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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Our Opinion

The Greatly Exaggerated News of Homer’s Death

In 1987, the publication of Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena stirred tremendous controversy in academic departments throughout the United States, the last echoes of which still reverberate in heated exchanges in the letters sections of various intellectual journals. As provocative as it may have been considered in American academia, however, Black Athena and the heated debate that ensued were viewed with curiosity, and even amusement, within European academic circles. Even in the United States, despite its ferocity and nastiness, and with the exception of a few instances, the debate never really spilled over from the academic into the public domain.

Greece is exceptional, however (as Greeks never tire of reminding the rest of the word). Bernal’s theoretical proposition – that Egypt and the Orient made considerable contributions to ancient Greek culture – was immediately elevated to the level of national debate and concern. Black Athena fed Greek conspiracy theories and paranoia, since the book’s publication was immediately perceived as a conscious attempt to undermine the “Greekness” of classical civilization. However, this strong reaction was based mainly on the assumptions arrived at by the book’s clever title, rather than on a thorough reading and understanding of Bernal’s arguments.

Those Greek media and intellectuals who took it upon themselves to defend Greece’s honor ignored the numerous problems in Bernal’s argument due to his lack of philological and archeological training, and instead chose to focus on the hypothetical issues implied by his book’s title. In reading many of the articles written about Black Athena at the time, one cannot but conclude that only a handful of the book’s opponents bothered to delve much deeper than the title. In a classic example of this approach, in a scathing essay on Black Athena, one of Greece’s most prominent novelists appeared to be enraged by the suggestion that Socrates was black – an argument, of course, that did not appear in Black Athena.

Fourteen years later, one can observe similar patterns in the way the Greek press and public have reacted toward the (somewhat belated) translation into Greek of Victor Davis Hanson’s and John Heath’s book, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom. As was the case with Black Athena, the book led to a serious debate among classicists in the United States, but, following a previous pattern, the debate never crossed the line dividing the academic and public realms, and was to a large extent ignored in Europe.

In Greece, however, Who Killed Homer? immediately became a new weapon in the armory of conspiracy theorists. Upon translation, the book became a bestseller. Its authors, and in particular Victor Hanson, became instant celebrities, invited to roundtables with other luminaries to contemplate and discuss “the demise of classical education in American universities.”

Once again, however, one only has to look carefully at what has been said and written in relation to the book to realize that it is simply the catchy title that has instigated this strong reaction, and not the book’s actual arguments. To the majority of the public, the title, Who Killed Homer?, points to a situation that for years has seemed to be of major concern to Greeks (for reasons that have never been quite clear): the decline of classical education in institutions of higher learning.

It does not really matter apparently that Who Killed Homer? is not so much about the demise of classical studies per se, as it is about the alleged invasion of departments of classics by trendy theoreticians “imposing” feminist, queer, and deconstructionist readings upon classical texts – and the authors’ disdain for such approaches. It also apparently does not matter that, as was reported recently in the New York Times, the study of classical languages is on the rise in American high schools. Nor does it really matter that the appeal of classical culture to modern society is also steadily increasing rather than diminishing.

In New York City alone, there have been at least seven major productions of ancient drama in the last two years (and countless smaller ones), with a couple of them managing significant success at the box office. It is also apparently irrelevant that translations of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Homer have become bestsellers in the United States. The only thing that seems to be important to the self-appointed defenders of Greece’s “Hellenic civilization” is that the title of the book by Hanson and Heath has confirmed their worst fears of the American “barbarians.”

It is not coincidental, therefore, that the notion of “the demise of classical education” proposed by Hanson and Heath came in very handy in the recent explosion of anti-American sentiment in Greece following the events of September 11. Indeed, a well-known Greek journalist suggested that the decline of classical education in American universities was responsible for America’s “evil” policy in bombing Afghanistan. He urged George Bush to read Who Killed Homer? to understand the consequences of the presumed “decline” of classical education for American society.

Greeks, of course, are not the only ones guilty of losing sight of the forest for the trees, or of focusing upon the particular detail and ignoring the universal reality. The point is simply – and self-evidently – that to reinforce one’s self-esteem by constantly viewing oneself as a victim is a symptom of social pathology. Unsure about their modern selves, insecure about their relationship to their past (glorious and otherwise), and unable to deal with contemporary historical realities, Greeks seem constantly to feed upon conspiracy theories as a “therapeutic mythology” to sustain themselves.

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