Saturday 21 January 2017

Crowd Help Needed to Visualise Campaign for People's Classics

Dr Holmes-Henderson
Wonderful news arrived yesterday at exactly the right time to dispel gloom.  I've been awarded a Leadership Fellowship by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to run a nationwide campaign. It will support Classical Civilisation or Ancient History qualifications in secondary education. But I need your help and there is a £100 prize on offer!

From May 1st, my  soon-to-be Postdoctoral Fellow, brilliant colleague Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and I will be

  •          writing a book about teaching the Greeks/Romans in translation
  •          supporting teachers, lobbying, doing publicity and journalism
  •         organising public events in our twelve partner institutions*

Studying ancient Greek and Roman Roman civilisation, history, thought, literature, art and archaeology is not only exciting and instructive, but confers profound advantages: it hones analytical and critical skills, trains minds in the comparative use of different types of evidence, introduces young people to the finest oratory and skills in argumentation and communication, enhances cultural literacy, refines consciousness of cultural difference and relativism, fosters awareness of a three-millennia long past, along with models and ideals of democracy, and develops identities founded in citizenship on the national, European and cosmopolitan, global level. So there.

But our project needs a promotional image and logo before we design the website. The full title is cumbersome: ‘Teaching Classical Civilisation in Britain: Recording the Past and Fostering the Future’.  We need to identify—or persuade one of our friends out there such as you, your children or pupils to create—an impact-making, easily reproducible pic and/or logo that gets over one or more of the key themes: youth, education, classics, inspiration.

So I’m offering £100 to the best suggestion or submission, sent in by the March 1st deadline. Everyone is eligible but tell me your age if you like. I have thought about such themes as the autodidacts’ Minerva urging youths to education, about Cheiron the Centaur who taught mythical heroes in their teens, ancient images of young people studying, or more British subject-matter (Boudicca, well-known British artists). But I am old and out of touch with people born since the millennium and they are the ones we want to  get involved.

Please email or post ideas to me at my two names divided by a dot then, Dept. of Classics, King’s College, Strand, London WC2R 2LS. Arlene and I will announce the winning submission on 4th March. And meanwhile I can’t resist posting this upcheering pic of the two teenagers I am most proud of in the world, off today to march against misogyny.

[*] In  Swansea, Exeter, Warwick, Kent, Durham, Glasgow, St Andrews, Belfast, Liverpool, Open University, Leeds and Reading. Information about whom to contact at each partner institution will be available soon.

Sunday 15 January 2017

Spartacus' Morphing Politics in Dark Times

The weather is always appropriately dank and bitter on 15th January,  the anniversary of the brutal 1919 murders, by the far-right proto-Nazi volunteer Freikorps, of the Spartacists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their Spartacus League took its name after splitting from the Social Democratic Party, which had supported imperial Germany’s declaration of war. But I’ve never been able to discover whether it was Rosa or Karl or indeed their colleague Clara Zetkin—a trained Classics teacher—who chose the identification with the ancient Thracian slave.

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Spartacus, as he is admiringly portrayed in Plutarch’s Life of Crasssus, was adopted as ancestral hero of single-issue Abolitionists when Guillaume Raynal asked in 1770,  ‘Where is this great man to be found? Where is the new Spartacus who will not find Crassus?'  His plea seemed to be answered when Toussaint Louverture, aka The Black Spartacus, successfully led the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti. British children were introduced in 1822 to the paradigmatic classical proto-Abolitionist via Spartacus: A Roman Story, by Englishwoman Susanna Strickland (later to migrate to Canada, campaign against U.S. slavery and find fame as Susanna Moodie).

But Spartacus did not mutate from campaigner against slavery into campaigner against capitalist oppression of workers until three decades later. The individual responsible seems to have been Ernest Jones, Anglo-Welsh but Berlin-born Chartist friend of Marx and Engels. He founded the short-lived weekly journal Notes to the People (1851-2). Its fiftieth edition kicked off a three-part serial The Gladiators of Rome, narrating Spartacus’ revolt but turning it into a paradigm of principled popular working-class uprising against the super-rich. 

'Mugshot' of Chartist Jones
This was a radical move, since the Chartists and other working men’s organisations had traditionally been suspicious of the anti-slavery societies whose hero was Spartacus: the British working class thought that the Abolitionists were privileged do-gooders crassly neglecting the exploitation of white workers in their own back yard.

Spartakusbund attacks 3-headed hydra of capitalism
By January 1st 1916, when the Spartakusbund became official, Spartacus had therefore been a proto-socialist for a lifetime. And 1916 was the year when Kirk Douglas was born—the actor who impersonated Stanley Kubrick’s rousing Spartacus in 1960.

Draba selflessly spares Spartacus' life
The politics of that film are stupefyingly confused: there are good reasons for interpreting it as simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Christian-Evangelical, pro-civil-liberties and homophobic, as Anti-McCarthyite but Anti-Soviet but Pro-Trade-Union.  It has one great scene for an African American actor (Woody Strode as Draba) but otherwise presents Spartacus’ fellow slaves as whiter than white. Let us not even talk about the women. 

On reflection, it seems a suitable enough film for the current bewildering political climate. Margarethe von Trotta's heartbreaking 1986 movie Rosa Luxemburg  suggests the politics of oppression are refreshingly straightforward but sadly doesn't seem to be on Netflix. So Spartacus sounds like a plan for this winter afternoon.

Thursday 5 January 2017

Can the Left Appreciate Literature? A Reply to the Alt-Right of Classics

J. Duban
I’ve never been asked by a reputable journal to review such a bad book as Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre. Duban is an embittered person who left an apparently unsuccessful academic career for the law. He has published a volume ostensibly about Sappho so hefty that I plan to put it on the tea-towel when I am next squeezing water out of aubergines to make moussaka.

My first reaction to the proposal was to turn it down. The most painful aspect of the book is its (almost) unbelievably reactionary position on literature in general and ancient Greek poetry in particular. Duban is convinced that The Classics belong to a favoured few Very Intelligent People Like Himself and that nobody else has any right to study, translate or pollute them by any form of contact whatsoever. He particularly singles out for vilification ‘modern’ Greeks, ‘triumphalist feminists’, adult learners and ‘amateur’ classicists without expensive private educations. Yum.

My second response was to write a temperate review simply pointing out the (several) scholarly errors and (many) blind prejudices. But I felt as though I was using a nuclear warhead to destroy a hamster.

So in the end I decided to do something which I don’t usually approve of—use the space in the Times Literary Supplement to explore an issue which is of interest to me, and none at all, I suspect, to the writer of the book I was supposed to be reviewing.

The single merit of Duban’s work, it seem to me, is that he really, really, likes poetry and isn’t ashamed to say that some literature is really, really good. And it has always bothered me that the scholars most politically opposed to Dubanic elitism, those on the Left, not only in Classics but in all fields where artworks are discussed, are terrified of talking about beauty, sublimity, and artistic value.

'Freddie, I think Aeschylus is great and will tell you why after the revolution'
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels inconsiderately did not develop an aesthetic theory because they had more urgent things to do, like liberate the global working class. Subsequent Left critics have struggled to create an adequate theory of artistic excellence. Talking about literature in terms of its dialectical relationship with class and other socio-politico-economic categories (of which I’ve done a lot myself) is essential, but it’s not the whole story.

The only reason why it matters what literature says about society is that it can have an extraordinarily powerful psychological, emotional and therefore social effect. Pleasure, exaltation and excitement are political. We need to work on a Left-wing way of talking about the things which cause some art to make your hair stand on end, so we can really put the Dubans of this world in their place and not let the Devil get all the best literary-critical tunes. 

The review is published behind a pay wall but you can download the pdf from the news column of my personal website here. Duban is known for his trenchant public statements: I don’t know whether I want him to write to the TLS to complain about it or not.