Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations, By Mary Beard, Liveright, 310 pp., $28.95
W. H. Auden, in his introduction to the The Portable Greek Reader, published in September 1948, begins: “Once upon a time there was a little boy … At seven he went to a boarding school and most of the next seven years were spent in translating Greek and Latin into English and vice versa. … It is hard to believe now that this story is not a fairy tale but a historical account of middle-class education in England thirty-five years ago.”
Also in September 1948, Terence Rattigan’s play, The Browning Version, debuted. It concerns a crusty old classics teacher named Andrew Crocker-Harris at just such a school, an endangered species in a losing battle with modernity. It is through the lens of this play and its anxiety about the future of the classics that Mary Beard addresses the perennial question, “Are classics dying?” in the opening essay of her new collection of book reviews, Confronting the Classics.
Beard admits that Robert Browning’s 1877 Agamemnon, the eponymous version of the play’s title, has “an old fashioned ring.” But even contemporaries found it bizarre; A. E. Housman’s hilarious “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy” is arguably as much a parody of Browning as it is of Aeschylus. As Beard’s mention of “wonderment” in her opening essay suggests, Browning’s “transcription” springs from the excitement of discovery (specifically, the finds of archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann at Mycenae). From Browning’s introduction it is evident that he aimed to bring Aeschylus’s work, undiluted in its native strangeness, to readers without Greek. Is this a popularizing impulse, or angst about the decline of linguistic expertise? Both?
At a further 65-odd-year remove from Auden’s introduction, the reading of Latin and Greek has retreated into an even more rarified niche, but the one constant in the history of the study of classics is laments for its decline. Beard quotes Thomas Jefferson: “The learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. … It would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” Beard’s 2011 essay will have been too early for this piece of irony: the 2012 ouster (later reversed) of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of Mr. Jefferson’s own University of Virginia, engineered by its board, according to The Washington Post, because she lacked the “mettle” to shut down low-enrollment and “arcane” departments such as German and classics.
The vitality of classical studies can be gauged by the sweep of this collection’s index, from 1066 and All That to Zeuxis. As Beard wryly points out in “Who Wanted Remus Dead?” the standard entry for Remus is, “see Romulus”; here Remus gets four subheadings. Beard’s openings come at the subject sidewise, and give her an opportunity to wear her wide-ranging learning lightly. Typical is the beginning of “Hannibal at Bay”:
The British Fabian Society takes its name from the Roman soldier and politician Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. He may seem an unlikely patron for a society of intellectual socialists. Born into one of the most aristocratic families of ancient Rome, Fabius is not known for his sympathy for the poor. It was his tactics in the war against Hannibal that inspired the society’s founders in the 1880s.
Beard seems most at home in discussing history by way of “modern theories of literary criticism and narrative.” She makes a convincing case that Alexander the Great is largely a later Roman construction. There is no evidence of his being known as “the Great” in his lifetime. Descriptions of Alexander’s extravagant grief at the death of his companion Hephaestion, she points out, might have been colored by Hadrian’s mourning, much later, over his lover Antinous.
Beard is in the unusual position of being both a Cambridge don and a pundit, subject to the anonymity-fueled vitriol of the blogosphere (most recently about whether she is glamorous enough for her role as a TV history program presenter—a question one imagines not often put to male academics). She is equally adept at riling feminists. Of Corpus Professor of Latin at Oxford Eduard Fraenkel’s “pawing” of female students, Beard muses: “On the one hand, it is impossible not to feel outrage at a straightforward case of persistent sexual harassment. … On the other hand, if we’re honest, it is also hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia from that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy—which had flourished, after all, since Plato—was firmly stamped out.” This kindled a firestorm of indignation but seems to me to take a firm moral stance while pinpointing a truth about the inherent Eros in mentorship.
The statement comes from the chapter “What Gets Left Out.” How Beard makes this silk purse out of something as porcine and leathery as a Dictionary of British Classicists is a small miracle. A romp through the history and hearsay omitted from academic hagiography, the foibles, the affairs, the afflictions, the drinking, the car crashes, suicide for love, the rigorous scholarship in the midst of messy existences, it reads more like a gossipy Lives of the Poets. The fictional Crocker-Harris has nothing on the actual Edmund “Mush” Morshead, a 19th-century classics teacher who spoke an idiolect dubbed “Mushri” with his students and taught in the “Mushroom.”
Beard warns that for all the enrichment of modern perspectives, someone still needs to know the languages. One doesn’t have to have read Virgil to get something out of Dante, but “the important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante.” Skeptical too of pro-classics arguments that hinge on its being useful for something else (such as learning French), Beard says, “There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.” Or as Browning states in his introduction: “Learning Greek teaches Greek, and nothing else.”
Many of us studied classics not only to read what was written in Latin, but also because poets, writers, and thinkers had blazed a brilliant trail. Beard conveys in her survey of the subject and the people who study it the excitement and romance of that tradition. For someone who has argued vehemently against the need to be glamorous, she makes the study of classics irresistibly attractive. Perhaps it is no accident that the word glamour begins as a variant of grammar.
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