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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Book Reviews

Needing Greek

Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism by Simon Goldhill. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 380 pages, $23.

Who Needs Greek? is a thought-provoking book for anyone who has had experience of the language, whether coming to it in a course of study or speaking it from birth. In a series of essays, the author explores the cultural baggage, the assumptions, the “attitude” – to use the word in its contemporary American sense – with which the vocabulary, grammar, and expression are imbued in every mouth, on every page. Goldhill’s presumed audience are the elites of Oxbridge, and his prose is tiresomely opaque, as befits a Fellow of King’s College, from whence springs an academic doubletalk that one Times Literary Supplement reviewer labeled “King’s English.” Still, he can at times be clever in a dear old-fashioned way; in observing Matthew Arnold’s desire to bring science and humanities together, Goldhill says that “thus it is the educative power of literature, especially ancient literature, which makes it possible to connect, only connect” (p.219). Although not every reader will want to fight his way through the thickets of jargon, and the flounces and flourishes, of Goldhill’s baroque style, there is much to ponder for those who do.

Goldhill is clearly doubtful that his readers will understand him; he is forever summing up, or introducing. One wishes his editor had insisted that he say what he means in plain English just once in awhile. It is of a piece with his obtuse reading (pp. 186f.) of Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” in which historicism triumphs over any sensible feeling for the poetry or the manner of poetic construction. If Goldhill is going to practice historicism, he should at least consult George Bornstein’s Material Modernism, where Bornstein talks about Keats’s “flaunting of his class origins” in the poem (pp. 9-15). Greeks of the diaspora must sometimes ask themselves when they speak Greek among other linguistic groups to what boundaries does their Greekness extend: Childhood and family memories? The environment and aura of the Greek Orthodox Church? The cultural triumphs of ancient, pagan Greece? What construction of themselves are they making when they speak Greek? Similarly, youngsters who study ancient Greek, if they stay with it long enough to begin to appreciate the texts written in that language, must someday realize that behind the pleasure and enlightenment, the sheer joy of reading an ancient Greek text, lies a giant industry of professionals, lurk hostile parties bent on destroying one another’s intellectual or scholarly positions, stands a wall of snobbery separating those who can from those who can’t (read Greek).

Goldhill’s project is to explore some of the implications of speaking or reading the Greek of antiquity. He begins sensibly enough with a controversy over the Greek of the New Testament. This language, one would think, ought to be intelligible to all believing Christians; if anybody needs Greek, certainly they do. So thought Erasmus, who made it his project to translate the Testament afresh from the Greek so that he could correct the errors in the Latin translation of Jerome. This earned him the undying enmity of the Roman church and the charge of heresy, ironically enough. The controversy raged for years, and many were burned at the stake for studying and knowing the language in which the Gospels were composed. Madness? But the language of the Roman church was Latin and its theology was based on the Latin of Jerome. Latin signified the Roman empire and the political triumph of the see of Rome. To look again at the Greek threatened allegiance to Rome. Erasmus, furthermore, was a humanist who studied the language as a whole, concerned with the superiority and purity of the language written in Athens in the period of its prime, so-called Attic Greek. He especially studied the writings of the second-century CE Lucian, who was famous for brilliantly reproducing the purist Attic style five centuries after its zenith.

Lucian is another of Goldhill’s subjects. A Syrian by birth who trained himself to write the refined Attic style, Lucian lived and worked in the Roman empire, where the official language was Latin. Goldhill’s interest is in Lucian’s capacity to make himself over into a Greek. What it was to be a Syrian Goldhill does not describe; let us just say it meant being a foreigner, although one, ironically enough, who became the model for anyone wishing to learn the style of classical Greek for centuries thereafter. Constructing a self in this fashion has costs, as Goldhill demonstrates with illustrations of Lucian’s separation of his self-conscious self from his essential self. Lucian’s essay on what it is to be a Syrian, for instance, is an excellent example of this distancing. Lucian writes this essay in the style of Herodotus, the fifth-century BCE Ionian researcher of ethnicities, as though he were describing a foreign people from the viewpoint of the Greeks, writing, of course, in a peculiar style of Greek not really in use for the previous five centuries. There is a marvelous discussion of Lucian’s Dream (pp. 67f.), in which Goldhill shows Lucian – who portrays himself triumphing through hard work and learned rhetoric, which is the truth of how he manufactured his personality, and making himself into a cultured person, from a Syrian becoming a Greek – saving himself by undercutting the success by inserting the audience reaction. Thus, he saves himself from believing in himself, and spares himself the humiliation of his reader’s derision by being there first with the joke.

Lucian, the Syrian, the master of irony, juggling truth and falsehood, becomes, as Goldhill shows, the suspect Eastern decadent. Thus, for the antisemites of the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, he is a stand-in for the “Jew,” notably among classicists (Goldhill has a list of classicists who called Lucian “a Jew” in print). His special attribute, writing faultless Attic prose, became rather his capacity for lying; he was Syrian, and the language he wrote was only a copy of an original five centuries old. That Lucian was an ersatz Greek mattered to Germans who took seriously the notion that the German race is descended from that branch of Greeks who spoke the Dorian dialect, migrated into the Peloponnese, and were the forefathers of the Spartans, whose reputation for steadfastness, manliness, and conservatism recommended them especially to Germans. Goldhill plays on this identification for his discussion of the reception of Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s Elektra and later Richard Strauss’s opera based on it. Germans took learning Greek seriously; classical word-philology was a major university industry. Interpretation of ancient literature was pretentiously thought to be scientific, while meanings were carefully fit into the original context – which, of course, was Victorian, or the German equivalent of it. Von Hoffmanstahl and Strauss were modernists who appropriated antiquity for themselves, taking it away from the Victorians. Their Electra was a hysteric, a deeply interior, neurotic, fixated person, not at all the public emblem of decorous suffering that the traditionalists wanted from their Electra. Same language, but the words were made to mean different things. Nowadays, they are yielding feminist and gay meanings.

The two readings of the Greek language were in conflict, the older evoking ideas of suffering from the language of tragedy, the newer ideas of madness and sexual derangement. For the audience, this was anti-German because it denied the nobility of the Greek and hence the German. In England, the reception, as Goldhill shows, was equally hostile; here, it was not a question of nationalism, but of bourgeois manners. The ancient Greeks were ladies and gentlemen, even in their sorrow and suffering. They did not descend into such dementia and perversion. Again, the words of the Greek text were given new meaning, the cultural baggage that came with the old dictionary meanings was swept away.

Which leads to the question, “Who knows Greek,” the title of Goldhill’s third chapter, which takes up the violent disputes over the mandatory teaching of Greek in the schools as well as the claims for knowing Greek among the dons. It opens with a marvelous anecdote about Thomas De Quincy in one of his opium-induced hallucinations confronting a specter, which he identifies as “someone from Malay.” He takes on the man and subdues him by quoting Homer to him in the original Greek. Goldhill comments (p.182): “Homer’s epic tale of how the West first defeated the East saves the day for De Quincey. The Malay offers the Englishman the obeisance of devout worship. The Iliad, once again, is a cultural talisman that works. (It doesn’t really matter which lines were recited; the Trojan War always tells of the defeat of the East.)”

The British Raj was made up of men who had studied Greek since the earliest days at school and had gotten a first in Greats later on. Goldhill’s chapter relates how a knowledge of Greek, the ability to read Greek, and to speak from the Greek text, privileged a male in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A knowledge of Greek defined the English ruling class. Any colonial could learn English, but learning Greek – more to the point, reading it – was another matter. Needless to say, the establishment of state-supported schools brought up the argument for and against teaching Greek in them. An obvious argument was that it did not benefit those who would only remain in the servile class. Arguments for and against the teaching of Greek turned on the question of its benefits, arguments rehearsed a million times, and Goldhill lays them all out. Surely the question finally had to do with a class code, however. Nothing else explains the virulence of the arguments, the insistence of the adherents, and, of course, the disappearance, finally, of classical study. Class lines were no longer maintained on any basis other than money.

  Incidentally, Goldhill gives much, too much credit to the chattering classes, when he introduces Matthew Arnold as a prime cause of the downfall of classics. This great nineteenth-century thinker, teacher, and lecturer, whose ideas on culture were the most popular of the time, argued for an enlargement of the study of antiquity so that the student focused on the culture implied by the language. Arnold rated language study as secondary, beginning, as Goldhill argues, the process of the marginalization of Greek language study that ended in its disappearance from the curriculum. Goldhill quotes Arnold, saying he liked to look into a few lines of the Greek Anthology nightly, looking up the words he did not know in the dictionary. “Scholarship is secondary to spirit. Arnold doesn’t mind admitting that he has to look up words when he reads the Greek anthology.” Which is a remarkable put-down, or perhaps an objection to Arnold; it is difficult to say.

Arguments over how much Greek one should know were already precious at the end of the nineteenth century, and almost meaningless by the end of the twentieth except in exceedingly rarified academic circles. The disputes were a grown-up version of little boys throwing spitballs at one another in the back of the classroom. Goldhill introduces Walter Headlam, who published little but was quick to criticize others for their tenuous purchase on Greek. In particular, his target was A.W. Verrall, whose body of writing included a commentary on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon as well as unusual, original, sometimes wacky interpretations of Greek drama. Headlam was ever at the ready with lists of errata, as well as snide comments on Verrall’s inability to adduce parallels from other pieces of Greek literature, to confirm or reject the style or grammar or vocabulary of whatever line of verse the latter was commenting on. As Headlam forever announced, he truly, really knew Greek. Verrall’s commentary was eclipsed by Eduard Frankel’s three-volume treatment of the Agamemnon alone. Here was a German refugee at Oxford who was proud that he brought the standard up, carried a miraculous range of Greek texts in his ready memory, and, when he said he knew Greek, lay claim to the entire culture, the way of thinking that lay behind the words. He was generous in his assessment of Verrall, however.

The best feature of this book is Goldhill’s discussion of Plutarch. Plutarch is unfashionable today, unread, unstudied, because his historical writing does not have the necessary scientific method to give it credence; his other writing is like the in-depth articles of contemporary journalists who do intelligent research articles for magazines and newspapers. Just as those are essentially ephemeral, the articles of Plutarch have been superseded as well. Goldhill describes the way in which Plutarch, who considered himself very much a part of the Roman imperial world while more particularly a Greek-speaking citizen of a small town in Boeotia, wrote his Lives in Greek. In so doing, he created the Roman imperial world as a Greek construct, and then wrote a large number of essays on a variety of features of traditional Greek culture, thus recreating in the second century CE, a period entirely enclosed by the Roman imperium, a Greek world-view.

Goldhill’s point, of course, is that Plutarch used Greek, which is endowed with intellectual, spiritual, historical, psychological perspectives that render anything described in it as part of that tradition. Plutarch needed the Greek language for his project, as using Latin would have created an entirely different dimension. So at the end of the book, the reader has returned to the beginning, that is to say, to the very wide spiritual, cultural, emotional, intellectual difference between the Latin translation of the New Testament by Jerome and the original Hellenistic Greek text, between the cultural hegemonic pretensions of the Western world centered in Rome and the dynamic historical reality of a cultural tradition centered in the Greek language.

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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