Sunday, 13 January 2019

Orpheus & the Tragedy of Male Distrust of Women


Men Not Trusting Women has been the theme of my week.  I received unpleasant (male) tweets questioning my professional competence.  I heard an acquaintance’s account of escaping a husband who battered her because he didn’t trust her not to sleep with other men. I finished a lecture on the insidious message of the Phaedra myth, which provides evidence every time it is retold that women can’t be trusted when they say they’ve been raped. I believe that philosopher Miranda Fricker would see it as a founding myth of Epistemic Injustice against women. 

Hades, Persephone, Eurydice & Orpheus in Hadestown
The Tragedy of Male Distrust of Women, which has driven wedges between these two sexes since time immemorial, reached its emotional climax for me via the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Hadestown at the National Theatre. All Orpheus had to do was trust Eurydice to be a competent enough hominid to walk to the exit of the Underworld on her own, without male steerage. He wrecked everything because he just had to check up on her. 

Why can't she walk with her arms free?
As I lapped up Anaïs Mitchell’s glorious musical, I saw clearly what this myth has always said to me in a semi-conscious way, especially since in Virgil’s poignant version (Georgics 4.487) it is Proserpina, not Pluto, who says Orpheus must not look back. She is obviously testing whether he can trust Eurydice sufficiently to make a good husband.  But Orpheus is unable to believe in the complete adult competence of Eurydice to say and do what is required to guarantee their happiness together. This surely symbolises the aboriginal flaw in male-female relationships much better than the stories of Eve or Pandora. 


Men’s failure to trust female custodianship of knowledge, or sexual self-control, or even ability to stick to a joint resolution and hold their own on an identical task but unseen, has made life tricky for women. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t even worse for men. I can’t imagine collaborating on anything with a person I believed was morally wobbly, epistemologically unreliable, and not one hundred per cent trustworthy. It must be lonely and miserable.



I love this particular Atlas-themed suffrage poster so much (it hangs inside our front door) because it doesn’t show women asking for the vote as victims, but offering, as equally competent beings, to take half the burden of the world’s anxieties off men’s shoulders. And that is why I like this ancient wedding ring, which has two equally firm hands clasping and the inscription HOMONOIA, ‘having minds like one another’.


Carol Ann Duffy’s feminist retelling of Eurydice’s story in The World’s Wife implies that the problems between men and women are caused by male vanity. I disagree. It’s male distrust that’s always been the problem.



Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Professor Porson's Porcine Passions



For A People’s History of Classics I’ve been researching the best British Greek scholar of the 18th century because he was born into a working-class family of weavers. Henry Stead and I’ve known about him for some time; our wonderful colleague Josephine Balmer wrote a short piece and a poem about him for the Classics and Class website. What I hadn’t previously appreciated was that he was both a radical democrat and obsessed with pigs. Nor that I have rather more in common with him than I realised.



In the context of the 1790s, radicalism and pigs were inseparable because Edmund Burke wrote in his reactionary Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) that revolution leads to the common people getting educated, which leads to intellectual culture being debauched, ‘cast into the mire, and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude’. 


Our Swinish Multitude copyright Richard Poynder 
British humour being what it is, every self-respecting radical immediately embraced pigdom. (My family has collected our very own Swinish Multitude who study Greek in our garden). Journals and pamphlets were published called Hog’s Wash, Politics for the People, or a Salmagundy for Swine, Penny's Worth of Pig's Meat, A Rod for the Burkites by One of the Swinish Multitude, Husks for the Swine, Dedicated to the Swine of England, the Rabble of Scotland, and the Wretches of Ireland by one of the Herd and The Grunter's Ode. Shelley later put a chorus of pigs in his version of Oedipus, Swellfoot the Tyrant.


Porson, who had arisen from the sties of Norfolk, wrote the brilliant A New Catechism for the Use of the Swinish Multitude, Necessary to be Had in all Sties. To the question whether the resolutions made by the ruling class hog-drivers can be read by the hogs, the answer is no, because scarcely one in twenty hogs can read. The questioner says, ‘They are written in Hog Latin, but that I took for granted you could understand’, to which the hogs retort ‘Shameful aspersion on the hogs! The most inarticulate grunting of our tribe is sense and harmony compared to such jargon.’   But all is not lost, because the questioner notices that the pig talks sense, and asks ‘whence had you your information?’ The answer is ‘From a learned pig’, of which there are ‘many; and the number daily increases.’  


But Porson had enjoyed learned pigs even before the French revolution. Prodigious animals who knew Greek and Latin were a favourite stunt of travelling Georgian showmen. A Sapient Porker called Toby published an autobiography in 1817, and is reading Plutarch in the frontispiece.  


Porson wrote a Greek epigram for one in 1785, appending a humorous short article about him. It opens by calling the pig a ‘gentleman’: since Gentleman Pig professes ‘himself to be extremely learned, [he] will have no objection to find his merits set forth in a Greek quotation’. Porson then supplies the Greek, and an English translation which he claims he has procured from the equally famous Chien Savant, because ‘it is possible that the pig’s Greek may want rubbing up, owing to his having kept so much company with ladies.’  

             "A gentle pig this same, a pig of parts,
              And learned as F.R.S. or graduate in arts;
              His ancestors, 'tis true, could only squeak,
              But this has been at school--and in a month will speak".



After 1790, Porson wrote several other seditious diatribes, which have been erased from his record by his high-minded biographers including the ultra-right Sir Denys Page. 

Porson died after a fall on the Strand when he was drunk, which is a lesson to all of us at King’s College London. I’m of course not mentioning the midsummer’s night a couple of years ago when this Professor of Greek cracked her scalp open on the Strand after treating all her PhDs and Postdocs to a vinous symposium on the banks of the Thames. I’m not proud of this lapse in Aristotelian moderation (although I am of my ceramic swine collection) and don’t want to be seen to have that much in common with the intriguing Jacobin Professor.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Hope for 2019 from The People's Plutarch


This very day a long-awaited London University volume I have an essay in, co-authored with Dr Rosie Wyles, is published: The Afterlife of PlutarchPhilosopher, priest of Apollo, magistrate and ambassador, Plutarch is one of the most influential ancient Greek authors, especially via Shakespeare’s dramatisations of his lives of Caesar, Mark Antony, and Coriolanus.

Plutarch’s accounts of the Gracchi brothers who died trying to redistribute land to poorer Italians were turned into rousing plays by both French and Anglo-Irish revolutionaries, and we show how these stage works were brutally censored. If anyone wants a pdf of our article, just email me at my two names separated by a dot @kcl.ac.uk.

But Plutarch didn’t just write biographies. While lying low, finishing A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity, a Very Big Book co-authored with Dr Henry Stead, I’ve discovered the role Plutarch’s essay On Superstition played in radical politics after Peterloo.
Wedderburn: From Plantation to Blasphemy Trial

Julian Hibbert, an excellent Greek scholar and freethinker who published an edition of it 1828, closes his preface ‘by consigning all “Greek Scholars” to the special care of Beelzebub’. He attaches dazzlingly erudite polemics on how religion is used to sedate what Burke called ‘the swinish multitude’, and on all the individuals falsely accused of impiety from Xenophanes, Socrates and Aristotle to the 19th century.

Leverage from Plutarch
Hibbert was active in radical politics, as well, furnishing the arguments from Plutarch used by Robert Wedderburn, the mixed-race son of a Scottish planter in Jamaica by his African slave woman, when tried for blasphemy in May 1820.  Wedderburn’s court appearance persuaded the jury to recommend ‘mercy’, resulting in a sentence of ‘only’ two years in Dorchester jail. Plutarch is cited when arguing that it is better to deny the existence of a Supreme Being than to ‘entertain degrading and dishonourable notions of him.’

Pompey Being Kind for Once (to Tidius Sextus)
And for a visual treat, I’ve found the beautiful engravings by the unofficial artist laureate of the late Victorian and Edwardian Left, Walter Crane, in the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould’s Children’s Plutarch (1909). Gould had taught in board schools in poor London districts from his mid-twenties to his mid-forties, and developed a programme for teaching secular ethics with the help of classical instead of Christian literature.

 I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the arrival of a new calendar year, in a political climate where so many across the world feel powerless and mystified, than remembering how ancient Greek clarity of thought has helped democrats and progressives in previous epochs.  And here’s a New Year’s Resolution: A People's History of Classics will be finished any day now.

Υγεία, δημοκρατία και ευτυχία

για όλους




Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Leadership Crisis Lessons from Ancient Persia


Image result for house of commons vote toriesGiven today’s British political emergency, let’s look at ancient history for ideas about a more strong and stable government.

I propose that the House of Commons tonight follow the example of the government of ancient Persia when it was once in meltdown. Mad King Cambyses and his younger brother/heir were dead. A Zoroastrian priest-magician who had pretended to be the little brother had been killed by seven conspirators.
Image result for cambyses killed 
Like many Top Tories, the conspirators were all posh and deadly ambitious but Had No Plan What To Do Next. So they held a snap debate (no tedious deliberation, obvs.) on what sort of constitution to pick. They chose hereditary monarchy. But which one of them was to be King?  Simples.

Sawrey Gilpin, 'The Election of Darius'
Next morning they would ride out together to the outskirts of the city. The one whose horse neighed first after sunrise would be the winner. One conspirator, Darius, had a clever groom who fixed it so Darius’ stallion neighed first, either by tethering a mare on heat nearby or sticking her scent up the stallion’s nostrils. Or so says Herodotus.

Image result for boris horseback johnsonAll of this gives a new meaning to the term STABLE government (sorry), and it sounds fun and more likely to produce a competent leader than the Tory MPs’ vote tonight. May and her rivals could ride out in a posse to e.g. Huntingdon racecourse. Huntingdon is near me (I want to watch), and Oliver Cromwell, himself a bit of a Regime Changer, was born there.

Image result for boris horseback johnsonWith our new horseback leader we can then solve the Brexit agony once and for all by invoking the ancient Persian custom of always holding a second referendum. They only made decisions of national importance after two votes coincided, one made when they were all sober and one when they were all drunk.

Image result for persians drinking ancient
Ancient Persians Going to a Second Referendum
Assuming that the majority of UK voters were not inebriated on 23rd June 2016 (although that might be one explanation for the result), we must now hold a second referendum after a compulsory national bender. Christmas Eve, before we all stagger along to Midnight Mass, seems a suitable choice of occasion.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Why Blogging is Hard Right Now




Irine's Aristotle's Way Cake!
For the first time in years I haven’t blogged for six whole weeks. I’ve been no busier than usual at the beginning of the academic year, but in an odd psychological state. One reason is that the nestlings who have been under our roof more than half my adult life left home for university on September 22nd. I feel badly disorientated.

The public sphere has been as nonplussing as the domestic. It’s not that I don’t have views. But what we don’t need right now is yet another opinionated, self-styled public intellectual virtue-signalling, policing others' thought-worlds or sounding off about Brexit or Trump. Yet more acrimonious social-media ranting helps nobody. 

Minoan Headgear
So, for distraction's sake, here’s an old-fashioned travelog instead. In September I returned to Tblisi, where Prof. Irine Darchia has almost single-handedly rescued Georgian Classics from disappearance during post-Soviet Reconstruction. At my State University lecture she presented me with a cake iced to match Aristotle’s Way and the head-dress of the Cretan Snake Goddess. Not all at once.

British Delegation in Kazan
The next escape was to the Uni at Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, where Lenin met Trotsky. I went with British Friendship Delegation including old comrades Prof. Richard Alston of Royal Holloway and Dr Henry Stead, with whom I’m now finishing the book of the Classics & Class project. It was billed as the first ever conference on Classical Reception in Russian Federation. I recall an extraordinary city and a vodka tsunami administered by Vladimir from Omsk.

Rick, My Dutch Publisher in Schipol Airport Bookshop
Third stop was the Netherlands. Rick van Rijthoven is the most effective publicist I’ve ever worked with. The Dutch title of the Dutch version of Aristotle’s Way translates as What Would Aristotle Do?  At public events I was asked What Would Aristotle Do (a) to help a stutter; (b) if he had £100,000 but a terminal illness; (c) if he debated Brexit with Spinoza. I kept praying there is no afterlife in which I'll ever have to face Aristotle in person.

Cerberus, art from HMS SENTINEL (pic by O. Baldiwn)
Other highlights included Portsmouth Naval Museum, where with PhD student Oliver Baldwin I investigated ships’ classically-themed badges and figureheads. There I met some Grumpy Old Salts and discovered why many British ships in the Battle of Trafalgar had classical names.

Classical Name-Choosing
When Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, was bored/drunk at the gambling table, he used to call for Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and choose names he fancied for new frigates. This was so exhausting that he got hungry. Since one hand was thumbing the book he asked for his meat to be brought enfolded between two slices of bread.

Is it still OK for a Bremainer to say she likes British humour? 

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Why Aristotle would support a Second Brexiterendum


I’ve travelled a lot this year, and everywhere the question has been the same: what would Aristotle have made of Brexit?  He didn’t write much about confederacies between sovereign city-states, so I don’t know how he would have voted. But I’m sure he would say that the first referendum had been so inadequately deliberated that it was as good as completely invalid.

There was so much wrong with the first referendum: the Electoral Commission says that the Brexit campaign broke the law, and what should have been a lengthy process of public deliberation, informed by cool-headed journalism, was a hate-filled bawling-match marred by cynical lies and misinformation and appeals to base prejudices.

When Mind-Changing is Virtuous
Aristotle was a fan of democracy, but only when decisions were properly deliberated according to his 8-point formula for decision-making: calibrating all likely outcomes, verifying all information, researching all precedents, etc. He used a tragedy by Sophocles to show how important it was to revise one’s opinion in the light of new information. When Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes comes to understand the inhumane consequences of abducting the disabled hero, Aristotle praises him for his openness to revising his views.

Antigone & Haemon: Young Adult Victims
In another play, Antigone, Sophocles showed that error-laden, precipitate lawmaking can be corrected if the ruling powers are persuaded to rethink. Creon does change his mind about executing Antigone, when given new information by Tiresias, but he changes it too late. She is dead already. That play also insists on the importance of listening to the opinions of young adults, and large numbers of our own, who are the ones who will have to face the long-term consequences, did not have the opportunity to vote in 2016. They include my two daughters.*

Another Athenian writer, Thucydides, describes the fiasco when the Athenians vote in too much hurry, on the basis of passion, to execute all the men of the rebel city of Mytilene. The very next day a second Assembly is called, which rescinds the brutal decision.

All three men had direct experience of the Athenian democracy, and supported it. They had absolutely no problem with the idea of a second vote on important matters. Neither do 86% of the Labour Party and many Tories, including my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen, who always talks good sense.

So let’s continue pressure, by any peaceful means possible, for a second Brexerendum, accompanied by a public enquiry led by disinterested experts on the likely consequences of a choice either way. I happen to be a Remainer, but I have many rational, benevolent and well-informed friends who are not. If the mass citizenry of the UK really wants Brexit, it will vote accordingly. So what are those who refuse to consider an idea that Aristotle, Sophocles and Thucydides would all have supported, really so afraid of?

*See the excellent new book by my former PhD student, Dr Matt Shipton, The Politics of Youth in Greek Tragedy (Bloomsbury).

Sunday, 2 September 2018

How Not to Submit a Chapter for an Edited Volume


Just before new term hits, I’ve finished editing one book (New Light on Tony Harrison, OUP) and co-editing another (Greek Theatre and Performance around the Ancient Black Sea, CUP). 

The work of editors of themed collections, a format which has much enhanced and publicised international collaborative research in Classics, is inspiring, arduous, and occasionally downright irritating.

Tragic Chorus in a Vase from Olbia, Ukraine
Allow me a whimper after a sweaty August at the keyboard. There is an etiquette about how to talk to one’s editor. Here are my top nine grumbles, in case they help less experienced colleagues:

1             Writing, ‘I haven’t checked all the references to the ancient text—could you help out as I’m very busy’ (especially irritating from a retired person).

2             Writing, ‘I expect some of the dates in my bibliography are wrong—could you help out as I’m very busy’ (ditto).

3      Writing in a footnote, ‘There have been no studies published of this issue’, when you as editor published a prize-winning monograph on the topic four years ago.

4             When citing twenty publications, including eighteen of your own and only two by other scholars.

5             In the ‘Biographical Notes’ section, requiring your editor to change the entire entry under your name no fewer than five times when you’ve given another lecture.

6             At proof stage, when the book is already being indexed so pagination can’t be changed, inserting large chunks of new text without even an apology.

7             When requiring several images, saying at the last minute that you need the editors to find sums in three and even four figures to pay for reproduction permissions and demanding that the editor write to the museums and galleries themselves.

8             Being rude about corrections the editor has made, when they are simply rectifying factual falsehoods or grammatical errors. Disputing the English-speaking editor's grasp of English idiom when it is your second language incurs special animosity.

9         Using bullying language in correspondence beginning with phrases like ‘Only a fool could fail to see that…’

Most contributors do none of these. Some even add lovely footnotes thanking the editor for all their hard work and attentiveness. But some do all of them, and yes, it’s usually more senior colleagues who narcissistically exploit their supposed eminence to justify their shocking manners.

Of course I’m not naming any names, but, as the watchman says in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. ‘A big bull stands on my tongue... I'm happy to speak to those who understand, and be taken no notice of by those who don’t'.

I'm  only ever editing one more collection, and that solely because it's already under contract (on Aristophanes' comedy). Posting this blog means I've made that resolution publicly!