Sunday 24 March 2013

Contrary Mary Pre-edit of Review in Yesterday's Times

Mary Beard is Britain’s most famous classicist. She is also Britain’s most prolific reviewer of books on classical subjects. As the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement for over twenty years she has chosen which books are reviewed,  which are passed over, and—more importantly—who should review.  She also contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. She has thus acquired more power than anyone in history over the formation of public opinion on other classicists, as well as ancient Greece and Rome, at least amongst the chattering classes of the English-speaking world. In Confronting the Classics, she offers the reader a collection of thirty-one previously published reviews and essays, for the most part only lightly revised, dating back to 1990. They are book-ended by the excellent lecture Do Classics Have a Future? which she delivered at the New York Public Library in December 2011, and an afterword in the form of her manifesto on the art of reviewing and of selecting reviewers.

The book is subtitled ‘A provocative tour of what is happening now in Classics’.  A ‘tour’ it certainly is: one cannot fail to be impressed by Beard’s range of interests and ability to talk sense about all of them, from Minoan archaeology to Roman tombstones in South Shields inscribed in both Latin and Aramaic, or contemporary productions of ancient Greek plays to Astérix le Gaulois.  She writes with equal fluency about Art, Archaeology, History, and Literature, produced not only by Greeks and Romans but by many of their Mediterranean subjects and neighbours. The only field in which Beard treads tentatively, if at all, is ancient philosophy.  The book could well serve as an introduction to the entire field of Greek and Roman studies, usable by either the complete beginner or a previous convert. Since none of the essays is more than a few pages long, and forms a discrete window onto a particular topic, it is ideal for dipping into and browsing. 

It is also certainly provocative.  Not many ancient historians would dare to claim that Alexander the Great was an invention of Roman historiography.  Beard is on record as saying that studies of the influence of Classics on later epochs—what is termed ‘Classical Reception’ studies—are ‘ruining the subject’. But most of this book is about modern ‘receptions’ of antiquity.  Feminist hackles will rise at Beard’s decision to republish her notorious review of Robert Todd’s Dictionary of British Classicists (2004), in which she appeared to endorse sexual harassment of students. Her exact words are these: ‘If we’re honest’, then it is ‘hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia for the academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy-which had flourished, after all, since Plato—was firmly stamped out.’  As one whose first year at university in 1978-9 was completely blighted by ‘the erotic dimension of pedagogy’, I object to that hegemonic ‘we’.   Beard has always been a contrarian, and neither political nor ideological consistency is her forte. But her book is so stimulating, and at times so very funny, that I end up forgiving her everything.

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