Saturday 26 January 2019

Mid-Western Adventures with Aristotle and Diego Rivera

In Great Company with Beard & Miller
An extreme week. On the downside, I got sick courtesy of United Airlines’ so-called air filters. The disgusting virus forced me to cancel a visit to lecture on ancient comedy at the Athenian Academy.  I hope they forgive me and invite me back soon.

On the upside, the launch of Aristotle’s Way in USA was a round of pleasant encounters, in which I felt acute Imposter Syndrome while visiting bookstores in Chicago and Detroit and the scholars of Northwestern, especially the great Richard Kraut, whose study of Aristotle’s Politics I last year named one of my five ‘best books’ on the philosopher.
Janet W. & Alyson Jones of Detroit's SOURCE Booksellers

Icing on the cake was a poisitive review in the New York Times, by Professor John J. Kaag of the University of Massachusetts. He had read every word and intuitively understood what I was trying to do. I’m even prouder now to have been named alongside him as authors of two of Nigel Warburton’s best philosophy books of 2018.

Sara Entrhalled by Rivera's Frescoes 
Aristotle thought long and hard about  art and why it needed an honoured place in public culture. I thought about his insight, in the Poetics, that great art allows us to learn, but with pleasure, during the week's highlight, which even head pains could not wreck. With my friend Professor Sara Monoson, I finally saw the Mexican Marxist Diego Rivera’s astonishing murals in the Detroit Institute of Art. Twenty-seven panels depict scenes inspired by Motown’s industries, especially the Ford Motor Company, at that time (1933) suffering from industrial unrest leading to violence and several deaths. 

The depiction of humans and machines, informed in part by classical relief sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze, is witty, beautiful and conveys Rivera’s wonder at the technology and productive forces of the factories. But it also questions the uses to which these could be put—poisonous weapons as well as medicine, war as well as civilisation-building, the oppression of blue-collar workers as well as the fruits of progress in which they could—up to a point—share.

Proud to Stand by Rivera's Self-Portrait as Worke
Controversy raged. Churchmen declared the Aztec goddesses and uses of biblical themes blasphemous. Industrialists disliked the unflattering depiction of bosses and middle-class onlookers. Henry Ford, portrayed on the west wall, seems not have noticed that he was associated with a Giant Ear, policing his workers incessantly, nor that Rivera’s own self-portrait, complete with star badges, a hammer and sickle-like curves, had turned the murals into a shrine to communism.

My favourite panel portrays the unborn child, in a fetal position, nested in the roots of a plant amid several geological strata. It is in the position the viewer sees first on entering the great mural room, high on the east wall, where the image of God is traditionally placed in the apse of a Church. Nature, labour, local history, art and the humanist expression of a hope for a better human future come together in a great Gesamtkunstwerk of heart-stopping intricacy and vitality.  It was worth the virus. I learned with pleasure. It will stay with me forever.

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 Ana├»s 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.