s doing the same thing she rightfully castigates conservatives for. If people are really interested in Ancient Egypt point them towards Allen’s Middle Egyptian! If you want to be a cheeky salesman for your subject maybe given them a Greek textbook and Manetho…

In their heyday the cultures of antiquity were mighty coursing rivers. We’ve inherited error riddled MSS, rotten papyri, ostraka etc… a muddy stream in other words. We can’t afford to obfuscate things further.

Back to WKH? I think my most interesting response to the book has concerned neither politics nor its epistemological framework, but its aesthetic claims. See, the authors make two claims in particular. The first, which I’m going to rapidly dismiss, is that Classicists have to be like Greeks. First, what? Why Greeks and not Romans? Which Greeks? In what way? (again, see duBois’ book for this kind of deconstruction, or better yet Mary Beard’s, in the further reading section). That’s a ludicrous assertion. Classicists don’t have to be like anything, it’s an area of study like anything else – You don’t see people calling for Zoologists to be more like cows.

The other is that the Classics are in some objective sense superior. This is a value/political judgement as much as anything else and one I’m also wary of. In part because I know there’s so much stuff out there in so many languages that’s so good – Gilgamesh is amazing in Akkadian, I love Sanskrit love poetry, even in translation the African oral poetry collected by Finnegan is wonderful, so how can you make such a stark statement? – and also because I don’t place much value in aesthetic statements in and of themselves. It doesn’t matter how many languages I study or how much I read, I’ll never scratch the surface of human creativity, my aesthetic opinion is basically groundless.

Which leads us to the recent review by Edith Hall of a book called The Lesbian Lyre I can’t claim to have fully read Duban’s book – it’s bloody huge – but the central idea is that Sappho has been misrepresented by popular culture. Hence the second part of this post’s title. There is a link between Duban’s new book and WKH? in that both may be called conservative and said to have been written in reaction against broader, more liberal, trends. Indeed, Victor David Hanson even supplies one of the praise quotes.

Hall makes the point that Duban is unashamed to state how much he really, really, values Sappho. There’s no apologetics, words like problematic being thrown around or anything like that at all, instead we find words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’. Conversely, I think the only time I’ve ever used the word ‘sublime’ was in translating Longinus, so am I one of those leftists Hall is talking about? Can I appreciate literature?

Obviously! I’ve even given a few hints of the stuff I like above. I just don’t think we need some sort of… aesthetic preaching, I have this vague feeling that such things will easily devolve into the same kind of political/advocacy statements we’ve discussed above rather than produce serviceable scholarship. (It’s also just not as interesting)

So, if I disagree with Professor Hall about that (and I do) and I also disagree with the claims of WKH? why study Greco-Roman antiquity? I mean that’s the question at the end of the day, right? It’s an eternal, clichéd question but I’d like to think we can justify the subject without over the top claims about direct links to antiquity or an innate brilliance not found elsewhere. There’s no space to get into that here.

As for Who Killed Homer? I’m glad the recent spate of blog/twitter activity gave me the opportunity to reconsider it and I’ve come to think of the book as a bit of a warning for the future. I only wish I could have written something a bit better, sooner, and fuller, in response.

Further Reading

Hanson, V. and Heath, J. (1998). Who killed Homer? New York.

Hanson, V., Heath, J. and Thornton, B. (2001). Bonfire of the humanities. USA

DuBois, P. (2001). Trojan horses. New York

Duban, J. (2016). The Lesbian Lyre. New York

For the attendant American (political) context see:

González García, F. and López Barja de Quiroga, P. (2012). “Neocon Greece: V. D. Hanson’s War on History” in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 19(3), pp.129-151.

For a British perspective see:

Beard, M. (2014). Confronting the Classics. London.

On the net:

https://eidolon.pub/on-classism-in-classics-157c5f680c4a#.ecc046z1t

https://medium.com/@CurtisDozier/thanks-for-the-proposal-that-we-consider-whether-there-was-anything-of-value-in-who-killed-homer-b808a022b619#.mrt75rhvp

https://de-vita-sua.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/crisis-in-classics-briefly-revisited.html

http://edithorial.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/can-left-appreciate-literature-reply-to.html

Naturally, when Eric Adler’s new book is out that will be worth reading. It’s also been mentioned:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/06/author-discusses-his-new-book-state-classics

Given the political aspect of this post it’s only fair to give a shout out to Nick Clegg’s new book too.