Sunday 29 September 2013

The World's Worst Airline

If you were writing a sitcom about an awful eastern European budget airline, you might easily come up with the name WIZZ AIR. That a Budapest-based airline with such a name really exists should have been warning enough. 

In Lublin this morning we were called for boarding and herded into outdoor sheep-pens on a runway with no aeroplane in sight. Babies screamed. Harassed parents became desperate. Old ladies passed out. Old men pleaded to be allowed back inside to go to the toilet.

Nearly two hours later a fuchsia-and-mauve plane landed beside the sheep pens. We desperate passengers charged on board, all safety rules ignored. People were still conducting violent marital tiffs and moving around the cabin during take-off.

I had been bought an Extra Leg Room seat by my Polish hosts, and sat in embarassed solitude on the slightly less confining middle row. Asked by the dismal flight attendant if I would operate the safety exit in the event of an emergency, it being  situated on my row, I said that everyone would be safer if someone more confident with machinery and aviation sat by the door.

The dismal attendant went glassy-eyed. She could not sit anyone else there because Nobody Else had Paid the 16-Euros Extra Leg Room supplement. I said, “So what? Plenty of passengers would like that seat and could operate the door.” The three large men crammed into the row behind me all volunteered. Glass-Eyes continued to maintain No Pay No Upgrade. But when I offered to swap with one of the large men, she finally gave up and let reason prevail. Just think! How outrageous! A man who had not paid the supplement got legroom!

Turbulence was terrible and the flight-attendants looked terrified all the time, as if they knew something we didn't about a defective engine. The first thing I did when I finally got home was look up W(H)IZZ in the dictionary. Since the 1600s, as a verb it has denoted the movement of lethal missiles such as bullets and cannon balls. In the Depression a Whizz meant a pickpocket or petty thief. In the 1970s ‘going for a whizz’ meant urinating. In the 1980s and 1990s ‘whizz’ meant ‘recreational’ amphetamines.

It was only in September 2003, exactly a decade ago, that the term became associated not only with lethal danger, being ripped off, taking a/the p**s and psychotropic chemicals (all of which seem appropriate to my experience this morning), but an airline so abysmal that I would very much rather have hitchhiked all the way. You have been warned.

Saturday 21 September 2013

What the Ancient Greeks Knew about Slaves' Dream-Lives

While suffering from concussion earlier this summer I agreed to be in three places at once this week:  introducing the great Orlando Patterson at a conference on slavery in Indiana, co-relating classics and social class in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and interpreting ancient dream interpretation in Poland. So I have chosen according to personal loyalty on the conference front (Poland) and sent video talks to the other two (something I may do more of now, it being nicer to the planet than planes).

Fortunately for my hosts, virtual and actual, and for my own sanity, there is a link between all three talks: our one surviving ancient handbook of dream interpretation, by Artemidorus of Daldis, who recorded the colourful dreams experienced by his customers—mostly Greeks—under the Roman Empire.  His book, The Interpretation of Dreams, enthralled Sigmund Freud, who borrowed the title for his own most famous work, Traumdeutung, in 1899/1900.

Freud was struck by the numerous positions in which ancient Greek men told Artemidorus that they had enjoyed dream-sex with their mothers. But the real reason why Artemidorus is important is that his accounts of the dreams experienced by his many slave-class customers provide our best surviving access to the inner, mental and emotional lives of the millions of people in Greek and Roman antiquity who were not free.

Artemidorus tells us that the same dream will mean different things depending on whether you are a slave or  not: ‘Olive trees whose fruit has been gathered up means good luck for all but slaves, for whom it means thrashings, since it is by blows that the fruit is taken down’.  If a pregnant free woman dreams she gives birth to a snake, it is a good omen, but in a slave woman it can only mean that the child will become a runaway, ‘because a snake does not follow a straight path’.

Slaves' dreams tell desperately sad stories. A house-slave dreamt that one star fell out of the sky while another star ascended into the sky.  When his master died, he thought he was free and without any master. But it came to light that his former master had a son, and he was forced to become his slave.  The fallen star therefore stood for the man who died, while the one that ascended into the sky signified the one who would control him and be his master. 

This slave’s disappointment on discovering that he was legally compelled to serve another man, much younger than his previous owner, can only be imagined.  Another slave, whose subconscious clearly could not cope with his subordination, dreamt that he was playing ball with Zeus. He then quarrelled with his master, and, since he took certain liberties in his speech, he antagonised the man. For Zeus signified the master. The ball-playing indicated both the exchange of words on an equal footing and the quarrel itself. 

Artemidorus was a man of his time, and often recycles embarrassing prejudices against slaves. He argues, for example that slaves are more physical and less cerebral than the free. Slaves are often represented by animals (e.g. mice) and body parts (feet) in dreams, whereas the free are represented by more abstract symbolism to do with souls. 

But Artemidorus’ book also undermines the ancient distinction between slaves and free in ways which are paralleled by no other ancient evidence. It undermines the hierarchies of waking life by his actual practice of taking slave dreams seriously. The egalitarian form of many passages in the amazing ancient dream book implicitly dismantles its hierarchical content.  Ancient slaves may have left us few documents in their own voices. But the soul – or psyche - of the ancient slave was of course really there all the time. [A full discussion of Artemidorus' slave dreamers is included in Alston, Hall & Proffitt, Reading Ancient Slavery and can be read free online ninth offprint from the top here].

Saturday 14 September 2013

Fiddling while Troy Burns

Backdrop (detail of Hogarth's Southwark Fair)

Next Friday, some young colleagues at a conference in Oxford will revive scenes from a remarkable 300-year old farce on the siege of Troy.

Elkanah Settle’s musical comedy The Siege of Troy began life as a successful opera in 1701. It remained the uncontested hit of the London fairgrounds in both booth theatre and puppet shows from 1707 to at least 1735, when Hogarth portrayed it as the central attraction in his famous engraving 'Southwark Fair'.

Heroic Cobbler Bristle
The hero is an enterprising Trojan cobbler named Tom Bristle. The Trojan working class, who speak earthy prose, elect him their captain. They stay safe during the siege by holding a party, and survive to rebuild the city when the Greeks leave. Meanwhile the Trojan ruling class, who speak pompous heroic rhyming couplets, are either killed or commit spectacular suicide.

Forgotten Masterpiece of the London Fairs
Settle’s subversive The Siege of Troy is what really united John Dryden and Alexander Pope. It wasn’t just their mutual obsession with Trojans and with classical epic (they produced the canonical English verse translations of the Aeneid and the Iliad in 1697 and 1715-20 respectively). It was unremitting envy and hatred of Settle.

Settle is the Missing Link in the British reception of classical epic. When his Empress of Morocco struck gold in the Restoration theatre, Dryden wrote vicious attacks which reveal the toxic extent of his envy. Dryden knew that Settle’s shows were lucrative: ’The height of his ambition is we know/But to be Master of a Puppet-show./On that one Stage his works may yet appear,/And a month’s Harvest keeps him all the Year.’

Dryden's Aeneid (1697)
Settle’s The Siege of Troy, in response, put two populist fingers up at Dryden’s version of the siege of Troy in his Aeneid book 2, by completing it with ale, fiddles, and scatological humour. I would rather be transported back in time to watch Settle’s droll at Southwark Fair than re-read Dryden any time.

Pope loathed Settle even more than Dryden had. Just when the ambitious young Pope was trying to drum up support from subscribers including royalty to fund his Homer translation project, the same royalty were going to the fairgrounds to laugh with their populace at Settle’s boisterous Trojans, surviving by drinking and fiddling even as Troy burned. 
Pope's Iliad (1715-20)

Pope took revenge by launching some of his most vindictive satire ever against Settle in his Dunciad. It closes with the ghost of Settle announcing the inauguration by bad poets of the new cosmic Age of Dullness: 'Thy hand great Dulness! lets the curtain fall,/And universal Darkness covers all'.

The Siege of Troy, Highlight of Southwark Fair according to Hogarth
This was spiteful and unfair: dullness was one thing Settle was never guilty of. He is last heard of in a green costume, acting the dragon in his own fairground play about St. George. It is extraordinary how this impresario has been written out of the cultural history of classical epic. On Friday we are going to put that right.