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Monday, October 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Classicists in Contemporary American Fiction

It is curious that so many novels of the last decade feature a central or motivating figure who is a professor of classics. Classics is a subject that is now entirely marginal to the academic enterprise and dramatically dismissed in American culture. The writer who makes a central character into a classicist therefore is being emphatic in a way that putting the character to work in a pizzeria is not. In Donna Tarte’s The Secret History (1992), the character Julian is the teacher of six other central characters, who are all advanced undergraduate students of Latin and Greek; the protagonist in Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow (1998) is a professor of classics in a small Midwestern college; Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) deals with a classicist who is a recently retired dean in a small New England college town; and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000) has a central character who seems to have been modeled on Bellow’s good friend and colleague at the University of Chicago, the late Allan Bloom.

“Elite,” “freak,” “withdrawn,” “brilliant,” are, one imagines, commonplace contemporary responses to the idea of a classicist, when indeed a classicist can even be defined or identified. A classicist is probably more remote from the real or imagined experience of a modern reader than, say, Henry James’s European aristocrats. As proof, I offer Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai, a novel that I left out of this essay because it is so esoteric. The narrative describes a woman who is a classicist and her very young son, to whom she has taught Greek. The child (not your average boy) also knows Japanese, and the plot – for what it is – follows the lad, a modern-day Telemachus, on his search for a father, although the mores of the samurai class more often than not dictate the action. This is a very post-modern adventure story in which, in place of Scylla and Charybdis or bands of warriors, the boy hero must do battle with the intellectual acquisition of language. The detailed workings of language systems (down to declensions, conjugations, and comparative grammar) are not everyone’s idea of the stuff of narrative, no matter if action-driven plots are now considered passe. The book demands total surrender by the reader. Who, for instance, can tackle the novel who does not at least know Greek script? A meanspirited critic might insist that The Last Samurai seems to be a very up-market coffee-table book meant to demonstrate, if not trendiness, at least high seriousness. The more generous would allow that it is a work that celebrates all those attributes of “freakishness,” “elitism,” “brilliance,” and so on listed above, being a work that from the start earns its cult status.

The Secret History
The books under review describe a curious world that will be familiar to a professional classicist of a certain age. We have met some of these classicists before. Donna Tarte’s Julian is an older man, very rich, one of those dollar-a-year professors who teach what they want and whom they want, and run an operation more or less separated from the routine academic practice of their institutions. He is an intellectual who knows everyone of importance on the cultural scene in Europe and the United States (p. 225), and is extremely cultivated in all aspects of so-called higher culture. His ability to choose wines, set a table, or appreciate a piece of music, show him to be one of those old-fashioned mandarins who used to be considerably more common in academic life.

His teaching method seems Socratic. The classroom scene reveals someone who plays out the drama of intellectual inquiry while at the same time dominating the proceedings to the extent that one might argue that Julian’s students are his creatures. Of course, this is true in general in the academic world – that is, the slave-master paradigm prevails – but here one gets the idea again and again that classical antiquity is more than a concept resting on a body of certifiable data. It is a state of mind within which Julian operates and to which he will bring his students. Julian drills the students in composition, and they are encouraged to speak the ancient languages. The author obligingly demonstrates them by introducing Latin tags or Greek sayings – some even of the students’ own creation – as well as by keeping a diary in Latin. One is reminded of Werner Jaeger’s Dritte Humanismus; classical studies as a kind of substitute for religion was not uncommon fifty years ago in the United States. The narrator happens to observe a private moment in which Henry gives Julian a kiss on the cheek, which depicts a kind of intimacy that is special, if not indeed homoerotic.

The narrator is given several pages to exclaim over his profound love for Julian (p. 479), which is, however, clearly enough not the least bit erotic. One senses that the twentieth century does not enter or matter much in Julian’s teaching. Some of his students are not altogether unlike him. Henry, for instance, did not know that a man had set foot on the moon (p. 80). This ignorance is exemplative of the fact that Julian’s students have chosen to live lives at one remove from quotidian experience. At one point (p. 139), the narrator describes the drinking, drugging, partying undergraduate life of the college negatively, as one might imagine, as though everyone who participates in it are thugs, druggies, clowns, or swine. Of course, several of Julian’s students have backgrounds that would inhibit their entry into the typical undergraduate experience. They are Henry, whose very rich parents dole out a large allowance to him; Francis, who lives off a large trust fund; and the twins, Charles and Camilla, whom the reader senses are associated with, if no longer in possession of, what used to be called “old money.” On the other hand, there is Bunny, who is clearly conventional in some sense (see p. 96, where he fantasizes being a middle-class dad), but also very rich, although very clearly enough nouveau riche. Curiously enough, Bunny is financially dependent upon his friends since his parents give him no spending money, a detail which is necessary for the plot, but not terribly convincing.

Finally, there is the narrator, Richard, who is a classic narrative convention without any real personality, emotion, or relevance to the story. The author underscores Richard’s detached status by describing his utterly conventional middle-class background in suburban California (to which he admits with anguish, e.g., p. 208). The few times that the author decides that Richard must function in the story, she has him making a few tentative passes at Camilla, who declines him more as the mechanical dismissal of an unessential human being rather than as someone repulsed or not interested. Of course, Richard often describes himself doing his homework (e.g., p. 138, studying his irregular second aorist verbs), which is an authorial reminder that her stick-figure is actually in the plot.

The plot takes off when Henry, Francis, and the twins reenact a Dionysiac frenzy in the course of which, while racing over the hills, they come upon a man and kill him. They are unmoved by this horrific act. Henry, for instance, after anguishing over it, can suddenly ask, “Did you do your Greek today?,” Julian, as it turns out (p. 226), is equally unmoved when Henry tells him; he has nothing but contempt for the Judeo-Christian tradition (p. 228), which no doubt includes guilt over murder. We learn all this, of course, only when Henry tells the narrator, who had not been present. Bunny, on the other hand, figures it out for himself, and proceeds to makes himself utterly obnoxious by hinting at threats of blackmail. The group decides that they have no choice but to murder Bunny. This they proceed to do in the same detached manner in which they seem to acknowledge anything in what can be called “the real world.”

To this extent they are very much Platonic idealists or, one might say, cast adrift from everyday preoccupation with getting by because of their money, alienated by their eccentricities (Camilla and Charles, for instance, are incestuous). Led by their teacher to consider the ideal and the abstract as having considerably more meaning than action, they are insulated from the heinousness of the murder of someone who had been, if not a real friend, then an intimate of their circle. One of the weaker features of this novel is that Richard, the narrator, goes along on this adventure – otherwise we would not have an account of it – but his peculiar detachment, which derives from his narrative function rather than being a developed characterization of an unfeeling monster, makes the reader impatient.

As a classicist, one comes away from The Secret History remembering all too well half a century ago just such teachers, and just such students, when classics was a fraternity or mystical bond for classmates who shared in what was considered to be the preferred socioeconomic background. It is odd to think that a person as young as Donna Tarte is said to be would have conceived of such a story. Today, one would think that, with merit rather than wealth being the criterion for college admission, the professionalization of classics faculties so that what they do is more a job than a “calling,” and the deconstruction of the so-called “old truths,” the elements upon which such a narrative is constructed would have long since disappeared. Still, to the degree Tarte knows of that old world of classical studies, one can see how she would find it amenable to describing the perverse, the off-beat, the inverted view.

The Fall of a Sparrow
In The Fall of a Sparrow, Woody, the father of three daughters, and a happily married, successful classicist, wakes up one day to learn that his oldest child has been killed in a terrorist explosion in the Bologna train station. The novel could be described as an exposition of the way in which Woody and his wife Hannah confront this truth philosophically. After first going berserk in Bologna, Hannah returns to their home and, in planning her daughter’s gravesite, argues for a line from Dante, la sua volunt – A nostra pace. This opens up an impossible rift between the parents; Woody refuses what he considers to be an easy acceptance and surrender, Hannah moves away, eventually becoming a cloistered nun by the end of the novel. Woody wants to place a line from a Horatian love poem on the gravestone, fine as an epitaph, but disturbing and inappropriate in its poetic context. One important strand of this novel is Woody’s sexual behavior as a kind of antidote to death. One is reminded of a novel by Andre Maurois in which a couple, having viewed the plaster casts of the struggling dead in the ashes of Pompeii, hurry back to their hotel and pass the afternoon furiously making love.

Classical education is another strand that the author introduces time and again to demonstrate his hero’s use of another culture and another set of values to define his stance in the twentieth-century Christian world. “But dead is dead, he thought, and life goes on, and if you think seriously, if you consider the alternatives, you’ll even see the value of death in the natural cycle of things, and you’ll see that death gives shape to life. That’s the great lesson of The Iliad. Compared to Hector and Andromache, Achilles and Priam, the lives of the gods who live forever are meaningless. The lives of the gods, who confront no limitations, who make no important decisions” (p. 44). One is reminded of Wallace Steven’s “Death is the Mother of Beauty,” in his poem, “Sunday Morning.” But later, Woody thinks of the great-books course he taught for years, how he and everyone else thought that life was meaningless, and that death gave life meaning. Only his daughter’s death does not; he cannot get past this particular, unique, horrible fact of his daughter’s death. He must wrestle with this throughout the novel.

Like Julian in Donna Tarte’s novel, Woody is engaged with classical antiquity as a kind of religion from which he tries to find support and meaning in his present crisis. The author emphasizes this aspect of classical learning by juxtaposing Woody’s quest with that of Hannah, who finds redefinition in a vocation within the Roman Catholic Church. Again, a professional classicist will recognize the type. Men like Woody dominated the teaching of classics in the Fifties and Sixties, the first generations to teach from translations to large classes of seekers and would-be believers. How long ago it all seems peering back through the obstructive haze of post-modernism, deconstruction, and multiculturalism.

Woody has two sexual adventures, or, I suppose, three, since he has sex with his old college sweetheart a few times when she rushes to Bologna from Rome following the attack to be with him, while Hannah is hospitalized with a mental breakdown. One must describe this experience very definitely as therapeutic sex; as for the other occasions, the reader is never sure. Death may be the Mother of Beauty but it also seems to be a very good substitute for Viagra. Back home, Woody proceeds with a relationship with the freshman daughter of this very same woman. Admittedly, the girl almost forces him into sleeping with her, yet he does, repeatedly, letting her move into his house. To this critic, Woody seems overly preoccupied with sex. At the memorial service for the several Harvard students killed in the explosion, Woody sees the boy he assumes was his daughter’s boyfriend, and proceeds to imagine his daughter’s vagina being penetrated by the boy’s penis (p. 47). In another scene, Woody stands before the mirror pondering the male nude, considering his own penis, and at that moment thinks once more of his daughter being blown up (pp. 310f.). I wonder what is going on here, and I don’t think the author is altogether forthcoming; perhaps I am too Freudian. The author gives his reader lots of sex. Woody is curiously matter-of-fact about the sex, using it, or so it seems, more for its mechanical value – that is, therapy – a conscious statement about the human condition, and finally as a way to keep the machinery functioning. He never seems to concern himself with the young girl with whom he is having the relationship.

As a man who has spent his life nurturing the young, recognizing them as something other than complete adults, Woody is curiously indifferent to what might be motivating this child, or what might be happening to her as a result of their affair. The reader somehow feels that the author’s determination to live out his own fantasies just will not allow the narrative to go in that direction. The author is content to allow the young girl to emerge from this experience as though having done nothing more than spend an afternoon shopping for a new dress. At one point, Woody says to himself that he does not need his daughter’s permission to go to bed with someone (p. 117). That “someone” is telling. She is a young woman known to him since childhood, she is the same age as his daughters, and the daughter of his oldest and dearest friend. She is certainly not “someone.” On the other hand, he can say to her, “I’m old enough to be your father” (p. 110). So he is not entirely oblivious, but certainly he has no qualms about what is happening.

If his wife represents the Christian way to finding a meaning for this disaster, the author seems to be setting up the female Jewish dean of the faculty as yet another traditional take on things. From the Upper West Side, she is described stereotypically as complaining about the quality of the bagels in the small town in which the college sits. She is self-righteous and in the end forces a showdown over his behavior with this student. The author seems to be setting the law of the Jews, their judgmental inclinations – as the stereotypes so often depict Jews – in opposition to Woody’s determined pagan hedonism. The dean complains about a lewd performance by his student lover, which the student claims is an old Iranian folk light-and-shadow performance. The dean says that Woody eroticizes the students. Elsewhere, there are comments about his use of Ovid and Catullus, the possibly sexually offensive nature of these poets, and Woody is allowed to vent his feelings about the horror of academic standards of political correctness, the horror of the Christian hostility to sex. What perhaps remains in the mind of the reader, however, is Woody’s insidious behavior as a male eroticizer. As if the author has not already demonized the dean sufficiently, he also assigns to her a determination to merge classics into a world literature program; thus she is also the Devil.

As a classicist, Woody reverts to classical topoi often. With his surviving daughters and the young girl residing in his house at the same time over vacation, Woody thinks that this is just like the beginning of the Oresteia. This is, however, an entirely simplistic observation not the least bit true. Woody is that tiresome species of classicist who must always find the appropriate analogue. One wonders if the author has set out to make Woody pompous, or it is the instinct of a classicist at work here. Although hardly to the extent of the classicists in The Secret History, Woody’s world is an ideal based on ancient literary texts. He prides himself on having committed to heart Socrates’ prayer at the close of the Phaedrus: Let me be the same on the inside and the outside, and so on and so forth (p. 174).

When Woody plans to go to Italy for the trial of the terrorists, his ex-wife says to him: “Oh, Woody, let it go. All things shall be well, remember, and all manner of thing shall be well. I wish I could make you believe it.” To which he responds, “Maybe I do,” as the narrator adds, “without really knowing what he meant when he said it” (p. 135). One other major influence on Woody is the blues, which he plays on his guitar. The narrator quotes many of the great blues songs that Woody delights in, as in this line, “All my life I’ve been a traveling man, staying alone, doing the best I can” (p. 49). The blues are an interesting counterpoint to the celebrated ancient Greek pessimism; they are so forlorn, so desperate, yet so clear-headed – like Greek tragedy, no illusions are allowed to exist. Woody often sings the following song, which resonates with all the sorrow of his daughter’s death (pp. 55f.):

There was a time, I didn’t know your name,
Why should I worry, cry in vain,
But now she’s gone, gone, gone, and I don’t worry,
’Cause I’m sittin’ on top of the world.

The African-American experience from which the blues derive has produced a pessimism similar to that of the Greeks, but with the startling difference that after all the sorrow has been rehearsed, the mood often settles into a more benign view of things, as in the song above. Whether this is the influence of Christianity upon enslaved Africans, or the instinctive reaction of a people utterly ground under the heel and helpless, who can say?

The last spiritual journey that Woody takes at the end of the book is finally to get beyond his daughter’s death. While in Bologna, he acquires a new lover, a woman more his own age, who shares his delight in great cooking (which, by the way, is important in this novel, and, just as in The Odyssey, offers a constant alternative to sex as the great defense against death). Woody begins to find a new life, and, indeed when the novel ends, we find him settling into life in Italy, an itinerant guitar player in restaurants, far away from small Midwestern colleges.

The Human Stain
Upon first reading this novel, I was put off by Woody’s self-obsession, his relentless sexuality, his neglect of his living children. On the second time around, I was conscious that Woody was just Woody, warts and all, not all that likeable, made miserable, perhaps almost unbearably so, by the tragedy that befell his family. His desperation leads him into a variety of attempts at reconciliation, justification, solace, and comfort. One of the important redeeming factors is his knowledge of classical antiquity. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is the story of a man of mixed race, white enough to pass, whose father instilled in him the importance of European learning as a defense against the denial and deracination that the white majority enforce upon blacks in the United States. As a teenager involved with a Jewish boxing team, he passes as Jewish so as to ensure his own success. Silky, as the hero is known, studies Greek in a public high school in New Jersey – unlikely, it seems to me, in the Forties – then goes on to get a doctorate in classics at New York University, thus fulfilling his father’s admonition to absorb European culture. Classics was once upon a time a common strategy of upward mobility in this country. It was a way to identify with “old money” WASPs in one quick generational leap from out of whatever ethnic ghetto in which one happened to be languishing. But Silky is black, too, of course, white-skinned though he may appear. Along the way, he meets a white woman from the Midwest with whom he has a genuine love affair, but they part when she is unable to deal with her discovery that he is African American.

He does not yet give up on his blackness, however. Although offered boxing scholarships to Ivy League colleges, he attends Howard College because he cannot betray his father, and then after the abortive love affair, he courts a black woman with whom he has a highly satisfying relationship because he can be honest with her. As someone who has spent years of my life for a variety of reasons closeted because I am gay, I can attest to the deep feelings of completeness that come to a gay man only when he is with other gay men. It reminds me of the Englishman Michael Kustow, former head of Channel Four in London, who came to work in the United States briefly and once said to me, “For the first time in my life here in the States I can be free to be a Jew; it seems normal here.” (Unfortunately, he decided that the environment was not on the other hand sufficiently conducive to using his brain, so he returned to London.) But Silky gives up the black girl for a passionate love and subsequent marriage with a New York Jew, from whom he hides his African American identity. Why? It is never precisely stated. One might say that among this novel’s several meanings, one is about the long-term identification with and attraction of New York Jewishness for alienated and deracinated people in the United States.

The plot turns on a charge of racism leveled against the novel’s hero – who becomes a professor of classics at a small New England college and later its dean – when he uses the word “spook” (in the sense of ghost) to refer to two chronically absent students who, it turns out, are black women. The subsequent ruckus allows the author-narrator the wonderful luxury of denouncing (in a performance more Bellow than Roth) the outrageous behavior of the academic community since it is in fact a black who is the innocent perpetrator and victim of the incident. Classicists of a certain age will recognize this as the most impossibly artificial narrative contrivance set up by Roth. It is highly unlikely that a Jew would ever have been hired by a New England college 40 years ago, certainly never, never in classics, the most goyishe and WASPy of all disciplines. This is especially true of a Jew with a degree from New York University, which sometimes used to be called New York “Jewniversity” by sneering gentiles, who went to public high school in New Jersey. Some things are sacred in classics in New England!

The reader cannot object to the novel’s premise because, even if in Jewish drag, it is a black man who so eloquently criticizes the insidious nature of political correctness, which can seemingly mindlessly offer support to the two black students and betray the dean. In addition to his objection to political correctness, the author attacks contemporary critical theory by means of what is almost an allegorical figure. He has set up a young French academic import, Delphine Roux, whose devotion to theory is as passionate as she is politically correct. Roux, the evil theorist, works to destroy the dean. The author is thus not afraid of moving his plot into Oprah territory as well. He introduces a working woman (naturally also abused and at risk from an estranged husband) at the college with whom the dean begins an affair after his wife has died of a sudden stroke brought on, as he claims, by the brouhaha over the “spook” incident. Another force of evil in the narrative – right out of Russell Banks’s collection of monster rustics - is an alcoholic, drug-abusing, memory-destroyed Vietnam veteran, the estranged husband of the dean’s lover.

The dean’s resignation, his wife’s death, his new love affair, and his delight in Viagra, recall the hero of the Hellenga novel, whose new-found sexuality propelled him down roads not taken, except that here sexual fulfillment leads to death. This narrative would be tragic if it were not soap opera. There is little reference to classics in the novel other than in setting the hero up as a classicist. But a critic could argue that the plot is essentially a tragic take on the Oedipus story: The hero who determines to hide the truth of his birth cannot escape it, and it comes to haunt him when he is denounced as racist. The further irony, although I don’t think that Roth does justice to this, is that very likely the particular virulence of the faculty denunciation derives from Silky being perceived as a Jew since it is Jews who are often accused by blacks as being particularly racist.

The reader will ponder Roth’s constellation of black, Jew, and classicist. Silky’s father insists that his children have the right and obligation to participate fully in American culture. The author seems to be saying that Silky could not go further in doing so than by becoming a classicist, although even the slightest glance at contemporary American culture, highbrow or lowbrow, might suggest that a knowledge of classical antiquity scarcely defines an American in the twenty-first century. Still, the author is no doubt working with the commonplace estimation of 40 or 50 years ago. In styling himself a Jew, Silky disowns his African-American heritage. As Silky sheds his blackness, however, the author (that sly puss) saves his hero from becoming a cultural albino – a WASPy kind of Jew – by inventing for him a marriage with a New York Jew who is so echt Jewish that she will save him from the possible sterility of his intellectual studies.

The hero of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein is curiously much like Roth’s Silky, although here the amalgam is classicist, Jewish, and gay. The hero’s gayness is not the least bit hidden but rather allows for an immediate identification with Plato’s Symposium. Plato discusses the appetitive as a necessary condition for finally arriving at true knowledge, and he defines it as beginning with a desire for beautiful boys. Desire is the key word, not satisfaction. Ravelstein is a compulsive shopper, but he is indifferent to what he buys, as illustrated by the messiness with which he ruins expensive clothing. He is also indifferent to eroticism in his non-sexual relationship with his young companion, but compulsively satisfies his immediate sexual needs with rent boys. Both examples illustrate Plato’s idea of the search for beauty, which is the search for the good and, in both instances, the appetitive principle in action. Ravelstein is presented as a dazzlingly good teacher whose gayness plays into the ancient Greek ideal of pederasty in education, which depends upon a desire for beautiful boys as the motivational drive for the teacher. Here again, it is the appetitive that is the powerful force, in which desire is transmuted into creativity through teaching beautiful young males. Like Plato, Ravelstein understands that beauty in young men is more than buffed bodies, it is also intelligence and intellectual curiosity. This masculine beauty is attractive beyond sexual desire. I think of two emphatically heterosexual male classicists of the not-too-distant past, John Finley and William Arrowsmith, both of whom were besotted by attractive, intelligent young men who wished to be their acolytes.

Ravelstein’s Jewishness is a significant feature of his personality, as much commented upon by himself and the narrator as is his gayness, indeed far more. Ravelstein is paranoid about being a Jew in Christian America, aware of the inherent hostility in the larger world. It matches the paranoia of any gay male, and it establishes Ravelstein’s otherness, as an intellectual, as an elitist. On the other hand, Ravelstein is no observant Jew, and perhaps the study of classics is the ideal occupation for anyone choosing to assimilate to the extent of abandoning a strict religious identity. The orthodox Jewish male spends his life with the Torah, pondering the meaning of the Hebrew. The classicist who is obsessive about philology can do the same with Greek or Latin texts. A lifetime of study is another kind of spiritual exercise.

Bellow, it seems to me, has, if not contempt for homosexual relationships, then extreme distaste, content as he is to describe his hero’s compulsive promiscuity without suggesting the concomitant sadness. For all his bluster, drama, style, and panache, Ravelstein is sad. He is like Carol Channing or Marlene Dietrich, or any of those larger-than-life prima donnas. One remembers the type so well from the field of classics a half century ago. Ravelstein is very much like Donna Tarte’s professor, Julian. Eroticism was so central to teaching before the emergence of sexual harassment, before women in the classroom changed the playing field. Nostalgic old queens will recollect how eroticism revitalized and sustained a teacher who had to repeat himself year in and year out, how it gave to young men a wonderful glow as they sensed – usually subconsciously – how loved and appreciated, how enthusiastically received they were. But sic transit gloria mundi.

This essay began with the rhetorical, “It is curious that so many novels of the last decade feature a central or motivating figure who is a professor of classics” – a commonplace verbal entrapment of the reluctant reader. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps not so curious at all. Saul Bellow created a main character who bore so many similarities to his friend Allan Bloom that his being a classicist was almost inevitable; Robert Hellenga created a central character out of his own life lived with the philosophical implications of being a classicist; Helen Dewitt very recently studied classical philology at Oxford, and the experience obviously is something she is still trying to exorcise; in making his black passing for Jewish white into a classicist, Philip Roth was quite ignorant, it seems, of the historical, sociological truth of the profession, but he probably wanted to ensure that his character would appear to his reader as having gone as far as one can go in making himself into a traditional American. For men of Roth’s generation, the profession of classics was probably as white-bread, old-school, and goyishe as a fellow could get. Only Donna Tarte seems to have used real imagination in her conception of a band of depraved classics students following the degenerate philosophical leadership of their teacher – classics gone wrong, so to speak. And so we may say, finally, that this sudden flurry of novels having to do with the classics is no more than coincidental.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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