Saturday, 15 June 2019

A Bloomsday Post on Another Irish Ulysses


June 16th is Bloomsday, the date when James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. One of Leopold Bloom’s encounters is with the terrifying Cyclops, the obsessive Fenian anti-Semite Citizen, who baits the Jewish hero mercilessly. But another creative Irishman, James Barry,  had used the Odyssey long before to make a point about conflict between him and a compatriot.  

Permanent Collection of Cork's Crawford Gallery
Barry’s Portraits of Burke and Barry in the characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus (c. 1776) is discussed in my forthcoming book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics. Barry was born to a Protestant father, who operated a cargo coaster out of the Port of Cork. But he enthusiastically adopted the faith of his Catholic mother.

He was saved from working as a sailor by fellow Irishman Edmund Burke, no less. Burke was still most famous as the author of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful rather than for his trenchant conservative Whiggery. 

Burke spotted Barry’s talent, and had him trained in the workshop of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart (who was also the son of a sailor, and suffered a near-destitute boyhood in Ludgate). Burke paid for Barry to study in Rome. But Burke disagreed with Barry’s politics and attitudes to authority. The much poorer, younger man loathed having to appease patrons.

Barry supported Irish peasants, French revolutionaries, Abolitionists and Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Burke agreed with him on religious freedom and American independence but very little else. 

Polyphemus represents the rapacious British establishment, and the sheep its chattel-like Irish subjects. Burke (Ulysses) is trying to silence his companion. Barry knew that Ulysses’ lieutenant Eurylochus later becomes mutinous, complaining that Ulysses was himself responsible for the disaster on the Cyclops’ island.

Barry was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1782. But his Irish vernacular, slovenly clothes (he was sometimes mistaken for a beggar) and what an insider called his ‘avowed democratical principles' culminated in his expulsion from the Academy in 1799 and death in abject poverty seven years later.  

His inability to embrace the British artistic and political establishments, as the increasingly reactionary Burke urged, is the fundamental message of this fascinating pre-Joycean Irish allegory of the Odyssey. It is one reason why Barry was so admired by Blake, Turner, and Watts. But, despite his endlessly reproduced and beautiful pictures of the suffering Philoctetes, Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida, etc, far too few of us are aware of his radical classicism today.

More on a research topic rather than UK parliamentary politics again next week!



Saturday, 8 June 2019

A Bridesmaid on Old Greeks and Prizes


It's great that the judges of the Womens Prize for Fiction chose Tayari Jones harrowing account of the effect of an African American mans wrongful incarceration on his marriage. Like Ava DuVernay's dazzling Netflix When they See Us, which I could not turn off this week, and Barry Jenkins'/James Baldwins If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Jones novel makes it impossible to forget this: 22% of the worlds incarcerated population is in the USA; a shameful 59% of them are black and/or Hispanic.

DuVernay: her directing is stupendous
Jones has said that every novel she has written harks back to the Greeks; her prisoner's wife Celestial is a twist on Penelope, the wife who waits  for Odysseus, only modern, independent and famous for her art. Curiously, Homer lies behind two of the other shortlisted novels, Pat Barkers The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Millers Circe.

Aristotle's Way in shortlist pile under Robin Lane Fox
If there are runners-up as distinguished as Barker and Miller, how can I object to being runner-up for what is the fifth, sixth or seventh time (I have seriously lost count) for the London Hellenic Prize with Aristotles Way? Since I didnt know I had been shortlisted this year, getting told on Thursday that I was bridesmaid yet again came as a pleasant surprise. Surely it would be disorientating if I ever came first?  

This means that Homer has beaten Aristotle, since the prize deservedly goes to Michael Hughes Country, a retelling of the Iliad in the context of the Northern Irish troubles. Hughes is a lovely man (I interviewed him and Barker at the Piccadilly Waterstones last year) and the book is tremendous. The Irish dialogue is crying out for a radio adaptation and he is also an actor (hint to radio commissioners).

Homer was Aristotles favourite author, to judge from the number and nature of the Homeric quotations in his works. He thinks about random bad luck with Priam's staggering misfortunes; he suggests avoiding vices by following the example of Odysseus, steering between Scylla and Charybdis. So I bet Aristotle wouldnt mind being beaten by The Best Ever Bard, at all.
Aristotle with his Bust of Homer


Sunday, 2 June 2019

Slavery in Ancient Greek Ukraine and Today


This week I read a depressing report on trafficking of individuals from Vietnam into slavery in Britain (the kind of really significant news nobody’s been interested in for the last three years). But I’ve also been indexing a book about the culture of ancient Black Sea communities. It reminded me that slavery is the topic of one of the most electrifying of ancient Black Sea documents.

Berezan in Dnieper/Bug Estuary 
Actually, it’s one of the most electrifying of all ancient documents from anywhere. It is the oldest one in Greek prose. It’s by an ‘ordinary person’. It is a letter written around 510 BCE on a lead plate found in around 1970 on the island of Berezan near the Ukrainian coast.

A desperate father named Achillodorus begs his son, Protagoras, to help. Achillodorus is about to be enslaved because there is confusion between two merchants about the ownership of property and his status as freeman. Achillodorus asks his son to intervene, and above all to get his mother and brothers out to safety in an unnamed city, probably Olbia on the mainland, founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists from what is now Turkey.
Ruins of Olbia, a Major 7th-century Greek city

I first read this letter as an undergraduate doing a course on Greek prose style delivered by the legendary Sir Kenneth Dover. It interested me more than the endless obscene ancient Greek graffiti he liked to introduce us to. It is important because it shows that ‘ordinary’ Greeks were literate, and that they wrote the way that they spoke, not in long, elaborate periods like some literary authors. It is important because it helps me argue what I have long felt passionately—that scholars need to talk about ‘The Mediterranean and Black Sea worlds’ when defining the scope of Classics.

But most of all it’s important because it reminds us that the terror of being enslaved and losing your liberty was an everyday reality for people in antiquity, just as it is today for many more people in the world than the 45 million+ already enduring conditions of unfreedom. We will never know what happened to Achillodorus, his wife and his children. But we could start to do something about slavery today.
Slave Market: the Fate Achillodorus Dreaded for his Family

So now you know that the earliest example of Greek prose in the world comes from Ukraine, not Athens or Anatolia, which may or may not excite you. It does me. As we face two months of UK news entirely dominated by the tournament deciding which buffoon will get to lead all those of us who never voted Tory, I’m retiring into libraries to get inspired.

But I’m also going to step up the blog’s frequency in order to take my mind off the whole nauseating media exhibition of hypocrisy and lies we’re about to be served with night and day. See you again, I hope, with more news from the archives next week.

My co-editors of Ancient Theatre and Performance Culture Around the Black Sea (C.U.P. 2019) are David Braund and Rosie Wyles.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Next-Generation Classicists in Prague & Warsaw Police Station


Peter and Prof Malika Hammou
In a week when two reports suggest that stress among academics is rising exponentially, I was impressed by young colleagues at conferences in eastern Europe. Faced with zero job security, overwork and low pay, the youngsters convening and giving papers at a Prague conference on performances of ancient drama revealed determination, political commitment and intellectual bravura. I was especially struck by two Aristophanes experts, Maddalena Giovanelli from Milan and my own PhD student, Peter Swallow, with whom I’m editing a book on what made/makes Aristophanes funny. Classics’ future will be bright in their hands.

In Prague I was fascinated by the Museum of Communism, which tells of the the 1968 and 1989 revolutions, but also a remarkably objective version of the 1948 election (when the Czechs voted in a Communist government) very different from the narrative of coercion and rigged ballots which western history books will tell you. I was also entranced by the National Marionette Theatre, where the Bohemian tradition of large puppets throws new light on Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. 

Don G.'s sinister puppet demandind his droit du seigneur 
Don Giovanni’s biting class politics—the arrogance of aristocrats and the emotional honesty of peasants—seem paradoxically more alive when enacted by jointed automata. But I was distressed by the failure in Magic Flute to cut or change the shameful racism of Monostatos’ song about being an ugly black man in love with a beautiful white woman. Although, mercifully, the puppet was presented as a red-and-orange devil (I have seen excruciating blackface tenors in this role in Austria), the words were unchanged. Unacceptable.

Sleuth and Classicist Dr Paulouskaya
The chief excitement in Poland, where I went to lecture on children’s versions of Plutarch in the secular education movement 1890-1938, was the recovery of my phone after losing it on the first night somewhere between the hotel bar and my bedroom. That famed Byelorussian sleuth Hanna Paulouskaya, whose day job is lecturing at Warsaw University, showed the amazing technological competence of the next generation of academics; she went on Google “Find My Device”.  

Difficult to describe in Polish?
And there, on my laptop screen, was my phone, flashing in its dying-battery throes (only 3% left!) a message that it was in a suburban police station. Since my own grasp of Polish consists of one sentence, "Please may I have a beer?", without Hanna’s help, the visit to the Komisariat Policji in Villanova would have been catastrophic.  I was terrified they would ask what the picture was on the screensaver, since it’s a socialist painting of ancient Greek builders rather than a pet or a beloved relative.

Hanna explained that I was a Professor. The benevolent police officer looked at me with genuine pity. What I will never know is what happened to my phone during the lost 24 hours when it moved several kilometres (it was Friday night--did it go clubbing?), nor what honest Warsavian bothered to hand it in. So, just in case such a person ever reads this blog, I have learned a second sentence in Polish: I am eternally grateful to you! Jestem ci wiecznie wdzięczny!





Saturday, 4 May 2019

End of an Era? On researching Working-Class Classics 1981-2019


With Henry and the Red Gnome who has helped our work
This week, with steadfast and eloquent co-author Henry Stead, I finished a 200,000-word book that I think alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably. I’ve been gathering materials since 1981, when I was struggling to make sense of the chasm between the way I was being trained to study Classics at Oxford and my socialist views and self-education. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 and my contact with strikers from Maerdy Colliery (while I was writing a doctorate on Greek Tragedy!) made the (eventual) appearance of the book inevitable. For I discovered the extraordinary tradition of Miners’ Libraries in South Wales.
Economy Edition of Putarch

But there have been obstacles. Getting the research funded (despite it being inexpensive, entailing only Travelodges in provincial conurbations near workers’ archives) proved difficult. I suspect my interest in Labour History got me excluded from a couple of shortlists and powerful committees. But producing what as proud mother I believe is a staggeringly beautiful intellectual baby after a 38-year gestation is far more satisfying than any career advancement could possibly be.

A  People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain will be available completely free of charge on the Routledge Taylor Francis Open Access platform, as is only appropriate for a book about responses to educational exclusion, as well as in hardback with the banner of the Lanchester miners in Co. Durham proudly hosted on its cover. The Lanchester Review, edited by the resourceful David Lindsay, yesterday posted this longer blog where I summarise the research.

The discipline did function historically as the curriculum of the British elite. This problem is still with us, and I am campaigning for a solution with a related project co-led by Arlene Holmes-Henderson.  But the book reveals evidence for the diverse working-class experience of the classical world between the Bill of Rights 1689 and the outbreak of WWII: autobiographies, poetry, fiction, visual and material culture in museums, galleries and the civic environment, theatrical ephemera, records of Trade Union activities, self-education publications, mass-market inexpensive ‘classic’ series, archives relating to Poor, Free, Workers’, Adult and Dissenting educational establishments, and to political parties which supported the working class.

John Thelwall lecturing on Roman History to 1790s Democrats
The classical world aided some workers’ careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organize Trade Unions, join debating societies, read the Gospels in the original or question the existence of God altogether. They used Classics to prove their intellectual calibre, to analyse their plight and signal their consciousness of the class system; they also used it to subvert and undermine the authority of the classes that ruled them and to entertain themselves during leisure hours.


Ann Yearsley, the Milkmaid-Radical Poet of Bristol
They deserve honoured places in the gallery of People’s Classics simply because they struggled so hard to get access to the ancient world. But they also offer us a new ancestral backstory for a discipline sorely in need of a democratic makeover.

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Rouman Lecture: Classics, Race & Class


Last week I gave the Rouman lecture at the University of New Hampshire on the theme of Race and Class in the Classics Academy. I was honoured to speak alongside Professors Sarah Derbew, Emily Greenwood and Patrice Rankine. I took my cue from a young academic named Kelly Dugan at the University of Athens, Georgia, one initiator of the Multiculturalism, Race and Ethnicity Classics Consortium (MRECC), who who has recently tweeted that as a white woman she identifies her work as ‘solidarity pedagogy’. 

Rankine, Greenwood, Derbew, Hall

I’ve adopted the term ‘solidarity research’ to describe my forthcoming work with Dr Henry Stead on Classics and the British class system. Groups who have historically been excluded from the Classics Academy, whether by race or class, and scholars sensitive to such exclusion, will better recreate our subject so that it is half-way fit for the 21st century if we mutually support one another. 


The question of race in the discipline has exploded since the annual meeting of the American Society for Classical Studies at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina between January 3rd and 6th, 2019. I was not there but have studied different responses to what happened. Two young people there to receive an award for their work on the SPORTULA, an initiative raising money to give study grants to what they call ‘working-class and historically looted communities’, Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, were racially profiled by hotel security. An independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams said publicly that fellow panellist Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta got his job at Princeton because he was black. 

Padilla Peralta subsequently published an eloquent online essay expressing sadness that ‘no one in that room or in the conference corridors afterwards rallied to the defense of blackness as a cornerstone of my merit’. The paragraph that marks a truly historic turning-point in our subject is this:


 … my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.. all our intellects take shape and evolve within national and global force-fields of race and racecraft. 

I take his insistence that people should be hired because they are not white as the most important public statement in Classics for decades. I have believed in this principle since undergraduate days, but have hesitated to make the case outside in-camera appointment committees because I am a white middle-class woman and have not thought it was my place. Now that Pedilla Peralta has gone first, I will be doing so. 

Most HE institutions and classical subject associations internationally fail to support ethnic minorities in career progression. I have witnessed several UK appointments where a brilliant person of colour, despite possessing the qualifications to make the shortlist, has not been offered the job. Wholly spurious grounds expressed in the language of alleged positions in intellectual hierarchies have been adduced. The result is a relentlessly white UK Classics academy in the UK; the few exceptions struggled to get where they are, and most have not been promoted as high as they deserve. 

There is also a continuing failure to acknowledge the historical role of the discipline as the curriculum of the white ruling classes of Europe and their global empires.  I have been refused funding for conferences and research projects only for those addressing colonialism, race, gender and class. 

Professor Mary Beard’s plenary lecture at the Society of Classical Studies was taken to task by Padilla Peralta for occluding Classics’ role as the curriculum of empire. She stressed that people studying classics at Cambridge in the late 19th century often became benign schoolteachers at home in Britain rather than colonial administrators in Africa, India, the Caribbean or any of the dozens of other territories in their empire. 

There are two problems here. The first is the implication that teachers play no role in reproducing oppressive views in their charges. The second is that evidence beyond late Victorian Cambridge undermines her inference. Of the sixty-one boys born in 1798-9 who studied Greek and Latin at Aberdeen Grammar School, more than two-thirds worked and/or settled abroad, in places including China, India, the West Indies, Australia, Canada, Java, and Sierra Leone.
  
Wedderburn
My lecture argued that the transatlantic history of Classics includes many examples of solidarity research and pedagogy to inspire us today. The white Greek scholar Julian Hibbert funded the legal defence of the mixed-race Jamaican radical Robert Wedderburn on trial for blasphemy after Peterloo, and provided arguments from Plutarch’s On Superstition for the defence speech. Sarah Parker Remond (pictured above in the conference ad), from Massachusetts, was supported in the early 1860s by British classicists including the socialist Professor Edward Spencer Beesley, when she was campaigning against slavery in Britain and studying Latin at Bedford College.
  
There is good news today, as well. Groups are emerging to create a Classics fit for purpose. Besides MRECC, Professor Sasha-Mae Eccleston (Brown), with Padilla Peralta, and others including my KCL colleague Dr Rosa Andujar, who is Dominican like Padilla Peralta, are organising transatlantic workshops under the title ‘Racing the Classics’. We all need to listen hard, sustain international networks of solidarity, and get these ideas out beyond Higher Education. By ‘we’ I mean all those who want to see Classics in the vanguard of the modern academy rather than an embarrassment to it.



Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Psychoanalysts' Antigone Complex: A 3-Minute Guide

Hegel, not looking amused

A diversion this winter has been gigs with London Uni psychoanalysts. On Saturday I had to explain Sophocles’ Antigone’s relationship to psychoanalysis, which has roots back in Hegel’s Phenomenonology of Spirit, in 35 minutes flat. 



Billions of earnest words have been published on the topic. I was so proud of my precis-ing skills, since Hegelians and psychoanalytical theorists waffle, that here's a 3-minute version.

In 1959 Jacques Lacan’s L'éthique de la psychanalyse took Hegel’s boring old-fashioned politics and ethics out of the play and celebrated the ‘unbearable splendour’ of Antigone’s uncompromising devotion to the law of her own ‘pure desire’. Its object is her dead, irreplaceable brother. In prioritising the male sibling she re-enacts the incestuous desire of her mother’s desire for her son Oedipus.
Lacan 

In 1974 Lacan’s student Luce Irigaray rebelled. her Speculum of the Other Woman put the ethics and politics back into Antigone by proposing that the entire method and model of Freudian psychoanalysis was repressively phallocentric. Antigone’s claim that her brother cannot be replaced undermines the theory that all relationships with the opposite sex are substitutions for the attachment to the opposite-sex parent. Irigaray’s Antigone makes a profound feminist challenge to the psychoanalytical establishment.  Lacan did not wall Irigaray into a cave but he did expel her from his École freudienne.
Irigaray



Butler
But the text that has made Antigone a cultic figure on campuses was Antigone’s Claim (2000) by Judith Butler, an academic rock star.  She says that if psychoanalysis had been founded on Antigone’s experience rather than her dad Oedipus’s, we would have had a properly politicised psychosexual subject all along. Patriarchy would have been at the centre of psychoanalysts’ radars. Antigone’s own muddled genealogy challenges patrilineal thinking, and, by assuming ‘male’ behaviours, she subverts heteronormative values. She is the ideal hero for genderbending and feminist millennials.*

"I am 16, going on 17"
Irigaray and Butler perhaps illuminate why Sigmund Freud didn’t write much about  Antigone. But he did give the nickname to his dutiful daughter Anna, claimed she had no sex drive, and encouraged her to follow him in the profession, avoid marriage, and stay in the paternal home.  I hope it wasn’t him who asked her to wear a costume from The Sound of Music. If my therapist had dressed like that, I’d never have got interested in psychoanalysis in the first place.

*Personally I've always found Ismene, who wants to find a solution and loves her sister unconditionally, rather more interesting, and recommend Nat Haynes' lovely novel, Jocasta's Children, for a persuasive exploration of the real Oedipal family dynamics.